Published January 23, 2024
If you’re like most people, chances are the first thing you saw this morning when you woke up was the screen of your smartphone – and chances are that’s also the last thing you’ll see before you go to bed. Indeed, if you’re like most Americans, you will inexplicably interrupt yourself sometime in the course of reading this short article in order to gaze into its glowing depths and lovingly stroke its surface. The digital revolution was already well underway when I was growing up in the nineties, as nearly every conceivable form of information or titillation transformed itself into eye-candy: luminous, colorful, interactive representations that one could swap out for new ones at the click of a button or the scroll of a wheel. All of us were transformed into the denizens of a Vegas casino floor, mindlessly pulling the lever to reveal a new combination of symbols – and hoping that this one, at last, would make us happy.
By the time that Nicholas Carr was sounding the alarm in an essay that would become the acclaimed book The Shallows, his argument (given in the subtitle: “How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read, and Remember) was already out of date. For to the most powerful of the five senses, sight, the wizards at Apple had now added the second most powerful, touch, so that our fingertips would itch to swipe to the next image, our hips tingle in anticipation of the vibrating notification that told us we were wanted. Humanity had been transformed into lab rats in a labyrinth, forever chasing a cheese and never finding it.
From the Christian standpoint, though, none of this is quite as new as it sounds. Human beings enslaved to their appetites, their reasons dulled by the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes as they chase fresh novelties, their hearts forever restless and unable to rest in the One for whom they were destined? That is, after all, what it means to live after the Fall. The digital revolution of the last few decades has simply distilled this reality into a more potent form, rendered this image of the futility of fallen humanity into vivid 4K. Any Christian engagement with the perils of modern technology, then, must avoid the fallacy of a reverse chronological snobbery, valorizing life before Twitter as a time before temptation. And yet it must equally avoid a naive Gnosticism that pretends that since the human heart is the seat of all evil, changes in our embodied experience of the world cannot present profoundly changed spiritual challenges.
In his new book Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age (Crossway, 2023), Samuel D. James treads this delicate line brilliantly. The digital world in which we and our children are immersed is still in one sense the same “world” that Saint John warned us against two millennia ago, and the flesh that inhabits it and the devil that stalks it are still the same. And yet the digital era nonetheless constitutes one of the most powerful and sudden shifts in the conditions of lived experience that humanity has experienced, one whose meaning and logic we are still coming to grips with. Accordingly, a faithful Christian response will require a determination to draw upon traditional categories of human nature and traditional typologies of temptation and human sin, but also a willingness to undertake a fine-grained analysis of the habits into which our new digital tools are shaping us – and where we might need to push back. In short, a faithful Christian response will demand wisdom.
James’s repeated recourse to the theme of wisdom is one of the strongest features of this indispensable book, recognizing that just as wisdom is the virtue we most need to navigate this rapidly changing environment, so it is the very virtue that digital immersion most conspires to erode. “There is an objectiveness to reality,” he writes, “to which we as human creatures must conform if we are to live whole and well. The Bible calls our response to this objective reality ‘wisdom.’ … If the essence of wisdom is living in light of reality, our digital habitats can undermine wisdom by cutting us off (in small but real ways) from that reality.” After all, the digital world is one in which “reality” is elusive, transient, and impossible to pin down. It is a space in which each of us is invited – indeed almost compelled – to construct our own realities, our own bespoke experiences and self-presentations.
James rightly draws attention to the central role the digital revolution has played in the transgender revolution. “Digital technology,” he writes, “has recalibrated our worldviews and reshaped our consciences not to see the good givenness of our bodies.… The nature of online presence itself powerfully reinforces the sense that we are not our bodies, that we have total control over our identity and our story, and that any threat to this feeling can and ought to be ‘deleted’ so that we don’t have to put up with it.” Far too many conservative diagnoses of “what’s wrong with the world today” have fixated too much on Richard Weaver’s dictum “ideas have consequences,” and that’s hardly surprising; people who read and write books for a living are apt to explain social problems as the result of people in the past who read and wrote books. But ideas are as likely to be the effects of technological changes as their cause; in truth, there is a feedback loop where cause and effect are not neatly separated. So it is in the case of digital technology, whose architects in some cases are the purveyors of novel visions of what it means to be human, but whose products often prove more radical in their implications than their designers dreamed.
James grasps both sides of this dialectic, highlighting the inroads of transhumanist philosophy in Silicon Valley, but also following Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Nicholas Carr in their insistence that “the medium is the message.” Information technologies transform us not so much by the information they convey but by how we use them – or perhaps how we are used by them. Indeed, James insists that these technologies differ profoundly from traditional tools (most previous technology) in that most physical tools remain subject to human rationality as instruments of its purposes, whereas the “intellectual technologies” of digital media act directly upon our reason, remolding it in their image: “Devices and practices that alter our habits of speaking and reading consequently alter our habits of learning and thinking.”
James’s use of the category of “liturgy” to describe the resulting habituation of both body and mind is apt and instructive. The main section of the book, Part II, walks the reader carefully through five dominant liturgies of the digital age: Authenticity, Outrage, Shame, Consumption, and Meaninglessness. In each case, digital tools and behaviors offer themselves as answers to deep-seated hungers of fallen humanity; but in each case, they simply stoke new fires of disordered desire.
Particularly perceptive and courageous in this section is James’s treatment of pornography. “The internet is a lot like pornography,” he declares in the introduction, and he expands at length on this insight in chapter 7. Too often, Christians think of porn as primarily a problem of bad content that is now simply being delivered through a new high-speed, easy-access medium. But James highlights the extent to which the very form of the internet – and the platforms and devices through which we access it – is essentially pornographic in its logic, infusing erotic imagery with an almost irresistible magnetic pull for unwary users. “The power to find anything you want to see, the access to a never-ending supply of new consumables, and the limitless freedom to make fantasy become reality – these are not just characteristics of online porn but of the online world in general.”
Books such as Digital Liturgies are apt to seem deeply pessimistic – a doom-and-gloom analysis of everything that is wrong with the world and how hopelessly we are trapped within the chains we have forged for ourselves. But I actually found many aspects of the book to be refreshingly hopeful. After all, in the age of the web, it is easy to become a misanthrope. People were meant to interact face-to-face, and when they don’t, they are tempted to see the worst in each other – and to show their worst to each other. The rapid-response, emotionally charged contexts of social media tend to turn each of us into caricatures of ourselves, pompously posturing our half-formed opinions as moral certitudes and spewing venom at anyone who dares disagree. It is helpful to be reminded, then, how much of this behavior is a function of the medium, not the actual human on the other side.
James recounts the ways in which two friends of his seem to have turned into different people online, angrily dismissing anyone who disagrees with them even as they remain cheerful, friendly, and reasonable in person. “The fellow who blocked me and then seemed genuinely happy to see me is not as unusual as we might think. In fact, it’s a story all too common. All of us seem to inhabit two distinct universes, in which our conversations, our debates, and even our thinking itself seem to undergo some fundamental transformation from the dinner table to the screen.” It is important, then, not to fall prey to the reality-distortion filter of the internet and conclude that your fellow humans really are as petty, vindictive, and impervious to reason as they appear (and perhaps as you too appear!) online. There really is still room for civility and persuasion if we can learn to see through the ugly performances of the digital liturgies to the image-bearers beyond. Of course, this is not a call to complacency; James notes that many digital natives have allowed the habits and mores of the web to rewire their sense of what is acceptable behavior “in real life” – whether it be surgery to make me look more like my avatar or political demonization that mirrors the tribalistic dynamics of Twitter.
In answer to the perverting liturgies of our digital age, James calls us back to spiritual disciplines of both body and soul that can enable us to reorder our loves and rest our restless hearts. In the strategies of resistance he outlines, he avoids the temptation either to overspiritualize (“just put Jesus back at the center and all will be well”) or toward mere behavior modification (“just practice these seven daily routines”). If bad liturgy is the problem, daily routines will certainly be part of the answer, and James wisely encourages us to “begin merely with one hour each day that we intentionally retreat from digital technology” – a small ask, yet a big enough challenge for most of us to get started with. But it is also true that if our restless hearts are the real problem, the re-ordering of our disordered habits must begin in a determination to seek rest in the right place, or rather the right Person, and in his promises. “The person from whom all this beauty comes – promises to open up his world and his word to us,” James writes in closing. “We can be at peace. He is for us and with us.”
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.