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Personal news + Book Excerpt!
Well, it’s been quite the last couple of weeks.
Things have been quiet around this newsletter for a little bit, so some quick life updates are in order. First, I’ve started a master’s program at Southern Seminary here in Louisville. I may say more about this in the future, but long story short, I felt the timing was right between family, work, and church activity to do something I’ve wanted to do for most of the last decade: continue my education. Classes have been going for a couple weeks now, and things are good, and I’m grateful to be back in a classroom.
Second, I’m very happy to report that my book Digital Liturgies is available now from Amazon! This is ahead of the official September 5 publication date, but no one’s crying over that! To say I’m grateful would be an understatement. So many people, places, books, and providential circumstances have gone into the making of this work. It’s certainly not the case that I’ve written the first or best book about Christians and digital technology; in fact, I’ve been fighting nagging fears lately that this book is just a day late and a dollar short. Even if it is, though, the work it represents is work I don’t regret.
I was very grateful for Patrick Miller’s kind review in The Gospel Coalition. I especially appreciated his pulling out the book’s emphasis on a formative habitat that can affect us even when we are not actively behaving problematically. Here’s a good paragraph:
Taken together, our quotidian digital habits aren’t neutral. You may not be outraged. You may not be faking authenticity. You may not be online shaming, shopping, or dawdling. But James shows you are nonetheless immersed in an environment designed to inculcate a way of being in the world. You can reduce your online time tremendously without ever unwinding and resisting its deeper influences on your life.
To do that, you need to see how the internet shapes you, and you need to receive the countervailing wisdom of God’s Spirit, reified by a set of kingdom practices, habits, and virtues that invert those of the digital Babylon.
God’s grace is the only power strong enough to counteract a system designed to pull your life out of shape, not by force but by the gentle pull of disastrous desires.
Thanks again to Patrick and TGC for the review!
Between going back to school, launching a book, regular work responsibilities, and the beginning of a new school year for our kids, life is chaotic right now. If you would, I would covet your prayers for energy and perseverance. There’s so much to be grateful for, and my tendency is to feel the pressure far more keenly than the blessing. I’m going to try to return to a somewhat regular schedule for this newsletter soon, and I’ll have some
I hope Digital Liturgies illuminates and encourages someone. I hope it gives words to those who need to describe the dynamics they feel but struggle to identify. Most of all, I hope it bears witness to the life-giving rest that I have found in God’s word and his people, to stabilize a wandering attention span, befriend a lonely heart, and give hope for days where all I’ve wanted to do is escape reality.
To help give you a preview of the book, I’ve picked out an excerpt below. If you’ve never seen Cast Away, it’s available for free right now on YouTube, and I highly recommend it.
Without further ado, here’s a section from the final chapter of Digital Liturgies:
One of my favorite films is Robert Zemeckis’s 2000 drama Cast Away. One of the most famous scenes from that movie depicts the marooned Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) using a bloody hand to create “Wilson,” a volleyball that becomes his only com- panion for four years on a deserted island. Completely alone and running low on hope that he will ever be rescued, Chuck gives Wilson a face and even some grass “hair,” and begins to talk to Wilson as if he were a true human companion.
In another kind of movie, this would be a gag, a joke meant to make us laugh at Chuck’s silliness. But Zemeckis and writer William Broyles Jr. portray this not as a joke but as something deeply profound about human nature. Chuck knows that Wilson is a volleyball. But he also knows that without some sense of em- bodied presence beside him on that island, he will quickly lose his mind. Wilson becomes just as important to Chuck’s survival as the fire he learns to create and the fish he learns to hunt. Watching this, the audience is meant not to laugh at Chuck but to admit that we, too, would need some kind of “Wilson” to keep us from crushing despair in our loneliness.
Modern Western culture is profoundly lonely. This is true even despite the astonishing mobility and connectedness of our world. Never before has travel been easier, safer, or more affordable. Never before has instant communication with someone across the planet been so common. Yet a great number of people, particularly young adults, do not feel connected to anyone. We have discovered instead that our hypermobility has made us feel homeless, and our social networks have made us feel friendless. We’ve forgotten what Chuck Noland knew right away: embodied presence matters.
The fact is that near the center of many of our most significant advances in digital technology has been a profound dehumaniza- tion. By separating our personhood from technique, many modern devices express within themselves the logic of radical isolation. The GPS means that knowing a neighborhood is never mandatory. The backward-facing camera means we never need to ask someone else to take a picture. During the COVID-19 pandemic, billions of people around the world experienced a severe disruption to their lives through enforced isolation. But perhaps even more telling was how undisrupted so many parts of our lives were. For many of us, work transitioned smoothly to remote settings, as emails and video calls replaced coworkers. Churches began streaming their services, and for many people the “experience” of church on their TV or laptop hardly missed a beat from their “experience” of going to church.
We have become exceedingly good at replacing human beings with technology. But even as our performance at work and media intake have kept apace, our spirits have not. We need people. We need presence. We need place.
To actively resist the dehumanization of much digital technology, we have to do something simple yet often difficult: we must gather. And while there are many things we could say about cultivating interpersonal relationships, seeking the faces of others and not just their usernames, arguably the most important gathering we can seek out as Christians is the gathering of our local church. It is in this gathering that our Maker and Redeemer promises to be pres- ent himself. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20 KJV). It is this gathering where we not only recover part of what it means to be an embodied person, but we draw nearer together to becoming fully human, transformed into the image of the eternal Son of God, the most human person in history.
To resist the digital liturgies, we need regular immersion into the embodied community of God. We need to sing to one another, to exhort one another, to encourage one another, to forgive one another, and to laugh and cry with one another. The more we do so, the more transparent the facade of digital selfhood will become. We can’t just mute or unfollow a fellow church member who ir- ritates us. We must learn civil, sacrificial love. We can’t fast-forward through a convicting message we are sitting in. We must allow the word to cut us open so it can put us back together again. Church is gospel givenness. Again, there is much more we could say about recovering embodied presence. Sunday church is by no means the only legitimate way of gathering with others. But I single out church for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, the local church is crucial for our spiritual lives. Second, the ascendance of “virtual church” means that many Christians are struggling with the motivation to be physically present at a service they very well could stream. But this struggle reflects both a misunderstanding of church and of the web. The church is not simply an exhibition of spirtual events for public spectacle, but a living institution where the Holy Spirit meets with his people, independent of how effectively we “downloaded” the sermon or the music into our mental memory.
But virtual church is also a misunderstanding of the web. As we’ve seen, form creates meaning. The web is not simply another way to do all the things we do offline. It’s an entirely new episte- mological and spiritual habitat. It shapes everything on it into its image. If, as I’ve argued, the wisdom of God is necessarily given and embodied, it is impossible to meaningfully be shaped by that wisdom in an exclusively digital context. When we physically gather, we learn what cannot be learned in other ways, and we are shaped in ways we cannot be shaped in other ways.