Sitting Idly By
Before you scroll too far, I want to warn you not to read this. It’ll steal your time away from you. I’m not qualified to write this post, and you might not want to hear what I have to say. So put the screen down. Enjoy the crisp fall air, or your children’s earnest cries, or the paper you should be writing. Be there, not here.
You’re still here. All right, you’ve been warned. Call me a solitary voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare Ye the Way,” but I’m here to tell you we have a problem. Although the church may not talk about it, everyone else is catching on. You’re staring at it. You carry it everywhere. It’s in your pocket, your purse, or even worse, on your arm. Our phones are changing our very selves.
Maybe your pastor isn’t preaching this message from the pulpit. Instead, maybe your pastor is preaching from a phone without a pulpit. I have no authority to comment on that, so I’m going to credit my discovery to some sociological sources. Meet Sherry Turkle. She was a proponent of new technology in the 1990s but has qualified her endorsement after decades of research. In 2012, she said in her TED Talk entitled, “Connected, but Alone?” (click that link!),
“our little devices, those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do; they change who we are.”
To substantiate a bold claim, she brought up examples of commonplace behavior, like checking e-mail during a meeting, texting at the dinner table, and making eye contact while texting that we would have considered abnormal just a few years before. In fact, she called our need for connection “The Goldilocks Effect,” meaning not too much of people, not too little affirmation, just the right amount in controllable doses. People could be the masters of their own social worlds.
That was in 2012. Instagram was just two years old and Snapchat was celebrating its first birthday. These days, the interpersonal patterns have taken an intrapersonal turn. Not only are phones affecting our relationships, they are changing our brains. In a CBS News report last April called Hooked on Phones, Anderson Cooper reported on phone anxiety, specifically in teens. He admitted to experiencing low levels of anxiety himself. When a person hears the ding of a phone, their Cortisol levels go up. The Cortisol in our brains used to save us from dangerous animals in the wild. Now, we experience the same sensation with a, “Thanks, that was cool,” or similarly unimportant text.
Along with our brains, our emotions are altered as well. “Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation?”, an article in The Atlantic says:
“The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”
Not only are the screen savvy children sadder, teens have reported being more lonely since 2013, and suicide rates are rising:
“Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”
When I say studying this topic has ruined my life, I always circle back to that statistic. Children are dying for true, human attention. This aligns with Turkle’s analysis: our phones aren’t changing our way of life; they are changing us and redefining what it means to be human.
That leaves us with a chilling truth: the power of an outward object is destroying the inward self. Sounds like a simple, Biblical concept:
We thought the screen battle was about idle time, but it’s about idol worship.
In Genesis, when Jacob fled his father-in-law Laban, his wife Rachel couldn’t bear to leave the household gods behind. When her father pursued her husband to take them back, she sat on top of them on her bed and refused to rise. If we were called to a far country, could we leave behind the phones that we keep beside our pillows?
As Christians, we have to put this in proper context. Smartphones aren’t “destroying a generation.” Sin is. Sin is not new, and our 2017 worldwide problems are not unique. Generations of people lived godlessly. We are not any more special in our suffering than they were.
The book of Jeremiah was written in one of those times, at the cusp of destruction in Jerusalem:
“Thus says the LORD:
‘Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is, and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it,’
I set watchmen over you, saying,
‘Pay attention to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not pay attention.’”
The way we use technology is no different from people outside of the faith. Our time in the word and prayer is solitude, often disturbed by pinging text messages. Our time together at church is communal study and learning marked by large screens, fun videos, and blaring sound systems. Our time in fellowship is centered at breweries and coffee shops charging exorbitant amounts of money for fine goods.
Ask for the ancient paths. Where the good way is. Walk in it. Find rest for your souls.
How did monks like Martin Luther meditate? How did Augustine hear God’s voice saying, “Take up and read?” How did Paul survive imprisoned solitude? How did Mary focus at Jesus’s feet? How did the disciples share meals? How did Daniel rejoice in the lion’s den? How did David write Psalms? How did Abraham trust God enough to willingly sacrifice a son?
How? I’m convinced the marks of the faith beg for solitude, conversation, and difficult teaching.
In America, in our phone-saturated world, are we paying any attention?
I’m tired of sitting idly by. I’m ready to commit myself to technological holiness, but I need accountability. Let’s put down this device, take a walk, greet a friend, read a book, share a meal. We say they will know we are Christians by our love, but if we constantly honor screens over people and ultimately, over God, how are we any different?
- Sarah Hauver