Strains of Thought:
I recently finished Alan Jacob’s How to Think, and in looking at his other work I came across this article, which centers around the theme of technology and formation. I think you should read it. He labels our computers and cell phones ‘ecosystems of interruption technologies’ (let that sink in for a second), and then draws some lines that are important to notice:
Our “ecosystem of interruption technologies” affects our spiritual and moral lives in every aspect. By our immersion in that ecosystem we are radically impeded from achieving a “right understanding of ourselves” and of God’s disposition toward us. We will not understand ourselves as sinners, or as people made in God’s image, or as people spiritually endangered by wandering far from God, or as people made to live in communion with God, or as people whom God has come to a far country in order to seek and to save, if we cannot cease for a few moments from an endless procession of stimuli that shock us out of thought.
It has of course always been hard for people to come to God, to have a right knowledge of ourselves and of God’s threats and promises. I don’t believe it’s harder to be a Christian today than it has been at any other time in history. But I think in different periods and places the common impediments are different. The threat of persecution is one kind of impediment; constant technological distraction is another. Who’s to say which is worse?—even if it’s obvious which is more painful. But I really do think we are in new and uniquely challenging territory in our culture today, and I don’t believe that, in general, churches have been fully aware of the challenges—indeed, in many cases churches have made things worse.
When George Whitefield and John Wesley were preaching sermons that created the First Great Awakening, they almost always started by trying to arouse in their hearers a conviction of sin. The typical sequence of their sermons looked like this:
1. You are a sinner, though no more, or less, of a sinner than anyone else.
2. We sinners cannot rescue ourselves.
3. But God in his grace and love has come to rescue us.
4. So we need only to accept that grace and love, in penitence, to be reconciled to God.
But I don’t believe we can readily reach people today with the same sequence. The very idea that I am a sinner sends me groping for my smartphone to avoid unpleasant emotions. I think this will be especially true for the majority of North Americans whose basic default theology is what the sociologist of religion Christian Smith and his colleagues call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. For such people an awareness of sin is going to be hard to achieve—certainly at the earlier stages of their Christian lives.
If you start groping for your smartphone at the hint of existential pain, then true knowledge of God is at danger of being pushed out of your waking moments. In her work, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, Ellen Charry joins Jacobs’ reasoning:
Knowing God is the key to self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is the key to self-despair, and self-despair is the entry point for a sanctified life with God. (p232)
Self-despair is the entry point for a sanctified life with God. When you wake up to the false story of self-sufficiency and see yourself rightly – who you are in light of who God is – then you see God rightly, and you find yourself at the beginning of wisdom.
Things I’m listening to:
I’ve rekindled my relationship with Mars Hill Audio Journal. Man alive, this is a great thing. Well worth the investment of subscription.
James Bryan Smith hosts a podcast called Things Above, which he calls a podcast for ‘mind discipleship’ (e.g. setting your mind on *things above*). I’ve listened to just a few episodes, and appreciate the tone and trajectory of what I’m hearing.
Books I’ve been in contact with the last few weeks:
Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Doctrine
Dru Johnson, Human Rites: The Powers of Rituals, Habits, and Sacaments
Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine
Quotes I’ve enjoyed:
Blessed, plainly, is that life which is not valued at the estimation of others, but is known, as judge of itself, by its own inner feelings. -Ambrose
I count myself as one of those who write as they learn and learn as they write. – Augustine
In the self-assured world of modernity people seek to make sense of the Scriptures, instead of hoping, with the aid of the Scriptures, to make sense of themselves. – Nicholas Lash
*This type of digest is proving to be a place for me to consolidate things I would normally put on social media. I’m trying to be better about doing it here than there, and I like how it gives space for thoughts to breathe some before they’re shared. I hope for shorter articles in-between, perhaps when summer is upon us.