Technology is something that has been widely debated for years. Should Christians embrace it as part of the culture or resist it for the many dangers it brings with it? Studies have proven that things like social media can be damaging to our mental and physical health, but some experts say that this just makes it more important for Christians to be a light on these platforms and offer encouraging content. So which is it?
This week at Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Samuel James, author of the new book Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age, to discuss the role of technology in a Christian’s life.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Is technology and the internet simply a neutral tool that can be used for good or bad? Or is it rewiring our brains and even our relationships? Moreover, can we be thoughtful, wise Christians and, at the same time, be fully immersed in the internet? Well, Samuel D. James is the Associate Acquisitions Editor at Crossway. He joins us today to discuss his new book Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age. Samuel James, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
SAMUEL JAMES: Thank you for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So you wrote an article explaining why you wrote this new book, and you say, “We are faced with the overwhelming judgment that the web is not a neutral instrument, but a language and emotion-shaping environment that creates certain kinds of thinkers, feelers and worshipers.” That is quite a bit different than some of the things that we’re hearing out there. Why do you say that?
SAMUEL JAMES: Well, I say that because there is a lot of evidence that we are being shaped by the Internet in very important ways. So the book Digital Liturgies really pulls from a variety of sources in the social sciences to kind of demonstrate the evidence that people who kind of learn how to engage the world through the computer, and this would be people of my generation, millennials, and then also especially younger Gen Z, those of us who learn how to kind of read and process information and especially how to relate to one another through the internet, we do so in ways that are markedly different than people who didn’t have the internet. And so this internet-shaped effect is something that is showing up in our politics, it’s showing up in Christianity and in the kind of theological conversations that we’re having, and it’s a fundamental rewiring of the way we make decisions, we evaluate truth claims, but also the kinds of things we feel and how we speak to one another.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So far, you’ve just called it different. Are you making a judgment as to whether the difference is good or bad?
SAMUEL JAMES: I think the difference is, if you look at the book, there’s quite a bit of evidence that people who learn how to read and think online have a very different perspective on how to process information. And so that’s part of the reason why so many online arguments seem to be between people who can’t understand one another. I think it’s because, in many cases, they can’t, the medium has kind of taken over from the message. But before we kind of zoom to questions of good or bad, we simply have to acknowledge that these differences are real. And also, these differences are impossible to avoid. The internet is much different now than it was 20 years ago, where now we’re all connected all the time via smartphone technology. And so whatever effects that the web may have on the kind of thinkers and the kind of feelers that we are, we have to multiply that effect by a factor of 10, maybe 100, to account for the fact that we’re all online all of the time. So the book is really a call for honesty about how that effect may shape our day-to-day lives. And it’s not that we can’t use the web for good things, but it’s that before we even get to that question, we have to acknowledge that, you know, as Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message.” And we’re faced with a technology that has a definite heart-shaping effect, whether or not we intend for it to.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I know a lot of people on the internet don’t really want to communicate, they don’t want to understand the other side. But for those who honestly want to communicate, and it sounds like there’s maybe an age gap, what can people do to bridge that gap?
SAMUEL JAMES: Well, I think one thing we can do to kind of help each other understand these effects and how they’re shaping us is to resist the temptation to mediate all of our relationships through technology. So there’s a lot of people that I know who have said that they don’t really feel comfortable with a group of people anymore. They don’t feel comfortable in a physical setting with other people. They feel very awkward and very vulnerable. But as soon as they get home, they open their phone, and they feel much more relaxed and much more at ease. And that right there is a big signal that these technologies are actually conditioning us in particular ways.
And I actually think that is something that we can uniformly resist together to say, hey, actually, it’s not okay for us to simply retreat into our screens, we need to form real relationships with one another, we need to encounter one another in interpersonal situations that require us to look at each other to hear the tone of voice. I think a lot of the things that people are discouraged about in terms of how we as a culture debate things and have reasoned arguments or lack of reasoned arguments, I think a lot of this would be solved greatly by a return to interpersonal conversation rather than the impersonal, and often very heated, medium of the web.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, you even go so far as to say that technological developments can form roadblocks for pursuing Godly wisdom.
SAMUEL JAMES: Yeah, you know, one example would be the way that a lot of news is now filtered through social media. So it wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to know the news, you had to consult sources that were objectively written. Now, you might say that they were biased, or they might have a particular ideological slant, but they were created to be consumed. And you would have to decide what you thought about that particular news item. One of the things that we’re dealing with now, though, is that because news is coming from social media, we’re reacting to it all the time in front of other people. So we’re kind of calculating, I think, how we respond to particular news items. And now the question is no longer just, “Hey, is this true? Or is this helpful? Or how should I respond to this?” It’s, “Hey, what are these people over here that I don’t like saying, or what are these people over here that I do like, say?” and so you’ve got the sense where the arena of truth has blended entirely into the theater of social interactions, and it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins? So that’s an example of how the Christian task of thinking wisely and thinking truthfully is compromised by the economics or the dynamics of social media.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you started off publishing articles on the website, DigitalLiturgies.net? When did you start that? Was the timing significant? And why do you feel like it’s time for a book of the same name?
SAMUEL JAMES: So that is my Substack newsletter. I started writing shorter articles about this topic a couple of years ago. And the idea for the book really came from a sense that I didn’t really see a ton of Christians who were thinking about Internet technology specifically as a heart-shaping habitat. How to actually navigate a medium that, by its very nature, makes foolishness more appealing and wisdom less appealing. And so, after reading books, like The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, I realized that this had theological significance and wanted to put those social observations in conversation with what Scripture teaches about living wisely. And the book was kind of the attempt to bring that to a broader audience to help Christians think very helpfully and very theologically about the internet as a character in Christian formation.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: North Carolina Family Policy Council is a public policy advocacy group. So let’s spend a little bit of time talking about one article that I stumbled upon on your Substack. It is entitled “Is it Time to Move Past Tim Keller?” and in this article, you explore what seems to be two ideologies about how conservative evangelical Christians should be engaging our culture or are engaging our culture. So if you don’t mind, just start by telling what you consider the two camps, so to speak, of Christians as far as engaging the public at this point.
SAMUEL JAMES: Just to clarify for the audience, I think it’s important to notice that this article was written while Pastor Keller was still living, and he has since passed on and thankful for his ministry. But the article was occasioned by a conversation that started around Keller’s legacy in terms of political theology. And so the two sides that I sensed discussing this are a more appreciative side, but also maybe a side that tends to try to soften the gospel implications of Christian ethics and tries to accommodate people’s modern consciences by downplaying at times the part of Christian teachings that are less palatable to modern people. And then there’s this other side that basically measures its faithfulness in terms of how angry those unbelievers are becoming.
So there’s almost a complete polar opposite approach, and one side would measure its faithfulness in terms of how appealing are we as Christians to people with unChristian worldviews. And that’s the only question that’s being asked, or that’s the ultimate question that’s being asked. And I think that falls short, but I also think it falls short to say, “Hey, are we making the right people mad? Are we owning the other side? Are we dominating or grinding people into the ground if they don’t agree with our worldview?” And that might be the opposite side. And I think Tim Keller really steered a faithful course between that to say the implications of the gospel are going to be offensive to modern people who insist on having their own sense of autonomy, their own sense of freedom, but to also recognize that that sense of autonomy and freedom actually leads to heart issues, it leads to a lack of fulfilled desires, it leads to a restlessness in that we can preach Christ in a way that is appealing. And that does magnify his desirability for people who are searching and looking for something to give meaning to their lives. So I think those were kind of the two sides and the way I saw the legacy of Pastor Keller in helping Christians to articulate the gospel in a public square.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So in this article, you also made some comments about healthy Christians and who were going to be kind of the healthy Christians going forward spiritually and intellectually talk a little bit about that and how the information maximalism, as you call it, affects our health as Christian thinkers.
SAMUEL JAMES: The challenge for Christians is going to be relying on social media and news and technology in an unhealthy way that actually recalibrates our sense of what’s most important. So kind of taking the taxonomy that I mentioned in the last question of, you know, the kind of those two opposing ways. So if you rely on social media, or whatever, to set your priorities for you, you’re constantly going to be trying to be on the right side of whatever particular trend. And so trying to figure out what’s most appealing to people or what is most energizing to your own base about that. And I actually think that’s a mistake because in terms of what Christians should prioritize, that’s spelled out for us and His Word, we have a word of God written for us that has emphases and it has accents. And if you read scripture, you get a sense of what’s most important and what’s foundational. And so if we let Scripture calibrate our expectations, then what we might find ourselves saying are things that are certainly countercultural and a stumbling block to those who would embody a secular worldview, but it might actually also be a stumbling block to those who are right at times, who insist on the ability to treat people who would disagree with us in whatever way we want to. So we might find ourselves squeezed between two sides that are saying, Well, why don’t you just accommodate? Why don’t you compromise because that would be so much easier? And we find ourselves constrained by what Scripture says. So the challenge for Christians in the days ahead is going to be becoming people of the Book rather than people out of the algorithm.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Great point. You’ve just provided us some practical recommendations, but do you have more for ways that we can continue to use technology as a valuable tool that I think we’ve all found it to be without compromising this wisdom?
SAMUEL JAMES: Yeah, I think an important thing to do is to take stock of our individual lives. So one of the things that’s going to be true is that my particular struggles and my particular context may be different than somebody else’s. So you might have someone who really needs to think seriously about how much they use social media. And so that right there needs to be addressed in maybe a different way than someone who says, “I get obsessed with news.” So those are two different situations that would require two different things.
But I think it’s about letting the Scriptures speak to us. So how does the gospel speak to the sense of anxiety that we try to numb with technology? Well, it reminds us that the source of our comfort is in Christ. We pray Your kingdom come, and that’s because his kingdom really is coming. And that gives us a sense of solid ground, and we’re not just trying to defeat the opponents at all costs, because if we don’t, then Christ won’t reign. Christ will reign, and so how do we relate to the world as people who will be on the right side of history, quote, unquote, no matter what, so I think that calibrates your expectations. And another thing, too, is to simply help one another. Open up your relationship to technology to other people, ask hard questions, take stock of your life, are you seeing other people? Do have real relationships? And then make those changes just realizing that the Lord is going to honor that. And I think what most people will realize is that if they back away from being immersed in technology for just a little bit, they will see very quickly how refreshing it can be and how soul-nurturing it is to discover real people in real places.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right, well, thank you, Samuel James, author of the new book Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age. Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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