Being Christian in a Digital World

The Next storyI first heard about The Next Story while listening to the author, Tim Challies, interviewed on a podcast.  Tim is a prolific and well established Christian blogger (challies.com) and after hearing the interview I was inspired to read his book about “faith, friends, family and the digital world”. It was perfect timing, since I was feeling more aware of the changes technology was bringing to our lives (and my life) and I wanted to think more about. Here are some highlights from the book and a few reasons for you to read it too.

Throughout the book Tim walks a good line that avoids both panic about technology and uncritical embracing of everything it offers. A large part of this comes from historical and philosophical perspectives. For example, he points out that new “technology” has always been coming into our culture and in many ways has helped the spread of the gospel. The prime example is the printing press in the 15th century but even things like invention of paper or the building of effective Roman roads have helped the gospel. Today there are obviously many ways that computers and the internet can help ministry and evangelism (although interestingly, I read somewhere that “computer” as a word is being used less – perhaps “computers” are facing their own obsolescence).

A helpful philosophical insight he explained was that “the medium is the message” (a phrase coined by author Marshall McLuhan). This idea explores the way “every technology has embedded deep within it some kind of ideology” (page 37). So, for example, a smart phone communicates to us in some way that being human means being able to know anything and do anything whenever or wherever we want. Tim writes, “we must still recognize that within every medium – every new technology – is a message that will inevitably work its way into our lives. McLuhan would likely warn us that reading the Bible on the screen of an electronic device is not the same as reading it on paper. He would tell us that singing hymns projected on a screen is not the same as singing hymns from a hymnbook” (page 39).

The rest of the book features a heap of great theological, philosophical and practical insights – too many to mention them all. A few more I loved were:

  • our potential to make an idol of communication: “In a strange way, we now find that more communication actually leads to less communication, or at least less real-world communication and less significant communication” (page 77).
  • the way our identity is changing: “It used to be that a sense of belonging was provided by a household or a community. We were always rooted to a specific context. If you wanted to call me on the phone, you had to call the family telephone… But now, through mobile phones, e-mail, and a thousand other digital technologies, you can communicate with me in a way that is uprooted from a family or geographical context” (page 103).
  • Distraction: “As Christians, we should not be surprised that our technologies often seem to work against us… I have dedicated a lot of time and effort to eliminating distraction from my life, and yet even now I am chatting with a friend on instant messenger as I type these words (it turns out that I forgot to log off before working on this chapter)” (page 130).
  • The flood of information we now have: “My concern with information overload is not so much that it will keep you from doing your job, that in your workplace you will find yourself overwhelmed with a deluge of information and be unable to get your work done; my concern is that as we dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of more information from more sources, we will be so overloaded by information that we will no longer have the time – perhaps even the ability – to ponder that information, to consider it, to take the time to study it and analyze it and meditate on it” (pages 145-46).

I found that each chapter was full of similar interesting insights and practical advice. Other chapters were about relationships (chapter 5: “Life in the Real World”), truth and authority (chapter 8: “Here Comes Everybody”) and visibility/privacy (chapter 9: “Seeing and Being Seen”).

One final highlight is a chapter at the end of the book about protecting your family (and yourself) from pornography and other dangers on the internet. It’s actually not as simple as “get Covenant Eyes”. He covers things like a digital audit of your devices, using passwords, OpenDNS, and committing to regular family meetings (which include talking about dangers outside the home). He points out that it will actually take several hours of dedicated work to set up and requires ongoing maintenance, but it will be time well spent (although no plan will ever be entirely foolproof). Our kids don’t have smartphones yet but we’re definitely on the cusp of needing a thorough plan like this. It would be great if our church grew this culture of people developing and talking about safety plans for their family.

So that’s a few highlights from The Next Story. I’d definitely recommend you reading it by yourself, or over a couple of months with a friend. I reckon you’ll get a new perspective on your life in our hyper connected smartphone era. Technology is a good thing (I’m writing a blog after all) but we can be much wiser on how we use it and live as Christians in a digital world.