Don’t hurt your neck doing a double take. It was that epitome of 4th grade-level writing, Buzzfeed, that published this surprisingly insightful social commentary at the end of 2018: “We are captives to our phones, they are having a deleterious effect on society, and no one is coming to help us. On the upside, [the Google Pixel 3] is a great phone”.
If ever there were words that captured the helpless and distracted state we’re in, Mat Honan wrote them:
“We are reaching a point of no return, when it comes to information collection, if we have not already gone beyond it. Cameras and screens, microphones and speakers. Capture your face and your voice and your friends’ faces and voices and where you are and what’s in your email and where you were when you sent it and… What did you say? Click, here’s an ad. And where did you go? Click, here’s an ad. Who were you with? Here’s an ad. What did you read here’s an ad how do you feel here’s an ad are you lonely here’s an ad are you lonely here’s an ad are you lonely?”
In January, my wife left social media. Even though she is a bibliophile, it was ultimately realizing the ripple effect our smartphone addiction would have on our young children that was the final motivator. In having kids, our lives are no longer our own. Every decision, every reaction, and every off-the-cuff quip is impacting little ears and hearts. I guess our lives were never our own. Having kids was just the UV light that exposed that truth.
Over dinner a few weeks ago, I asked my wife how she felt about the detox. “A little bit sad. I’m realizing how few people are actually invested in my life” she replied. “Being on Facebook all the time, our relationships have become voyeuristic—I see all the things that people are doing and sharing but I’m watching from a distance that a like, comment or even a personal message will never bridge. In the three months I haven’t been on social media, people have told me that they miss my photos and articles, but only about two people have reached out and asked how I am or to meet up and spend time together.”
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If my life ought to be a journey of discovery with God but there is no community to walk and live that out with, is it really a transformed life?
Not many years ago, the American Dream (North American, for my Canadian compatriots), was an ethos where happiness and anything else in life could be accomplished through hard work. Today, that ethos has shifted. Happiness and anything else in life is found in self actualization: be true to yourself and how you feel.
What happens when how I feel shifts or isn’t even consistent? What happens when what I feel disagrees with the people around me? What happens when what I feel disagrees with what I wish I felt? What happens when I don’t even feel at all? How can something as weightless as an untethered balloon ever be an anchor? Perhaps it ought not to be the balloon that captures our attention, but the directional wind and the weather patterns that it points us to.
There is a balloon, something insidious brewing in our culture that observers have begun to see more and more: young people are having less sex than ever; hook-up platforms like Tinder are on the rise; the US Surgeon General called out loneliness as an epidemic, the most common threat to public health; even just the presence of a smartphone on a date or at dinner with friends is associated with lower relational satisfaction.
In short, we are heralding the death of relational literacy. All at the same time, we are also hurtling towards it and we are there already.
It would be to our downfall to assume that the evangelical Christian community is somehow insulated from this. We can often presume that the antidote to the death of relational literacy lies in being in the same room as people that are easy to love—people who look and think like us. In a CBC Radio interview, psychotherapist Esther Perel opines that the way we define community is actually closer to the definition of polarized camps: an echo chamber where we only welcome those who believe and feel as we do. Even prominent voices in the evangelical community like Francis Chan and David Platt have been under scrutiny themselves for simply being seen on stage with those who believe differently.
We don’t even need to look beyond Christian communities to see the death of relational literacy. When was the last time you responded to “How’s it going?” with something other than “Good” or “Busy”? When was the last time you introduced yourself to a stranger at church and then proceeded to invite them to spend time with you? When was the last time your small group conversation was filled with a desperation for Jesus to have more of your life? When was the last time you spent time connecting your friends, both believing and non-believing, with one another? And so we come up with new programs—a coffee time or social, a new book or curriculum, a new small group, retreat, conference, or platform, that will be the game-changer.
But what if the strategy and methodology we use in Christian ministry and in local churches, in an attempt to fill chairs, increase readership clicks, and see converts, end up succumbing to culture instead of re-defining it? What if we end up peddling a message and life that, as Paul says (2 Timothy 4:3), “suits their desires” and satisfies their “itching ears”, but forgoes the relational depth and cost that Jesus is inviting us to? What if the things we use to win people on Instagram and to our programs become what we end up saving people to? What if that thing is shallow relational depth? If how we seek to engage people is a capitulation to the cultural norm, how can we be surprised when relationships aren’t actually changed?
In Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble argues the danger of a “flattening effect” in our minds when everything that we post online, from viral cat videos to the plight of modern day human trafficking, are given the same one inch space on our screen. Remember KONY 2012, the infamous film and social campaign to have a Ugandan militia leader arrested (which TIME called “the most viral video ever”)? No? Neither do the millions of young adults who watched it, here’s an ad. Likewise, what happens to our faith when the expression of it is reduced to the “liking” of a Christian article and then that same “like” is cheaply tossed to a couple of music videos?
Noble phrases it this way,
“Where mockery disparages with contempt, irony trivializes with levity. Every ideology, belief, and worldview becomes flattened and condensed into one, vacuous sameness. The only true thing about any of them is what is true about all of them, that they are sad, vain attempts to cobble together meaning in an empty life. Call this the South Park view of belief. Notably, once we begin ironically depicting and treating other worldviews, we very easily slip into treating Christianity the same way. Jesus gets transformed into ironic action figures and parody t-shirts.”
In the episode titled “Smithereens”, Black Mirror features a news crew and social media network following a kidnapping and hostage situation. As the ambiguous ending leaves the viewer wondering the fate of the hostage taker and the victim, the scenes cut to the same news crew and people browsing their social media feeds on their phone scrolling on to the next thing, ambivalent to how the hostage situation ended. And as part of us are left wondering how it played out, there’s another part of us that says, “Who cares? Next gif!”
How long will it be before the famous-for-now photo of the drowned bodies of a migrant man and his two year old daughter go the same route—from front and center of the refugee and immigration debate to yesterday’s news? An Op-Ed in the Washington Post says, “We used to think photos like this could change the world. What needs to change is who we are”, but will it matter in the end?
When our relational literacy dies, our ability to celebrate or mourn with people deeply, to care about them at all, dies with it.
It’s difficult not to feel helpless and defeated in consideration of all of this. It’s hard not to feel like we’ve traded our relational depth and literacy for… what? I don’t even know—a few more likes? Did you know that Chick-fil-A restaurants in the US have little cardboard smartphone-coops to encourage people to sit face-to-face and have real conversations over a meal? Behold! Chick-fil-A, your champion for relational depth and tasty chicken sandwiches. For a while, we had the same smartphone-coop in our living room at home. To be honest though, most days, the fight for real relationship feels like shawshank-ing my way out of prison with a spoon.
If it wasn’t seen before, the post-mortem of Relational Literacy is on public display now and people are demanding a fix. Probably in part because of public pressure, Silicon Valley’s tech giants have introduced Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing, recognizing that with monolithic influence comes social responsibility. But how pitifully tragic is it that the first antidote on the market is spearheaded by the oligopolies who made their fortunes from the proliferating the disease in the first place?
It’s no surprise that in the past few years, there’s been a growing demand for dumb smartphones, though even those do not come cheap (socially responsible capitalists need to eat too, am I right?). Perhaps even the growing success that Japanese clothing and lifestyle brands like Uniqlo, MUJI, and even Marie Kondo have enjoyed in North America is in large part because our culture is embracing minimalism. Even minimalism is the result of a time when it is somehow possible to have everything and still remain empty-handed at the same time. And so we suggest to ourselves that perhaps the solution is in throwing everything out.
Christians are not alone in seeing the need for, and fighting for, real relationship. But if it’s true that a relationship with Jesus changes the way we relate to everything and everyone, we should’ve been among the first. There is certainly nothing the Christian can see that isn’t already seen by everyone. But in a world of hyperstimulus and information overload, he who knows what to do with it is king.
Tim Keller, pastor in NYC, remarks that the self-help section in the bookstore is never lacking in new titles. The issue has never been seeing the need to change; everyone knows how we ought to live. The issue, then, is that for all the knowledge of what our problem is, we are missing the power to change and live differently.
There exists in every person created in God’s image, an intrinsic yearning to be loved. When we long to be loved but are unable to change ourselves into what we think is lovable, there are two things we often turn to. First, we can end up attempting to solve the dissonance by rewriting the storyline—”There’s nothing wrong with who I am.” Second, we can come up with strategies that hide who we are on the inside and elevate who we present ourselves to be. We employ sarcasm or attempt to please people by never saying no. We avoid conflict or we blame others. We avoid awkward or potentially painful conversations. Psychology calls this our defence mechanism. The Bible calls this our old self, the self that looks within to find the solution to protection, love, and worth.
In contrast, the gospel points us to a kind of Love that we could never find in ourselves—a Love that, though loving us as we are, is far too great to leave us as we are. Tim Keller aptly describes it:
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
Our greatest fear is that if people around us truly knew us on the inside (the awkwardness, the malicious thoughts, the unrepentant sin, and the self-serving heart), we would be publicly unlovable. And so this Great Fear tells us not to confess deep sin to others, to despair in guilt, to walk away from unforgiveness or apology, to keep conversation at a superficial level and to make the decision that leads to greatest comfort.
How kind is it, then, that we have a God who says to the face of this Great Fear:
“Where can you go from my Spirit?paraphrase of Psalm 139
Where can you flee from my presence?
For if you hide in the darkness,
even darkness is as light to me.
I created you and knit you together in your mother’s womb.
No part of you is hidden or unknown to me.
How precious are you to me?”
Has it ever struck you as curious that Peter, upon seeing Jesus’ divinity in Luke 5, exclaims, “Get away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”? Would a contemporary equivalent be Peter leaving Jesus’ text message asking to spend time together as “Read”? How kind is it then, that Peter had a Christ who said to the face of his Great Fear, “Don’t be afraid” and then invited him to walk with him for the next few years?
It is the same Christ who gently says to our infinite social media feed scrolling; to our pornography-riddled eyes and gluttonous stomachs; and to our unwelcoming and awkward body language towards others, “Dear child of mine, I see you and I am here with you. I love you. What are you looking for? What is there in your self-protection that you don’t already possess when I gave you all of me in my Son? Come, feel my heart.”
It is the same Christ who says of the person that’s hard to love, difficult, and full of flaws, “This person you see in front of you—I love them. My deepest desire is that they would know that they are loved and for you to be a part of them experiencing my love. Come, feel my heart.” The thing in us that must be broken through, as Philip Kennicott writes, “is the resistance to doing the hard work of humanizing the other”. And there is no one who looks at you and I—we, in our self-oriented and shame-filled state—with the full dignity we were created for other than the Creator himself.
Many years ago, a man named Jairus asked Jesus to come to his home to heal his dying daughter. The account recorded in Luke 8 tells us, however, that when Jesus reached the home, the little girl had died and the mourning procession was already in place. The finality of death was so clear that the crowds laughed when Jesus said “She is not dead, but sleeping.”
Why did Jesus phrase His words that way? Why not say instead “She is dead, and I intend to bring her back to life”? It would’ve probably been met with the same derision but it would have at least been more true of what would transpire. I’m convinced that the reason Jesus said what he said was not to speak parabolically but because, through the lens of Christ, there was and is a truer Reality. The Reality is that when the reality of death meets the person of Jesus, it becomes a mere sleep to wake up from.
To not just know how God sees us, but to truly see ourselves as God sees us—as a beloved child of God—is the only thing that can free us from the self-protective mechanism of the old self to embrace, as Christ does, people. To Jairus’ daughter Jesus says, “Talitha koum. Little girl, I say to you, arise.”
There are some of us for whom this invitation seems so foreign. The safety of surface-level conversation and staying in our relational comfort zone promises too much. That’s okay. Jesus’ love towards you is no less on the days when you desire him least than on the days when you desire him most. Bring your desireless-ness to him and ask him to awaken and bring to life what only he can resurrect.
For others of us, the time to be convinced is past and faithfulness now means choosing to respond. You can start by bringing your desireful-ness to God and asking him to show you what it looks like to fight relational shallowness. Perhaps it’ll mean pressing into and being present in a strained relationship; or taking the initiative to invite an acquaintance into your life and your walk with God. Perhaps it will mean fasting regularly from shallow distractions like social media or building rhythms in your week that foster relationship building. Two incredibly helpful and practical books that speak into building habits of purpose are Justin Earley’s The Common Rule and Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.
Or perhaps finally responding might not be something new altogether but changing the way you engage with people already in your life. Say to a familiar stranger “I don’t think I’ve introduced myself before. My name is ________” or “I’m sorry, could you remind me of your name again?”. Say to an acquaintance, “I’d love to grab lunch or coffee and get to know you more” or “Would you like to come with me to ________?”. And to others yet, ask “What sorts of things have been life-giving or hard in the last little while?”.
As we each individually make these choices to ingrain our life with relational depth, so will the collective Christian community go. The normative culture in our homes and front doors becomes more welcoming and hospitable towards the other. The relationships and conversations become intentional and increasingly meaningful. The means by which we engage people with our media and events are thoughtful, provoking, sometimes difficult to hear; but always gentle. The Church begins to be seen not simply by the message we tell but by the changed life we live.
It will be in the small, mundane, and daily choices to live by our new self and to put off the old self, that we and others will begin to see and experience that Jesus has indeed come to wake the dead.