Online content goes from good to bad. The biggest danger is online habits.

north“Whoever has a good car needs to be justified,” says Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s novel. wise blood. If O’Connor were writing today, he might have one of his characters proclaim: “No one with a good smartphone needs to be virtuous.”

These general statements about a specific technology may seem unfounded. After all, we can use the car to go to church or use it, as Motes does, to run over a rival preacher. You can use a smartphone to read the Bible or you can use it to watch porn. The tool itself is neutral, right?

Wrong, argues Samuel James in his insightful and pastoral book, Digital liturgies: rediscovering Christian wisdom in the online age. The Internet and the default practices it encourages can damage our souls despite our best intentions. Online, we live at the center of a world designed to satisfy our every desire.

Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the dangers of this position is by referring to CS Lewis’s observation in The abolition of man that “there is something that unites magic and applied science and at the same time separates both from the wisdom of previous times. For the wise men of ancient times, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For both magic and applied sciences, the problem is how to subject reality to the desires of men: the solution is a technique.”

The online ecosystem provides an incredible set of tools to bend reality (in seemingly magical ways) to our appetites and preferences. To the extent that, as James argues, the digital “cut”[s] distancing ourselves” from reality, makes wisdom and virtue seem obsolete. James helpfully defines “Christian wisdom” as that which shows us how to “live fully aligned with ultimate reality: practical, ethical, and theological.” But if there is an application for every problem that reality presents to us, we do not need to endure the difficult path of sanctification, self-discipline, and wisdom.

Novelty, consumption and isolation.

James like that Unions to growing chorus of voices that provide a corrective to recent intellectual histories of the modern, expressive self that trace Western modes of individualism or contemporary beliefs about gender to intellectual errors made in previous centuries. As James points out, “the epistemological and ethical effects of technology have not been reported in evangelical spaces.”

It is not so much that intellectual histories are wrong as that they are incomplete. How have notions about the expressive or buffered self taken hold? Not primarily through the rise of particular ideas, but through the powerful technologies that have been developed to realize and represent the desires of the so-called “modern” self.

As Lewis points out, these desires are ancient; What is particularly new are technologies that make compliance more plausible. Citing an example drawn from today’s headlines, James observes that “all the…philosophy in the world could not do for contemporary people what is most essential to achieving the gender revolution: separating the sense of self from the realm of objective reality.” . The web, however, can.”

Digital liturgies sees the Internet as a habitat, a social architecture that invites certain behaviors and modes of participation. The first chapters contrast the tradition of Christian wisdom with the techniques that are fundamental to digital life. And as the web “is becoming the fundamental medium, the superstructure of almost all other experiences,” such techniques carry over into what remains of our offline lives.

In the main section of the book, James considers how various digital practices inculcate doctrines of expressive individualism. Our online experiences revolve around the self: “to exist meaningfully in the online public realm, you must express yourself. You ‘like’ what interests you. You “share” those things you enjoy or agree with. The center of gravity in the online world is your profile, in which you are granted an almost divine ability to create an identity.”

In perhaps the book’s strongest chapter, James argues that the Internet “has an intrinsically pornographic form.” By this he doesn’t simply mean that there is a lot of pornography on the web (which, unfortunately, is very true), but that the web as a whole privileges novelty, consumption, and isolation. As we become accustomed to these three characteristics of online interactions, we become primed to view them as desirable aspects of our sex lives.

As James points out: “The power to find anything you want to watch, access to an endless supply of new consumables, and the unlimited freedom to make fantasy come true are not just features of online life. pornography but of the online world in general.”

The web specializes in converting “the most intimate or even most elemental things in human life into consumable content.” (Who would have guessed that the “reaction video” would become one of YouTube’s most popular genres?) We should not be surprised, then, at the shattered relationships and the endemic loneliness and anxiety that result.

At the end of each chapter describing a particular deformative digital liturgy, James offers a theological alternative. To counteract habits of self-expression, for example, James reminds readers that his identity is to be found in Christ. This is good as far as it goes, but these doctrinal truths cannot, on their own, counteract the formative power of repeated digital practices.

I don’t want to criticize Digital liturgies not to be a different book than it is, but it is strange that James does not seem to take seriously his own analysis of the pernicious effects of digital liturgies. Even the conclusion offers only a brief overview of the need to develop new, healthier habits, and does not point readers to any of the truly excellent work on spiritual practices and Christian formation done in recent years by people like James K. Smith and Tish Harrison Warren.

Part of the problem may be that James doesn’t want to alienate readers by appearing to be a member of that much-maligned group, the Luddites. So, to begin with, he clarifies that it is not necessary to disconnect from the Internet; “Rather, by identifying how the web shapes us, we can use these technologies more deliberately, more wisely, and more Christianly.” He returns to this topic at the end, reiterating that “this is not a book that tells you to delete your accounts and throw away your devices. The key is to understand how digital technology affects us and interact with it accordingly.”

Unfortunately, this book says very little about what intelligent compromise might entail. In principle, I agree with James that Christians are not necessarily obliged to disconnect from the Internet (although this may well be a call for some). But given the web’s tendency to consume our time and profoundly shape our lives, most of us need to radically limit our online activities.

Uniting for an embodied life

Just as leading a car-centric life affects our sense of identity and community, accessing the Internet involves real moral risks, which many of us will not be able to completely avoid in a world where these technologies have become what theologian Ivan Illich calls “radical monopolies”.

But just as New Urbanism and other movements have tried to imagine how we might organize our lives to be less dependent on cars, there is a growing movement of people and organizations imagining ways to bring the Internet to the margins and order our lives. life. lives around better liturgies.

Christians need to say No to frequent and unrestricted interaction online (very few people really need a smartphone with Internet access) and Yeah to counterliturgies that conform our souls to reality, instilling disciplines and virtues. Recent books like Andy Crouch’s. The technological familyJustin Whitmel Earley The common rule and Home habitsand Brett McCracken The pyramid of wisdom propose the types of habits that can counteract the attraction of the Internet.

As these authors remind us, we cannot succeed in this endeavor as isolated individuals; At a minimum, we need families and churches to come together, perhaps through commitments like the “Postman’s Promise”, and prioritize embodied activities and relationships.

To the extent that we are formed by such counterliturgies, we will be able to use digital tools wisely, but to the extent that we are formed by these digital tools and their predetermined liturgies, we will be unlikely to use them deliberately, wisely, or Christianly.

Jeffrey Bilbro is an associate professor of English at Grove City College. He is the author of Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Investigation of the News.

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