Will God Forgive Us Our Addiction to Junk?
I’ve often been asked a variation of a single question over the past few weeks. So what insights are you taking out of your sabbatical? It’s a natural enough question, I suppose, even if there’s a bit of pressure built into it. The expectation sometimes seems to be that three months away will have yielded a host of spiritual breakthroughs or ministry strategies or transformative insights. And those, as it happens, are in short supply during these last days of summer. Nothing quite that exciting, I’m afraid. I hope people won’t be too disappointed that I’m returning as roughly the same person that departed several months ago.
If I were pressed, though, to isolate one conviction that has been impressed upon me anew during my time away it would probably be a deepening awareness of our social context and the negative forces it exerts upon us as followers of Jesus. It won’t surprise readers of this blog to learn that one of the main arenas in which I see this playing out is online. The more I observe how young people engage with their world, the more I see how easily I gravitate away from flesh and blood interactions and towards drifting around according to the dictates and rabbit trails generated by social media, the more I think this is one of the primary obstacles in our world toward producing mature, thoughtful, critical human beings properly formed in the image of Christ.
I recently heard a comparison that stuck with me. Turning our kids loose on platforms like SnapChat, Twitter, Instagram, and particularly YouTube and expecting them to make good decisions is like placing them at a table laden with potato chips and ice cream with a few leafy greens off to the side and expecting them to make wise dietary choices. The system is set up to fail. It very often rewards unhealthy forms of engagement. Just as kids in this situation would (and do, as it happens) grow physically obese, so the digital conditions that our kids are growing up in are producing mentally obese human beings who are conditioned to expect instant gratification at the click of a mouse, and who are steadily becoming less able to resist the lure of a societal machine that is designed to make money off their inability to self-regulate.
It seems to me that the online world and specifically the social media platforms that capture so much of our attention reward two broad human impulses.
- The impulse to be entertained (shocked, amazed, amused, titillated, outraged, etc.)
- The impulse to seek attention (measured, of course, by “likes,” “shares,” “retweets,” “mentions,” “reactions,” “views,” and all of the other ephemeral ways we have of calculating value in the realm of social media)
This is what drives probably 98% of the Internet, whether it’s stupid videos, angry message boards, pornography, violence, or just general idiocy and wastefulness. The designers of the algorithms used by social media giants know very well what generates clicks and eyeballs and advertising revenue. They know that the sensational, the stupid, and the sexy is what captures our ever-vanishing attention. And so they prey upon human weakness. It probably goes without saying that tech giants don’t even remotely have our best interests in mind, nor do they care much about the conditions our kids are being formed in. All they “care” about is what will drive traffic and generate revenue for their corporations. And it turns out that what drives traffic are the worst parts of our human nature.
This is not good for discipleship or for anything resembling Christian character formation after the pattern of Jesus. To state the blindingly obvious, the two human impulses that the online world feeds on are impulses that are absolutely inimical to the cultivation of mature Christian faith. Jesus teaches us not to do things for the attention we will gain or for the praise of the adoring masses. Jesus teaches us that the self is not the final arbiter when it comes to what is worthy of our attention, time, and energy. Jesus teaches us to train and discipline our desires, not to click on until we collapse in exhaustion at the end of the Internet. Jesus teaches us that there are parts of us that must die that we might truly live, not to become slaves to dopamine and whatever will produce it. What Jesus wants for us is very often precisely the opposite of what the tech giants want from us. But Jesus certainly has his work cut out for him these days.
Last night, I watched First Reformed, where Ethan Hawke masterfully portrays Reverend Toller, a middle-aged small church pastor going through something of a crisis of faith and identity. At one point, Toller is talking to a young environmental activist who is wrestling with the ethics of bringing a child into a world going up in flames. “Can God forgive us for what we are doing to the world?” he asks Reverend Toller. I sometimes find myself wondering along similar lines when it comes to what we are doing to ourselves and, in particular, to our children. Can God forgive us for the kinds of people we are becoming? Can God forgive us for what we are doing to our kids? Can God forgive us for essentially conducting a social experiment on our most vulnerable population—those least able to understand the dangers, and most ill-equipped to resist the paltry and destructive rewards it offers? Can God forgive us for engineering (or at least offering tacit approval to) a technological system that preys upon human weakness and monetizes our basest instincts? Can God forgive us for effectively abandoning anything resembling robust moral formation and tacitly outsourcing this to the algorithms created by global tech behemoths?
I hope so, for I am surely one of the chiefs of sinners here.