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S1E12: Conclusions, Part Two
(The following is the manuscript for episode twelve of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on November 19th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
This season of Breaking the Digital Spell could go on indefinitely. There is so much to talk about in terms of how technology and media change the way we think about God and the way we love our neighbor, and we barely scratched the surface when it comes to the new technology and media that’s on the horizon. But, I think we are at a point where we can draw several conclusions about how technology and media in the Internet age change the way we think about God and the way we love our neighbor, and we are going to do that in this episode.
Before we begin, this is the second part of a two-part episode, the first of which is entitled “Conclusions, Part One”. You don’t need to listen to that episode in order to be able to understand this one, but you’ll get more milage out of the this episode if you do. Second, this episode will refer back to the batch of episodes released following “Conclusions, Part One” and again, you don’t need to listen to those in order to listen to this one, but you’ll get more out of this episode if you go back to those if you’ve not listened to them yet. Third, this is not the season finale of Breaking the Digital Spell. We have one more episode to do after this, because this episode might be kinda depressing, and I don’t want to end this season on a depressing note. But, with that being said, lets start outlining some conclusions.
The first conclusion is that, if television and the early Internet opened the door for secularism to gain a stronger foothold in the church (the third conclusion we laid out in Part One), the modern Internet with the technology and media it brings have cemented that foothold.
Let’s briefly recap what I mean by secularism: first, by “secularism”, I mean a state of mind where all belief systems are possible, equally valid options for living a happy, meaningful life, and second, where the idea of “transcendence” becomes less believable, less plausible, and less meaningful. In secularism, belief systems – whether yours is Christianity, or Islam, or atheism, or agnosticism, or any of the other belief systems one could pick from – are not evaluated based on their truthfulness, but on whether or not your expression of your belief system helps you live a full life. Because the emphasis is placed on knowing truth as it exists outside of us to living up to our own idealized visions of “the good life”, the idea of “transcendence” – the idea that there are things that go above and beyond the world we physically inhabit – doesn’t automatically become false, but just unnecessary. There is no need to posit the existence of a transcendent God who has created you for certain ends when you have within yourself the power to create and define what you consider a meaningful life, and so long as your conception of “the good life” does not consist of harming anyone else, you can and should pursue your vision of “the good life” and attain to whatever vision of yourself you desire. In the last three episodes about social media, smartphones, and VR, I have been trying to demonstrate how these technological and media forces reinforce a secular way of thinking because they make achieving your conception of “the good life” more achievable than ever before, right down to visually creating and defining your conception of this life all the way to giving you a fully simulated world in your VR headset, which inherently numbs you to the transcendent reality of the God who created you to know him and worship him. Television and the Internet, as technological forces, were limited in their ability to empower people to fully act on their individualism and, in turn, inculcate a thoroughly secular view of the world, but if smartphones and social media and extended reality technology were built off of, and evolutions of, television and the Internet, then the widespread cultural adoption of these technological forces was the moment when the other shoe dropped, and the game was changed for good. Television invented the possibility of experiencing Christianity on your own terms, detached from the people of God – smartphones, social media, VR technology, and other technological forces give you limitless tools for further customizing your version of Christianity and for experiencing it on whatever terms you so desire. The Internet redefined “community” by giving us the possibility of forming communities detached from any geographical constraints; smartphones and social media make maintaining these new communities even easier, and have helped move the idea of an “online church” from being a niche use of the Internet to being a cost efficient and practical avenue for churches of any and all sizes to explore in expanding their outreach efforts. These new understandings of Christianity, which could not have existed at any other point in time in history, are only made possible because of the technology and media that make these kind of practices possible, and because of American Evangelicalism’s unchecked technological optimism towards these new technological forces, American Evangelicalism has taken on the form and function of the technology it has uncritically embraced and adopted, rather than the other way around. And now that secularism has a foothold in the church due to the technology we use, we can see the consequences of secularism play out in our theology and in the way we conceive of and experience church as a whole.
Let’s start with the changes to our theology. A few weeks ago Ligonier, the teaching ministry of the late theologian R.C. Sproul, released their most recent State Of Theology report for 2018. The State of Theology report is a a poll of 3,000 Americans, from a wide range of backgrounds/demographics, on a set of theological statements where respondents answered “strongly agree”, agree”, “disagree”, “strongly disagree”, or “not sure”, and the results are fascinating to say the least. I’m not going to read off the entire report (I’d highly encourage you to read the whole report at thestateoftheology.com), but I want to highlight a few of the results to show how technology and media are making an impact on our theology, and not in a good way:
In response to the statement “God accepts the worship of all religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam”, 65% of respondents agreed, and 23% disagreed.
In response to the statement “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature”, 67% of respondents agreed, and 26% disagreed.
In response to the statement “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation”, 23% of respondents agreed and 69% disagreed.
In response to the statement “the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true”, 47% agreed and 43% disagreed. 10% were not sure.
In response to the statement “the Bible is 100% accurate in all it teaches”, 41% agreed and 41% disagreed.
In response to the statement “Modern science disproves the Bible”, 36% agreed, 48% disagreed, and 16% were not sure.
In response to the statement “Worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church”, 58% agreed with this statement, and 30% disagreed.
In response to the statement “the Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do”, 53% agreed, and 38% disagreed.
In response to the statement “Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth”, 60% agreed, and 30% disagreed. 10% were not sure.
In response to the statement “the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe”, 61% agreed, and 39% agreed. 0% were not sure.
In response to the statement “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin”, 62% agreed and 38% disagreed. 0% were unsure.
Now, one very important caveat: those results I just read off include the entire survey population, which includes not only evangelicals but also African American Protestants, Mainline denomination Christians, Roman Catholics, and other individuals who don’t fit in one of those categories. When you compare the results from evangelicals against the results of the entire survey population you do get some noticeable (and even encouraging) differences. My point in reading these results, especially in reading the results of the entire survey and not just the results among evangelical respondents, is to illustrate that American Christians – not limited to, but including evangelicals – are displaying sharp theological disagreement not on secondary or tertiary theological topics but on theological topics that touch at the core of Christian orthodoxy. There is a fundamental confusion amongst Christians about what it means to be a Christian, and I don’t have survey data on hand to prove this, but I’m more than willing to bet that if you went back 50, 30, 20, even just 10 years ago, you wouldn’t get results indicating this severe and deep level of confusion and misunderstanding about basic Christian doctrine and beliefs – and this fundamental confusion and disagreement is a byproduct of secularism’s cemented foothold on the church. This isn’t me being an alarmist: there’s data to back this up. When 65% of respondents believe God accepts the worship of all religions, 67% believe most people are good by nature, 60% believe that religious belief is a matter of personal opinion, 58% believe worshipping alone or with your family is a valid substitute for church attendance, and only 62% agree that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that can atone for one’s sin, those are the kind of results you could expect to see in the aftermath of a deep, thorough theological upheaval – and while modern technology and media are not solely to blame for this, I don’t think its a stretch to say they play a large part in producing these kind of results. These results are consistent with the first part of the definition of secularism we presented earlier: where all belief systems (and beliefs within those belief systems) are possible, equally valid options for living “the good life”, and if your conception of “the good life” is a Christianity that gives you the luxury of worshipping on your own terms and believing that people are mostly good and that religious belief is a matter of personal opinion, then you should pursue it, and modern technology and media give you the tools to do just that.
We can see this in several ways, but let’s start with one practice we are probably all familiar with: church shopping. For one, this idea of “church shopping” is nothing new, but as advertising and promoting your church’s physical or online services easier to do and more competitive thanks to social media, the awareness of the number of churches to attend has increased and created more choices than ever before. Now this isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when you combine the new and improved abundance of choices in churches and Christianity with a culture that is geared towards choosing an experience of Christianity that bests matches up with their conception of “the good life”, then we have an problem. If your conception of “the good life” is showing up on to a church on Sunday to hear an inspirational reminder about being nice to people and gets you out in time for the Sunday game, you are now aware of numerous churches that offer what you need to realize your ideal Sunday experience. If your conception of “the good life” is laying in bed watching a sermon live streamed to your phone, you can find plenty of churches that stream their services and allow you to participate without ever leaving your house. If your conception of “the good life” is being active in working in the community towards the improvement of the world around you, can find churches that will give you plenty of chances to let your light shine before others – even if it’s your light that is shining and not the Lord’s. If your conception of “the good life” is belonging to a church that spurns modernity in favor of ancient and traditional practices (be it Reformed, Catholic, Anglican, or Episcopalian), you can find plenty of churches that will allow you to experience the ancient faith as a countercultural practice to your modern life; but, in a secular age, this option is not inherently better than any of the other options available for you to choose. What matter is that you choose the experience of Christianity and the church that best matches your conception of “the good life”, and it has never been easier to choose a church experience on your own terms, and then to choose a different church experience should your tastes change, and all of this is made possible my the technology and media we process these choices through. Again, church shopping has always been a reality in the modern age: if anything, we can blame Henry Ford and the Model T for making traveling greater distances an easier and more regular occurrence. The abundance of choice was always there, but what is new and modern is the degree to which the emphasis is placed on the individual for making the choice that best corresponds to their desires. Brett McCracken, writing in “Our Secular Age: Ten Years Of Reading And Applying Charles Taylor”, writes that:
“When churchgoing becomes mostly about finding a church that best supports one’s own subjective “spiritual path”, Taylor seems to suggest, it will eventually become an impossible task, more frustrating and draining that it is worth. As he notes [quote] If the focus is going now to be on my spiritual path, thus on what insights come to me in the subtler languages that I find meaningful, then maintaining this or any other framework becomes increasingly difficult [end quote]. Why? Because no church is ever going to be perfectly tailored to my preferences and the subtler languages I find meaningful. Something will always make me bristle, something will leave me feeling unseen, unheard, uncomfortable. Just as we eventually grow tired of a trendy restaurant or favorite clothing brand because our tastes inevitable change, so we will eventually tire of a church that initially connects with our unique “spiritual path” but then fails to sufficiently track with our evolving beliefs. So we keep shopping for that perfect church, or (more likely) we give up the futile search entirely….By accepting the consumerist terms of the Age of Authenticity and seeing themselves as another product to be branded and marketed and consumed, churches merely amplify the instability. They encourage the fickle, commitment-phobic habits of consumers who attend only insofar as it fits the nuances of their personally curated spirituality.”
Brett McCracken in Our Secular Age: Ten Years Of Reading And Applying Charles Taylor
And while we are on the subject of church shopping, we need to acknowledge that the church shopping we experience today isn’t limited to just physically attending a new church every week. Online churches have become viable to the point where they are considered legitimate church options in the church shopping process, and there is no better example of this than what happened last week with a tweet from megachurch pastor and superstar Judah Smith. In announcing the launch of a new smartphone app for his church, he wrote in his tweet that “People have asked, when are you starting a church in Nashville? When will you come to Texas or Boston? Well…we just did. I am so excited to announce our newest location: Churchome Global. The location? The phone in the palm of your hand.” Now the list of things wrong with this tweet (and the video that accompanies it) is so long that it ought to merit an entire episode in and of itself (and, thankfully, the tweet was met with an insane amount of backlash), but I want to point out the language he uses in this tweet. Notice how he began it: he started off by raising the issue of starting new churches in other cities, speaking to the idea that “hey, Judah, we want to be able to physically attend one of your churches where we live”. He then claims that this desire has been met as he announces an smartphone app that serves as the launch of a global, digital campus, and presents this solution as though downloading an app was equivalent to physically attending a church. It cannot be overstated the number of ways that the language of this tweet reinforces a secular view of Christianity, regardless of whether or not that is Judah’s intent. This language reinforces the idea that there is no difference between physical churches and digital churches, which is a byproduct of secularism’s idea that one can and should experience Christianity on their own terms, which are made possible by the technology and media that make attending a “digital” church possible. This language reinforces the idea that attending church in community and attending the church in isolation are perfectly legitimate options, which is not only explicitly spoken against in the New Testament but also a byproduct of secularism’s idea that, again, one can and should experience Christianity on their own terms, and if your conception of “the good life” is a fully private religion, then pursue it. Lastly, this language reinforces, as Brett McCracken stated earlier, the “fickle, commitment-phobic habits of consumers who attend only insofar as it fits the nuances of their personally curates spiritually”. A smartphone app, regardless of whatever the app contains, does not require commitment. A smartphone app does not keep you accountable. A smartphone app will not make you uncomfortable. A smartphone app can be customized to serve you exactly on your terms – and all of these are thoroughly antithetical to a biblical understanding of what it means to belong to a church. Churches require commitments. Churches keep you accountable. Churches will make you uncomfortable – but churches, unlike an app, will be there for you when you are sick. Churches, unlike an app, will help you watch your kids (and give you chances to watch other’s kids). Churches, unlike an app, will draw you out of yourself into a shared experience with other believers centered around the proclamation of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments, which is exactly how God ordered his church to operate. These alternatives only exist because of the technology and media that allowed their existence to be conceivable, but just because they exist as alternatives does not mean they are acceptable alternatives.
Now, to be perfectly fair to Judah Smith – he is neither the first person, nor the last, to propose or suggest any of the things I’ve criticized about. There are plenty of other online churches that exist and have done other things like this – Judah is just the most recent example a trend that has been going on for some time and shows no sign of slowing down. Second, we need to treat seriously the claims of Christians who say that the physical church has hurt them, or abandoned them. If people are leaving our physical churches for digital churches, we need to thoroughly examine whether or not we are contributing anything to their departure. Are our churches hospitable? Are our churches welcoming? Are our churches safe? Even though and can should rightly push back against these unbiblical alternatives to church and these secular expressions of an individually-driven Christianity, we should not be so quick to absolve ourselves of fault in contributing to this situation. Churches can be damaging. Churches can be unwelcoming and unloving, and if we want to draw people who have left the physical church back into it, our churches must be biblical both in what we teach and also how we live. It is not simply enough to teach sound doctrine but have a church culture of callous coldness. Nor is it simply enough to live joyful, sacrificial lives of obedience while believing things contrary to what the Bible teaches. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy – right belief and right living – must be simultaneously pursued as we criticize these consumer-driven church alternatives like the ones Judah Smith and others offer. But, what we cannot do is say that because imperfect churches exist that unbiblical models or expressions of the church are therefore permissible options for Christians. In living in a digital, secular age, at no point can we agree that just because technology and media have made these other types of churches possible that these alternatives are okay. The challenge, then, is how do we live as the biblical church, and biblical Christians belonging to the biblical church, in a distracted, digital age that reinforces a secular approach towards choosing Christianity on an individual’s terms? How do we proclaim the Gospel and fulfill the mission and ministry of the church in this kind of context? This is where the second conclusion of this episode comes in.
The second conclusion is that Christians must acknowledge the reality of living in a distracted, digital age, and we must consider how the technology and media used in our lives challenges or reinforces a distracted, secular way of thinking and repent of any unhealthy use of technology and media in our lives.
Before we concern ourselves of doing the work of the church in a distracted, digital age, we must begin with ourselves. Before we consider how technology and media are affecting our neighbor, we must honestly and thoroughly examine how technology and media have changed the way you and I think about God, and the way you and I love our neighbor, and we need to repent of using technology and media in unhealthy ways.
One of the consequences of living in a distracted, digital age – where smartphones and social media are always available and ready to give us something to preoccupy ourselves – is that the art of meditation, self reflection, and self criticism has become compromised. Fruitful meditation and study requires long periods of unbroken attention and intense concentration, but we live in a culture where our attentions spans are hijacked by devices that constantly try to get us to pay attention to them, and by media that trains us to process disjointed bits and pieces of information by the second. Self reflection and self criticism require the ability to accurately assess yourself and to be able and willing to point out your shortcomings and weaknesses and see if any correction or improvement can be made, but we live in a culture that offers us both endless distraction from having to evaluate and reflect on our lives or offers us extremely distorted views of ourselves. Social media enables us to see ourselves as more righteous and holy than that other group of people (which can be political or theological rivals or people who do things you don’t like) or leads us to believe that we are lazy, boring, stupid, ugly, unwanted, or unloved because we are constantly comparing ourselves to others online. We cannot meditate if we are distracted, and we cannot accurately evaluate ourselves and our actions if we are either too distracted to do that and if, when we evaluate ourselves, we evaluate ourselves to the wrong standards we’ve come to accept as a result of our online activities. And as a result of the fact that these practices are more difficult to do because of the technology and media in our lives, it makes repentance – turning away from our sin and returning to the Lord – a more difficult challenge, because we can avoid having to face our sin, make light of our sin, or even make our sin so serious to the point we believe we are beyond redemption. And to be fair, this has always been a problem for fallen and sinful humans, regardless of what era they’ve lived in. The difference, however, is that our sinfulness is armed with incredibly powerful tools to aid us in our desire to stay hidden in our sin and distracted from the urgency of repentance, and before we begin pointing out how others use technology and media in sinful ways, we need to examine our own lives to see where we are committing this sin.
So, how do go about doing this? Simple: we start asking questions about how the technology and media we use change the ways we think about God and change the way we love our neighbor. In order to break the distracted, digital spell, we must begin asking questions, and we must begin with ourselves. Tony Reinke has a great list of questions in “12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You” that I think are applicable to technology and media beyond the smartphone, and while some of these may not be specifically relevant or applicable to you, I think they are good examples of the kind of questions we need to be asking. Listen to this list and if any of these questions strike a nerve, pursue that, and ask yourself why that’s the case
Do my smartphone habits expose an underlying addiction to untimely amusements?
Do my smartphone habits reveal a compulsive desire to be seen and affirmed?
Do my smartphone habits distract me from genuine communion with God?
Do my smartphone habits provide an easy escape from sobered thinking about my death, the return of Christ, and eternal realities?
Do my smartphone habits preoccupy me with the pursuit of world success?
Do my smartphone habits mute the sporadic leading of God’s Spirit in my life?
Do my smartphone habits preoccupy me with dating and romance?
Do my smartphone habits build up Christians and my local church?
Do my smartphone habits center on what is necessary to me and beneficial to others?
Do my smartphone habits disengage me from the needs of the neighbors God has placed right in front of me?
Now again, all of those questions were in the context of using smartphones, but don’t let that limit you from applying those questions to any technology and media in your life. Nor are all these all of the questions one could consider and ask, but I think this is a good place to start. The reason why I think these questions are good questions to ask (and a good example of the kind of questions we need to be asking) is because these questions expose how sin has disordered our desires and how we disorder our desires through misusing technology and media according to those disordered desires. If we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then our loves – our desires – must be rightly ordered towards the Lord and towards our neighbor. But, because we are fallen, sinful creatures, we do not love the Lord and we do not love our neighbor, but ourselves, and we will gladly avail ourselves of anything we can get our hands on that help us do what we want out of our self-love, and we make habits out of those behaviors we express in our self-love. If our habits are towards distracting us from everyday life, or if our habits lead us towards an unhealthy obsession with politics, fitness, romance, or success, or if our habits lead us towards an idealized vision of “the good life” that includes no place for the Lord of your life, and if all of these disordered loves towards our sinful desires and away from God and away from our neighbor are being mediated through the technology and media we use in our lives, then repenting of our disordered desires and loves must include repenting of the habits surrounding our technology and media usage that fuel and empower those disordered desires. As James K.A. Smith writes in his excellent book “You Are What You Love”,
If you are what you love, and if your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals [not limited to, but including, our practices and cultural rituals centered around technology and media], then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices [again, including how we use technology and media] is a competition for your heart – the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do – and what those practices do to you.
James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power Of Habit
Ask yourself: what do your smartphone, social media, computer, television, and Internet habits say about who you are? What do your habits say about what you love? Do these loves lead you to the Lord, or away from him? Do these loves lead you to love your neighbor, or hate your neighbor?
I cannot answer these questions for you. Nor are these the only questions you must ask of yourselves. But again, before we can be concerned with how technology and media are affecting other people, we must understand how technology and media affect us, and there is no greater effect that technology and media can have in our lives that reinforcing a secular way of thinking where the idea of “disordered loves” and “disordered desires” away from God and away towards self do not exist. A secular way of thinking does not place a difference on your loves being directed towards the Lord and your loves being directed towards yourself – so long as your loves allow you to live whatever conception of “the good life” that you desire, love what you will, and our technology and media empower us to choose to love what we will and distract us from the God who exists and who has created us to know Him and love Him with all our being. This is where the third conclusion comes in.
The third conclusion is that in order to overcome a distracted, secular way of thinking, we must proclaim a transcendent Gospel, one that draws the hearer out of their buffered self and into communion with the external God and his people.
Ultimately, if we are to proclaim the Gospel in a distracted, digital age that empowers and reinforces our disordered loves and leads us into a secular way of thinking where it is up to the individual to determine what “the good life” is, we must proclaim a Gospel that calls people out of their distraction, made possible by the technology and media and our habits surrounding them, and to re-order their loves back to the Lord who exists outside and over our lives.
In Part One, we spent a lot of time talking about how unchecked technological optimism is the direct offspring of utilitarianism, which undergirded (and still undergirds) not only our view of technology and media, but also undergirds most of our theology as well. To recap, utilitarianism is a philosophical view that ties something’s value or worth is tied solely to that thing’s output, usefulness, or productivity. In utilitarianism, the ends justify the means, because the ends are where something (or someone’s) value and worth is grounded. The idea of inherent value or worth, such as the idea that a human’s value in worth is grounded in being made in the image of God, is nonexistent in utilitarianism – it is contingent on variables that must be measured and tracked in some way. This is why the late Reverend Billy Graham could say that he preached more the Gospel to more people in a single telecast than Christ did in his entire life – the number of people reached by television trumped any consideration of what it was that was reaching them through television. This is how American Evangelicalism still approaches technology and media – reaching people, regardless of what it is that ends of up reaching them, is the only important factor to consider. This is also how American Evangelicalism approaches theology as well – reaching people, regardless of whatever it is we are actually saying, is what is most important. Utilitarianism is at the heart of the kind of alternative Church models presented by guys like Judah Smith and anyone else who wants to pioneer a digital church of some kind – the potential to reach people is limitless because everyone has access to the Internet, but what reaches these people is a form of Christianity that plays perfectly into reinforcing a secular way of thinking. And because the goal is to reach as many people as we possibly can, the message that we proclaim in reaching people – the Gospel – becomes refashioned into being a tool useful to utilitarianism, and in re-tailoring the Gospel to being a message that is as generically appealing to as many people as possible, we have reduced it the point of being a message that cannot save.
Looking back on Part One I regret that I didn’t spend more time fleshing out what I meant by secularism being just as much an option for Christians as it is for non-Christians, because too often when Christians here the word “secularism” they immediately equate it with something that doesn’t involve belief in God, and that is not the case at all. Christians are just as susceptible towards a secular view of life and the world as any nonbeliever is, and a lot of that influence comes from within the church itself! If secularism is concerned with the individual determining their conception of “the good life”, than any preaching, teaching, or practice that portrays Christianity as living “your best life now”, “the best decision you’ll ever make”, or anything that co-opts the Gospel towards being an addition or modifier to a person’s life (such as a smartphone app) to make it better in some way is ultimately reinforcing a secular way of approaching Christianity. The focus of such teaching and preaching is not on calling and leading Christians to look away from themselves and to turn their eyes to the exalted and risen Christ in heaven, but a sales pitch on how Christianity can help you best achieve your desired conception of “the good life”, which must then compete with any other possible conception of “the good life” that people can choose from – and even if people choose Christianity, there is no guarantee that they are not choosing Christianity for anything more than the fact that it fits their desired image of who they want to be and the life the want to live. We do not want people to be Christians because it helps them achieve “the good life”. We want people to be Christians because their eternity is at stake. And because people’s eternity is at stake, we must proclaim a Gospel that conveys a sense of urgency as to their eternity, which cannot be done without preaching a Gospel that communicates, at least propositionally, the existence of the transcendent realm.
Secularism removes the need for transcendence to be considered because anything that we look to transcendence for – value, meaning, significance, beauty – can now be found in the “immanent frame” we live in. Christianity cannot exist where transcendence is denied, because we believe there is an all powerful, all righteous Father in Heaven that exists outside of us, and this Father, this God, has created us to know Him and worship Him by keeping His commandments – which, because we have failed to do, we deserve eternal death and separation from Him as a punishment. We also believe that, because we have broken God’s commandments, that we cannot make this situation right, and that we needed a Savior from heaven, that exists outside of us, to save us from our sins, and that this Savior – Jesus Christ – now rules and reigns in this transcendent space we call “heaven”, and that one day this Savior will break into our imminent, closed off conceptions of the world to judge the living and the dead by whether or not they have repented and believed in His Gospel. Foundational to the Gospel message is the fact that the transcendent realm exists and that this has significant implications on our lives – but, living in a distracted, digital age, we are numb to this, and because we are numb to this, a secular way of thinking about our lives and our world becomes plausible and possible. This is a lengthy example from Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness, but its an outstanding example of how our everyday experiences, even as Christians, can numb us to the transcendent world, and why our proclamation of the Gospel must take this into account:
To get a sense of what this look like, consider for a moment what it is like to attend church on Sunday. You are awakened by an alarm on your cell phone, an amazing piece of technology and testament to the power of human mastery over the natural world. You eat eggs for breakfast. They come, almost miraculously, clean, large, and white in a carton that has been inspected by some government agency to ensure it is safe. The carton lists the nutritional composition of the eggs along with a few words about their health benefits. Everything has been considered. You get dressed in clothes that you bought ready-made. You drive to church in a glistening, energy-efficient sedan with advance safety features, and glance occasionally at the cars next to you, in which people are completely preoccupied and content with the technology around them. As you drive through the city, everything you see appears as a work of human achievement: stoplights, fire trucks, businesses, freeway overpasses, and skyscrapers. By chance you see a bluebird, and immediately reflect back on a recent episode of an animal show you watched that featured the bluebird. ‘Bluebirds are part of the thrush family’, you say to no one in particular. At church, you sing songs praising God’s provision, his mercies, his creation, and his grace. But everything you experienced on the way to church, from the food you ate to the beauty you witnessed, testified to humanity’s ingenuity and mastery of the world. Your experience of the world was a testament to humanity, not God, because everything in your experience conditioned you to look at this world and its physical laws. It all makes sense as a self-sufficient immanent world, even though you know that Jesus is our Creator and Sustainer…While its possible for us to believe in a transcendent God and still live within the imminent frame, it isn’t easy. In fact, its becoming increasingly difficult.
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth In A Distracted Age
It is the fact that believing in a transcendent God and living in this imminent frame is difficult that ought to compel us to preach a Gospel that calls us to consider the world beyond the world we immediately live in. We must preach a Gospel that calls the hearer to die to themselves and their inwardly-chosen conception of “the good life” that technology and media has allowed them to conceive of, to take up their crosses, and to follow the risen, ascended, transcended Christ in submission and obedience to his sovereign lordship and will over their lives, knowing that whoever loses their life in this life will find it in the next. But even as we emphasize the fact that there is a world beyond the world we know and a life beyond the life we live now, we do not do so seeking to persuade people that the technology and media in our lives that distracts us from contemplating and meditating on our eternal future is a bad thing, but rather that everything good that we have in our lives – including the technology and media that we use to make our lives more productive and bring us joy – ultimately comes from a transcendent God. Wherever we see human ingenuity and mastery, we must point back to the God who made such ingenuity and mastery possible. Wherever we see human creativity and beauty on display, we must point back to the God from whom we understand beauty and from whom we have received our creativity. Whenever we enjoy good food, good drink, good times with friends and families, we must point back to the God from whom our enjoyment of those things ultimately comes from. A transcendent Gospel does not call us to forsake the world that we live and delight in – a transcendent Gospel calls us to taste and see that the Lord is good and, in his goodness, he has given us this beautiful world and creation to live in and delight in, and technology and media have a place in that beautiful world and creation and can be means by which we know and delight in the Lord, but can also be powerful tools in depriving ourselves from sensing and knowing the transcending realm by distracting us from true life and joy in this one.
The Gospel we proclaim cannot be a Gospel that ignores the sin in our lives, because a Gospel that does not confront the reality of our sin is a Gospel that cannot proclaim the good news of salvation from our sin. Nor can the Gospel we proclaim be a Gospel that ignores the ebb and flow of the culture we live in, and if we are to sow the seeds of the Gospel and see a fruitful harvest, we must understand the fields we are trying to sow in. We must understand the culture and world that we live in so that we can preach the Gospel in such a way that breaks into the barriers and distractions of the culture, and in our case, our distractions and barriers are fueled by the technology and media we use to reinforce our disordered desires away from God. But not only must we proclaim a transcendent Gospel that calls the hearer out of their individually-driven distraction and towards Christ on his throne, we must model a life that reflects the results of believing such a Gospel – and on the final episode of this season of Breaking The Digital Spell, we are going to look at what life looks like once the digital spell has been broken.