Short Attention Span Faith

How can we spend time with God when we're always plugged in?

Editor's Note: This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2009 issue of RELEVANT, which releases today. Click here to view the digital edition, or pick it up at retailers nationwide.

My TV has 500 channels. My iPod has 7,000 songs. My Internet has like 30 billion pages. I have a cell phone with Internet and email. I’m never more than a phone call away from my parents. There are about 60 ways I can communicate electronically with any given person. So why is it like pulling teeth to get me to spend more than a few minutes each day talking to the Creator of the universe?

That’s what technology has done to us. Our sped-up, hyper-efficient, media-saturated world seems to be making it harder than ever to live pious, simple, disciplined Christian lives. There are just so many other options—a world of irrelevant and unimportant activity to engage in—and it’s all so terrifyingly accessible.

Important things like real community, prayer and Bible reading often get crowded out. Quite simply: We’re all just too freaking busy. While most of our new technologies are in theory meant to save us time, our lives are becoming decidedly more busy and our free time is dwindling to almost nil.

Why isn’t the ability to write emails on the bus helping to streamline our lives and make things simpler? Perhaps it’s because we can now write emails on the bus. We used to read books for fun on the bus. We used to just sit there and contemplate. Now, we can think of nothing better to do than stare down at our phone and try to think of a task that can be accomplished during this “downtime.”

The thought of sitting still and doing nothing is unfathomable. The prospect of simply hanging out and thinking for an extended period of time—well, it’s just so unproductive.

Unsurprisingly, this frenzied, obsessive-compulsive proclivity toward being digital busybodies has harmful effects on Christian disciplines like Bible study and prayer. After all, it’s pretty tedious to just sit and pray for an hour when there are Hulu videos to browse, “What Ninja Turtle are you?” quizzes to take and online “community” to cultivate. If we’re not wired, plugged in and communicating with the world at all times, it seems like such a waste of time.

In this environment, having the attention and focus to sit still and pray silently and single-mindedly for any amount of time is nearly impossible. “We’re always waiting for something to happen,” says Jenna Bartlo, a twentysomething PR professional from Los Angeles. “It’s hard to keep praying when we’re anxiously awaiting a text message.”

Bartlo believes Christians have to be intentional about sitting down—distraction free—and carving out time for God on a daily basis, even though it’s sometimes easier to just pray “in between” other activities throughout the day or while walking from one thing to the next.

“If you are just twittering to God your prayers throughout the day, then you are not taking the time to think about what you’re praying. God is still hearing those prayers, but you are not really seeking God.”

This is one of the biggest problems that must be reckoned with in the Twitter age: our ever-diminishing inclination and/or ability to slow down and think thoroughly, deeply and profoundly about anything. We speed through an article or web page in 60 seconds and pronounce it “read.” We see a blurb about our friend from high school’s weekend at the lake and pronounce the friendship “maintained.” But in this flurry of bite-sized narrative and dollar-menu mediation, are we able to truly be self-aware? Can we consider things and know God and ourselves?

At the end of the day, it’s just hard for us to have interior thought-lives anymore. It’s hard to keep anything to ourselves and be reflective just for ourselves. With Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the quick-and-easy communication efficiency of cell phones, we’ve gotten used to the notion that anything worth saying can and should be shared with the digital community in real time. Any idea or thought worth having should be public. Everything is cooperative, collective and wiki-oriented. When we sit alone and contemplate something that isn’t meant to be shared with the whole wide world, we almost don’t know what to do with ourselves.

Especially for younger generations, our identities are increasingly tied to social networking posturing, notes Todd Hall, professor of psychology at Biola and editor of the Journal of Psychology and Theology. “Older generations tend to view social networking technologies as functional tools, not as a way to define their identity,” Hall says. “But for the younger generations, social networking shapes their identity, and I think it makes it harder for them to be alone with God when they get used to this sort of constant interaction and ‘community.’”

It’s no wonder praying privately, silently and alone is a difficult endeavor for so many of us. Adding to the difficulty—the person we are talking to (God) is not speaking back to us, and it becomes nearly impossible. Instant feedback is such a crucial part of our technological, mediated existence today. If you post something on Facebook, you expect comments almost instantly. If you send a text, you expect a response. If you write a blog post and no one bothers to comment, you deem it a failure. Praying privately to an unresponsive God goes against all of our typical communication preferences.

The same logic applies to something like Bible reading. For the same reason reading any book alone for an extended period of time feels increasingly isolating and hard to sit through, having a “just me and my Bible” devotion time has become more and more difficult for those in the “wired” generations. It’s also hard for us to reckon with the intense requirements of context and “big picture” thinking that Bible study requires. In the Internet age, our minds have been trained to be OK with decontextualized, bite-sized flourishes of image, sound and text. But when we open our Bibles and try to make sense of one verse plucked out of context, it doesn’t really make sense. The meaning comes in the larger picture and the over-arching story. But that just takes too much time.

Oh, time. It is the thing we most miss and yet the thing we have the least patience for these days. There is an orgy of information and stimuli clamoring for our depleted reserves of attention, and it’s wearing us all so very thin.

Think about the computer desktop interface, where most of us spend huge portions of our lives. There is one rectangular space, but within it can be any number of smaller “windows” that contain multiple tasks, programs and applications simultaneously. It’s the consummate picture of multitasking.

At any given moment on my own laptop, I have a few Word documents open, at least two (and frequently four or five) Internet windows open, iTunes, my Outlook email system and a few ongoing iChat conversations. Everything is simultaneous and dynamic—with chats going on, emails coming in and going out and various meandering web browses happening whenever there is a gap in any of my other endeavors.

We’ve grown accustomed to an instant-gratification culture where we hold the reigns and can switch from one thing to the next, the second something gets too boring or too difficult.

This is one of technology’s most troublesome effects, notes 24-year-old filmmaker Curtis Craig. “When something doesn’t immediately strike my fancy or capture my attention, I have to force myself to stick with it,” Craig says. “Our generation has this unique ability to completely ignore something that doesn’t have an immediate gratifying value. As a filmmaker, this scares me because a lot of the best stuff—the films that have shaped me the most—required me to sit with them for a long time to understand. Our threshold for enduring challenges has been disappearing in other aspects of life as well. I’m not as prone to working hard at relationships these days, for example. It’s easier to just get online and melt your mind away a little bit. It’s painless.”

The thing the Church must think long and hard about is whether modern communication technology is making things too painless and too easy. Facebook is making it easier to get news out to vast social networks (like church groups). Twitter allows Christians to more readily keep tabs on their congregation’s daily life. Cell phones make it easier to schedule prayer breakfasts and Starbucks devo meetings. But is easier always better? Just because something can be done, should it be?

Take Twitter. Does it really have any compelling purpose? Some have suggested the 140-characters-or-less mandate of Twitter might actually improve the quality of our communication. The logic is thus: The bite-sized requirement forces people to be more concise writers and to learn to use words with a newfound economic precision. When you have so small a space, you can’t rely on throwaway words. It elevates our diction, supposedly. It forces us to be better writers and more to-the-point communicators.

This may be true, but we also have to ask ourselves this: Is there anything in life that is simply un-tweetable? Are some things too big and complicated to reduce to 140-character bursts or installments? Can the Bible and the Gospel be properly communicated in a micro-blogging paradigm? Pastors everywhere are voraciously adopting Twitter and rapidly gaining thousands of “followers,” but these are questions it’s imperative they ask themselves. There’s always a danger that the Church—by embracing such things as Twitter—is simply catering to (and propagating) the lowest-common denominator, no-attention-span stew of technological trendiness.

It’s important to seek out the sacred in the secular, but it’s also equally critical to recognize when the secular is interrupting the sacred in our lives—to dare question the assumption that “new” and “cutting-edge” always means better. The Christian must at least consider that technologies are not benign—that they may be good for some things or bad for others, but they are not neutral.

Before we jump rapturously into the arms of yet another hot new technological trend, it’s worth considering the works of those who have wrestled with these questions before us—men like Marshall McLuhan, who said “the medium is the message.”

Or Neil Postman, who said: “We need technology to live, as we need food to live. But ... if we eat too much food, or eat food that has no nutritional value, or eat food that is infected with disease, we turn a means of survival into its opposite. The same can be said of our technology.”

Or Shane Hipps, who said: “Within the forms of media and technology, regardless of their content, are extremely powerful forces that cause changes in our faith, theology, culture and ultimately the Church.”

There is a growing literature and chorus of voices out there, questioning the assumptions of technological progressivism. The questions are vital; the implications profound. If anyone is to listen and think deeply about these things, it should be Christians. We have to be willing to talk, write and discuss the way that technology is impacting our faith.

But it will take more than 140 characters.

This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2009 issue of RELEVANT, which releases today. Click here to view the digital edition, or pick it up at retailers nationwide.

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