The beauty of using my iPhone as my alarm clock is that when I reach over to turn it off I’m only a few more taps away from the rest of the world. Before I’m even fully awake I’ve checked my Twitter and Facebook notifications and my email and returned to Twitter to check my feed for breaking news. Before I’ve said “good morning” to my wife and children, I’ve entered a contentious argument on Twitter about Islamic terrorism and shared a video of Russell Westbrook dunking in the previous night’s NBA game.
While making my coffee and breakfast, I begin working through social media conversations that require more detailed responses so that by the time I sit down to eat, I can set down my phone too. Years ago I would use my early-morning grouchiness as an excuse to play on my computer rather than talk with my wife and kids, but now our family tries to stay faithful to a strict no-phones-at-the-table policy. We have drawn important boundaries for the encroachment of technology into our lives to preserve our family and attention spans, but that does not mean we’ve managed to save time for reflection. Instead, I tend to use this time to go over what I have to teach in my first class, or my wife and I make a list of goals for the day. It is a time of rest from screens and technology, but not from preoccupation.
As I drive the kids to school, we listen and sing along to “Reflektor” by Arcade Fire. On my walk back to the car after dropping them off, I check my email and make a few more comments in the Twitter debate I began before breakfast. In the car again, I listen to an NBA fan podcast; it relaxes me a bit as the anxiety of the coming work day continues to creep up on me.
Sufficient to the workday are the anxieties and frustrations thereof. And so, when I need a coffee or bathroom break, I’ll use my phone to skim an article or like a few posts. The distraction is a much-needed relief from the stress of work, but it also is a distraction. I still can’t hear myself think. And most of the time I really don’t want to. When I feel some guilt about spending so much time being unfocused, I tell myself it’s for my own good. I deserve this break. I need this break. But there’s no break from distraction.
While at work, I try not to think about social media and the news, but I really don’t need additional distractions to keep my mind busy. The modern work environment is just as frenetic and unfocused as our leisure time. A constant stream of emails breaks my focus and shifts my train of thought between multiple projects. To do any seriously challenging task, I often have to get up and take a walk to absorb myself in the problem without the immediacy of technology to throw me off.
Back at home, I’m tasked with watching the kids. They are old enough to play on their own, so I find myself standing around, waiting for one of them to tattle or get hurt or need water for the fifth time. If I planned ahead, I might read a book, but usually I use the time to check Twitter and Facebook or read a short online article. But it’s not always technology that distracts me; sometimes, while the kids are briefly playing well together, I’ll do some housecleaning or pay bills. Whatever the method, I’m always leaning forward to the next job, the next comment, the next goal.
I watch Netflix while I wash dishes. I follow NBA scores while I grade. I panic for a moment when I begin to go upstairs to get something. I turn around and find my phone to keep me company during the two-minute trip. When it’s late enough, I collapse, reading a book or playing an iOS game. I’m never alone and it’s never quiet.
As a Christian, the spiritual disciplines of reading the Bible and praying offer me a chance to reflect, but it’s too easy to turn these times into to-do list chores as well. Using my Bible app, I get caught up in the Greek meaning of a word and the contextual notes and never really meditate on the Word itself. It is an exercise, not an encounter with the sacred, divine Word of God. A moleskin prayer journal might help me remember God’s faithfulness, but it also might mediate my prayer time through a self-conscious pride in being devout. There’s no space in our modern lives that can’t be filled up with entertainment, socializing, recording or commentary.
This has always been the human condition. The world has always moved without us and before us and after us, and we quickly learn how to swim with the current. We make sense of our swimming by observing our fellow swimmers and hearing their stories. We conceive of these narratives based on the stories we’ve heard elsewhere: from our communities, the media, advertisements or traditions.
But for the 21st-century person in an affluent country like the United States, the momentum of life that so often discourages us from stopping to take our bearings is magnified dramatically by the constant hum of portable electronic entertainment, personalized for our interests and desires and delivered over high-speed wireless internet. It’s not just that this technology allows us to stay “plugged in” all the time, it’s that it gives us the sense that we are tapped into something greater than ourselves. The narratives of meaning that have always filled our lives with justification and wonder are multiplied endlessly and immediately for us in songs, TV shows, online communities, games and the news.
Maybe your typical day doesn’t resemble the perpetually distracted and frantic experience I’ve just described. But there’s a good chance you suffer from the electronic buzz of the 21st century all the same, even if to a smaller extent.
The scariest thing about modern life is how comfortable most of us are even in our suffering and discontent—comfortable enough to be swept along in the flow without ever having to pause and consider how truly unbelievable it is to be alive. There are just enough notifications, just enough health choices to feel guilty about, just enough answers for why we matter, just enough nice things to keep us grudgingly satiated to prevent us from facing the human heart and the dread of being alone that resides there simmering beneath the electronic buzz of modern life. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to make Christianity just one more identity waving at us for attention as we float along.
But it’s not. The Gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The Gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. To be a follower of Christ in the early 21st century requires a way of being in the world that resists being sucked into the numbing glare of undifferentiated preferences we choose from to define our identity.