We are about the enter the fourth week of Easter (I’ve taken to seeing time liturgically rather than secularly; it helps with my spiritual condition) and I am already tired of the alleluias. I’ve probably said this before, but I feel way more comfortable with Advent than Christmas, with Lent than Easter. I just think that the darkness of Advent and Lent better reflect the reality of our broken world on a day to day basis than does the unmitigated joy of Christmas and especially of Easter. But that is, of course, because I am a winter Christian and not a summer Christian.
In any case, the sudden freedom found in Easter after the deprivation of Lent can be a little overwhelming. And, perhaps even more than Lent, it showcases one’s weaknesses. For example, this past Lent I gave up coffee and soda (both caf and decaf) and found myself drinking a lot more water and, every afternoon, wishing for a pick-me-up. It took a couple of weeks into Easter before I had fully returned to drinking my normal amount of coffee, but I still think about the habit a lot more than I did before Lent. I am aware of my own habits of consumption. As I’ve noted elsewhere, something that denying oneself does is make one aware of the excesses in other areas of one’s life. My excessive (and it is excessive) consumption of caffeine has made me better aware of my overeating and, more tragically in my mind, my overuse of my phone. By “better aware” I mean I came to know, on an emotional level, the impact that my phone was having on me and, through me, my family.
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Jamie Smith, in his Desiring the Kingdom, notes that we are not primarily thinking creatures. Rather, we are primarily loving or desiring creatures; our affections guide our choices and actions. Conversion is not primarily an intellectual act. Conversion is the transformation of our affections. Specifically, conversion is our affections moving from a desire for sin to a desire for Christ. We become Christians when we begin to love Jesus.
Sin, and salvation from it, has all kinds of metaphors in Scripture in Church history. Sometimes sin is a legal infraction that merits punishment while salvation is the absorption of that punishment by an innocent victim (Jesus). Satan, along the way, tries to get us to sin because misery desires company. Other times, sin is a kind of brainwashing activity one does because one is afraid of death and ensnared by Satan while salvation is the liberation of the brainwashed captives by paying the ransom (an innocent victim) they are owed and then their defeat at the hands of the resurrected Lord (think Aslan and the white witch). While there are other metaphors (governmental; moral exemplar), it is this second metaphor that I want to focus on.
In being brainwashed by our fear of Death, and antagonized by our captor Satan, our affections are actually fallen. We want to do sinful things (things that hinder human flourishing) because we think doing those things will help us cheat Death (Richard Beck has written an excellent book and series of blog posts on that subject here). Beck, and the Cappadocian fathers from whom he derives quite a bit of his material (and the author of Hebrews from whom the Cappadocians borrowed), argues that sin is primarily a self-esteem project oriented toward shoring up our control of the world around us; it is about establishing our own mini-kingdoms where we can rule and reign and therefore stave off death. The catch is that we never were in control. Our little kingdoms are just images of the “kingdom of darkness” inspired by Satan. In conversion, in being transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, we gradually find our affections transformed by God’s love, through his son, into a love for him and the world he has made. Our participation in the kingdom of light is on the basis of authentic change caused by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We spend our whole lives shaking off the effects of our brainwashing while looking forward to the unmitigated glory of the New Heaven and the New Earth (again, think Narnia; this time the Last Battle).
One mechanism, and perhaps the primary mechanism, by which the Holy Spirit sanctifies us (helps us shake off the effects of being brainwashed) is through the cultivation of virtue through habitual practices (aka habits). This is a topic I’ve written about at length in other places, so I won’t get into all of that now, but suffice it to say (and this is something else Jamie Smith emphasizes) our habits are both an expression of, and a mechanism for, shaping our affections. Smith would argue that we need compelling images or stories of the effects of our habits (or potential habits) before we change them.
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Amanda sent me this article a few days ago and, suddenly, I had a clear picture of what it would look like 5, 10, 30 years down the road for me to have immediate access to a smartphone or whatever its descendants will be. I was able to see the story unfolding of my children who spent most of their growing up wishing that Dad had paid just a little bit more attention to them in the moments he was with them; I can imagine their voices telling therapists one day that they had a great Dad who was loving, kind, funny, and nurturing, but just a bit absent. And this absence created a resentment that they just can’t let go of.
A lot of (digital) ink has been spilled over the last several years about what our phones (and tablets) are doing to our relationships. The data is clear: our relationships, our ability to meaningfully connect with those we love is severely hampered. Our ability to get to know strangers in an unstructured context is nonexistent. And our ability to think, be creative, or give sustained attention to something important is impaired as well. I remember reading this (now famous) article in college (at the genesis of the iPhone) about whether Google was making us stupid. The answer is a resounding yes. I even heard a great lecture a month ago by Alan Jacobs about reading as an antidote to our inability to pay attention anymore, a condition mediated by technology but ultimately caused by our addiction to a) the new and b) human connection. He told the story, documented here, about a 13-year-old girl who spent so much time snapchatting her friends that she literally could not actually engage in meaningful relationships with them.
For a long time, I was ambivalent about the growing ubiquity of social media and mobile technology. I wrote this post about getting rid of my social media accounts (I actually think I deleted and re-created my Facebook page several times over the course of a couple of years). I also wrote this post in part about how I would never own a smartphone since I refused to have the Internet in my pocket. And then, 18 months ago or so, I had the opportunity through Amanda’s dad (who works for AT&T) to get a smartphone on the cheap. Since this coincided with when Amanda and I moved to Dallas, I thought that, if nothing else, the phone will have a map feature which will help me get around in a new place.
Well, three phones later, I am an avid and savvy user of my smartphone. I post pictures of what I eat. I post pictures of my kids in the moment. I keep track of my calendar, my life, my tasks–all with my smartphone. I grow anxious when I can’t find my phone, when it dies, or when I am parted with it for a few minutes at a time. I no longer experience boredom since I now can read the news, blogs, articles, or play games whenever there is a lull in activity. My phone protects me not only from boredom, but also from strangers, from awkward conversations, and from being wrong about esoteric bits of trivia.
And then, after hearing Alan Jacobs’s lecture a month ago or so, I began keeping track of my life with an analog system instead. Things have worked out much better. Additionally, as laid out here, I restructured my reading, writing, and praying habits to better make use of my time and, incidentally, reduce dependence on my phone. But while the idea of ditching my smartphone for an ignorant phone has been on my radar for months now, it wasn’t until I read the article that Amanda had sent me (as detailed above) that I became convinced that I couldn’t just modify my use of the technology. The technology itself had to go.
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For all of Ellie’s life, I have watched her while also checking my phone to see if I have any Facebook notifications. I have deleted and reinstalled my social media apps gazillions of times. I have left my phone in the bedroom, determiend to have dedicated family time, only to find it in my hand again. But I now refuse to have a relationship with my family, cowworkers, friends, and strangers mediated by a screen. No more. The severity of harm to myself is important (and is enough to make my actions sinful; this is the very definition of Sloth, after all), but the bigger problem is the harm to the people around me. Of course, my smartphone is only so much glass, plastic, and metal and is, on its own, morally neutral. Some aspects are actually very helpful.
So, I asked myself what I actually found necessary about having a smartphone and concluded that there are four things: 1) Map/GPS, 2) Camera, 3) Podcasts for the car, and 4) Instant access to information. There are a number of ways to have the first three features (the fourth is a heart problem) without using a smartphone. I could buy a GPS for the car, I could buy an mp3 player on which to put podcasts, and I could make use of the relatively nice digital camera that I already own for pictures.
So, I’ve ordered an ignorant phone (it should arrive Monday) and I plan to use it for texting and calling. For now, unless my addiction reaches such ridiculous levels that even this is a problem, I plan to leave my smartphone in my car for use while driving. This way, I can still make listen to my podcasts and use the maps feature.
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The bad habits created by having my phone and using it like I did was shaped by my affections (I really did want the kind of instant access to information that helps me avoid boredom and the affirmation that comes from instantly being able to engage with others on a social media platform) but the habit also shaped my affections by normalizing them, by fulfilling them everyday. It is my prayer that by changing my habits, my affections (which have been influenced by the story I have foreseen of my kids harmed by a dad stuck in smartphone land) will be fully converted as I go back to a simpler, more present way of being with others.
This is a point on my journey toward sanctification; it is part of my acclimation to virtue. It is, I hope and pray, the source of much good and light and grace on my journey toward more fully living out the image of God on me.