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Find Wisdom to Live in a Digital Age

October 11th, 2023 | 4 min. read

By Patrick Miller


“Take a digital sabbath.”

“Make your screen grayscale.”

“Limit app usage.”

A steady stream of click-generating blogs promising to cure our ubiquitous addiction suggests most of us have already taken the first step on the road to recovery: admit you have a problem. Hello, my name is Patrick, and I treat my iPhone like a bodily appendage.

The problem is that these prescriptions—many of which I’ve used—treat our digital dopamine dependency as primarily a time trap. We seem to think that if we reclaim the time we’ve lost to our devices, we’ll neutralize their effect on our lives. This is true. Give less attention to Instagram and more attention to your daughter, and you’ll net one meaningful relationship at the cost of a few likes.

But this isn’t the whole truth, because Instagram shapes more than your calendar. Instagram shapes your soul.

Samuel James is a tech realist and an associate acquisitions editor for Crossway. In Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age, he argues that the internet isn’t merely a time suck; it’s a soul suck. It’s a malformation machine, designed to liturgically habituate us to an epistemological environment that rewires how we think, relate, and respond to the IRL world. Our daily digital habits develop within us an interweb wisdom that is no wisdom at all.

The downside of James’s approach is that it doesn’t make for a great “Top 7 Ways to Kick Your Phone Addiction” blog post. The upside is that we don’t need more tips, tricks, hacks, or hints. We need a substantive, perceptive analysis of how the internet is training Christians to live as citizens in a digital Babylon whose values, loves, character, and actions are antithetical to the way of the kingdom.

This is precisely what James gives us in his perceptive (and blessedly short) book. 



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Self-Expressive Machines

By the end of the last century, self-expressive individualism conquered American culture. It became the factory default for our movies and music, for how we think about ourselves and make decisions, educate our children, and much more.

We train our children to find who they are by looking inside. Self-help gurus advise adults to trust their emotions, intuitions, and desires as faithful guides to self-discovery. Happiness is thus achieved by aligning your external lifestyle and actions with your internal sense of self.

James points out that a concurrent revolution was underway at the end of the century, culminating in the most self-expressive medium ever invented: the social internet. At first, that might seem counterintuitive.

How does a technology designed to connect people in an external web of digital relationships reinforce self-obsessed individualism?

The answer is self-expression. Your Instagram account is not you. It’s a hand-crafted version of you. It’s a place where you can freely broadcast a vision of yourself that aligns with your inner self-understanding. The app then gives this make-believe, self-made digital self access to others. They can like and comment on your digital self-expression, which is to say, an authentic expression of the inner you. The digital community affirms and reifies your digital self-expression.

This kind of digital “authenticity” is James’s first digital liturgy (life-shaping practice). Canonical social media marketing manuals agree. They unironically commend “being authentic” online. Of course, this is impossible. But it’s also the only possible goal for highly individualistic digital natives broadcasting their supposed inner lives to the world.

Habituating Vice

At the heart of digital authenticity is emotional expression. James focuses on internet shaming and outrage. His key insight isn’t that the social internet makes us angry—we all now know Facebook was algorithmically engineered to foment outrage. Instead, James shows that the social internet habituates behavior. It trains us to inhabit the world as wrathful people who emote first and think second, thereby reinforcing and providing a platform for self-expression.

Taken together, our quotidian digital habits aren’t neutral. You may not be outraged. You may not be faking authenticity. You may not be online shaming, shopping, or dawdling. But James shows you are nonetheless immersed in an environment designed to inculcate a way of being in the world. You can reduce your online time tremendously without ever unwinding and resisting its deeper influences on your life.

To do that, you need to see how the internet shapes you, and you need to receive the countervailing wisdom of God’s Spirit, reified by a set of kingdom practices, habits, and virtues that invert those of the digital Babylon.

God’s grace is the only power strong enough to counteract a system designed to pull your life out of shape, not by force but by the gentle pull of disastrous desires.

Shallow Solutions Won’t Do

Unfortunately, those who most need James’s careful analysis of the internet’s malformative power are the least likely to pick up his book. Reading Digital Liturgies will be a painful experience for anyone who’s highly online, especially if he or she has embraced the social internet’s ethos.

Some will accuse James of defending the status quo, correctly pointing out that the democratizing power of the internet has given voice to the voiceless. Others will demur at his critiques of outrage, suggesting that righteous anger (which is of course the sort of anger such critics claim to practice) is the only way to turn the tide of injustice inside and outside the church, whether it’s resisting the influence of trans activists or white Christian patriarchs.

But such critiques miss James’s thesis by a mile: the internet has fundamentally changed us. It justifies the pursuit of justice by unjust means, transfiguring meaningful public debates into performative platforms for self-expressive individuals. The shockwaves currently fracturing evangelicalism online originate, in many cases, from the medium within which those fractures are expressed.

We’ve neglected the importance of attention, patience, and thoughtfulness, because the primary vehicle of contemporary speech is distracted, hurried, and emotive. And this is precisely why thoughtful Christians and ministry leaders must attend to Digital Liturgies. Shallow solutions to our digital addictions, however helpful they may be, do too little to confront the deep habits scaffolded by online life.

To resist, we must make our churches into epistemological environments deeply committed to the ancient biblical wisdom tradition, with its slow-burning commitment to listening, understanding, civility, careful speech, and enemy love.

James’s deft, erudite drawing together of thinkers like James K. A. Smith, Carl Trueman, and Nicholas Carr pulls back the veil on the digital whore of Babylon, inculcating a longing for a truer, better city—a social order where truth, faith, hope, and love characterize our life together more than meaninglessness, distrust, cynicism, and anger.

NOTE: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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