We are a “screened” society. In our palms, on our laps, and on the walls of our homes, our local pubs, our classrooms, our churches–screens are now ubiquitous fixtures in our visual space.
And they have this attention-sucking power.
I was having a conversation back in the U.S. over lunch at a southern BBQ restaurant (posh culture at its highest). My friend and I were talking about the distracting power of screens. Yet throughout our interaction his eyes kept darting off to the upper right and finally he made the admission: while talking about the distracting power of screens, he kept looking at a TV in the corner of the restaurant.
“There is some ridiculous show on about the Alabama Duck Race but for some reason, my eyes are drawn to it!”
In this series of posts we are looking at the good and bad of a screened culture. Specifically, we are thinking about how screens can be oracles, portals, stages, and… well, “screens.”
Screens as Oracles
Before making the decision to move to Durham for a PhD in New Testament, I endured years of postgraduate angst over where to apply and over whether I would get accepted and over whether or not I would get funding. In the midst of it all, there were two moves and two job changes. On many days I would wake up and position myself before a screen, logging online to see if some fateful new news about a move or funding or a job or a doctoral programme had magically made itself into my Inbox during the night. I remember clicking on unopened emails, mystically pixelated in that alluring bold type, and awaiting the screen to display my future… would I get an admission offer? a scholarship? a job?
I also remember that there was a time when, in desperate moments of needing guidance for my future, my first impulse in the morning was not to consult the Internet via a screen.
It was to pray. It was to read Scripture.
Unknowingly, I was developing a new morning habit: rather than hitting my knees in prayer to listen for God’s voice I was clicking a mouse to get online to see if my future had been revealed by way of a new email.
In the ancient world, there was a name for a mystical medium through which news known only to the gods came to mortals. They called such a thing an “oracle.” If you were anxious about your love life, desperate for information about the future, or just plain frustrated and stuck, then you could go to the oracle and beseech some revelatory knowledge from the ethereal realm.
I think many of us treat screens as modern-day oracles, and the Internet is our ethereal realm.
When we open the screen and log online, we often do so for reasons beyond just having a leisurely trawl through recent articles or Facebook updates, beyond just checking email from our colleagues at work. Many of us log on because we are hungry for answers and thirsting for relationships. We are often frustrated, lonely, uncertain about the future… and one of the instincts is to power on the nearest device with a screen.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. But we should be aware that we often open screens with a number of existential crises at work within us. And maybe, just maybe, there times when we turn to the Internet via screens for which we should be turning to God or to his Scriptures first.
When my 7-yr old son was assigned a homework project to write about some inspirational person who has changed the lives of others, he chose Jesus. Quite pleased with his decision, I asked him, “What do you think is the best source to find out about Jesus?” To my shock, my daughter popped around the corner and blurted out, “Google! Google is the best place ever to find all the information you want.” Now, she did not realize we were talking about Jesus. But at 9-yrs old she has come to regard Google as the end-all be-all of anything we would ever need to know in life! Just open the screen….
And opening them we are, sometimes within minutes of opening our eyes for the day:
“Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed.” (Stephen Marche writing for The Atlantic)
Those stats are just for Facebook. How many more of us are screened for other purposes before we even let our feet hit the floor? And how often are we engaged, perhaps even unconsciously, in divining our future or sorting out our romantic hopes while we surf the Internet?
God can use screens, and he often does. But are we going before our screens the way Christians have normally approached spiritual disciplines? I have definitely experienced this in my own life. Anyone else out there?
Google will almost always deliver something when we use it for a search. But those of us who have searched for God hour by hour, year by year, know that he often does not deliver “information.” He seems quite uninterested in dispensing data about our futures or about our existential questions.
But he does supply wisdom. He does offer fellowship. And every morning, before our feet hit the floor—and our fingers the keypad—he is keen to keep our company….