NOTE: As a way of recommending resources for life in the digital age, I recently posted a review here at BigBible on Arthur Boers’ Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions. Make sure you check it out! And below is the 1st of a 3-part interview.
Thanks so much for joining us, Arthur, and thanks for writing this book—It was a very helpful read for me.
What motivated you to write the book? What is the personal narrative behind the pages?
Two stories capture my motivation for writing Living into Focus.
When I was still pastoring a small rural church in Ontario, the congregation went through a period of discernment and decided that one of the most important spiritual challenges they faced was busyness. People did not have time for what is most important – family, faith, prayer, volunteering, friendships, hospitality. So they asked the Elders for help. These Elders agreed that busyness is a huge spiritual challenge for us these days and promised to address these concerns. But then the Elders took over two years to offer any further response. They themselves were too busy! I saw then that busyness is a pastoral concern.
A few years later I walked an 800 kilometre pilgrimage route in Spain, the Camino de Santiago (a story I tell in my earlier book, The Way is Made by Walking). There I met pilgrims from around the world. Even though this is traditionally a Christian pilgrimage, most people I encountered did not call themselves “Christian” and were more likely to say that they were “spiritual but not religious.” Yet most of the conversations we had sounded like what I had heard from the congregants of the church I previously pastored. People were dissatisfied with how they spent their lives – on busyness and duties and responsibilities and distractions that did not address their most important priorities and needs. And then I saw that our busy way of life is also an evangelistic and missional concern.
What happens, if in the face of these needs Christians live no differently than anyone else? What do we know, let alone practice, of abundant life? Why should anyone listen to us? I believe Christians have the resources to address these concerns but worry that we are not drawing on those resources.
Which voices have most influenced your thinking on these issues?
My two most important mentors both happen to live in Montana.
Dr. Albert Borgmann has been teaching philosophy at the University of Montana for decades. He writes wisely and well on technology. In many ways I see my book as a pastoral appreciation and interpretation of his ideas. Most of what I say in this interview is directly inspired by his approach.
Eugene Peterson lives in a house first built by his father back in the 1930s. He more than anyone teaches me what it means to be a pastor and to be a person of prayer. In a world – including the church – where people adulate numbers, being big, and going (and growing) fast, Eugene helps us pay attention to God’s still small voice and counsels us to honour Sabbath and the good life God wants us to have and live.
You do not espouse an aversion toward technology or digital culture in Living Into Focus, even emphasizing how we need technology. Yet you do offer strong critiques. What do you see as the most prominent dangers posed to the church by the technology of our digital age?
I don’t talk about technology by itself. I emphasize how we are affected by how we use technology, the choices we make with our devices and gadgets.
The biggest concern about technology use is what it displaces. Introducing devices into the centre of our lives can drive out other priorities. In the 1980s, Borgmann pointed out that the centrality of a television set (often in a prominent place in our favourite room) meant that families experienced a decline in conversing together, going for walks, making music, entertaining company, playing games, etc.
Several weeks ago, a couple visited. She and my wife have been friends for over 40 years and she was our Maid of Honour. She came across some old letters written to her by my wife back in the 1980s. These are an account – a reflective journal – of our life 30 years ago. Now, of course, the practice and art of letter writing has disappeared, displaced by various other communications technologies. Seeing 30-year old emails will not have the same value.
I gave talks at a seminary in a small university town last year. The Baptist pastor there told me that until recently when you walked across the campus or through the town, everyone greeted you, whether you knew each other or not. Now so many people walk with their faces down and gazing at their gadget screens, greeting no longer happens. That’s a sad loss, another displacement.
Where I am concerned about technology use, I worry what we are being distracted from or worry whether we are displacing our most important values.
How might all these new gadgets and technologies be helpful for faithful living in our 21st century context?
You and I mediated our entire relationship via technology. I know a little about your family life and about your ministry and about your values because of the Internet. I am deeply grateful. I like what I know and would love to meet you face-to-face someday because face-to-face is still deeper, richer, and better.