RESOURCES: Finding Focus in a Digital Culture—A Review of ‘Living into Focus’ (@Byers_Andy)

The Internet is still a very recent phenomenon and terms that seem so commonplace like “tweet,” “blog,” “podcast,” and “app” would have sounded exotic not many years ago.

The digital age is new.

And this is why we need guides. We need voices that will provide wisdom as we embark on untraveled lanes and unexplored paths. We need theology that keeps apace with our use of technology.

So here at BigBible we want to be identifying wise voices and helpful resources (websites, books, blog posts, institutes, etc). In this post, I am recommending Arthur Boers’ recent book Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions.

One of the most influential figures in my own writing and pastoral life is Eugene Peterson. He wrote the foreword to Living Into Focus, and here is how he introduces it:

“One of the disturbing features of contemporary culture—some think it qualifies as most disturbing—is the extent to which modern technology is impoverishing the way we live. Many voices have been raised in the last fifty years calling attention to the devastation being wreaked on our lives by our indiscriminate and undiscerning embrace of technology” (ix).

Now, this opening comment might raise immediate alarms for technology enthusiasts. Many readers would not describe technology as “impoverishing.”

But Peterson is not calling for the end of technology, and neither is Boers. Living Into Focus is not about retreating into less technological times (though a degree of nostalgia certainly lingers in the pages). It is about living faithfully amidst the pervasiveness of technology with a solid orientation towards that which matters most.

Boers looks to the wisdom of philosopher Albert Borgmann, clothing his intellectual ideas and observations in the soupy, messy realities of everyday life. Living Into Focus puts flesh to Borgmann’s call to focal things, focal places, and focal practices.

What are these?

“Focal has to do with being focused and centered on what is meaningful” (12). No matter how excited we may be over our newest gadgets, social media, and the latest apps, many of us admit to being distracted. We talk about the need to “unplug.” These sentiments express a concern for focus—we feel that our orientation has been blurred and we need to regain something that has become fuzzy or grey.

Some would argue that technological distractions are not necessarily bad. But Boers is trying to distract us from our distractions. Tapping into that sense that we should unplug or take a technology fast, he calls us to a greater sense of concentration on core values.

A focal thing is something that grasps our attention, holds it, and connects us to that which is meaningful and real. A table, for instance. Think about it: the kitchen table has tremendous focal power. When you sit around that table with others, your attention is engaged in face to face interaction with others. Over a meal, normal activities undergo a ritual ceasing to allow for the focal activity of eating with others. This eating connects us to the soil, to the natural processes of our world that give us grain, fruit, meat, and vegetables. And all this happens in the focal place of a dining room or kitchen, a setting of fellowship and lively interaction.

This focal living entails a conscious, ongoing process of refusing distractions and fixing our attention on meaningful things, places, and people. We might be tempted to call our time online a means of focal living with our screen as the focal thing, our interaction via social media the focal practice, and the virtual world of the Internet the focal place.

Not so for Boers. Even though this scenario involves a certain type of focus, Boers is encouraging us to break away from our constant engagement with technology. He is encouraging us to re-engage our senses with the local sphere, to concentrate on that which is actually right in front of us. These practices might include baking, quilting, bird-watching, hiking, or gardening. Such activities place dough and dirt under our nails, demand patience, and require the gradual development of cognitive, physical, and tactile skills.

Many enthusiasts of media technology may disagree with the value system Boers promotes. This is exactly why technology fans should read this book. Remember, Living Into Focus is not an anti-technology tirade. But it will certainly call us to reconsider our daily embrace with technology.

And that is good thing. Give it a read, and let us know what you think!

An interview with Arthur Boers is forthcoming, so keep on the lookout…

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About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).