The idolatrous discarnation of social media

I learned a new word today courtesy of Tim Challies who wrote some advice for pastors on using Facebook. He commented that there is a risk of becoming discarnate by substituting an online presence for real in-the-flesh (incarnate) interactions with people. His use of the word ‘disincarnate’ immediately caused me to think of Christ as God incarnate (as I suspect was Tim’s intention) and now the Church as the body of Christ in the world, in contrast to the strange ethereal melting pot of ideas and outbursts that is the internet and social media.

We now even even speak of having an online or virtual presence, in effect creating (or re-creating) ourselves in our own image. The innate sinful human nature so exchanges the glory of God incarnate in Christ for a cheap lie (Romans 1:21-23) that the literal images we use in social media to represent our presence are perversely called ‘avatars‘ (the manifestation of a Hindu deity).

The more I ponder this, the more abhorrent our self-idolatry and discarnation of true relationships appears to my Christian mind. God became flesh and dwelt amoung us (John 1:14), the final commission from Jesus was to (physically) “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). As Christians we are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) and while we are in the flesh we are to labour for the progress and joy of other believers (Philippians 1:24-25).

Both the first and second commandments of the decalogue (Exodus 20:3-4) stand opposed to the sort of virtual persona that is commonly used in social media and other realms of the internet. God delights to see truth in our inner being (Psalm 51:6) and out of such truthfulness we must not project a false image of ourselves into cyberspace.

Beyond that, we also need to humble ourselves in acknowledgment that it is only God who is omnipresent, only he can promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:20), we are finite – limited be both time and space. The nature of such limitations imposed by God should alert us to the importance of our physical lives and face-to-face relationships.

100 iPod-free days completed

100-ipod-free-days-completed

I have now gone for 100 days without using my iPod. Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Maybe. Am I going to use my iPod tomorrow? Yes!

So, what was the point of this exercise? I was finding myself easily distracted and noticed that rather than thinking deeply about anything I was tending to just plug in earbuds and let someone else’s preaching, teaching, musings or music lead me where they wanted to go. I chose a 100-day period because I really wanted to allow enough time for a change to occur and had read somewhere that changing a habit takes about 90 days (and since I like round numbers I made it 100).

This time span seems to have been appropriate. It took well over 50 days to unhook my brain from expecting to plug in an listen to someone else’s ideas rather than thinking for itself. What has also happened, which was worth the wait, is that my mind and heart are finding and valuing peace and silence again. This seems a little ironic because one of the reasons I like using an iPod is for the way I can isolate myself in a little bubble of sound, despite the traffic noises, advertising and inane chatter which characterizes public spaces. Now I am able to ‘zone-out’ that stuff without the electronic crutch.

Why then do I want to use my iPod tomorrow? One reason is the (virtual) stack of audiobooks I’d like to listen to. I’ve also discovered that certain parts of my day, such as waiting for the bus each morning, are pretty much useless for thinking or praying — my mind just won’t focus no matter how much I’d like it to. For these times the ability to select what my limited attention span will drift along to is a valuable spin-off from modern electronic gadgets.

Would I do this exercise again? If it seemed that I had again become a slave of a gadget, yes.

75 iPod-free days

It is now 75 days since I committed myself to going iPod-free for 100 days. During that time I have only listened to a smattering of music and three sermons from my iPod, all while it was plugged into the speakers in our kitchen (which was permissible under my plan). What have I learned from this experience so far?

  • The iPod itself is neither good or bad, it is what and how I choose to listen to it that can be good or bad.
  • My thoughts can be just as distracted without any audio input! I need to limit all sources of trivial input into my life.
  • I actually need a lot more ‘down’ time than I thought.
  • I am reading and then thinking about what I have read. My thinking is going deeper than it had previously been.

It has taken a while, but my thought habits have changed, I am now able to recall what I was musing over yesterday while waiting at the bus stop and pick it up to continue chewing over. I consider this somewhat bovine habit to be beneficial as I think, pray and occasionally write about where I am at with God (2 Timothy 2:7).

Interestingly, two weeks ago I couldn’t wait for this experiment to be over, now I am not sure if I will bother carting an iPod around with me even once my 100 days are done!

75-ipod-free-daysAs I considered the changes in my thinking I have realized how good it is to have ‘down’ time when my brain can just chill-out and not have to think about anything in particular, I can just let my thoughts wander. Coincidentally, I came across this blog post discussing why Being bored is a precious thing and was gratified that someone else shares my viewpoint (and a clever person at that!).

Maybe it is partly because my work requires me to be thinking and concentrating all day, but whatever the reason, I seem to need a lot of time to let my mind unwind before I can really re-focus upon God and living my faith. I do think about God and Christian stuff a lot, but generally on a fairly superficial, factual/informational level. I think it is important to go deeper, to wrestle with where I am at with God and what needs to be addressed in me. I want to know Christ, to get there I need to get real about whether I am obeying his call of ‘follow me’ (John 21:22). This requires quietness of heart so that I can notice as the Word of God addresses me. That might take five hours hauling firewood to get quiet enough internally to see what Christ is showing me.

I’m not talking about quiet time here — noise is fine, talking to the kids is fine, what is needed is freedom from having to concentrate on anything in particular, or needing to solve problems, or having my thoughts dragged off in a particular direction by whatever I happen to be listening to. Even if I am listening to sermons on my iPod for that time I miss what God is saying to me about me and Him. I might hear lots of other good stuff, yet miss what’s most important.

Distractions

Why am I more likely to be thinking about a computer game while waiting for the bus than to be mulling over this week’s memory verse or praying for persecuted Christians in Somalia?

I am interested in how to constrain my mental and emotional focus so that I ponder Christ and am captivated by Him rather than the useless shiny glittering junk of my everyday world. I suspect that this is an issue for many Christians, I know that it is a multi-million dollar industry in the business world as the popularity of books such as Getting Things Done by David Allen attests. The tendency to get distracted is common to all and seems to be becoming worse as technology delivers ever more of the world to our gadgets. It has been shown that multitasking is a myth, all we really do is switch quickly between tasks and this actually reduces concentration rather than making us more creative, efficient or clever.

Clearly a wise solution to distractions is to reduce the number and frequency of them. I also find that some distractions are more distracting than others — people talking loudly is more distracting than music playing, phones ringing are worse than traffic noises, emotional turmoil is harder to ignore than a cluttered desk. It is this last contrast which gets me closer to my concern about maintaining my focus on Christ, how to get my emotions more engaged with the glory of God?

The things that take my attention are those with the strongest emotional pull. They don’t have to be good emotions — anxiety, stress and pain are not pleasant but they certainly hold my attention! However, emotions are slippery things, very difficult to control or manipulate at will. So is there any hope of taming my distracted heart?

I think there is. It involves that awful ‘D’ word… discipline! I have to discipline myself to place my attention upon what is edifying for my soul, I have to monitor the ‘inputs‘ into my life and turn off those that are pulling me away from Christ and maybe even find some more that will turn my thoughts towards Him. Most of all though, I need to think deeply about Christ. This needn’t be a dry academic exercise — if so there is not much hope for me! The intention is to move beyond superficial thoughts of ‘Jesus meek and mild’ and ponder the meaning of who He is, who I am in relation to Him, and how I can relate to Him. As I grow in my understanding of Jesus Christ my emotions are moved in solid and positive ways. I join the quest that motivated the Apostle Paul:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11 ESV)

My worst nightmare

bejeweled

A guest post by Richard Nyhof.

Day by day, minute by minute I make choices. Some of eternal moment and some inconsequential, I suspect. But here’s the question – which is which? Not as easy to tell as I first suspected. Let me explain.

Most of the choices I make are to do with what I’ll do with the time at hand. Will I get that assignment started or will I play one more game? Will I mow the lawn or have a cup of tea. Sometimes they are choices around temptation – but then aren’t those two previous examples just that? Nothing wrong with games, or cups of tea for that matter! Sometimes, however they stop me doing what I really ought to be doing – the thing that my conscience directs me toward. And if I believe that the Holy Spirit indwells me and speaks through my conscience then I have to say “the thing that Jesus directs me toward”. So, you see, I find myself again and again saying to Jesus “just hang on while I do this other thing…”

Recently I had an opportunity to deeply ponder (well more deeply than previously!) the interaction between the rich young ruler and Jesus – the account is in Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23. The man asks the ultimate question “What must I do to gain eternal life?” After some conversation Jesus gives him the answer, “Give up your wealth and follow me”. A clear choice! On the one hand Jesus and eternal life, on the other wealth and eventual death. The young man was unable to choose Jesus. The place he had come to in life, the previous choices made, meant he was unable to give up the wealth. And… he went away sad. No wonder he was sad, he was choosing death – and he knew it. But he had no capacity to choose otherwise.

So here’s my nightmare. I’ve died (that’s not the bad part!) and get to face up to Jesus. As he is about to welcome me I’m given the opportunity of one last game of Bejeweled. I know full well the choice is ultimate, but because of all the times I’ve made the choice in life I have no capacity to choose differently in judgement. I choose the game, and am condemned to an eternity of shuffling pixels around an increasingly meaningless screen while the Lord of Life loses all significance in my existence.

Worthless pursuits

worthless-pursuits

I’ve been thinking about ‘internet idolatry’ lately and Proverbs 28:19 speaks well to this:

Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread,
but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
(Proverbs 28:19)

Obviously I do not consider all internet use to be a worthless pursuit or this blog would not exist! What is wasting time for me could be part of your job. The mass of information out there is not the problem, the real issue is how we interact with all that internet content. Most of us know only too well the ways in which our use of the internet can amount to a complete waste of time.

So, is your use of the internet using up time that you should be using for other things? This could be more productive use of study time, or at school, or at work or even your personal time. I would also expand the ‘productive use of time’ to include the work of walking faithfully in Christ. The ‘plenty of poverty‘ of Proverbs 28:19 does not only mean a lack of money. Mark 8:36-37 and Revelation 3:17 show that we can have lots of stuff yet have an impoverished soul and a tenuous relationship with Christ.

It is easy enough to stay off YouTube and Facebook at work when your paycheck depends upon it. What about at home when it would be better for your soul to be reading your Bible or (heaven forbid!) praying? Or the time I spend catching up on blog feeds and email when my wife and children would like to relate to me rather than the lid of my laptop?

We reap what we sow. If we follow worthless pursuits we will reap rottenness. If we work on the health of our souls in Christ we will reap eternal life.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8 ESV)

Are there any worthless pursuits (internet-based or otherwise) in your life that you should replace with something of more lasting benefit?

100 iPod free days

I made a resolution yesterday. I was considering how I use my iPod to fill in odd snippets of time such as waiting for the bus, walking the dogs or doing odd jobs around home, and realized how little time I leave without external input into my thoughts. So I have resolved to go without my iPod for 100 days. I will not carry it with me during this time and will only use it docked to the speakers in our kitchen. This should free my mind to think, pray, memorize and meditate.

This resolution is not because I think iPods/personal MP3 players are bad, I actually think they can be an excellent tool in fighting for faith by choosing listening material which will build you up. I was greatly helped by listening to John Piper’s sermon series on the book of Romans while walking to and from work over the space of a year. However, lately I have been perceiving a distractability and lack of depth to my own thought processes so am looking for constructive ways to address this.

I have chosen 100 days because it is a nice round number, it is long enough to get beyond the ‘novelty factor’ and is hopefully long enough to develop a change in my thinking habits. I am confident that God will fill this time with growth, what I most need is the discipline to focus my mind and heart upon Christ.

Forced to think by lack of a little rubber thingy

earbuds
I took the dogs for a walk this afternoon, anticipating listening to my iPod while puffing up Signal Hill. However, when I pulled said device from my pocket it was missing one of the little rubber things that make the ‘in-ear’ earbuds fit properly so I could not listen to my music or a podcast.

It seemed a bit pathetic for such minor defect could make a high tech gadget practically useless to me at that moment, but there was not much for it but to walk on with my own thoughts as company rather than those of somebody else being broadcast into my head. So I got some thinking time:

  • I thought about how technology lets us down, like the broken reed that Egypt was to Israel (2 Kings 18:21).
  • I listened to scrunching gravel under my feet.
  • I thought about an update released yesterday for a computer game I like, and about how many hours I have already wasted on that game.
  • I listened to the panting of my dog as he chased the pine cone I was kicking for him.
  • I thought about the book I recently read which claims to show signs that the end of the world is near.
  • I heard the cacophony of thoughts in my head.
  • I thought about friends and thanked God for them.
  • I listened to the faint background of dissatisfaction in my heart.
  • I thought about technology as a tool and realized how absurd it is to let the tool constrain the creativity of its user.
  • I listened to light rain falling on me (and my notebook).
  • I thought about how reliant I have become upon having the words of others spoken to me at the touch of a click wheel.
  • I listened to the wind blowing in the trees (see John 3:8).
  • My heart reveled in its freedom to think it’s own thoughts. I even prayed. I thanked God for taking away my crutch and making me talk to Him.

After all this I made a resolution, which I will tell you about tomorrow!

Prayerlessness and social media

One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.
John Piper 2:02 PM Oct 20th, 2009

My response to this was “ouch!”, it hits me on a sensitive spot – not only how I interact with social media, but the internet and computers in general. It also reminds me of another penetrating comment from John Piper:

We are made to know Christ; we are not made to do little diddly things.

Headspace

I once had a job in which I was interrupted every 6 minutes on average. That is no longer an issue in my work, but curiously it seems that I have an habitual tendency to seek a change of focus roughly every 6 minutes or so.

What I have noticed is that as the external distractions are removed, internal ones take their place – I distract myself. External distractions stress and frustrate me when I am trying to get something done, but without them I allow myself to stray off task remarkably easily anyway. There is a relentless hum of unproductive activity in my heart which pulls me away from what’s most important.

Lately I have been increasingly going ‘unplugged’, especially from my iPod. It has been my practice to listen to sermons and audiobooks on the bus to and from work each day, which has been very helpful to me in deepening my faith. Yet even good spiritual food can become a substitute for actively cultivating a Godward heart. I do not need constant input, the information coming into my mind also needs to be considered and understood, compared with scripture and prayed into my life.

A very helpful tool helping me direct my heart Godward is memorizing Bible verses. I’m not very good at it, but the concentration required for me to memorize a Bible verse certainly pushes other internal distractions out, and the goal of memorizing provides focus to bring me back to my task when my thoughts do wander off into Lala land.

Psalm 131 is a fantastic guide:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

A humble heart, a focus on what God has revealed for us to know, determined effort to quieten my soul and hope firmly placed in God.

Now to consistently remember to do it!