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Tim Challies Christian Blog and Commentary

Don't Take Your iPod to Church (Part 1.5)

  • Tim Challies
    Tim Challies
    Tim Challies, a self-employed web designer, is a pioneer in the Christian blogosphere, having one of the most widely read and recognized Christian blogs anywhere (www.challies.com). He is also editor of Discerning Reader (www.discerningreader.com), a site dedicated to offering thoughtful reviews of books that are of interest to Christians. He is author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, published by Crossway.
  • 2009 Jun 18
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Last Friday I encouraged you not to take your iPod to church. Not surprisingly, this generated a bit of discussion both at the blog and across some other social media (Twitter, Facebook, and so on). It’s a good discussion to have, I think. I realize that I am probably overstating my case just a little bit, but this is deliberate. I want to get people thinking about this issue. I offer special thanks to people who offered such incisive, head-in-the-sand feedback as this: “Maybe @challies should worry about people who don’t bring any type of Bible to church instead of chiding technology” or “Why don’t we just go back to scrolls and the original languages, while we’re at it?” I guess it’s not worth responding to some comments.

I was quite far into a second article when I went found myself on a rather lengthy rabbit trail, writing about our love of information. Today we have unparalleled access to vast quantities of information to the point that we are nearly drowning in it. Yet we hoard it almost compulsively. So let’s call today’s article Don’t Take Your iPod to Church! (Part 1.5). It is a bit of an aside, but an important and relevant one, I think. We’ll start it this way…

I know a lot about my wife. I know what she likes to wear around the house, what she likes to wear to church and what she likes to wear when we go out for dinner. I know what she likes to eat and what she hates to eat. I know what books she likes to read, what movies she likes to watch, what web sites she likes to browse. I have all of this accumulated knowledge about my wife. But I think I could have this same level of knowledge about whoever the latest Hollywood heartthrob happens to be. This is exactly the kind of knowledge that you might find in those newspapers and magazines that clutter the checkouts at the grocery stores and it is the kind of knowledge that I might find on the hundreds of gossip blogs that pollute the internet.

I also have knowledge of my wife, knowledge that goes far beyond the facts of preferences, likes, dislikes, hobbies. I have an intense and intimate knowledge of my wife—a kind of knowledge shared by no one else in the world. She and I enjoy intimacy that transcends mere bits of information.

A trend we see today through today’s digital technology is the exaltation of this kind of knowledge, cold facts, at the expense of more intimate knowledge. This is true, I’m convinced, when we take our iPods to church. Quentin Schultze says that we have become like tourists who are so enamored by our mode of transportation that we cruise through nation after nation largely indifferent to the people and the cultures around us. We have our passports filled with the little stamps telling people just how many places we’ve been, but what is the purpose of being in places if we have not experienced them? And what is the purpose of knowing people if we do not care to know them on anything more than a surface level? The trend today is toward these fleeting, surface-level interactions.

We see this in a technology like Facebook. It is why I may have 1600 Facebook friends but no real face-to-face friends. It is why Facebook measures friendships in quantity, not in quality. And this, I think, is why so many of us love Facebook. It is a conduit for seemingly endless knowledge of the facts of the lives of our friends and families. We can log on to Facebook and at any time access a myriad of facts about our friends: what they are doing at that moment and what they have done update-by-update since they first joined; we can see who their friends are, what movies they enjoy, what books they read (or don’t read), what blogs they like, where they were born, what networks and groups they belong to, and on and on. We learn all these facts about them, even if we do not know them. These facts bring us no closer to knowledge of them—of who they really are. We have hundreds of people flitting around on the edges of our lives, but perhaps fewer than ever with whom are intimately involved. After a while we find real friendship too much, too terrifying, too intimate. Instead we reveal private details to all who will listen, almost as if those private details need to be known by someone.

But the wise observer might ask, if I have 1600 friends, why am I so lonely? Shouldn’t at least one of those 1600 friends be available when I need help painting my living room?

This trend manifests itself in other ways. We are increasingly moving knowledge to the cloud and relying on knowledge that exists in the cloud. The cloud, of course, is that sum of knowledge, or is it information?, that exists “out there.” When you just need to know what is in that bottle of pills you left in the closet and type its name into Google, you are accessing the cloud. It is convenient, to be sure. But it is encouraging us to emphasize the skill of accessing in favor of the skills of knowing and understanding. Hence we are becoming people who have little knowledge in our minds but great knowledge available with a few taps of our thumbs. And then we might ask, if we have little knowledge in our minds, how much can we have in our hearts? What use is memorizing Scripture if we can access our favorite translation faster than we begin to recite it. Why expend effort in getting the Bible into our hearts and minds if we already have it in our pockets?

The trend thus causes us to care more about accessing information that will make our lives immediately easier, that will fix our little problems, than the morality of what we do with that information. The information we access thus has no moral purpose, but instead a purely practical purpose. I need to know what the lyric is for this song, but I am not concerned about the fact that I have downloaded it illegally. This technology allows us to manipulate the world so we can get what we want and when we want it. Students increasingly see study as a means to getting good grades and making parents and teachers happy, but not as a means of acquiring knowledge that will impact their lives and benefit society. So we download essays from the internet, caring nothing of the morality of doing so or of the missed opportunity to actually know something. Says Quentin Schulze, “To know is to leverage information to accomplish instrumental goals.” (Schultze 33) Heart knowledge is downplayed in favor of using information to get what we want, now. What happens when we regard our friends in such ways? Our spouses? Our God?

Today’s digital technology is unparalleled in history as a means of communicating with others and as a means of sharing information. For this we ought to be grateful. Yet at the same time it may just be changing how we understand, perceive and gather information. We must exercise great caution that we do not lose knowledge of with our newfound ability to find knowledge about. I don’t think I even need to tell you how today’s generation differs in regard to past generations when it comes to their level of knowledge of history, language, Scipture and just about everything else. We may know how to do more, but we do not necessarily know more.

In a future article (part 2.0) I’ll return more pointedly to issues regarding digital technology and Scripture.