When “they” (don’t you ever wonder who the “they” are?) were about to complete a telegraph line between Maine and Texas, the poignant and acerbic Henry David Thoreau was impolitic enough to ask, “What if it turns out that Maine and Texas have nothing to say to one another?” Turns out, of course, Thoreau was wrong—Maine and Texas want to sell stuff to one another, want to influence one another’s voting patterns, want to lure tourists from one another and so on. But the question is still worth asking. Do people in those two places have something worth
saying to one another—especially for us who think theologically? Something urgent enough to communicate, a reflection of the God so desperate to talk to us that he took flesh and died to preach a Word?
G.K. Chesterton, the great folk theologian and aphorist, asked a similar question in one of his last essays in 1930:
“When we consider what he (modern man) receives, it is indeed a most magnificent wonder and wealth and concentration of amusement. He can travel in a racing car almost as quick as a cannon-ball; and still have his car fitted up with wireless from all the ends of the earth. He can get Vienna and Moscow; he can hear Cairo and Warsaw . . . In a century, no doubt, his car will travel like a comet, and his wireless will hear the noises in the moon.”
As Chesterton marveled at the radio and imagined a future in space in 1930, he churned over similar things that worried Thoreau and the telegraph: are these all so many improved means to unimproved ends? In Chesterton’s words, “All this does not help him when the car stops; and he has to stand stamping about in a line, with nothing to think about.”
As insightful as Chesterton was, he did not foresee the smartphone. But think of how desperate it feels once you’ve run out of email and texts to check—what do I do now? Just stand here, in this line, thinking of nothing? Really?
This “really” is what Facebook was invented to solve—an endless stream of information from thousands of “friends,” so you never have to be bored again. The problem, of course, is that boredom—the distance between what you want and what you have—is the beginning of a space from which creativity comes. The smartphone and Facebook were created to make us uncreative. As Chesterton put it about our inability to wait well with 80-year old technology: “If you consider what comes out of [us], as a result of all this absorption, the result we have to record is rather serious. In the vast majority of cases, nothing. Not even conversation, as it used to be. [We] do not conduct long arguments, as young men did when I was young.”
Ellen Davis writes in Wondrous Depth
of an artist who teaches non-professional artists. Bad ones, if you will. She teaches them not so they will one day make or sell great art, but so they will learn to see
. Exactly how does the light play on this surface? Exactly what comes up when these two colors are mixed? What is the shade like on that person’s face? The point is an exercise in looking deeply, in noticing, in paying attention. Those who enter such an exercise, the instructor says, will learn “never to be bored again.” Not because they are distracted from their boredom but rather because they have trained their perception to notice the avalanche of Godly detail all around them at all times. That all begs to be depicted in art. It is the same when we read scripture—the cosmos of detail and wisdom on its pages demand our every ounce of attention.
But we wouldn’t notice that. We are too distracted. What’s my status update? Hmm, how can I make it wittier, more effortless, more awesome than it is now?
I’m inclined not to diatribe about new technology. It’s here to stay, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Even monasteries, designed for retreat from the world, use websites and social media. But the existence of digital technology means we have to work harder to cultivate an interior life that notices. We have to learn again how to converse, to argue, to talk
rather than to text. These are not new worries (similar quotes to Chesterton’s and Thoreau’s could have come from Plato). But the fact that the worries are not new doesn’t mean they’re not worries worth having. Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.