Here’s one of our features from the Technology Issue, David Zahl’s state of the digital union from the particular vantage point of this website. To order this issue, either in electronic version or print, click here.

Copyright Gabriela Herman

Copyright Gabriela Herman

The guy knew enough not to argue. He had clearly seen my kind before. The kind who approached the counter with purpose, maybe a little on edge, determined to say their piece before they lost their nerve, not unlike a high school kid asking out a prom date. Which was pretty much how I felt—determined yet slightly out of body, desperate to “get through with it,” and leaning heavily on Def Leppard to drown out any second thoughts.

My new friend across the counter did not demure, thank God. He simply nodded, took my iPhone into custody, made a couple of entries in his computer, and issued me a brand-new flip phone. Just like we were back in 2004. Trigger pulled, I took a breath and asked how many other similar models he had sold this month. “More than you’d think,” he replied. It wasn’t quite the pat on the back I had hoped for.

The reasons for the downgrade were myriad. A bit more mental space was the polite explanation. Less static on the line, as they say. The honest truth was, I simply didn’t have the self-restraint not to check the thing at every stoplight and in every waiting room and during every trip to the bathroom. Even watching television had become a “two-screen experience.”

Phone calls and text messages weren’t the problem. I couldn’t handle having the Internet in my pocket. Like many of my peers, I had come to rely on the distraction it provided. Distraction from what exactly was unclear, but it had something to do with boredom and what that might represent, emotionally and identity-wise.

Theories aside, I was chained to the thing and it was driving me nuts. What sealed the deal was when my four year-old drew pictures of everyone in the family and took extra care to place a phone in my hand. That didn’t feel good. No sir-ee.

Anyway, I had informed my wife about the decision months earlier. Even though she’d long been gingerly advocating for such a move, she chuckled and said she’d believe it when she saw it. Weeks came and went, and reasons to delay kept presenting themselves. What would I do for directions? If I wanted to take a picture? I needed a good camera—you know, for the kids. Oh and what if the Mockingbird site crashed? Better to wait until summer, when traffic subsides.

It was not hard to find rationalizations. The only legitimate hesitation, as far as I could tell, was the question of how I would negotiate the automatic smugness that flip phones radiate. Every time a friend or colleague had pulled one out in recent months, whether or not they drew attention to it, everyone in the vicinity fell over themselves to offer excuses about their own smartphone usage or make awkward jokes about being addicted to social media.

It doesn’t take a social scientist to conclude that distraction has become a major source of contemporary guilt, especially for young parents who are told incessantly about the value of paying nonstop attention to their children. In such a context, a flip phone condemns, pure and simple—and no one wants to be a lightning rod of judgment, especially not when you’ve publicly committed yourself to a message of grace.

Which isn’t to say that plenty of my peers didn’t/don’t have healthy—or healthier—relationships with their devices. They did and they do. We all know people for whom a smartphone screen is a resource rather than an escape, a tool rather than a shield. I envied these people. I envied their freedom. And I suppose you get to a point where you envy that freedom more than you care about whatever perceived judgments a personal choice might engender. You cannot stomach writing one more article about the ways technology has supercharged our obsession with self-determination (and the resulting exhaustion and anxiety and loneliness) without addressing the issue personally. The way I saw it, the flip phone was an admission of weakness, not a display of strength.

Then again, maybe I just felt like trying something new. Or old, as the case may be. Time to amputate the phantom limb and see what happens.

* * *

Alas, I doubt we need any more writers sounding alarms about the techno-pocalypse from the safety of a keyboard—as though our present-day challenges are so utterly unique and outsized and dramatic, and we are placed at the center of history.[1] Case in point: in the early 1890s, French impressionist painter Auguste Renoir overheard two of his colleagues, Edgar Degas and Jean-Louis Forain, talking about the technological miracle that had recently set Paris abuzz—the telephone. Forain was apparently quite proud of being one of the first people in the city to own one.

Degas: “Does it work well?”

Forain: “Very well. You turn a little handle, and a bell rings at the other end of the wire in the apartment of the person you are calling. When he unhooks the earphone you talk just as easily as if you were in the same room.”

After reflecting a moment, Degas asked: “And does it work just as well the other way around? The other person can also turn a little handle and ring you up?”

“Of course,” replied Forain, beaming.

“And when the bell rings, you get up and answer it?”

“Why, yes. Certainly.”

“Just like a servant,” concluded Degas.[2]

The anecdote strikes more of a chord today than it did back then. At least, it does for those of us who grew up without the internet.

Personal computers were still a novelty during my childhood; to the extent that they were a factor, it was big floppy discs and Oregon Trail and all that. I remember when those exotic, hulking monitors gradually started to appear in my friends’ houses. They were heavier than bowling balls and very lopsided.

I think we got our first PC when I was in middle school, mainly so that we could type our school papers and print them out on a dot matrix. Word processing was a godsend for kids like me, who had terrible penmanship. (When handwritten essays finally went the way of the dodo around seventh grade, it was a serious relief). A few years later, while we were visiting my grandparents one summer, my grandfather gave me my first online experience—via the dial-up service, Prodigy. The line dropped the connection after a couple minutes, but not before I was able to look up some comic book prices. Thrilling stuff.

The changes came pretty quickly after that. My class in high school was first assigned email addresses when we were sophomores. We had to go to a special ‘lab’ to check our account, a hassle but also kind of cool. By the time I entered college, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t have a laptop and a modem (sold separately). Soon Napster had filled all our hard drives with free music. AOL Instant Messenger had become a favored procrastination device. Technologically speaking, we graduated into a world that was unrecognizable from the one that had sent us there.

The acceleration hasn’t slowed since. It has increased so quickly, in fact, that we’ve barely had time to reflect on the surreality of it all. This thing that dominates so many of our waking hours—the internet—did not exist until quite recently. No one in my grade school dreamt of becoming the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, let alone Arianna Huffington, for the simple fact that their professions had yet to be invented. It’s a funny feeling, when what you do for a living is something you couldn’t have explained to your ten-year-old self.

Obviously every generation has its own history with technology, and each feels epochal. What seems unique about mine—AKA grunge-era adolescents—is the sheer distance we traveled during our most formative years. Those younger than us are digital natives; they were born with computers and cell phones.[3] Those older than us are digital immigrants. They had established careers before the revolution hit. For them, the internet was an innovation to harness, rather than something fundamental. We were the first for whom the online world was not a luxury or curiosity but an unquestioned reality. I suppose we were the guinea pigs. Or the first responders, depending on your point of view.

* * *

Back to Degas. If he was skeptical of the power that telephones could exert over ‘early adapters,’ what a field day he would have had with the internet! Has there ever been a technology more capable of indenturing those it claims to serve? You don’t have to be parent of a teenager to observe its sway. Just watch the collective fumbling for phones after a plane lands. Note the panic in your voice when water spills on, or anywhere near, your laptop. It goes beyond practical concerns.

I speak not as someone who dislikes or avoids the web, but as someone who has spent the last eight years tethered to it. The Mockingbird website was born in late 2007, which means it just entered its ninth year of existence. In internet terms, that places us somewhere in late middle age. Not a dinosaur by any stretch, but we’ve been around long enough to have seen plenty of other websites come and go. Long enough to have watched a few trends pass. Long enough to have pushed and pulled with the medium and developed some sense of the costs and benefits.

Yet you don’t need to be a ‘techie’ to recognize the prophetic heft of Degas’ witticism. Anyone who has interrupted a lunch conversation to check a text message knows what he meant. After hearing that little “ding,” we all-too-often come running, hoping perhaps for a little hit of affirmation or excitement or direction.

Indeed, the conversation about the internet can no longer be restricted to gadgeteers and specialists. It is too far-reaching and too important, especially during this Wild West stage when no one really knows what it can or should do. What’s increasingly clear is that, old or young, male or female, black or white, religious or not, the internet is no longer an escape from the everyday, so much as an increasingly large part of it. Thus any account of modern life—spiritual or otherwise—that ignores our relationship to technology will fall flat.

Of course, writing about the internet is a notoriously dicey undertaking. It’s dicey first of all because of its fluidity. What’s true today may not be true tomorrow. Yet that’s only part of it. Go on record with too much disparagement and you risk the accusation of ‘Luddite,’ which is code for old-fashioned, irrelevant, dying, etc. To be a Luddite is to be willfully retrograde, and in a culture that values the New, the Now, and the Next, there are few more shameful labels.[4]

Perhaps that’s an overstatement. But it often seems that nowhere is the web’s power of reduction—the Twitterization of discourse—more potent than when it comes to defending the web itself. It’s pretty ingenious, like a built-in self-protecting mechanism. After all, the very act of criticizing the internet is almost always made possible by the internet.

* * *

Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way: technology itself is impersonal as well as amoral. It is not inherently good or evil; it simply unfurls—and we adapt to it, not the other way around. The values we attach have to do with how it is used.

Moreover, the internet has too many upsides to count. I’m thinking of parents video-chatting with toddlers when they’re away from home. Microphilanthropy getting resources to people in need. The democratization of educational and creative opportunities—museums and libraries and cinemas that are just a click away. Legitimate conveniences that exist where they didn’t before. One suspects that those who pine for the days of booking air travel over the phone or waiting in line at the bank to check their balance would pine for anything. God bless their muzak-loving hearts.

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Personally, I think of the long-distance relationship my wife and I had while we were dating, the jokes that only work over text. I think about the amount of great music I’ve discovered online, the wonderful sermons I’ve been able to listen to, the many incredible voices I’ve read and discussions I’ve been privy to. I think of the message boards that kept track of a relative’s progress during chemotherapy.

More concretely, the magazine you are holding right now would not exist were it not for the technology that makes it possible for three people to do what used to take twenty—to say nothing of the many heartfelt emails we receive from people who have stumbled upon the Mockingbird website over the years and found the message of God’s grace they discovered there to be nothing less than life-saving.

You get the idea. The benefits of internet technology—the Good it makes possible—are obvious. What’s more interesting, and relevant to this essay, are the liabilities involved, both spiritual and mental health-wise. These, we are only beginning to understand.

* * *

In the handful of months that this article has been in the works, I’ve watched as no less than three of my favorite bloggers, or internet personalities, have retired from the medium. Each had their own reasons, but they all echoed Degas’ prognostication—something about the online world had ensnared them in a way that was both punishing and draining. They felt that it was leading them rather than they it, that they were losing something of themselves to the never-ending appetite for content. The buzzword most commonly invoked was ‘unsustainable.’ The closer you get to the internet, the more overwhelming it becomes, an observation for which I can vouch.

Yet we know that nothing outside a person can defile (Mk 7:15). Technology can only exploit or exaggerate our internal susceptibilities; it cannot create them. What is the internet tapping into that is proving so corrosive and exhausting?

My theory—which will surprise absolutely no one—has to do with the Law, and the extraordinary purchase it finds in a synthetic environment. In our book Law and Gospel, we suggested that “Wherever you are most tired, look closely and you’ll likely find self-justification at work,” and nowhere is this more evident than in our online endeavors. By “self-justification” I mean the drive to validate one’s existence—to assert one’s lovability—via adherence to some standard of worthiness (given or invented), be it behavioral or intellectual or spiritual. Even where that standard is amorphous or unspoken, the allure of mastery thrives online. The promise of control, i.e., the possibility of dictating reality, seems to squeeze out sympathy.

A friend recently went so far as to describe the internet in 2015 as “just like the real world, but with all the forgiveness vacuumed out.” What they meant was that the web, despite its many positive attributes, seems to amplify harshness and diminish grace. From a certain point of view, the internet almost seems designed to placate the human drive for righteousness, to be a place where cultural imperatives can operate independent of flesh-and-blood boundaries. Not surprisingly, that which we would seek to control invariably ends up controlling us.

Social media profiles are the most blatant way this plays out. However, more than enough ink has been spilled on the discrepancy between the identities we project online and our actual embodied selves, how the tireless curation of self magnifies loneliness. Lord knows there are other, less well-documented roots of exhaustion. One need only look at how our relationship with information itself has evolved. Our age is called the Information Age for good reason, after all.

First, a brief word about the Law. Mockingbird readers know that we are fond of the distinction between big-L Law—the Law of God—and the little-l echoes we hear in society, the way that societal commands to be pretty/successful/popular/authentic tend to mirror the Sermon on the Mount command to “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” both in content and effect. They are equally unattainable, and therefore equally crushing for human beings bent on justifying themselves at all costs.

And yet, it could be that we do the Law of God a disservice when we conflate it with our culture’s escalating performancism, especially when we turn our gaze to the virtual world. As helpful as the corollaries are, the little-l laws which flourish online are, by and large, cruel, arbitrary, soul-killing, B-A-D—more akin to what St. Paul calls the “elementary principles of the world” (Gal 4:3) than to the Law of Sinai. The Law of Loving God With All Your Heart, Mind And Strength, on the other hand, may be crushing, but it is not bad. It is everything that is good. The former is preferable to the latter any day of the week. If we actually believed there was a God demanding to be loved, at least we wouldn’t be the sole arbiters of meaning and worth.

* * *

Alas, part of what it means to be sinners is to lean on something other than the law of God for our justification, and this is the burden that we have laid on Information, in a variety of ways.

Take, for instance, the unprecedented velocity and volume of data that the internet has made possible. Perhaps the most well-known statistic is the one made public in 2013, that 92% of the world’s electronic data was created in just the past two years. As the pace of information has increased, ‘staying on top of things’ has become an increasingly treasured form of righteousness. We compete over being well informed. We feel guilty about falling behind. As a result, the attempt to manage the flood of information coming across our screens—from news stories to pop culture to personal ‘sharing’—has turned frantic, desperate even. We chase a mastery that is tantalizing yet illusive. Anyone who has spent vacation days cleaning up their inbox or delving into their backlog of media can corroborate that the mountaintop does not exist.

On the surface, this appears to be a rather asinine problem. Yet the aspiration to be ‘caught up’ is not a neutral drive, not when ‘caught up’ encompasses a limitless set of info. It keeps us squarely focused on ourselves, breeding first competition, then antagonism and, ultimately, despair.

Journalist Elizabeth Minkel hinted at the stakes in what she referred to as “the online acronym that is destroying my soul,” namely, ‘ICYMI.’ Those five letters often precede tweets or Facebook posts or even email forwards of ‘must-read’ articles. It stands for ‘In Case You Missed It.’ Minkel describes the implied mentality this way:

ICYMI makes staying connected feel like a constant game of catch-up. . . ICYMI is a tacit acknowledgement of that psychological finish line, always being moved an inch more out of reach—I can feel it now, chipping away at me.

To these ears, Minkel’s words evoke those of St Paul, who described life held captive to the Law as “a curse” (Gal 3:10). Again, the information itself is not the problem, it’s the accompanying imperative about staying abreast of it all, which is fed, presumably, by the need to master, to prove our relevance, to justify our existence. Technology has simply made the pursuit much easier.

Ironically, the pace at which we process information tends to have an adverse effect on the information itself (to say nothing of our blood pressure), placing true mastery that much more out of reach. That is, in order to stand out amidst the melee of output—to achieve recognition and thereby affirmation—writers are forced to reduce or sensationalize their message, emphasizing the aspects that will get the most immediate response and leaving out those which might encumber its accessibility.

Which is another way of saying that the more crowded the internet gets, the more it privileges economy over precision, telling over showing, and yelling over telling. Opinions must be pronounced as quickly and stridently as possible if they are to garner attention. When ‘clicks’ equal revenue, the triumph of sloganeering is a foregone conclusion. Again, we follow the audience, not vice versa.

The critic Leon Wieseltier summed up the situation for The NY Times Book Review as follows:

Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.[5]

Wieseltier restricts himself unduly by speaking only of journalistic institutions. Individuals, after all, think of their online presence more and more in terms of personal branding. The faster you respond to a given event online, and the bolder the terms which you use—be it a friend’s engagement or a political election—the higher the chance that someone will read it, and your brand will grow. You are justified not by what you say so much as that you say it. So the louder the better.

In practice, this means that the internet rewards not just brevity but outrage. Which has certainly proven true for us on the Mockingbird website. The articles we publish that have a polemical edge invariably get more traffic than the ones that are more observational or conciliatory, e.g., “here’s what’s wrong about this person/place/thing” vs. “here’s what’s interesting and potentially helpful about this person/place/thing.” I remember meeting with a consultant a few years ago and her number one piece of advice was that we should punch up the titles of our articles, make them more provocative. Instead of “When Memories Become Expectations (and Lawyers Become Saviors): The Prophetic Disruption of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman,” try “Atticus Finch Did Not Die For Your Sins.” It doesn’t matter if the tone doesn’t fit the content—it is up to you to make it fit.

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This is not exactly earth-shattering news. To call someone or something out makes for exciting writing, pure and simple, and not just online. It gets the pulse racing and the synapses firing. Such an approach can have a laudable purpose—‘calling a thing what it is’ or refusing to buy into a harmful illusion, especially when no one else seems to be doing so. The problem comes when your subject actively contradicts its packaging. Can you write about ‘grace’ in an ungracious or overbearing way?

I remember sitting in stand-still traffic outside New York City once and watching in amazement as the people in a church van a few lanes over decided to “redeem the time” by getting out their megaphone and reciting scripture. As you might imagine, there were no sudden conversions or hallelujahs; people were annoyed and, this being New York, they let their feelings be known in a colorful way. The lesson I took from it was that you cannot communicate grace confrontationally. It simply does not compute. The circuits don’t match up. It’s not really a matter of “should” or “shouldn’t,” it’s a matter of “can’t.”

We might remember that old adage about marriage, “It’s always better to be kind than to be right.” The internet seems to perpetuate the inverse, and in doing so, reveals that there are some areas where the dichotomy breaks down, where rightness and kindness cannot be separated.[6]

Whatever the case, the diatribe has never enjoyed more popularity than it does online.[7] This is not necessarily an unfortunate development; rhetorical outrage has a long and distinguished tradition in the West. Some would call it an art form. Yet as renowned polemicists such as Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and even Martin Luther might remind us, there is a big difference between ranting and ranting well, and like all forms of violence, it comes at a cost to the person throwing the stone. Also, one can hardly imagine any of those hallowed practitioners ever wanting the form to become a dominant mode of expression. Non-stop defensiveness and reactivity—whoever the subject (or whatever object!) —is simply a terrible way to live.

Furthermore, the web affords a certain degree of anonymity, or at least physical remove. At its best, its disembodiment engenders safety, the permission to engage with someone or something you otherwise find threatening, e.g., a Gospel that seems too good to be true. At its worst, though, the distance tends to exacerbate vindictiveness. Divorced from body language and non-verbal cues, we are much more likely to objectify and/or demonize those with whom we disagree. Thus, the internet has not ushered in a new age of mutual understanding on hot button issues. It has deepened the divides. We have given new meaning to that towering stanza in T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”:

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence

Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here

No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

There is something biblical about a venue that was designed to promote communication—and to a lesser extent, global harmony—being the thing that hinders it.[8] Something instinctually self-defeating about the human condition being borne out in zeroes and ones.

* * *

Whatever the case, one lesson an online life teaches is that there is a big difference between expression and communication. The former is essentially self-centered, whereas the latter is aimed at the other. The former comes quite effortlessly—the latter takes time and energy. What separates one from another is not the content but tone of the information. We see this in relationships, and it is doubly true online: that when it comes to actual communicating, the How is just as important as the What. The people in that traffic-jammed church van expressed themselves, but they did not communicate. If anything, they did the opposite.

The point here is not that we should all just be nicer or compromise the courage of our convictions. The point is that civility actually serves truth. Believe it or not, studies have shown that polarizing modes of expression affect how we perceive the content of what’s being expressed, detracting from the truth.[9] Meaning, angry assertions don’t just prevent us from engaging an idea, they lead us to actively distort it.

This means that in some sense people create their enemies as much as find them. In fact, if I have one major observation to add from eight years of blogging, it’s that people, myself included, often live off the ideas we disagree with in a strangely parasitic way. There is an addictive element at work, a rush involved when the threat is perceived and our self-justification muscles spring into overdrive. How else do you explain the hate-reading/watching phenomenon?

Whether the topic is breastfeeding or drone warfare or Christian sanctification, the same emotional dynamics are almost always at play. “Combat mode” is how Jonathan Haidt describes it, and it’s a rhetorical merry-go-round, especially in print. Maybe this is the difference, in Pauline language, between the ear and the eye.

That’s not all, though. The same studies suggest that the angrier or more antagonistic we get on a particular subject, the less likely we are to be right about it. At least, if we have a clear ‘enemy’ in our mind against whom we define ourselves and our arguments, then our own views are probably not as trustworthy as we think they are. They are being dictated not by truth but by our own drive for justification vis-à-vis our opponent.

Whenever I peruse the comments under a CNN article about religion (and if you don’t want to lose all faith in humanity, you won’t), the first question that pops into my mind is never “Is what they’re saying true?” but “Why are they so upset?” Why has this or that report—presumably factual—provoked so much emotion? Could the vehemence betray a gut-level insecurity on the part of those who speak loudest? Meaning, we all know someone who believes that it is their responsibility in life to correct and police the ideology of everyone around them. One can’t help but suspect that if they were a little more confident in their beliefs, they wouldn’t be so threatened by other people not holding them.

I realize such an approach may be a little patronizing. Questions of motivation are cloudy at best, always ripe for conjecture. But after nine years of trying to communicate electronically on a daily basis, a focus not just on the What or even the How, but on the Why, strikes me as the best hope for survival in a media-saturated context that repaints reality in increasingly vociferous colors. It is the only thing that can summon compassion for those stuck in the endless cycle of self-justification. Which is all of us.

* * *

Why do we get caught in the web then? If our relationship with information is truly a proxy for our relationship with the law, then the Why boils down to control. The sad fact is that our desire to be in charge ends up being in charge of us.

This works out in a several ways. Thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Pascal, and Louis CK have viewed our preoccupation with stimulation—electronic or otherwise—as evidence of a fear of silence or stillness. On the one hand, it represents pushback against passivity, a retreat to the familiarity of doing over the discomfort of being, further evidence of our predilection for justification by work(s). On the other hand, such ceaseless activity, regardless of how trivial, allows us to distract ourselves from something we would rather not feel. Technological diversions let us escape or anesthetize spiritual emptiness. David Foster Wallace described this theory memorably in his unfinished novel, The Pale King:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least feeling directly or with our full attention…Surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down (85).

Wallace’s theory extends just as much to the production of information as to the consumption of it. Or, as columnist Tim Kreider writes, “eloquently articulating a feeling is one way to avoid actually experiencing it.” In other words, we use technology to distract ourselves from our core pain, which is the pain of not being enough, the pain of realizing our finitude, what some might call existential angst. The theologian might ascribe the dread to a different sort of information, namely, the verdict of Law—that we are found guilty, terminally so. It is ironic, then, that we often respond to modern distractability by moralizing it, or shaming people/parents/teenagers into paying better attention. Since we are often distracting ourselves from some sense of condemnation in the first place, the dynamic naturally feeds on itself.

Very much related to this diagnosis of control run amok would be the one put forth by Matthew Crawford in his 2015 book, The World Beyond Your Head. Crawford theorizes that we are attracted to the autonomy that internet technology promises us. Writing in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman paraphrases Crawford’s main thesis:

We’re now addicted to liberation, and we regard any situation—a movie, a conversation, a one-block walk down a city street—as a kind of prison. Distraction is a way of asserting control; it’s autonomy run amok…When you’re waiting to cross the street and reach to check your e-mail, you’re pushing back against the indignity of being made to wait.

Technology and the fresh information it offers us have become a principal means, in other words, of rebelling against anything that would seek to restrict or confine us. To the Law, which tells us we are creatures, men and women with limits and dependencies, we shake our fists and insist we are Creator. We can handle things just fine on our own. Of course, there is nothing less autonomous than a gaggle of people glued to their smartphones. Again, this is the cruel irony that Degas alluded to so deftly: our addiction to control ends up controlling us.

This sounds grim, and maybe it is. Yet there is hope, and not just in the form of a flip phone—though I would be lying if I didn’t report that it has helped tremendously in the presence department.[10]

No, the hope to which I am referring isn’t hope that turns a blind eye to those things that make the internet such a desolate landscape, but one which accounts for and addresses them. As such, it is the only hope that could inspire some of us to keep plugging away, year after year, that could even make it a privilege and joy to do so. It is hope in a God who does not abandon his creatures to their compulsions, prideful or otherwise. A God who gave up control for the sake of an embittered, exhausted world. Who did not come to be served, but to serve. A God who met the demands of the law full-on and, by his death and resurrection, made a definitive break with its cycle of accusation and justification. Who is not put off by our stubborn attempts to secure on our own steam what is given freely.

This is the God who grants his children the safety to experience their pain head-on, the assurance of forgiveness, paid for in blood. The implications are no less immediate than the technologies which seek to subvert them. As theologian Ted Peters puts it:

Once we realize that we can get out of the business of justifying ourselves, the world suddenly looks different. No longer do we need to defend ourselves from a hostile world by identifying ourselves with what is good or just or true. We can live in the world—we can love the world—as if it is our world, with or without the lines we draw between good and evil.[11]

Perhaps this is the peace of mind evinced by Mary, who sat enrapt at Christ’s feet while her distracted sister Martha kept score and pleaded for Christ to do the same (Luke 10:38-42). He refused then and he refuses now. Martha did not need technology to turn her into an exhausted, self-justifying wreck. Yet her failure to surrender control did not disqualify her for the “one thing needful,” thank God. It formed the doorway through which Christ reached out to her.

* * *

If justification by information breeds exhaustion, and justification by flip phone breeds self-righteousness, then justification by grace through faith breeds love. Which brings us to the final part of the equation. Because there are those who are looking to technology to inform them of something more than just their acquittal. They are looking to scratch an itch even more nagging than the one for acceptance. I’m talking about love.

And that’s where cynicism ends and compassion takes over. The digital wind howls, with singular purpose, a tune that is neither new nor particularly informative. It is one we all know: acknowledge me, affirm me, love me. This is the age-old cry of the human heart, a cacophony not of fact or opinion but of need.

When we put our ear to the deafening noise of the virtual world, perhaps we catch a snippet of divine perspective, a glimpse of what God must hear when listening to his children—to you and to me. If so, then the only message that bears repetition, day after day, hour after hour, is the foolish insistence that our cries do not go unheard. Indeed, they are answered by the still, small voice of a living God.

The message is clear: he knows where all that missing forgiveness went—and will text you the address. Too bad you have a flip phone.

[1] Not unless you count so-called “disrupters” trumpeting dreams of techno-solutionism à la Silicon Valley’s Gavin Belson.

[2] In his biography of his father, Renoir, My Father, film pioneer Jean Renoir recounts their exchange.

[3] As with the rest of us, their computers now are their cell phones.

[4] One wonders whether this is because age itself has taken on an undeniable moral dimension, albeit one inverted from what it was for our ancestors. Young is good, and old is, well, not as good. Get with the program or be left in the dust. Whatever you do, don’t be a hater.

[5] Leon Wieseltier, “Among the Disrupted,” New York Times Book Review, January 7, 2015.

[6] This is not an abstract topic for those of us who operate in the online sphere—I might go so far as to label it one of the central questions of Mockingbird’s work: to what extent can a medium that thrives so outwardly on law be co-opted as a vehicle for grace? I know what the faithless answer would be.

[7] And elsewhere. See: Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Bill Maher, Ann Coulter.

[8] Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the discussion of religion.

[9] Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, “This Story Stinks.” New York Times. March 2, 2013.

[10] Not so much in the “borrowing your wife’s smartphone without her permission” department, though. Sigh.

[11] Ted Peters, Sin Boldly! Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls, p. 39