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The Idol of Communication

In this digital world, communications dominates. In 2010 141 million blogs were active, 1,052,803 books published, 4.5 billion text messages sent, 175 billion letters mailed, 247 billion emails delivered. Do you see the scope of it? Communication is all the rage. It is what we do for business, education, entertainment, devotion. While people have always communicated and have probably always wanted to communicate more, what is unique in our time is its sheer dominance. What has changed is not the fact that we can communicate and that we like to communicate, but the scope of the it, the speed of it and the reach of it. It is now the dominant paradigm through which we live our lives. Perhaps amidst all of the communication we are prone to forget that we do not need to communicate all the time or that it is not wise to do so all the time. It may be that communication is not always good, that it brings problems even with all of its benefits.

There are two realities that are important as we consider communications. The first is is this: Any study of technology, and especially technologies having to do with communication, will show that a new innovation brings both opportunities and costs. This innovation tends to wear the benefits on its sleeve while the drawbacks are buried deep within and take far longer to see. The second reality is that there is often a connection between technology and idolatry where technology enhances the existing idols in our lives (so that the man who makes sex into an idol will use his computer to pursue pornography, his cell phone to arrange illicit hook-ups, etc). So here we have two realities—that the benefits of a technology always come at a cost and that technology can be closely tied to idolatry.

Idols are typically good things that seek to become ultimate things. Communication is just the kind of good thing, the kind of very good thing, that can so easily become an ultimate thing. How would we know that there is an idol in our lives? It may be the kind of thing we look at right before we go to sleep and the first thing we give attention to when we wake up. It may be the kind of thing that keeps us awake even in the middle of the night. A 2010 study by Oxygen Media and Lightspeed Research sampled the the habits of 1,605 young adults. The researchers found that one third of women between the ages of 18 and 34 check Facebook when they first wake up, before they even head to the bathroom; 21% check it in the middle of the night; 39% of them declare that they are addicted to Facebook.

We might also know we serve an idol when it is something we carry around with us at all times. A Pew Research study found, not surprisingly, that cell phone use is nearly ubiquitous today. Three-quarters of teens and 93% of adults between ages 18 and 29 now have a cell phone. Cell phone use has grown substantially among pre-teens so that 58% of 12-year-olds now own one. Lisa Merlo is a University of Florida psychiatrist who studies digital addictions—addictions to the Internet and other technologies. She finds that for a growing number of people the need to be in constant communication is so powerful that they cannot even turn off their cell phones in order to sit through a two-hour movie. Their obsession with their phones resembles any other form of addiction. “As with traditional addictions, excessive cell phone use is associated with certain hallmark patterns of behavior, including using something to feel good, building up a tolerance and needing more of it over time to get the same feeling, and going through withdrawal if deprived of it.” Meanwhile a recent Japanese study found that children with cell phones tend not to make friendships with children who do not have them. And all of this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Communication is just what we do today.

By all appearances we have made communication into a kind of cultural idol. In most cases it is not Facebook or the cell phone that is the idol. Instead, they serve as enablers, as enhancers, of the greater idol of communication. Christians have proven to be far from immune to this idol, from following along as the culture around us becomes obsessed with communication and dedicates vast amounts of time and resources to it. Christians will do well to remember that in God’s economy communication is but a means to the far greater, far more noble end of enjoying God so we can bring glory to him. Communication can detract from this purpose just as easily as it can serve this purpose.

When words serve God, they draw hearts to what is of greatest importance. Such words are full of meaning, full of life. When words serve an idol, they distract, they damage, they focus on quantity over quality. Thus words call us not just to use them sinlessly, but to use them to share what is substantial, to say what is best, to encourage, to bless. In an age that can be almost unbearably light, frustratingly anti-intellectual, woefully unspiritual, words have the ability to draw people to what matters most.