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Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age

Digital Liturgies

There are books you may be drawn to, but probably do not actually need to read. (Seriously, at some point you need to stop reading books about methods of prayer and just pray!) Then there are other books you may not be particularly drawn to but probably ought to read. Among these are books on technology, and especially the new digital technologies that have come to dominate our lives. I’d wager that your phone is in your hand at least several hours every day; I’d wager that you are on social media at least every few hours, often without even thinking about it; I’d wager that you communicate with others through your devices on a near-constant basis. Would it not be important to do some reading about these technologies, about how they are functioning in society and the church, and about how they may be quietly transforming you? What else could form such an important part of our lives yet receive so little attention?

Samuel James’ Digital Liturgies is meant to help you think about these technologies and the social internet they enable. For these are not harmless or inconsequential tools. Neither can they be exactly compared to any tools that we have previously experienced in human history, for they alone provide a “disembodied electronic environment that we enter through connected devices for the purpose of accessing information, relationships, and media that are not available to us in a physical format.” Our use of these technologies and our increasing immersion in them essentially brings us into a whole new kind of world in which we leave aside so much of what makes us who we are.

“Rather than being a neutral tool, the internet (particularly the social internet) is an epistemological environment—a spiritual and intellectual habitat—that creates in its members particular ways of thinking, feeling, and believing. It’s true in one sense that the web is a tool that responds to its users’ desires. But the web is not a tool in the way that a screwdriver or wrench is a tool. The web speaks to us. We talk to the web, and the web talks back, and this dialogue constitutes an ever-growing aspect of life in the digital age.”

What James means to show is that these new technologies teach a kind of liturgy, a series of practices, habits, beliefs, and desires that form us and shape us in particular ways. Just as Christians maintain a vision of the life they want to lead before the Lord and institute practices meant to foster it, these technologies hold out a vision of the good life and then promote practices that will further it. His burden is to identify and evaluate these liturgies to see where they may be opposed to the Christian faith and the Christian life. This is not a book that is anti-technology or promoting the way of the Luddite, but a book that takes seriously our responsibility to live with deliberateness, with care, and with a kind of biblically-inspired prudence.

In the first three chapters, James does some foundation-building by focusing on the Bible’s demand that we live with wisdom. He means to convince us that Christians are called to a way of life that is transcendent but also intensely practical. We are to live according to a liturgy that far surpasses anything the world can offer—a liturgy that the social internet and digital technologies can never come close to matching (but will do their utmost to displace).

The heart of the book is comprised of five chapters that each address a different digital liturgy. Here James means to help us understand both the content our technologies are preaching to us and the ideologies they are fostering within us. “The question is not, Is this technology shaping me right now? The question is, How is this technology shaping me right now?” And so he writes at some length about authenticity, outrage, shame, consumption, and meaninglessness—each of them a readily identifiable aspect of life online. He relies on a wide variety of Christian and nonChristian sources to prove and bolster his arguments. He relies also, of course, on the Bible as a trustworthy guide to living in a distinctly Christian way.

In the end, he really means to convince Christians that God calls us to live according to divine wisdom and that the internet is an epistemological and moral context that makes such wisdom look like foolishness. If we are to thrive as Christians who take advantage of these technologies instead of eschewing them altogether, we will need to know how they are leading us to adopt and practice liturgies that are directly opposed to a Christian life of godliness, wisdom, and significance. Though I have studied these issues deeply in the past, I still benefited a lot from James’ insights and am grateful I read them. I’d highly encourage you to do the same.

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