AN ARTICLE in The Guardian by Harriet Griffey in late 2018 quoted some research published that year by Ofcom, the UK telecoms and broadcasting regulator. Ofcom reported that people checked their smartphones on average every 12 minutes, and nearly half checked their phone within five minutes of waking up. Those with smartphones face frequent interruptions to their days through the receipt of a new email, social-media post, text message, or, even occasionally, a telephone call.
In his book The Shallows, first published in 2010, Nicholas Carr explored the impact of the internet on our behaviour. Carr was prompted to work in this area through noting what was happening in his own life, particularly his growing incapacity to read a book attentively.
“Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
The constantly changing, ephemeral nature of much of the increased communication of which we are part may be the cause for the diminution in our concentration. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman contended that the means of transmission was not a matter of indifference. About that he was right, but it may not be that we are amusing ourselves to death. Perhaps the problem is that we have lost both the art of listening and a capacity for discernment. We have all become broadcasters and writers. Even the least literate social-media user is mostly on transmit.
IN A sermon in Lichfield Cathedral in January, the Canon Chancellor, the Revd Gregory Platten, reflected on the concluding month of President Trump’s term of office, and the storming of the Capitol (News, 8 January). Canon Platten observed that, from the beginning of Donald Trump’s campaign to be President in 2015, Mr Trump had proclaimed that he would “build a wall”.
His final days in office were spent in a White House with a wall built around it. His main means of communication with the world via his Twitter account was closed down. Suddenly, he was walled in both physically and metaphorically: silenced, disempowered.
President Trump was not unique in his use of social media. It is simply that he was the best known of all those who are on constant transmission. As Canon Platten observed in that sermon, a society in which transmission is preferred over reception gradually becomes one incapable of listening. It becomes more divided because of deafness. We speak, but do not listen. We write, but do not read.
HOW should Christians respond? Not by abandoning the culture and fleeing to hermitages and monasteries in the desert, although these have their place, just as they had in the early Christian centuries; nor by living in an Amish-like exile in the society of our time. Discipleship sometimes demands a costly counter-offensive to what divides us from those we live among.
The meaning of diabolos is “to throw apart, separate, divide”, which is what slanderers and accusers seek to do. Opposition to the devil and all his works thus involves striving for unity. Christians are called to listen, discern, read, and be mocked sometimes for being serious; but, most of all, to put on the towel of service and clean chairs as well as wash feet.
Christianity is a religion of the incarnation: one in which disciples are called to live in the world rather than reject it. But living in the world does not mean being conformed to it, as St Paul was keen to tell the Romans. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Perhaps the paraphrase by Eugene Peterson in The Message renders Paul’s sentiment even more pertinently for our own age: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.
“Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich. The Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, a former Bishop of Repton, is Canon Custos of Lichfield Cathedral and an Honorary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Lichfield.
This is an edited extract from a longer article published in the April 2021 edition of Crucible: The journal of Christian social ethics.