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The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming relationship in a technological world by Andy Crouch

by
11 November 2022

Mike Starkey reviews a diagnosis of alienation

IN HIS book Bowling Alone (2000), the political scientist Robert Putnam portrays modern culture as one in which the “social capital” of community and trust from earlier eras has dissolved, leaving people lonely and alienated. It is an isolation lyrically evoked in memoirs such as Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, and explored in dozens of self-help books on overcoming loneliness.

The Christianity Today writer Andy Crouch covers similar ground. Human beings, he writes, are wired for relationship. We are persons, made to relate to other persons in community. He contrasts the relational visions of Judaism and Christianity with today’s anxious, atomised individualism — and describes how the Early Church offered an alternative to the lonely stratified world of ancient Rome.

Crouch paints today’s technologically induced isolation with broad brush-strokes. This results in generalisations, often beginning with “we” and “our”. Our ability to concentrate is disappearing; we are anxious; our waistlines are expanding; we are listless voyeurs, carrying a hollow sense of loss, wandering through soulless airports, failing to connect with one another. Clearly, the author’s own airport experiences have been particularly depressing, as this is an image that recurs.

Readers will recognise the cultural mood described by Crouch. But his generalisations too often feel like caricatures, and his repeated use of “we” feels rather too sweeping. Also lacking nuance is Crouch’s implication that earlier decades were uniformly kinder times, when everybody knew their neighbours and trust thrived in friendly neighbourhoods. Try telling that to the lonely figures in Edward Hopper paintings from the 1920s and ’40s.

Crouch is at his most thought-provoking when he explores what a more redemptive kind of technology might look like, and where individuals might find refuge from the corrosive effects of isolation.

With regard to technology, he draws a distinction between “devices” and “instruments” — the difference being the degree of human participation which they require, and the extent to which they affirm human dignity. He dusts off the New Testament notion of “household”, a unit wider than the nuclear family, in which each person is noticed, trusted, and valued. The ultimate antidote to our cultural loneliness, Crouch says, is small-scale communities of recognition.

 

The Revd Mike Starkey is Head of Church Growth for Manchester diocese and author of the Stepping Stones for Growth course.

 

The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming relationship in a technological world
Andy Crouch
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
(978-1-399-80176-8)
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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