Insightful. My “review” this time will consist of the questions I wrote up for an interview I’m doing with the author:
My guest today on Logos Live is the only writer whose Substack I actually pay for personally. He’s an editor for Crossway and someone who writes with perception and aplomb. I was very much interested when I heard that he’d written a book on digital technology and its effects on the Christian. This author is Samuel James, and his book is *Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age*.
Samuel, you cite Jamie Smith’s work on cultural liturgies, and I remember well his example of the liturgy of the mall: the way the mall is structured is meant to shape us in ways that will make us more consistent shoppers. That, though, was his one strong example, and I thereafter found limited utility in the concept. You have added a new liturgy, another strong example. For that I am grateful. Can you describe this liturgy to us? What is a “digital liturgy”?
You wrote: “Rather than being a neutral tool, the internet (particularly the social internet) is an epistemological environment.” Could you explain this line a little for our viewers?
You wrote, “The nature of online (30) presence itself powerfully reinforces the sense that we are not our bodies, that we have total control over our identity and our story, and that any threat to this feeling can and ought to be ‘deleted’ so that we don’t have to put up with it.” (31) What are the Bible passages you’d arrange against that viewpoint?
I have to ask you a few harder questions, but I’m going to point them to some degree at myself as well. You sound so, so much like me. You recognize some of the harmful effects of digital liturgies, especially in the online world, and you cut yourself off from the worst of them, such as Twitter/X. I, too, just can’t bring myself to throw my energy into that horrific world—though I’m glad some Christians do. But here’s the thing: I gather we’ve both been reading Nicolas Carr and Neil Postman for a long time, and yet we’re still online. So here’s the hard question: what do you really, practically, do differently than most of your imagined readers when it comes to technology?
You wrote that because of your online life, “Conversation is harder, reading is much more of a slog, and mental busyness is so alluring I almost feel restless when I’m not distracted.” (47) You and I are similar ages, though I think I’m a tiny bit older. You and I appear to have read some of the same media ecologists at the same time. I read “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in 2008. I have watched myself for 15 years for signs that what he said would come true of me. Only I think I already found it difficult to really, really concentrate on a book long before the internet made me stupid. How certain are you of your own read of your experience? I’m not doubting you: I’m genuinely asking.
One of the best paragraphs in the book for me was this: “Not long ago I read a discussion online about whether “civility” was really a virtue we should pursue. While there were some insightful questions about how injustice might be hidden behind norms of discourse, I came away from the conversation with the unshakable sense that this was a very internet thing to talk about. On the computer, “civility” may be a mere abstraction, a philosophical principle that can be interrogated and perhaps jettisoned. But offline, in the physical world of work, family, church, and neigh- borhood, “civility” is simply what’s required to live among other people. Offline, if you open the door to someone else’s house, enter her living room, and start yelling at her, you may be arrested, and few people would feel sorry for you. But on the internet, starting arguments with total strangers, for no apparent reason, is normal. In fact, we almost expect it. It’s nearly impossible to overstate how fundamentally the disembodied nature of the web has recalibrated our sense of what is good and normal.” This struck me as so deeply true. Again I ask: what Bible statements come to your mind as a helpful corrective for this common problem?
If there’s one thing that gets talked about in time to come about your book—and all writers are lucky to have that one thing—I think it might be your observation about the porn-shape that the web has: “Porn and the web go together so efficiently precisely because they are both instruments of commodification, a way to turn the most intimate or even most elementary stuff of human life into consumable content.” (137) Can you fill out what you mean there?
I’m asking you the hard questions today, because inquiring minds need to know what to do. Despite the porn-shapedness of the web, at the end of the book you don’t call for Christian withdrawal from the online world. You instead acknowledge that Pandora’s unlikely to go willingly back into her box, and that many jobs, including mine, “require large amounts of time spent online.” Do you really believe it’s possible to cultivate Christian wisdom in a medium that is porn-shaped?
I did wonder if Bible software was going to make a cameo appearance. I invited you to Logos Live before I read the book, though, because I knew that even if you were critical of Bible software, you’d be thoughtful. But it didn’t come up that I noticed. Let me ask you, finally: I read John Dyer’s The People of the Screen, a kind of ethnographic history of evangelical use of Bible software. He had a hard time, I think, coming up with statistically significant and meaningful differences between digital Bible use and paper Bible use. Would you expect such a difference? What path might you go down to interrogate this question?
Samuel James’ brand new book, with Crossway, is Digital Liturgies. Pick it up in Logos or wherever fine books are sold. Check him out at Substack and at TGC, World Opinions, and other venues. Thank you, Samuel, for joining us today on Logos Live.