You’ll have to forgive me. These blogs are probably supposed to be devotional, even (rarely) inspiring, but sometimes I just have to write about something I can’t shake. In the midst of our politically-polarized-strange-labor-market-when-is-COVID-over world, I can’t shake the feeling that this is not how we will be remembered when the history books are written.
Instead, I wonder if our children’s children’s children (should the Lord tarry) will only know this time for the powerful technologies that were born right under our noses. One of those is AI. But I’m more curious about another one: CRISPR.
If you don’t know what CRISPR is, I didn’t either, until Ezra Klein explained it. I was browsing his podcast and saw an episode entitled, “Humanity’s Awesome, Terrifying Takeover of Evolution.” That piqued my interest, and gave me a clue. While the mechanics are beyond my scope, the basic idea is simple. After listening, here’s what I gathered: CRISPR is a burgeoning technology capable of genetic editing at the molecular level. Give it a specific genetic sequence, say, for early onset Alzheimer’s, release it into the body, and watch it search and destroy.
But it can do more than delete faulty genetic code. It can put another sequence in its place. If you have ever edited a document in say, Microsoft Word, it’s not unlike the “find and replace” feature you used when you realized you misspelled a name throughout. CRISPR finds the sequence, cuts it out, and replaces it with another.
The technology is still relatively new, and there’s lots of kinks to work out, but this is happening right now. In fact, a patient in Mississippi has already undergone treatment using CRISPR to fix her sickle-cell anemia. She’s a year in and currently shows zero symptoms of the disease.
How much good could we do with a tool like this? Cure cancer? Treat heretofore incurable diseases? Completely change the outlook on life for millions of people with any number of chronic genetic conditions? Yup. It’s as awesome as Ezra Klein said.
And as terrifying. Because what else could we do with this? Or, perhaps more pessimistically, what else will we do with this? Pay-to-play designer babies with a “superhero” genetic package available? “With this CRISPR, your son or daughter is guaranteed an IQ of an MIT graduate and the physical strength of an NFL linebacker.” Hair colors, eye colors, skin colors, falling in and out of fashion like first names? “Oh, you have blue eyes. That was such a thing in the early 2050s!”
I haven’t even gotten creepy yet: growing disparities between the rich and poor as the vulnerable are “priced out” of genetic enhancements, transcending ethnic markers that are God designed and inherently good, and yes, even the potential of species splicing. Terrifying indeed.
I told you that I just had to get this off my chest. I honestly don’t know how to think about this. Did God intend for us to develop these tools, like the automobile and cell phone, as a way we cultivate the natural order? Or are we crossing a line to make our own name great, like the builders of the tower of Babel of old? I honestly don’t know. I’d love your thoughts in the comments on how believers are to think about these things.
Two ideas come to mind that I think are helpful for all of us:
- Follow the work of thoughtful Christians in the hard sciences. Francis Collins, the former director of the NIH is someone in this category (he’s written several books on the integration of faith and science). So are the bioethicists at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University, my alma-mater.
- Pray for wisdom. As I said, as important as all the conversations we are having right now are, I feel that technologies like this are flying under the radar. This will have massive implications for our world and our witness as believers. May God help us navigate wisely and compassionately.
Let me know what you think! Comment below with thoughts, questions, or resources.
– The immensely hopeful discoveries of neuroscience showing that small, daily choices can alter the anatomy of our brain – changing how we think, and ultimately, changing who we are.
– How God has created human beings for connection – with Him, with others, and ourselves…and how to cultivate these connections more intentionally.
– How our overloaded lives – our activities, relentless pace, technology, constant distraction – creates serious disconnections if we don’t directly address them.
– Where to start attacking the problem of distraction in our lives to live more fully and love more deeply.
– Why reading long portions of scripture in a single sitting carries unique benefit.
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Christ Community will host Dr. Curt Thompson for two special events in April, 2020.
Visit Dr. Thompson’s website and download a chapter from The Soul of Shame: CurtThompsonMD.com
Vulnerability and Vocational Creativity
When: Thursday, April 23 from 6:30-8:15pm
Where: Christ Community – Leawood Campus
Cost: FREE (but registration is required)
REGISTER for Thursday evening
In Matthew 7:14, Jesus warns us to avoid the wide path that leads to destruction and instead to follow Him on the narrow path that leads to life. For much of my Christian life, I thought that meant I had two choices: to follow Jesus or to follow nothing. I pictured Jesus’ narrow path as the rugged mountain trail, arduous and always upward to the summit. The wide path was like a lazy river, drifting passively through life, no direction and no purpose.
But I’m no longer sure that’s the right analogy.
The real danger of the wide path Jesus talked about is not a lack of direction, but the presence of misdirection. It is not passive and aimless. It is active and purposeful, just like the narrow one. The difference is where they lead: following Christ leads to life, following anyone or anything else leads to death.
James K.A. Smith, author of Desiring the Kingdom, gives the wide path even more nuance. Example after example in his book show that the spaces we inhabit, the books we read, the television we watch, and the music we play all shape us and move us down one path or another. In other words, all of life is liturgy, a means of formation and worship, either unto Christ or unto something else. His best illustration is the truly spiritual nature of shopping at the mall – walking past images meant to arouse and inspire the spending of money to make us feel better, look better, and be better. This is part of the wide path Jesus talks about- an intentional and powerful but ultimately dead end journey of spiritual formation.
What even Smith could not have imagined was when the mall grew a mind of its own. I’m talking now of the powerful algorithms and analytics of what is sometimes called “Big Tech.” As companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook have grown in popularity and influence, so too has their temptation to use that influence to shape users. If you don’t believe me, just Google search (oh the irony) “big tech algorithm” and read the dystopian headlines. Here is one that got my attention: in 2014, Facebook apologized for purposefully experimenting with over half a million users’ emotions by manipulating the number of positive or negative posts on their feed. With mental illness, depression, and anxiety on the rise, this was a dangerous game to play and was met with public outcry. The stated reason for this idea? To refine powerful algorithms designed to cater news feeds to specific users.
Here’s another one: Caroline O’Donovan of Buzzfeed wrote just this year about YouTube and its inability to control its own recommendation algorithm. She and several colleagues reported that, despite promises from the company to fix its “what’s next” feature, it took only nine clicks to get from an innocuous PBS documentary to a highly partisan and divisive clip from a known hate group. Yikes. In fact, what O’Donovan found is that the YouTube algorithm jumped very quickly to partisan content with little prompting from the user.
Why do I bring all of this up?
I am beginning to wonder if the content we consume on the internet is growing in its ability to consume us back.
We are increasingly (though subtly) influenced where to go and how to feel when we are online. Let’s call it what it is: the internet is a potential catalog of “wide paths” of spiritual formation designed to take us somewhere we may not want to go, or flat out should not go.
In some ways, this is nothing new. Christians have been saying the same thing for years about all forms of media and entertainment. But this feels different to me. It’s more personal and weaponized by powerful tools we haven’t considered before. I am no expert, and want to keep thinking about this, but for now, here are a few thoughts on staying on the straight and narrow path.
Spend less time on social media. These tools are not necessarily bad, but they are not neutral either. They are designed to keep you engaged for hours and hours, and to shape you in ways that keep you coming back. Be intentional with the amount of time you spend online. Set a timer. Use the App Limits constraints on your smartphone. Put your phone away when you’re done.
Pick a reason to go online and stick to it. I often find myself browsing Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube because I’m bored. This is absolutely the worst reason to go online. If I have no reason to be on there, you can bet those platforms will find a reason to keep me there. If you want to simply check on friends, see how an event went, or catch new photos of the grandkids, great! But stick to that and sign off when you’re done.
Evaluate your daily liturgy. James K.A. Smith is right: every day you are on a spiritual formation path. Every minute of your week is formational. Take an audit of how you spend your time. How do your choices shape you? Compared to other activities (especially TV, video games, and internet time), how often are you practicing God’s presence in silence, prayer, Bible reading, and study? If the difference is stark, what changes can you implement to make room for Jesus’ narrow path in your life again? How can you take other time in your day, at work, at school, or at home, to invite God’s presence into what you are already doing?
Bring God online.
Here’s a crazy thought: pray through your Facebook feed. Talk to God about what is trending on Twitter. Use YouTube to listen to speakers and thinkers who can help you grow in faith.
Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” That includes cyberspace! Who knows how God might use His people as a faithful presence online, if only we made room for Him there.
I do not say any of these things as one who practices them perfectly. I’d love your thoughts on how to do this better.
Experts now agree: Multitasking is a myth.
It can’t be done.
Even though we’ve grown accustomed to emailing, while calendaring, while texting, while sipping coffee—we haven’t actually become multitaskers. We’ve become switchtaskers. We’ve gotten better at squandering our energy, attention, and focus by switching between unrelated activities with increasing speed.
The science is simple. Trying to do two cognitive things at the same time is impossible. The mind just doesn’t work that way.
The impossibility of multitasking is why productivity at some offices has decreased, even as hours have increased. It’s why today’s students perform more poorly on memory-based exams. It’s why car insurance rates have increased. Because individuals who think they’re great at so-called “multitasking” keep getting into accidents.
Did you know the National Transportation Safety Board reports that texting while driving results in impairment equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit? Our brains simply can’t handle all the disconnected information speeding toward us at once.
Multitasking while driving has very real consequences.
Cell phone use at the wheel causes 1.6 million crashes each year, and leads to nearly 330,000 injuries. One out of every four car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving.
Now, I imagine I’m not the first person to tell you that texting and driving puts you at risk. Our culture has woken up to that reality.
You know the dangers of distracted driving. But what about the dangers of distracted living?
What does distracted living—living with too many priorities, obligations, and inputs—do to your relationships, your happiness, and your spiritual growth?
I’m convinced that distracted living is the greatest threat to robust faith.
“Why?” you ask. Let me explain it to you this way:
I haven’t met too many folks who say, “I’m not interested in faith. I’m not interested in Jesus. I’m not interested in what’s true, beautiful, and worthwhile.”
But I have met many who are too distracted to search out real answers to their sincere questions. I’ve met many who don’t have time or attention to give to what matters most. I’ve met many who never make space to pause and think and listen to God.
And, admittedly, I’m one of them. I often find myself short on focus, unable to concentrate in times of prayer or reflection.
Multitasking our way through life is having a severe impact on our spiritual well-being.
It’s costing us dearly.
In Luke 12:35, Jesus says:
“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.”
Jesus says, Stay vigilant. Stay alert. Stay sharp.
Now, Jesus knew what we know: Being attentive is hard work. It doesn’t come naturally.
That’s why Jesus compares attentiveness to staying up late. Because staying up late—when you’re a grown-up—takes work.
I don’t know about you, but I used to be able to stay up until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. Every morning. No problem. But that was back in college. I can’t do it anymore. Sure, maybe a special occasion will cause me to extend my normal business hours. But burning the midnight oil is no longer my standard operating procedure. It takes effort to stay up.
And Jesus used that human reality to illustrate a deeper, spiritual truth. He told his disciples what we already know: Attention takes effort. It took effort in the first century, and it takes effort today.
In our smartphone age, where the entire internet can fit in the palms of our hands, focus feels impossible. In our world of never-ceasing media, where we can walk into a restaurant and find TVs covering every wall, distractions abound. In the era of Netflix, where one show plays right after another, entertainment lures us away from deep, meaningful engagement.
Being attentive takes effort.
It’s hard work.
And Jesus knew this. So He instructed His disciples to stay alert.
But He didn’t stop there. He also offered them motivation for the difficult work of attentiveness.
He continued teaching, saying, “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!”
Jesus makes an astonishing claim. He insists something truly remarkable awaits those who put in the effort to be attentive.
Allow me to explain.
In the first-century world, hierarchy meant everything. Masters were masters. And servants were servants. Any kind of inversion of roles, or subversion of the social status quo, would have been perceived as absolutely jaw-dropping. It would’ve turned heads.
And Jesus says, those servants who wait attentively for their master will experience something special. They’ll be able to say they were there when the absolutely unexpected occurred. They’ll tell their grandkids: “We were there when the Master served the servants.”
Because their attention is focused in the right direction, Jesus insists, they’ll get a front row seat to the surprise of the century. They’ll be ready and waiting when the Master decides to spice things up a bit and extend totally unexpected love upon His workers.
Do you see now why I believe that distracted living is the greatest threat to robust faith? Do you see now why I think that we all need to reconsider those habits and responsibilities and devices that so easily distract us?
It’s because our distraction causes us to miss the Master.
Our distraction keeps us from appreciating or recognizing the ways in which God is trying to get our attention, surprising us and delighting us with acts of care, and kindness and love.
Our divided focus shifts the direction of our attention—and it causes us to engage so many things and tasks, that we often miss what’s most important. We look right past God’s extravagant acts of love and care for us while we are multitasking our way through life.
We miss the person whom God has placed into our day to encourage us, or the idea that God has placed in our head to inspire us, or the small prompting God has placed on our heart to do something for another person that will bless them and bless us.
We miss all those things and more because we’re so distracted.
Distracted living, like distracted driving, is incredibly dangerous.
So, it’s time we take practical steps away from our switchtasking lives and instead focus our attention on the One who wants to surprise us in the most unexpected ways.
It is not difficult to look at our families and see the influence of technology on our identities at all ages: toddlers asking Alexa to play Baby Shark, the viral influence of the bottle flip challenge, teenagers with Instagram selfies, the virtual note-passing world of Snapchat, and parents sharing their child’s first and everything on Facebook.
Technology offers us beautiful ways to be connected, to make life simpler, and to grow in knowledge. However, families need to be engaging in conversations about how identity is often silently being shaped by technology.
Andy Crouch, in his book Tech Wise, articulated these words,
“Technology in its proper place helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance.”
True identity grows in an environment built on trust, respect, and love where your behavior, words, and emotions can be shared with others face-to-face. Technology’s broad assortment of communities can deceive us into feeling known and lead us away from authentic relationships toward loneliness, isolation, and a loss of self.
Take time this month to pay attention to your family’s interaction with technology and how you are engaging with the growing smorgasbord of options in your home, on the road, or in your hand. Watch each other to discover how technology is being a positive or negative identity influence.
Is it helping with eating healthy, monitoring exercise, keeping you punctual, and encouraging learning? Or is it creating a disconnect in family relationships or promoting a lack of eye contact and respect and an increase in laziness?
Cultivate a culture in your home of regular unplugging from technology to turn away from the noise of society and the words of strangers to focus on the source of our true and everlasting identity.
God, you are…
Remember God’s character by creating a list of words from the Bible that describe Him.
God, I am…
We are image bearers of God. How do you see God’s image growing in each other’s lives?
God, we will…
Pray for God’s guidance to see where your identity in Him has been shaken. Ask Him to reveal a course to correct it.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]On my phone, I recently caught up with a friend who is doing graduate studies in Paris. After we concluded our FaceTime conversation, I couldn’t help but pause for a moment and savor the technology in my hand. When we stop to think about it, smartphone technology is a bit breathtaking. With just a touch on a screen, we instantly access almost any information imaginable. From almost anywhere, we quickly hail a ride to get where we need to go. If we are in a new city, we can get detailed directions to a close-by restaurant, gas station, or movie theatre. With our phone camera we can capture a memory-making moment and, in a flash, post it on Facebook or send it via a text message to our family and friends.
Our smartphones are helpful things, but they also can be harmful things. It may be time to put a warning label on your phone: “Excessive use of this phone may be hazardous to your life.” The problem is that many of us are not being very smart with our smartphones. They have become too much a part of our lives.
In Tony Reinke’s new book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, he points out that on average we check our phones about 81,500 times each year or about once every four minutes of our waking lives. Rather than being tools to assist us, phones can become masters that enslave us.
Neuroscientists tell us our phones are actually re-wiring our brains. Technologists point out that smartphones are specifically designed to keep us glued to the screen. Other researchers and social observers note how excessive use of phones is transforming us into distracted people where intimacy in our interpersonal relationships is increasingly suffering. Excessive phone use fills our minds and hearts with digital junk food, impairing our literacy skills as well as our ability to think critically. Distracted drivers are a growing concern in automobile accidents.
We must also ponder the damaging effects of excessive phone use as it relates to our spiritual formation and cultivating intimacy with God. If spiritual formation requires an attentive life to Christ and others, a smartphone-driven, distracted life is a real and present danger for any apprentice of Jesus. Transparently, my phone woos me so much that on my day off, I often put it in a drawer out of sight. If I leave my cell phone at home even for a short drive to the grocery store, I feel a kind of panic, like I can’t function without it. How pathetic.
I believe it is time for us to become smarter with our smartphones so that we can pursue a more attentive, disciplined, and less distracted life. If you are not being very smart with your smartphone, if your intimacy with God, the wellbeing of your soul and your relationships are suffering as a result, let me suggest a wiser way forward.
First, get off your phone. Don’t text when you drive. On a weekly basis, do a several hour phone fast. I assure you the world will go on and you will survive. Not only will you survive, you will thrive. A technology fast is both freeing and enriching.
Second, get alone. One of the most foundational spiritual disciplines is solitude. We live in a very noisy world. Solitude not only nourishes our soul, it also helps us be more attentive to God and His still small voice in our lives.
Third, get in the Word. What is your regular weekly pattern for studying God’s Word? The spiritual discipline of study will fill your heart and mind with life-giving truth and timeless wisdom, not digital junk food of trivial information. Put your phone aside and pick up your Bible. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.”
Fourth, get outside. Get your eyes off the screen for a while and get them on God’s beautiful creation. Find places and spaces where God’s general revelation of creation can be restorative to your body, mind, and soul. Remember the word recreation comes from re-creation, and a part of Sabbath rest is the restorative nature of nature.
Fifth, get with others. One of the gnawing ironies of our smartphone digital age is that while we have never been more connected, we have never been lonelier. While we may have a ton of Facebook friends, we have too few face-to-face friends. Incarnated relationships formed and nurtured in real time and space are a vital component of human and societal flourishing. Embrace the spiritual discipline of community. Spend regular times eating together as a family and keep your phones away from the table. Join a small group that meets regularly and attend worship services each Sunday.
Let’s be grateful for our smartphones, but let’s also get smarter in managing them. If you are looking for a good resource to read, I suggest Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. It is my heartfelt prayer that we live lives characterized not by distractedness, but rather attentiveness to Christ, to others, and to our own hearts.
Photo by Courtney Clayton on Unsplash