Reading Tim Challies’ new book, The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, my thoughts kept turning to the Amish. Not perhaps the most expected line of thinking for a book on the digital revolution, but so it was. Specifically I wondered what it was about “horse and buggy” technology that they thought it was a good place to stop. It wasn’t like they were some kind of reactionary group who threw off their modern trappings in a fit of primitivism. They simply ceased advancing while the rest of the world around them hurtled on at an ever accelerated pace. Did they see something coming over the horizon that we may have missed?
The Amish dug their heels in technologically several centuries ago; what if we had arbitrarily decided to stop developing say twenty or twenty five years ago? Think of it… no Twitter, no Facebook, no Youtube, no texting, no email, no web browsing at all… maybe even no cell phones. If you are old enough, could you imagine yourself living this way again? If you are young enough that this is all you have ever known, is such an existence even conceivable?
The indispensable nature of social media, or the belief thereof, forms the core of The Next Story. Challies opens his book with a series of frank questions concerning technology: “Am I giving up control of my life? Is it possible that these technologies are changing me? Am I becoming a tool of the very tools that are supposed to serve me?” (p.11). What makes this series of questions all the more intriguing is that they come from a writer whose authority, even celebrity, is a direct result of these very technologies. Tim Challies, for those who are not familiar with the name, is one of the most widely read and followed Christian bloggers. Beginning his online career as an insightful book reviewer and cultural commentator, Challies has become a much sought after conference speaker, media “talking head” and book author in his own right. His daily blog is read worldwide and The Next Story is his third published work. In a sense, this gives him an ideal perspective from which to comment on the emerging digital trends.
So then what insights does he offer? In the first three chapters of the book he establishes a “theology” of technology, followed by a quick outline of humanity’s relationship with technology and how that relationship has evolved over the centuries, leading to our present situation. Many will perhaps be surprised, especially coming from a self confessed “techie”, at how suspicious and distrustful he is of new technologies. In his introduction he declares that “technology is a good gift from God”, but his central concern quickly turns to how we have become “slaves to our technology” (p. 13). His intention is not an enthusiastic embrace, but rather that of effective Christian “discernment”.
Chapters four to nine are where discernment plays out in terms of direct application, “showing how we can live with wisdom and virtue in this digital world, using our technologies without being used by them” (p. 17). These chapters comprise the bulk of the book and in them he examines six ways in which the “digital explosion” has altered our lives and suggests appropriate Christian responses.
Beginning with the question of what it is like to live in a world of pervasive communication (Chapter 4), he examines how technology mediates our relationships with one another (Chapter 5), how technology acts as a distraction from what is most important (Chapter 6), the adverse effects of too much information or “informationism” (Chapter 7), its effects on our concepts of truth and authority (Chapter 8), and the question of visibility and privacy (Chapter 9). Along the way, Challies provides many helpful tips for Christians seeking to combat the digital onslaught. For instance, in a world of excess and trivial information and lazy minds, he recommends that Christians should respond by putting more emphasis on memorization, specifically that of scripture (p. 155). He also calls attention to aspects of our digital lives of which we may not be even aware. For instance, he points out that every Google search, every MSN conversation, every email we have ever sent, is fully preserved in the internet ether, and at some point in the future, others may be able to access that information. For those of us who have been less than discreet or outright sinful in our past online behaviour, this can be a sobering, even chilling, thought.
Challies’ ultimate thoughts, however, seem to be directed toward the future. He predicts, and I think he is right in this, that we are on the cusp of very large changes in the way that we live, interact with one another, and even perceive faith. If you think technology is intrusive now, just wait for the next few years. Though this sobering thought underlies the entire book, I found very little to embrace in its possibilities, nor a comprehensive remedy for it being offered. Challies gives many insightful reflections for the individual, but what, for instance, can the church do corporately? Should churches of the future become “technology free” zones, or should we find some accommodation? More importantly, are there ways we can use these new technologies to advance the kingdom of Christ? These are the kind of thoughts which it would have been helpful to expand upon.
As an introduction to a major topic for Christian thinking which has barely been scratched, I believe The Next Story is a remarkable start. Tim Challies clearly lays out the major implications of the new digital world for life and faith, and offers responses and remedies that the average reader can implement in her/his own life today. Whether or not this digital explosion will require an outright “Amish” response from Christians is yet to be seen.