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Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age

01 March 2024 By Phil Cotnoir

An extended review of a 2023 book by Samuel D. James

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

Crossway, 2023. 208 pages. $23 (e-book $22, audio $13)

Have you ever prayed a mid-swipe prayer? It occurs when you are mindlessly scrolling through social media posts and come across a heartfelt plea for prayer from someone. If I’m honest, it sometimes feels like a fly in the ointment, sandwiched there between a hilarious meme and a fiery opinion on the latest news. It's in that revealing moment I discover just how much I am shaped by my digital habits.

I wish I could say I have always responded to such requests by praying with a fully focused mind and heart. All too often, however, I have thrown up a mid-swipe prayer while already casting my eyes down to the next shiny and interesting thing. This is not who I want to become. So why does the online world seem to nudge us so powerfully in certain directions? I recently came across a compelling answer to that question in Digital Liturgies, the first book by one of evangelicalism’s bright emerging writers, Samuel D. James.

Samuel James argues that the social internet and the pocket supercomputer – which some people still refer to as a phone – are not only remaking the world again but actually making us into different kinds of people. He writes that the online world "is an epistemological environment – a spiritual and intellectual habitat – that creates in its members particular ways of thinking, feeling, and believing." James makes his case in contrast to what we might call the default Christian approach of “technology as neutral,” an approach which focuses almost exclusively on the content while ignoring the deeply shaping nature of the medium itself.

As a millennial who tasted the last fleeting moments of analog life before the internet was inescapable, these observations strike me as true to experience. But why is this important for the Canadian church? Because if James is correct and these technologies are not simply influencing us through questionable content but reshaping our minds and hearts like a liturgy, then we must soberly reckon with that fact. This especially concerns younger generations; findings from Statistics Canada indicate that fully 90 per cent of those aged 15 to 45 are on social media, though many older people are also heavy users.

James draws from and interacts with leading thinkers but manages to bring the big ideas down to an accessible level. For example, he considers the pioneering Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, drawing an interesting application regarding the internet age and the nature of hyperlinks. If you read anything on the web, chances are there are hyperlinks embedded in the text – I certainly use them in my own writing. James points out that the hyperlink is a fundamental change to the nature of the written word, for by clicking on that link, new worlds are instantly available. If we think of our attention as a limited resource, which it is, then hyperlinks serve to scatter one's attention rather than focus it on the text at hand. Perhaps this is part of the reason that reading a printed article is such a different experience compared to reading the same article on a device.

The author also argues that online reading encourages shallow skimming far more than deep contemplation, though I know none of my readers would ever think of giving my words anything but the fullest measure of their attention. (Right.) This watering down of attention is baked into the warp and woof of online spaces; there is no escaping it. We can only recognize it honestly and act accordingly, exercising discipline and taking an active role in preserving our capacity for contemplation and concentration.

You may not have too much trouble keeping your attention on this book, however, for James is an unusually clear and lucid writer. The slim volume manages to treat a surprising range of topics – wisdom, technology, media, embodiment, attention, pornography, the concept of the self, anxiety and more. After the opening chapters in which the author lays out his thesis, he devotes the second half of the book to exploring five “liturgies” which shape us as we spend time online – authenticity, outrage, shame, consumption and meaninglessness. James mixes some cure along with his trenchant diagnosis, including reflections on relevant Scriptures in each chapter.

In short, Digital Liturgies is a call to be reshaped and reoriented by the wisdom of God rather than the distorting digital liturgies of the web. For those of us plugged into the web, this is a message we need to double click on.

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