Living into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction by Arthur H. Boers. Brazos, 2012. 256pp.
Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy by Sarah Jobe. Paraclete, 2011. 208pp.
Examining our lives as followers of Jesus is not a new practice. From the time we sang O, be careful little eyes what you see, ears what you hear, hands what you do in Sunday school, we have been taught to be mindful of our actions, distractions, and behaviour. In his latest book, Living into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction, Arthur Boers (a colleague of mine at Tyndale Seminary) aims to be both prophetic and helpful to Christians in an age of increasing distraction provided by technology: prophetic, in alerting us to and warning us of our growing dependence on technology and the manner in which it has changed our world and patterns; helpful, in equipping people to be discerning as they engage with the fruit of technology.
Boers grounds his book in the disaffection with life he has encountered among many. This work piggybacks on his 2007 spiritual memoir The Way is Made By Walking, the story of his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. On that pilgrimage he shared walks, rest stops, meals, pains, joys, and hostel rooms with people from around the world. Although most of those people professed no specific religious affiliation, they were certainly spiritual seekers, and the extended walk of the pilgrimage allowed everyone to reflect on and sift through their life’s experiences and priorities. Several people made profound life changes because of that journey.
It is clear to Boers that affluence has not deadened spiritual searching, but has, it seems, caused a concomitant interest in spirituality. How can it be, he wonders, that those who have so much still have such an underlying hunger for something more? What is it that is causing or adding to this dissatisfaction among so many? Boers’s answers are heavily dependent on the ideas and teachings of Albert Borgmann, a philosopher at the University of Montana whose area of specialty is the philosophy of society and culture, with particular emphasis on technology.
Following Borgmann, Boers claims that consumerism and technology can deform us deeply as they influence and change our priorities and activities. So Boers wants people—Christians especially—to stop and take notice of the multiple ways in which technology is impacting our work, our rest, our emotional health, our worship, our use of time, and our relationships. He acknowledges that some of the influences of technology are obviously not just good, but very good, as with many advancements in medical technology. However, he also points out the many ways in which technology has morphed from being a tool at our disposal, ostensibly offered to simplify our lives, to an entity that, in many ways, now rules and shapes the patterns of our lives instead.
Boers is certainly not amiss in naming this a sort of idolatry. And so, to point out the ways in which technology is impacting our lives, he invites people to go on ALERTS, an acronym he has devised for a series of topics and questions to help uncover some of the negative impacts of technology in our lives.
The A is for attention. Though some technological tools run in the background, many technological items are created to command our attention, usually a screen of some kind which displays high-speed images meant to entertain us in exquisite colour with seductive soundtracks. But this can decrease our attention spans, deaden our ability to respond to situations appropriately, and, perhaps most disconcertingly, condition us to assume that we are in control of whatever deserves our attention. We need to ask, counsels Boers, if what we giving our attention to is upholding or distracting us from our deepest values.
The L of ALERTS stands for limits, which, due to the increase of personalized technological devices, have loosened considerably in the last few decades. For example, with one phone in the house, sans call-display, phone calls and conversations were the business of the whole family (for better or worse!). Now, parents often have no idea what kind of relationships or conversations their teens are having, since most of it happens in an individualized manner, online or through texting. Through the proliferation of technology, the threshold for engaging in many vices such slander, inappropriate relationships, addictions, or pornography is so much lower than ever before.
The E asks us to consider engagement—both how we engage with technology ourselves, and with others through it. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find someone who worked BE (Before Email), but those few who remember talk of how there was more time to process matters in business or in church affairs. If someone had a complaint, they wrote a letter; this letter would then be dealt with at the next monthly committee meeting; a letter of reply would be drafted and sent. Yes, it was slow (too slow, sometimes), but now there is little time for reasoned responses because email or texting make communication so quick. An email of complaint can ignite a blaze of controversy in mere minutes, especially as that initial posting can quickly be forwarded to many other people. Boers fears that technology has increased our expectations of speed while eroding our patience and tolerance for weakness or delay.
The R of ALERTS points out the many ways in which relationships have been affected by technology. On the whole, there is less and less need for personal face-to-face interaction with other people—bank tellers, pastors, even family members. Again, there are obvious benefits to being able to connect with others remotely, but Boers also wants us to seriously consider the losses as technology has altered the way we “do” relationships. He wonders whether people seem more “disposable”—virtual relationships can seem easier to enter and maintain than real relationships, not the least because so much can be disguised in virtual communication. What constitutes “community,” a central concept for Christians, in a virtual world?
The T highlights the impact of technology on our time. Though many inventions claim to save us time, there are also subtle ways in which gadgets use up time. Gadgets require attention and maintenance, let alone the time it takes to learn how to use them! Technology has significantly changed the work environment. Decades ago it would have been uncommon for executives or mid-level employees to do their own typing or filing; they had secretaries who did these tasks. Yet now it would be hard to find an office that did not expect every person to be busy on their own computers with their own files. Demands can arrive in our inboxes at a rapid pace. Instead of simplifying our lives, has technology driven us to distraction?
The final letter, S, turns our attention to space, because technology also affects our relationship to place. Virtually, the world—indeed the cosmos—is so much more accessible to us, and we become disconnected from where our bodies are. While that has obvious benefits, we can also be so consumed by far-away spots and events that we become unaware of and ungrounded from our own place.
Of course, much of this information is not new. But Boers has collected an impressive array of facts and studies so that readers can’t avoid acknowledging the impact of increasing technology. But he doesn’t stop there. Boer’s goal is not to have us discouraged and defeated, but to encourage us to reconsider what our core values for good living actually are, and then to challenge us to live out of them rather than our default position of accepting the sway of technology in our lives. As he says, “Unless we figure out why we’re selecting our lifestyle choices, it will be hard to make discerning decisions and careful choices about living differently.” He highlights Borgmann’s terminology: Our daily decisions need to be decided by our fundamental decisions.
To counter the potentially negative effects of technology, Boers invites us to consider Borgmann’s concept of “focal practices.” Boers himself stumbled into this by accident as he began to challenge himself to hike in mid-life, and as he and his wife found pleasure in the remodelling of a kitchen to make their home more convenient and accessible for hospitality. These activities, while difficult, also gave him great satisfaction and enriched his life. When he heard about Borgmann’s focal practices, he understood the restorative power of these two events in his own life better. These were practices that restored some needed balance to his life, and helped him centre himself anew on his own deeply held values.
It can be difficult to determine what exactly constitutes a focal practice, à la Borgmann, because they can be subjective. But the three overarching determiners are that these practices must first have commanding presence—in the sense that they take energy and effort, contain an element of unpredictability, and, thus, humble us. Many activities that people might consider as crafts, such a quilting or woodworking, could be focal practices. Second, focal practices have a quality of continuity—they connect us with a network of people and ecosystems as we engage in activities and use material. Food preparation or playing a musical instrument, for example, gather material from various sources and influences, and can happen within a certain tradition of cooking or instruction. They are thus focal practices, in that they connect us with other people and places. Third, focal practices have centring power—they help us be in touch with reality greater than our own concerns. They enable us to relax and gain perspective, see how our lives might be out of balance, and gain clarity on how to redress that imbalance. At its best, a focal practice allows times of “flow,” or even a spiritual high. For Christians, worship is the central focal practice; it reorients us to what is lasting and of great value.
In a way reminiscent of Brueggeman’s well-known paradigm of the psalms as orientation, disorientation, and reorientation in Spirituality of the Psalms, Boers wants to make Christians aware of how technology can instead cause disorientation in our lives. Although he also writes well about moving towards reorientation through placing limits on our use of technology and making room for focal practices, what is missing is the original orientation aspect of Brueggeman’s paradigm. Boer’s explanations of life being “not as good and fulfilling as we might wish” offer but a vague and subjective indication of what our orientation should be; a common understanding of orientation is assumed, rather than explained. Without fuller explanation by Boers, it is easy to misread this orientation as something akin to the “good old days,” when people canned from their own gardens, wrote letters by hand, whittled wood, played board games, or read poetry together around a lantern after a hard day’s labour, and generally inhabited the prairie world created by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is a misconception that the book struggles unsuccessfully to overcome completely.
I would have appreciated Brueggeman’s complete paradigm, grounded in biblical theology, so as to open up for us first the full vista of God’s good intentions of shalom for humans in their varied relationships with self, God, each other and creation. This is the way that Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., sets up his material in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, his breviary on sin. With the vista of shalom firmly in view, we could more easily realize how we have all been deceived and have missed the mark of shalom through the devious influences of technology. This full-orbed shalom could then also guide our Reorientation in order to get our practices more in line with our communal Christian values.
A delightful accompaniment, and even perhaps an exhibit of what Boers wants to reclaim, is Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy, the accessible volume by first-time author Sarah Jobe. In many ways, her work is an example of focal practice as she attends to the reality of new life growing within her own body. It is because she had struggles with pregnancy—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—that Jobe practices theological reflection on the experience of being with child. She sets herself to the task of finding God in the midst of it all, and as she says beautifully, she explores how the practices we take up on behalf of our babies train us in the very practices we need to live the life of faith. Pregnant women, she asserts, are the very image of God among us, and pregnancy is co-creating with God.
Where Boers cautions a trio of “disses” (distraction, disorientation, and disembodiment) in our technology-infused existence, Jobes counters with the ways in which pregnancy caused her to focus on the activity of creation; oriented her toward herself, her child, and God; and forced her to consider her own embodiment incarnate as a new being was enfleshed within her own. Like Boers, who begins to see remodelling a kitchen as an enriching focal practice rather than an indulgent luxury, Jobe too learns to see “normal” happenings or activities of pregnancy in a new way—as opportunities for spiritual reflection and growth. Her delight in the details of her growing child helped her to understand how God loves us unconditionally, quite apart from our accomplishments or failures. God loves us simply because we are God’s own. This became critical as her ability to “do” things decreased in pregnancy, and she had to learn to rest like God—a hard lesson for driven people. Yet God used her exhaustion to force her to be still and thus be able to delight in feeling the child within.
Pregnancy, as anyone who has experienced it or journeyed alongside a loved one during it knows, is not just about blossoming and glowing. It also about pain and loss and groaning. These, too, however, if reoriented to God, can bear fruit for a life of faith. Believers gain new life through the suffering of Jesus. And groaning, after all, is what the whole fallen creation is engaged in as it waits for the birth of a new creation. It is partly the groaning that accomplishes the birth of child; groaning is an aid for the arrival of new life.
Under Jobe’s deft handling, thus, it turns out that pregnancy is full of faith lessons about developing an active patience, about welcoming and feeding the stranger among us, about our bodies as temples, about sacrificing one’s self for the well-being of another, and about faith being sure of what you do not yet see. Although this book will resonate well with pregnant women and those who are walking alongside them, Jobe’s candour, humour, and spiritual insights make it an accessible and enlightening read for all those on a pilgrimage from orientation in Eden, through disorientation in our contemporary technology-suffused context to the reorientation of God’s shalom both now and future.