The first iPhone was introduced in 2007. I'm not the first to comment on how much our lives have changed with this style smartphone. Its personalized screen, infinite menu of apps, and unique ability to trigger the same dopamine circuits in our brain associated with addiction with its scrolling feed captures and concentrates our attention. Our smartphones both narrow and broaden our lives. These screens can be like an IV infusion of concentrated messages and interactions with the mental-emotional control center of our bodies and brains. It's the same mental-emotional center that shapes our worldview, stimulates feelings or triggers reactions...and ultimately shapes our character. Marketers and PR firms know this. It's a powerful tool.
For me, it's become an essential spiritual discipline to monitor my phone use. I monitor it the same way I monitor my diet. I pay attention to how much I am on my phone, what I consume through my phone. I pay attention to its effect on my mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
In terms of Christian spirituality, monitoring my relationship with my smartphone is a matter of stewardship. On the one hand, it's a stewardship of my own health and wellbeing. But, it's also more than just personal stewardship.
Monitoring my dependence on my phone is also how I care for the world. It's a stewardship of what I take in from the world and put out into the world through social media, purchases, and clicks. If big data uses my clicks, purchases, social media posts and Google searches to shape what companies put on my screen and spend their money, then my stewardship of my phone impacts the world. My phone has the power to shape my worldview and character, as well as the world around me. I have an advantage in this spiritual discipline. I remember life before smartphones. I have children who don't really remember life before their personalized screen. Like growing up with TV, having grown up with smartphones makes monitoring their dependence on it more challenging for my kids. Depending on a smartphone is a norm for their late modern life. Smartphones are how my kids connect with friends, get information, and find entertainment. Fasting from their phone by shutting it off or getting rid of it for a day or two may be liberating for me. For them, it's isolating.
It seems obvious that smartphones have changed us. They make us simultaneously more connected and isolated. They make us more informed, yet less knowledgable. We are more independent but dependent. We are free to be where we want when we want with our smartphones ...as long as we have cellular reception or wifi. Our phones have expanded and narrowed how we express ourselves. Many of us also feel anxious without our phones. I know some feel "naked" without their phone, forced to find other ways to pass the time or stay connected. As a theologian, I find that being consumed in my smartphone often separates me from the love of God. For me, God's love is the basis of all love and loving human relationships. Dependence on my smartphone undermines that.
Messages and reminders of God's love just don't come through my smartphone very often.
Instead, I am bombarded by the compulsive messages of America's two main religions - consumerism and empire. When I unlock my smartphone, I open my attention to a stream of manufactured wants, interactive choices, obsessions with identity and appearance, and their utilitarian promises. The promises are far-reaching. This product will do that for me. By sending money, I help this candidate beat that candidate or fix that social problem. All from an impulsive swipe or a click.
Not to mention the propaganda. The news and information I get through my smartphone are full of manipulative language, fear-mongering, blame, ignorance, and hatred. Propaganda feeds paranoia and distorted understandings of self and victimization. It works against seeing our neighbors as ourselves, taking social responsibility, or celebrating freedom as a gift to protect for oneself and others. None of this connects me or deepens my relationship with God or grounds me in love. In fact, it saturates my attention and indoctrinates me in something very different.
Some suggest I download different apps or tell me to stay off Facebook and Twitter, Some might advise me to stop reading conservative and liberal media. But, that's not the answer.
I call consumerism and empire politics "religion" because that is what they are. Think of God's covenant with Israel in light of the religion of Rome. Religion is not just abstract beliefs and ancient traditions. That's too narrow a definition. It's a modern definition prejudiced against ancient wisdom and self-righteous about secular alternatives.
Theologians know religion is about what we worship, what we love, and what binds us together. That is the historical function of "religion." Religious traditions are like ancient technology for shaping people around a common understanding of what's sacred and an associated way of life. What we worship and binds us together ultimately defines who we are and what we love. Consumerism and empire politics are religious systems that attempt to do the same. That's why my relationship with my phone is always a spiritual matter.
Consumerism and empire both attempt to indoctrinate us with false identities, false beliefs, and hollow love. Partisan messages bind us together with polarizing language, blame-games, and self-righteous emotions. Consumerism attempts to indoctrinate us in a false definition of "freedom": freedom to buy whatever we want, as much as we want, and remake ourselves with endless products and purchases.
The facts are that consumerism and empire politics are ubiquitous in US media and culture. Their myths and religious messages saturate our newsfeeds, entertainment streams, and are concentrated by algorithms written by marketers to feed us more through our little screens. Through sound-bytes, memes, and manipulative messaging, they exploit our fears, confirm our biases, and reorient our heart's desires. They shape what we love and are willing to give our lives to.
Unless I'm willing to accept a monastic lifestyle (which sounds appealing sometimes), the world that comes through my smartphone is a world I can't ignore. I can't ignore it because it is a world in which God works and dwells. It's a human-made world: edited, downloadable, seemingly self-selected and unfiltered. But, it's also a world in which the Spirit flows and spiritual needs are sometimes raw and nakedly expressed. This is exactly the kind of world God comes into.
God did not isolate in the heavens but became incarnate in this tangled world. God did not incarnate into the life of a wealthy prince, superhero, or successful politician. Jesus was not even a Roman citizen. He was born of a people occupied by an empire. He was the son of a carpenter - someone without land. He lived the life of a roaming teacher. He ended his life at the political center of his world in a city whose name means "peace." He died under the conditions of a slave and criminal. He was a revolutionary without a weapon other than forgiveness. His manifesto was a passage from Isaiah and its hope for God's reign to return.
In short, Jesus fearlessly entered just this kind of world. As an aspiring follower of Jesus, I have to live in this world, too.
So, I don't give up my smartphone. But, I also don't live in the false belief that completely controlling my apps or cell phone use will shield me from the world's brokenness and evils. The ancient wisdom of Jewish-Christian scripture offers this idea of stewardship. It reminds me that the world belongs to God, including my phone. God loves this world and doesn't reign universally. But, God's reign has been unleashed into the world through the story of Jesus. I want to choose God's Spirit and Love as the true sustenance. They carry on that good news and story in life. God's Love is what's possible in the world regardless of the onslaught of influences on my small screen. That means I stay grounded in some way in God's love as I let the world in. It's on me to be rooted or grounded in Love as I let my smartphone open my mental-emotional center to a myriad of promises and messages.
God's love, therefore, must ground my politics and vision for justice. God's love shapes my wants and desires. It's a spiritual discipline to maintain God's love at the center of my worldview and actions as much as possible. All this takes spiritual discipline.
Staying grounded in God's love through fasting from my phone, study, prayer, loving relationships and prophetic imagination is essential. Through them, I remember what I worship, who I am, and what I really want. It takes time and effort, things I could easily avoid. It'd be easier to immerse myself in that scrolling newsfeed on that little screen and let Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok or Twitter trigger my emotions or dopamine circuits in my brain. But, that's not what I love or who I want to be.