By Felicia Wu Song

Secular Liturgies: Growing in awareness of how the digital shapes us

We are so pleased to share a special series this week on connection, digital technology, and abiding in God’s presence. Felicia Wu Song offers both academic and practical consideration of the ways technology creates or erodes real connection, with a keen sociological and theological eye. The first two pieces look critically at how digital technology works, and the third offers practical suggestions of ways to pursue the real connections we long for. She has an upcoming book from InterVarsity Press further exploring this topic. These pieces are excerpted from original talks shared at the 2019 West Coast Faculty Conference (you can find information about 2020 conferences here!). We hope this series will raise questions and prompt you to think about how you engage technology in ways that cultivate real connections in the places God has called you to live.

When I look around me in a coffee shop or in an airport terminal, I think about how the ebb and flow of our permanent connectivity is characterized by regularly wading through thick rapids of social media, email, and messaging — and how, to so many of us, it all feels so remarkably normal. For isn’t this what it feels like and looks like to be connected? To belong? To be productive? To be a successful and good person?  

Most of the time, it does feel “normal” and it seems to “make sense.” That is, until I encounter something like Tish Harrison Warren’s description of corporate confession found in Sunday services of worship. Warren, an Anglican priest, writes of a ritual that points to an alternative reality that is so different from our permanent connectivity. Every time I read it, I am thunderstruck and stopped in my tracks:

In church each week, we repent together. We confess that we have sinned “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone,” that we have neglected to love God with our whole hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves…. Confession reminds us that none of us gather for worship because we are “pretty good people”.... Our failures or successes in the Christian life are not what define us or determine our worth before God or God’s people. Instead, we are defined by Christ’s life and work on our behalf. We kneel. We humble ourselves together. We admit the truth. We confess and repent. Together, we practice the posture that we embrace every day — that of a broken and needy people who receive abundant mercy. And then — what a wonder! — the word of absolution: “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.” In Anglican liturgical practice we never confess without also hearing God’s blessing and forgiveness over us ... the priest stands and pronounces absolution.

When we confess and receive absolution together, we are reminded that none of our pathologies, neuroses, or sins, no matter how small or secret, affect only us. We are a church, a community, a family. We are not simply individuals with our pet sins and private brokenness. We are people who desperately need each other if we are to seek Christ and walk in repentance. If we are saved, we are saved together — as the body of Christ, as a church. Because of this, I need to hear my forgiveness proclaimed not only by God but by a representative of the body of Christ in which I receive grace, to remind me that though my sin is worse that I care to admit, I’m still welcome here. I’m still called into this community and loved.  

— Liturgy of the Ordinary, pg 57

The reality that this Christian ritual of confession and absolution points to — if we stop and take in what it is supposed to signify and “do” for us as Christians — is completely amazing. It is a reality that brings into sharp relief the vast distance between the kind of connection we are granted when we are steeped in our digital habits and what is promised through a life of being in communion with God.

• • •

To be reminded of this type of Good News is to realize that connection — particularly the quality of permanent connectivity that our online capacities offer us — has not proven to grant us peace. In these times of such unprecedented connectivity, when we are granted access to connection to people, connection to breaking news, connection to information and entertainment, you would think we would be satisfied. It is the stuff of utopian dreams from the Enlightenment traditions of technological progress — the belief that if we could solve ignorance and drudgery, and perfect channels of communication and dissemination of knowledge, we would be empowered, we would not be at war with each other or with ourselves. We would be at peace.

But most of us know, in those first groggy moments of waking each morning and as the fog of our consciousness clears and we re-establish what lies before us in our day, that our lives are entrenched within a digitally saturated life that is like being on a fast train that has no intention of slowing or stopping to assess where we are going.

Even as a culture, we’re starting to admit that we are actually exhausted and longing for a different mode of living. We see this as: Silicon Valley CEO’s are sending their kids to tech-free schools and celebrities go on digital detox retreats. Many of us are trying productivity apps like “Freedom” “or “Moment” and books like How to Break Up with Your Phone and Digital Minimalism are selling like hotcakes.

We are a people who are restless and still hungry for something we can’t put our finger on. Why? Because, even though the digital promises us connection, what we actually long for is communion. What we actually need is the opportunity to taste what it is to “dwell in God’s love.” We actually need to cease abiding in the digital, and find our way back to abiding in our Lord Jesus as he called us to.

• • •

So how do we do this? As heretical as it may sound to those of us who are academically-minded, our problem seems to lie not in the fact that we don’t have enough information. Despite what knowledge we may have about how corporations are manipulating us through the addictive designs of their apps and devices, or even the intuitive sense that aspects of our digital habits are impoverishing our lives, that knowledge hasn’t often translated into a transformed life.

No. Our Problem is not a lack of knowledge. Our problem is a lack of recognition in the formative powers of the visceral and the bodily. In his book You Are What You Love, James K. Smith argues that, we would be better off if we recognized how it is that we are profoundly shaped by our loves — these desires that churn from our guts — and that these loves are formed through what we do with our bodies.

He writes this: 

“The way our… desire gets aimed in specific directions is through practices that shape, mold, and direct our love…Practices … inscribe particular ongoing habits into our character, such that they become secondary nature to us…. Some of the ... practices that we are regularly immersed in are actually thick formative practices that over time embed in us desires for a particular version of the good life.”  (p.83)

If we take to heart this assertion that what we do with our bodies indicates and trains our loves, then, we can begin to see how we are being formed and trained in our daily lives — in each little routine — towards some goal, some end, some telos. In all of our digital practices of checking our emails, reading our social media feeds, responding on Twitter, when we first wake up, right before we go to bed, in between meetings, waiting in lines, our desires and our souls are being formed (or mis-formed) in a particular direction. Like a vine on a trellis, we are becoming trained towards becoming some sort of person.

And unfortunately, when we are unreflective about our practices and simply following the taken-for-granted norms in our society, Smith argues that we inevitably find ourselves engaging in “secular liturgies,” personal and cultural habits that we routinely practice with our bodies, which have the effect of mis-forming our desires. These secular liturgies ultimately mis-direct our desires towards those things that falsely claim to fulfill our longings, and that manage to draw us away from the very communion with God for which our souls thirst.

So, what are we to do — especially when it comes to our digital practices? We need to recognize them as secular liturgies and awaken to how our external behaviors both signal and shape something about our loves and who we are becoming. We need to be asking: In my everyday senses and digital routines, am I cultivating the capacity to recognize the glory of the divine that is often everywhere, but hidden for only those who have eyes to see and ears to hear? Are my routines comprised of secular liturgies that are setting up blinders and obstacles to hearing the still small voice of my Lord?

After becoming conscious of how our secular liturgies are framing our lives, Smith encourages us to identify and exercise counter-liturgies that push back against the mis-formations of the heart. Instead of simply removing the bad, we ought to fill ourselves with something good. Why? Because as Augustine wrote, our hearts are restless, and will remain so until we find our rest in God. So, in response to our digital secular liturgies — checking our phones whenever we’re bored, our soothing daily wind-down of thirty minutes with Candy Crush or Instagram — we should ask: how can we disrupt these digital habits and open ourselves up to the opportunity to taste a different kind of living? Can we seek out generative approaches to developing practices and routines that can re-direct our loves back to experiencing communion with God and others in our lives?

One obvious starting place for counter-liturgies is to draw from the longstanding spiritual disciplines found in historical Christianity. On this front, I’ve found Justin Earley’s book The Common Rule, to be an accessible introduction on how prayer, fasting, Scripture study, and other disciplines might be adapted and made particularly meaningful to the context of our digital lives. What I like about Earley’s approach to spiritual disciplines and the idea of adopting a “rule of life” is how he reminds those of us who start hyperventilating when we see the word “rule” — that the root Latin word regula actually is associated with a bar or trellis. A “rule of life” is not a thing of legalism, perfection, or “things to do.” Rather, a rule of life functions as a trellis that helps guide our growth.

Another approach to counter-liturgies is to think in terms of experiments which can create situations that have the potential to reveal to ourselves the dependence we have on our digital devices. Experiments can be modest and contained ways to begin encouraging ourselves to step out of our comfort zones and try developing a taste for something new that, though frightening at first, might actually become a precious source of life and vitality. Here are two examples:

  • First, over and against our secular liturgies of digital multi-tasking: what if we engaged in experiments in mono-tasking (when we drive, only driving; when we are waiting on line, just waiting; when we are doing our laundry, just doing laundry)? What happens to my brain if I stop filling it with an agenda? Do I become more aware of the place where I am?  What do I hear in my soul — or from God — when there is silence?
  • Second, what if we committed to turning off our phones for an hour once a week, and went about our lives without it? Would we feel anxiety and panic? Or liberation and restoration? Whatever we experience, how might that reaction help us discover what lies in our being and what we need to wrestle with before our merciful Lord?

• • •

A few years ago, long-time blogger and journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay explaining why, after suffering a series of major health breakdowns, he’d decided to leave his very successful career as a blogger and digital presence. In his poignant essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” he reflected: “I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again.… I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while…. I want to spend some time with my parents, while I still have them … and rekindle the friendships that I have simply had to let wither.”

Even though Sullivan was writing out of the context of his own failing health and personal need to step away from an insanely demanding career commitment, I believe he is onto something important that speaks into our first-world modern condition: what would it be like to “walk around in our own thoughts about something for a while”? What would it be like to do anything slowly, carefully? To simply absorb and be absorbed by something delightfully difficult enough to nourish and feed the complex appetites of our souls? 

To spend time with people in such a way that honors the temporary nature of the gift of their company? To refuse to no longer be swept away by life’s winds, but spend time gently and carefully re-kindling a friendship like how one thoughtfully builds a fire that will endure and provide warmth to all who draw near?

These questions remind us of all the things we are being disconnected from when we are unreflectively swept away by digital’s permanent connectivity.

In many ways, Sullivan had the luxury to walk away from the digital. And I wholly appreciate that, for a variety of reasons, most of us do not. But, as a community of faith, how can we begin to disrupt and resist the compulsive and corrosive tendencies of our permanent connectivity? And how can we embrace routines that help us become people who abide in God’s presence and experience the communion we genuinely desire? And are then able to share that Good News to the exhausted and hungry world around us?  

• • •

I’d like to ground this reflection within the Good News of Jesus who is Our Hope — even when the journey between who we are now and who we long to be can seem so long and so daunting. This is from a liturgy of devotion found in the Book of Common Prayer:

O gracious Light,
Pure brightness of the ever-living Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
And our eyes behold the vesper light,
We sing your praises O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Song of God, O Giver of life,
And to be glorified through all the worlds.

And hear these words from St. Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth:

“It is not ourselves that we proclaim; we proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus’ sake. For the same God who said, “Out of darkness let light shine,” has caused his light to shine within us, to give the light of revelation — the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:5-6)

Adapted from Felicia Song's forthcoming book tentatively titled When Left to Our Own Devices to be published by InterVarsity Press. Copyright 2020 by Felicia Song. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press (ivpress.com).

About the Author

Felicia Song is Associate Professor and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Having trained in History, Communication Studies and Sociology from Yale, Northwestern, and University of Virginia, and taught at Louisiana State University’s Manship School for Mass Communication, her research is oriented around the rapidly evolving digital technology industry and how the adoption of social media and digital devices fundamentally alters the landscapes of family, community, and organizational life. In addition to her book, Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone, Online Together (Peter Lang 2009), she has conducted research on expectant women’s online information-seeking habits and the evolution of “mommy bloggers” as social media professionals. Currently, she is working on a book project that explores how our contemporary digital habits form us and our imaginations about personhood, time, and place. When she is not working, she enjoys children’s chapter books, searching local consignment shops, and watching The Great British Baking Show with her husband and two children. 

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