The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion
Tim Challies, The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Books, 2011. 204 pages. No index. $19.99. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.
“If you want to know what water is, do not ask a fish.” So goes the ancient and sagacious Chinese proverb. We are often rendered oblivious to that in which we are immersed. We then become incapable of wise judgments about our environments. Habituation replaces critique, and our lives consist in second-nature reactions devoid of discernment. Of course, the living of life requires that we not critique every commonplace (lest we paralyze ourselves); yet as Christians we are emphatically and repeatedly exhorted by Scripture to unmask and avoid worldliness. What is common may be ungodly—or at least unprofitable. Jesus went so far as to proclaim to the Pharisees that “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight (Luke 16:15; see also 1 John 2:15-17). James also declares that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Most Christians take such warnings to apply only to doctrinal deviation or immoral conduct. We must hold firm to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) and not be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). This is true. However, worldliness is often more insidious than what is conveyed in overtly false teaching or modeled in blatantly immoral living. Worldliness, that which makes the ungodly seem normal and the godly seem abnormal (David Wells), can seep in under the door, crawl in through the cracks, and flow in through the vents—all unannounced. This afflicts us when our taken-for-granted habits engender sensibilities (modes of thought, perception, and conduct) that make us less likely to hear God’s voice, to do God’s will, to redeem the time (Ephesians 5:16), and to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
Lest all this concern about subtle worldliness seem too abstract or pedantic, consider my testimony concerning the strange effects of contemporary digital media. My Anglican church celebrates communion every Sunday, and considers this shared sacred event to be the climax of the liturgy. All are invited forward to receive the cup and the bread (or a blessing if one is not a baptized Christian). One morning, I noted a young family walking up the aisle for communion. One child was being carried and another was taken by the hand. As they moved toward the chalice and the bread, the father began gazing at his glowing cell phone as he walked toward the minister. He finally looked away from whatever was entrancing him and looked up to be told by the minister that he was now receiving “the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Even several years ago, such a bizarre scene would have been impossible, since telephones were tied to land lines or because cell phones were just phones and not miniature entertainment consoles. But this bemused soul could not turn his phone off even in preparation to receive communion, which the Bible warns is a very sobering matter (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Even taking communion was subjected to the multitasking afforded by digital technology.
Popular blogger, author, and pastor Tim Challies offers a tonic for these kinds of aberrations in his short, clear, and compelling book, The Next Story. While Challies is very much at home in the world of digital media (his blog is one of the most popular in the Christian community), he realizes that the recent profound changes in our means of communication (all empowered by the Internet) pose momentous challenges to Christian integrity. In the terminology of Neil Postman, digital media have an ecological effect. They do not simply add new gadgets and gismos; they change the whole atmosphere of communication and life in general. This book winningly contributes to a small—but it seems growing—literature of Christian critiques of media technology. Fifteen years ago any critical analysis of the Internet was typically dismissed as cranky primitivism (“You cannot turn back the clock”). But in recent years, I am heartened to find more secular and Christian assessments of the Internet that are less messianic and more skeptical.
Challies addressed digital technologies in their historical, functional, and theological dimensions. He challenges Christians to consider technology as both a gift and an area of moral discernment. Unlike the majority of evangelicals, Challies realizes that each technology shapes its message and the ones who use it. That is, technologies are not neutral vessels for communication. In Marshall McLuhan’s justly well-known words, “The medium is the message.” Therefore, each technology should be scrutinized (or exegeted) concerning its often invisible but substantial effects. To give us some perspective, Challies provides a brief but insightful overview of the rise of electronic technologies, looking at how previous technologies such as the telegraph and camera radically altered society.
Challies brings together three features of technology for assessment: our everyday experience of technology, a sound theory of technology, and a wise practice of using technology in its various forms. His focus throughout the book is not merely sociological or psychological; he also develops a biblically faithful and God-honoring understanding and practice of technology. To that end, he includes an “application” section in the chapters of Part 2, as well as questions for discussion, which makes the book ideal for small group study. Early in the book, Challies explains that technology can easily become an idol, and warns the reader of this sin throughout the work.
In Part 2, Challies offers the meat of his concerns, discussing matters of communication, distraction, information, visibility and privacy. These chapters offer much wisdom about the nature and effects of digital technologies, and resonate with the influence of savvy media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, as well as more recent writings. (It is difficult to stay current on rapidly-changing Internet technologies, but Challies astutely takes the pulse of cyberspace.) While embracing the benefits of things like email, blogs, twitter, Facebook, etc., he warns of the dangers of becoming distracted by trivia, of losing our embodied relationships, and of being betrayed by careless things posted on line.
Having written on and studied in this field for some time (see The Soul in Cyberspace [Baker Books, 1997]), I found little with which to disagree—and much that was familiar to me. What stood out to me, however, were Challies’s observations in chapter eight: “Here Comes Everybody (Truth/Authority).” In The Soul in Cyberspace, I worried about “the fate of truth in cyberspace.” But that was before the emergence and dominance of Google and Wikipedia, the two main sources of authority on the Internet today. Since the Bible teaches that God reveals truth in various ways to make himself known and to thus advance his Kingdom, Christians should be especially alert to ways in which the Internet can distort truth and hinder knowledge (justified true belief).
Challies contrasts the old Encyclopedia Britannica with Wikipedia. The former was expensive, took up much physical space, could only be updated through the printing of expensive new editions, and was rooted in recognized authorities for its thousands of articles. By contrast, Wikipedia is free (if you have Internet access), takes up no physical space, is updated constantly, and is written by anyone who wants to contribute to or originate articles. Furthermore, unlike the Encyclopedia Britannica, which had a set number of entries, Wikipedia entries expand endlessly on all topics. Challies notes that “The wiki model is increasingly regarded as the best means of arriving at truth, of building a repository of knowledge” (p. 163). Yet this should trouble us, since this model is undisciplined by intellectual authority—even if some limited content control is offered. (To offer an example of the unreliability of Wikipedia not included by Challies, I know a seminary professor whose biographical entry briefly [and falsely] included a reference to his marriage to a pornography star.) Challies aptly summarizes the problem by arguing that Wikipedia presents truth as consensus. However, the majority may be wrong. As Exodus 23:2 states: "Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.” Truth is a property of statements that rightly represent reality. False statements (however popular) fail to do so. Truth is not determined by democratic vote or Wikipedia consensus. (For more on the nature of truth, see chapters three and four of my book, Truth Decay [InterVarsity, 2000].) While Wikipedia has some limited usefulness in tracking down more reliable sources that are linked in its articles, it should not be viewed as a legitimate authority on anything. For several years I have had to lecture my students on this, since they sometimes use Wikipedia in footnotes.
Similarly, Challies comments that Google presents truth as relevance—another deeply defective concept. A Google search will reveal a ranking of cites based on algorithms that detect the number of links to a particular page (to oversimplify). For example, Challies says that when he searched for “What is Truth?” on Google, the second result was the Wikipedia entry, which offered multiple views, of which the “Christian conception was just one option among many” (168).
While Challies does not use the term, his discussion of Wikipedia’s and Google’s sense of truth and authority concerns epistemology: the discipline investigating the sources, standards, and limits of knowledge. Although his treatment of this question is preliminary and not academic, it is, nevertheless, indispensible for those who desire to possess and exhibit cognitive virtue. This consists in habitually comporting one’s mind and senses in ways that discern truth and reject error. As the Apostle Peter said, “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13, KJV; see also Romans 12:1-2). This is no easy task, especially when one enters the digital domain where information overwhelms, but where truth and wisdom are much harder to find.
Despite its often trenchant critiques of digital technology, one feature of the book itself betrays the less than salutary results of technological influence. Most on line writing, particular in blogs, dispenses with indenting the beginning of paragraphs. The Next Story does so as well (perhaps to imitate Internet style). When I add a post to The Constructive Curmudgeon (one of my blogs), I have no choice but to use non-indented paragraphs. The technology makes that (bad) decision for me. However, books are produced with more typographic options, and I find no good reason not to indent paragraphs. Not to do so is aesthetically displeasing and defies tradition unnecessarily. Further, although it may be unrelated to technological influence, the inner front cover and first page of the book are black instead of white, thus ruling out note-taking on these surfaces. This is annoying to anyone who is accustomed to making their own index at the front of a book. (The book also lacks an index and bibliography, but does include footnotes.)
I have one last quibble. Challies commendably takes a humble approach throughout the book, confessing his own mistakes in relating to technology and affirming his own need for God’s wisdom in these efforts. Near the end of the book, he writes of how he “sought to reduce inputs and to spend more time encountering the best information and less time encountering the least significant” (195). Challies unsubscribed from many blogs and tried to de-emphasize email. These were wise moves. But his next choice struck me as odd and against the grain of the book: “I even cancelled delivery of the newspaper” (196). As Challies himself claims, one of the problematic features of text on screens is that they tend to be skimmed instead of read, and so encourage less rigorous analysis. (This point is made in more detail in Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains [W.W. Norton, 2010].) One way to counteract this tendency to skim and surf written material on the Internet is to remain immersed in printed material: newspapers, magazines, and books. I am sure that Challies has not abandoned print (he often reviews books on his blog), but perhaps he should have kept the newspaper.
The Next Story is an accessible, smart, and spiritually-provoking exploration of the effects of digital technologies. If you want to know what water is, do not ask a fish. But if you want to know what digital technologies are and what they are doing to us, ask Tim Challies (among others).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy