I am an avid starter of books.
I didn't say reader (though, that's true), but I often meet a book I'm interested in starting. You can tell people like me by two tells:
- If you ask us what we're reading, we always - ALWAYS - list multiple books, and
- We travel in stacks - we have a stack of books by our bed (potentially another elsewhere), we bring more books than is reasonable on trips, and we probably need to be supervised when nearing a bookstore.
I recently looked down at a stack of books I carried and noticed a similarity - see if you notice it, too:
Did you see it, too? (It's "an age of distraction" in every title/subtitle) Here, in 3 different books - each on different subjects (Christian formation, rediscovering the joys of reading, and becoming a craftsman in life) - all aim at their goal against the context of "an age of distraction."
It could be that the common phrase in these titles reveals a personal, subconscious interest of mine or even an emerging marketing trend, but it is probably bigger than that.
All of these books call modern life "distracted" and this claim probably is not news to you. You may be familiar with the discussion about our societal decline in our ability to concentrate, with the rise in distracted driving (9 people/day die in the US because of it), and that the anxiety created by lack of contact with a smartphone, "Nomophobia," is being studied as a modern malady significant enough to be addressed by the CDC.
Additionally, you could be personally familiar with this theme:
- The average smart phone user looks at his/her phone an average of 85 times a day
- An alarming percentage of us don't turn our phone off (ever.), and
- You and I can likely attest to the impulse and anxiety to check our email for an awaited response or to our compulsion to respond to texts quickly
Author Cal Newport said that he wrote his latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World because he noticed a distraction-related trend: that our obsessive use of technology used to be something we would joke about, but now it's something which has us worried.* So, if you're seeing the themes and perhaps occasionally scolding yourself quietly about your technology practices, you're not alone.
And this concern is a great gift to you and tool for the gospel.
It is a tool because it builds a bridge to the gospel using a common reality. When CS Lewis was asked to address how he went about apologetics, he said,
If one begins from the sin that has been one's own chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way this [approach] goes home (to the listener).°
While distraction is more of a struggle than a sin, naming a problem we are culturally trying to solve brings us into a common challenge with our neighbors. When we invent glasses that block out digital screens and market alarm clocks based on their independence from phones, we have started to suspect our technology has overstepped its bounds. But being worried about always being distracted as a new normal isn't enough for any of us. If we stop here in a conversation with a neighbor, we're standing in the middle of the bridge rather than crossing over it - and we build bridges to get somewhere new.
And the "somewhere new" might be a helpful question: "We are commonly concerned our distractions are taking us away from life, but do we know what life is for?" Underneath all the distraction, we seem to be looking for something significant we can't find despite all of our activity - community, purpose, contentment, meaning, love. You name something ultimate that humans long for and I bet you can find a digital promise to deliver it with just a few swipes on your smartphone.
And the realization of these subterranean longings under our distraction is a great opportunity because they are answered in the gospel. This is where the gospel shines so brightly, because when our world fails to be enough (and when we fail that test, too), Jesus stands out in glorious contrast - this is a contrast you can share with your neighbor.
Put it to Work
While you can discern your favorite way to connect Jesus with the human longings we all experience, I do suggest you take the opportunity in "an age of distraction" to do the following:
- Invite a neighbor/coworker to lunch
- Agree ahead of time to turn your phones off (not Do Not Disturb, but off)
- Now that you're free for a minute, perhaps you can point out that distractions regularly keep us from asking life's bigger questions, such as:
- What's your story?
- What do you think life is about?
- Do you feel known?
- Why do you think contentment is difficult for modern people?
- When have you felt most loved?
- Maybe one of those questions will land and Jesus will show up in glorious contrast; you'll have to just wait and see.
Perhaps what your neighbor needs to hear when she realizes she can't stop running from one thing to another is that there is a God who runs towards prodigals; maybe you are the one to tell her. While you're telling her, perhaps you'll hear it, too.
* For sake of brevity, I cut this out, but wanted to mention Newport's latest book was written in response to public reaction to his previous: Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World. (yes, distracted).As Newport was getting feedback on Deep Work, largely focused on valuable productivity, people seemed to say, "I buy your premise about my work life, but can you help me at home?" And he noticed a larger trend about distraction in all aspects of our lives.
Kyle McManamy is the Faith + Work Director at Chapel Hill Bible Church.