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The Limits of Liturgies

February 8th, 2024 | 13 min read

By Matthew Schultz

In his relatively short, almost polemical work, Digital Liturgies (Crossway, 2023), Samuel James takes up the task of evaluating the effects of the internet on Christian spiritual formation. Whether the profound shifts in communications technology and social transformations brought on by the internet are generally beneficial for us is hotly contested, both in secular and religious circles. In particular, the rise of the smartphone and social media has been extensively studied and evaluated by social scientists and policy experts, with some arguing these new technologies are behind the alarming rise in mental health crises in our youngest generations. In his book, James takes a negative view and argues that the internet is not merely a neutral tool, but a spiritually dangerous one—a “pornographically shaped” digital environment with powerful rhythms and practices (or liturgies) that inculcate us into a spiritually poisonous narrative of self-sufficiency that is antithetical to embodied, Biblical wisdom.

The philosophical framework of Digital Liturgies starts with Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (2010). Carr’s argument, which expands his famous 2008 essay in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, is that our brains change in response to stimuli (the neurological term here is plasticity) and that the internet is shortening our collective attention spans and distracting us from the “deep reading” necessary to thoughtfully reflect on important ideas. James takes this argument and synthesizes it with James K.A. Smith’s work on liturgies, giving Carr’s critique of the internet a spiritual dimension by claiming it is not just a distraction engine that we should take breaks from, but a value-laden medium that speaks to us with a certain narrative language of desire and potentiality, and that comes with its own reenforcing habits and practices.

For James, the internet “communicates a vision of what we should be capable of, of what the good life really looks like. Just as the invention of a clock creates certain economic and social values (like punctuality), internet technology has a moral language that dictates certain other values.” Additionally, these changes are subversive: “We don’t realize when we’re being pushed [on the internet] toward rhythms, patterns, and attitudes that undermine Christian formation because we usually only look for that in explicit worldviews, not in our devices. But they are there.”[1]

The majority of Digital Liturgies is dedicated to exploring these “rhythms, patterns, and attitudes” of the internet and identifying how they are antithetical to Christian formation. For example, the chapter on the digital liturgy of authenticity explores how the dominant culture of expressive individualism fits quite naturally into the internet as a democratizing, information-rich, but foolish medium where everyone gets a voice because an individual’s voice is the most important one.

On social media platforms, user experiences are centered, both by curating what they see through “likes” or filters, and through a “near-godlike ability to craft an identity” where a user’s identity is based entirely on self-disclosure. In contrast, James argues that Christianity tells us that God is the final authority and that our identity and purpose is found in our status as redeemed sinners. Analysis of the remaining liturgies—outrage, shame, consumption, and meaninglessness—follows a similar pattern, exploring how the internet is negatively affecting our spiritual lives and how the doctrines of Christianity teach a different story.

This synthesis works well to the extent that it articulates concerns that some Christians have with their experiences on the internet. Christians who spend time on social media will recognize many of the social ills James discusses, especially around identity and character formation. It is particularly important for Christians on social media to take seriously the warnings against quick judgments and anger while realizing that platforms like Twitter are explicitly designed to reward those who have mastered the art of caricatures and putdowns, as anger, hate, frustration, and other associated negative emotions drive engagement and, therefore, increase the ad revenue that keep social media services afloat. Some social media companies are in the business of farming hate for clicks and so it is difficult (though not impossible) to see how God would reward habitual participation in these kinds of systems.

James' argument is at its most controversial in his chapter on consumption, where he argues that the internet is “pornographically shaped.” Drawing on Alan Noble’s account of how the internet has changed pornography consumption to give us the same level of choice and power as Roman Emperor Caligula, James writes:

The power to find anything you want to see, the access to a never-ending supply of new consumables, and the limitless freedom to make fantasy become reality—these are not just characteristics of online porn but of the online world in general. Suppose it is not pornography we are talking about. Suppose instead the subject were self-help advice or life gurus.... We could even replace pornography with, say, Christian teaching. Yet it would still be true that the modern web user has a godlike freedom to pursue any kind of Christian teaching they want. It would still be true that the “normal” rhythms and habits of online life would be to find something to suit you, use it until it becomes boring, and then move onto something else. In other words, the worldview that undergirds use of online pornography is the same worldview that lies underneath the entire web.[2]

This notion that the internet is a kind of fantasy fulfillment machine which allows its users to craft a world to their own liking is a core feature of Digital Liturgies. For James, the web is “a spiritual habitat that makes life itself consumable and malleable in any way you desire.”[3]

Unfortunately, there are some problems with this formulation, and they are because Digital Liturgies rests on a fatal conflation of the internet at large with the worst excesses of social media. Much of the important criticism James provides has to do with those aspects of the internet that involve interpersonal communication on social media apps or apps with gamified social interaction (such as some parts of YouTube). In the introduction, James speaks of the social internet as central to him and seemingly everyone else, and he treats the “internet, web, social media, and digital technology” as a concept cluster with the central idea of “the disembodied electronic environment that we enter through connected devices for the purpose of accessing information, relationships, and media that are not available to us in a physical format.”[4] This distinction, while acceptable in theory, tends in practice to treat everything from text messages to online social media mobs as part of the same digital problem.

One example of this is in chapter five, where over the course of two paragraphs James uses the terms “social media,” “the internet,” “the web,” and “the social internet” interchangeably, all while giving examples primarily of what we might call social media interactions. While social media is a major part of the internet, statistics strongly suggest that most people use the internet for other activities, including email, financial services, shopping, tourism, watching TV or movies, video or conference calls, music, or job hunting. Perhaps there is a case to be made that these parts of the internet, which encompass most online activity, are also “pornographically shaped” distraction engines that generate clouds of spiritual miasma which ruin our spiritual lives, but it is not obvious how that case would be made, especially if someone doubts Carr’s thesis about the nature of the internet.

No one who spends 17 minutes online to research baking recipes is going to the internet because he loves baking recipes and just can’t stop looking at digitally curated lists of ingredients and oven instructions. No one who pays five online bills feels any great desire to look for another bill because he has built into his life a reflexive habit of sending money to faceless corporations. The “liturgies” and “narratives” of these actions—to the extent that such a framework even makes sense—do not bend the participant toward any particular end.

In these cases,  the end is not the digital recipe or the electronic debt, but the use of these pieces of efficient information transfer to forward real life (“embodied”) purposes, such as loving a neighbor with a cream cheese pound cake or ensuring the hot water and electricity stay on. If these kinds of activities are making “life itself consumable and malleable in any way you desire,” it is in a way that is trivially true and hardly worth the alarm that accompanies a provocative phrase like “pornographically shaped.”

Once you pull at this thread, the sweeping conclusions of James’ project begin to unravel. Toward the end of Digital Liturgies, James speaks about how people today feel “how difficult it is to finish books, how distracted and tied to our phones we feel around children, and how restless our minds and emotions are unless we can scroll,” that the endless distraction of the web is “doing something to our souls.” It is the language of Carr in The Shallows, a man who was so distracted by the internet that he had to move away from his home in Massachusetts to a remote part of Colorado with patchy internet to finish his book on internet distraction. To the Harvard educated Carr, the “narrative” of the internet was one of decline and disorder, particularly corrosive to the (now perhaps quaint) notion of a tiny, technocratic, educated New England elite that fancied themselves the guardians of our democracy and attempted to govern us through extensively considered ideas. To James, the internet is a place where Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube “hook” you in with promises of influence and entertainment, yet never quite fulfills them. Like the Enlightenment philosophers of old, James takes his experience and interpretation of the “normal rhythms and habits” of the internet and imputes them to the experience of all internet users.

Perhaps this is why, for a book about spiritual habits, Digital Liturgies is surprisingly lacking in practical suggestions, treating a liturgical problem with worldview correction. Should we not replace these liturgies with something else? Is our only hope to endure these corrupt systems save for relatively brief moments each week when we are embodied in the local church? James gestures in the direction of limits and cautions, but he cannot get far beyond this; he warns that the internet is everywhere and that even those who try to log off entirely will still feel its effects. The practical outworking of this philosophy is most evident toward the end of the book. Here, at the height of the tension between the deleterious ends of the internet and the embodied wisdom of Christian living, James admits to regularly ignoring his children’s cries for play and attention, preferring what he judges as the worthless and mindless distractions of the internet.[5] Yet there is no call to extricate ourselves from a set of liturgical habits inevitably turning us into the kind of parent whose unspoken epitaph will read “He loved his phone.” Instead, James provides us with some reflection on our Gospel standing with God. It is a remarkable turn for someone who just a chapter ago drew so heavily on Proverbs 7 and the young man who fell into adultery for foolishly going through the wrong part of town late at night.

My suggestion is to drop the language of liturgies, the valence of which depends on too many subjective factors and experiences, especially generational shifts. Rather, we should simply treat social media as part of that larger constellation of addictive free market products scholar and historian David T. Courtwright has called “limbic capitalism.” These are industries and products such as fast food, drugs, and gambling that try to maximize profit by locking into the pleasure centers of our brain. Treating social media as a continuation of older technologies and practices rather than sui generis probably requires modifying or heavily abandoning Carr’s framework and those sections of Digital Liturgies that leverage it, but this is a much better fit given what we know of the activities and incentives of the technology companies developing and pushing social media services.

Like junk food, cigarettes, and mobile gaming, social media is intentionally designed to trigger dopamine receptors in the same way we find pleasure when getting lucky while gambling. In fact, the endless scroll of many social media apps is essentially a rapid-fire pull mechanism on a slot machine, which you stare at until you find something interesting or fun, all the while trading your internet privacy for a potential dopamine hit. James uses phrases and anecdotes in Digital Liturgies consistent with this, speaking of being “hooked” on Facebook and, later, him and those in his social circles facing emotional and spiritual torpor as various social media networks provide less and less satisfaction. This is the language of addiction, the “progressive narrowing of the things that give you pleasure” as one Stanford neuroscientist describes it. The internet may not be “pornographically shaped,” but social media is often “addiction shaped.” And addiction can be managed.

If the internet is an integral and seemingly permanent fixture of our lives, instead of living in tension with its purported evils, we should begin to treat it as we would any other institution and discipline it for the social good. Aside from serious self-regulation (and there are many Christians who should delete their social media accounts), Christians should consider legislation that blunts the worst effects of social media. China is not a great model here, but it does demonstrate that the internet is not an untamable force, as internet pornographers in that country can face up to life in prison and addictive apps are under strict time and access limits. If social media is like an addictive substance, and all the evidence suggests that it is, we should treat social media digital products similarly to how we would cocaine or nicotine. Given the important and strong protections of the First Amendment (which I vastly prefer to any alternatives), are there clever ways to target the incentive structures of social media so that tech companies are not allowed to or discouraged from pursuing ad revenue primarily through aggressive negative engagement? Or what if we treat social media like we do other forms of gambling and add friction to these sorts of social transactions, adding extra login screens or age restricting access to social media with identity verification? What would it look like to discipline and shape the internet, to take the raw material of code and cable, and cultivate it in such a way that it benefits human flourishing?

Unfortunately, while rightly drawing attention to the dangers of social media, James’ framework renders these sorts of questions inert. For if the internet is as powerfully corrupting and totally unavoidable as James claims it is–if it is metaphysically shaped in opposition to embodied wisdom–then the best we can do is mitigate its pernicious and wide sweeping effects with theological aphorisms during the brief window of time each week we visit the local church. We will be like underwater cave divers on a long and tortuous journey, coming up for air in those tiny pockets before returning to hours of perilous swimming. Reforming the internet on James’ reality would be as difficult as carving a path through underwater caves, impossible for all but the most determined and resource rich agents, and certainly not worth the effort. But unless we wish to be unnecessarily crippled by fear and guilt when interacting with the digital world, we should take a hard look at whether James’ observations about the nature of the internet are accurate. If we are to recommend anything more than paralysis, it will be essential for us to discern those parts of internet technology we can manage on our own from those we cannot, and respond accordingly.

Footnotes

[1] Kindle location 956.
[2] Location 2014.
[3] Location 2045.
[4] Location 242-245.
[5] Kindle, location 2236

Matthew Schultz

Matthew Schultz was born in London and raised in Massachusetts. He has a BA in Religious Studies from NYU and an MA in Religion from RTS: Atlanta. He is married with children and currently works in the Atlanta area.