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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Attentive Parenting in the AI Age

December 15th, 2023 | 16 min read

By Scott Hurst

Some time ago, I watched the promotional video for the Apple Vision Pro. Vision Pro is a spatial computer Apple plans to release next year. The Vision Pro goggles layer the world of our phones over the physical world, integrating the virtual world with the embodied world.

I had mixed reactions to the promo. I’m not qualified to critique the product so I can’t say if it's good or bad on a technical level, but after the promo, I was both excited and troubled. My primary concerns were for my kids. As a teenager listening to music on my iPod Shuffle, I never thought I would need to shepherd my future kids through virtual reality. I was equipped for many situations as a parent, but not for a world with advanced robotics, A.I. and computers like Vision Pro. Those were for the movies, not concerns for discipling my kids.

Yet, that is the world we live in. It’s the world my sons are growing up in. It’s the world where they will need to learn what it means to be human and to follow Jesus. Part of my role as their dad is equipping them to love Jesus while living in that world.

Living well, at any time, requires paying attention. Paul makes this connection in Ephesians. “Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk—not as unwise people but as wise— making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So don’t be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.”

Attentiveness is essential for wisdom. Attentive to God, to the world and to ourselves. As a dad, I want my sons to be wise and Christ-like while living in the world of Vision Pro. For that to happen, I need to help them be attentive.

Be Attentive to “Messy” Experiences

I love big family meals, the ones where you need the oven, stovetop and grill to prepare. Every spot on the table is filled with food, and the signature meat sits as a succulent centerpiece. The kind of meal someone always captures for Instagram before eating. Those are my favorites… well they would be if I didn’t have to clean up.

What if we could have the meal without the mess?

Imagine sporting events and concerts without the smell of sweat and the feel of sticky beer-stained floors. Imagine the thrill of front-row seats and avoid public washrooms and crowded subway trains. Imagine a live stream so immersive that you get life without the mess.

I’ll admit, watching Toronto Raptors games on a living room-wide screen at home is enticing. But I’m cautious. Most digital experiences already take us away from the embodied. It’s rare to find any parent watching the school concert without their phone. We capture and edit those moments but struggle to remember the real experience. We got the video, but the sights, sounds, and smells of the room are gone because we were too busy working the camera to be present at the moment.

Our devices distance us from the moment and distract us from people. Standing in line at the grocery store or sitting on the bus without our phones sounds unbearable. Quietness, boredom, and meeting strangers seem to be burdens our phones liberate us from. We are constantly distracted and incredibly lonely.

We connect with others by eye contact. Eye contact can be super awkward and intimidating, but it also shows respect and attentiveness. It says, “I am listening, I want to hear you.” It is impossible to have our eyes on a screen and simultaneously make eye contact.

Products like Vision Pro, and Google Glass before it, attempt to solve this with a feature that lets someone see your eyes through the lens. But at best a computer over my eyes just splits my attention. Even now, simply having my phone in my pocket or on the table is a distraction. Why would strapping a computer on my head be better? Digital walls, no matter how transparent, are a constant threat against us seeing, knowing, and loving real people. Life without the mess isn’t paradise.

In the gospels, we see Jesus in the mess, not above it. In one case he gives a blind man sight by spitting in his eyes! The incarnation is when, as John tells us, the Word who is God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-18). He entered the mess. Jesus reveals a life of love and joy in a mucky world. Love led Jesus onto the muddy roads in Jerusalem.

In a massive meal, the mess is part of the experience. Every pot and pan on the stovetop and dish roasting in the oven fill the home with the aroma of the coming meal. Even the clean-up after is a family affair. With laughter and conversation drowning out the sound of scrubbing dishes and sweeping floors. The mess is part of the joy.

There is something human about unsanitized and messy experiences. We are meant to take in beauty, to be present in the beautiful moments of life. The best things in life are not always clean and not always recorded. The best moments are the ones with sore throats, a little mess, and a good friend. Real life has sticky floors and washroom lines. The relationships that matter and the experiences that make us are often messy, usually painful, but absolutely worth it.

Be Attentive to Your Moral Muscles

Moral muscles help discern good from evil and right from wrong. Training them strengthens our resolve to love God and love our neighbor. Advances in technology, though, often move faster than our moral training. In Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, Joseph Ratzinger says, “The true and gravest danger of the present moment is precisely this imbalance between technological possibilities and moral energy.” Technology moves so fast that moral formation chokes on its dust.

The speed and scope of new technology demand we develop our moral muscles. But what happens when the very technology we use weakens them?

Samuel James, notes how the environment of the internet, not just the content, forms us in harmful ways. “The habit of consuming content is a spiritual practice that has formative power in itself. We are being shaped into certain kinds of people by the kinds of things we linger over, including the things that disgust or grieve us.” Constant conflict is profitable for Facebook. Constant conflict is harmful for Christians.

Paul’s counsel to Timothy is helpful. “But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, because you know that they breed quarrels. The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24-26 c.f. Titus 3:9). Not every fight is worth fighting. For the sake of his soul and the sake of the gospel, Timothy had to stay out of the fray sometimes. Constant conflict breeds brawlers not wise Christians.

Our internet habits also don’t help. Attentiveness is the currency of moral formation but constant switch-tasking, skimming, and passive consumption sap our strength to be attentive. Let me give a personal example. I recently read an article about the war between Israel and Hamas, a conflict which requires careful thinking and deep reflection. Yet, the article was littered with ads for the best way to clean my phone. Not only did this break concentration, but the end of the article had three links to other articles on different topics. The message was clear: don’t linger over this article. Quickly jump to another. I gave up and watched TV.

If social media (where kids spend hours a day) makes our moral muscles flabby, how do we make them strong? Paul told Timothy that he had to pay attention to his life and teaching to make progress (1 Tim 4:16). This kind of attention requires training. Training the moral muscles in our family starts by saying no to some things. It means we don’t use an iPad only as a pacifier. It means explaining the “why?” behind discipline. It means providing resources and space for our sons and daughters to do the heart and mind work needed to form their moral convictions. It means giving them freedom to ask hard questions and doing our best to give them sound, thick and Biblical answers.

The moral formation of my sons starts with me. I need to turn away from my phone, to truly see the Godwardness of everything. If we cannot help ourselves from drinking the firehose of digital content, should we expect better from our kids?

As parents, we need to train our moral muscles well, so that we have a mature and biblical morality to entrust to our children. The Wisdom Literature in the Bible, which formed the core discipleship pathway from adolescence to maturity for a young person in Israel, serves this purpose. The aim of Wisdom Literature is summed up in Ecclesiastes 12:11, “The sayings of the wise are like cattle prods, and those from masters of collections are like firmly embedded nails. The sayings are given by one Shepherd.” Work through these books with your kids. Have analog (face-to-face) conversations reflecting on their teaching. Make space in your family life for digital sabbaths, a time when all devices are off. Play board games, go for walks, or play football together. You cannot rush moral formation. Like all discipleship, it requires the work of reflection and unhurried stillness. You will not learn wisdom without making time to watch the ant (Pro 6:6).

Be Attentive to the Image of God in People

Putting computer chips into someone’s body used to be science fiction. It may become normal before my sons hit puberty. Is the desire to become more like computers good for people? People want to become like computers. Is that good? Will it make us better humans?

My kids used to watch Ask the Storybots on Netflix. In each episode, kids ask questions about how stuff works and the Storybots go on learning adventures to find the answer. In one episode, the question is: How does the brain work? The Storybots answer, with a super catchy song, that the brain is a supercomputer.

There are similarities between human brains and computers, but this answer is problematic. Painting people in the likeness of machines blurs the line between human and computer to the point of non-existence. Our humanness is found in the differences between people and computers. Nicholas Carr makes this point in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. “What makes us most human,” he says, “is what is least computable about us- the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy.” The computer comparison sacrifices too much. “The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers - as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens - is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines.”

When the language of our inventions starts defining what it means to be human, we lose the givenness and Godwardness of humanity. Everything, even our identity gets created in our image and our value is decided by the same metrics I would use to judge my MacBook Air: usefulness, efficiency, and productivity. In this story, if I can’t use my legs to walk, I may become something less than human.

If we believe the highest good is about optimization then we will have no category for the value of weakness. Jesus’s call to take up our cross and daily die to ourselves will make no sense. When productivity reigns, people become tools to use and be used rather than persons to be seen, heard, and loved. Where does this leave people with disabilities, the elderly, or people deemed not smart enough or strong enough to be useful?

The praise of machine-quality usefulness is dehumanizing. The Bible tells a better story, one of humanity not made like machines but made in the image of God. People were created to bear his likeness and reign as his vice-regents over his creation. Our brains are not computers but reflections of God’s character and craftsmanship. Our worth is not in usefulness but is inherent in bearing God’s image.

The way forward is to be humbled by our unusefulness and learn habits of dependence on God. In The Life We Are Looking For, Andy Crouch says, “In an economy that evaluates and compensates us in impersonal terms, the most consequential members, the ones who matter the most for all our flourishing, are the ones whom Mammon does not consider useful. It is the “useless” who matter the most. Because if they are persons – if they are seen, known, welcomed, and given places of honor in our household – then all of us are set free from our usefulness.” When we stop worrying whether we and others are “useful” we are freed to see people as valuable. We learn to see people as God made them and we learn to love, serve and honour them.

The apostle Paul learned the value of frailty. He tells the Corinthian church about his humbling experience in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so that I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it would leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”

Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What some would call a liability, Paul learned to see as a gift. The thorn kept him humble and dependent. It reminded him that glory and power belong to God. Being human is not about transcending our limitations. Frailty opens our eyes to the beauty of being sustained by God through a living relationship with him.

When we teach our kids about being made in the image of God, we invite them into a better story. We invite them to find life-giving nourishment in union with Christ (John 15:1-11). We equip them not to sacrifice their humanity to computers, but to learn humble dependence on the God who made them. We equip them to love people, with all the frailty of humanity, as Jesus Christ has loved them.

Be Attentive to the Deceptive Gospel of Technology  

We solve problems with technology. When we need what is underground, we make shovels. When we want to explore beyond the earth, we build spacecraft. With technology, we jump barriers and solve problems. This is often good (i.e. medicine), but our ambition can go too far.

Tony Reinke writes about the Gospel of Technology in God, Technology and the Christian Life. The Gospel of Technology is a worldview where our problem is not sin but nature. “According to the gospel of Technology, there is no fall of man, only impediments to the rise of man… Ultimately, whatever intrudes upon each person’s autonomy is the enemy, and the opposition can be defeated through innovation.” Technology plays the role of the conquering saviour creating a paradise for us.

The Gospel of Technology promises that every problem has a technological solution. It promises to bring about a perfect world through technological innovation. A perfect world at the tip of our fingers.

This desire was part of the human story long before Apollo 11 and the iPhone. The Tower of Babel reveals the ancient roots of the Gospel of Technology. “As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make oven-fired bricks.” (They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar.) And they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let’s make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth” (Gen 11:2-4). People at Babel used technology to supplant God and take his place over creation. Babel reveals what happens when technology wears messianic clothes.

Our ambition to create a paradise with our technology loses sight of one basic Biblical reality. Creation is under God’s curse: “The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life” (Gen 3:17). Technology cannot solve God’s curse.

When the Preacher in Ecclesiastes talks about his greatest achievements he shows us the personal paradise full of breathtaking palaces, magnificent gardens, and every luxury he ever wanted that he created. He created a type of Eden for himself and under his control. From the outside, it looked spectacular. On the inside, however, it was hollow. “When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind., There was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecc 2:11). His paradise was all smoke. Eden cannot be remade by technology. The hope of the new Creation lies elsewhere.

Nature’s opposition is a consequence of human sin. That is why the hope of new creation is in the sin-conquering death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God “condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit... For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now” (Rom 8:4-5, 19-22). Creation awaits a renewal by God’s power alone because in the dying and rising of Jesus, God put sin to death.

Only the gospel comes with a promise that our bodies will be made imperishable, and all of creation made new by the power of God. Only God, through Christ crucified and risen, ends the curse (Rev 21-22). Hope in the face of sin and death isn’t in technology. Hope is in Christ alone (1 Cor 15). To counter the gospel of technology, we need to keep in step with the gospel story.

My kids were born into a world of smartphones, live-streaming and Google Maps. This world assumes technology will eventually solve every inconvenience. We need sound Biblical Theology to challenge these assumptions and keep in step with the gospel. “If God is the center of your life, technology is a great gift. If technology is your savior, you’re lost.” Technology doesn’t have the shoulders to carry the savior’s cross. We need the savior who was born in a Bethlehem manger, not in the labs of Silicon Valley. To help set proper expectations of technology, help your kids see and savor Christ alone as Lord and Savior.  

Be Attentive to Living by Faith

C. S. Lewis describes an approach to reality in The Abolition of Man that dominated the world of his day and the world he saw coming. In this approach, reality must be subdued to the wishes of men and “the solution is technique.” This approach sounds sinister but it strikes a chord with one of our deepest longings. The longing for control.

Our generation is not the first too long for control, but we express it a little differently. Chase Replogle makes a helpful connection between the use of sacrifices in ancient religions and our use of technology to gain control of our lives. “Ancient shamans searched for the means of appeasing divine forces, practices of worship, which might allow them to exert control over the chaotic experiences of weather, war, and fertility. Still today, it is the promise of technology, supercomputers with mass data and algorithms frantically scouring the universe for patterns that promise new possibilities of control and conquest.” Technology helps us control reality.

We can control our schedule, car, doorbell, Christmas lights, banking and more through a small device in our pockets. If we can design a product to control all of that, why not go bigger? What makes this desire for control a bad thing?

Craving control leads to destructive arrogance and fear. King Saul’s attempt to control God’s will made him paranoid and put murder in his eyes. Everyone became a threat to be snuffed out, even his family. The desire for control creates a life of instability. Today, we can create new identities and consume hours of content with minimal reflection but we’ve lost the stability necessary for peace. Today we are anxious, lonely and overwhelmed by the burden of creating our identity.

Maybe we aren’t meant to be in control. Recognizing our limits is key to wisdom. Ecclesiastes 8:17 says, “I observed all the work of God and concluded that a person is unable to discover the work that is done under the sun. Even though a person labors hard to explore it, he cannot find it; even if a wise person claims to know it, he is unable to discover it.” Some things will always be out of our control. Wisdom requires accepting and delighting in our limits.  

The way forward is to press home the peace of resting in God by faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” Faith is not surrendering our life to chance. Faith is a settled confidence in God. It is hope in the reality of his promise that is rooted in the integrity of his character. Instead of grasping for control with technology, faith courageously surrenders control to God.

Faith, planted in the stability of Christ Jesus, finds rest and peace. The bedrock of the gospel is better than the vapors of control. We can help our kids see this when we celebrate humble people of faith. Help them aspire to have the faith of the widow in your church instead of the money of Elon Musk. Shepherd them well by helping them choose faith over control.

When Paul walked around Athens “he was deeply distressed when he saw that the city was full of idols” (17:17). Parents today can sympathize. A quick walk through the digital world our children inhabit is deeply distressing.

We can learn from Paul. He didn’t respond to this distress by checking out or giving up. Instead, he engaged. Luke, the author of Acts, connects Paul’s distress to his engagement with one simple word: “So.” “He was deeply distressed when he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God, as well as in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (17:17-18). Paul knew God was the Sovereign Lord. He knew God intends that people “might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” He knew God “now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day when he is going to judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:27, 31-32). Paul’s faith in Christ caused him to be distressed by the idols of his time, but that same faith wouldn’t let him check out.

His confidence in God, his love for Christ, and his conviction that the gospel is better than idols drove him to engage and call people to something better. I sympathize with parents who are overwhelmed by the technologies available to their kids. Parenting has always been hard and it isn’t getting easier. But it isn't hopeless. Parents can engage and help their kids without fear and filled with hope because God is God, the gospel is true, and everything we need for life and godliness, God has already given us in Christ.

Scott Hurst

Scott Hurst pastors at Northminster Baptist Church in Toronto. He enjoys sports, books, and spending time with his wife and their two boys.