NOTE: Friends, this is a guest post from Tony DeFranco, who wrote it last week. I find Tony’s thoughts helpful and edifying. Enjoy! –BW
Monday March 30th marked the start of week three. The third week of attempting to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19. That means the third week of no church gatherings. The third week of social distancing. The third week of working from home, or week one of no job. The third week of isolation. And, for all of us, the third week of relying solely on screens to feel some sort of connection to anything or anyone else. For me, it was a defining day in the midst of our current situation.
I work in content creation and social media management for our church. As you might’ve guessed, my workload has not decreased because of coronavirus, but increased. Church services are solely online, social media is one of our major avenues of communication to the people, and every ministry leader has a growing desire to learn how to leverage our technological tools in order to stay in touch with the people they minister to most. Who could blame them? It sounds exciting for someone in my position, and at times that is true. However, on that Monday the amount of filming, requests, posts, zoom meetings that needed scheduling, and updates that needed organizing just debilitated me. My anxiety spiked. Since we closed the doors of the church building I haven’t stopped working, something that I realize is a blessing, with major layoffs becoming the norm. But it has been constant, and I was leaning in full force. What I am doing is important after all, isn’t it? However, that day, I sensed my soul was just worn out. I read this article headline a couple days later, “Coronavirus Ended the Screen Time Debate. Screens Won.” Ouch. That woke me up, fast.
The irony of what I am writing is not lost on me. If you’re reading this, it is likely on a phone. You were probably on social media, saw a post from our account, and linked in. Please don’t hear what I am about to say as hypocritical… it’s time to resist our screen time, not lean into it.
In the article I mentioned, Nellie Bowles offers a confession from a friend,
“One friend of mine admitted averaging 16 hours of screen time a day, often on multiple devices at once.”
Wow. She goes on:
“I’m 31 and have lived almost all my life in San Francisco…Given our demographic, most of those having babies crafted careful plans to keep those fresh eyes from screens. Plans to keep the babies from using screens, of course, but also away from even seeing the screens in use. How are those plans going now?”
She offers some answers to that question; I think this is one of the most profound:
“We’ve all officially lost the battle,” said Dr. Helitzer, who has a 2- and a 3-year-old. “I’ve accessed every educational app you can. I’ve used every online interactive worksheet I can find,” Dr. Helitzer said. “If he’s sitting on his iPad for two or three hours a day, I literally don’t even care. It’s like, ‘Use that screen as much as you can.’”
We’ve all officially lost the battle. Did you catch that warfare language? Even people outside of Christianity admit that how much time we dedicate to screens is a battle. A battle for what? I think it’s a battle for us—our behaviors, emotions, thoughts, and dependence. What’s on the other end of those screens wants us, forms us. Information is not neutral. Can I just be honest? I resonated with Dr. Helitzer at the start of week three. I felt like I lost. Before COVID-19 I had strict guidelines in place to limit screen time. I barely averaged an hour per day on my phone, even with my job. I don’t say that to feel good about myself, but to acknowledge that I knew I was fighting a war. Why did I suddenly surrender to the all-consuming iPhone just because someone said “social distancing?” My answer is short: because the culture told me I lost, and I believed them.
Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, has even come out and said:
“I think that this reveals the screen-time issue as a misplaced anxiety…now, forced to be alone but wanting to be together, so many are discovering what screen time should be.”
Ms. Bowles adds, “It should be about learning and connecting. It should be humanizing.”
Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re not. We won’t know what will be produced from us during this huge surge in screen time until we can enter back into community, face to face, with other humans. I hope their estimations are correct. But, what I am concerned with is how we are going preserve our souls, the deepest part of our being, during COVID-19.
Regardless of whether this deepens our appreciation for human contact, or increases our ability to learn (both positive effects outlined in the NY Times article), the fact remains that devices form us. I don’t think that is a stretch, and I don’t think that formation is easily undone. So, what are we supposed to do? How do we resist that formation? Believe it or not, I am not about to suggest you burn your phone, or even cancel Netflix. I have come to the conclusion, personally, that rest from these screens will preserve us through this crisis, and beyond.
In Deuteronomy 5:12-15 the command is given to God’s people to “Observe the sabbath” (v. 12). It goes on to state this practice is so God’s people will “…remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there…” (v. 15). The original sabbath command is found in Exodus 20:8-11. That command was grounded in creation, and supposed to be practiced as a rhythm for the people of God. In Deuteronomy the command is reiterated to Israel and grounded in redemption (v. 15). It is supposed to be practiced as resistance from the norms of a society that excluded God from its view of life. It is literally a practice that can keep them from going back to Egypt in their everyday dealings. Think about it. He’s saying, don’t do life the way Egypt does. Don’t do life the way people who don’t acknowledge me do. Don’t do life the way society does when it is in a collective rebellion against me. It’s a call to live life redeemed from those currents. It’s a call to resist those currents. How? He doesn’t say don’t get jobs, or don’t rub shoulders with others. He doesn’t say shut yourself in and hide. Quite the opposite, He tells them to exist within that culture and work amongst those currents for six days with everyone else (v13). It is in the institution of the seventh day where we find resistance. On the seventh day, they practice sabbath.
The word sabbath literally means “cease.” The idea is…stop. It is a time to delight in God, and live into thankfulness for what is directly in front of you, focusing on nothing beyond that. It is acknowledging that God is God, and we are not. For Israel, that day was supposed to be observed, post-exile (v. 12), as a way to remember (v. 15) that God delivered them from Egypt. It is a profound idea. By forcing yourself to set aside intentional time to cease (from interaction with the norms around you that deny God’s goodness, sovereignty, and love), you can honor Him and remember you’re not a slave to those systems anymore. In fact, you, as one of God’s people, have been delivered from their grip. We need that reminder today more than ever.
As people under Christ, we don’t live under the Old Testament law referenced in Deuteronomy (see Colossians 2:16). However, I think there is something here for us, by way of invitation not commandment.
Do you know what pulled me out of my hole of anxiety and stress? Turning my phone off. I stopped. Was the work I was doing wrong? No. Was the volume of work coming my way wrong? No. Was my constant connection to the pace of increasing screen time, with no breaks, wrong? I found it to be so. That is the new battle before us. The battle of fighting our impulses to constantly gratify our need to feel in control of the situation by scrolling news feeds or producing content. Then there’s the constant allure of escapism through streaming ourselves into oblivion. Both ignore reality. Both are being peddled to us by the culture as the only options during COVID-19. One ignores the reality that we can’t control what’s happening, the other ignores the reality that there is a paradigm shift in front of us. All this screen time can and will form us into people who believe we are god in an age of information. We are not. It can and will form us into people trained to escape every difficult thing in life. We will miss what God can do in us and through us during those times.
So what is the way forward? I know things are changing, I don’t think we should delete social media accounts right now. We have to face the fact that with all the shelter in place mandates, screens are currently front and center, so how can we step into that reality without logging 16 hours of screen time per day?
Like Israel of old, rest—intentional time away from it all. Taking intentional time to put the digital connections away can be our way of acknowledging that God is God and we are not. It is our way of becoming present to the moment, our moment, and finding thankfulness in it because of what God has provided for us.