I was a block from my house when I realized I forgot my phone. As my anxiety level rose, I wondered if I could make it through the next four hours without it. I kept driving, contemplating that question for another block or so, and then I turned around. I drove home and parked. I went upstairs, unlocked the door, and grabbed the phone safely ensconced in its charger. And then, I left again, five-minutes late, but pacified by the phone in my pocket.
Idolatry of technology is a common problem these days. Sure, technology is a gift from God, but there’s also a delicious, idolatrous pull of devices these days. They are crafted to draw us in, make us feel good, and spend more money. Without them, life can be unnerving. I know from experience.
When it comes to theology and that tricky word “sin,” often defined as the things that separate us from God, I admit that my beloved iPhone and MacBook tempt me to accept false promises, misplaced attachments, and confused praise. As theologian John Calvin put it, our nature is “a perpetual factory of idols.” Calvin didn’t write it “i-dols,” but we might.
Stay with me now, I’ll get back to that iPhone conundrum soon. But first, a connection.
Into this increasingly digital world of ours, a strange thing is happening: bicycling is growing in popularity. As a new resident of Minneapolis-St. Paul, I’ve been positively shocked by number of bike commuters, as well as recreational riders, in the twin cities this summer. Indeed, in my short experience, Minneapolis rightfully earns its rank as best bicycling, or most bike-friendly city in the U.S.
I wonder if the gaining popularity of bicycling is somehow related to our idriven lives today. There is something beautiful, basic, and pure about biking. Rather than relying on wireless networks, for progress cyclists lean on steel, rubber, and the power of their own muscles. Cycling invites intentional living. Cycling fosters community. Cycling connects us to nature. And it is basic—a technology, but one quite rudimentary.
In this cultural moment, many congregations now host Blessing of the Bikes services in which clergy sprinkle bicycles with holy water (or oil?) and pray for cyclist safety, care for creation, and the nourishing of life in community that welcomes all.
Blessing of the Bikes services are not-too-distant cousins to Blessing of the Animals services in which the community brings their animals for blessing. I’ve attended a Blessing of the Animals service—it was delightful, if a little boisterous. (And it did seem a bit incongruous to follow the service with a non-vegetarian friendly cookout.)
Along these same lines, an increasing number of congregations are hosting Theology on Tap or Pub Theology events, or Ashes to Go in Lent. As Keith Anderson describes in his great new book, The Digital Cathedral, a holistic, expansive, and faithful view of church today, “extends ministry into both digital and local gathering spaces, recognizes the sacred in everyday life, and embodies a networked, relational, and incarnational approach to ministry leadership for a digital age.”
As Anderson chronicles, vital ministry today extends beyond the church walls to people’s real lives, concerns, neighborhoods, pubs, bike trails, and even screens.
Now, back to that iPhone via the ancient words of Martin Luther who famously wrote,
If you are a craftsman…only look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them… ‘My dear, use me toward your neighbor, as you would want him to act towards you with that which is his.’
Usually this Luther quote is used when discussing vocation to make the point that in every occupation people can serve God, that our daily work is holy. Sure, great stuff. Yes, indeed.
But as Keith Anderson understands, the Luther reference most specifically is about tools. Here we might use Marshall McLuhan’s definition of technology as extension, or amplification of the body. McLuhan spoke about the technology of clothing, shelter, tools, and media. Luther, centuries before, wrote about the tools of the day as articles through which we should show love to our neighbors.
In this light, my iPhone becomes a tool for faithful living. It’s unusual for me to go more than a few hours without using my phone. I use it for directions, and daily to search for information about our world. I my phone to text message friends. I use it to tweet and check-in with my network on Facebook. I use it to LOL and type condolences.
Together with my MacBook, my iPhone is the main tool with which I live, work, and serve God. 95% of my written communication happens with the help of my iPhone and MacBook, and I communicate for a living. It’s my vocation.
In so many ways, we can use smartphones to serve God and neighbor. To text love. To advocate with hashtags. To tweet the gospel. To chronicle justice. To snap joy. To spread good news.
Is it strange, then, that pastors so rarely speak of smartphones, the main tool with which I serve God and neighbor? Instead, let’s take Luther and McLuhan and Anderson, and embrace a theology of the every day.
Let’s bless the bikes, the pets, and the pubs. But pastor, please don’t forget my iPhone. Will you bless its use? Will you commission me to employ it for God’s service? Will you explicitly, ritually, and publicly, call me to turn from idolatry and towards faithful discipleship, phone ready to serve?
image by Ian Higgins
Update: It turns out that MaryAnn McKibben Dana wrote a great post, “A Blessing of the Cell Phones” back in 2013 in which she describes a liturgy. I love it!