Wow. Mark Bittman’s article in Sunday’s NY Times, “I need a virtual break. No Really.” is a fascinating argument for “secular sabbath” in our technology age. Add that to Weekend Edition’s latest This I Believe essay on “Leaving Work to Watch the Sunset” by Laurie Granieri and you have a rather compelling case against America’s workaholism (and who says I’m out of the US media market).
I’ll mostly stick to Bittman’s Times piece for this post, but do check out Granieri. Bittman writes of his struggles to give up technology for one day a week. He used to be a tech-addict, checking his email last thing before bed and first thing after waking, until he made a pledge not to use any gizmos on Saturday. That means no computers, no email, no ipod, and no cell phone. And you know what? He survived!
Not only that, Bittman now flourishes on Saturday. Though he continues to struggle with the practicalities, Bittman concludes:
I would no more make a new-agey call to find inner peace than I would encourage a return to the mimeograph. But I do believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life – or at least my version. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experienced what, if I wasn’t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being. I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.
Bittman’s secular sabbath journey should perk the ears of Christians. Not only are we as inundated with technology as everyone else, we’re commanded to take sabbath. Oh, and it’s not one of those Bible verses that’s real easy to reinterpret and read past–it’s a freaking commandment! Do not steal. Do not kill. Keep the sabbath.
The best and most challenging book I’ve read on sabbath is Marva Dawn’s “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting.” In it, Dawn argues for a pretty strong sabbath keeping. She explains that at sundown each Saturday night, she lights a candle and prays to mark the beginning of the sabbath. She then, with a quite strict definition, does not work until (I think) sundown Sunday night (or it might be Monday, let me know if you’ve read it). Dawn often has sabbath dinner parties because they’re not work but rejoicing in the relationships God encourages. She studies the Bible and prays. On the sabbath Dawn does not check email–heck, she doesn’t even read the paper. Dawn writes that to make her transition to sabbath keeping, in early days when she thought of something about work, she would write it down and slide it under her locked study door so it would not bother her until the next day. Now, though, she’s progressed and rarely needs to do so.
What I find fascinating, however, is the relative quiet in the mainline church about sabbath keeping. Theology of sabbath may be more spoken of today compared to twenty years ago, but in many ways it’s still taboo in mainline denominations. We’re living in a world where a NY Times article on secular sabbath makes the most-emailed list in hours, and mainline Western Christianity fails to encourage the keeping of a commandment.
All this said, I don’t think making prescriptions for no email one day a week is necessarily the answer. I don’t think turning off a cell phone for a day will solve much of anything. I don’t think reading the newspaper in paper form rather than online is going to make a big difference in my life. I differ with Bittman’s complete no-tech day not out of principle but out of practice.
I try–hard–to take a full day off from work, a sabbath each week. Often this will mean I stay up Friday night writing Sunday’s prayers so I don’t have to look at them on Saturday. But come Saturday morning, I’m online bright and early–ok, maybe not early–to check email, play scrabulous, read the paper, blog. For me, the distinction is in between work and play. Writing prayers for corporate worship is work. Emailing friends, chatting on the phone, scrabulousing, is play. Play connects me to people, is personally fun, and is part of a larger giving glory to God and enjoying God forever. And as long as these online connections don’t negatively affect my in-person relationships, I think I’m doing alright. Sure, I’d read more novels if I didn’t read blogs on Saturdays, but I think reading blogs is a healthy leisure activity and I can barely afford the novels I read as it is.
So at the end of the day, Bittman may be on to something, but his complete sabbath from technology seems a bit extreme. I might just be rationalizing, or fooling myself, or plain wrong, but at least I can blog about it.
image by Randy Robertson
Update: Check out Jim’s quite-related and practical sabbath tech post at The Church Geek.