Convenience can be a costly thing, and the assistance offered by technology can have an adverse effect on our ability to function as people. This is a truth well acknowledged in the wider world where the prevalence of apps, algorithms, and hacks can truncate our ability to order our own lives, or to hone our skills. It is also a claim which we would do well to take ownership of as Christians. As those living in the Western world, there has seldom been a more convenient time to be a Christian. The religious wars of a bygone age have enjoyed a long hiatus and, although we may fear the heavy clouds on our horizon, few in our culture have faced outright opposition for their beliefs. Added to that is the customisation of church and Christian literature, so that almost ever niche is covered and every need identified and ministered. The digital age has pre-packed our spiritual experience even more radically, with our need for nourishment, encouragement, affirmation, or worship little more than a click away.
It is easy to deride such consumerism, but an area given less attention is the short-circuiting of self-discipline. The advent of pocket sized technology, and of an age whose mantra has been ‘there’s an app for that’ has led many people to outsource the ordering of their lives to technological partners. Where once a personally written prayer list was curated and updated, we can now sync our supplication across all of our devices. Where the margins of Bibles were marked with moments of personal weight, we now have ‘in-app’ notebooks which hold and host our most intimate thoughts on a passage of Scripture. The fact that such a list can be populated with regard to almost every area of personal piety is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is good to reflect on unintended consequences and costs that might be entailed in this behaviour. In this post I want to think through the danger of ‘inter-passive’ piety, the tendency that technology can nurture in us to ‘do’ some things with regard to our weals with God, without really engaging with them.
Programming the VCR
In her sparkling account of our ability and proclivity to willingly ignore certain facts, A Passion for Ignorance, Renata Salecl helps her readers to think through some of the impact of Big Data on our daily lives, showing along the way our unwillingness to really accept what we are giving away of ourselves. In the process she touches on the psychological theme of ‘interpassivity’. Although holding wider connotations, one of the facets of interpassivity most recognisable to us is the ability to use technology as proxy for doing things in our stead. The example that Saleci cites is that of setting up an old style VCR to record movies that the user never watches. This interpassive behaviour allows the user to abdicate a personal commitment while persuading themselves that they have in some way simply deferred it or even fulfilled it. A mountain of recorded movies, or a pile of invoices for a gym neither makes us a film buff nor physically buff, but they both give a sense that something has been done or will be done.
Our more modern equivalent of this is with regard to the use of apps on our mobile phones. Apps gives us the illusion that life is taken care of automatically, or that motivation can be delegated to the ping of notifications or the guilt-laden banner of a daily reminder. What begins with good intentions can actually disconnect us from true self-discipline or render the goal or task basically meaningless by its automation. The ‘gain’ of convenience is negligible when compared with the cost of personal ownership and investment.
Spiritually speaking, we can stand at risk of so connecting ourselves to devices that we disconnect ourselves from true devotion or discipline, and being aware of that potential loss might just be vital to our growth in Christ. It is a wonderful blessing to have a world of ministry at our fingertips 24 hours of the day, and only the most Luddite believer would wish to subtract this from our lives. We should praise God for his servants who (often without charge) send their preaching, writing, programming, and thinking to our devices, and deeply value the net gain for our walk with God. Over-reliance on these means might, however, reduce the ends which they achieve, and can remove us one step further from walking with God. Some examples might help us here.
A prayer app is a marvellous partner for seeking God in specific, ordered, and regular ways. The ability to sync our lists with those of others or of organisations is a boon to supplication which is almost impossible to quantify. The problem arises when the app becomes a proxy for prayer, or when having programmed the app we scan our screen, swiping right in the assurance that certain points have been covered. This might be a review of prayer points but it is not intercession, and it is certainly several steps away from communion with God.
Another example is with regard to our giving. Online banking and automatic funds transfers to our local church or chosen ministry can deliver us from the bondage of good intentions that are never fulfilled. There is convenience and consistency in a standing order leaving our account each month, and it provides a sense of dependable income for those supported by us. We should praise God for online banking and transfers in this respect. If this process becomes depersonalised, however, we have lost something of our worship of God with our wealth – moving away from the widow’s mite mentality so highly praised by Jesus. If the local church and global mission become a kind of tax on our money which we bear little responsibility for, or give little thought to, then the element of worship has been removed. To return to VCR terms, the movie might be recorded but we have no idea of its plot.
The heart and the cross
The great antidote to these abuses, to this interpassive approach to serving God is not to build a pyre of our iPhones or Android, but to ask God to renew our hearts, and to personally re-shoulder the cross of following Christ. Jesus’ great admonition to the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13 was that they learn afresh the priority of mercy over sacrifice. The insistence of his engagement with them throughout his ministry was that the outward observance without their hearts was hateful to God. Our prayers, our giving, our Bible reading, our acts of compassion, our engagement with preaching, are to spring from our union with Christ and our love for Christ. The great matter in our ministry is our motives, and we should be suspicious of anything which severs this from our Christian service. A recent sociological study demonstrated that those who used apps for lifestyle change quickly began to ignore the content pushed at them from all angles, or that the substantive changes they had made through them were quickly lost over the long haul.
We have never had so many props for our walk with God, but the strength of churches and individual Christians has not enjoyed commensurate growth. Is there a possibility that having an app has meant that we are not applying ourselves as we could to our walk with God? Is our vital union with Christ, and deepening love for him and his work the driving force for seeking God and listening to his word, or are we responding to Pavlovian pings which push us towards an activity which we wouldn’t otherwise engage in? Have we traded the cross and the cost of some aspects of discipleship for the convenience of being reminded, prompted, and pushed? Could we become prisoners to religious activity which ultimately numbs the conscience and callouses the heart because we are not in the experience of seeking and serving God?
At the very least an awareness of the danger of interpassive piety might deliver us from its detrimental effects. Our walk with God is not one more thing to be logged along with our PB on Strava, or one more alert along with the weather and the shopping list reminder. Our faith has never been built on secondary means or mindless disciplines, but on the life of the living Christ within us urging and prompting us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We should embrace every prop which drives us to deeper devotion, but remove every crutch which takes us away from giving God our hearts, and taking up our cross, daily.