The Social Media Dilemma and Courage to “Unplug”

By Joe LaGuardia

The first thing my son does in the morning is open his laptop and watch his favorite YouTube channel.  My daughter checks her social media pages.  I groggily turn over and tune in to Facebook to see what is new.  My wife tells everyone to unplug.

This is our typical day, as I’m sure it is for millions of other Americans who enjoy technology without knowing how it affects their lives for good or worse.

My wife once recommended we unplug from Facebook, and I have been putting off the idea for some time.  The subject came up again, this time at my own initiative.  I’ve been reading The Driver in the Driverless Car by techno-ethicist Vivek Wadwha after hearing an interview with him on the radio.  I knew that I was spelling the end of my social media days when I ordered the book.  It was just a matter of time.

When I recommended we unplug, I asked, “How will we keep in touch with friends and family?” My wife replied, “The same way you kept in touch before we had Facebook.  Make a phone call.”  The wheels started turning, and prayer ensued.

Wadwha’s book focuses on several ethical issues surrounding the emergence of technology.  No matter how invasive, he contends, technology is only as beneficial as we are autonomous.  Dependence upon technology can be harmful and, in some cases, immoral.  Its just as Jesus might have said if he lived in the 21st-Century, “Man does not live online alone, but on every word of God.”

Autonomy is about choice — do we have a choice whether we can survive apart from the technology in our lives, and do we have a choice to go beyond our online tribes and algorithm-shaped echo chambers?

My question about Facebook –“How will we keep in touch?”– revealed an acute dependence whether real or perceived: in short, “How will I live without Facebook?”

That evening, we mapped out the needs, fears, benefits, and costs of social media.  We then sought to rectify our needs, confront our fears with biblical antidotes, and list benefits related to being unplugged.

Assuming we have only three needs for social media–the social media “triad”, as it were: friends and family, news and entertainment, and (in my case as an author and pastor) publicity — that means we had to devise a couple of alternatives for each need.  For instance, we can keep in touch with family and friends the old-fashioned way, by phone or mail (a much more personal touch).  We also have messenger and texting.

For news, we can spend time reading the newspaper that calls our driveway home every morning without fail.  And for publicity, we can drive up subscriptions to this blog, knowing that every post is emailed to those who sign up.

Professional relationships and publicity can also go through the church Facebook page, of which I will be a part, primarily during work hours or ministry projects.  No need to check the church FB page at midnight, during dinner, or any of those other obtrusive times when we seem so addicted to our screens.  Our world has to be larger than 3 X 5 inches, you know.

Our fears were clear: fears of being “out of the loop”, missing news, of not being “present” online either for publicity or pastoral sake, a concern for any clergy worth his salt.  But when we looked to the Bible for help and focused on two admonishments (maintaining privacy and freedom in Christ — autonomy and choice, per Wadwha), we found 2 Thessalonians 4:11-12 relevant and all-inclusive to our conundrum:

And make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…so that you will behave properly toward others and be dependent on no one.”

And, we figured, to be dependent on no thing, social media included.

We had charted our course, now it was a matter of unplugging.  We devised a plan: Write this article, put posts on our Facebook pages to inform everyone of our decision, and put with a link to the article with instructions on how people can contact us.

If you are reading this now, you’ve likely seen the post.

So begins our new adventure without social media.  It will be a challenge as any change is, but we are confident in God’s guidance for this endeavor.  And there is God’s Word to consider: If more of us lived quietly and earnestly, putting our hands to the Lord’s harvest, perhaps we might be a happier society, creators of healthier churches, and the source of a more dedicated, simple folk.

Here’s to unplugging!

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The Amish can teach us the spiritual benefits of simplicity

If you were to ask me what religious denomination is growing in the United States, I would have guessed the Pentecostals.  Well, my guess is wrong.  The fastest growing religious group in America is the Amish.

You know the Amish, right?  They are the folks who live on farms, refuse to use electricity and other modern amenities, and live in close-knit communities up in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

I know them well because my mother had always been obsessed with the Amish and their simple way of life.   I remember when I was a child, we took a trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to experience Amish life first hand.  I was enthralled with the old-fashioned wooden gizmos they used to work, cook, and play.  Their horse-drawn buggies were a sight to see, and their hats made me laugh.

That they are growing at an alarming rate–nearly doubling their population every twenty years according to a recent article in the Huffington Post–is not suprising.  The Amish value children, and they insure that those children are well-educated and inculturated into the Amish way of life.

That way of life makes for a healthy upbringing because they eat what they grow, consume what they make, and “want not because they waste not.”  There is a spiritual lesson to learn in there somewhere.

The fact that they do not have laptops, cell phones, IPods, and televisions means that they have to focus on other things in life that are much more important in the long run: family and faith come to mind.  The Amish have to rely on one another for entertainment and recreation; they are forced to do things together in community in order to accomplish goals and make a way for future generations.

And, because they don’t have car payments or credit card bills, the Amish have more money to spend on things that mean something, like land and family keepsakes.  They are well connected and complain little about what the government says or does (unlike popular belief, the Amish do pay taxes like everyone else).  They buy local, sell quality products, and go to church regularly.

Of course faith is a central aspect of being Amish.  The name “Amish” comes from a French Mennonite leader, Jacob Amman, who believed that Mennonites were too relaxed in areas related to church discipline and worship.  In 1693 he formed the first Christian community that gained his moniker.

Today, those communities are expanding to meet the needs of flourishing families and a hearty grassroots economy.   Thus their religion’s record-setting growth.

The Amish, as separatist as they are, reminds me of the communities from which John the Baptist emerged.  All four Gospels agree that John came “from the wilderness” preaching the kingdom and the coming Messiah that would revive Israel’s faith and lead a new exodus to God’s liberating freedom.

That he came from the wilderness implies that he probably learned his way of faith from separatist communities like the Essenes, those who wrote and preserved the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The communities were places of refuge for Israelites sick of the corruption of the Jerusalem Temple system and the occupation of the pagan Roman Empire.

John’s preaching had that kind of Amish ethical bite to it as he preached against the Temple and her leaders.  John came to “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” (Mark 1:2) as he called people to repentance, baptized them in the Jordan river, and advocated a faith built upon principles of simplicity and spiritual revival.

It’s that “preparing” that I think we lose in our media-saturated, technology-driven society.  We have become so consumed by our to-do and to-buy lists, we have forgotten to let the Lord into our lives Monday through Saturday.  We don’t let God in, much less prepare our hearts for His arrival.

Despite my appreciation for the Amish, I certainly would not volunteer to live without electricity; but, the Bible does say that Jesus “stands at the door and knocks” (Rev. 3:20). An Amish-inspired simplicity forces us to prepare room for God, hear the knock, and open the door.

Simplicity: Ingalls Style

The other day, my daughter was wearing the only ankle-length skirt she owns.  I love that skirt. Whenever she wears it, I call her Laura Ingalls.  You know–the Laura Ingalls from the 1970s TV show, “The Little House on the Prairie”?

The last time I called her Laura Ingalls, it hit me: She has no clue who Laura Ingalls is.  In fact, my daughter has not watched a single episode of that fantastic program.  She’s never met Pa and Ma Ingalls, never reviled Nellie Oleson, never imagined tumbling down a field of grass with little Mary.  What a tragedy.

On the contrary, I probably watched too much “Little House” when I was growing up.  My mother was practically addicted to it.  Her dream was to buy a cottage just like the one the Ingalls called home.   She longed to live where the family could tell stories and enjoy a hot pot of stew fresh from the pot-bellied stove.

(Ironically, my mom got her wish when my parents moved into an old, circa 1920s cabin in the Poconos several years ago.  My mother found out that country living is not all fun and games; especially last week, when the pipes froze and broke.)

I’m quite convinced that the appeal of “Little House” for all of us, including Mother, was not necessarily the home or the characters (though that helped), but was what the show portrayed in the first place: the simple life at its finest.

Walnut Grove had no frills (just the occasional drama) and few big-city choices.  Everyone had a good job and faithful neighbors.  Around high noon, the town stopped for lunch; boys and girls took naps under huge oak trees with some book of poetry or Shakespeare slung over their eyes.

Even I have been bemused by the type of simplicity “Little House” boasted: I can’t tell you how many times I suggested to my wife that we should use candles instead of lights at night during Lent.

Simplicity does get lost in translation for many Christians in this fast-paced, consumer-saturated world.  It is an important spiritual discipline in which we scale back on the technology, drama, and materialism that entangle us like a web.

The basis for simplicity goes back to Jesus, of course, when he told the rich young ruler to go and sell all that the ruler had.  Jesus’ ministry was one that required few resources, for he was always on the move ready to go wherever His father led him.

When he dispatched his disciples, Jesus told them to pack light.  In the earliest church, many believers gave away most of what they owned to those in need.  If you had two coats in the closet, you gave one to a friend.

Even the Old Testament speaks of the benefits of simplicity: “Thus says the Lord: By waiting and calm, you shall be saved.  In quiet and trust lies your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

Several years after Jesus ministered on earth, several Christians took this command seriously and headed out to the wilderness to live simple lives.  These aristocrats-turned-priests worked, prayed, and worshiped with very little funding.

They became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and they lived by the Latin phrase, “Fuge, tace, et quiesce,” which means, “live in solitude, silence, and inner peace.”

Simplicity helped them see God through the fog of prestige and wealth.  It improved their prayer life, and it challenged their very faith in God.

Perhaps our spiritual practice of simplicity won’t look anything like that of Walnut Grove or the Desert Ancestors, but it might behoove us to at least get in the spirit of what it means to live humbly, crave simplicity, and pursue fellowship with friends and family around a pot of stew more often.