Andrew Sullivan's "My Distraction Sickness--and Yours" has been widely noted this week on social media, though I haven't seen an abundance of comments. The most frequent response I have seen is an amen. The essay is lengthy and worth the time and attention it requires. Read it in one sitting, with no breaks for checking Facebook. Sullivan examines the consequences of life "in the internet," which includes the prospect of losing one's soul. (I think Sullivan means that metaphorically; I do not.)
In one notable passage Sullivan turns his attention to churches. He has keenly observed that Christian communities have been eager adopters of the various forms of technology that have fueled our constant state of distraction. I would add that evangelical communities, because of their commitments to evangelism and outreach, are representative poster children. Pragmatic concerns have driven decision making in evangelical communities rather than sustained and principled conviction, particularly regarding technology, and the tools have remade the user in their own image. Sullivan says churches would have been better off by remaining committed to quiet places, silence, and contemplative prayer. He writes:
If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.
I agree, if only in part. I am one of the web-weary and digitally frazzled, and I have worked with those who are either fragmented because of their technological addictions or who are well on their way. I do think silence, meditation, and prayer are curative. But the effects of those practices must manifest themselves in the lives of disciples of Jesus. We need souls that are quiet and still, not just church buildings or meditative liturgies.
We do have a distraction problem, and Sullivan is right to say that our souls suffer. But if we are distracted, we must answer from what, and the corrective must be both practical and curative. It must be restorative for the soul, not as metaphorical construct or literary referent for a scientific understanding of the self, but as a spiritual reality, classically understood. Christians have a robust theological tradition that suggests the self is willfully distracted from God because of sin, and therefore modern technology is only the latest avenue by which our hearts and minds are so easily seduced. Stated differently, this is an old problem in new packaging. Thankfully, there is an old solution that can be freshly applied: renewed attention to God that is passionate, thoughtful, and sustained. In Jesus, we find rest for our souls.
Some might dismiss that as platitudinous and simplistic. I do not mean it that way. I understand that abstaining from social media, implementing wise practices in order to be present with friends and family, and giving time and focus to prayer, Bible reading, or Christian fellowship requires discipline. The present distractions are not small and seldom, they are immense and pervasive. To acknowledge they exist, however, is a turning point and a beginning, just as repentance is both a first and an ongoing step on the path of discipleship.