The following article first appeared as a guest post on Gentle Reformation.
If your social media feed is not on silent these days, the ping of incoming alerts has perhaps been more noticeable than ever. And more alluring if you’re being honest with yourself. While we complain about being overtaxed by incoming messages by the minute, there’s a part of us that “needs” to check the tweet; the headline; the Instagram post; the Facebook meme the moment we’re made aware of it. Researchers have been delving into this strangely paradoxical aspect of human behaviour for a number of years now. The evidence seems to point in the direction of dopamine surges in the part of the brain that interprets reward and pleasure.
Each click of the link, each refresh of the screen, each new tweet rewards the brain with a sense of pleasure, the same way many narcotics do. Yet while it feels good, it comes at a cost. In Rod Dreher’s insightful words: “Social media divides our attention with the razor’s edge efficiency of a sushi chef.” Dreher’s words are well worth pondering at the present time. On the menu these days has been a near endless array of health crises, economic disasters, and societal upheaval to feast upon as the pings continue to multiply. Our attention is perhaps more divided now than it has ever been.
I was intrigued by a recent tweet I came across from Texan Pastor Richard Caldwell:
Could it be that God didn’t wire us to carry every event, taking place in every part of the world, at every moment, as [if it] were ours? Could it be that technology has produced a faux omniscience and omnipresence that is hurting mankind [and] not helping it. Just a thought.
As I have sought to keep my attention focused on the daily demands of pastoring a small church in Québèc, Canada – the alluring pull of world events (in particular those occurring among our American cousins just south of the border) has presented an acute challenge. Whether it’s pandemic-related; race-related; Parliament-related; or Whitehouse-related — the breaking news coming through my own social media feeds has been hard to resist! ‘What is God up to?’; ‘How is the Church of Jesus Christ responding to current events?’; ‘What are my peers posting about their own perspectives on what is happening?’ To be sure, these are not bad questions to be asking. But I find myself increasingly distracted these days, longing for some refreshment. Is that you as well perhaps?
May I suggest a simple yet soul-transforming idea? Pick up a book. Pick up an old book. Pick up a good book. Handle it, smell it, bend it, dog-ear it. And read it! Immerse yourself in it. Put your smartphone in another room in the house. Set the ringer on high in case you get an important phone call. But put your notification alerts on silent. And spend some time “disconnected” from the chaos that is otherwise filling our hearts and minds these days.
Please don’t get me wrong. There are important issues facing individuals, families, nations, and churches as we speak. This is no call to retreat and revel in the irresponsible bliss of ignorance. Rather, this is a call to be more intentional in putting into practice the words of Philippians 4:8: “… whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” These are not just the words of an experienced man of God. They are the God-breathed words of our very Creator Himself. We do well to listen, for He knows our frame.
Carefully reading a good book brings PLEASURE. Don’t let your current Google-shaped brain tell you otherwise! You don’t need constant tweets and posts to feel good. It will take some time, but if you press on, you will rediscover (or discover for the first time) the rich pleasure that comes from reading a good book. And you will likely see that the “pleasure” derived from looking at an incessant stream of tweets and posts, compared to immersing yourself in a good book, is like a sample from Costco weighed against an all-you-can eat dinner at a 3-star Michelin restaurant (no offence, Costco).
Carefully reading a good book brings PERSPECTIVE. The missing ingredient in our thinking is so often perspective. Immersing ourselves in an old, well-written book can provide the needed perspective to think and act as faithful Christians in this world. Perspective reminds us that we are not the first to face global upheaval. Perspective reminds us that, in many ways, there really is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Perspective helps us step out of our own context for a time and look at it from the outside. Perspective brings wisdom.
Finally, carefully reading a good book brings a reminder of God’s PROVIDENCE. A good book can connect us with the past. God’s works are to be seen in the course of history. As our Shorter Catechism reminds us, “God executes His decrees in the works of creation and providence”. The psalmist knew what a blessing it was to his soul to “behold the works of the LORD” (Psalm 46:8). It was in the context of reverently rejoicing in God’s providence, that the psalmist’s voice is overtaken by that of God Himself: “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (v. 10).
To be still and know that He is God is, I think, the foundation of our wisdom at this time. He will be exalted among the nations. He will be exalted in the earth. We don’t know precisely how that will unfold. We don’t have to! We just have to be still and know. So, in the midst of all the tumultuous events in our world today, dear reader, put down the phone for awhile and pick up a good book. For pleasure’s sake. For perspective’s sake. And for the sake of your own soul, which will find its true rest in being still while the God of world history unfolds His own plan, executing His own decree, through His powerful providence.
*All Scripture quotations taken from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
*Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 231.