Book review: 'The Next Story'—creating a digital theology

Michael Miller  ·  Apr 30, 2018

For Christians, the digital age has proven to be both boon and bane.

It allows us to spread the Gospel, find and share resources, communicate, encourage, and make contact with other believers like we’ve never been able to.

But it also opens us to innumerable temptations like we’ve never faced to lust, waste time, waste money, be led away from the truth, break up marriages, and become isolated from our own families and the physical Body of Christ.

In his excellent book The Next Story: Faith, Friends, Family and the Digital World, Canadian author, pastor and blogger Tim Challies sees that high-tech change as having the same effect on society as the Soviet Union’s 50-megaton Tsar Bomba had on an Arctic island. That hydrogen bomb literally reshaped the island. Similarly, Challies writes, the digital explosion has “reshaped the landscape of our lives, destroying and creating, splitting things apart and bringing them together in new ways.”

But Challies’ goal isn’t to sound an alarm about the dangers that the digital age—the Internet, smart phones, portable music players, etc.—poses to Christians. In many ways, Challies embraces most things digital, enjoys them, uses them. He’s been blogging since 2002, when the term “blogging” was just coming into use. You can friend him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. And if you had his number, you could call him on his iPhone, which is what he used to respond after I sent a question to his email address.

Technology, he points out, is the result of human creativity, which we have since we bear God’s image. “Technology is the creative activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes.”

His experience and use of digital technology doesn’t make him a hypocrite or compromised source. It means that he knows what he’s talking about. It’s also apparent that he has thought through the implications of living in a digital age. Most importantly, though, he looks at the theological implications. That’s the heart of his book.

Challies admits, as we should, that we can’t avoid being affected by digital society anywhere we go in the world, no matter the level of the technology we ourselves possess. Even in poverty-stricken countries, you’re more likely to find a cell phone (and television) in a hovel than you are to have access to running water. In our wealthy Western society, the situation is magnified. And even if we don’t own smart phones or a PC, never watch TV or YouTube, and don’t even know what an iPad is, we still live in a world inhabited by people who do. It’s incumbent upon us to be familiar with the technology and the effect it has on our society and understand how it has changed us.

He is honest about his own struggles with many aspects of the digital explosion, another thing which gives his insights legitimacy.

“I began to feel as if maybe, just maybe, all of my devices, gizmos, and gadgets owned me as much as I owned them,” he writes in his introduction.

So, Challies has become convinced that Christians must learn not to avoid digital technology—we can’t—but to “live in a digital world with virtue and dignity.” In the book, he tries to find the “sweet spot” where theory, experience and theology intersect, to find how a thinking Christian can respond to digital technology with “disciplined discernment.”

“There are always spiritual realities linked to our use of technology.”

A first step is to realize that “the things we create can—and will—try to become idols in our hearts … drawing our hearts away from God rather than drawing us toward him in dependence and faith.” Despite the fact that our ability to create is God-given, technology is subject to the curse just like we are, so it can be used as a tool to serve our Creator or to rebel against Him.

How does this show itself in our lives?

  • In our compulsive Facebook usage, or compulsive checking of our smart phones or tablets, for the latest message or headline.
  • In our decreasing ability to focus on one task at a time because we’re so willing to be distracted by our phones or email, or feel compelled to respond to the beeps and buzzes that infiltrate every waking moment.
  • In our reliance on unreliable sources for “truth” by turning to “crowdsourcing” (information compiled as a consensus rather than as fact) or wikis (where anybody can add or edit content).
  • By allowing screens (on our PC, phone, TV, whatever) to become another layer of mediation between our individual selves and others, decreasing face- to-face contact and leading to dehumanization of those we love—or should love. Included in this is the realization that there are real people on the other side of the connection and that we tend not to be as cautious with what we type on a monitor as what we would say in person.
  • By depending on digital devices to be our memories—which they can do efficiently and, most of the time, dependably—to the detriment of our physical memory, which includes knowing and remembering God’s Word.
  • By succumbing to the temptation of exhibitionism through sharing unimportant and, in many cases, intimate details of our lives with total strangers around the world, in the process pridefully assuming they want to know these details.
  • By becoming impatient in the rest of our lives when we can have instant gratification from digital technology.
  • By losing track of time as we surf the net or play a game and, as a result, wasting a valuable resource.
  • By hiding behind online anonymity.
  • By equating information with knowledge despite a lack of wisdom in how we use it or accept it.

So what’s a user of digital devices to do, particularly a Christian user?

Challies has plenty of suggestions and triggers for thinking. He ends each chapter in Part 2 with applications and questions for reflection.

The essence of his advice is to discipline ourselves in our use of technology and question our motives, the potential effect of the addition of more devices to our lives, and the placement of our trust. Are we trusting in our devices to accomplish for us what we should be trusting God or the Body of Christ to accomplish for us? Are we wasting precious resources of time and money through our devices? Have we become disconnected from real people? Where is our relationship with our family and what impact are devices having on them? Do we prefer mediation through our devices to contact with human beings?

Ask yourself the hard questions, Challies writes, and answer them honestly.

He also offers plenty of advice as we go about reforming our use of technology—and its use of us.

Here’s a sampling:

“Be visible; be accountable; be real; be mature. And always distrust yourself. It may sound harsh, but be willing to doubt your motives, your heart. Take a moment to pray before answering an antagonistic e-mail; bounce your ideas and articles off trusted friends before posting them; be slow to speak (or type) and quick to listen.”
“We need to see the superiority of face-to-face communication and prioritize it above what is mediated. We cannot afford to become lazy, to allow pragmatism and convenience and ignorance to define the ways we communicate with one another.”
“The caution that marks our speech must also mark our texting, our e-mailing, our commenting, our blogging and our tweeting. The fact that we communicate at all should cause us to stop and to consider every word. The fact that we communicate so often today and do so before so great an audience should cause us to tremble.”
“Identify your distractions, measure your use of media, find the ‘beeps’ in your life that demand your attention, and find what dulls your mind. Then destroy distraction, find focus, and seek solitude through vacations from digital devices.”

Challies gets into specifics on these and other topics, but his overall message, which he himself continues to try to practice, is simply to employ discipline in our use of technology so that it is at our disposal rather than the other way around.