THE DIGITAL FAST
Are you addicted, however mildly, to the internet? Join the club. We need a spiritual take on this to aid our discipleship.
The words of Jesus in Matthew 6 warn us not to practice our piety before others, but we are living in a very different setting to first century Palestine. In a culture where faith is fashionable – as then - the expression of piety becomes a form of conspicuous religion; a ‘look and admire me’ spirituality. This contrasts with 21st century Britain, where religious faith is more questionable than fashionable. Personal worth in Britain today is more likely to be measured by wealth and possessions; we are preoccupied with conspicuous consumption rather than conspicuous religion.
An argument could be made for saying we need to be a bit more conspicuous in our demonstration of personal faith to show others how relevant it remains today; instead, as a secular outlook becomes more entrenched, we retreat apologetically into a corner and unlearn our spontaneity.
Jesus was suspicious of those who deliberately drew attention to themselves. In his era, praying and giving alms were a reliable way of doing this; he criticises those who show off on the street corners. This begs the question, what are our street corners today? Where do we parade our virtue and worth? The answer is increasingly in social media. The modern equivalent of practising virtue on the street corners may be digital exhibitionism and over-sharing on social media; the relentless posting of new statuses. Where once we had to wait until December to receive the dreaded Christmas circular letter of acquaintances, which would accidentally on-purpose tell you about their remorseless success in life, now we are exposed to this culture 24/7. Social media is a delightful blessing when it sustains relationships which might otherwise become careless; it can burden others when we over-share. Perhaps one Christian contribution to emerging culture of social media is to use it to put a kindly spotlight on others, where they might be encouraged by a few extra words and not simply a distracted click on ‘like’.
The idea of a digital fast is gaining traction today, where people stay away from social media for a meaningful period of time; an even more radical option is to forsake the internet altogether, but for many this is less practical, like giving up the car and walking everywhere. Those who have denied themselves social media in Lent have spoken compellingly of withdrawal symptoms, almost physical felt. There is a growing body of evidence of internet addiction. Even if this only applies to some, other users are having their brains re-wired by it. We are becoming shallower in our thinking, as we paddle quickly along the breaking tide of information, rather than swimming deeply in the sea of knowledge which lies beyond it.
Christian prayer and the contemplation of God have always required concentration, effort, a single-minded pursuit that is not distracted by the ephemeral demands of life. The internet may be shortening our attention spans, making us less able to intercede in depth and at length. The sceptic may argue that other inventions, like the television, have long since had a similar effect. This may be true, but we carry the internet around with us, feeding our addiction. We are more likely to be seen on the street corner checking Facebook statuses rather than praying to our Father.
There is nothing new in this interpretation of fasting. The prophet Isaiah, in chapter 58, provides his contemporaries with a new spin on fasting which is less to do with personal denial and more about human service. To fast is to feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the naked. There is a tangible, earthy feel about this kind of fasting and it finds echoes in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, where Jesus is found in the poor and thread-bare.
God is drawn towards knotty, unglamorous problems, not away from them; to be disciples of Jesus we should follow him. To stand with God amid a problem is a reward in itself, but we are promised there is more. Those who meet human need find that their prayers are answered (‘you shall call, and the Lord will answer’: Isaiah 58 verse 9). The economist John Kay has written compellingly of how companies which aim to make the best possible goods or provide the best possible services usually do better than companies whose only motive is profit; the John Lewis Partnership may be a good example of this. This is the outline of a deeper spiritual reality: those who aim to meet the needs of others will find their own needs are also met; those who are only interested in meeting their own needs are likely to be dissatisfied.
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