1. A year ago, before a global pandemic altered our lives, discussions about the promise and perils of technology had a theoretical tone to them. Having a social media account was an entertaining frivolity. You could carry a “dumb phone” around and get some street cred for opting out of the system. You might avoid the self-checkout line at the grocery store because you valued human contact. Being a luddite might have felt empowering, bordering on righteous. Technological change was elective, and therefore open to debate, one that had a sense of urgency to it: “It’s not too late! We can still turn the ship around!”

Over the past 12 months, it’s becoming clear that the ship we were steering was the Titanic. Social media and smartphones are here to stay. This fatalist point was driven home to me recently in Alexandra Schwartz’s New Yorker review of Patricia Lockwood’s new futurist novel, No One is Talking About This. Lockwood’s characters live in a world where technology is no longer a tool for living but life itself. Its characters cannot imagine a world without social media and the internet, so they are left trying to keep themselves from drowning by pulling themselves up by their hair:

Why are we still On Here? Twitter users often ask with the desperation of the damned, and the answer that Lockwood’s book immediately gives is that we are addicts. What opium did to the minds of the nineteenth century is no different than what the Internet — “the portal,” as Lockwood calls it — is doing to the minds of the twenty-first. We know this from science, some of us from experience, but Lockwood is out to describe that sensation of dependency, the feeling of possessing a screen-suckled brain — or of being possessed by it. Thomas De Quincey, plugged full of poppy, reported sitting at a window “from sunset to sunrise, motionless, and without wishing to move,” and something similar happens to Lockwood’s unnamed protagonist when she sits in front of her computer screen:

Her husband would sometimes come up behind her while she was repeating the words no, no, no or help, help, help under her breath, and lay a hand on the back of her neck like a Victorian nursemaid. “Are you locked in?” he would ask, and she would nod and then do the thing that always broke her out somehow, which was to google beautiful brown pictures of roast chickens — maybe because that’s what women used to do with their days.

Schwartz notes the irony here, that “A digital ailment demands a digital cure,” one that acutely resonates with the omnipresence of online life now — like using a meditation app to redirect you away from a YouTube rabbit hole. Or like reading about the ills of technology on a website … on your smartphone.

Lockwood’s book is “sending a bulletin from the future,” one that’s bleak, but not ultimately hopeless. The characters’ digital lives are eventually interrupted by the arrival of “love, selfless and delighted” in the form of a baby. Consequently, “a new way of being comes to her, gradually and instinctively,” that shakes her out of her online addiction. If it were Christmas this week, that sermon would write itself. Escaping “the portal” is still miraculously possible.

2. The omnipresence of the digital world in everyday life parallels — or better — enables political life to become something more than an issue of proper governance and legislation. Giving politics the megaphone of the internet has enabled it to encroach on the everyday. As told by J. D. Tuccille in Reason, “Politics Is Seeping Into Our Daily Life and Ruining Everything.” He cites a recent paper in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing that claims:

People’s partisan identities influence the range of people with whom they are willing to have relationships, the brands they purchase, and the jobs they take. […]

Americans, then, are increasingly making decisions along tribal political lines, potentially depriving themselves of rewarding friendships, better-paying jobs, well-reasoned judgments, and optimal goods and services. But by choosing beverages, beanssports equipment, and employment according to tribal affiliation, they are also losing points of shared interest with people who disagree with them. The people they see in their neighborhoods, at concerts, and in their chosen restaurants likely share their views on hot-button issues, because those who disagree live, party, and shop elsewhere. That further reduces the opportunity for connections across partisan boundaries.

Worse, when the political tribes are so divorced from one another in terms of preferences and lifestyles, it becomes easier to target the “enemy” by going after their ways of life. With conservatives largely living in rural areas and exurbs, and liberals confining themselves to cities and suburbs, and the groupings having shrinking overlap in terms of their interests, it’s pretty easy to hurt opponents by targeting pastimes and brands for boycotts, regulatory action, or legal restrictions.

What does a pair of jeans have to do with politics? Everything, apparently. Left or right, we are sadly living in entirely different worlds that are growing more divided by the minute. When there was a boycott on Goya foods last year, it seemed puzzling to me at the time, but this was clearly a minority opinion. Fueled by targeted online marketing, it’s clear that advertisers have begun to harness our politics by way of some virtue-signaling branding. Of course, churches have been doing something like this for decades now, though that probably isn’t the kind of trend-setting Jesus imagined.

3. Divided though we might be, we’re all still Googling for advice: something that seems to be an effect of social division in the first place. The feedback loop of it all is kind of insane. Without shared customs or conventions for what to believe, how to act, how to raise children, or where to buy the best coffee maker, everyone needs some guidance nowadays, which wouldn’t be so bad if we were all getting the same search results. (We’re not.) So we’re left scouring our custom-tailored form of the internet for the answers we seek, and the World Wide Web is here for you. Writing this week in the New Yorker, Jamie Fisher lays out the brief history of advice columns and their boom over the last decade:

We are living in the age of peak advice. You can, depending on your needs, get life tips from “Dear Prudence” or “Ask Polly”; from Roxane Gay or “Ask a Manager”; from a pornographer or Dan Savage; even from the food critic Mimi Sheraton, as though your life were an injudiciously cooked pot roast. The questions their columns address are both age-old and relentlessly modern. The anxious progressive can ask Liza Featherstone, in The Nation, what to do about a friendship with a Jordan Peterson acolyte. People ask the Urban Diplomat for advice on their roommate’s invading kombucha lab and what to do about their embarrassing Google search results. With the coronavirus, the thirst for advice has become unquenchable. Columns have been swamped with questions about the best way to leave your partner during a pandemic, the etiquette for masks on hiking trails, and, heartbreakingly, how to deal with your husband’s alcoholism quietly spinning out of control in the background during your remote work meetings. Cheryl Strayed, the patron saint of the late-two-thousands advice renaissance, even came out of retirement, reviving her “Sugar” persona as if summoned by thousands of mask-muffled screams.

Fisher notes that advice columns today rarely have high aspirations. They are “society write small,” consumed with the day-to-day problems of how to relate to others at home and at the office. In this, they reflect just how little we know about what to do once the alarm goes off in the morning. If Martin Luther King, Jr.’s monthly advice column (surprising, right?) pointed his readers to loftier ideals, we’re unsure of how to brew our morning coffee. Smartphones in hand, it turns out that living autonomously (literally “self-ruled”) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

4. Further signs of the fragmentation of society can readily be found in the kind of cultural institutions we enjoy. According to Gareth Roberts at UnHerd, fandom itself is now increasingly splintered (and destructive). Our interests are becoming more niche, like Peloton but everywhere. There isn’t much nowadays that captures everyone’s attention (outside of the delightful respite of Bernie memes!). Remember when everyone talked about the latest cliffhanger in Lost? Yea, it feels like forever ago. Now, we mostly trade viewing recommendations back and forth. Roberts laments:

Everything, thanks to the internet, now has a fandom; not just TV shows and pop stars but public institutions, political parties, nations. The fan clubs of old where you sent off for a sticker and a poster are no more. Fandoms are mini-communities, groups of people who don’t just like or enjoy something but who love it, and love it hard.

And in some cases, love in a way so obsessive it’s barely distinguishable from hate. […]

Fandoms are often very, very mad and sometimes very, very bad. Taking them seriously is ill-advised. Pandering to them is almost always disastrous. And as common culture has fragmented — thanks to audience shrinkage and ever more niche content — the noisy obsessives of fandom have become louder, with some serious consequences, and not just for pop culture. […]

We desperately need to reaffirm a shared order of meaning. The nerds and noisy complainers have to be put back in their box — I can confirm, as a member of the nerd community, that we were happier there. The special discipline of producing mass popular culture that freely and genuinely reflects its whole audience is being lost, and without it we are obsessing about the oddest things. It’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Let’s think in big numbers, in commonality, and forget fandom. Thirteen million cheers for the lowest common denominator.

The thing Roberts wants — a unified sense of meaning that transcends difference while simultaneously reflecting the whole audience — well, that sounds like the Gospel to me, which appeals to the lowest common denominator of our humanity, i.e. sin, while redirecting our myopic vision toward a self-giving love that unites every tribe and tongue and nation. What the philosopher Alain Badiou recognized as the “universal singularity” of Christianity, “offered to all, or addressed to everyone, without a condition of belonging being able to limit this offer, this address.”

If that fails, there’s always the newest Mars Rover?

5. The other thing that unites people across all differences? There are a few options out there (humor, for instance), but one option isn’t so cheery: death. Perhaps you heard it was Ash Wednesday this week? Most likely, the day felt like every other day this past year. Even still, being reminded of our sin and mortality is something that everyone needs.

But there’s another universal experience that is far stronger, a twist in the plot that you might even say surpasses death and frees us from our technological addiction (see point one above). Writing for ABC Religion & Ethics, Samuel Wells discusses the Book of Job and the triumph of love over death. I’d quote the whole thing if I could:

The story of Job is in the Bible. […] this story being in the Bible also means that the answer to Job’s question [about suffering and death] is, in the end, Jesus. In Jesus we see the story of Job played out in intense form, most of all upon the cross. The words, “Why have you forsaken me?” are a concise summary of the book of Job. They don’t get an answer. For those three hours, for two nights that follow, it seems that God’s love and God’s power have parted company and the whole of creation is a pitiless mockery ending in annihilation. But Jesus’s resurrection once again unites power and love, and shows us that we will not ultimately be forsaken.

The reason why the book of Job is harrowing is not just because it’s about suffering. Job is deeply troubling because it exposes something uncomfortable about most manifestations of the Christian faith. In most cases our faith is based on an assumption that if there is a God, the job of that God is to fix human problems, ameliorate existence and arrange benefits. In other words, that God is a piece of technology whose role is to improve our life. It’s an utterly human-centred arrangement. A narcissistic faith. Not really faith at all: more the demand to honour a contract we never actually made — a contract by which we agreed to be born and God agreed to do the rest. We treat God like a government we voted for but that then reneged on its election promises. When was that election again? Who among us chose to be born? At what point did we enter into a deal with God? On what grounds do we expect better of life than we find it gives us? What gives us the presumption to treat God like this? […]

The so-called “problem of suffering” assumes that God’s role is to bring health and flourishing — and if God fails to do that, God is malign or weak. But what if God’s role is to be with us always, in person in Jesus, in myriad ways through the Holy Spirit, and forever in heaven? God is not an instrument we discard if it malfunctions. God is the essence of all things who astonishingly chooses to be with us, even in desperate hardship — and even, in the crucified Christ, in indescribable agony. That doesn’t make suffering go away. But it turns God’s engagement with suffering from a pretext for rejection into a reason for worship.

When we lie on our beds at night, or on our deathbed facing eternity, we do indeed face the loss of everything. But the witness of Job is that we lose everything — but God. The one thing we don’t lose is communion with God. The one and only thing that in the end really matters. The source from which all blessings flow. So, and only so, may we rest in peace.

6. Lots of great humor out there this week. For the parents out there, the Reductress has “Parents Unsure if Infant Matches the Vibe They Were Going For” and Points in Case confesses to “‘The Toys Are Sleeping’ and Other Lies I Tell My Toddler.” It’s cold out there, and the Hard Times has some perfect winter satire: “Jean Jacket Doubling As Winter Coat, Tripling As Personality

Top-billing in humor this week definitely has to go to McSweeney’s. They somehow obtained a letter from God, who decided “You Can Take Lent Off This Year.” And if God says so, then perhaps it’s worth at least considering this offer of grace:

I realize 2020 was pretty sucky, what with COVID and all. And I know 2021 hasn’t really been much better so far. The Capitol insurrection, vaccine delays, Tom Brady winning another Super Bowl… it’s been A LOT. So to show you how much I appreciate and love you, I’m giving you a free pass from Lent this year. […]

All I’m saying is don’t stop doing it on account of Me. I appreciate and acknowledge your conviction (looking at you especially, Roman Catholics — I know how competitive you are with your convictions), but let’s all just take a break. It’s been a rough year for all of us.

Enjoy what you can, how you want. I promise I won’t get mad. For nearly a year, we’ve all had so much pressure on us to try and live up to the way the world used to be. So much pressure to try baking bread, stay connected with people, or watch Bridgerton. Pressure while working from home, with friends, with family, with our kids. We just need to give ourselves a break sometimes and remember to love ourselves and each other as much as I love you. You deserve the things you like and should enjoy them. We’ll pick it back up next year.

Strays:

  • James Parker has a grade-A article this week on the benefits of a low anthropology: “An Ode to Low Expectations.”
  • Poetry magazine featured submissions from convicted criminals, which led to a vigorous debate about mercy.
  • Feeling the pandemic blues again? Try cold-calling your friends. They’d love to hear your voice.
  • Our love of pets can sometimes offer a window into the strange, counterintuitive thing we call love.
  • Mbird favorite Derek Sweatman has a reflection in Christianity Today on singing the blues in Lent that is well worth your time.
  • Finally, I’m more than happy to pass along a plug for our friend Aaron Blades’ new website for adoptees. See below for more information:

When most people think about adoption they think about babies in need of a stable home, but what happens when these children become adults? The church has a history of viewing adoption as a perfect picture of grace, while ignoring its challenges. Adoption reflects aspects of grace, but it isn’t a clean break from the broken past. Adult adoptees continue to examine questions of origin, identity, and loss decades later and often alone, without easy access to peers and with strong social pressure to “just be grateful” for the grace they’ve received.

Unfolding Adoptees is a new community, created by adoptees as a place to explore where adoption and the Gospel intersect. A nuanced theology of adoption does not ignore the complexity of adoption-it faces it head-on and speaks with profound grace. The Gospel addresses both hurt and hope, and that is what this community aims to explore and embrace. 

We are looking for adoptees to join us. Visit unfoldingadoptees.org or e-mail aaron@unfoldingadoptees.org for more information.