Christians shouldn’t use smartphones

Marc Barnes
Feb 1, 2019 · 26 min read
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The following is a transcription, with some edits and additions, of a talk I gave for the C.S. Lewis Society at Pusey House in Oxford, entitled “Should Christians Own Smartphones?” It was given among friends, including the erudite and magnanimous author of Planet Narnia, which should go some way in explaining why it is peppered with attempts at joviality which, trust me, were far funnier in person.

I. Cars

I missed the last bus going home. Then it began to rain. Then my bag of groceries split. Clutching the yogurt cups and bananas to my chest like I was carrying a wounded dog and cursing obscenities at the departing 3A, I began to walk home.

When one is walking home, in the rain, hugging an amalgamate of yogurt and bananas the size and shape of a dying Labrador, one has ample time to reflect on the problem of cars. (Not, mind you, on the problem of why we eat so much yogurt. That would sting. Cars are, without a doubt, the problem here.) And the problem with cars is, quite simply, that people drive them.

A man with a car in a world designed for feet is a god. A man with a car in a world designed for cars is in traffic. The widespread habit of fitting ourselves into automobiles has changed the way we live to fit the automobile. I, for instance, live a dark, wet, miserable distance from where I am supposed to catch the 3A. Why? Because the only affordable property prices are an hour hike from the center of the city. Why? Because one is not expected to hike, one is expected to drive or be driven. Why? Because we live in a world designed for cars, with homes spread apart from workplaces, families spread apart from family, and places of drink turned into places from which one drives. The automobile, which began as a liberating technology, changed the world to suit its four wheels; now the automobile is a humdrum necessity for those who would traverse the world at all.

The point is simple: technologies tend to change the world along with them, and this nullifies their once-marvellous effects. Airplanes are brilliant — what kind of Luddite schmuck doesn’t like airplanes? — but when airplanes change the world to the extent that you are expected to do business in China every month, then the airplane becomes as boring as the bus your father took to do business in the city every week, which is already as boring as the footpath his father took to do business down the street every day. (And any futurist who would get starry-eyed over space-travel should consider, with great sobriety, that he tends to close the windows and fall asleep on airplanes.)

To look forward to piling on technology after technology is to look forward to a humanity that needs to buy more and more gear to live with the same basic pleasures, pains, and drinking bouts that their forefathers managed to enjoy without purchasing anything at all. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but this is the trend.

My fear is that the world is currently being made in the image of the smartphone; that, already, whatever godlike capacities the things once gave us have already become dreary necessities. As an example of this, consider the communication of emotion. Smartphones, and the computers that preceded them, gave us the extraordinary ability to express ourselves using images, just as cars gave us the ability to hurtle across the countryside. In the early days, we relished this newfound capacity. What a marvellous improvement of our human condition, that we could prod a winking, yellow face and express our cheekiness; that we could copy a gif of The Office that perfectly sums up our reaction; that we could turn our cameras inward and give to our mothers a copy of our face! Our beautiful faces! And our tongue! Our sweet tongues!

We were gods, and our memes were dank. Now the word “meme” makes us cringe, as the word “cyberspace” made us all cringe a year before, as the thought of a drive through traffic makes us cringe — a drive once described by the automobile industry as a fulfilment of our desire to master time and space.

The reason we cringe is simply that, as the whole world has shifted its dominant mode of conversation to the medium of the smartphone, we have gradually lost the very skills of self-expression that the image was supposed to augment. The distance between us and the expression of our emotion is as spread out as the home from the supermarket; the emoji is no longer fun, it has become necessary to bridge the gap. One gets an immediate sense of this need when one receives a text from a friend, without punctuation, with out image, just -

r u here

“R u here”? Without a winky face? Without a smile? Without three exclamation points or at least, for the love of God, a line of x’s and o’s and a heart made from a “3” and that…that…thing! (<) (At this point in the talk, I made hand gestures to explain myself.) Are they furious, resentful, cold at heart? Have our mutual affections dwindled into mutual forbearance? I exaggerate, but only to express the obvious fact that our constant use of images to express the feeling of a message has quickly created a generation for whom messages without images appear as messages without feeling. What began as a new capacity has become a strange necessity; what began as “the open road” has closed the world to travel by any way but the road.

This same trend can be shown with most of the “improvements” that the smartphone and its company have wrought on the world of communication. The capacity to constantly and instantaneously receive and respond to messages began as a delight. Now the bar of “proper” human communication has been raised, and we are in misery if our beloved does not text back after a whole hour; we download applications to tell us when our emails have been read; we anxiously check-up on all of our communicative spurts into the online world, to see if anyone has read, has responded, has liked, still loves us.

II. Jesus

The Christian cannot merely ask whether or not a technology is morally licit. If this were the case, the Christian response to technology would be about as boring as, well, about as boring as it has so far been — a kind of vague, “everything is great as long as you don’t use it for evil, and see, Christians are Relevant and please quickly look at our T W I T T E R A C C O U N T S.”

No, the Christian must ask what kind of world the universalization of a new technology creates, for his concern is, or should be, not merely his personal righteousness, world-be-damned; he is commissioned by virtue of his baptism to transform this dreary Wal-Mart world into the Kingdom of Heaven. He cannot take up the modern technological optimism which argues that innovation and progress are goods in themselves, whether or not they conspire to spit out the nuclear bomb or the GameBoy Color, or, more to the point, whether they build up a a world of compartments united by expressways or a world of villages. Knowing that each technological device shapes the world in which it is used, the Christian should ask whether that shape is one which Jesus Christ enjoys, or one to which He will say, with terrifying aspect: “I do not know you.” The smartphone, I would argue, does not tend to build up the Kingdom of Heaven, but a global city ruled by the wealthy; a city which Christ hates — or, if we shrink from the term, which Christ would charitably smash with his sceptre of iron, as in Sodom, as in Tyre.

I think we know this. One of the best arguments against the use of the smartphone is the fact that everyone hates their smartphones — the fact that few people, and even fewer Christians, can give a positive reason for owning, using, and sleeping next to the things. Rather, everyone tends to give the reason that they cannot be rid of them: I would ditch the phone, but I need it for work; I would spend less time on Facebook, but it’s the only way I can keep in touch with my family and the 33 babies that my friends have recently produced; I would that I could, but because of the way of the world, I can’t.

We do not love our smartphones. I would go further and suggest that Jesus does not, either. And if we close our eyes and imagine the Lord of History, Jesus Christ, using a smartphone, we will be struck by a certain absurdity, a sense that the device is somehow beneath the dignity of the Savior. The picture of the son of God prodding away at a touch-screen is a kind of light blasphemy — good for a laugh, good for an ironic distancing of the Messiah from the actual, terrible and awesome reason for his advent, but ultimately ridiculous. Of course, we tend to explain this reaction away as nothing more than our own horror of anachronism, a mere dryness of the imagination. After all, Jesus Christ is fully man, and during his life on Earth he touched human technology without visible discrimination — using the tools of the carpenter’s trade; parabling with the images of plough and axe and barn; dying on that optimized piece of Roman technology, the cross. Had God become man at a later date he would have made his parables on the mechanical loom and died by guillotine; had he incarnated into the 21st century he would have gathered apostles through Twitter and died being monitored by healthcare workers in a comfortable prison.

This way of thinking is false, for two major reasons. The first is that it mixes up positive use with the suffering of technology. Jesus Christ did not use the cross, except in the subversive sense of using it against the powers of this world. The cross was used on him. To suffer a technology is not to choose to operate it.

The second is more general: Such a view assumes that history, including the history of technology, exists apart from Christ, continuing on its own steam, developing a world which Christ enters extrinsically, a world which might just as well have been different. But our technologies are not unrelated to the Kingdom of God — they either build it up or loosen its bricks. To say that Jesus Christ would use a smartphone is either to claim that technology is of neutral, secular value, and thus escapes being given its ultimate meaning in Christ or that the smartphone lives up to Christ’s wry, universalizing comment, “he who is not with me is against me” — that it is with Christ and his kingdom. Both of these claims, I will argue, are false. Instead, I would have us return to our original, childlike sense that Jesus Christ’s Twitter account is a joke, and a rather boring joke, and if Christ were to come among us as we wait in joyful hope, he would stand out by his disassociation with smart-technology. I do not think this intuitive sense takes its bearings on the fear of anachronism, but on the teachings of Christ.

The teachings of Christ take the form, and often the content, of the Hebrew prophets who prophesied his coming. The prophets were an irascible group whose anger was kindled by a common offence — the oppression of the poor by the rulers of the earth. And while their complaints may seem hyperbolic to us, reading them in the comforting glow of our laptops (as when Micah declares that his rulers “chop his people up like meat for the kettle” (3:3)), their imagery is effectively designed to point out a very real problem — dispossession.

Thus the prophet Amos complains, “you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat,” and Micah says, “they covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his inheritance,” and Jeremiah that “everyone is greedy for unjust gain” and Isaiah proclaims “woe to those who…rob the poor of their right…that widows may be their spoil.” To go on in this vein would be idle, as this anger against the rich forms the very muscle of the texts. To pick it out risks the impression of nit-picking, when an actual reading of the prophets would convince us of the contrary — that one cannot pick out any other theme without pulling this one up, this invective against those “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (Amos 4:1).

Dispossessing the poor is a feat a man can achieve by bashing a poor person over the head and taking his vineyard, but it may also be a more subtle affair, like cheating the poor by rigging the scales, or, in the case of the Jews, by breaking the Sabbath laws. These commanded that the Jewish people forgive their brothers’ debts and release debtors from slavery every seven years, return lost ancestral land every fifty, feed the hungry and the priests with every tithe, and otherwise rest from amassing property and wealth at the expense of one’s neighbor.

The rulers of the technological age, from Zuckerberg to Bezos to Gates to whoever owns the rest, fall under this prophetic complaint. They are dispossessing the poor, they rob them of their right, and they break the Sabbath laws.

III. Sabbath-breakers

One of the reasons this is difficult to see is that the things we consider “useful property” have changed. For the poor of the Old Testament, useful property meant land and sheep, and so the prophets lambasted any hooligan who dared, by violence or cunning, to separate a man from his lambs or divorce a widow from her ancestral homestead. Pope St. John Paul II argued in his encyclical Centesimus Annus that, in our day, beyond land and sheep

there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.

Our skills are simple things — capacities and habits which make us useful to ourselves and others. These skills are being lost. Or rather, they are being exchanged for the purchase and subsequent activation of technological devices which achieve the same ends that our skills once achieved through a reliance on wealthy men.

To take an obvious example, consider the use of Google Maps. It used to be the case that a man could find his way around and follow directions by the strategic use of his feet, his head, sometimes a map, and sometimes a few directions from an elderly man. Now it is very nearly the case that one must rent directions from Alphabet Incorporated and its stockholders in order to get about. I use the word “rent” intentionally here, as it describes, not simply the transfer of ownership, but the establishment of a new and constant relationship of dispossession between the poor and the technologically wealthy. Mere dependence on others for our skills is not the issue, but a part of human nature. In a certain respect, one is beholden to the mapmakers in order to use a map. But the purchase of a map establishes no constant relation to the mapmaking industry, nor does its use erode our skill of navigation into a slavish dependency on wealthy cartographers— but we pay the wealthy every time we open Google Maps. We pay for data (and a few cents for electricity); we pay by allowing Google to sell the record of our whereabouts to other companies who use it to develop advertisements targeting our geographically-deductible desires; we pay Google through their tactic of suggested selling — that is, Marriott pays Google to make their hotel the first result of a search for “hotel,” McDonald’s pays for its golden arches to appear bigger and brighter than the standard restaurant logo that accompanies sweet Nanny McSweetson’s Family Diner. We go to McDonald’s and give them our money, McDonald’s gives some of our money to pay Google for the advertisement, and the transfer of rent is complete.

(At least, I believe this sufficiently describes the way Google makes money through its map service. It does not behove the owners of smart-technology to disclose what, exactly, we are paying, for the simple reason that we do not need smart-technology. We could always find its cost excessive and ditch it for dumber tools and a dumber world. Amazon, Google, Facebook et al pour out a great deal of digital sweat to create the impression that their devices are not commodities, but free services. Zuckerberg is especially prone to the promotion of this illusion, because it allows him to argue that internet connection is a universal human right, which he (obligingly) will provide to the “underdeveloped” world through his “internet for all” movement — a movement of which he has said, in what was either an attempt at dry humor, an act of invincible ignorance, or a bald-faced lie: “There’s no way we can draw a plan about why we’re going to invest billions of dollars in getting mostly poor people online…But at some level, we believe this is what we’re here to do, and we think it’s going to be good, and if we do it, some of that value will come back to us.”)

Now, one might argue that the comparison between the sale of handy-dandy technology and the dispossession of the Israelite peasantry is hyperbole, to say the least. After all, no one is forcing anyone to use Google Maps.

This is a good argument, and I believe it to be true — but only in an extremely limited sense. I do think that the developers and peddlers of GPS technology are less morally culpable than the pillagers of God’s people who “devour them like bread,” if only because I doubt they’ve read the Scriptures. They will spend less time in Purgatory, and if they should perish in the Inferno, they will perish in an outer ring. But the fact that we consent to the replacement of our skills, that we even clamor for Apple to upgrade our capacities, in no way absolves the wealthy who encourage and profit from our collective will to dispossession. Unlike guilty, bourgeois moderns who imagine, in our hyper-Christian adulation of all victims, that being broke relieves a guy of all moral accountability, the prophets do not think that the poor are a pure breed. Rather, in the same breath that Jeremiah cries foul against those on whose “skirts is found the lifeblood of the guiltless poor” (2:34) and who “do not defend the rights of the needy” (5:28), he critiques the poor:

These are only the poor, / they have no sense / for they do not know the way of the Lord…I will go to the great…but they all alike had broken the yoke, / they had burst the bonds.

The prophets see that communities implode together, rich and poor, priest and people, the shallowness and vice and fearful cowardice of the latter providing an excellent target for the rapaciousness, greed, and avarice of the former. “Every man is stupid and without knowledge” (10:14) says Jeremiah, in an egalitarian spirit, and the words of Isaiah will forever embarrass the socialists who would turn the Bible into a weapon of class war: Behold, the Lord will lay waste the earth and make it desolate…”

And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest / as with the slave, so with his master; / as with the maid, so with her mistress; / as with the buyer, so with the seller; /as with the lender, so with the borrower; / as with the creditor so with the debtor.

So too, we might bring Isaiah’s words into our own age:

As it shall be with the seller, so with buyer; as with the pornographer, so with the addict; as with the app-designer, so with the anxious denizen compulsively flicking through his News Feed…

Man does not exist in a vacuum. I know this fact very intimately, because I do not exist in a vacuum. I exist in Oxford, and I don’t have a smartphone, and I have found that reclaiming the skill of navigation has been rendered extraordinarily difficult by the simple fact that everyone else is renting it.

The inhabitants of Oxford, it turns out, have no idea how they managed to get to where they are. Most people rely on their phones to such an extent that they do not seem to view locations as being embedded in and in relation to other locations, much less to a city. For most people my age, location is the end result of a series of directions rented from the wealthy and obeyed without ever linking these directions into a coherent whole, remembering the acts of obedience just performed, or conceiving of other possibilities of travel. When I ask, in my most charming American accent, “Do you know where the bank is, ma’am?” I am usually invited to Google it. When I admit that, to my shame, I cannot operate Google at my own will and pleasure, I am looked on with the light, embarrassed shock with which one looks at man without a left leg. And one may as well ask to purchase a semi-automatic weapon as a map of anywhere beyond the tourist-friendly city centre (I take advantage of my brief time in the United Kingdom to make such comparisons; I could easily get the gun in the States) because where there is little demand for maps, there is little supply.

Skills are capacities of the person, and the development of our capacities always occurs within a community. While it is true that no one is forcing me to use Google or Apple Maps, it is also true that the invention, promulgation and promotion of GPS technology is slowly building up a cultural world in which it is more and more difficult not to use it, as the car built up a world of highways. One might argue that the use of the technology does not exclude ownership of the skill of navigation. I agree, but only with the caveat “all at once” latched onto the end of the proposition, because a skill is a habit, and a habit is the result of a repeated action, and without repeated action, one gradually loses the habit. The decision to rent rather than own a skill gradually dissolves one’s navigational capacities, a fact I believe to be adequately proven by watching two millennials try to read a map after their iPhone breaks on a road-trip. It is not outside of the realms of possibility, but it would require a heroic and artificial effort to retain the capacity of orientation and navigation while only ever Googling one’s way about the Googling world.

GPS presents a problem, but it is more important as a clear example through which we can define the technological age: It is the age of the dispossession of the poor through the replacement of owned skills with rented commodities which render themselves into rented necessities by changing the world in their own image. This description explains why we feel ourselves to be more endowed with capacities than all of humanity before us and why, simultaneous to our proud posture, eight people own the majority of the world’s wealth; and why, of those eight people, most own digital technology empires which siphon property through the voluntary exchange of previously owned skills for apps and devices. If we can grasp this as the rule of our age, we can see it being applied in nearly innumerable instances:

The owned skill of communication is replaced by the rented commodity of social media; an educated mind is replaced by the rented use of a search engine; the community-owned skill of entertaining ourselves with song, dance, and theater has long since been replaced by the rented consumption of digital entertainment; the capacity for commerce is exchanged for the rented convenience of Amazon; the owned habit of sexual arousal is exchanged for the rented commodity of pornography; in each case the capacities people have by birthright are gathered up by wealthy men and sold back to them as applications they activate through their smartphones; and in every case a new creature is formed who does not desire freedom, land, community, useful property, working animals, or an inner life, so much as the money required to rent life from the kings of the earth.

The smartphone, then, fulfills what C.S. Lewis argued about the radio in his work The Abolition of Man, that “what we call Man’s power over nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men,” for the loss of skill and our willingness to rent has lead to the drastic situation in which our basic abilities “can be withheld…by other men — by those who sell, by those who allow the sale, and by those who own the sources of production.”

It is easy for us to dismiss this as alarmism. After all, many of us remember writing letters, choosing what news to read, communicating without renting images, lusting without pornography, and loving without affirming and realizing our relationships through Facebook announcements — we could, with a little difficulty, pick up our lost skills.

My response to this is, “Sure — but have you spoken to a thirteen-year-old recently?” I don’t mean to make ageist generalizations, so I’ll simply say that doing so is extremely likely to depress you, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you can avoid it, but if you absolutely must, do take note that the digital conveniences which replaced our owned skills are not replacements for teenagers, but the basic stuff of their existence. For a pre-teen raised on Snapchat, there is no handwriting; nostalgia is increasingly the memory, not of ownership, but of previous relationships of rent; fond memories of the golden days when we rented our capacity for remembering past events from Flickr, rather than Facebook, or from Facebook, rather than Instagram.

Lewis argued this point with great precision: “They are weaker, not stronger: for though we have put wonderful machines in their hands we have preordained how they are to use them…The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men the most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon their future.”

IV. Wrath

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The Hebrew prophets have another common cry — the day of wrath. And while moderns tend to shudder under these dismal doomsdays, they are actually perfectly logical. Their basic gist is that civilizations that oppress the poor are going to be destroyed, laid waste, their fields infertile, their people reduced to corpses, mothers reduced to eating their children, and the glory of their kingdoms smashed into so much dust.

I used to read these predictions of divine fury as being somewhat extrinsic to the people’s crimes — you did evil deed x, you get an avenging nation from the North swooping down and dashing your brains out on rock y, with nary a reasonable connection between your deed and the dashing. I thought this until quite recently, when Russia was accused of interfering in the United States’ presidential election. I don’t know how the news was reported in the United Kingdom, by the typically restrained BBC, but in the States it began very mysteriously, rarely described beyond the vague term “interference” which conjured up images of sneaky Ruskies tickling us in the voting booths. Eventually it became clear that “Russian interference” largely referred to an inane practice by which certain Russians, seeing some political benefit in the election of Donald Trump, would create fake news stories and commentaries aimed at stirring up anger against the Democrats and generally liberal causes, promoting these on Facebook and Twitter by giving these companies a little cash through the mechanism of “boosting” posts or (what is the same thing) buying ad-space. Most Americans are skeptical as to the overall effect of this (it’s easier to say the Russians did it than that Bernie would have won or that, God forbid, quite a few people actually wanted Trump to be the president of America) but I realized then, as I realize now, that there is a structural link between the day of wrath and the dispossession of the poor.

The dispossession of many men puts property into the hands of a few men. Property in the hands of a few men is safer from the bumbling of the many, but it is also prone to disaster; a property given over to three, rather than distributed among three hundred thousand men, is more easily stolen, destroyed, or manipulated all at once.

In the case of the American election, the situation is clear. The majority of Americans have exchanged their skill of news-reading and critical reasoning for a rented convenience whereby news is delivered to them via a News Feed — an apt name for a device that allows us to guzzle down information without discrimination. (You may argue that Americans never possessed the skill of critical reasoning, which would be a fair point, but we won the bloody war.) A property that belonged to some many millions was exchanged for a device owned and operated by a few designers and shareholders. The fact that this really was an exchange was evidenced in the American response to the “fake news” crisis — not to ditch our devices and re-learn the lost skill of not being gullible twits, but to demand that those who own, maintain, curate, and operate the algorithmic News Feed improve their product. We even put Mark Zuckerberg on trial. He promised us (and if we can’t trust a billionaire’s promise, who can we trust?) that the News Feed would be improved and that fake news would be rooted out. I wish Mark Zuckerberg was even a little bit edgy. Then he could have said, in one breath:

“Look, when you exchange your capacity for intellectual discrimination for the use of robots I’ve designed, knowing full well that I design robots for the purpose of making money; and when you consent to have your information gathered up and sold by these robots; and when, furthermore, you consent to be considered as a conglomerate of repeatable traits organized and consistently labelled by my money-making robots so that any advertising agency worth its unholy mustard can target you by typing out a few key terms into the search-bar of a glorified spreadsheet; then what in flaming hell do you expect, besides that those who want to target a mass of people in order to make them believe a certain number of propositions will pay money to reach you with the same ease as McDonald’s pays money to make a mass of people crave chicken nuggets, or as innumerable dating websites pay money to target your key-term-able loneliness so that you believe, against ungodly odds, that you’ll score a date tonight? As C.S. Lewis put it, and if you don’t know him, you should read him, ‘as regards the powers manifested in [Facebook], Man is as much the patient and subject as the possessor.’ So instead of putting me on trial, why don’t you acknowledge your tech-positive, self-willed subject-status and kneel.”

The American people were, and still are, an easy object of ideological smashing because their capacities are given over to a few wealthy men in the form of one, easily manipulable mechanism — indeed, it is misleading to say that anyone “manipulated” anything, so much as used the News Feed as it is designed to be used. What once took spies and KGB operatives and Marxists smuggled into universities now takes a boosted post about how Hillary Clinton is, in fact, a robot, or dying, or at least dying to be a robot. A generation of renters avoids all manner of petty inconveniences, but only at the cost of increasing their overall risk of disaster, when the few hands that carry them falter, or decide to squeeze—and they have no owned skills to fall back on.

This is the logic of the prophets, who claim that the dispossession of the poor is not simply a very naughty thing to do, it is a precursor to disaster, for the property that was once peacefully and safely distributed among many can be swatted out of the greedy hands of the few. I would not hesitate to call this another fundamental theme of the prophets: that what is gathered through dispossession is smashed through plague and violence on the day of wrath. In Isaiah we read

Woe to those who join house upon house, / who add field to field, / until there is no more room, / and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. (5:8)

This gathering-up of useful property into the hands of the few is punished by the Lord, quite reasonably, by the disaster of famine and economic stagnation that tends to occur whenever property is unfairly distributed and land becomes the monoculture of one or two agricultural firms:

The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: / “Surely many houses shall be desolate, / large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. / For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath [not a lot], / And a homer of seed shall yield but one ephah [not a lot].” (5:9–10)

Likewise the gathering up of wealth is described in Habakkuk, according to the same formula, that what is gathered by dispossession is uniquely subject to disaster:

“Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own — / For how long? — /and loads himself with pledges!” / Will not your debtors suddenly arise, / and those awake who will make you tremble? / Then you will be booty for them. / Because you have plundered many nations, / all the remnant of the people shall plunder you… (2:6–8)

This formula is repeated throughout the Old Testament, when, through dispossession, a people become a mass, reliant upon technological provision for their lives, and are thus able to be destroyed “all at once.” This receives its clearest expression in Isaiah, in a verse which is more incisively descriptive of the contemporary age than the scores of hot takes against technology spewed out by woke Millenials:

For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, / “In returning and rest you shall be saved; / In quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” / And you would not, but you said, / “No! We will speed upon horses,” [a symbol of technology in the OT] / Therefore you shall speed away; / and, “We will ride upon swift steeds,”/ therefore your pursuers shall be swift. A thousand shall flee at the threat of one / at the threat of five you shall flee… (30:16–17)

This is the epithet for the gravestone of our technological age, summing it up and condemning it in its entirety: “A thousand shall flee at the threat of one.”

As a prophylactic against the day of wrath, the prophets all recommend renewed obedience to the Sabbath laws: “Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day” (Jeremiah 17:21). This is especially clear and potent in Jeremiah, as he demands that the Israelites free their slaves, which meant, quite literally, returning the dispossessed to their property so that they no longer needed the provision of their masters, but could get by on their own. God’s punishments and directives are not arbitrary, rather, the freedom of slaves and the redistribution of gathered property are, quite logically, what saves the Israelite people from being a dispossessed, gathered-up mass, ready for an easy smashing by plague, violence, and war. Needless to say, the prophets are largely ignored, and the day of wrath came in the form of the Babylonian Exile. As Americans go with their News Feeds, so the Israelites went with their own forms of dispossession, not choosing to restore ownership, but choosing, instead, to demand that their leaders perfect the machine, and build up their armies, seeking help from Egypt to face the onslaught as we seek help from our technological kings to save us from our newfound idiocy.

V. Smartphones

I said before that I do not think Jesus would use a smartphone, though by now you have probably realized that I do not think Jesus would have used a great many of our devices. I believe this because Jesus quotes the prophets in his anger against those who would dispossess the poor, who “devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers” (Mark 12:40). The scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament are guilty of the same kind of acts as our Silicon Valley superstars — they take acts that men and women can perform by birthright, out of their own power, and make them dependent on themselves, available at the cost of rent: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharises, for you shut the Kingdom of Heaven against men…saying, if anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple” his oath is effective. (Matthew 23)

Of course, Jesus is speaking of spiritual dispossession. The Pharisees turned the Law into a kind of technological mechanism which required the transfer of property (the gold of the temple) in order to give the many effective spiritual lives — their word in God’s ear. But what the Pharisees did with the Law, the land-grabbers did for agriculture, and the smartphone revolution is doing for our everyday existence: We are increasingly obliged to rent devices from the wealthy in order to live, move and shuffle along as generations before us did without any obligation to purchase.

Woe to the technological age, for you shut the everyday world against men, saying if anyone tries to navigate, educate, study, entertain, read, write, communicate, sell, buy, flirt, it is nothing, but if they do these things by the mediation of rent-money paid to Google, Amazon, Verizon, et al — it is effective, for the world, day by day, is made in their image. The followers of Jesus Christ are supposed to be free from the machinations of earthly principalities and powers. The use of the smartphone seems to be the symbol and sacrament of increased, unnecessary dependence on earthly power. For this reason, I do not think that Christians should use smartphones.

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