Death and the Digital Spell

Sunday, June 9th, 2019 was a day of joy that instantly gave way to deep grief.

In the morning, I went to church. In the afternoon, I watched the excellent Xbox E3 conference and was elated at all of the wonderful titles and features in the pipe for the Xbox One. In the evening, I had planned to meet up with some friends to write and record music, but before that my wife and I decided to spend some time together playing and exploring a world in Minecraft. All was well.

30 minutes before I was set to leave, I received a text that interrupted and broke into my all-is-well world with a reminder of how much the world is not well:

“Wanted to tell you that Kinsley Smith died today in a car accident after church”

Kinsley was at church earlier that morning. I walked past her in the hallway. I did not know that it would be the last time I’d see her in this life.

My entire afternoon was spent in front of a screen. Between a visually engaging press conference and a block-driven video game, my mind and thoughts were groggy from being under the influence of blue light. But death – a violent, sudden, instant death – caused that grogginess to fade away as my grief gave way to tears. All was not well with the world; it never is, but my sense of this had been so dulled by the spectacles of entertainment that I had been consuming for several hours.

Disconnected from the Body

One of the consequences of living in a world saturated with technology and media is that we lose our awareness of our surrounding world, starting with our own bodies. Tony Reinke writes that,

Study after study has shown that too much time on our phones has profound effects on our physical health, including (but not limited to) inactivity and obesity, stress and anxiety, sleeplessness and restlessness, bad posture and sore necks, eye strain and headaches, and hypertension and stress-induced shallow breathing patterns. The physical consequences of our unwise smartphone habits often go unnoticed, because in the matrix of the digital world, we simply lose a sense of our bodies, our posture, our breathing, and our heart rates. Our overwhelming focus on projected images causes negligence with regard to our bodies.

Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You

Naturally, if we lose a sense of awareness about our bodies, we lose an awareness of the world our bodies occupy as well, a world teaming with wonder and beauty and fascination. Its also a world that is undeniably broken. Each of us will die someday, and we all frantically do what we can to escape or prolong that fate, or suppress it and put it out of our minds. While there are many ways to suppress this awareness of our mortality, few are as pervasive and powerful as the influence of technology and media (movies, video games, social media, etc) to give us something to put our mind at ease that all is well with the world. We are, as the title of Neil Postman’s book claims, “amusing ourselves to death”.

In season one of Breaking the Digital Spell, I spent a good amount of time focusing on the work of Charles Taylor, who’s monumental work A Secular Age has come to influence a generation of philosophers and theologians who are translating his impressive work for everyday people. One such person – Dr. Alan Noble of Oklahoma Baptist University – has begun connecting the dots on how technology influences our thinking and living, and one of the biggest connection he makes is technology’s reinforcement of what Charles Taylor called the “buffered self”:

Our pervasive culture of technological distraction dramatically exacerbates the effects of the buffered self, which in turn feeds the demand for technology of distraction. It is not a coincidence that these two forces have arisen at this point in history. The rise of secularism has inspired a view of technology and fullness rooted thoroughly in this life and established and chosen inwardly, which I believe has helped to justify the creation and adoption of technologies that are not directed toward human flourishing but instead help us project our identity and remain distracted. Outside of a culture of virtue grounded in an external source, science, technology, and the market have been driven to produce a society that prioritizes the sovereign individual. The modern person experiences a buffer between themselves and the world out there – including transcendent ideas and truths. The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true.

Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age

In other words, the technology and media we use and consume shield us from having to consider the world beyond and outside of ourselves and the questions that exist in that external world – questions like “is there a God?”, “who is Jesus Christ?”, and “what must I do to be saved?” We collectively suffer under the influence of a digital spell, one that offers us an alternative world of our own making and choosing over the world we actually live in.

Reality and the Digital Spell

There are countless writers who recognize the extent of this problem and point towards a myriad of solutions to break this digital spell in our lives and compel us to live a full and vibrant life beyond the screen. As we have all chosen to participate in this media ecosystem, so we must each choose to cease our participation in it (to whatever degree that we can) and participate in something else.

I was initially convinced that painting a vivid contrast of life under the screen and life beyond the screen was the best path forward in convincing people to reevaluate their technology and media habits, but I now realize that although we can voluntarily chose to live life in the created Earth, there is a powerful force that will force you to briefly return to the Earth, whether you want to or not, and that force is death. Expected or not, it will always come, and the questions that get suppressed under the constant and never ending hue of blue light return to the forefront.

Regrettably, rather than face these question, we often choose to double-down on reinforcing our buffered selves, sometimes with the aid of physical drugs and suppressants alongside digital ones.

But if death forces us to return to the surface – to breathe the air before drowning again in a digital sea – it also forces us to consider the possibility of hope. We rightly recognize the unnatural naturalness of death; we all experience it, and we all know it is not right. Yet because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God who lived a sinless life but died in the place of sinners, we can say with confidence that death does not have the final word. Because of Jesus, there is a life beyond this one, and unlike this life, it will be free of the tears, pain, and grief that often drive us to escape through a screen. I mourn the loss of Kinsley, but I know I will see her again because of the faith we share in Christ.

Reality can be suppressed by the digital spell, but reality will always find a way to break in and remind us that our days our limited. But the same reality that tells us of our brokenness also tells us of a loving God who sent his Son to save his enemies from the death they brought into the world. Grief is the natural response to death; joy is the natural response to the good news that “the man Jesus Christ has laid death in his grave.”

If you have thoughts, let me hear them!

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