T. David Gordon
12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, by Tony Reinke (with foreword by John Piper). Wheaton: Crossway, 2017, 224 pages, $14.99, paper.
Journalist and author Tony Reinke has written the book that many Christians have wished someone would write; a thoughtful, well-informed analysis of the smartphone (the most intrusive, and therefore most life-altering, of the various digital technologies) that is neither techno-philic nor techno-phobic, and that is intentionally (and persuasively) focused on the question of how this technology affects Christian discipleship. Reinke’s concern is not about how smartphones alter political discourse, public education, etc.; his concern is primarily about how the phone shapes us as followers of Christ.
As is appropriate to such a timely work, Reinke’s thinking is informed both by broad reading in the Christian tradition and by intelligent interviews with contemporary theologians, pastors, educators, philosophers, and ethicists. Reinke is well acquainted with the works of those whom we call “media ecologists”; he has digested the insights of Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, Daniel Boorstin, Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, Douglas Groothuis, and Sherry Turkle, and has consulted with theologians and philosophers from John Flavel and Blaise Pascal, through the twentieth century’s G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, to contemporaries such as Tim Keller, Rick Lints, Jamie Smith, John Dyer, Alan Jacobs, Oliver O’Donovan, and John Piper (and others). The breadth of his sources makes it difficult for readers to dismiss his thoughts as merely his own idiosyncratic opinion. Happily, despite Reinke’s thorough familiarity with pertinent thought on the matter, his book does not read at all as a dull or merely academic survey; pulsating throughout the prose is the drive of a follower of Christ, eager to believe, quick to repent, and indignant at the Enemy’s counterfeit of the true life our Redeemer offers and calls us to.
The chapter titles alone will intrigue many of this review’s readers: “We Are Addicted to Distraction”; “We Ignore Our Flesh and Blood” (Ken Myers has often lamented the “dis-incarnate” nature of phones); “We Crave Immediate Approval”; “We Lose Our Literacy”; “We Feed on the Produced”; “We Become What We ‘Like’”; “We Get Lonely”; “We Get Comfortable in Secret Vices”; “We Lose Meaning”; “We Fear Missing Out”; “We Become Harsh to One Another”; “We Lose Our Place in Time”.
I have become so accustomed to the abuse/misuse of Scripture citations in so many publications that I only occasionally bother to consult them. After consulting the early citations here, I abandoned that practice. Reinke’s citations (with just the Scripture references) are as apt as any I have encountered; they are not at all superficial “proof-texts.” They are profound and persuasive. In remarkable succinctness, Reinke provides a rich biblical assessment of the categories of the “seen” and “unseen,” with due warnings for how the onslaught of visual images on our smartphones calls our attention to exactly the opposite of what we ought to attend to. Groups who study this book together would be well advised to take turns reading aloud the Scripture passages Reinke cites in order to derive the full benefit from this volume.
I was pleased that Reinke has observed the paradox that others (Giles Slade, Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, Maggie Jackson, Alastair Roberts, William Deresciewicz, et al.) have observed: that typical use of smartphones robs us of both true solitude (and self-knowledge) on the one hand, and of true society (and other-knowledge), on the other. Readers unfamiliar with this paradox will be fascinated by Reinke’s seventh chapter.
This is perhaps the most practical volume touching on digital media that I have read; nevertheless, Reinke issues no imperatives. His effort is to demonstrate what is going on in the faux, profit-driven, narcissistic, contemporaneous, image-based world of the smartphone, so that his readers will have to wrestle with how to benefit from the best of this tool while evading its worst. Towards the end, however, Reinke does raise the question (197–98) of a temporary or permanent “cold-turkey” opt-out of their use (and, earlier in the book, he quotes approvingly Alan Jacobs’s having done so, 116–17), though he has not (yet?) made that decision himself. Though Reinke eschews imperatives, he routinely passes along sound advice on how to moderate and discipline smartphone use so as to evade/avoid their most damaging effects.
A Quibble (a little bickering over words).
Reinke rightly says that the challenge of determining what constitutes the proper use of these (fairly new) devices properly falls on the shoulders of this generation, an observation he derived from Oliver O’Donovan, and with which I concur. Like the initial colonizers of any new world, the original inhabitants thereof profoundly shape the experience of future denizens. However (and I am merely quibbling with the title here), I would suggest that the smartphone is not changing this generation (it may have changed us); it shapes them initially, so they do not even notice the ostensible “change.” The prairie-dog world of digital adolescents who pop up and down from one environment to another incessantly is the only world they know; and this is precisely why they will have difficulty taming the beast. They will not realize one day that it is harder to read Tolstoy novels than it once was, because they have never read Tolstoy novels (or, ordinarily, even Hemingway’s novelettes). They have not lost an attention span they once had; they never had one to lose. The smartphone may well be “changing” our culture, and has “changed” many of us adults, but it is the nursery in which the Millennials were reared, and they cannot perceive any change in themselves at all. But this is mere pettifogging; O’Donovan and Reinke are right in assigning the duty of taming the smartphone to the Millennials, and only an academic nitpicker such as myself (who teaches/nitpicks an introductory course on Media Ecology) would bother to split this hair.
I hope Reinke’s book receives a wide readership; and I hope many will read it and discuss it as a group, in the manner C. Christopher Smith suggested in his recent Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (2016). It will not be the “last word” on the smartphone, and it isn’t entirely the first; but for those attempting to follow Christ with one of these in purse or pocket, it is currently the best.
T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, October 2017.