how the iphone makes me a better christian

A recent conversation with some college friends about the smartphone and its effect on concentration and human interaction has me thinking...

Last year Relevant Magazine published an article containing some hand-wringing concern over the iPhone. (If you read it, it's in the July/August 2009 issue, p. 27.)

Read it for his whole argument, but basically the author felt pulled by the economic "simplicity" lifestyle of the Anabaptists, the warnings by Wendell Berry (whom I adore, the big curmudgeon) against overindulgence in technologies powered by strip-mined coal, and the assertion that Christians need to be "wise as serpents" in the wake of this huge marketing machine hell-bent on convincing us that we're deficient without this "messiah phone."

I can't completely dismiss the points about the environmental impact and the sustainability issues--Robert told me that it would only cost an additional $50 per phone for them to be built by people receiving a living wage--and I would pay that.

But I think the articles other points are a bit overstated. I know that there are folks out there, extreme gadget-mongers, if you will, who might feel like their life is incomplete without the latest thing. But c'mon, that's way outside the norm, isn't it?

Though I am a heavy user of technology, my views are pretty nuanced. I think a lot about what all of this is doing to our brains and to our sense of embodied community. (One thing I mourn is the loss of serendipity: thanks to Yelp and other sites, one need never go to a poorly-reviewed restaurant again, for example... but what about that great surprising hole in the wall that has yet to be discovered?) The problem is, a lot of the criticism of technology is SO over the top that I find myself overcompensating, becoming more of a tech apologist than I really am.

The technophobia is particularly bad in certain corners of the church. Even writers I admire do it. Blogging apparently makes us narcissistic. Twitter makes us incapable of deep sustained thinking. Facebook encourages us to share the most boring details of our lives with people, as if it matters what we had for breakfast. I hear this all the time from clergy and layfolk alike.

Given that the median age of Presbyterians is 61--and I'm sure other mainline denominations are similar--we make these blunt generalizations to our great peril. We don't look prophetic and counter-cultural with such talk; we look out of touch.

Back to the Relevant article. The author's point was that people are duped into buying the shiny new gadget because they think it will make them happy. But is it really that cut and dried? Wee need to learn how to speak about these things way more subtly. Are human beings really so easily seduced that we think that a smartphone is going to erase all of our sorrows? My wife won't speak to me, I'm fifty pounds overweight, I hate my job... if only I had an iPhone! That would solve everything! Instead of painting with the broad strokes, we need to be talking about discernment. Intentionality. Authenticity.

The title of this post is hyperbolic and meant to be silly. Yes, I could create a list of ways that the iPhone has made my life as a minister-mom much more effective, creative, and even fun. But what this all comes down to for me is the idea of simplicity and what a paradoxical concept it is.

I read a lot about simplicity and “living lightly” on the earth. It’s a topic that has financial, environmental and spiritual implications. Certainly many of us consume too much stuff, and we aren't mindful about what where that stuff comes from. Michael Lindvall recently wrote a great piece arguing that our problem isn't that we're too attached to our stuff--it's that we aren't attached enough. Read it. But where we go from there isn't always clear.

I love the idea of simplicity and frugality, but some of the contradictions amuse me. Many aspects of “simple” living are just plain inconvenient. I don’t have time to hang my clothes on a clothesline, and I certainly don’t have time to fight the homeowner’s association to allow me to do so. There are countless other examples I could name.

Simplicity is all well and good. But my life is not simple. God or the Universe or The Great Whatever has put me in a place where I am knit together with three children, a congregation, a spouse, colleagues, friends, and the various connectional tasks that are required to care for them. This gadget sitting on my desk helps me live very effectively in the midst of a very complicated life... yet it's made in China where the wages are way low, and it's chock full of all sorts of yucky chemicals that a simple paper calendar doesn't have, and is in many ways a symbol of the kind of consumerism that's hurting the planet.

It ain't a comfortable place to be. But it's where a lot of people are.