One Smartphone, 100 Million Users, and Privatizing Faith

Thomas Larson

So far, it’s been a tough start to the new century for Christians—what with the growth of the New Atheists, the Nones (those disaffiliated with mainstream religion, a secularized culture), and a government unsure how to define “religious liberty” and “sincerely held religious belief.” And yet the faith shows no signs of succumbing to the onslaught—not by a long shot. Instead, it’s reprogramming itself with new transmedial wiring and reassigned roles. Corporate CEOs are the new clergy; social media, the new church. Global warming is the latest plague of locusts, requiring God-like intervention to keep it at bay. Islam is reverse-engineering the Roman Empire, arriving inside the Trojan horse of Middle-Eastern Muslim refugees. (I’m not sure to whom I can compare radical jihadists: Yahweh? Judas? Gentiles? Centurions?) Pharmaceuticals, whether the companies or their pills, are the new sacraments. Technology has become the new liberation theology. Google is God.

Once Google resurrected God, we (or God) gave birth to technological fundamentalism, the belief that technology solves all problems, including the problems machines create. All things, including religion, are wired into the mainframe. Christians, their numbers fast dwindling, are losing their foundational certainties about biblical literacy and their veridical church communities to the distracted intemperateness of digital life.

Consider: today, the young Christian pilgrim, in need of advice or solace, rarely leafs pages of the Bible. The book, whose gold-foil page edges and nubby lambskin cover were endlessly palm-cradled by his or her forebears, lies untouched on the shelf. Such a person’s faith refresher comes (if it comes) via a device. On one’s phone, one bonks the Daily Word App, which offers “365 days of affirmations” or “guided prayer and meditation music” and—at one’s preferred speed, time, and degree of commitment—allows one to commune, if briefly, with the literate God. One is engaged with an experience as glue-and-binding-free as possible. Such a one spends more time accessing the Word, less time reading it.

At topverses.com, all 31,105 Bible verses are re-ranked every hour by search term. For example, such power words as grace, patience, or worry appear, and you tap one for explication. Last time I tried it, the most chosen verse on “encouragement” was from Philippians 2:1—a tad long, though it counsels the disheartened during troubled times:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Its Bible Rank is #285—like an Amazon sales number, high up the ladder.

What’s behind this “innovative” Bible search website, other than the usual messianic desire to spread the gospel? (Other interactive sites include biblegateway.com, whose search tool displays passages from varying Bible editions and translations, and faithcomesbyhearing.com, whose downloadable audio Bibles come in 912 tongues, all free.) Such spots channel Christian belief into technology, which, in a sense, is what a Bible or any holy book has always enabled: a handy, single, portable source where myth, history, story, doctrine, and aphorism calm one’s spiritual anxiety and affirm one’s unwavering certainty. If literate (Christian) readers buy the book’s authorial inerrancy, so much the better.

For the most part, these twenty-first-century online religious libraries are translating the old-handed technology to millennials who are already, in effect, virtual electronic masters. Before scribal text, the Word spread by voice alone. (Indeed, voice has never gone out of fashion. Think of the physical aura [to use Walter Benjamin’s term] those Bibles had: dog-eared, pawed, thumbed through, indexed, underlined, lent, copied, carried, memorized, recited from, prayed over, pulpit-pounded, sworn an oath on, buried with, pocketed on D-Day, the Good Book, so help me God.)

With the electronic form, all that’s gone. Most downloaders use YouVersion Bibles no different from any other app or source. On the Kindle home screen, the Bible is just as prominent as The Hunger Games, the latter no doubt as intriguing to read (or watch) as the former, especially to the swipe-apt young. The book now wears a uniform, standard issue and unfelt texture.

Users of digital Bibles may warm to hypertext, but, like anyone online, they are easily distracted. Proof of this comes from Biblica, a Colorado-based institute that studies the “crisis of Bible engagement.” Biblica’s estimate is that in the last generation—that is, since 2000—the number of “occasional Bible readers” has fallen by 20 percent. This Biblica attributes to the book’s fade and the screen’s emergence. The loss of the read and handed book as the source of Christian authority is a crisis inviting catastrophe. By 2040, Biblica says, two-thirds of “religious people” will, if present nonreading trends continue, “have no meaningful relationship with the Bible.” Note: not two-thirds of all people, but religious people!

Despite the claims that twenty-five million Bibles are sold each year and that 71 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians, shining the Holy Book on is like claiming a political position by not voting: Millennials rarely read the Bible or encounter it in church because, for the most part, they don’t go to church. (Millennials read, but it’s the shortest versions of whatever they can find.) Online, they’re too distracted by, and committed to, say, Minecraft to dwell, beyond clicks, in the Word.

This unhanding—akin to an unheeding—of the Bible ushers in something far worse for Christians. The loss of context—church and community, sanctuary and sacredness. The device’s gain is the community’s loss. My sense is that without church and community—and with devices replicating or replacing them—the nonliterate and the unchurched will wander far from the fold. Moreover, they will, without text for schooled conversion and without flesh-and-blood sermons for emotional assent, never find the flock’s fold or Christ’s body to enter.

 

Many Christians blame the loss of religious community and substantive faith on this digital transformation of the Bible. One is John Bombaro, senior priest at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego. He worries that this shift to an online God for Christians is menacingly misguided. (I encountered his antitech argument as an article in Modern Reformation and a video, both titled “The Book That Isn’t Really There.”) Bombaro asserts that true Christianity cannot survive without its incarnational being, that is, the seasoned realms in which Christians place faith: attending church, worshipping God, singing hymns, enduring sermons, blessing neighbors, taking sacraments, receiving a pastor’s visit, or reading a real book with real pages.

“My concern is this,” Bombaro says in the video. “When we become all digital and shift Christianity over into cyberspace, the world that’s outside the church—[the world] that’s saying God is not real—now comes inside the church and [that nonreality] is reinforced by the very means of the world that says God is not real even here.”

There seems to be an illogical leap here when Bombaro defines cyberspace as unreal and the actual church or his God (his “even here”) as real. But his point is well-taken: if cyberspace, or that which is “outside the church,” becomes our reality and millennials bring this outside into the church via their devices, the virtual God may destroy the embodied deity. (Destroy may be too strong: perhaps it’s just a velvet revolution.) What’s more frightening for him, I wager, is that the church itself, in all its brick-and-mortar actuality, must weather the digital storm. All religions must succumb to their mediated tools of dissemination—if the next generation is to be saved.

When a technology overtakes a physical assembly, a false God steps in. Theologians call it “idolatry”: in this case website, app, and iPhone are the venerated objects or, at least, the beloved objects in hand. Sacraments, rituals, and, Bombaro notes, “a tangible Bible militate against” these invaders. Church space makes God palpable. Its tangibles are things “we can turn to, feel, handle, and smell, just like the Christ who walked the streets of Galilee.” Bloodless technology further abstracts the holy. Indeed, a religion’s flesh is its congregation. From where else does its authority derive but the literal affiliation (butts in pews) of its members?

Here, I think, is what is core to Bombaro’s fear—that religious authority, based in the sanctity of printed text and Sunday rituals, is desacralized the more product-mediated it becomes. The model for this is the very text that “carries” the incarnated Word of God, the Bible. Lest we forget, the Bible as book has always been a product (even if it’s seen as divinely authored): a mythic or fictional object made fact by the printing of its collective stories. In this sense, beginning in 1455 and ramping up in the nineteenth century, the Bible has itself been a mass-produced, occupying reality in the church. To the degree it is worshipped, the term is bibliolatry: venerating more the book about, and less the being of, Jesus Christ.

Besides, it’s not just a deluge of nifty apps from God and reminder e-mails from Christ that are deconstructing their incarnational being. Behold the resurgent translation of Bible stories into film, the surest route for religious ideology in our culture. Among the unlikeliest missionaries these days are Hollywood producers. Their élan for the filmic Word is proved by a flurry of recent Bible epics: The Passion of the Christ, Son of God, Noah, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Whether blood-laden biopics or effects-crazed spectacles, these movies refashion religious myths (their “technological” precursors include medieval and Renaissance paintings and pilgrim narratives) with celebrity-driven fantasy, which, like most cinema, ordains what is sensually more alive than prose narrative. At the same time—and Bombaro is on the money—such depictions become false idols, a form of blasphemy: the object of worship replaces what’s worshipped.

Keeping the Bible as a sacramental center of Christianity is essential to Bombaro. But it’s an uphill slog. According to the 2012 “Bible in American Life” study, of those who had read the Bible in the preceding year, 31 percent had read it on the Internet and 22 percent on an electronic device. That’s more than half of all Bible readers. The study goes on to say that those who employ devices for Bible reading and spiritual development find scant excitement or impassioned outlets in such navel-gazing, compared to those who study the Bible in groups, worship with song, and receive personal counsel from a pastor.

Rebooting religious experience with screens does more than just replace the person-to-person actuality of church. Something much darker is happening—a dethroning of King Text’s reign—and with it, the eclipse of faith.

 

Here’s an intriguing idea from the “Bible in American Life” study: “As denominations are losing much of their traditional authority, technology is changing people’s reading and cognitive habits, and subjective experience is continuing to eclipse textual authority as the mark of true religion.”

Let’s accent subjective. Yes, religious experience (as distinct from sets of belief) is subjective in its felt intimacy. Cell phones and PCs intensify such experience, if not guarantee it. Devices counter the textual authority of the Bible, in particular, and traditional contexts, in general, such as family, church, minister, and congregation. One such pushback against textual authority is the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) movement. I’ll believe what I want to, muses the access-savvy individual as he or she snubs or sidelines the wishes of an incarnationist such as John Bombaro. What’s more, freed from church, the SBNR group is often affiliated with technology as an enabling coconspirator on behalf of such trust-thyself rapture.

Christianity defines itself as the coming together, under the auspices of a Bible-based creed, to affirm and practice that creed. Such coming-together is “the mark of a true religion.” Is this the only mark? Is there a wider notion of religious experience possible, where a technology of personal orientation (the PC, mobile computing, the virtual world) opts out of the incarnational community? Could there be a groupthink about the church’s rituals of incarnation that millennials distrust? Anyone might ask: Is the site of the physical-historical church the only site available for awe and mystery, ethical law, and social justice? Does God really have something against cyberspace?

Increasingly, those asking these questions and disaffiliating with Bombaro’s idea of a sacramental church are the nonreligious. Nones discount institutionalized faith; many of them think one need only do good deeds and feel compassion to be spiritually alive. Compassion need not be God-delivered or focused on Christ crucified. Deemphasizing or removing “proven” sites of faith—text, church, ritual, doctrine—means that the individual who seeks the spiritual is on his or her own, as is such seekers’ wont. That, in one sense, explains the popularity of websites and apps that index Christian values: here’s a place for cell-phonically fluid Christians or other seeker-sensitive types to congregate transmedially.

A smartphone allows you to photograph yourself in a self-authenticating context, that is, your geographic position in the moment—it’s you here, say, with Taylor Swift on stage behind you, of which the photo verifies your spatial (and temporal) actuality. A person’s spiritual life might be attended to in the same way. Spatially placed, captured by the dweller, in the moment. Call the site of this moment where the deeply felt, personally transcendent realm is recorded, by and for the individual, “the spiritual selfie.”

The person having such a moment is in one’s own physical and psychic space. This realm is one’s spirituality. It’s all one’s own, testified to—more and more, recorded online. It’s certainly not the acoustic hall a church’s space encloses. Moreover, spiritual space need not be defined as the space of geography or history. Rather, it is where you are. With a culture of selfies or self-sites that offer the seeker a place to homestead his or her private being, how easy it is to turn away from institutional religion and the Bible—or never to deal with either entity at all. How easy to form (no bylaws required) a community of one.

 

The irony is, of course, that those searchably comforting Christian websites that take congregants out of the public sphere are actually privatizing their users’ experience further. By privatizing I don’t mean deepening devotion but, rather, feeding self-obsession—all less sticky than the glue of a denominational faith. The app-happy young Christian—let’s call him “David”—insists that because his relationship to God has no grounding in a church, a service, or an actual community, technology can become just as God-enabling as any of those things. Time with his spiritual interests is David’s call. It’s not that he looks at an app and there, like an Uber arrival, his soul pops up. It’s that through a magnified self-involvement (not a preacher’s sizzle or a baptismal retreat) he authenticates his faith. It’s upon him—not upon the rock of Saint Peter. Is it any wonder then that so much “time alone” breaks the sacramental bond between David and assembly?

I think this spirituality of the individual is nothing like the religion of a community. Both, I suspect, have their place, their ontology. Bombaro says, however, that God is real only when people mass and incarnate God. In other words, a religion must group, must have a body count: “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am.” Two or more: Christianity has, as have all faiths, always preferred more.

Ultimately, the spiritual selfie may be an expression of both disaffiliation—a jilting of church and community, edict and evangelicalism—and unaffiliation—no dog in the fight means no jilting is needed. Bombaro’s community of many has been superseded by a community of one or, better, communities of Ones. “Spirituality” requires no affiliation. The spiritual realm parallels the religious; for millennials, they need not intersect.

Humans accomplish all kinds of things together—public education, rock ’n’ roll, the Golden Gate Bridge, nanotechnology, just and unjust laws and governments and enterprises (from Doctors Without Borders to Monsanto)—even rituals of birth, marriage, and death—without compulsorily or occasionally attending church, reading the Bible, or communing with God. Be these pursuits of the humanist, no humanist I know wants to turn them into a religion. Indeed, secularists often seek to un-gather flocks, disenable orthodoxy, and crack delusions. But now there is a regathering, widely disorganized, as a new concentrically orbiting community of Nones.

 

A community of Nones sounds overloaded with irony. But there is a loose foundation among its un-adhered, namely, that disaffiliation has a centrifuge: to eschew religion’s institutional stickiness. Disaffiliation, as the new spiritual selfie reminds us, is not a new religion. There are no precepts to share. There is no need to join forces. The tent is ginormous. The astronomy club does not have to meet with the salsa dance troupe. Indeed, all levels of detachment from religion and religiosity are available to the non–dues-paying None.

And yet there are too many oppositional similarities in these like-minded groups of introspective activists to ignore. I find the refusal to bowl alone as much a natural characteristic of human beings as an as-yet untapped movement whose attachment many None communities, as eccentric as they are, may feel worth celebrating. Groups such as the spiritual selfies, the spiritual but not religious, those “None and Done,” Parents Without Religion, Sunday Assembly, solstice parties, Harvard Divinity School’s “Religious Nones,” Christian Atheists, Christian Humanists, the Jewish-Buddhist amalgam (the Jewbu), and Alain de Botton’s “School for Life.” One common denominator: those basic fears that freethinkers and the unchurched have always contended with in America. Fears of how you’ll be perceived if you declare yourself atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated. You won’t get elected to public office. You’ll likely not rise in your corporate environment. Your nay will be perceived as militant, Dawkinsesque. You’ll be judged less morally fit than your religious counterpart, the Disneyfied “People of Faith.” You’ll be seen as petulant if no traditional group fits your feelings. The big objection is less that you’re (far) less religious than others or (more) purely nothing in particular. It’s that you’re not a joiner, a believer in. You’re untrustworthy until you’re counted among.

I predict a Cambrian explosion of these decentralized, alternative leagues, formed, paradoxically, on a kind of nonreligious religiosity. As strange as it sounds, such disaffiliates are not free from the traditional gel of religion. Inside that gel is a glue or bond that eventually supersedes the original us-versus-them need to organize. At base, religions value themselves because their adherents developed a ritualized calendar, hierarchical authority, and numerical strength unique to them. To say “we are Muslims” is also to say “we are not Jews.” Nonreligious societies of the future may find themselves valuing a similar narrowing of intent. We are Nones and you, Fools All, are not. The trick will be to contend that such self-preservation and its centrifugal bullying is primary to the secularist’s original unalterable resolve: freedom from religion.

Thomas Larson

Thomas Larson, staff writer for the San Diego Reader, is the author of three nonfiction books. He teaches in the MFA program at Ashland University in Ohio.


“Corporate CEOs are the
new clergy; social media,
the new church.”

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