By / Mar 2

To the casual beachgoer, the best surfers make their highly technical sport look easy. After spotting just the right wave, these champions of the surf mount their boards and slice across the rolling sea with ease and precision, riding the wave with speed and full control until its breaking end. One key observation that is perhaps beneficial to landlubbers, as well: the expert boarder knows when to ride and when to rest, when to catch the “big one” and when to let the little swells pass by. He or she knows, too, where to find the superior waters.

Surfers of a different sort

With the rising tide of technology pounding our shores, the digital device has made us all surfers—except that our wave happens to be an electromagnetic one, beamed off towers, our board a hand-held screen, only inches wide, built for surfing an ocean’s worth of information (short-and long-board versions available). We’re the always-on, continuously-connected, screen-scrolling smartphone user. And many of us—myself included—find ourselves web-surfing among the best of them.

The digital device has ushered in a massive sea change in our ability to connect with the world around us. Text and tweet, pin and post, like and “LOL”—the world of communication, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and instant message, is only a thumb-swipe away. Never have we been so connected to so much and to so many, instantaneously, all across the world.

That is the blessing of this technological surge. But therein lies its curse. And if we're not careful, the digital wave could strike us with tsunami-like force and leave us lifeless on her shores. Those of us, like me, treading the fast-flowing Washington world of policy are as susceptible as any to its dangerous riptide.

Attempting to disconnect

This is where the National Day of Unplugging comes in. On March 4-5, from sundown to sundown, people across the country will disconnect from their devices and reconnect with the world around them. Now in its seventh year, the annual holiday is the brainchild of the Jewish organization Reboot, which encourages people to take a pledge “to unplug for as long as I can, even if it is not the full day.”

While most smartphone users will not commit to powering down for a day (full disclosure: don’t count me among the digital fasters), the practice of unplugging from time to time is a good—and needed—one. Nearly one-third (30 percent) of smartphone owners feel that their phone represents a “leash,” rather than “freedom,” according to a Pew Research Center survey released in 2015.

Yet, disconnecting, as I see it, is not easy for at least three reasons.

Why we don’t put down our phones

1. The work factor. Work responsibilities often require a person to be tethered to a phone, checking and responding to emails and texts at night and during weekends. That’s often unavoidable. And we ought to render to our employer what is our employer’s. The need to stay connected particularly plagues, among others, those laboring in the nation’s capital, which includes the ERLC staff, seeking to engage the culture with the “salt” and “light” of the gospel (Matt. 5:13-16) and to speak to issues in the public square for the protection of religious liberty and human flourishing. Legislation drops early. Tragedies strike late. Powering down even as news knows no sleep can be a struggle.

2. The fear-of-missing-out factor. Call it FOMO. Fears of all sorts flash across the mind: What if I miss breaking news in presidential politics or professional athletics? Or what if I am a late-comer on Instagram? Will I be the last one to know on Facebook? Fear of missing the online party is, for some, a prescription for panic.

3. The entertainment factor. How often do we turn to our smartphones simply to pass the time? The lure is mighty. The digital world, after all, offers an immediate escape from the first signs of boredom—and introspection. No more muted moments.

But have unhealthy preoccupations with our smartphones actually dumbed us down and numbed us to the tangible, experiential world around us? Are we, as the late Neil Postman argued three decades ago, amusing ourselves to death? I fear I’m guilty.

Many of us thirst for a drink, yet slurp waters that can’t satisfy. We draw from this ocean, all day long, only to place our head on the pillow at night parched and thirsting for more.

An ever-present danger is to scroll and to swipe with Ironman-like endurance, chasing both useful news and useless nonsense in all corners of the world, only to later realize the world before us has passed us by. Perhaps our biggest regrets one day won’t entail real-time virtual simulation—the blogs we’d failed to reread, the catchy quotes we’d forgotten to retweet—but instead real-place interaction—the flesh-and-blood opportunities we were remiss to redeem.

Improving our digital lives

So where do we begin when it comes to making changes to our digital lives?

1. Look up—reconnect with the God above us. Digital waters, I can attest, are prone to cause short-circuit here. Why not put down the glossy screen and gaze into a glowing sun or starry sky? Rejoice in the heavens’ Creator. Rediscover his goodness and glory, his greatness and grace. Reflect and repent. Recount all those blessings. Respond with thanksgiving. Find rest and renewal in the presence of the Savior who rescues and redeems (Matt. 11:28-30). Drink deeply and freely from the only water that truly refreshes and restores (Is. 55:1; John 4:13-14).

2. Look out—reconnect with mankind (physically) around us. Rebuild that marriage. Read a book to that child. Find a soul to refresh and a friend to reclaim, a neighbor to regard and a widow to receive. Opportunities abound. Would that we could resist the impulse to be physically present yet mentally adrift, carried by a hand-held device into a digital world an ocean wide.

To be sure, technology itself is not a vice to avoid, but a tool to embrace. The smartphone, for one, can serve as a tremendous force for good and for God. But sometimes even the best gifts in life get the best us. Sometimes they become weights that slow us down—yes, even drag us under (Heb. 12:1-2).

No doubt a digital Sabbath will be unreasonable for most of us, but a little breather might not hurt. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula. I’m very much the novice in these waters, a student as much as anyone.

Spotting and catching the superior digital waves, while allowing the little swells to pass us by, are great challenges indeed. That might mean paddling against the cultural tide, especially in a place like Washington. Yet navigating these waters wisely can mean the difference between experiencing rich, kingdom-impacting living and turning up lifeless on the shore.

So, yes, a little break might do us—and others—some good. Besides, there are better waters available for us to enjoy anyway. Of course, all the best surfers already know this.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check my phone.

By / Mar 9

Editor’s Note: We asked several ERLC research fellows to weigh in on books and thinkers that have helped shape and solidify their convictions and worldview. Be sure to check out other posts in this series here

I was raised in Southeast Georgia, close to the buckle of the Bible Belt. I came of age in the mid-1990s, when the Christian Coalition was at the height of its influence, Newt Gingrich was making contracts with America, and it seemed like national revival was closely tied to the fortunes of the Republican Party. Those were heady days for politically conservative evangelicals, Bill Clinton’s presidency notwithstanding. I was a proud member of the College Republicans and listened regularly to D. James Kennedy and James Dobson on American Family Radio.

I was also what a friend calls a “cultural anorexic.” To my thinking, American culture was decadent and should be avoided by believers—with the exception, of course, of voting for Republican politicians. I didn’t listen to secular music for a couple of years. I didn’t watch any R-rated movies and avoided most PG-13 movies. I even avoided G-rated movies (at least the ones made by the Walt Disney Company). I wore a lot of Christian t-shirts and rocked a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet. As I have reflected on those years, I think I meant well. I really wanted to honor God. But I was an arrogant, condescending, and pretty ignorant religious reactionary.

All this began to change the summer between my junior and senior years of college. Simply put, I discovered Chuck Colson. Previously, I had listened to the “Breakpoint” radio program, so I knew Colson’s name. But that summer, I read his book How Now Shall We Live?. Next, I read The Body: Being Life in Darkness. I started subscribing to Christianity Today, and Colson’s columns became a monthly highlight. I started reading every essay of Colson’s that I could find on the internet. By the time I graduated from college, by God’s grace—and with Chuck Colson’s help—I was no longer a religious reactionary.

Through his writings, Colson taught me three lessons that have continued to shape how I think about the relationship between faith and culture.

Worldviews matter

Chuck Colson believed that worldviews matter. In How Now Shall We Live? Colson and his co-author, Nancy Pearcey, argue that, “The church’s singular failure in recent decades has been the failure to see Christianity as a life system, or worldview, that governs every area of existence.” They then go on to explain the basics of a Christian worldview: the goodness of creation, the horror of sin, the cosmic scope of redemption, a Christian view of culture, the importance of work and witness and worship.

How Now Shall We Live? introduced me to the thinking of Francis Schaeffer and Abraham Kuyper, two figures who further helped to reorient my thoughts about faith and culture. In fact, it would be fair to say that my understanding of the Christian worldview has been nurtured through a combination of Schaeffer, Kuyper, John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, Carl Henry, William Wilberforce, Al Wolters, Richard Mouw and Jonathan Edwards. Colson put me on the trail of about half of these figures.

Cultural engagement is more than political engagement

Thanks to Colson, I had come to believe that the gospel transforms the mind and the Bible provides a particular grid through which to interpret all of life. I now had a healthier, more robust, more biblical way of thinking about how best to engage culture. Politics remained an interest, but as I matured in my understanding of the Christian worldview, I became less partisan. Increasingly, I was able to maintain a bit more critical distance from any particular political party. I now knew that politics was only part of the story—and a part that was as likely to disappoint as any.

As a Christian, I’m to care about how God is at work in the arts, and education, and the sciences, and the family, and public justice. Everything matters to God. Colson introduced me to the Kuyperian concept of “sphere sovereignty,” a topic I later learned about in greater depth from Kuyper himself and other Kuyperian thinkers. Christian should be concerned with the full range of human existence and how God’s common grace is displayed in every human culture. I’m committed to what I think is a biblical vision of human flourishing, and I’m indebted to Chuck Colson for first putting me on this path.

The Church is bigger than I thought it was

The second Colson book I read was actually his earlier work, The Body. In that book, Colson and co-author ‎Ellen Vaughn looked at how various Christians from every denominational tradition were living out their faith in witness and service to the world. Colson argued that the church is both against the world and for the world, a balancing act that should be reflected in our cultural engagement. Tim Keller and others have captured this same theme in recent years by referring to the church as a counterculture for the common good.

I found Colson’s view of the universal church challenging. I was a Baptist collegian who was suspicious of other denominations. But without rejecting my sincere and strong commitment to biblical doctrines such as the sufficiency of Scripture and justification by faith alone, I came to recognize that God’s people transcends our denominational traditions. Our denominations have real and important differences. Furthermore, nominal faith remains a persistent threat. Nevertheless, all who claim Jesus is Lord should find as many ways as possible to work together to be salt and light in a world that hates everyone who acknowledges the Bible as God’s Word, affirms biblical ethics, and embraces the faith summarized in the creedal consensus of the ancient church.

I’m thankful for the life and ministry of Chuck Colson. I’d urge those reading this blog post to read Colson’s many writings. I’d also encourage you to be on the lookout for Owen Strachan’s forthcoming book The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World.