Pastor Column: Smash Your Smartphone Part I

Some call it digital minimalism. I call it digital monasticism. What started as an annual Lenten fast from social media slowly shaped my desires and called me to the desert. After COVID, I finally deleted my social media accounts. My wife and I ditched the smartphones and both use the Light Phone 2, the e-ink app-free phone. We are currently working through removing ourselves from Amazon to shop local and removing ourselves from streaming to move back to DVDs. As St. Basil says in the Longer Rule, “that we may not receive incitements to sin through our eyes and ears and become imperceptibly habituated to it, and that the impress and form, so to speak, of what is seen and heard may not remain in the soul unto its ruin, and that we may be able to be constant in prayer, we should before all things else seek to dwell in a retired place.” For Basil and his monks, this retired place meant the desert or mountains away from the city. For the contemporary Christian, one must make the home such a domestic monastery, secluded from the “incitements to sin” of the digital world.

This retirement has been a gradual process of fits and starts for our family. Eventually, the fruitfulness of peace from living in the real world became exhilarating. Sanctification took root, habits were formed, and our desires changed. As a millennial, I have something of an ingrained suspicion of the modern, digital world. I am young enough to be a “digital native” but old enough to remember the world before. Young enough to experience all of the fall-out of social media and smart phontes firsthand, yet old enough to feel deeply in my heart that things need not be this way. Somewhere deeply ingrained in my imagination is a house whose only connection to the outside world is a landline and the mail. While I have evermore respect for the Amish, I don’t really want to return to the technological level of the 1890s, the 1990s will do.

I have met many along the way on a similar journey. Most are coming to recognize that digital technology, the way of knowing and being mediated through screens, the internet, and AI, is out of control. They promised us the world at our fingertips. Instead, we got an all-consuming dystopia of addiction, division, and consumerism with no limiting principle in sight. Can anything stop the Meta-goggles going over the heads of our children? Can anything steer us away from the cliff? The technological mindset has no answer except better technology and better technocrats. It cannot throw the ring into the fire, it can only attempt to wield it toward its own ends. No dire warnings seem able to change the trajectory. By this point, the “rise of the machines” is half trope, half creeping inevitability.

Yet the fruit in my own life, marriage, and family gives me hope. A few hardware changes, like getting rid of the smartphone, has far reaching consequences. My children will not grow up with their parents starting at small glowing screens all the time. They won’t grow up with screens thrust into their hands to distract them. With minimal screens, there will be minimal opportunity for them to stumble upon the dark corners of the internet. We will pray together, play board games, read the great books, eat meals with friends, sing songs, and slowly remember how to be human. It’s going to be hard. We will still live in Babylon and we will still need to be vigilant. But there is hope in digital monasticism to minimize temptations and, by God’s grace, give your family a fighting chance. So smash your smartphone, delete your social media, and unplug your wifi. Come, join me in the desert. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah 40:3