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Chasing the Next Big Thing

Chasing the Next Big Thing

Through the lucky confluence of a few factors, I have managed thus far to resist my desires to buy an iPhone:

  • I cannot afford one. Were this to give out, the other respectable supports might give way. I am plainly a technophile. Were I to meditate more, I would probably find my affection for the Apple aesthetic conflicting with my professed love of Jesus and His commands.
  • I spent a few months reading Grecian and Christian mystics when the iPhone was first released. This resulted in a dramatic though quiet battle in the desiring parts of my soul.
  • I have spent a few years reading and thinking about the writings of Wendell Berry.
  • The culture thus far developed around sleek mobile phones and texting has not gained my admiration.

The Christian reasons to be suspicious of the iPhone (and its contemporary cousins) are greater than simple disdain for the verbal slips of many calling it a “messiah phone” or the seductive commercials telling us that, in this, “everything will change.” And, of course, the iPad comes out soon and it’s been called the “Jesus tablet” since its inception. While tongue-in-cheek idolatry is still idolatry, there are more thoughts to think on this than calling commodity fetishism our new golden calf.

The biblical injunctions to stop coveting or Jesus’ sorely neglected views on possessions should normally be enough for we Christians to not buy into the seduction. But we need more than commands—we need ways to view the world, ways to see what is going on in the market, and see what is happening in the come-on of the advertiser. At least I know I need that—given my persistent attraction to electronic gadgets.

Some of the cultural theory that has most challenged my technophilia is in the above point #3: Mr. Wendell Berry. If you have not read his essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” you should do so.

In this short essay, he tells us that, supporting his refusal, he has “several reasons, and they are good ones.” His most compelling one is that he wishes not to be duped. He wants to remain centered in his soul by asking the following basic questions: what are the problems with the world (or myself) and what are the ways those will be solved.

For many, the iPhone easily answers this: the problem with the world is lack of information and entertainment, and the Internet conveniently (and slickly) located in one’s pocket is the sacrament of the eschatological answer.

But for Berry, the problems with the world are the following: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, and good work. He feels that, given a view of, say, the last 60 years, computers, for the most part, have not aided our solving these problems.

Berry also writes: “It is not beside the point that most electrical power comes from strip-mined coal. The history of the exploitation of the Appalachian coal fields is long, and it is available to readers. I do not see how anyone can read it and plug in any appliance with a clear conscience.”

In other words, we purchase (for fairly high prices) the lie that we are happier and more time-available when the background costs are often the Earth and our sanity.

And I have not even spoken much yet of what Paul said he was eager to do: remember the poor. Some say, “live simply that others may simply live.” This is more challenging and bothersome to my conscience than I would like to think—especially given the type of economy we live in.

I am, however, a product of my culture. I think the iPhone is the coolest gadget since the arrow-shaped rock. So I remain in tension—held back sometimes only by the thin threads of a shallow wallet. To say that I “try” to be less consumptive would be a stretch and potentially an insult to those who actually do try with some hard effort.

For some of us Christians who are simply seduced by the iPhone, we might not be able to triumphantly proclaim, “I resist!” Rather, it might involve formation of a support group for those who are addicted to the promise of technology to keep them holding out for as long as they can.

One Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, recently stated in a lecture that it is not easy to create some clear standard of what luxuries and technological developments are worthy of Christian participation. But she did say that, in the least, the Christian should often be a late or slow adopter. They should not be magnetized by the hype. Many technologies are not created out of a genuine need but a profit motive. These inventions are followed by advertisers telling us what we need—and they just happen to have one on sale! And these technologies often harry us with promises of how they are solutions to our problems.

The Christian should be on level mental footing, and see how these promises are often lies. Sometimes—possibly—technology might be value-neutral, but our hearts rarely are. We can do things for the right and wrong reasons. And if we think having an iPhone will make us happier, we should stop to think (and maybe even pray!) more.

We might stop to ask with Berry: Am I happy? For my lapses in happiness, do I need more frequent access to music or 2×3 movies? Do I want the “Internet in my pocket”? Am I troubled by my lack of immediate knowledge of world affairs? Am I troubled by my distance from email, and should this distance be closed? Will I be closer to my “friends” if Facebook is in my pocket? What kind of person do I want to become? And, finally, is an iPhone the shape of the distance between the current me and that better me?

Chris Haw is the co-author (with Shane Claiborne) of Jesus for President. Chris is an adjunct professor at Cabrini College and lives with his wife, Cassie, in the Camden Houses, a Christian community in Camden, NJ. This article originally appeared in RELEVANT magazine.

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