After almost unbridled optimism, educators have made a U-turn on the employment of technology as the principle means of instruction. COVID-19 lockdowns, such that have driven students to online schooling for the better part of a year, have only reinforced this reversal by teachers and researchers alike.
To be sure, cautionary statements were issued in years past by the likes of Neil Postman, C. John Summerville, and Neil Gabler. Each said in their own way that modern technology was not all it was cracked up to be. Literacy rates are down, learning is increasingly a passive activity, the line of demarcation between entertainment and education has been blurred, and—for all the time spent in front of electronic media devices (averaging 9 hours a day for students of all ages)—Western Hemisphere pupils are scoring lower than their Eastern and Asian counterparts in the fields of mathematics, science, and language acquisition. That is just the academic side of the issue. The deleterious effects on social dynamics ranging from peer interaction, emotional intelligence, and existential engagements have been catastrophic. Hope has been effaced.
Technology, it turns out, has not been the panacea to educational woes, to say nothing about it being the saving hope for humanity during a pandemic. With its undeniable usefulness and genius also come clear limitations and even harmfulness.
Take Christian discipleship, for example. Is it possible to take a cyber approach to the season of Lent? I do not think so.
The tradition of Lent is the liturgical calendar season of 40 weekdays (precluding Sundays, of course) before Easter, consisting of penitence and fasting, that stretches from Ash Wednesday to the Holy Saturday of Easter Vigil. Despite attempts to spin the significance of the biblical number “40” into something wonderfully transformative (e.g., Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life), forty-day periods in the Bible always are associated with trials of temptation, affliction, fasting, repentance and suffering while entreating God for grace. One thinks of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus Himself fasting in the wilderness. One also thinks of global judgment for forty days in Noah’s lifetime, as well as the first generation of Hebrews that experienced the exodus, who also spent forty years wandering and never entering the Promise Land. Lenten seasons, be it with Moses and the Hebrews, Elijah and the Israelites, or Jesus and His “last Adam” representation of humanity, were never exclusively about personal self-discovery. They have always been far more communal and corporate in the disciplines of repentance and entreaty. These were real, not virtual, experiences.
Maintaining continuity with the Old Testament and especially holding Jesus’ wilderness trial as the paragon for Lent, the Church enters the season of Lent. Since the third century, entire congregations have embraced and participated in the drama of Lent which reaches apogee on Good Friday when the Messiah was crucified for us and for our salvation, only to give way to corporate relief on Easter morning. Lent was a church-wide affair. We repented together, we mourned together, and we celebrated together. It was all decidedly low tech: Personal presence, Word, Sacraments, brotherly consolation, encouragement. Christians touched and ate together in 3D.
Lent was a church-wide affair. We repented together, we mourned together, and we celebrated together.
Today, however, Lent suffers at the hands of a society driven deeper into technological dependence. I say this because Lent seems to have been reduced to a personal experience in a virtual environment. What was once a parish exercise in person is now referred to as an individual experience, enjoined from your home Wi-Fi network. Evidencing this trend is not only sparsely attended Lenten services (indeed, where there are such services), but the way we may be thinking about the world and how we have been habituated to life away from the assembled church. It seems like we are all home-bound parishioners now and that is becoming a mindset.
In a social media world, individual participation or non-participation in Lent makes total sense since, well, it is your Facebook world to live as you like. There you determine the members (read: “friends”) of your community, quite unlike church where those you might otherwise decline an invitation to view your page, sit down next to you, hold your hand during the Lord’s Prayer (where social distancing has not been mandated and touching outlawed), and may even share a drinking vessel with you (a custom that may take on the aura of criminality in days ahead). In the new world where social networks are determined by adolescent principles of “clique,” fellowship dissolves into Facebooking. Stay out of, or at least away from, those who gather as the Body of Christ to repent of sinful selfishness and strive for spiritual renewal, and you can upload your independent spiritual profile by tweeting the new you without ever having to experience penitence with any degree of accountability.
But I contend, where there is no event or story that persists with us, like the communal experience of journeying through Lent together in route to Good Friday and Easter, then the result must always be self-determining and contrary to the Kingdom Christ created and bequeathed to us. Facebook streaming is no substitute for a fellowship hall, to say nothing of the Communion rail.
Likewise, for all its admirable qualities, technology simply cannot facilitate corporate repentance. Mind you, it was never intended to do so. Its genius has other applications; thank God for that. I never want to go back to the days without modern plumbing, dentistry, or computers. But given the way Christ built the Church, we must acknowledge there is no “spiritual discipline” app. True penitence and Christian devotion require work with difficulty, which is why, historically, the Church met together more frequently during Lent than any other season of the year. Indeed, why the Church calendar began with Lent, not Christmas. As members of the Body of Christ, our lives are intertwined, and we need the mutual support and encouragement one offers the other as we personally reflect on our sin and seek God’s mercy in Jesus the Son for relief.
True penitence and Christian devotion require work with difficulty, which is why, historically, the Church met together more frequently during Lent than any other season of the year.
Admitting need in a world where we have opportunity to digitally project the ideal self can be exceedingly vulnerable. But that is what Lent is all about: Exposing our needs before the Lord because we know our sin and guilt and how we live amidst a curse from which only He can deliver.
In a virtual world whose social networks exclude and preclude, perhaps it is time to consider once again something decidedly low-tech, the Church, where God’s Word and Sacraments foster identity and bond us together as the people of God, the people of the real world. Jesus habituated us within the Church as the people of God. COVID-19 has driven many of us to become habituated in isolating practices, forging a dehumanizing contentment with a two-dimensional ecclesiology.
So now, let us move beyond nominal associations where fellowship is merely minimal to fellowships which are truly communal and galvanized by Communion. There is no better time than Lent.
When the premise of what is now a global phenomenon divides, distorts, and dilutes the people of God and their necessary assemblies, then at least within the Church we must recognize that online streaming is perfectly ill-suited for building real world community, conversations, and Communing with God and one another. Put differently, today’s technology (as wonderful as it may be) is ill-suited for Lenten devotion life. That is why, for Lent, I am giving up Internet spirituality and taking more time with the Lord who is present with and for His people in the disciplines and Divine Services of Lententide.