By Jeff Mingee
Almost everyone has a smartphone. And almost everyone is becoming more dependent on it with each passing day. While even a “normal” year would expose our growing connectivity, COVID-19 and the ensuing quarantines put our digital usage on full display. On one hand, our phones have proven to be helpful tools for staying connected, providing video calls with loved ones from whom we must remain distanced. On the other hand, having the internet in our hands offers danger.
Their convenience comes with a price. Our phones are changing us.
Tony Reinke noticed his phone changing him, so he wrote 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You (Crossway, 2017). Reinke is a journalist and has worked remotely for Desiring God, two jobs which have led him to embrace digital devices from their creation. Reinke explains, “The question of this book is simple: What is the best use of my smartphone in the flourishing of my life?” (20). While Reinke allows readers to answer this question for themselves, he lays out both a compelling call to seek ultimate joy in Christ and a helpful diagnosis of the impact our phones have on us. Readers are likely to walk away with a sense of weightiness concerning their phone habits, yet Reinke clarifies, “This book fails if, having read it, you only hate yourself more; it succeeds only if you enjoy Christ more” (23).
The device which connects us with so many people in so many places can also cause us to neglect those immediately around us.
Summary of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
Reinke opens by providing a theology of technology which equips the reader with nine “key realities we must rehearse to ourselves in the digital age” (30).
- Technology modifies creation.
- Technology pushes back the results of the fall.
- Technology establishes human power.
- Technology helps to edify souls.
- Technology upholds and empowers our bodies.
- Technology gives voice to human autonomy.
- God governs every human technology.
- Technology shapes every relationship.
- Technology shapes our theology.
Reinke aims to help the reader think about technology in light of theology.
After laying a theological foundation, Reinke begins the main section evaluating the shaping influence of our phones. First, Reinke explains that we are addicted to distraction. In light of this distraction, Reinke writes, “We need situational wisdom to answer three spiritual questions: Why are we lured to distractions? What is a distraction? And, most foundational of all, what is the undistracted life?” (43). Reinke offers this summary, “The key is to move from being distracted on purpose to being less and less distracted with an eternal purpose” (52).
Second, Reinke teaches that we ignore our flesh and blood. Here Reinke emphasizes the importance of embodied experiences in the Christian life, which cannot be satisfied digitally. “We cannot be baptized or feast at the Lord’s Table on our phones,” he explains (61).
Third, Reinke notes that we crave immediate approval. He emphasizes the place of regularly gathering in-person with other believers for spiritual growth. In stark contrast to the uncelebrated consistent attendance to Sunday church services, our social media posts are designed to be recognized and applauded. Reinke compares these two applauses: “The solid praise we expect from God is based on actions now largely unseen; the whimsical praise we seek online is based on what we project” (76).
Fourth, Reinke warns that we lose our literacy. Our digital habits, and the devices through which we exercise those habits—and which, we might add, shape and foster those habits—make us less likely to read books. The impact on Bible reading is not difficult to deduce. But, as Reinke reminds us, “We are called to suspend our chronic scrolling in order to linger over eternal truth, because the Bible is the most important book in the history of the world.” (87).
Fifth, we feed on the produced. Reinke calls for an intentional engagement from both the creators of digital art and the consumers of digital art. He urges artists, “Kill the sinful habits of life that misuse God’s good gifts of digital media while praising the Giver for the gifts of digital media by employing digital media with missional purpose” (107).
Sixth, Reinke warns that we become like what we ‘like.’ Reinke reveals the human heart as an agent of worship and exposes the reader to the shaping influence of their digital idols.
Seventh, we get lonely. Ironically, the device which connects us with so many people in so many places can also cause us to neglect those immediately around us. Reinke explains, “Technology bends us in a centripetal direction, pulling us toward a central habit of loneliness and filling our lives with habits that benefit the stakeholders who seek to monetize our attention” (128). Our growing loneliness correlates with their increasing wealth.
Eighth, we get comfortable in secret vices. In this chapter, Reinke points to both the exposed sins surrounding the web-based subscription service Ashley Madison and the lie of the digital world that we won’t be caught. “Anonymity is where sin flourishes, and anonymity is the most pervasive lie of the digital age” (134).
Ninth, we lose meaning. The digital age has flooded users with information. Reinke turns to Solomon to provide wisdom for his reader. Tenth, our devices shape us by encouraging us to fear missing out.
Eleventh, we become harsh to one another. Reinke offers this pointed word:
Spreading antagonistic messages online, with the intent of provoking hostility without any desire for resolution, is what the world calls ‘trolling’ and what the New Testament calls ‘slander.’ (166)
In situations where we are not called to intervene, we are silent. In situations where we are called, we speak and congruent in order to foster repentance in private. In all situations, at all times, as representatives of Christ, we are eager to resolve conflicts and be peace-makers. (174)
Finally, we lose our place in time. Reinke warns of the digital danger to simply waste time as well as the effect of sin to cut us off from God for all time. He then challenges the reader to redeem the time.
In conclusion, Reinke reveals that “the book is organized into a chiasm so that everything centers inward on chapters 6 and 7, which focus on the two greatest commandments that form our identity and define our purpose on earth: love God (6) and love your neighbor (7)” (190). In this concluding chapter, Reinke offers a cornucopia of insights from spiritual warfare to digital sabbaths to a call to self-examination.
Reinke provides a helpful critique of our undisciplined and mindless consumption via phones. But his critiques reveal the idolatry of our hearts, not just the foolishness of our practices. Readers will walk away not feeling like fools, but like sinners in need of a Savior. Reinke offers redemptive reminders of the person and work of Christ who came into the world—albeit not digitally— to save sinners.
So, digital user, take up this book and read. The pandemic and quarantines have shown you that your digital practices are not wise and that you need help. Your phone is changing you and not for the better. Heed Reinke’s words and regain control.