Info-Techno Sabbath: Unplugging the God of Information Technology

Sep 27, 2007 |Joe Carter

Do something about all that emailblogcellphonewebrssyoutubemyspaceblackberrytech noise.

During the week I get so busy that I never find the time to be alone with God. So I've decided to dedicate this Sunday afternoon to prayer, solitude and study.

But before I get started I should check my email so that I won't have any unwanted distractions. Thirty-two new messages? My inbox was already overflowing, so I should probably reply to at least a few of these right now. Six emails — no, wait, I really need to answer that one, too — OK, seven emails down. Ah, I just got some invitations from Facebook. Those are easy to clear out so let me click through to accept those, and I'm, hmm, I didn't realize I had more notifications. Looks like Stacy finally launched a blog; I'll just click through really quickly to check it out. A lot of posts on here already, some great stuff. I really should add her blog to my RSS reader before I forget. I don't know how I ever read blogs before Google Reader came along and, what, "More than 100+ items?" Didn’t I just check this yesterday? I know this is prayer time, but I should really whittle these down a bit before it gets worse.

Here I was about to focus on prayer and Bible study and what do I find? My favorite theology-blogger has an excellent post on spiritual disciples. I have to share that with my own blog readers. That's a topic that's really on my heart today — and since I'll be praying and studying in just a few more minutes anyway — I'll go ahead and crank out a quick post. And ... send. There that should be ... hmm, looks like some comments are hung up in my spam filter again. Ah, it's always that same guy — and, oh man, there he goes again misrepresenting what I wrote. Well, I can't let that go unchallenged. Fortunately it will only take a few more minutes to write a rebuttal.

OK, now it's time to finally buckle down and practice some solitude. Let me check the time on my Blackberry — no way, it's been four hours? — and who are these voicemails from? I better check them in case my boss is calling, which would be really rude of her since this is Sunday, and I told everyone that I now devote Sunday to church and prayer and Bible Study and — no, it wasn't her, it was my buddy asking if I got his email. All right, that's it. I really need to spend some quality time with the Lord.

But before I get started I should check my email....

* * *

The book of Genesis tells us, "By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done." Sure, we, think, He can do that; He's all-knowing. God doesn’t need to check his Blackberry to see if He's missing an important email. God also doesn't have to listen to His voice mail messages, return missed cell phone calls, answer email inquiries, delete spam, write blog posts, and update his online calendar. True, He does have to listen to prayers, but since those aren't sent by IM or text messaging how many can there be? After all, who has time nowadays to pray?

Certainly not me. And I'm sure I'm not alone.

Ironically, we consider it peculiar that followers of Islam stop their activities five times a day to offer prayers to Allah, yet we stop what we do five times an hour to pay homage to our email. "One of the most basic biblical insights," says theologian J.I. Packer, "is that whatever controls and shapes one's life is in effect the god one worships." For many of us, the one true god to whom we give our devotion is the deity known as IT: information technology.

The idea that religion takes the place of religious devotion isn't as far-fetched as it might sound. In his book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, the late media critic Neil Postman claimed that technology has become our god in the sense that

... people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it.

I confess that I have altered my life in all the ways that Postman notes. My life (my career revolves around web communications), my schedule (everything carefully structured on my Google Calendar), my habits (checking my email is both the first and last thing I do every day) are all defined by my relationship with the god of IT. Am I alone? Am I the only one that has sung a hymn about spending eternity worshipping God and secretly believed that heaven must be an incredible bore? (No email? No blogs? No YouTube?)

When I look at how I spend my time it becomes obvious where my true devotion lies. And, like Jehovah, Technology is a jealous god.

But I've discovered there is an ancient practice that has helped me dethrone this false idol: Sabbath-keeping. "Sometimes we must rest from gathering information just as the Israelites rested from gathering wood on the Sabbath," writes Kevin Miller in Surviving Information Overload. Miller recommends taking an "info-techno Sabbath," a 24-hour period when we turn off the cell phone, leave the PDA in the drawer and stay away from the computer.

The Sabbath ... had two purposes: rest and remembrance of God. An info-techno Sabbath, as I dub it, has the same goals: rest for our minds and over stimulated senses and remembrance that life is bigger than the news stories, stock quotes and sports scores. It's bigger than our selves. There is, in fact, a God. And we are not it.

After putting Miller's idea into practice for several months I quickly came to two realizations: Sabbath-keeping is very difficult, and it pays dividends that I could have never imagined. This second part is something everyone has to discover for themselves. I don't have the words to describe how God filled this new quiet space in my life. As for the first part, though, there are certain lessons I've learned that I believe are worth passing along to those willing to give this a try:

  • Go from sundown-to-sundown — For most Christians, the Sabbath begins at midnight on Sunday and ends at 11:59 p.m. In Judaism, though, a day is not from midnight to midnight but from sunset to sunset. Thus Sabbath begins at sundown Friday night and ends on Saturday evening. Scheduling your info-techno Sabbath for sundown-to-sundown.
  • Choose your own Sabbath — An info-techno Sabbath does not have to overlap with normal Sabbath observance. Choose a 24-hour period that works best for you. I have found that for me, sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday works best, allowing me time to rest yet prepare for the week ahead.
  • Begin with prayer — Rather than letting the clock dictate when your info-techno Sabbath begins, let it develop organically and deliberately. Take time to pray and dedicate the time to God. Consider ending it with a spiritual discipline of solitude, Bible study or more prayer.
  • Let people know you're unplugging — Readers of my blog know there will be no new post on Sunday morning. Friends know that they won't be able to reach me on my cell phone during that same period. Once people know that you are "off the info grid" they'll be less likely to bother you.
  • Avoid legalism — A few weeks into the experiment I found myself lost on a way to a friend's house. I had my cell phone (turned off) but didn't want to "break my Sabbath" observance by using it to get directions. After stressing over what to do, I realized that I was developing legalistic rules that negated the purpose of what I was trying to accomplish. As Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). The same holds true for an info-techno Sabbath.

Still skeptical? Ask yourself when the last time was that you went an entire day without the tools of information technology. Most of us have an easier time fasting from food than from information. Yet such pauses are desperately needed for understanding and processing the information we receive. Reflection and rest is the only way that we can sift through the stockpiles of data to find kernels of wisdom.

Why not take an info-techno Sabbath this weekend? No doubt your synapses will scream from the perceived dehydration. After drinking from the firehose of information a day without info tech will seem like a year long drought. But by unplugging the god of Technology you might just find something new in the pause — a still small voice sharing the information that truly matters.

Copyright 2007 Joe Carter. All rights reserved.

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