Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age
By Samuel D. James.
Crossway, 2023.
Paperback, 208 pages, $16.99.

Reviewed by John Ehrett.

Historian Oswald Spengler famously argued that man, at least since the Dark Ages, has been animated by a fundamentally “Faustian” sensibility—a striving “upwards and outwards” to grasp the infinite. This was a radical departure from the classical age, which hated and feared the unformed void. And the consummate architectural representation of this new sensibility, Spengler claimed, was the Gothic cathedral, with its towering arches drawing the eye and spirit towards the heavens above. 

Anyone who steps into a cathedral today will likely observe something quite different. Any given tour group is now a sea of bobbing heads craned painfully downward, mesmerized by the glowing smartphones in their hands. The pull of the gadgets is so strong, so overwhelming, that it somehow manages to obviate the physical beauty immediately at hand. If the cathedral once served as a kind of catechism in stonework, a very different sort of catechesis is clearly taking place through the tiny black mirrors in every pocket.

This is the precise predicament that Samuel D. James tackles in his new book Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age. At bottom, James’s volume is an accessible invitation to consider the possibility that the internet as such—wholly apart from any particular content—is forming people in essentially malign ways.

Building on James K. A. Smith’s work on “cultural liturgies,” or habituating practices that inform how individuals conceive of themselves and their world, James identifies five particular “liturgies” that define life on the internet. The first, and perhaps the most central, is authenticity—that is, the supposed possibility of unfiltered self-presentation online. Online, a person can present himself to others in the manner he chooses, unshackled from any constraints of body or sex or age or personal history. As a famous New Yorker cartoon once put it: “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” Paradoxically, though, this soon morphs into a demand for perpetual “performance” of the self. If there is no such thing as real givenness, and (in good Judith Butler fashion) sex and identity and so on are all just “scripts”—sustained social performances—then one is condemned to “keep up appearances” indefinitely. As a generation of young people is coming to realize, that is a painful and unstable way to live.

Other “digital liturgies” follow in this same vein. The second liturgy is outrage—emotional reaction unmoored from any mediating social context. The scale of the internet makes it easy to hate someone one has never met, and to express that rage verbally, leading to a toxic spiral of dehumanization and contempt for faceless “others.” The third is shame—a post-religious attempt to expiate persistent moral guilt, by finding it everywhere other than in oneself (also known as “cancel culture”).

In what may be the book’s strongest chapter, James identifies the fourth liturgy as consumption—a liturgy which includes, but crucially is not limited to, the prevalence of online pornography. The problem is bigger than that. Consider the reduction of human craftsmanship—writing, art, music, games, and so forth—to a single undifferentiated mass of “content” designed to soak up time and attention. The internet by design offers up a cornucopia of such delights to be glanced upon and then moved past immediately. And under such conditions, the relationship to visual and print media changes. One virtually never engages online “content” purposefully, like a piece of art that occupies space in one’s home, or a cherished volume on one’s bookshelf. Quite the contrary: the infinite scrolls of social media feeds serve up an endless flood of stuff to titillate and provoke and entertain. It all sweeps past in a moment and never reappears. (How many interesting images have been saved to phones “for later” and never looked at again?) Here the allure of online pornography—endless sexual novelty, divorced from any relational context—becomes thinkable as a peculiarly digital problem.

The final liturgy is meaninglessness—a torpor grounded in the uncanny weightlessness of the internet, where nothing really seems to last or to matter. In the memorable words of the 1995 film Hackers, on the internet “there is no right and wrong. There’s only fun and boring.” Well, the fun times are mostly over. James’s phenomenology of life in the internet age is disturbingly relatable: “among friends my age,” he writes, “slow-burning feelings of being trapped in an invisible noise chamber are the norm.” Indeed. One increasingly gets the sense that a part of one’s mind is living “outside” one’s head, caught up in a pseudo-existence “out there” in the depths of cyberspace, where the buzz of constant communication is deafening.

What to do about all this? Digital Liturgies, ultimately, was written to help Christian laypeople “understand how digital technology affects us and to engage with it accordingly.” That might involve, James argues, “simply changing how we default. When there’s nothing that immediately commands our attention, where do we give it?” In other words: put down the smartphone and touch grass. Good advice, to be sure. Where this leaves theologically-minded policymakers, though, is less clear. 

One particularly thorny question, especially for philosophical conservatives, involves the relationship between authority and decentralization. James is critical of “the radical democratization of everything through the internet,” which in his view has “reduc[ed] the amount of confidence that people have in established entities, such as institutions and traditions.” That is true enough—and a very Burkean stance. But what happens when established institutions are pushing questionable narratives themselves? 

To take just one obvious example, much of 2020 witnessed massive, internet platform-wide attempts to suppress the hypothesis that the COVID-19 pandemic stemmed from a lab leak rather than from a “wet market” in Wuhan. History has not been kind to this behavior: those censorship policies have now been rescinded, and the lab leak hypothesis is being taken quite seriously by the U.S. intelligence community. Or, to consider a phenomenon James mentions in the book, what about the vast number of American medical institutions that have adopted, virtually uncritically, the maximalist claims made by the transgender-rights movement? Isn’t it appropriate to call claims of “expertise” into question when they follow from highly contestable philosophical premises?

In short, it would seem that the decentralized power of the internet can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the circumstances. While this decentralization likely bars the way back to certain premodern political configurations (for instance, it seems very unlikely that a neo-Christendom that derives its power from received authority could be a stable social order in the age of mass communication), it also necessarily blunts the power of any “total state” that might seek to absolutize itself. The “democratization of everything” can easily lapse into ennui and nihilism—but must it? As James Poulos has argued in his recent Human, Forever, perhaps it is precisely this chaos that makes possible resistance against a gnostic anti-culture.

And if Poulos is right, it may be time for a sustained effort to decentralize the internet, to shrink the digital monster back to human scale. In many ways, this is already happening. On the personal level, this would look like a retreat from public-facing social media, into the “dark social” of group chats with new and old friends. On the policy level, decentralization would involve the reassertion of local political control over internet entities—wider rollout of age-verification technologies might be a good place to start.

In any event, there is likely no way back through time to Spengler’s “Faustian” vision of modernity as essentially “outward-striving.” That era is over, and something new is emerging in its wake. Today what is required, first and foremost, is attentive reflection: discerning how to live well under genuinely novel historical conditions. James has written a book that does just that.

John Ehrett (J.D., Yale; M.A.R., Institute of Lutheran Theology) is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in American Affairs, The New Atlantisand the Claremont Review of Booksamong other venues.

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