Jeremy Sarber On Life & Scripture
Jeremy Sarber

A few more potential problems with ‘modern media’

Like Christ sending his disciples out into a hostile world, we need to know the risks before we can effectively use these technologies for good.

In case you weren’t here last week, we began a two-part series on what I’ve called modern media. This includes all the technological ways we communicate, consume entertainment, and find information. It encompasses everything from TV to video games to social networks. It’s our computers and smartphones. It’s the World Wide Web and countless apps and streaming services. It’s all of the modern technology that has become so ingrained in our daily lives.

I made three basic points last week. First, modern media is potentially very dangerous. Second, its dangers are often very subtle. Third, we don’t need modern media. We survived without it for at least 97 percent of human history.

Today, I’ll pick up where I left off, focusing on social media. Frankly, most of the Web is social now. Nearly everything on the Web has a social component: YouTube, news sites, blogs, and even video games. People create content while others consume, share, and comment on that content. We could talk about the social web rather than social media.

Regardless, let’s continue with my fourth point.

4) Modern media is an unhealthy distraction.

One of the most insightful non-Christian books I’ve ever read was published in 1985. It’s called Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman.

I’m curious. How many of you have read the novel 1984 by George Orwell?

How many of you have read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley?

Both of those novels are dystopian ideas about our potential future. In 1984, the government has complete control over society. They spy on everyone. They rewrite history books. They control the media. Everyone is a slave to the government.

In Brave New World, society looks a little different. The government still controls its citizens but not by force. For instance, they freely distribute a drug that makes people instantly happy and, consequently, complacent.

Huxley published his dystopian novel in 1932. Orwell published his book in 1949. Interestingly, the two authors debated whose future vision would be more accurate. Neil Postman came along in 1985 and decided to evaluate them. Here’s what he wrote in the introduction to Amusing Ourselves To Death:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another — slightly older, slightly less well-known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief, even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. [You’d have to read Huxley’s book to understand.] As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

While we can find elements of 1984 in our world today, I agree with Postman. Huxley was right.

Huxley feared … that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. … Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity. … Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. … Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, [and so on; he was referring to various forms of entertainment and carnal gratification]. … Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

Postman primarily focuses on television in his book because that was modern media in the Eighties. As I read his book years ago, I thought, His insights are a million times more relevant today. Everything he says about television can be applied to the Web. We are amusing ourselves to death.

For example, Postman likes to illustrate his point using the news. In preparation for this, I dug out something I wrote a few years ago on this topic. Here’s what I said:

Postman’s criticisms of television primarily focus on news programs and networks, and rightfully so since the news should be the medium’s most serious, least entertaining content. We watch the news to stay informed—to learn the truth, if you will—yet it is just as dramatized, sensationalized, and shallow as the rest of TVs offerings. Every story is so-called breaking news, implying it is both pressing and relevant. Compelling music plays as the anchor unfolds the day’s events with his or her grave disposition staring back at us. The producers are prolific at seizing our attention and then stirring our emotions. Thirty minutes into the spectacle, we may actually believe the world is ending because the media has given us more than enough evidence to draw that conclusion.

Then again, what have the anchors and their expert panel of guests given us? Look closer. Planet Earth is home to 7.8 billion people in 195 countries. You are one of them. Local weather reports notwithstanding, the odds of you seeing any coverage that has personal relevance are slim. Unless the media reports on an erupting volcano that happens to sit within spitting distance of your home, your day-to-day activities remain mostly unaffected. The same, however, cannot be said for your peace of mind.

But the news is important,” you say, and I won’t argue with you, but please permit me to make a few points for your consideration.

First of all, the news is a money-making venture. Ted Turner did not launch the first 24-hour news network out of some benevolent concern for the American public, as though non-stop coverage of world events would somehow improve our lives. Even if he did believe that, you’ll notice CNN is not a non-profit organization. Return on investment is the broadcast company’s priority, which means it needs advertisers, which means it needs as many eyeballs as possible, which means it must do everything it can to keep us watching and coming back for more—riveting stories, shocking videos, attractive personalities, controversial topics, popular biases—whatever it takes to please the shareholders.

Second, long-form journalism doesn’t pay. I don’t think so anyhow because I never see it on TV. No matter how much context is needed to understand a particular subject, mainstream media always allocates the same amount of time. The networks believe we prefer quantity over quality, giving us only the abridged versions of today’s top headlines. Each story is contained within a three-minute segment, and whether it truly has any significant impact on us, well, we may never know.

Lastly, why do we need the news at all? At the risk of sounding redundant, most of it isn’t directly relevant. Perhaps it gives us something to talk about at the water cooler, but it doesn’t change much else. If it does, I won’t need an anchorman to tell me about it. When I see lava flowing down the block toward my house, I’ll know. Otherwise, all I’ve accomplished by watching the news is getting myself angry, annoyed, or possibly fearful.

In short, television’s most serious type of programming is little more than an odd kind of entertainment, one more distraction from what really matters, albeit one that feels justified. Maybe I can’t think of a plausible reason to watch Ross and Rachel break up yet again, but no one will question me if I turn on the news.

If this is true for the most serious form of entertainment, how much more does it apply to the never-ending stream of Marvel movies, TikTok videos, or Instagram photos? And we can go further.

Postman observes that modern media causes the truth [to] be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” For example, the news media may cover significant events in the world, but those stories are sandwiched between a segment about a funny-looking cat and a mattress commercial. One minute, they’re making us laugh. The next minute, they show us horrific videos of war. Then, we’re encouraged to upgrade our sleeping arrangements. We don’t have time to process any of it before they move on to the next unrelated thing, giving us mental and emotional whiplash.

Isn’t that an apt description of a Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline? Let me show you. I’ll open Twitter on my phone.

I see a tweet about the evolution of fish. A quote from Sinclair Ferguson follows that. Next, I see a meme titled When the remote control isn’t working.” Here’s a scathing rebuke of the Department of Defense. Next is a scathing rebuke of the Catholic Church. Elon Musk, Elon Musk, an ad for a clothing company, a quote from Isaiah 53, and on and on it goes.

Let’s pull up YouTube for good measure. I see Lori hip hop radio,” What It Feels Like to Live as An Immortal,” NBC News Live, worst towns in Texas, learning to cook zucchini, When Everything Goes Wrong,” how to wrap an extension cord, and so on.

Have you ever noticed that when a TV show or movie wants to visually depict someone losing his mind, you always see a rapid flash of unrelated images as he grabs his head and screams? That’s modern media in a nutshell. Have you ever wondered why you struggle to read the Bible or pray for more than a few minutes at a time? Part of the answer is probably in your pocket right now.

Modern media is an unhealthy distraction.

Colossians 3:2 says, Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. Hebrews 3:1 says, You who share in a heavenly calling, consider, or fix your mind upon, Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Hebrews 12 says, Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking—fix your eyes upon—Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:1, 2).

Scripture uses a variety of expressions to convey the idea that believers in Christ should be singularly focused. Our minds should be fixed on heavenly things. Our eyes should be fixed on our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

When I took driver’s ed in high school, I rode with a girl who had a bad habit of letting the car drift toward oncoming traffic. I remember how our instructor continually stressed, You must keep your eyes fixed straight ahead. Stare at the place you want the car to go. If you look to the left, the car is prone to go left. If you look to the right, the car is prone to go right. Stare straight ahead.” Similarly, the Bible instructs us to stare straight ahead rather than allow ourselves to get distracted from what really matters.

As far as I know, Neil Postman wasn’t a Christian, yet he saw problems with modern media. Today, countless secular psychologists warn that modern media is mentally and emotionally devastating, especially among young people. Many of the very people who developed the technologies we use today haven’t allowed their own children to use them. Why not? They know better than anyone how unhealthy these technologies can be. In many cases, they were indirectly intended to be harmful because they are designed to be addictive.

Much of the secular world recognizes that modern media is an unhealthy distraction. As Christians, our concerns should be even greater. Neil Postman was worried that Western democracy was in jeopardy. Today’s tech innovators don’t want their inventions distracting their children from excelling in school. We may have the same concerns, yet we also realize there is even more at stake—namely, the eternal state of souls.

As I’ve said, the devil wants to deceive and ultimately destroy. I also said that he’s crafty. To accomplish his goal, he doesn’t need us to consume blatantly wicked content on TV or the Internet. We can amuse ourselves to death with almost anything as long as it distracts us from those things with eternal significance. If we spend enough time with our eyes off of Christ and things that are above, we will slowly drift into oncoming traffic, one social media post at a time (Col 3:2).

5) Modern media requires us to sacrifice our privacy.

Last week, I told you I had ditched my smartphone for a year. During that time, I also experimented with doing everything possible to secure my privacy online. Before you ask, no, I didn’t have anything to hide. I have nothing to hide when I go to the bathroom, but I still shut the door behind me.

Tech companies, data harvesters, and governments worldwide have collected information about us for years. They know our likes and dislikes with a creepy degree of accuracy. They know our purchasing habits—both online and off. Your purchases are tracked when you use that customer loyalty card at the pharmacy or grocery store. They know what you look at on the Web. They know when you hover over one social media post longer than others. Smartphones allow them to track our locations. If you have smart devices at home, they may know when you turn on the lights or the temperature at which you set the thermostat. They build profiles on us and share the data they’ve collected with one another. They buy and sell it.

If I had more time, I would go into great detail about how this works. And you would probably be inclined to build a cabin in the woods and unplug from the grid. Even George Orwell couldn’t envision how companies and governments could one day track us and essentially police our thoughts, not to mention modify our behaviors. But I don’t have time for much detail this morning.

I tried to secure my privacy for the better part of a year, but it was impossible. When I ran a script on my MacBook to prevent all tracking, I couldn’t use my laptop any longer. Apple likes to tout itself as a privacy-focused company, but its operating systems constantly send data to them without you knowing. If you stop that data flow, the operating system doesn’t work.

On one occasion, I stopped to get a haircut. The lady behind the counter asked for my phone number and mailing address. I asked, Why do you need that information?” She said, I can’t put a customer into our system without it.” She couldn’t ring me up and let me pay for a haircut unless I gave her my phone number and mailing address.

I suppose it’s time I finally explain why you’ve been staring at my glamour shot on the wall.

My mugshotMy mugshot

From 2005 through 2008, I worked as a freelance web developer building websites primarily for companies in Elkhart County. I had a vested interest in my online reputation for the first time. A potential client could search for my name, so I had to be careful about what I published online. I also began typing my name into search engines now and then to see what they might see.

Imagine my surprise when the photo you see appeared on twenty different websites seemingly overnight. This photo was taken in 2001, and while it’s far from a flattering picture of me, there was a bigger problem with it. The Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department took this photo. This mugshot was published alongside my arrest record on those twenty different websites. Granted, each website offered to remove it—for a modest fee.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a digital world where personal, otherwise private information about us is the currency of the day. We can’t do anything to change that, but I still recommend we close the bathroom door. In other words, it will always be better not to publish the next post, upload the next photo or video, or download another app. We can safely assume that anything we do online, and sometimes offline, can be seen and used by someone, somewhere.

This is not hyperbole. I’m not exaggerating. I’m very serious. I know enough about the various technologies to realize we should never assume privacy. Apart from going off the grid entirely, the best we can do is avoid feeding the machine. Don’t put anything out there more than necessary. Furthermore, don’t view, watch, read, or listen to anything you wouldn’t want everyone to know about, even when you think no one could know. I could tell you many horror stories.

Proverbs 10:9 says, Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out. A Baptist pastor of many years ago described integrity this way:

The supreme test of goodness is not in the greater but in the smaller incidents of our character and practice; not what we are when standing in the searchlight of public scrutiny, but when we reach the firelight flicker of our homes. … It is impossible to be our best at the supreme moment if character is corroded and eaten into by daily inconsistency, unfaithfulness, and besetting sin.

Another pastor said more succinctly: Integrity is the consistent harmony of convictions and conduct. … The opposite, of course, is hypocrisy. … Integrity is having an untarnished moral character both publicly and when no one else is around.”

The Internet gives us the illusion of privacy. When we’re the only person in the room with our smartphones, it feels like we can do or say anything without anyone knowing. First of all, someone somewhere likely knows about it. Second, integrity demands consistency. If we are not the same people online as offline, we are hypocrites, not people of integrity. If so, whether anyone in our lives knows what we do or say online is a moot point because God knows, which leads me to my next point.

6) We are accountable for our use of modern media.

Jesus said, Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light (Lk 8:17). In 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul writes, We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

We’ve now heard several sermons about the Pharisees. By all appearances, no one followed God as closely and faithfully as the Pharisees. But once God (in the flesh) confronted them, something else altogether was revealed. Appearances can be deceiving. In the Old Testament, God said, The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart (1Sa 16:7). He sees what we do in private. He sees what no one else can see. He can even peer right into our hearts.

Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus said:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:25-28)

Sadly, the Pharisees fooled even themselves. More to the point, they fooled everyone else. Until Christ exposed their hypocrisy, nearly everyone in Israel believed they were the righteous of the righteous, but Jesus said to them, You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Mt 23:33).

God would hold the Pharisees accountable for what no one else knew about them, and the same will be true for us. He will hold us accountable for everything we watch, view, listen to, post, and send. According to Christ, Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light (Lk 8:17). Of course, this includes our browsing history, private messages, and even motivations for what we post online.

The Web does strange things to people. There’s something about it that changes us in ways we’re not usually not consciously aware of, and that’s my next point. The LORD looks on the heart (1Sa 16:7).

I should also mention that we’re accountable to God for what we do with modern media and what we fail to do because of modern media.

I intentionally ignore my phone, especially with others, including my family. When I come home in the evenings, my phone may be in my pocket, but I want my wife and kids to have my attention. For the same reason, we only sparingly turn on the TV. I avoid using my phone when standing in line at the store or sitting in a waiting room. Why?

This is a lesson I learned several years ago. For the sake of time, I’ll give you the abridged version. I was at the local coffeehouse near our home in North Carolina. The place was packed. I was waiting in line to order, staring at my phone, when I finally looked up and noticed that every last person in the room was also staring at their phones. I was struck by the strangeness of it all. I thought, All these people are together in one place, yet we’re simultaneously in our own worlds. I left the coffeehouse that day, vowing to ignore my phone more often.

A few days later, I was back at the coffeehouse. This time, I left my phone in the car. As I waited in line to order, I noticed a guy sitting alone, staring into space. I could have been wrong, but I thought, He’s not merely alone. He appears lonely. So I introduced myself, and we sat together and talked for probably thirty minutes.

Here’s what I later wrote about the lesson I learned from that experience:

Think of all the potentially wasted hours spent playing on our phones while standing in line or waiting at the dentist’s office. Meaningful, perhaps life-changing conversations could have taken place instead. We could have shared the gospel and witnessed salvation unfold right before us. Open your eyes,” Jesus said. The fields are ready for harvest (Jn 4:35). Swinging a sickle, however, may be uncomfortable and certainly requires effort.

The last apostle says we should make the most of our time because the days are evil (Eph 5:16). I would like to add my own advice to that wisdom … If we value the time God gives us, we must learn to be deliberate in how we use it.

Ignoring our smartphones is only the beginning of the small, purposeful choices we can make to accomplish much, much more. The church can turn the world upside down, assuming the next text message can wait (Ac 17:6). All we need, at least to start, is an honest measure of self-examination and a few thoughtful, intentional tweaks to our daily routines.

In other words, we have more important things to do than stare at a phone or TV. We have people to encourage. We have a gospel to share. We have a Bible to study. We have a family to enjoy.

God will hold us accountable for both the evil things we do and the good things we fail to do. We shouldn’t let something as silly as modern media get in the way of using our time as God intends.

7) Modern media discourages integrity.

The Web, in particular, does strange things to people. For example, a man who would never walk into a store and buy pornographic magazines may look at pornographic content on his computer. From the beginning, the Internet has given us a sense of anonymity. We feel as though no one knows what we’re doing as we sit alone with our smartphones and laptops, but as I’ve said, that’s not true. Someone knows. God certainly knows. Regardless, the Web has a way of turning us into Ananias and Sapphira. We think, No one will know, so no harm done.

The social web often puts our lack of integrity in the open. On social media, for instance, people feel empowered to say things they would never say otherwise. I frequently see Christians posting quotes, memes, and images that are not appropriate. They know they’re inappropriate because they usually include a language warning or offer commentary about the immorality of it. If it’s immoral, we shouldn’t publish it for even more people to see.

Christians say things about people they would never say to their faces, though strangely enough, they publish their thoughts online for all the world to see. Sometimes they use language they would never use in person. Some people have altogether different personalities online than they do offline. That’s not integrity. That’s hypocrisy, but the social web doesn’t encourage integrity. We feel less incentive to bridle our tongues when not speaking with someone face-to-face. In James chapter 3, we read:

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:6-10)

The social web also encourages us to present ourselves in disingenuous ways. I used to follow a blogger who once posted an incredible photo of a giant whale swimming beside his boat out in the ocean. The image received thousands of likes across social media. A few days later, he wrote an article about the photo, explaining that while it was real, it was not an accurate representation of reality.

First, he explained that the photo might give the impression he galavants around the world on vacation all the time. No, he was on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. He’s working fifty weeks out of the year in an office like you and me.

Second, he doesn’t own a boat. He doesn’t live near the ocean. He doesn’t own a boat. He paid someone to give him a two-hour boat ride.

Third, he took hundreds of photos before capturing only one clear image of that whale.

What was his point? Typically, people publish only the highlights of their lives. We don’t show off the bad or mundane parts. We post photos of ourselves from just the right angle and rarely without the proper filter to make us look as good as possible. We’re not trying to deceive anyone, but we distort reality without thinking about it.

I remember an episode of the podcast, This American Life, where teenage girls were asked about their social media habits. The girls explained how they would go to great lengths to take the most flattering pictures of themselves, their food, or their current activity. They might spend hours trying to get the perfect shot. Then, they explained how the socially acceptable custom was to offer generic compliments to one another. You look so good. Oh, I love that outfit. How are you so skinny? One of the girls said, You don’t have to mean it. You just say it.”

The host asked, How do you feel when you get those comments, knowing they may not be genuine compliments?”

One girl said, They make me feel great.”

The original post was hardly real, which they all knew. The subsequent compliments weren’t necessarily genuine, which they all knew. And yet, these girls still found purpose and affirmation in it, which leads me to my final point.

8) Modern media encourages us to seek attention.

Celebrities, social media influencers, viral content, dopamine hits from constant notifications about likes and shares, follower counts— Everything about modern media encourages us to seek more attention. Rather than pursuing a quiet, humble life, we’re encouraged to do whatever we can to become more popular. Rather than find our value in being image-bearers of God, we are encouraged to find our worth in the amount of attention we receive.

That isn’t biblical. I’m out of time, so I’ll leave you with this.

Our highest calling is to glorify God in everything we do. This means we shouldn’t strive for personal attention. We aim to glorify God, not ourselves. It means we should be authentic people of integrity both online and off. It means we should be cautious about using modern media.

I’ve offered more warnings and negative comments about modern media than positive remarks because we desperately need to hear them. Yes, we can use modern media for good, but dangers abound. Like Christ sending his disciples out into a hostile world, we need to know the risks before we can effectively use these technologies for good.