We’re continuing this week with part two of Greg’s interview with Westmont College sociologist Felicia Wu Song, especially focusing on her ideas about how technology forms and even disciples us. (See Part 1 here.)
One of the aspects of your work I deeply appreciate is that it’s very grace-filled; it’s not one more list of “things we have to do as Christians.” Would you mind giving me a little background about your faith in Christ and how that forms your work?
I grew up in a Christian home and attended an ethnically Chinese Baptist Church. I went off to college and joined InterVarsity. It was there during my college years that I learned that God really does love me—that was a profound and, for me, new understanding I gained through community. This has affected all my subsequent work.
God and Mammon; God and Technology
The Sermon of the Mount reminds us that you can’t serve both God and Mammon (Matt. 6:24). It reminds us how difficult it is to serve God and not to have our personhood, or our place, or our presence commodified.
Yes. I think that’s an incommensurable choice, right? God and Mammon. I think of it as two stories, and you can only live into one of them. Every little thing we do is living into one story or the other. Unfortunately, the digital story is completely opposite to the Christian story. Putting these two stories next to each other it is scarcity in the digital landscape versus the abundance that is promised in a life with God. The orientation is totally different. It’s going to be one or the other; you can’t do both.
The Power of Counterliturgies
I want to ask you about the way you pick up James Smith’s ideas about “counterliturgies.”
Jamie Smith’s idea is that so many of our routine habits are like liturgies. They are forming us in a certain direction, and I want to argue that our digital habits are forming us away from God in the ways that we’ve just discussed. I think many of us recognize that in our own lives, right? We just need to detox. And maybe we know someone who would benefit from getting off social media or taking a break from their device.
What I find compelling about Smith’s concept of counterliturgy is this idea that as human beings, we’re driven by appetites. We are in Augustine’s terms restless until we find our rest in God. So, we may remove things, but we still need to be filled with something good. Removing “the bad” isn’t going to be enough. You’ve got to fill that space with something good—that’s the counterliturgy.
Liturgy is the additive practices we bring in to fill in that space. I think the counterliturgy is a kind of retraining, right? Retraining our appetites might start off a bit awkward because the new things are unfamiliar, and we may not enjoy them. However, with time, like so many of our habits, we might actually come to really love it.
For years, I was unfamiliar with traditional forms of church liturgy, but after years of practicing liturgy, it has become something that my body longs for. But it took 15 years to realize it was happening.
- There’s a video of the full interview.
- Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain is not faith-based, and though a decade old, has a good deal of neuroscience about how our brains interact with technology. (Ezra Klein just read it last year and wrote this article.)
- This would be a great book for personal reflection or small group discussion on the topic of discipleship and spiritual life—Andy Crouch’s The Techwise Family.
- Here’s a similar conversation on technology and Christian life with Andy at Upper House Christian study center.
The Discipleship of Technology
Do you have any final words on how your work could help people in our churches to grow spiritually?
Most American churches that I’ve observed tend to see technology as a topic for a Sunday school class or a sermon or for our youth group to discuss. It’s usually a topic that is related to a vice like pornography or polarization. There’s a good time and an appropriate place for that. But I believe that when we do that, we’re completely missing the role that technology is actually playing in our lives.
Today, our digital technologies are discipling us in ways that outstrip what our churches are doing. Technology is outdoing the very Christian discipleship that so many of us long to engage. Each time we pick up the phone and text. It’s all those small things built into the way we relate with each other, the way we work, and the way we do church. It is a competition between the way technology forms us and the way disciples of Christ are formed.
Technology isn’t simply a topic on its own. It’s an issue of discipleship. As congregations, we had better get serious about how we are going to pursue discipleship, knowing that there’s this other thing that has already disciplined us to this other story.
That will actually make the story we get from Christ good news—much better than the story we get from technology. It will also require work for us. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still figuring it out myself. But I think there’s a lot of interesting work that we need to do as people of faith because technology is different terrain. It’s a different kind of consciousness, and we must learn to negotiate it in our day-to-day living.
Thank you, Felicia, for your work!