Let me run a thought by you. I am looking at two inescapable present cultural forces, and struggling to know how to relate them in my comprehension of the realities in which we all live. One is the obvious and fascinating information age culture, what with omnipresent iPhones, iPads, and the whole information age reality, with so many brilliant and mind-boggling new discoveries. I see this reality in web-sites source such as Singularity Hub, and on television accounts from places such as M.I.T. where young geniuses are linking their brains to a computer with all the potential of that. Such information age discoveries hold the potential of solving many of the problems we face in this present moment of history. This is all positive and heartening.

But then, … there is a subtle downside to all of this: an emerging generational culture, while it is the most connected and has access to more information than is imaginable, … that is exhibiting an observable loss in its capacity for significant inter-personal communication, for empathy, of the grace of listening to others with their hearts. This is now becoming an inescapable result of a whole generation’s captivity to their iPhones, while also to its inability communicate eye-to-eye and to ‘tune-in’ to those with whom they interact each day.

Recent studies have indicated that strong home life and communication is one of the major components in a young person’s capacity to learn in school—not at all the superiority of one school (private) over another (public). There are now major sociological studies dealing with what is necessary to reclaim good conversation (e.g. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle). Such a lost capacity has distressing consequences. To sit at a table with others who are lost in their iPhones is to be a stranger in what should be a context for mutually helpful communication, for listening, for sharing, for laughing together, for asking questions, for confessing hurts and failures.

Another result of this captivity to iPhones is the loss of a capacity to walk through a neighborhood and note things of beauty, or to even acknowledge others who are passing by. Yet to mention this to these persons is to draw a response of indifference, or a “who cares?”

For those of us who are the followers of Jesus Christ, we are always profoundly grateful that Jesus was the very being of God, the Word of God made flesh and “moving into the neighborhood” (Eugene Peterson’s wonderful paraphrase of John 1). Jesus immersed himself in conversation with ordinary, often morally delinquent, or fractured people. To read the gospel accounts is to see One who moved easily among, and engaged in purposeful conversation with people along the way. This call to be in purposeful conversation is an undeniable facet of his command to “love one another as I have loved you.”

His followers are to see all things from his point of view (Colossians 1:9 JBP paraphrase). It is difficult to even imagine how Jesus would respond to this culture that seems so often immune to significant and intimate conversation. The early church came together (as the account in Acts relates it) from house to house in an intimate fellowship, a fellowship in which they shared each other’s lives, confessed their sins, and incarnated an empathy for one another by the dynamic of the Spirit of Jesus which they all shared. And that empathetic love was shared in their outreach in to the larger community.

I could wish that when I and we get together for coffee, or beer, or a meal, that we all could turn-off cell-phones, look each other I the eye and listen with our hearts to one another, … to express empathy with those with whom we are engaged in conversation. Maybe I’m an unrealistic dreamer, but that’s my very inadequate attempt to at least bring to your attention a not-so-subtle pathology that makes true community almost impossible, … and please feed-back your responses to me. We all are participants in these two cultural forces, and I would value your insights. Thanks.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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  1. I think there is another instance of individual isolationism that pre-dates cellphones – the car, specifically the temperature-controlled, windows up, stereo on commuter automobile. When I read in the gospels about Jesus traveling, it seems there is usually a crowd and he is interacting with those accompanying him. Now when I get in my car, there is usually a crowd (traffic) but I rarely have any interaction with anyone unless it involves a negative gesture. And all these other drivers are (at least for a short time) my neighbors. What does that say about our society?

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