BOOK REVIEW: Digital Liturgies (Samuel D. James)

BOOK REVIEW: Digital Liturgies (Samuel D. James)

by Michael Penfold

I recently read a powerful article by Samuel D. James outlining three reasons never to use TikTok: it’s addictive, actively corrosive to thinking, and marketed to and consumed by an enormous number of children. I was reminded that I had read his book Digital Liturgies a few months ago and should probably do a review for the benefit of our readers. This is a much needed volume.

Samuel D. James became hooked on Facebook the moment he signed up, just after graduating from High School. Even in the days before the invention of the “Like” button, soon “an entire adolescent’s worth of insecurity, crushes, ambition, and identity became compressed and contained in a small, red, pixelated square at the upper corner of our family PC.” Within no time, social media interaction became the most consistent, most regular and most habitual thing in his life. Sound familiar?

James’s main contention isn’t about social media’s time-wasting propensity (despite that fact that children aged 5 to 15 are now spending an average of 5 hours and 24 minutes per day on it). We’re not just “a bit distracted” and need to be “a bit more disciplined”. James wants us to know that our phones are shaping and moulding us contrary to our Maker’s design. We were made in God’s image, but we are now being reshaped in our smartphone’s image. The web is now the “water we swim in” and the chlorine that permeates it is “expressive individualism”. In other words, even though a godly Christian might take great pains to avoid everything wicked and sinful online, he or she is still being daily shaped by the experience “in a profoundly sub-Christian way”.

Bottom line? The internet is not neutral. It forms habits that become a kind of “liturgy” in our lives. We normally think of “liturgy” as something religious. Every week in churches, people go through certain practices and forms of worship that express and cultivate what we believe and who we are. But liturgies are everywhere. There’s a shopping liturgy; there’s a football liturgy; and there’s an online liturgy. As we pick up our phone (average 58 times a day) and click and scroll for hours and hours, this becomes a “liturgy” of sorts, that shapes us in subtle but powerful ways, that are contrary to godliness and therefore harmful to our walk with the Lord. What does that shape look like? “I concentrate less and emote more…Conversation is harder, reading is much more of a slog, and mental busyness is so alluring I almost feel restless when I’m not distracted.” You are what you scroll.

James outlines five “digital liturgies”. As you swim in the online ocean, you are being inexorably led towards 1. inauthenticity, 2. outrage, 3. shame, 4. lustful consumption, and 5. a sense of meaninglessness. To avoid this, Christians need to develop “habits of wisdom and resistance” grounded in biblical truth, that will counteract the formative power of the internet. All of this will take application to our calling, spiritual discernment, and ruthlessly decisive action. We need to resist the online liturgies that have become embedded in our lives. Digital Liturgies is essential reading.

Get James’s book here.