Praying in an Age of Fragmented Attention

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I am on sabbatical currently, which means I get to read a lot of books. One of the most profound and disturbing among the many I’ve been reading is Sherry Turkle’s new Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, 2015). Turkle is a professor at MIT, author of Alone Together and a researcher into how technology is reshaping human life and community. This book focuses on how digital devices are eroding our capacity for conversation, deeper connection, and generative solitude.

Turkle spent a lot of time interviewing people of a variety of ages (many of them millennials) about their everyday lives, including family, friendships, education, and work. The picture she paints is sobering. In the past 20 years, empathy among college students has dropped 40% (most of it in the past decade). The more preoccupied with technology we are, the more tenuously we’re linked to community. People find themselves overwhelmed with so many choices and possibilities that they struggle to focus on any one. “In the new communications culture, interruption is not experienced as interruption but as another connection” (p. 37). But such connections through technology are thin and fluid; they have nothing of the embodied presence or richness of face-to-face conversation.

The most heartbreaking stories in Turkle’s book are about children frustrated by their parents constantly turning away toward their devices. The common narrative that children are the ones lost behind devices begins, for Turkle, with parents’ own behavior. Children find themselves competing with devices for their parents’ attention and generally lose, so they turn toward devices themselves.

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MIT Professor Sherry Turkle

Along the way, a whole generation seems to be losing the capacity to navigate conversations of depth. Relationships are formed and broken off by text message. Employers describe employees who want to communicate with colleagues or clients by email at any cost rather than pick up the phone or talk in person. The kinds of solitary moments that can be so generative for creativity and imagination (as well as self-reflection) are being replaced with an endless checking of devices. Our brains reward us with a high when we do so, but the connections often never really land anywhere.

Turkle writes about classrooms, workplaces, and homes. But the chapter that begs to be written is about spirituality—about spaces and practices of faith and worship. At the heart of all the world’s great faith traditions is attentiveness and presence—to God, to ourselves, to one another, to the world. Whether through prayer or meditation, being still is central to experiencing the sacred.

But in the culture we find ourselves in today, such deep, sustained attention to anything or anyone seems a vanishing proposition. We are losing the habits that make it possible. What does prayer look like in a world of “continuous partial attention” (in the words of technology scholar Linda Stone)? If we can hardly hold a conversation with a friend, colleague, or partner anymore, how can we sustain one with God?

Searching for Purity

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Jonathan Franzen has a remarkable capacity for capturing (and critiquing) contemporary American culture. His last novel, Freedom (much of which is set in my current city, St. Paul) probed how late modernity’s promise of liberation so often ends up in chaos, confusion, and captivity. When I learned that Franzen had moved to the town where I grew up, Santa Cruz, California, I eagerly awaited his next novel. Released this fall, Purity offers a picture of a world that so many in western cultures have come to inhabit—a world devoid of any sacred horizon for meaning, identity, and purpose.

20150706_purity-jonathan-franzen_53Purity focuses on a young woman, “Pip” (short for Purity, but also with echoes of Dickens’ Great Expectations), whose mother lives as a recluse in a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains, pursuing a life of spiritual seeking that never seems to land anywhere. (Let me assure you this is not at all uncommon there.) Like other millennials, Pip must navigate the relational, economic, and environmental chaos left by the Baby Boomer generation. This comes in the form not only of her mother and father but also of a Julian Assange-like character, Andreas Wolf, who uses the Internet to air dirty corporate and governmental secrets, all in the name of a kind of righteous and “pure” transparency, even as he hides a deep secret in his own past.

For Andreas Wolf, who grew up in communist East Berlin, the age of the Internet and social media is not unlike the totalitarianism of his youth. With all its promise of “revolutions,” “transcendence,” and “a new epoch for humanity” it is at the end of the day manipulative, controlling, and spiritually hollow. The characters in this novel are all navigating the world primarily by a mix of emotions and idealism, which they all know on some level (or come to discover) can’t sustain human reality or human flourishing. But there is no alternative. Wolf is haunted by his past and can find no absolution; Pip’s parents have no grounds to be reconciled; there is no possibility of real healing or restoration in this world. “Purity”—being cleansed, reborn, renewed—like true freedom, is ultimately elusive.

The sociologist Douglas Porpora says in his book Landscapes of the Soul that in American life today, the cosmos of Judaism and Christianity has been largely abandoned without replacement. Popular morality tells us what we shouldn’t do but little about what our lives should be oriented toward. There is no greater framework within which to shape human life toward deep and enduring commitments. Instead, all is fluidity and self-actualization (even as the self is understood to be no dependable and enduring thing).

We live in a culture that by forsaking the deeper narratives and structures that once formed it has become thinned to the point of despair. Without a larger story than the one we individually invent, without commitments and practices for relationships that can endure past fleeting feelings, human life and community disintegrate. Novels like Franzen’s make clear the need and opportunity for an alternative story and an alternative community, even as they refrain from offering one. The sad thing is that many churches have in various ways embraced this contemporary ethos or lost the capacity to speak meaningfully into it. Church, like religion generally, is almost completely absent from Franzen’s novel, as it is from so many American lives today.

The Stories Beneath the Structures

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Next week, the triennial General Convention of The Episcopal Church will meet in Salt Lake City. Among the primary agenda items is a series of proposals for restructuring the denomination. Episcopalians are hardly alone in this work—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has restructured itself about every five years since it was formed in 1988; United Methodists will no doubt try again to restructure in 2016 after their last attempt ran aground. Such restructuring is needed, but fundamentally insufficient. Here’s why.

In an important new book, Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church (IVP, July 2015) Alan Roxburgh writes: “Denominations, despite their best theological statements and confessions, have lost touch with the massive culture shifts reshaping Western societies. Such shifts are not primarily about structures; they’re about narratives.” Structured for Mission Cover

Against those who would romantically suggest we abandon structure and somehow start over, Roxburgh points out that structures and institutions are necessary ways in which human life and community are embodied. Structures reflect culture, and at the heart of culture is story. The primary issue for the “Eurotribal” denominations (inheritors of the European state and ethnic churches) is not in fact structural reform; it is recognizing and revisiting the deeper stories that are expressed in structure and practice.

Roxburgh explains that for the Eurotribal Protestant denominations, the legitimating narrative around which they formed themselves for much of the 20th century was the corporation. Denominations embraced a cultural story that had powerful economic, social, and political legitimacy at the time by organizing themselves in franchise congregations connected by regional hubs (e.g., dioceses, presbyteries, synods), all resourced and regulated by experts at a central national office. The denominational headquarters was the primary hub in a hub-and-spoke system in which local churches were the end users. This all reflected 20th century models of national or multinational industrial corporations.

This corporate bureaucratic and regulatory structure is based on using rationalized efficiency, professional management, hierarchy, and standardization to deliver branded religious goods and services uniformly across the system. It is deeply wedded to the logic of modernity, with experts and denominational assemblies issuing system-wide policies and procedures to ensure compliance. Local churches and especially their lay members are recipients or consumers who underwrite the whole enterprise with voluntary offerings.

This whole system has been rapidly disintegrating since the late 1960s because the story that underpins it has lost its legitimacy. Neighbors aren’t interested in joining a church like they once were. Centralized experts don’t know the answers to the challenges facing local churches. The institutional trust and loyalty upon which the whole business model rests has dramatically eroded. Reducing the church to a vendor of religious goods and services not only betrays its identity and purpose; it can’t compete against more enticing consumer alternatives today. To the extent to which denominational identity was based on this story, the denomination faces an identity crisis.

The typical response by denominations has not been to question the legitimating narratives that shape their current life, but rather to try yet another strategy (e.g., congregational revitalization programs from the national office), reorganize/restructure, apply new language to old roles (adding the word “missional” or “missioner” to leaders’ titles), and rewrite formal policies and procedures. Needless to say, none of this will address the deeper identity crisis.

The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), on which I served, was a classic instance of a denominational response—unanimously created to present proposals for restructuring in order to get the church out of its mess. As I have consistently said, restructuring (though necessary) will not save The Episcopal Church. To the extent to which the 2015 General Convention makes its decisions within the language world (paradigm or social imaginary) of the 20th century corporate regulatory denomination, restructuring proposals will either not pass or be colonized into minor adjustments to the status quo. What many leaders heavily invested in denominational structures, assemblies, and policies don’t seem to realize is how profoundly irrelevant those things have become to what is actually going on with local churches and the broader culture.

The primary work before churches today is about learning and inhabiting a different story than these inherited ones (e.g., the 20th century corporation or earlier stories of empire and cultural establishment). Roxburgh calls for turning our attention to the “narrative memory of God’s purposes” and creatively reentering our stories and traditions. No one knows yet what kind of structures will be adequate for 21st century church life; they need to be innovated, largely at the grass roots. No one has a privileged view on what the future church will look like. What does seem certain is a massive amount of continued disruption and disorganization for years to come, even as new forms of Christian community and witness emerge.

The final report of TREC offers an alternative story in its opening pages, drawing from Luke 10:1-12: Follow Jesus together; into the neighborhood; travel lightly. Biblical stories such as this describe a very different posture toward God and the neighborhood than the establishment corporate denomination. They are about going empty handed, in humility and vulnerability, to join neighbors in their daily life and work, sharing God’s peace and healing, and giving witness to an alternative story—God’s reign or kingdom.

Churches need first and foremost to relearn and practice the deeper stories of the kingdom. Insofar as denominational and judicatory structures endure, they should create space for that learning.

Who Is My Neighbor?

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There’s a dilemma at the heart of the missional conversation today. A number of key voices are fruitfully calling for a return to the local geographical neighborhood as the primary space in which to discern and participate in God’s movement. This represents an important corrective to modernity’s abstraction away from the particular and local. If modernity is embodied in the big box stores and chain restaurants that make so many American communities look the same, embracing the unique character of local life and culture is a welcome thing. But there are some complications worth exploring.

First, let me affirm the basic theological move undergirding this turn toward local neighborhoods: the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, God shows up in the ordinary, local, and particular. God joins us where we are, in the spaces of daily life, in the mundane. This was and remains a revolutionary theological idea that the church still sometimes seems reluctant to embrace fully. The Christian life is not about escaping ordinary life in the world, but discovering God’s presence and restorative movement within it.

The complication is not theological, but sociological. As Mark Dunkelman (in The Vanishing Neighbor), Nancy Ammerman (in Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes) and other writers have documented, the geographical neighborhood no longer functions as a place of community or spiritual meaning for contemporary America in ways that it once did. People spend more time with their intimates (immediate family and close friends) while connected virtually to people who may be dispersed across many miles, rather than make themselves available to the people who live on their own street. Ammerman’s research found that for the majority of Americans in her study, the neighborhood was not a meaningful place of sacred connection. The “middle space” (Dunkelman) of neighborhood and voluntary organizations (including congregations) is collapsing—one of the reasons why local churches are under such stress and decline.

Many geographical neighborhoods are also increasingly sociologically homogeneous. As Bill Bishop explores in The Big Sort, Americans now tend to live near people who look, vote, believe, and think like them. The nation’s political polarization reflects this reality.

There are, of course, exceptions to this shift away from the neighborhood. Just like the craft, artisanal, locavore movements that have swept across a certain segment of North American society (generally white, well-educated urban dwellers), some people are intentionally making geographical neighborhood primary in their search for community, identity and purpose. My own city, St. Paul, has a number of neighborhoods like that. But this is a minority, like those who shop on Etsy.com and hang out in one-of-a-kind coffeehouses rather than at Target, Wal-Mart or Starbucks. (The church version is best represented by Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church.) For many Americans, the artisanal life is out of reach or undesirable. There are also distressed urban neighborhoods that retain cohesiveness because their residents aren’t able to move easily or escape them. Rural communities—many of which are aging and shrinking in population—also tend to have enduring relationships and a unique dynamic of their own.

Church leaders can invite ordinary disciples to try to reclaim their geographical neighborhoods, but for many this cuts against the grain of how their lives are structured today. It simply won’t make sense. It will seem an ideal that only certain people can embrace—like those few who practice an artisanal life, or who have a lot of spare time. The deeper call to engage and accompany neighbors wherever they are can get reduced to an inaccessible niche lifestyle.

This is why I think the missional conversation needs to claim a broader definition of “neighbor.” I would like to suggest language from the Book of Common Prayer (from Prayers of the People Form IV, p. 388): “all those whose lives are closely linked with ours.” Precisely who falls into this category may not seem obvious at first blush. It is not just our intimates—close friends and family. It includes all those whose economic livelihood is tied up with ours, including those who grow our food, who make the clothing we wear, those upon whom we depend and who depend on us. It includes the people who live near us—our geographical neighbors—but also, in a globalized world, those distant with whom we are connected through economic, social, political, and cultural systems, including people who share our town or city but inhabit very different neighborhoods than our own.

Claiming a more expansive definition of neighbor—including both the geographical neighborhood and transcending it—requires entering discernment. Discovering what God is up to in the lives of our neighbors, listening to their stories, and bearing faithful witness to God’s reign in relationship with them may happen in the physical neighborhood, but also in the workplace, through communities connected by suffering and struggle, shared interests, hobbies, or anything else. Sometimes it might mean intentional crossing of cultural and socioeconomic lines.

Where I live in Minnesota, people do not get out and interact much with their physical neighbors for six months of the year (winter), but they sustain lively relationships with all sorts of people through other avenues. For example, my son’s soccer team has connected our family with a diverse array of families from around the city, with regular opportunities for more meaningful conversation and community than with some of our geographical neighbors. This is a space of presence and connection.

The question we must wonder about is, To which neighbors are we called? I’ve come to believe there are no simple categorical answers to this—it is a matter of ongoing discernment. Jesus is asked by the lawyer seeking to justify himself in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?” He answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a tale of an outsider crossing social, cultural and religious lines in compassion.

How do you define “neighbor”?