National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Soul Need a Reboot?

An interview with Matt Swaim, whose book Prayer in the Digital Age has a lot of good pointers for navigating new media as a Catholic.

BY Kathryn Jean Lopez

Special to the Register

July 31-August 13, 2011 Issue | Posted 7/22/11 at 3:26 PM

 

Matt Swaim is a Catholic schoolteacher who has taken his classroom to the radio as producer for the Son Rise Morning Show on EWTN. His new book, Prayer in the Digital Age, from Liguori Publications, discusses how Catholics should approach media use in light of faith.


You observe that “most of the time when we check and recheck for responses to our performance, it is more of an attempt to reassure ourselves of our effectiveness and self-worth than it is a move forward in any sort of measurable way.” Isn’t that how The Social Network ended? Isn’t that basically what we’ve got a generation of now in high school and college and 20-somethings? They know nothing else. How can they be redirected?

Here’s a simple self-test: If social networking is part of your job, review your last 10 posted updates. If it’s not part of your job, review your last three — and see how many of them are spent politically pontificating, making a culinary announcement or complaining about a personal inconvenience of some kind. How many times have you deleted and retyped a status update in order to make sure it was posted with the maximum amount of cleverness? How many times per hour do you spend narcissistically rechecking to see if anyone has responded to your misery or genius? Before posting, ask yourself if a psychologist looking over your shoulder as you typed would in any way constitute your status update as a cry for help.


By the way, what is the digital age exactly?

When I give presentations on technology and spirituality, the 55-plus crowd often laments inhabitants of the digital culture, using demographic expressions like “teens,” “young people” and “kids these days.” I think that asserting that social media only poses challenges for the 30-and-under crowd is a complete fallacy. Let’s be honest: If you have a login and a password to anything, you’re engaged in the digital age. The fact of the matter is that grown-ups had access to instant digital communication long before the word “tween” was ever invented. I won’t presume to speculate when the digital age began. I think that the first time a person felt that they had access to someone they’d never get the chance to meet, the seeds of the digital age were planted.


What is the “secular liturgy of the rat race,” and what is its missal?

There are those who would criticize traditional religion for its rules and rituals. I, for one, have always thought of the best embodiments of these things as having a sort of rhythmic quality to them. I think that even non-Christians can get Advent and Lent on some level; human beings are just wired to treat seasons in certain ways, even before the revelation of the Gospel.

In the digital age, all of us are wired toward conscious or subconscious ritual in daily life. If I were to articulate a rule of life for the first-world denizen of the digital age, it might go as follows: “Thou shalt set thy alarm for a certain time; thou shalt hit thy snooze bar a predetermined number of times before actually rising. Thou shalt thereafter consume an exorbitant amount of caffeine in order to function at work; thou shalt during the work day incessantly check and recheck one’s modes of communication for responses from colleagues, regardless of whether or not they have had a reasonable amount of time to respond. After a rushed lunch, thou shalt intake more stimulants to offset the crash from the morning’s caffeine consumption. After work, thou shalt treat all work-related communications with the same priority as those communications as the ones received during work hours; after which (or perhaps during which), thou shalt consume enough alcohol or related depressants in order to be sufficiently groggy to repeat the process the following day.” I challenge anyone who criticizes Christian liturgy to break that cycle.


When you say, “True art, true fiction and true media call us to goals about ourselves that bring us to a good that is communal and has an eternal character to it,” I get the impression here your book doesn’t really have to do with just the digital world at all, but a call to radical conversion.

Glad you caught this! Urgent issues will always grab our immediate and temporary attention, but truly important issues will always call us out of ourselves and into an eternal context. That’s why, rather than focusing on specific technology in the book, I chose to focus on the ways that people of good faith have always responded to any cultural medium that has presented opportunity and challenge since the beginning of time. If I want to know what’s going to be true 20 years from now, I’m not nearly as concerned with the concepts that have rung true for the past 20 years as I am with the things that have rung true for the past 20 centuries.


You present some patron saints for those of us clicking through the digital age. Do you have a favorite, one who you’re loyal to and is loyal to you?

Personally, I have a special affinity for St. Bernadine of Siena and his “bonfires of the vanities,” where he would call people to bring all the items of their households that were occasions of sin and toss them onto a raging fire in a public setting. I’m not an advocate of censorship or the stifling of freedom of speech, but I have to say that there are times when I’ve read certain materials, be they print, digital or otherwise, and thought to myself: Man, I wish I had a match and some lighter fluid.

St. Bernadine is the patron saint of advertisers.


How can St. Ignatius help?

I have a deep attraction to the monastic life, although I am very satisfied in a sacramental marriage. Sometimes, however, I wish that I could live in the kind of community where bells would ring at certain times to remind me to incorporate prayer into the rhythm of my daily activities. As I was writing Prayer in the Digital Age, however, it occurred to me that I owned the kind of device that was equipped with alarms that could be set in accordance with things like the Ignatian daily examen or the Liturgy of the Hours. When St. Ignatius founded the Jesuits, he didn’t found them as a conventual order that lived in a single building and gathered for prayer at the same time daily as a community; he knew he was sending members of the Society of Jesus into jungles and other circumstances, often alone, and that they had to commit themselves to pray at certain times even though the nearest church bell might be a thousand miles away.

We have a luxury that the first Jesuits couldn’t have dreamed of: We can arm our smartphones with alarms that can remind us to pray at specific times of day when we know we have windows of time, however small, that we can set apart for communication with God.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of

National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.


Editor's note: Additional question's below.

I wish I were kidding, but I can’t read your book because I am hitting refresh and emailing and tweeting — and it’s even my job, which makes it worse. Is there hope for me? Or am I a BlackBerry casualty?

I myself am required by my job to have my octopus arms in every form of social media imaginable — a tool for every tentacle! The truth is that there is hope. It would have been very easy to make this book a mere cautionary tale about “The Boy Who Got Eaten by the Internet,” but I think that faith and reason call us to a much more critical approach to the digital age than that.


In Prayer in the Digital Age, you write: “If God is real, then our interactions with him must be informed by what is real and true, not by vague attempts to over-spiritualize or abstract him, nor by our efforts to neatly compartmentalize him and predict how we would like him to act in particular situations. The origination of all that is real deserves a place in our concepts of what’s real, and that place is first place. If we treat him as an abstraction or complication, or as someone acting uncritically on behalf of our most pressing interests, then prayer becomes nothing more than an exercise in self-promotion: virtual prayers offered to a virtual God in virtual reality.” Did you tweet that when you were finished writing it?

If only it would fit! I know of a Twitter user who’s attempting to tweet the Summa Theologiae one line at a time, but such things are a bit beyond my scope.

In another spot in the book, I write that “I’m not a religious person, I’m a spiritual person” is often translatable into “I’m a lazy person, but I just phrased my worldview in such a way that you’re not allowed to criticize my piety because there’s no way you can understand it without asking questions that I’m confident you feel it impolite to ask.” I think that this temptation to justify our spirituality based on our own customized criteria is fueled by a digital age where advertisers, politicians and the entertainment industry tailor their messaging toward our most selfish impulses. When that happens, we become insulated by ideologies imposed upon us by the outlets that cater to our escapism. Our ideas of what’s important will end up being tainted by entertainment preferences or some other form of reassurance of our own comfort or superiority. That’s why animal rights is a sexy cause and the end of abortion isn’t; it’s why so many people are interested in getting condoms to third-world countries rather than clean water. If our sense of reality in the temporal realm is that distorted, how can that not have an effect on our sense of eternal realities, which require even more effort to understand?


“We don’t want to commit to God, because commitment means we have to mold ourselves according to his will, rather than going through the comparatively easy process of molding his will in accordance with ours.” That’s quite the indictment. But it’s also not unique to the digital age, is it?

Not at all. As a matter of fact, that’s why, rather than making this a technical treatise on the benefits and consequences of using specific pieces of equipment, I chose to focus on the core principles of prayer and spirituality related to them that have been applied to all media throughout the history of humankind. St. Paul, St. Augustine, and even the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote long before the advent of wireless communication, but their thoughts on prayer, sin and loving one’s neighbor have roots in eternity, and so they are just as applicable to today’s digital milieu as they were in the Areopagus, at the Fall of Rome, or at the advent of postmodernism. In every age, humans are always looking for ways to overthrow God, either out of the wounds of concupiscience or outright malice. We all are tempted to the sin of Adam and Eve, and some of us are even tempted to the sin of the serpent.


Oh, sorry, excuse me; I was hitting refresh. You wouldn’t believe the breaking news. Oh, and I just retweeted your retweet of your wife, Colleen’s, tweet. Hard to keep up. Anyway, you were saying … Oh, no my turn. Well… in the book, you write: “We have become like domesticated animals who have been raised by masters who feed us, water us, and secure our environments, so that if we were ever released into the wild, we would have little chance of survival.” Jeepers. Should I just stay in the office with my equipment to be safe?

I think the domesticated-animal analogy works well here: As the owner of an elderly English bulldog, a breed which doesn’t occur in nature, I know that if I were to drop it off at some state park in New Mexico tomorrow, it would be buzzard fodder in 24 hours, because it has no concept of how to feed, shelter and protect itself. In the same way, first-world denizens of the digital age are more commonly consumers than producers; the production of the goods we consume takes place somewhere else. Add to that the fact that so many tasks which were once performed by man are now performable by machine. Any time we are dependent upon something for any extended period of time, we go through atrophy while we’re depending and withdrawal when we disconnect. That’s why people who lose their phone signal or Internet connection pace, twitch and exhibit the same kind of anxiety and restlessness exemplified by those trying to kick a nicotine addiction.


And what’s your beef with avatars?

Way back when, in my adolescence, an avatar was a screen name you developed for yourself to communicate in online punk-rock message boards, or perhaps it was a character you created for yourself in World of Warcraft. More than a few role players deluded themselves into thinking the online persona they’d created for themselves was more the “real” version of them than what the outside world saw.

In our day and age, this phenomenon has gone mainstream. People treat their social-network profiles like some of us used to treat our gaming profiles; we post photos, links and status updates that reflect the kind of character we want other people to see when they connect with us after 20 years of no communication since high school. I confess that I am in no way immune to this; sometimes I’m more Mii than me. Although I will admit that this phenomenon is sort of entertaining around election season, because it’s kind of fun to watch my liberal and conservative friends turn into total cartoon characters via their social networks when there’s political capital at stake.

The word “avatar” comes to us from the Hindu religion, referring to the way a Hindu deity like Vishnu or Ganesha would project themselves into our world without bearing any of the consequences of actually living in our world. There is a universe of difference between mere manifestation and full incarnation. Just ask Jesus. You and I can manifest ourselves in the online arena any way we want, but the only places we can actually be incarnate are in our homes, our workplaces, our parishes, etc. Being free from the consequences of incarnation usually means being free from the inhibitions so commonly associated with good sense. That’s why so many people say so many crazy things via their social network; they think that their character just P3WN’D somebody else’s character, because on some level, for them, the whole interaction is taking place in an alternate universe, just like it would be if they were playing Warcraft.


“Through the idealism of political candidates and their expertly packaged product promotions, our perception of the highest good is reoriented toward vague and unattainable goods.” So are we supposed to write off the primary season and take a pass on voting? How do we re-reorient politics? As citizens and politicians, as activists, as campaign staff, commentators … ?

Idealism sells; particulars confuse. In a sound-bite culture, any candidate has to play to unrest rather than actual promise. Elections are almost never about hiring people; they are almost always about firing people. The digital age has merely morphed the mechanisms of populist angst. It may be accurate to say that Barack Obama got himself elected in 140 characters or less; it may be equally accurate to say that George Bush had a unique ability to hang himself in 140 characters or less. Any candidate who doesn’t have the savvy to realize that they are on stage at all times, and that clearness and succinctness is the path to success, is, in my opinion, doomed. I consider this development tragic.

Voting is, of course, a civic duty. Complaining is merely a civic luxury. In terms of primaries, I think it’s even more important than ever to vote in them because of the quirks of the digital age. The dominant media will pick, early on, their favorite horse, and then cover fanatically the member of the opposition that is the easiest to caricature in contrast with the candidate they want to win. For instance, I know almost no person who opposes the policies of President Obama who is on their knees daily praying that Sarah Palin will run for president, but it certainly comes across that a number of leftist media outlets are praying such prayers.


“In a society that makes millions of dollars annually by profiting from our desire to busy our minds with anything except that which is of actual importance, some of the blame has to fall on the system.” Oh, come on. Aren’t you letting me off easy here?

You wish. The fact of the matter is: The only way the system functions is via consumer response. There is no tittilation, no aggravation, no potential inebriation that could ever trap us into spending time, money and energy on it unless it was something that our lesser natures on some level desperately wanted. I think there is a tension between the inner Luddite and the inner early adopter in all of us. People like me tend to crave the newest thing and yet are always eager to criticize it for its newness, which is probably at least a little bit healthy.

For instance, I have been psyched about seeing Captain America: The First Avenger for the past six months, and yet I know that no matter how much I can build it up in my mind, it will still fall short of how good I want it to be, because it would be humanly impossible to make a movie as good as the one in my mind — not the one that I’ve actually conceived, but the one I’ve conceived the possibility of existing. Will I still see it? You bet I will. That same tension haunts the decisions and tendencies of all who are grateful for the innovations God has allowed us to develop, but who also are cautious of the potential negatives associated with indulging in any form of entertainment or convenience.


“The digital age makes it very easy for us to look into the mirror and see someone completely different from the one perso who is actually looking back at us.” Is that what happened to Anthony Weiner?

If we’re speaking of mirrors, politicians and the digital age, it might be more appropriate to reference Chris “Craigslist” Lee. Seriously, though, the one significant difference between most of us and Chris Lee or Anthony Weiner or Charles Rangel or whoever is this: publicity. Many of the people who mock and scoff at these political figures have some kind of skeleton in their own closet that, if they were a public figure, would ruin them completely. And the mockers and scoffers don’t have the stock options to survive the public outrage. Heck, I’m not that public of a figure, but I’m still enough of a sinner to worry about what kind of smack talk of mine someone may have recorded during a thoughtless conversation. To employ the old quote, “The higher a baboon climbs, the brighter his rear end shines.” The digital age has made the upper rungs of the ladder more accessible than ever. It has made illusions of grandeur more sustainable than ever, and it has made the possibility of the hopes of the construction workers at the Tower of Babel more conceivable than ever.


“The Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ, truth himself, requires a modicum of silence from us in order to resound in our hearts. He is always speaking, but our escapism and vanity often drown out his quiet, persistent voice. And while some of the noise we face daily is imposed from without, we must become more aware of our own tendencies to impose a significant amount of such noise upon ourselves when we indulge ourselves in the lusts of the eyes.” Are you just talking about pornography here?

Funny you should bring that up! In St. John the Apostle’s classical distinctions between the lusts of a) the flesh, b) the eyes and c) the pride of life, I classified pornography not with the lusts of the eyes, but with the lusts of the flesh, because so often pornography is so very often accompanied by, shall we say, pursuits of fleshly pleasure.

Classically speaking, the lusts of the eyes are related to visual distraction or other forms of sensory distraction. Essentially, we’re talking about filling our heads with everything except that which is important. The lust of the eyes is what causes us to know more about royal weddings than papal encyclicals, because the former is the one on the magazine rack we see in the grocery aisle and the latter doesn’t have pictures in it.

The lust of the eyes is what causes endless channel surfing, rechecking of social-networking profiles, constant refreshing of Twitter feeds. Pornography is certainly noise, especially as far as men are concerned, and what a loud noise it is. For the adolescent male, not even confinement to a convent can isolate the temptation. But for everyone, regardless of age or sex, the desire to replace deeper questions of the nature of truth by occupying our minds with who is dating whom or what person just had plastic surgery or what dumb thing some famous person said can be an absolutely paralyzing thing when it comes to the possibility of a silent mind, which is a prerequisite for a fruitful life of prayer.