April 30, 2021

The digital stuff

The digital stuff

This week I've got a lot on my plate with the end of the semester, so I'm doing an introduction to the idea of digital literacy. I've been meaning to put this episode together for a long time and now is the perfect time. I'm making an argument about why we need to pull the curtain back on what digital tools do to us and for us. God bless you this week!

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Be good and do good.


In this episode we talk about learning the digital stuff.

Welcome to Balancing the Christian Life. I’m Dr. Kenny Embry. We’ll talk about how to be better Christians and people in the digital age. Let’s go.

“So how many of you subscribe to cable?” I’m in my intro to communication class and I’ve asked this question for about ten years. This year one hand goes up. 

“So you pay monthly for cable?” 

“Oh, no. My parents do, but I don’t watch it.” 

“Oh, okay. What do you watch?”


I’ve asked this question so many times, the fact that one hand goes up is now the surprise. Twelve years ago, I approached my wife about dropping cable to help cut costs when we got pregnant with our third child. She was game, but reluctant. Two months in, we wondered why we hadn’t dropped cable years before. And now, we can’t imagine any reason we would go back. Just like we would never consider getting a land line telephone or how we try to avoid the guy at Sam’s Club who promises he can cut our cable bill in half before he realizes that he can’t beat zero. 

I’ve talked several times about the use of digital tools to help talk to our neighbors about Christianity, but even as I introduce the idea, I know I’m talking to skeptics. It would be easy to say the biggest predictor of reluctance to digital tools would be age, but you’d be wrong. One of the trends I see clearly happening is a shift toward digital books, yet if you tried to convince my 19-year-old students in my class to go to an ebook, you’d likely face a mutiny. They love paper. I mean you’d expect people their age to embrace everything electronic, but they don’t. I ask these same dead tree loving students if they believe their children will have the fondness for paper books and none of them think they will. I’m unsure, but I tend to agree with them. I mean, you probably have a love affair with paper as well. Can you imagine a time when you won’t be handing down the family Bible but the family Bible computer file? Me neither.

I also remember the promise of the paperless office. But this week my wife and I got not one but two boxes of ten reams of paper. That’s 10,000 sheets of paper we’ll probably use in the space of a year or two to print up worksheets, podcast scripts, discount codes and a thousand other things we shouldn’t need any paper for. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent something to the printer only to discover a typo on page 3, so I reprint the whole thing again before the first has time to finish printing. Paperless office? Yeah right. But we see the change coming, don’t we? I see it pretty clearly, but I couldn’t give you the date. There’s something we have to get past, though, and I’m not sure it’s based on age. 

Even if we say we are excited about the promise of digital tools, and I am, there are still parts of us that rankle at the idea of going purely digital. We all have the horror story of having our identity stolen or how silly it is to watch your neighbors get excited about telling a light to turn off when a light switch does the same thing. Not all innovation makes things simpler, and there’s something comforting about things we grew up with.I mean I figured out the light switch before I could utter my first word.

Yet, as I said, there are some obvious trends about what’s happening around us we simply can’t argue. I mean when was the last time you actually used or wanted the Yellow pages? Do you even know who the national anchor for the CBS evening news is? When was the last time you had to wait for a song to play on the radio so you could hear it? The media landscape has changed pretty radically. I remember being told smart people read the newspaper every day. Now, exactly who gets one?

But as the technology landscape shifts, there are many who are eagerly embracing the changes without understanding the dangers, and there’s another group actively avoiding the changes and missing all the advantages. 

The idea of figuring out what you should know or appreciate as you use the technology is being called digital literacy. I teach a class called exactly that, and I’ve seen it become pretty important. And as Christians begin grappling with the technology which is becoming unavoidable, it may be helpful to think about how we can use the technology instead of being used by technology.

I’ll be drawing from a lot of people who have thought well about this. Howard Rheingold is a guy who comes to mind and I like his stuff a lot. He’s a feisty character who’s very active on Twitter and has written several books on this. But I can think of several other smart people who have informed what I’m going to tell you like Nick Carr, Clay Shirky, Sherry Turkle and Joe Walther. Yeah, these names mean nothing to you, but I just want you to know that many of the thoughts I’m going to be giving you aren’t from me. Good work has already been done to define the landscape.

Let me tell you a little about the digital literacies I plan to cover. 

First, we’ll discuss the importance of attention and how content creators and algorithms try to keep you captivated by things like earbuds, kamado grills or whatever other search term you recently used. There’s a lot of profit in keeping your eyes and ears glued to the nugget of an idea you did a quick Google search about because you wondered about how we got the word knucklehead or what the different types of ukuleles there are. 

Second, how can you tell if what you’re reading is accurate, important and worth your time? We have all heard horror stories about fake news and Internet rumors. But you also know much of the information we get on the Internet is pretty accurate. How do we sort through the trash to find the treasure?

Third, how can you and should you manage your identity and reputation in online environments. When you do the Google search on your name, my guess is you find some stuff that’s accurate, some that’s not, and some that isn’t even you. There’s value to taking charge of what you’re putting out into the world about yourself, or your identity. But there’s also a real opportunity to see what other people think about you.

Fourth, how can you make sense of what’s going on around an online article, a Tweet, a posting or something else you’ve recently seen? I’ve said several times one of the casualties of online communication is context. I mean, there’s so much opinion passed off as fact, so many half-baked ideas, mood swings, and just stuff. This is a conversation about perception, the expiration date of some ideas, and how to look at what someone writes or makes a video and put it in a better context.

Fifth, how can you be a part of these online conversations and make them better because of your participation? In other words, how do you make good relationships online? This is where I’m leaning pretty heavily on Joe Walther. Relationships are pretty tricky when everyone is trying their best to be good. Now take a medium where it’s pretty easy to misunderstand what others are saying, what intention they have, they may have a misunderstanding of your beliefs, they may read an inaccurate story about you, and suddenly you’re toast. But ti doesn’t have to be that way. How do you make good relationships online?

Sixth, how can you safely and helpfully create a group of people who try to make things better? One of the values of online communication is the elimination of distance and time as problems. When you don’t have to rent the conference room at the Holiday Inn, get everyone to travel to a central location, you’ve actually got a lot of flexibility in how you pull people together to form a community that helps each other.

And finally, if you pull together a community of like-minded Christians, how do you pull them together to make something they couldn’t do by themselves? You only have to look at a few articles to see whole movements which were created in a matter of hours to demonstrate, to collect funds, to change something they wanted to see change. What used to take months or years of meetings can now be done in a fraction of that time. 

But Kenny, how is this a spiritual topic? I hope I’ve telegraphed this throughout the series and even in this episode. Christians need to communicate with each other, with God, and with a world who needs Jesus. The new tools aren’t going away, they have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they also shape who we are in profound ways. If you choose to ignore how technology changes you, it’s not going to stop the transformation, you’re just going to be oblivious to it. With apologies to The Matrix, I think Christians need to have a serious red pill moment where they pull back the curtain to not only see the dangers, but to see what’s possible. Look, I know many of the disadvantages and I’m an optimist. I think you can be, too.

I plan to have several episodes about this, but I don’t plan to have this go straight through. In other words, I still love the interviews, and I still have a few I need to produce. So, for example, next week, I plan to release an interview with my good buddy Paul Gavin about being an introverted Christian. Paul has an enthusiasm about everything, but particularly Christianity, and I can’t wait for you to meet him. And I also have an amazing interview with Ginger Hubbard who has her own podcast. She talks about dealing with a rebellious teen from her perspective of being one. There’s also a wrinkle in her story I think every Christian should hear. It falls into that idea of being wonderfully broken I first talked about with Matt Bassford in episode 38. But in between those interviews, I plan to release an episode about harnessing our attention. If you’re interested in seeing my plan to release these episodes, please leave your email address at balancingthechristianlife.com and I’ll send you the plan.

I’d also like to include a segment where I just talk about something that’s good. In episode 45, I read the book of Philippians to you, and I must say the end of that book resonates with me every time I read it. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable. Yes, that’s a part of the fourth chapter.

Well, the good thing I’ve been thinking about lately is a television series I’ve been watching with my wife. I’ve had several friends who have told me I need to watch The Chosen which tells the story about the life and ministry of Jesus. It takes some creative liberties, but I’d say it stays pretty true to both the spirit and letter of the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life. For example, it creates an entire back story around Peter and why he desperately needed a huge haul of fish. It also focuses on Nicodemus for the first few episodes. The acting is really good, which I can’t say for most other Christian dramas. They’ve also fleshed out the characters of the apostles and Jesus. For example, Jesus has a sense of humor, the apostles are all pretty young, which makes sense if you stop and think about it. It helps if you know the Biblical stories beforehand, but what I’ve been able to watch so far has been pretty accurate. It’s helped me think about Jesus as more than a character in a book, but a person. 

If you want to watch it, you’ll need to start by downloading The Chosen app from your phone’s app store and following their directions. It’s not hard, but it’s more complicated.

Finally, if you’ve gotten any value out of these episodes, do me a favor and share them with a friend.

So until next week, let’s be good and do good.