Logging Off Tech for the Forty Days of Lent

After almost unbridled optimism early on, educators have made a U-turn on using technology as a principal means of instruction. COVID-19 lockdowns, which moved many students to online schooling for nearly two years, reinforced this reversal in opinion among teachers and researchers alike. Many parents and psychologists agree.

Cautionary statements about technology’s use in education were issued in years past by the likes of Neil Postman, C. John Sommerville and Neal Gabler. Each, in his own way, warned that modern technology was lacking.[1] Literacy rates are down. Learning is increasingly a passive activity, blurring the line between entertainment and education. And, for all the time spent in front of electronic media devices (averaging nine hours a day for students of all ages), Western Hemisphere pupils score lower than their Eastern and Asian counterparts in mathematics, science and language acquisition. That’s just the academic side of the issue for the “screen generation.” The deleterious effects on social dynamics ranging from peer interaction to emotional intelligence and personal reflection have been catastrophic. Hope has been effaced. Alienation and suicide have reached epidemic proportions.

Technology, it turns out, has not been a panacea for educational woes, to say nothing about being the saving hope for humanity during a pandemic. With its usefulness also come limitations and harm.[2]

Take, for example, Christian discipleship. Is it possible to take a cyber approach to the season of Lent? It’s doubtful.

Forty days together

Lent is the traditional season in the liturgical calendar of 40 days (excluding Sundays, of course) before Easter. Stretching from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday’s Easter Vigil, it is a season of repentance and fasting. Despite attempts to spin the significance of the biblical number 40 into something wonderfully transformative (e.g., Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life), 40-day periods in the Bible always are associated with trials of temptation, affliction, fasting, repentance and suffering while entreating God for grace. One thinks of Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasting in the wilderness. One also thinks of global judgment for 40 days in Noah’s lifetime, as well as the first generation of Hebrews that experienced the Exodus, who also spent 40 years wandering and never entering the Promised Land. Lenten seasons — Moses and the Hebrews, Elijah and the Israelites, or Jesus and His “last Adam” temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–17) — were never exclusively about personal self-discovery. They have always been far more communal and corporate in the disciplines of repentance and entreaty. These were real, not virtual, experiences.

Maintaining continuity with the Old Testament and holding Jesus’ wilderness trial as the paragon for Lent, the church enters the season of Lent. Since the third century, entire congregations have embraced and participated in the drama of Lent that reaches its apogee on Good Friday when the Messiah was crucified for us and for our salvation, only to give way to corporate relief on Easter morning. Lent is a church affair. We repent together, we mourn together, we celebrate together. It is all decidedly low-tech: personal presence, Word, Sacraments, brotherly consolation, encouragement. Christians touch and eat together in physical space.

Technological dependence

Today, post-COVID, Lent suffers at the hands of a society driven deeper into technological dependence. For the past two years, Lent seems to have been reduced to a personal experience in a virtual environment. What was once a parish exercise, conducted in person, has become an individual experience, requiring your home Wi-Fi network. Demonstrating the trend is not only sparsely attended Lenten services (indeed, where there are such services), but also how we think about the world and how we’ve been habituated to life away from the assembled church. We’ve taken on the mindset that we’re all homebound parishioners now.

Without an event or story to form us (like the communal experience of journeying through Lent together en route to Good Friday and Easter), we must find our own story — which will likely be contrary to the kingdom Christ created and bequeathed to us. Facebook streaming is no substitute for the fellowship hall, to say nothing of the communion rail.

Likewise, for all of its admirable qualities, technology cannot facilitate corporate repentance. It was never intended to. Its genius has other applications. But given the way Christ built the church, there is no shortcut, no spiritual discipline app to get you quick results. True penitence and Christian devotion require difficult work, which is why, historically, the church met together more frequently during Lent than in any other season of the year; indeed, why the church year began with Lent, not Christmas. As members of the Body of Christ, our lives are intertwined, and we need the mutual support and encouragement one offers the other as we personally reflect on our sin and seek God’s mercy in Jesus the Son for relief.

It can render us uncomfortably vulnerable to admit our need, when we are used to cultivating our polished digital images and social media projections. But that’s what Lent is all about: exposing our needs before the Lord because we know our sin and guilt, and we live amidst a curse from which only He can deliver us.

Real-world community

In a virtual world whose social networks exclude and preclude, perhaps it’s time to once again considersomething decidedly low-tech: the church, where God’s Word and Sacraments foster identity and bond us together as the people of God, the people of the real world. Jesus habituated us within the church as the people of God. COVID-19 has habituated many of us in isolating practices, forging a dehumanizing contentment with a two-dimensional ecclesiology.

Let us move beyond surface-level fellowship to fellowships that are truly communal and galvanized by Communion. There’s no better time than Lent.

When technology divides, distorts and dilutes the people of God and their assemblies, then at least within the church we have to recognize that online streaming is perfectly ill-suited for building real world community, conversations and communing with God and one another. Put differently, today’s technology (as wonderful as it may be) is ill-suited to Lenten devotional life. That’s why, for Lent, you’re encouraged to give up internet spirituality and take up more time with the Lord who is present with and for His people in the disciplines and the services of Lententide.

[1] See Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985) and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993); Sommerville’s How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999); and Gabler’s Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (New York: Vintage, 2000).

[2] Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic (July/August 2008), followed by his monograph The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), has given rise to authors such as Maryanne Wolf, Mark Bauerlein, Thomas H. Benton and James Bowman.

Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

3 thoughts on “Logging Off Tech for the Forty Days of Lent”

  1. Without adjusting for different average IQ values of “Western Hemisphere pupils” versus “Eastern and Asian counterparts,” or considering the effects of implementing leftist Common Core methods in the classroom, the implication that modern technology is the cause of (and not just correlated with) lower literacy rates and lower academic scores is meaningless.

  2. RE: “Let us move beyond surface-level fellowship to fellowships that are truly communal and galvanized by Communion.”

    The thing is, Communion does not actually allow for very much interaction with one’s fellow parishioners.

    Videoconferencing technology has been key to maintaining a Bible study group in which I am involved. People who would not drive to meet in person cheerfully participate virtually. And having grown closer together through our virtual meetings over the past couple of years, we have recently been blessed by an opportunity to direct our energies outward to set up a home for refugees arriving in our area from another country. So in addition to the blessings that come through Bible study itself, working together to meet a need outside ourselves is a great way to further build community.

    “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:24-25 ESV)

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