“Can you say with confidence that technology is a servant to your needs rather than a silent taskmaster over you?”
Tricia McCary Rhodes has served in ministry for more than 35 years and is the author of several books. She and her husband, Joe, founded New Hope Church in San Diego. She is currently an affiliate professor of practical theology at Fuller Seminary.
Why did you embark on the journey to understand the impacts of technology on our brains and souls?
I became aware that even as a contemplative person, I was having increasing difficulty getting quiet and still. I also knew that this was a problem for many people. We knew something was wrong but didn’t know what to do about it. What I learned through my reading and research on the brain is that the neuropathways of our brain are reframed by the things we do over and over again. So as we interact with our devices throughout the day, our brains get wired to expect this kind of short experience, to be continually in motion. We need to retrain our brains in order to slow down and to contemplate. We do this through practices that strengthen our souls and our connection to God. The good news is that this is easier than we think through the soul exercises found throughout my book, all supported by research.
You describe biblical meditation in your book. How is this different from meditation in Eastern religions?
Eastern meditation instructs practitioners to empty their minds, to not think about anything. Biblical meditation is the opposite. We are to fill our mind with truth about God, His character, His ways. The Bible exhorts us to meditate and go deep with God. In our digital world, we are so trained to move quickly through content, skimming over a webpage and clicking around, that we have lost our ability to go deep. We need to train our brain to be able to meditate and this takes practice. Our training in meditation is focused on God’s Word, to spend time letting the truth go deeply into our souls.
Spiritual disciplines can seem inward or solitary. Tell us how they also enrich our interactions with others.
When we are focused on our digital interactions, we lose the ability to bring God’s presence and love into every situation we face, to live contemplatively in our daily lives. Now, when we are in public spaces or waiting situations, we are all focused on our digital devices. I have made a choice (it’s hard!) to not focus on my phone when I am in a waiting space—a line, doctor’s office, airport—but to be present to what God might want to do in and through me. This takes intentional practice.
What would you suggest to someone who wants to grow in these spiritual disciplines? Where should they start?
The first step is being aware of your current practices. Where are you a slave to your devices? How often do you check in on email, social media, or texts? First honestly assess where you are, then commit to start new habits to retrain your brain to slow down. For example, I suggest doing 15 minutes a day of slow reading. This can be hard at first, but even a few minutes is a good start. Then work your way to longer periods.
There are four different areas that are important to train our soul and grow spiritually: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. The most important thing is to start and commit to keep focusing on this each day, to train your brain to balance out the digital activity so central to our lives.