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Focus for the tech-distracted

In Living into Focus, Boers goes beyond easy escapism and takes a pastoral approach to technology.

Pretty much everyone agrees that our technology use can be unhealthy these days. Most of us have either ranted about someone else’s unhealthy tech habits or recognized some of our own, whether it’s mindless TV watching, constant tweeting, or texting while walking.

I usually agree with these observations, but get annoyed at what comes next. Sometimes people wax nostalgic for “the good old days” (usually conveniently located in their own heyday) when technology was apparently so much simpler.

Similarly, I get annoyed when people just say we should disconnect and eliminate as much tech as possible from our lives.

Both of these approaches seem like wishful thinking and easy escapism.

That’s why I liked Living into Focus by the Rev. Dr. Arthur Boers (Brazos Press, 2012). In this book, Boers can describe in detail how our society is obsessed with technology, by drawing out the historical context (clocks have replaced crucifixes on our walls) and noting the scary stats. (Almost two-thirds of North Americans spend more time on computers than with their spouses.)

But Boers brings something new to the table: a practical, pastoral approach that draws heavily on the work of philosopher Albert Borgmann. Boers offers spiritual approaches to these problems, most notably the idea of “focal practices.”

A focal practice is something that puts you in touch with a commanding presence, has an element of the unexpected, and points to a greater reality. Activities like hiking, gardening, and playing music with a group all have these qualities.

Focal practices take work but they mean putting good things at the “hearth” of your life. (“Focus” comes from the Latin word for “hearth.”) Technology can creep in to occupy this space or we can fill the hearth with activities that offer deeper satisfaction—time with family, walking, praying—and put technology in service of these goals.

One of my favourite points is when Boers suggests that Christians should be “eccentric,” having different centres than other people in society.

Another great thing about this book is that Boers manages to navigate this close-to-home topic in a cheerful, humble tone. He admits he’s played one too many computer games. He works in a real-life office where he has to deal with scads of email. He admits none of this is easy.

So I’d recommend Living into Focus as a good book to re-set your ideas about technology this fall.

What about you? Which books have influenced your use of technology?


Ali Symons

About Ali Symons

Ali formerly served as senior editor at the Anglican Church of Canada. Her work included writing news articles, producing multimedia pieces, and helping people figure out how to tell their stories. “Zoom in: I fix em dashes. Zoom out: I help share the Good News.”

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0 Responses to Focus for the tech-distracted

  1. I agree that this is important for each of us as individuals.  An over-focus on any activity is unhealthy; if one were to too much gardening to the detriment of relationships or time spent in other pursuits, that would also be a bad thing.

    And probably this isn’t the place to offer the following caveat, since everyone who’s reading this is obviously pretty plugged-in technologically speaking.

    I have too often heard some folks say that the church should unplug so as to be offering a different focus, and there I have to disagree.  The church needs to be present where people are, and an awful lot of people are online, in social media.  yes, each of us needs to strive for a balance, but withdrawing from social media is as irresponsible as withdrawing from our physical neighbourhoods, doing nothing but holding suppers for ourselves, and Bible studies for ourselves, and worship services for ourselves, and only reaching out into the community when we want them to spend their money on our fundraisers.

  2. Ali Symons

    Nicely put, Heather. I agree with you. I think that the idea of “focal practice” is a helpful tool for discerning whether something is a healthy habit–in our online lives or otherwise. Does it connect us with people? Make us aware of God’s presence? I would say that for sure, social media at its best can be this way.

    In my experience most of us could use more practice in discerning how, where, and why these online activities are good for us.

    Okay, I can’t resist–I have to share this piece you wrote a while back, where you make a great argument for how God is powerfully present in online interactions:

  3. Heather, perhaps I misunderstand you, but you do seem to be saying that the alternatives are participation in social media or utter loneliness. It ain’t so. Not by a long long.

  4. Kyle Norman

    I don’t think that is what heather was saying.  I think was saying that social media is so ingrained in life, that the church would do well to think about our own involvement.  Many universities no longer give out e-mail addresses to students, because it is assumed that a) they will already have their own, and b) they are on social media.

    Just as the church eventually recognized the benefits of webistes and e-mail, the church should recognize the benefits of social media.

    It’s all well and good to have the answer to peoples’ deepest longings and questions, but if we fail to communicate those answers effectively, then the fault does not lie with ‘them’; it lies with us.

  5. Matthew Griffin

    I think a significant section of Arthur Boers’ book is a checklist he shares for determining when tech is and isn’t appropriate.  He uses the helpful mnemonic of ALERTS, and points to:

    • Attention
    • Limits
    • Engagement
    • Relationships
    • Time
    • Space

    (See pp. 73–74 in the book for this list.)

    The questions he asks about each of these categories are instructive not just in terms of whether to use technology, but how to use it well.  It seems clear to me that the relationships enabled by social media, or principally lived out through them, are markedly different from relationships I live out in the parish I serve.  So how do I set limits, and pay attention to them?

  6. Ali – thanks for bringing this book to our attention.  Looks very interesting and I think I will get a copy.  In answer to the question posed at the end of your message – “Which books have influenced your use of technology?”  – I have recently finished reading a very helpful book titled web-empowered ministry – connecting with people through websites, social media and more.  I found it very helpful in providing great ideas and concepts for the ongoing development and focus of my congregation’s website and our use of social media as a way to reach out to the world beyond the front doors of our church.  I recommend it as a great resource for people both new and experienced in the field.

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