Break Out of the Box: Technology and Prayer

R. Jared Staudt



Smash the TV!  John Senior provides this bold directive in his book,  The Restoration of Christian Culture. “Smash the television set. The Catholic Church is not opposed to violence; only to unjust violence; so smash the television set” (22). I’ve taught this text numerous times to students and most immediately recoil and claim that this advice is too harsh and over the top. Even if some should smash their TV, Senior’s statement is at least a call to question the control that technology has over our lives. Do you need to smash media’s dominance?

In particular, Senior argues that TV has

two principal defects . . . its radical passivity, physical and imaginative, and its distortion of reality. Watching it, we fail to exercise the eye, selecting and focusing on detail–what poets call “noticing” things; neither do we exercise imagination as must in reading metaphor where you actively leap to the “third thing” in juxtaposed images, picking out similarities and differences, a skill which Aristotle   says is a chief sing of intelligence. . . . There is nothing on the television which is not filtered through the secular establishment.

Senior’s answer is to sit around the fire as a family, singing good music and reading good literature. Rather than experiencing reality through an isolate filter, he wants us to experience it directly, especially within the context of the home. TV intrudes on family life and fundamentally changes it.

The main thrust of Senior’s argument is that technology is not neutral, but its use shapes and molds us. This same claim has been presented by Neil Postman, in his bookTechnopolgy, where he argues that “the uses made of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself–that is, that its functions follow from its form.” We have surrounded ourselves with a host of media technology–not only TV, but mobile phones, constant music, and especially the internet–to the point of saturation: “When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures” (72).

Postman was writing before the heyday of the internet, but Nicholas Carr picks up where he left off in  The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr convincingly argues that the internet is literally changing the way our brains work. It overwhelms us with images and short bits of text, which makes it harder for us to concentrate and to think deeply. He makes the point that “we become, neurologically, what we think” (33). In terms of the internet, “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (116). The internet is changing us!

I’m actually amazed at how many people tell me that technology is neutral. The argument is that nothing has to be used a certain way; it’s only the use that is not neutral. And yet, when we look all around we see clearly that technology has not been neutral it has shaped us and formed to live, act, and think a certain way.

The closest to the teaching of the Church on this matter that I have found is from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (under the direction of then Cardinal Ratzinger) document “Donum Vitae,” which states: “It would . . . be illusory to claim that scientific research and its applications are morally neutral.” This, of course, is speaking about reproductive technology, but the underlying thought is the same: when we introduce a new technology, it will shape and alter us, which in itself is not neutral.

However, I think the real problem with technology concerns time, specifically how we order and shape it. St. Paul says that we need to redeem or sanctify the hours (Eph 5:16). If we allow technology to dominate our schedule than we are not sanctifying the time, but allowing it to be dominated by an outside force. This technological force influences the way we think and act, and also concretely shapes our day.

We need to respond to the dominance of technology, by ordering and shaping our lives through prayer. This means that we need to intentionally unplug every day and enter into a period of silence, and more importantly a time of conversation with God. If TV breaks up the life of the family in the home, then the barrage of media breaks up the peaceful relationship we are meant to have throughout the day with God.

When we think of what media is doing to our brains, we can make the connection that making our minds more shallow directly impacts our ability to pray. If media technology gives us a short attention span and makes it difficult to contemplate deeply in a sustained fashion, then it strikes right at the heart of what is needed for Christian meditation. When it is time for prayer, we will quickly get bored and out thoughts will jump from topic to topic?

Turning back to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (once again under Ratzinger), its document “On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation” recognizes this challenge: Many Christians today have a keen desire to learn how to experience a deeper and authentic prayer life despite the not inconsiderable difficulties which modern culture places in the way of the need for silence, recollection and meditation. . . .   The spiritual restlessness arising from a life subjected to the driving pace of a technologically advanced society also brings a certain number of Christians to seek in these methods of prayer a path to interior peace and psychic balance” (1; 2).

The CDF specifically acknowledges  lectio divina  as a form of prayer that comes from God’s revelation, drawing upon God’s own words and entering into a conversation with Him: “This is why the Church recommends the reading of the Word of God as a source of Christian prayer, and at the same time exhorts all to discover the deep meaning of Sacred Scripture through prayer ‘so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For, “we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles”’ (Dei Verbum, 25)” (6).

We may not want to take up John Senior’s advice to smash the TV, but we at least need to question the role of technology in our life. We need to make sure that prayer, more than technology, shapes and orders our time. We need to make room for silence and meditation. If we don’t smash the box, then in order to enable our mind’s to be free for prayer, let us at least break out of the box!

Credit to R. Jared Staudt of CatholicExchange.


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