By Rev. Dr. Jason Coker, originally penned for the Baptist News Global publication
Baptists are well known for our belief in the priesthood of all believers. This is a deep seated conviction that individuals do not need another person to intervene between the human and divine. Every human has the capacity and responsibility to connect to God directly and is free to do so (or not). Priests, therefore, are not essential for the individual or to the community because we all have full access to God through Jesus Christ. There is no human intermediary between other humans and God.
Soul freedom is a cornerstone to Baptist life. I say this with fear and trembling since I’m not a Baptist history scholar like Bill Leonard or Curtis Freeman, but I remind my Baptist sisters and brothers of the cornerstone of soul freedom to point out an interesting modern dilemma.
Technology, primarily mobile devices, has become our high tech priests. Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not your standard old curmudgeon. (I don’t think.) I use my mobile device like most other human beings living in the modern world. Honestly, I don’t really know how to function without my phone. I made the mistake of taking my oldest kid to his soccer game one time and forgot to get my phone — I know this sounds crazy just to say that I forgot my phone — and I had to watch his entire game without interruption and I even started to talk to some of the other parents beside me on the sidelines. It was halftime before the uneasiness of not having my phone subsided. While our mobile devices connect us in unprecedented ways to the rest of the world, they also have a knack for disconnecting us from our immediate context.
Do you ever make fun of close friends or family for playing on their mobile devices too much? My wife and I shame each other over mobile devices all the time — it’s the way we love each other. If I see her on her phone when our family is together, I’ll text her and ask how she is doing — even if I’m standing right beside her. She always looks up and rolls her eyes. When I’m doing the same thing, that is, not paying attention to my family who is right in front of me, she may ask, “How’s all your ‘real” friends, Jason? How’s your ‘community?’” These are ways we poke fun at each other, but they are also reminders that there are actual people in front of us who deserve our attention and presence.
In this way, technology becomes an intermediary between us and other human beings. The analogy is loose, but it has become a way for me to think about my mobile device. It certainly doesn’t mediate my relationship with God in the way priests function, but I certainly have my Bible and devotional apps on my mobile. It’s not the mediating factor between the human and divine that makes phones like high priests, it’s the mediating factor between human beings that turn phones into “priests.” I’m not so sure it’s good. In fact, I think it’s one part of the overall loss of civil discourse in our country.
When we post things to digital media, we may be responding to others, but these others are not human beings that are standing in front of us. We tend to be responding to pictures and memes and political posts rather than real people who are on the other side of our phone. We engage through the intermediary that is our mobile device, our personal high tech priest. We are one step away from our interlocutors and in this way they are somewhat less human. They are just sound bites on our phones.
In this way we are doubly removed. We are removed from our immediate context because we are so raptured by our mobile devices that put us in conversations with others who are not in front of us, and simultaneously we are physically removed from the people with whom we are engaging on our mobile device — people who are represented by “posts.” So we are disengaged with the real human beings who are in front of us and not truly engaged with our online interlocutors because they are not really in front of us. Our high tech priest, in the end, doesn’t connect us to anything but our mobile devices.
But mobile phones are not our problem! Mobile phones are in the same category as alcohol. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a mobile phone, and there is nothing wrong with using a mobile phone (unless you are driving). Technology is a fact of the world in which we live and to refuse to use it is to refuse to engage in our culture. The question continues to be, what are the rules of engagement with our gadgets? Better yet, how do we seriously think about technology and the potential dehumanizing effects it has on our own psyche and our culture? How do we use technology in ways that give life rather than take life away?
As divided as our country is right now during this election season, it may be good for all of us to unplug for a moment or two and reevaluate our relationship with our high tech priest. Does this technological intermediary prevent us from getting to know real people? If technology reduces others to sound bites, might we be missing something — something like the complexity that exists in all of us? In other words, there may be more to a person than their unrestrained rant against Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump, and we may miss all these other really good characteristics if we reduce them to these sound bites. It takes real discipline and focus to wade through our technological connections and find the person on the other side while remembering the people who are right in front of your face.