Yes, Paul concedes in his letter to the church at Corinth, it is true that, because of our freedom in Christ, everything is permissible, but that does not mean that everything is beneficial. Yes, “‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12; NIV). There is nothing inherently evil about the cell phone, nor about the myriad gadgets that it has spawned, but that does not mean that the proliferation of cell phones in our homes, churches, businesses, and schools is an absolute good. To the contrary, the almost total dominance of the cell phone in our society—both as a speaking and a texting device—has come with a high price tag . . . and not just in dollars.
I do not refer primarily to car accidents that have been caused by drivers talking or texting on their mobile phones. These are tragic, but they are balanced by the lives that have been saved due to the quicker access to emergency help that such phones afford.
No, I refer more broadly to the coarsening of manners and the increase in narcissism that heavy cell phone usage has both created and facilitated. We have all seen that look of repressed anger and quiet despair on the faces of those unfortunate people whose dinner partner has put them “on hold” while they “take” a call. We have all been to a concert or a play or a service where the ringing of a phone has broken the solemnity of the event, wrenching all in earshot out of the sacred moment into what Keats called “the rude wasting of old time.” We have all attained, in the most unlikely of public spaces, flashes of peaceful reflection, only to have them shattered by a pompous man or garrulous woman chattering away on their cell phone.
If the offenders in these scenarios were to be called to account for their behavior, they would all offer the same basic excuse: they had to take the call; it was “urgent.” And therein lies the essential (spiritual) danger of the cell phone. We live in an age that has lost not only its moral compass but its right ordering of values. With each year, we grow less and less able to distinguish between that which is important and that which is trivial, between the lasting and the ephemeral, the vital and the frivolous, the sacred and the secular.
If my wife, an RN, needs to receive medicine or equipment right way, she marks the order STAT (a medical term, derived from the Latin word for “immediately,” that implies a need for urgency). Cell phones have lured and deceived us into believing that every call, every text, every form of communication, is STAT—that it must be had (or, better, consumed) now. But the measure for that now is neither ethical nor philosophical nor theological. It is, instead, personal, subjective, and egocentric. I want it now, and so I will have it now—even if it corrupts rather than nurtures, degrades rather than edifies.
On June 8, 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian Orthodox critic of the Soviet Union, gave an address at Harvard titled “A World Split Apart.” In it, he praised our country for her many freedoms but took us to task for the invasive nature of our media. In American newspapers and on American television, he warned, we “witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: ‘everyone is entitled to know everything.’ But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”
We do not need it from the media, and we do not need it from our cell phones. Alas, whereas most Americans have the discipline to shut off their TVs now and then, most have lost the desire or ability to shut off their phones. After all, think how urgent that next call might be.