A good way to get the side-eye these days is to pull out your phone at the theater. If it beeps or rings, people will shake their heads. If the soft glow of the small screen proves too irresistible, moviegoers will silently judge your inability to focus for a couple of hours on the massive screen in front of you.
The point of choosing the cinema over the laptop or your streaming video service at home is the chance to enter a world without distraction. That’s the magic of the theater. Only there is it possible to experience a film at such a level of intensity. To get the most out of a movie, you devote your full attention.
Theater of Resistance
In a review of last summer’s blockbuster Dune, Samuel James makes the case for the theater as a place of resistance to the colonization of the phone into every sphere of life. He writes,
“It’s important to understand just how rare physical spaces that cultivate serious focus and attentiveness are becoming. . . . In a world where mental overload and constant distraction are accepted as given and even promoted as ‘productive,’ the cinema stands almost alone as an institution of resistance, an assembly where people are taught early and often that it can be a virtue to not know everything that’s ‘going on’ outside and to lose oneself in something transcendent.”
The irony in Samuel’s take is that the cinema remains a digital experience. It’s the exchange of one screen for another. You commit your attention to the marvels presented digitally in front of you instead of the digital device in your pocket.
But I’m struck by his comment that the cinema stands “almost alone” as an institution of resistance. It’s one of the last places where we hop out of the world of constant news stories and lose ourselves in something “transcendent.”
Should these words not also describe the church? Does the church stand next to the cinema as a counterspace to the dominant digital culture?
Cinemas and Churches
On one level, the comparison doesn’t work. Churches may have screens, but the point isn’t supposed to be the “show”—whether it be the worship team or the preacher. Yes, churches are often designed with a resemblance to theaters (and we can discuss and debate what church architecture communicates), but no matter what your church looks like on the inside, the goal isn’t entertainment—the feeling of escape into an imaginative world of transcendence.
No, the transcendence of a Christian worship service is not an escape from the real world, but the entry into a realer world than what we’ve seen all week. It’s here that we brush up against heavenly realities. It’s here we’re confronted with time-tested truth. As we hear the Word of God preached and as we approach the Lord’s Table, we’re ushered toward a thin space where we encounter the One who summons us to worship and promises his presence.
What role does the phone play in this environment? Yes, you can read your Bible on your phone as the pastor begins the sermon. You can send a text of encouragement to a fellow believer. You can take notes on your phone for reference later. But the pull of the phone toward multitasking—that urge to check Twitter or Instagram, or scroll past the incessant notifications that still arrive even when your phone is silenced—makes it nearly impossible to give undivided attention to God.
In her book Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age, Felicia Wu Song describes well the psychological impact of our constant connection online:
“When the mobile, social and infinitely novel aspects of the contemporary digital experience are mixed together, the result is a psychological cocktail of pleasures, anxieties, and felt expectations.” (21–22)
Pleasures—the dopamine rush we get from news and updates or leveling up in our games.
Anxieties—the ever-filling inbox or the images of others that haunt our happiness and make us question our worth.
Felt expectations—the need to be always “on” and “available,” as if our jobs are in jeopardy if we cannot be reached, or the desire to prove ourselves in a myriad of ways.
Case for Total Abstinence
What would it look like if our churches set the cultural expectation of total abstinence from the phone’s “psychological cocktail”? What if we saw our sanctuaries as places of refuge from such distraction, a “counterspace,” or as Song puts it, a “counterliturgy”?
“The church itself needs to wholly embrace the radical witness of being embodied and embedded with presence in a digitally saturated world.”
At church, our most precious gift is our presence. Being there—physically—encourages others. Focusing our attention on God and his Word refreshes our souls. And if we find it natural to silence our phones at the theater so we can maximize our focus on a movie’s storyline, why would we treat less seriously the true Story of our world, as it’s rehearsed every week through the rhythms of worship in our congregation?
What if we set a new expectation? To silence our phones and put away our devices. Better yet, to leave them in the car. To make a statement to ourselves and to the world around us that for the next hour, we’re unavailable. That our worth and value and happiness don’t depend on proving ourselves at work or through constant connection. Surely we can refrain for an hour from “checking in.” We can give undivided attention to our Creator and Redeemer and to the gospel, described by J. I. Packer as “the biggest thing that ever was.”
The cinema shouldn’t stand alone as a place for contemplation and attention. The church should stand right along with it.
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