I may have genuinely scared someone. It came up in conversation the other day that I do not have a television and the look of shock on his face could not have been more if I told him I was a cannibal. It’s not something I broadcast much, but neither is it something I hide.
It started years ago, in varying degrees, and has been consistent for at least the last 12 years or so. Our early motivation was time. Television took away time that we could spend on other things, like playing with or reading to our kids. Watching television took away our kids’ time to do other things as well.
With distance comes perspective. Over the years, we realized that with no longer watching television, we were no longer being programed by it. Our ideas and attitudes were no longer being shaped by those who wished to exploit us for their own financial (and ideological) gain.
This same impulse now leads us to question our online world. We have reduced our social media consumption and we don’t use television alternatives such as Hulu or Netflix. The internet is better, and worse, than television. The wisdom of the ages and unfiltered depravity are both but a few keystrokes away.
I could not have put the words to it all those years ago, but it is a monastic impulse. A desire to restrict input in order to focus more on God. We only have so much time and attention to give. Just like the livestock of a farmer, our time is a limited commodity, and as the Scriptures teach us, the best of our flocks and fields should be dedicated to the Lord.
Those who look at monasticism as an escape from reality understand neither reality or monasticism. Those who pursue it as a retreat from the world are soon disappointed. Having to deal with the reality of your own sin without distractions is not for those seeking an easier experience.
I learned this lesson involuntarily the summer between high school and college. I had sin to deal with and decisions to make and I was working in a factory. Much of the time there was the din of the top-40 radio station to keep me from my thoughts, but often enough I was running one particular machine that was noisy enough to drown it out. It was boring to operate. Stack the pieces and wait while the machine welded them together.
Working on that machine was my first experience of sustained self-reflection. Alone and surrounded by the white noise of the machine, I had nothing but my thoughts. It was not easy. I had made many poor choices in high school and I knew the extent of my sin. My life was on the brink of significant change, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to take the leap.
In retrospect, it was a healing time for me. Not as much as it could have been if I had had some guidance on prayer for such times, but in his grace, God used it. By the end of the summer, I was ready for a new start. I had taken the time to consider where I had been and what I had done.
Such reflection does not occur in front of a screen. Even the pages of a book can be a hinderance. There is nothing magical about the printed page; there is as much garbage available there as on television. The one advantage of paper is that if your mind wanders off, the page waits and doesn’t try to pull you back in. There is no flicker, flash, and noise.
To live this way—switched off—in our culture is subversive. It goes against the prevailing modes of existence and challenges the assumptions of the mass. Seeking to follow God has always cut across the grain of society and power. May we embrace the call to be set apart.
You shall have no other gods before me.
Exodus 20:3 (ESV)