In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods (2001), the protagonist Shadow finds himself caught in the middle of an endless war between the gods of the Old World (ancient ones like Odin) and the gods of the New World (the gods of technology). The old gods are bitter that they have been forsaken by humanity for newer forms that don’t respect people’s inherent pull towards the transcendent. The deities of technology are trying their hardest to win Shadow over to their side.
Gaiman’s book paints a vivid picture of the influence technology has on modern life. Namely, it has the power to shape people’s behaviour and destiny in a way only the ‘old gods’ once possessed.
At one point in the novel (and a warning to potential readers: this novel contains explicit material), Shadow is watching TV in a hotel room when Lucy the goddess of television begins talking to him:
‘I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray . . . I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.’
‘You’re a god?’ said Shadow.
‘You could say that,’ she said.
We are only just beginning to wake up to the way in which technology affects us. It’s true that technological progress has improved many aspects of our world that previous generations languished under. That much is inarguable. But media has become a new sacred order that we dare not live without. With a 24-hour news cycle and social media in our pockets, this is more true now than it was when Gaiman wrote his novel 20 years ago.
Last year also illustrated for us the highs and lows of a life of connectivity. Technology provided a lifeline for isolated families and businesses, but it also seemed to encroach even further into our inner lives, making it harder to "switch off". Media has become so pervasive that we might think that unplugging from it involves burying our heads in the sand or running away from genuine goods that are offered to us.
In his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), American writer Rod Dreher argues that the ancient practice of monasticism has a lot to offer Christianity in this modern technocratic world. This is despite the fact that the monks, it is said, tried to escape the world and live holy lives by separating themselves from the complexities of life outside their cloister.
Dreher visited the famous Benedictine monastery in Norcia for his book and posed this problem to the monastery’s prior, Fr Cassian Folsom. ‘Does monasticism have anything to offer the real world?’ he asked. Fr Folsom said yes: ‘there’s not just a no; there’s a yes too . . . It’s both that we reject what is not life-giving, and that we build something new.’
Even though Benedictines live a quiet and cloistered life, their devotion to hospitality is unparalleled. St Benedict’s Rule outlined this very clearly: ‘Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ . . . In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received’ (§53). He even goes so far as to say that the monks should ‘Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who is received in their persons’ (§53). It is a rule that takes seriously Christ’s admonition, ‘What you did for the least of these you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)
Interestingly, Pope Francis spent time in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti discussing the effects of technology and media on the world at large. He begins by talking about the ‘illusion of communication’, about the way in which it seduces us into believing we have authentic interaction with other people when in truth, reality is slipping from us (§42). The essential elements of human communication are lost, physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells (§43). In other words, if communication is to be truly human, it must be an incarnate reality. It must be about presence. It must be about people.
At the time Dreher visited, the Guest Master was a monk named Br Ignatius who told him, ‘If your life is to seek Christ, this is it. You will find redemption in serving these guests, because Christ is coming in them.’
I wonder if this is the reason why Pope Benedict XVI referred to St Benedict’s Rule as a school in which we can learn a ‘true humanism’ – because at the heart of Christian humanism is the recognition that Christ is present, in a unique way, in the poor and needy and in the guest.
Maybe this is an area in which we can receive St Benedict’s Rule as a gift in our approach to technology. Even though we cannot abandon technology completely (and nor should we), Dreher notes that we can impose on ourselves a discipline similar to the Benedictine monks.
If you need to, go "off the grid" for a period of time. I did that recently and it worked wonders for my mental health. Otherwise, instituting regular technology-free periods could be a real answer to the problem technology poses to our lives. Instead of having our minds consumed by social and video media, this could be an opportunity for us to learn from the monastics and reclaim our ability to be present to people, to listen and to authentically communicate in a way that doesn’t obscure someone’s humanity; to learn how to receive someone as if we were receiving Christ Himself.
The monastics teach us that "unplugging" from the world is not simply about escaping its problems. It is about trying to solve them by building something new, something human, something that honours Christ in people. It is about rejecting what is not life-giving and investing in something that is.
Fiona Basile14 October 2021
Melbourne Catholic14 October 2021