Glass has many uses, most of them morally neutral. It helps us let in sunlight, sharpen our eyesight, see our reflections, and sip our beverages, among other commonplace conveniences. But glass has also enabled a series of social and technological revolutions that fuel increasing isolation from our neighbors and physical surroundings. Eric Jacobsen, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington, takes stock of these transformations in Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens. Writer Ashley Hales, author of Finding Holy in the Suburbs, spoke with Jacobsen about regaining a sense of place and rebuilding habits of embodied interaction—even during the present pandemic.
Can you describe the three “pieces of glass” and how they have contributed to isolating us from people and places?
Let me start with what I would have said before the onset of the pandemic.
I think we’re all fairly aware of the way that smartphones have changed our social interactions and trained us to look at our screens rather than each other’s faces. What I’m trying to do with this book is trace that pattern back to a couple earlier cultural developments that encouraged screen-mediated interaction above face-to-face interaction.
The first of these occurred around 70 years ago, not with the invention of the automobile but with the rise of a culture and an infrastructure in which you really needed to have an automobile to get from place to place. We treat each other differently when we’re driving our cars. You see another driver not as a human being but as a competitor. So the car windshield is the first piece of glass.
This led fairly quickly to the second piece of glass—the television screen—because when we designed a culture around driving everywhere, there were certain practices that went into decline. We weren’t as likely to walk around our neighborhoods and talk with our neighbors. And those neighbors weren’t on their front porches as often, ready to talk, because more homes were oriented toward the back rather than the street.
And so instead of interacting with our neighbors, we moved indoors and started watching television. From there, we started developing something akin to “relationships” with TV characters, which had a kind of corrosive effect on our souls. We would get our emotions wound up and drawn in by these characters, even though we didn’t enjoy real relationships with them. It can be voyeuristic. In some ways, it satisfies our need for human connection, but it also diminishes our impulse to go out and talk to actual people.
The car and the television dealt a one-two punch to our ability and our impulse to connect with one another. Now, there were gaps in this system. You’d still drive to the grocery store and end up talking to someone in line. Or you’d go pick up your kids from school and talk to the parents.
The effect of the smartphone—the third piece of glass—was to combine the worst elements of the first two pieces of glass. We’re really mean to each other on our phones. And we can also behave voyeuristically. We look at heartbreaking and heartwarming stories around the globe, and we ignore the more ordinary person standing two feet in front of us. I want to suggest some ways we might recover the desire and the art of human contact.
Screens can certainly isolate us. But in the current context of our quarantined lives, screen-based interaction is often the only option. How can we use screens for connection during this time?
As my own congregation has shifted into livestreaming services, I’ve been sort of imagining God laughing a bit. We’ve been surprised at our ability to make connections even in that disembodied way. The smartphone has offered an important means of connection. During our livestream, we’ve changed our standard greeting to a text message. I’ll say, “I want you to text someone from our church, ‘The peace of the Lord be with you.’”
So the phone can absolutely be a tool for good. But it really does depend on how I’m using it. If I use my phone to call elderly members of my church and ask how they’re doing, that’s reaching out to others in a helpful way. But it’s just as possible, of course, that I’ll pick up my phone and swipe left to the newsfeed before making that call. This has the tendency of furthering self-isolation; I become wrapped up in a sense of panic, of everything falling apart.
Our phones can be used in so many ways. As Christians, we need to be more nuanced in how we think about its purposes—and more aware of the values and characteristics God is trying to build in us.
You write about the difference between space and place. How does the Bible help us understand that distinction?
When we make a space our own, it becomes a place. The best picture of that is a dorm room before you move in. There’s a bed and a dresser. There’s a desk and blank walls. Nothing’s happened there yet.
But a student living there for a couple of months quickly makes it a place. You put a picture of your girlfriend on the desk. You buy a lamp at Target. You put posters up on the walls. You put up a memo board and write something. You’ve made it a place by inscribing it with your stories. Place is really important to identity formation as humans. It’s important to a sense of flourishing—you can’t live in a hotel room forever.
Banishment from place has always been a consequence of the curse of sin. When Adam and Eve sin, they’re banished from the Garden of Eden. When Cain kills Abel, he’s sent away. The goal of God’s redemptive plan is a particular place: the New Jerusalem, where Christ will reign.
This doesn’t mean God can’t use mere spaces. The wilderness is a kind of space. The Israelites spent time in the wilderness, as did John the Baptist and even Jesus himself. These spaces can be useful for when God needs to speak to us and cleanse our wayward hearts. Right now, as we’re enduring a period of forced isolation, I hope we can receive it as something of a wilderness moment, where we commune with God on a deeper level. Yet we’re always being called back to place.
One of the things we need most right now is to recover a sense of place. How do we connect with one another and build strong relationships? Most of us are aware of loneliness being a problem in modern society. But it’s not simply relational loneliness that leaves us feeling alienated. It’s displacement as well. There’s so much you can do from your home, even in the midst of a pandemic: order groceries, watch every season of any show. It’s all very convenient. But it does lead to a sense of feeling disconnected from the broader community, which only feeds into loneliness.
How do you see an era of social distancing shaping our understanding of place as a theological category?
With everyone taking something of a break from “place” right now, I’m giving myself permission to think about synchronizing time, which is another important factor right now. I’m a big advocate of being together in the same place. But right now, I’m really trying to encourage people to at least try and worship at the same time—even when they have the option of watching a recording later.
I would hope that if we can do this successfully, the longer-term outcome would be a greater desire to be a church in a particular place. We really want to focus on the gathered experience of worshipping together on Sunday morning. But the reality of our culture is that other things compete for that attention. There are youth soccer games on Sunday mornings. There are families traveling. There are shut-ins who can’t come to church, even without the coronavirus. I hope that the idea of synchronizing our time can persist after the virus passes, so that even if you’re physically away from the Sunday morning gathering, you still make it a point to tune into the livestream as it happens.
I don’t believe that virtual relationships are ultimately satisfying. But if a virtual relationship is tethered to a real, embodied relationship, then virtual connection can enhance the relationship rather than diminish it. I hope that when we get back to really being a place-based, embodied congregation, some of that practice that we’ve had being apart will enrich us.
Looking forward to a time after the pandemic subsides, what steps can we take to help repair the damage that screen-centered living has done to our relationships with neighbors and our sense of place?
If we can get through this pandemic and all its restrictions, I think it might remind us of how important it is to have face-to-face connection with one another—and how that’s not fully replaceable through electronic connection.
When things return to normal, or some semblance of normal, one of my hopes is that we’ll make an effort to rebuild our lives more carefully and avoid just filling them with junk and distraction. Maybe we’ll even notice that we appreciated some aspects of the slower pace and realize we want to preserve them. This pandemic has unmasked so many of our idols—so many things we’ve leaned on for our comfort, for distraction. As these idols get stripped away, it really leaves us asking what else there is to stand on. Have we built a more durable foundation?
One defining feature of our modern culture is that it’s allowed us to access different foods, products, and experiences from faraway places. I would hope that we’ll rebuild our lives, to a greater degree, on activities that take place on a more local basis. And I hope that Christians will try to connect not just with other Christians but also with other folks who live nearby, so that together they might create some local traditions.
Thinking about our means of transportation is a really important part of this. Our culture is built around driving everywhere. And for a lot of people, that really is the only option. But walking or riding a bike, where possible, is a great way to stay grounded in the particular features—geographic and otherwise—of the places where we live. It isn’t just for exercise.
I have the luxury of living only about three-quarters of a mile from my workplace, so I commute there primarily by bike. And my experience of commuting is so different from people who drive. I’m aware, for instance, of little hills along this stretch that are easy for drivers to overlook. I notice the coming of spring in different ways because I can see the buds on the trees and smell the flowers blooming. Thinking about how we get from place to place can really help anchor us to our communities.
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