Alot has changed since the 1980s. From Members Only jackets to fingerless gloves to parachute pants, things are quite different (Stranger Things notwithstanding). In her recent book iGen, Jean Twenge discusses the primary way teens found freedom and love in the 1980s: through the almighty driver’s license. Perhaps the most iconic embodiment of her assertion is the 1988 Corey Haim and Corey Feldman movie Licensed to Drive. Haim’s character fails his driving test but takes his dad’s car out for the night anyway:
Feldman’s character delivers a rousing speech about the greater meaning of getting a driver’s license and what it means for one’s dating life and independence. He says, “You’ve had to stand and watch as all the pretty girls drove off in some older jerk’s car. Humiliation—I know, I’ve been through it,” he says. “But that’s all over now. That thing in your wallet that’s no ordinary piece of paper. That is a driver’s license. … It’s a license to live, a license to be free, to go wherever, whenever, and with whomever you choose!” Of course, as he talks, patriotic music plays in the background, and he stands tall with pride. (p. 27)
Twenge posits through data and research that teenagers today are working less, spending less time on homework, going out less, and drinking less. What are they doing? Where are they looking for freedom and love? Well, you probably already know the answer: They are on their phones.
Twenge is not asserting a controversial point here; most parents can confirm it and do not need to read a book by a personality psychologist for evidence. Twenge realizes this, and cites a recent article from The Washington Post that profiled what a 13-year old girl named Katherine does on her iPhone during a 12-minute drive home from school.
“Her thumb [is] on Instagram. A Barbara Walters meme is on the screen. She scrolls, and another meme appears. Then another meme, and she closes the app. She opens BuzzFeed. There’s a story about Florida Gov. Rick Scott, which she scrolls past to get to a story about Janet Jackson, then ‘28 Things You’ll Understand If You’re Both British and American.’ She closes it. She opens Instagram. She opens the NBA app. She shuts the screen off. She turns it back on. She opens Spotify. Opens Fitbit. She has 7,427 steps. Opens Instagram again. Opens Snapchat. She watches a sparkly rainbow flow from her friend’s mouth. She watches a YouTube star make pouty faces at the camera. She watches a tutorial on nail art. She feels the bump of the driveway and looks up. They’re home.” (pp. 55-56)
This is astounding, and yet it is the norm experienced by so many parents who watch their children carried along by this techno-wave. Freedom and love, all right there, at the tip of Katherine’s fingers, and ours. We have followers; we are liked by them; we’ve got Netflix, news, and Jimmy Kimmel. Who needs a driver’s license? What is the point of a stick shift when your thumb can take you anywhere? We have all the freedom and love we could ever want right at the tip of our finger. Or do we? Are we more free? Are we more loving and loved?
The Church in Philippi was the first church community Paul started in Eastern Europe, a story laid out in Acts 16. Philippi was a Roman colony full of soldiers and nationalism in ancient Macedonia. Paul faced resistance as he announced Jesus as the true king of the entire World (a threat to Caesar, to be sure). After Paul moved on from Philippi, those who became Christians continued to suffer resistance and even persecution, but they remained faithful to the model of discipleship Paul embodied and proclaimed while among them.
Paul sent this letter during one of his many imprisonments, and for a very practical reason: the Philippians had sent one of their members, Epaphroditus, to take a financial gift to Paul. In those days, prisons did not provide food and care for inmates. It was instead up to friends and family to maintain provisions, and inmates often died in prison before trial. Paul sent this letter back with Epaphroditus to thank the Philippians for their attentive care, but also to ground them in freedom and love grounded in Christ.
The letter centers on the poem in 2:6-11, an early church hymn about Christ’s incarnation, and how he came as a servant, or a slave, in order to protect us. It is his nature. The God who has ultimate freedom, and who is ultimate love, was incarnated into our great need.
When true freedom expresses itself in true love, it looks like the incarnation of Jesus. This is Paul’s clarion call. For the rest of his letter, Paul calls on the Philippians to see their story in light of and even taken up into Christ’s story, such that Jesus’ mode of living becomes their own, even amid their suffering and persecution.
Paul drills this teaching down into the Philippians by calling them to “live in a manner worthy of [this] gospel of Christ” (1:27). To do so is to share in the sufferings of Christ, and thereby to share in the freedom and love of Christ. Remember, Paul is writing this from prison and he knows this truth experientially.
The implications of Paul’s teaching pose a challenge to us and our children, as we are increasingly living “excarnated” or “defleshed” lives. Our lives are extracted from social and human interaction, and it is mostly our children’s health and vitality that is being mortgaged away. Twenge argues in iGen that while our kids might have more freedom and love at their fingertips, they are ultimately less happy and less prepared for adulthood.
It is not just their problem; it is our problem. Our freedom and our love are absorbed, in part, by our phones, such that we become the phone’s slave, and it becomes our love. “If you are what you love,” as James K.A. Smith has written (borrowing from Augustine), then we are our phones. We are increasingly detached, isolated objects, and we see others as detached, isolated objects. Have we not seen this on social media, in the news, at colleges, and elsewhere?
This raises all sorts of questions for Christians: How will we learn to suffer well in a culture in which people simply cannot be in the presence of those who disagree with them? We are unable to look people in the face and constructively and charitably disagree, especially if their face is not digital. We see this also in our children, who have been raised in overprotective environments, and have embraced it as the norm, and are therefore not venturing out. Twenge asks if it possible that this “cocoon mentality is behind recent campus trends such as trigger warnings” (p. 47) and, we might add, accusations of microaggressions. Our cultural posture is to ask people to suffer with us. Scripture’s call is to share in the sufferings of Christ who suffers for and with others. As a friend recently reminded me, we live in a culture that clamors for affirmation; the gospel calls forth transformation.
People formed by constant selfie-taking will eventually lose the virtues of thinking of anyone other than themselves. When one of the highest social goods is to gain as many likes as possible, what will it look like to follow Jesus against the grain, especially if it means we will have fewer likes, or even become outcasts, like Paul and the Philippians?
Paul calls us, with Christ, to a model of selfless orientation toward the good of the other. How are we and our children learning the virtues of Christ, of the gospel, of walking side by side with others? The Church is the training ground for this, the place where we learn how to regulate our freedom and reorient it toward the end of love. Again, there is a word for this: incarnation.
One can have love without freedom and yet still be free, as Paul does (in prison as he writes the Philippians), but one cannot have freedom without love. And love requires incarnation: embodied interaction and even the embrace of the other. The problem is that our lives are increasingly designed to excarnate and disembody our interactions with one another. As author Michael Frost suggests, “The use of web-based communication and social media, the existential homelessness of much of modern life, the sorting of people into tribes (political, theological, socioeconomic), have all played a part in defleshing the human experience. This is also apparent in the church. We are as capable of treating people as disembodied objects as anyone.”
Excarnation leads to disengagement with others, objectification of others, and ugly internet debates. It enhances the pervasive influence of pornography and video games. We can utilize the material goods of life, our phones and technology, for meaningful connection, but we desperately need to develop the habit of taking an incarnation inventory: daily, weekly, monthly. Incarnation cannot be phoned in. This is a truth we desperately need to hear in our age of existential homelessness.
When freedom is combined with love it leads to incarnation. This is the pattern of God, and it is the pattern we are designed to embody. We will never be fully free, nor know the depths of God’s love, until we incarnate our lives into the lives, and especially the suffering, of others and thereby share in the sufferings of Christ. The challenge of this call is that it might require us to put down our phone and take up our cross.