By David Barr
The consumption of digital content is now an immensely important topic for all of us. In the wake of a pandemic still reverberating in our communities, souls, and psyches, one of the inheritances it leaves us is an ever-increasing dependence on digital content and media. This is much to be lamented, but even more, our dependence on content Christianity needs to be purged from our midst.
On a purely descriptive level, content is simply information communicated through media of various forms, and yet content has now become a primary unit of consumption and sale in our spiritual communities. There is streamed content, digital content, journalistic content, marketing content, audio content, and social media content. None of it is innately bad, and yet audiences voraciously consume it without interaction or slow reflection. Content in this commercial sense is not gained through relationship, or slow reading, or patient observation, certainly not through prayer. It is devoured in the same way fire consumes dry newspaper — ravenously, until nothing is left.
It is tempting to think of this in broadly social and economic terms, but it is also undeniably theological. Christian communities are embroiled in content consumption both in practical and subtle, ideological ways. The obvious examples are mass evangelical media of various sorts — publishing houses and radio networks so prominent in the bygone era of analog media. That content, I believe, is not a continuing threat.
The coming generations of Christians have little to no patience for the culture-war efforts of large media groups that played such a prominent role in the broader North American religious milieu. Rather, the true threat is the kind of content that promotes a dependence on consumption as the primary resource for Christian life. It could be the kind of content that many congregations exhaust immense human capital to produce, but it could also simply be the intellectual resources spent creating an interesting Twitter feed. It is content that tells lay people they need to comprehend and formulate in order to abide in God’s presence.
Notice this means that not all content is bad. My parish produced video content for small groups that met and studied Scripture over Zoom. The content was not necessarily remarkable, but the result — dozens of small groups that met over a pandemic — is something I was grateful to observe.
In this way, the problem is not content per se, but is rather how our media shape us in ways that we fail to recognize. Spiritual growth can slowly entail an engagement with and a consumption of digital material. Christianity then becomes primarily about ideas, topics, and information, and not the cultivation of prayer and steady engagement with the living God.
All of this is troubling on an obvious level; a frenzied need to consume cuts sharply against the grain of normal Christian living, which is typically slow and plodding, a steadied attentiveness with moments of ecstasy. But the more lasting effect that content consumption has on us is widespread and so established in our midst that we can struggle to see its work. The unrelenting consumption of content causes us to fixate on being always entertained, distracting ourselves from pain and dysfunction, and the false achievement of moral and noetic superiority. The result is an incapacity to engage with the more angular — and necessary — aspects of Christian life, such as the slowness of relationship, the discomfort of learning, the complexity of God’s providence, and the hope of the gospel in the face of death.
It should be noted that much of this content dysfunction is increasingly well researched within the social sciences, and it is even engaged by popular Christian thinkers. However, let church leaders be done with our dependence on it and our brokering of it. Much of our contemporary Christian climate is being swept away with impulses to produce and be fed by content, even while it does not satisfy. We need to squarely admit it at the outset. Content Christianity does not work, and it produces grossly disordered results. A Christianity that is designed to be consumed becomes exactly that: consumable until it is extinguished. It is ultimately exhaustible and exhausting. It manipulates and sucks dry. There is no life in it.
But a Christianity that points to and depends upon a living and present God does not overpromise and it sufficiently delivers. I believe this is why people are increasingly hungry for more sacramental forms of the Christian tradition. People want Jesus to be present with us in some way. We want Scripture to give us God’s words and voice. We want the manifest power of God in baptism. We want to know God in one another. We want the forgiveness of sins to be real.
Let those of us who are in positions of leadership be done with subtle suggestions to our parishioners that they must be masters of some particular worldview, fed by a constant barrage of intellectual resources for interpreting the cultural moment. Let us be done with parading particular thinkers, or authors, or podcast hosts as some essential component of spiritual development. Let us now focus on the primary — the living presence of God in the sacraments, the sufficiency of prayer, the formative power of Scripture, the need for repentance, our dependence upon one another, and the true and absolute forgiveness of sins.
Let those of us who are laypeople together take what is good from the purveyors of Christianity’s intellectual resources, be those authors, or pastors, or publishing groups of various sorts. But let us not believe the lie that we must constantly consume, understand, experience, comprehend, and articulate in order to grow into the likeness of Christ Jesus. There will always be some next new thing, and to pursue again and again will only leave us burned, exhausted, and consumed by consumption.
There is surely some place for content in our Christian communities — blogs (like Covenant), Alpha groups, discipleship material, and published resources, etc. — but these must be wielded with diligence and care. Content should continually point us to the presence of the living God. Christian rootedness has always been hard, of course, but it has never been an utter mystery. It flows directly out of the active presence of a holy God who pursues us and teaches us through the power of his Spirit. Every generation of Christians has known this. “Behold, this is our God. We have waited for him, and he will save us” (Isa. 25:9).
As Gregory of Nyssa once pointed out in his Catechetical Discourse, the communication of God is not passing and ineffective, but is ever present and everlasting:
Therefore, though the “Word” of God is spoken of, it will not be deemed to have substance in the rush of utterance, like ours passing into nonexistence; but just as our nature, being perishable, also has a perishable word, so the incorruptible and ever existing nature also has the eternal and subsisting Word … therefore it is demonstrated … that this Word is to be contemplated as living. (p. 65)
Gregory knew that the Word, Jesus Christ, could not be a simple expression of God’s character or a tacit reflection of his being, but must be fully him. In this same spirit, let us not settle for lesser things. God’s letter is living, and we must behold him. His communication of himself is not pixilated, or mostly clear, or winsomely articulated. Rather, it is him, a burning fire, unquenchable and all-consuming. His presence, then, is not for us to consume, but consumes us that there might be nothing left, except life itself. He is light and life, and our task is to witness and bear forth that which we know in truth. Content Christianity will not give us this hope. “Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD” (Isa. 2:5).