Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.
We have an attention problem. It’s easy to blame modern media technologies. Many have done so, and I regularly join their lament. The field of media ecology is ripe with insights about technology’s effects on our ability to purposefully attend to what’s important and to tune out what isn’t.
As a professor, I experience chronic inattentiveness in the classroom. Students’ eyes glaze over if lectures are more than twenty minutes. Most students quell their boredom by compulsively (and they think, discretely) checking their phones. Some students are aware of how digital devices and social media function to monopolize their attention. One observed that she can spend two hours watching TikTok videos but can’t sit through a two-hour movie. As long as media is presented in bite-sized chunks, that is—if she need not focus on a sustained narrative or single idea—paying attention isn’t hard. As digital natives, students’ neural networks have been formed according to the kinds of media in which their constantly immersed.
In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,1 Nicholas Carr suggests that neural plasticity accounts for our shortened, and fragmented, attention spans. Carr cites mounds of empirical research to show how our brains’ synaptic connections adapt to the frequency and kinds of sensory stimuli we experience over time. When we’re constantly consuming media that are delivered in brief spurts, on devices that perpetually alert us to new content, our cognitive processes—and as Carr points out, even our brain’s physical structures—change in ways that make sustained attention difficult. In the past decade, swaths of new research, much of it inspired by The Shallows, have confirmed this phenomenon. Writing before the internet, Jesuit priest and media scholar John Culkin rightly observed, “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.”2
The issue is both psychological and systemic. Our media habits are shaped and reinforced according to whichever digital platforms most impress our psyche; the ones that do it best become part of our routines; and the business model is perpetuated. “Economies of attention” has become common parlance in business and technology discourse because CEOs know the value of our excitement, anger, lust, and all the rest, and they use that knowledge to design products and algorithms that cultivate profitable liturgies of attention. Our devices were supposed to be means to ends, but they’ve become ends in themselves. We’re their willing victims, ready to amuse ourselves to death,3 as Neil Postman put it.
Unfortunately, the makers of such technologies are largely unconcerned with spiritual matters (or not, at least, Christian spirituality). There are exceptions, of course, such as The Bible Project, as I’ve written about elsewhere.4 But organizations like TBP compete for our attention by joining the digital cacophony, not by redirecting our gaze. Online evangelists don’t draw our attention to quieter spaces, but, rather, join the platform(s) where users are already spending time. They’ve made the choice to lean into the internet, what Carr calls “the ultimate distraction technology,” and in so doing run the risk of exacerbating our inattentiveness.
It’s difficult, I think, in such an environment, to attend to what’s important. For one, it makes it harder to pray, to shut the door behind oneself and simply listen to the Spirit’s guiding. Even when we silence our devices—or, shudder, turn them off—our neural pathways continue to fire in ways that have been shaped by our digital conditioning. We can unplug the device or leave it in the other room, but we can’t rewire our brains on the fly. And the data is clear: we’ve become what we behold—high frequency data processors that require new information and constant input to function.
Ubiquitous connectivity also makes Christian community thinner. In mentoring young people at our church, a common refrain from middle and high school students is that they can’t focus on sermons. They zone out, not because they’re unengaged by the content, but because “it’s hard to focus on someone talking for more than 10 minutes.” Small group conversations, too, are regularly interrupted by incoming texts and social media notifications. Even when phones are silent, their ever-presence engenders a palpable sense of collective preoccupation.
Of course, there was never a golden age when kids paid attention in church. My generation, and I’m sure those before, doodled or daydreamed as the preacher droned on for what seemed like ages to my adolescent mind. Still, I think it’s safe to say that the problem has been exacerbated in recent years. I’ve seen teens attentively engage their phone or tablet for hours at a time, dead set on whatever on-screen ephemera are engrossing them. The ability to focus is still there, but what the digitally-conditioned person can focus on is limited to the kinds of media that device culture proffers. And it’s not just the teenagers. I see you, Boomer, scrolling Facebook in the next pew over. No matter our age, Christians struggle to reserve bandwidth for attending to the Redeemer.
But humans’ inability to focus on the things that matter is not a new phenomenon. New media technologies undoubtedly worsen our plight, but it seems our inattentiveness is an ancient foible. The Bible is full of stories of characters that either attend to the wrong things or miss what’s right in front of their faces. The Apostles were probably absent-minded and distracted at times. Peter wasn’t scrolling Instagram during the Sermon on the Mount, but maybe he was distracted by Chatty Cathy in the back row and missed the part about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). Malchus lost an ear for it (John 18:10-11). Perhaps John didn’t include Peter walking on the water in his Gospel account because he didn’t see it happen; he was too busy drying out the water-logged scroll on which he’d meticulously documented Jesus’ other miracles.
Peter: “Dude, I walked on the water, I swear!”
John: “Sure you did, bro.”
Silly hypotheticals like these aren’t hard for us to imagine because ancient peoples were human as we are human. (I’m being facetious, lest you think I’m irreverent, and I realize that there are scholarly explanations, and theological reasons, as to why John didn’t include that second bit.) For all the differences between them and us, which are many, the ancients were preoccupied with their daily comings and goings, joys and pains, much as we are. At times, the disciples got distracted, even when having lunch with the Son of God. Let that sink in.
But what I’d like to recall this Advent season is that in His providence, God uses our inattention, like He uses all our imperfections, for His ends. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the Christmas story. The Creator of the universe hid himself in the cleft of a rock, in the womb of a virgin, in a small town on the fringe of the Roman empire—He came whence no one attended—to inaugurate a Kingdom that would, in time, be the center of all attention. Well, almost no one attended. The parents were there, and some farm animals, three wise astrologers, and some shepherds. In the eyes of the world, anyway, no one of import was paying attention.
Why did God do it this way? We sometimes forget that Advent is apocalypse in the true sense of the word: it is revelation. Jesus’ birth in the depths of the Earth was, by design, the unattended revelation: the “smallest apocalypse.” Only by making Himself littlest, weakest, meekest, least noticeable, unaccounted for, would Christ ascend the heights and give gifts to the captives (Ephesians 4:8). Only by being least would He then fill all things with Himself (Ephesians 1:23). The smallest seeds yield the largest trees.
It’s in the world’s distraction that Christ enters the picture; in our inattentiveness God enters the fray. At Christmas, Jesus came to a world that least expected Him, a distracted world, as he comes to me and to you, now, who’s (probably skim-) reading this between checking emails and texting your mom.
God knows that we struggle to focus, and even when we do, we tend to experience and understand things in unique ways. Isn’t it interesting that there are four Gospel accounts? One reason for this, I suspect, is that God knew that his story is best told from multiple angles. What each Gospel author attended to in their respective accounts was somewhat different because the Spirit directed those individuals to notice different things. The diversity of salience as they present Jesus’ life and ministry is what makes the story rich, deep, multilayered. Or maybe He just knew they’d all be distracted at one point or another—Squirrel!—and so He hedged to cover the spread. But I digress.
I really want people to pay more attention to Jesus. I get frustrated when I read books like The Shallows or see with how much zeal folks attend to their various interests—sports, politics, social media—while giving lip service to the Savior. Admittedly, it makes me yearn for a return to robust liturgical calendars, if for no other reason than it “forces” people to pay attention to Christ. But I know that’s wrongheaded. To pray without ceasing isn’t about tireless, endless efforts to attend to God. (Though I do think many Christians’ prayer lives, including my own, could do with more sustained attention). Neither do I think the point is to totally unplug. Sure, some will migrate to Mastadon and other alternative platforms in search of algorithm-less social media pastures, new digital spaces that seemingly afford more control. But we’ll still attend to those more than we should.
Rather, we need God to attend to us.
And He has done, in Christ. During Advent, He comes to us in the darkness, at the end of the world, at the end of ourselves, because He knows that left to our own devices (pun intended) we’re just as likely to miss Him because we’re doom-scrolling Twitter. We do have an attention problem, and the bad news is that we’ll always miss something. The Apostles missed a lot, and they didn’t have five social media accounts to triage like you and I do. But like them, we also have the solution. Even when we’re not paying attention to God, He’s attending to us, reclaiming what (rather, Who) is salient.
Ultimately, God doesn’t want our mere attention. He wants our adoration, and so He came as a baby. Put down your phones, and come, let us adore Him.
- Carr, N. (2011). The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Cullkin, J. M. (1967, March 18). A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan. The Saturday Review, p 70.
- Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.
- Mitchell, C. (2022, March 1). The Bible Project Would Like Your Attention, Please. FaithTech [Blog]. https://medium.com/faithtech/the-bible-project-would-like-your-attention-please-2599bc581a43