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The Age of Distraction

Sabbath is supposed to make us feel like we can’t get it all done.

Justin Early toiled as a lawyer in a big corporate law office before feeling a call to become a missionary in China. After grueling studies in law school, a fast-paced legal career and the demands of the mission field, he was exhausted. Years of over-committed scheduling took their toll. He ended up in ER, experiencing a variety of symptoms related to exhaustion. He was told to slow down.

Early describes his journey from an unrelenting work schedule to intentional practices like keeping the Sabbath in his recent book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction. This practical book describes how to counteract being shackled by screens and digital distractions by cultivating habits which directly connect to our Christian beliefs.

When I was younger, I heard stories of people who were not allowed to bike, swim or play sports on Sunday. While such a legalistic approach recognizes the importance of Sabbath, it misses the point. The rabbi Abraham Heschel put it this way: “A man who works with his mind should Sabbath with his hands, and a man who works with his hands should sabbath with his mind.” I think there is wisdom in this advice – someone who works daily with computers, like I do, should take a Sabbath away from screens, perhaps by biking, swimming or playing sports.

In my own life, I have tried to guard a practice of weekly Sabbath-keeping by setting aside screens from Sunday morning till sundown. The problem is that machines never rest, and if we are not intentional about our habits, we will never rest either. The problem is compounded by digital technologies which are specifically crafted to grab our attention. Like Justin Early, I know the fatigue and anxiety of coping with an overflowing email inbox and the relentless digital demands of work.

Sabbath habits

Our family has also developed our own rhythms for Sundays. Following a morning worship service we have a ritual of preparing a pizza lunch, affectionately known as “pizza Sunday.” We take out a pizza shell and assemble the toppings (sensitive to the various eccentric food preferences in our family) and enjoy a meal together, sometimes inviting others to join us. This is often followed by a nap and occasionally a hike. Now that several of our children have moved out of our home, the “pizza Sunday” tradition has continued in their own homes.

In my professional life as an engineer working in industry, deadlines often required working overtime. I dutifully worked into weekday evenings as needed, and occasional Saturdays, but made it known that I was not available on Sundays. This was generally respected but became easier when I began working as a professor at a Christian college. I have also tried to give my students space for Sabbath by not scheduling due dates or tests on Mondays.

In his book The Tech-Wise Family, author Andy Crouch gives practical advice to families for “putting technology in its proper place.” Crouch describes how the makers of technologies continually nudge us with alerts and notifications to draw attention to our glowing rectangles. He points his readers to the ancient Christian disciplines, among them the practice of Sabbath-keeping. He suggests that “one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play and rest together.”

The beauty of Sabbath is that it can be both a diagnosis and cure for our lives. Justin Early writes that “practicing Sabbath is supposed to make us feel like we can’t get it all done because that is the way reality is.” The practice of Sabbath is a concrete way to put technology in its place and serves to remind us that that we are dependent on Christ, who sustains the world and our lives

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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