Brief Thoughts on Digital Minimalism and The Four-Dimensional Human

After seeing Tony Reinke’s high praise for Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human, I decided to look it up through my local library, and found a free audiobook through Hoopla. I’ve been listening to it on my morning runs for the last two days, and already, I can see why Tony was so impressed.

Scott treads what is, at this point, well-worn ground about the limits and abuses of the digital tech we swim in today, but he does so in a fresh way. It’s hard to believe the book came out in 2015 (and equally hard to believe how long ago that seems in the scheme of the digital landscape).

The premise underlying the name of the book is that we now live in a four-dimensional world, one where we can easily operate outside of the previous limits of time and space — or at least it seems we can. Digital tech (think iPhones, social media, Skype, etc.) promise to put others in the “same room” as us, even though we are obviously in different ones. This ability to be both here and there at the same time is the fourth dimension.

He illustrates the title and concept by pointing back to a 1959 horror film called 4D Man. Here’s the film’s premise from IMDB:

Two brothers, scientists Scott and Tony Nelson, develop an amplifier which enables a person to enter a 4th dimensional state, allowing him to pass through any object.

You can probably already see the parallel to modern-day tech. Our screens are like that amplifier, allowing us to pass through the normal bounds of physical location to be present with others around the world.

But in the film, Scott soon discovers a problem with his newfound ability: Each time he passes through something, he ages rapidly. While he has found a way to enter the fourth dimension, he realizes he cannot do so without it taking a toll on his body.

And so it is with digital tech today, in my view. We can choose to enter into that fourth dimension through the screen, but we cannot do so without it taking a toll on our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls, and on others. While we feel as if we can be both here and there at the same time, we were made to be here. The fact that we can operate outside of that parameter does not make it untrue, and just because we can be here and there does not mean it is good for us.

My question has always been: “If we limit the amount of time we spend in the four-dimensional world, can we limit its negative effects and live an improved 3-D life?”

This question is also at the center of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which I’m reading right now. I’m 100 pages in, and so far, Cal’s answer seems to be yes, but not without the limits. The limits are everything, he explains, because there is a law of diminishing returns with tech use, just as with certain processes. There are real returns (rewards, benefits) with a certain amount of use, but beyond that point, the returns start to diminish. The input increases but the output decreases.

I find this to be true in my own life. When I use helpful services, tools, or software in small, healthy doses, I typically enjoy the returns, in terms of time saved, connecting with others, etc. These are the times when I understand the fourth-dimensional tools to be in service of my three-dimensional life.

But when I forsake my third-dimensional world for the fourth-dimensional one, those returns begin to erode, until I am giving more and more of myself to something that returns less and less (sounds a lot like idolatry).

I’ll probably be writing more about these two books as I go along, but those are some initial thoughts and reflections.

The Importance of Reading the Bible as One Big Story

The Bible is not primarily a book about morals. Though Scripture has a lot to say about how we live and act, it’s not primarily a manual for moral living.

The Bible is not about us. It’s about God.

Edmund Clowney, who was a professor and theologian, said that if we read a particular story without putting it into the bigger story about Christ, we actually change the meaning of the particular event for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to try harder rather than a call to live by faith in the work of Christ.

In the end, there are only two ways to read the Bible: as if it’s all about us or all about Jesus. In other words, is it basically about me and what I must do, or about Christ and what he has done?

Who Is the Book About?

If we read David and Goliath as a story that’s giving me an example to follow, then I’m reading the story as if it’s ultimately about me. And I have to muster the strength or courage to face my giants and win my battles. But if I read about David and Goliath as basically showing me about salvation through Jesus, then the story is about him. Then I can see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin and death) for me, which is the only thing that will give me the courage and strength to face my giants.

The Bible is not a collection of fables; it is not a book of virtues. It’s a story about how God saves us. That story works out in the four movements of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.

When we read stories disconnected from the whole, we lose their grounding in the redemptive arc of the Bible and place the significance solely in the events or details of that one story.

For an example of how this works out, let’s look at John 3:14-15 where Jesus says,

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus is referencing the story of the bronze serpent found in Numbers 21:4-9:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

In this passage, Jesus puts the serpent story into the bigger story with himself at the center. The serpent story sheds light on how Jesus saves us (it only takes a look to be healed or saved, and that he is made to be like the sin that’s killing us) — but it also means that we can’t understand the serpent story without realizing it’s pointing us to Jesus.

Jesus is the truer and better version of all the characters and stories we read about in the Bible.

A Word of Caution

Now, we do have to be careful of allegorizing when we read the Bible as one big story. Allegorizing results in strange interpretations that require a stretch in a text’s meaning.

Allegorizing has two bad effects:

  1. It results in arbitrary interpretations. It’s a way of getting a text to say almost anything we want, instead of living under the authority of God’s Word.
  2. It fails to honor the author’s original intended meaning.

We guard against poor interpretation and allegorizing by doing a proper inductive study of a passage before looking for Christ in the text and trying to connect it to the larger story of the Bible. When we keep both things in mind, we’re able to see how a passage is part of the larger story and points to Jesus. And when you understand that God has been pointing to Jesus from the very beginning, your study of the Bible becomes a whole new adventure.

Reading the Bible with the “big picture” in mind is much more than a good skill or approach to reading the Bible. The ultimate goal of reading Scripture with the one big story in mind is to grow into the image of Christ as we realize that we are a part of the Bible’s one big story.

How New Testament Authors Read the Bible

My last post explored how Jesus told us to read the Bible: as one big story with himself at the center. The New Testament writers handled the scriptures the same way.

Seeing Christ in the Psalms

For example, Hebrews 1:14 quotes Psalm 91:11-12: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

But when we look at Psalm 91, we don’t find anything to indicate that this text is about Jesus:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place —
the Most High, who is my refuge —
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

Now, did it take supernatural knowledge to know that Psalm 91 was about Jesus? Perhaps. But it’s just as likely, especially given what Jesus taught, that the early church knew that everything in the Bible was about Jesus.

Seeing Christ in the Prophets

Other New Testament writers also quote passages from the psalms and prophets that clearly show they read the words of Scripture as being all about Jesus. In his first letter, Peter writes,

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Peter shows that the Spirit of Christ in the prophets was pointing to the person and work of Christ in their writings.

These are just two of many examples of how the New Testament writers view the Bible as one big story with Jesus at the center.

What we see in the New Testament usages of the Old Testament shows us how the early church read the scriptures. That means both the Apostles and everyone else in the church were able to interpret the Bible Christocentrically, or with Christ at the center.

And it gives us permission and direction to read the Bible in the same way.

The Story Within the Stories

To summarize, every part of the Bible is about the historical unfolding revelation and accomplishment of the gospel salvation through Jesus.

There is a story within all Bible stories of God’s redeeming a people for himself by grace in the midst of their sin. When Jesus says the Bible is all about him, that means all the major themes, figures, genres, and storylines are reflective of and fulfilled in him.

How Jesus Told Us to Read the Bible

The Bible tells one big story from beginning to end. There are 66 books and two testaments, and while each of those tells discrete, individual stories, they also tell one grand narrative.

If we’re not careful, we’ll miss that one big story and read the Bible piecemeal, jumbling the various stories and missing the larger narrative. When we absorb the Bible in a piecemeal way we risk taking passages that belong to the overarching story of Scripture and unintentionally reshaping them into the narrative of our lives.

Rather than being confronted by the overarching story of God’s redemption, we bend the text into the shape of our own lives and make the Bible a story more about us — our fulfillment, our sanctification, our hopes and dreams. In other words, if we miss reading the Bible as one big story, we make it a story about us. But we aren’t the ones at the center of the story. 

How We Read Scripture Without Making It About Us

So how do we read Scripture without distorting its overarching shape, without making the Bible a story about me instead of about God? We read it the way Jesus did.

In the last chapter of Luke, we see two disciples walking down the road to Emmaus. They were dejected because their hopes and dreams of Jesus being the Messiah had been crushed on the cross. Suddenly a man appears and joins them on the road. He wants to know what they’re discussing, and one of them answers, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18).

The man appeared not to know what they were referring to, so they explained everything — that they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, that he had performed signs and wonders, but that he had been crucified and buried. And now it had been three days, and some were even saying his body was missing. 

The mysterious man surely took them by surprise when he said, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). Then, beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he interpreted to them how Christ was at the center of all the scriptures.

Burning Hearts

They approached a village and asked the man to join them. As they sat down to a meal, the man took the bread and blessed it and broke it. That’s when they realized who he was. It was Jesus. Then he vanished right before their eyes. Their first words were:

Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures? (Luke 24:32)

Jesus taught that they had to read Scripture as the unfolding story of God’s redemptive purposes. The Bible tells one big story, and at the center of that story is Jesus and his salvation.

(For more on this, see Tim Keller’s teaching on the Bible as one big story, particularly the first 9:18):

Opening Minds

The Emmaus-road encounter wasn’t the only time Jesus made this point. Later in Luke, he tells his disciples: 

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44-47)

Here Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand that all of Scripture, which at that time consisted of the Law, Moses, and the Prophets, is all about him and his salvation.

Jesus makes the same assertion in John’s gospel:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:39-47)

Here again, Jesus says that the scriptures bear witness about him and that Moses words were really about him. He confronts his hearers with how they don’t understand the Scriptures’ testimony because they don’t understand how all of it, including what Moses wrote, was about him.

The Bottom Line

If we want to read the Bible the way Jesus told us to, we have to read it as one big story with him and his salvation at the center.

I’ll talk more about what the Bible has to say about being one big story, why this is important, and how we read it this way in my next posts.

How to Put Work in Its Proper Place

Many of us work far too much and enjoy it far too little.

We determine a person’s value by what kind of work they do. We let vacation time go unused. When we do take vacations, we bring our email with us. We put in 50 or more hours and sometimes add a side-hustle or two.

This is the ceaseless American work ethic, or what some are calling workism: “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

How did we get here?

The Religion of Workism

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson explains that the decline in traditional faith in American society has led to the worship of a pantheon of gods: “Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.”

Thompson points to two recent studies to prove Americans’ growing religious devotion to work. The first was a 2018 paper on women at elite universities showing their primary reason for attending a prestigious college is not higher pay, but more hours at work. The second was a Pew Research report on anxiety among our youth that revealed 95 percent of them value having a job they enjoy over loving their neighbor or getting married. “Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people,” writes Thompson.

Predictably, turning work into a god goes as poorly as deifying anything else. Today, work promises identity, community, even transcendence, but fails to deliver. The problem with the god of work is that it always disappoints: “a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout,” says Thompson. He goes on to say, “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight.”

Why are we burning ourselves out? Because our hard work pays off. Or at least, it appears to. Hard work and obsessive dedication will often produce favorable results, or “goods” — affirmation from a boss, the satisfaction of a job well done, higher pay, a sense of making a difference.

But these goods come at a cost.

What Monks Can Teach Us About Work

After researching a story involving a monastery in New Mexico, Jonathan Malesic decided to visit. To enter a monastery is to step out of the rhythms of one’s daily life, particularly the demands of work. As Malesic left his daily tasks behind, he pondered the American work ethic (including his own). He began to identify it as a demon that is “chasing us over a cliff.” But the monks surrounding him — all of whom have their own work of some form — didn’t appear to be haunted by the same demon of workism, though they surely have their own.

Why weren’t these monks slaves to their careers? They had learned to put work in its proper place. Though they experience the same temptations to perform for those “goods” mentioned above just like those outside the monastery, they don’t let the pursuit of work or its goods supplant their primary objective: a life of prayer in service to God. Malesic writes, “For monks, these goods compete with their spiritual ideals and relationship to God.”

If they sense their work is pushing God too far to the margins, they begin to limit it in order to stave off the negative effects. If this isn’t possible and they can no longer keep up their way of life and the work at the same time, they walk away from the work and find something else to do.

If Monks aren’t keeping a close eye on their work life, it can eclipse their devotion to God through prayer. If we’re not careful to keep ourselves from burnout, we become unable to sustain our relationship with God.

How can we, who are not monks, keep ourselves from burnout and put work in its proper place?

A Personal Solution to Workism

Thompson suggests that one solution to workism is to take some of the misery out of work. “But maybe the better prescription,” he writes, “is to make work less central.” While that’s not a bad place to begin (it’s a major part of the solution, as I’ll explain below), a better answer to workism is to make God preeminent in our lives, thus putting work in its proper place.

Monks tame the demon of work by limiting it, Malesic explains. This limitation frees them up to pursue higher goods (a life of prayer and study). He suggests that for us non-monks, “the monastic principles of constraining work and subordinating it to moral and spiritual well-being might help us keep our demons at bay and recover the dignity in our labor and in ourselves.” That means we would limit our work to healthy amounts and view our work as one means to help us live a life devoted to God and serving others (which I assume is the goal of life for evangelical followers of Christ).

Intentionally limiting work sounds like a good way to get fired though, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. Studies continually show that burned out workers are far less productive than those who limit their work to a healthy amount and take regular days off. If you work hard and rest hard, you’re likely to be more productive than if you work hard all the time. As Malesic writes, “Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those are worth as much as your dignity as a person.” To work all the time is to view ourselves as undignified because it limits our value to our productivity.

This is why the solution to workism starts with individuals. We have to decide to constrain our work and relegate it to its proper place as we first pursue a life of devotion to God and service to others. I’ve worked hard over the last seven years to limit my work so I can sustain the family and spiritual life the Lord has called me to. Life is more enjoyable (and I’m more productive) when I work hard during work hours, then “turn it off” until the next day or week.

Based on what I’ve learned, here are some ways you can put your work in its proper place:

  • Pause before lunch each day for a time of prayer, asking God to keep you focused on him throughout your day.
  • As much as possible, do not check or respond to work email after hours.
  • If possible, do not add your work email account to your phone.
  • Review your calendar weekly and make sure you know when your work hours are, and ask yourself if you are able to stay devoted to God and others with that schedule.
  • Before ending your work day, review your calendar for the next day so you know what to expect.
  • At the end of your workday, spend five minutes in prayer and silence, asking God to prepare you to leave work behind and to focus on what or who will soon be in front of you.

While each of us can limit the effects of workism in our lives, it takes organizations partnering with individuals to really make put work in its proper place.

A Corporate Solution to Workism

An organization’s work ethic is a matter of dignity just like your personal work ethic. Malesic writes,

Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem exercens: “human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject.” We need to acknowledge this value, in others and ourselves, if we’re going to keep the desire for productivity from turning demonic. A quarterly profit goal isn’t worth as much as the person who labors, at the cost of her health, to meet it. No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints. Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.

An organization — even a religious one — that demands more of you than is healthy is one that does not respect your dignity. By expecting or requiring over-production of its employees, an organization is saying its margins, services, or goods are more valuable than the people producing them. This is, unfortunately, exactly how most workers feel.

But this means the inverse is also true: An organization that does not demand more work of you than is healthy is one that respects your dignity. An organization that truly values its people as people is one that will allow its employees to have needed time off and not expect that they check in after hours and put in regular 60-hour weeks.

Employers have a responsibility to help their employees live a more balanced life because they’re working with people, and people have dignity. Here are some ways employers can treat employees with dignity:

  • Instruct managers to send emails during regular business hours, reserving after-hours emails for true emergencies (they can use services like Boomerang to schedule emails to arrive in inboxes at the beginning of the next business day).
  • Monitor employees’ workloads and shift things around teams as necessary to lighten individuals’ loads.
  • Require employees to “cash in” at least some of their vacation days each year, or limit the number of carry-over days to encourage employees to use them each year.
  • Be careful not to praise someone for putting in obscene hours on a project; thank for a job well done, not how the job was done.

Putting Work in Its Proper Place

Let’s start treating ourselves, our coworkers, and our employees with dignity. Let’s choose to prioritize people over products, sons and daughters over services, men and women over margins. Let’s tame the demon of workism.

Let’s put work in its proper place.