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Book Review: 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You

Today on the blog, we have a book review written by Trisha Owegi. She is a follower of Christ, by the grace of God, and a member of Redeemer Bible Church. She is a law graduate and currently works as a lawyer. She enjoys reading, writing, cooking, and serving the local church.

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It has been nearly two decades since the smartphone was invented, but it has evolved quicker than we can investigate how it changes us. What was novel and exciting has become merely a phone. God knows and sees all things, and He is sovereign over all human activity. No innovation surprises Him. What 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You offers is a biblical lens through which to view our smartphones. Reinke discusses the gifts of the modern technological era that the smartphone represents and how it might be changing us for the worse.

For Whom Is This Book Written?

Lest you put down the book – or close this review, for that matter – arguing that you have your smartphone habits under control, Reinke begins by defining his audience. He is not necessarily speaking to the smartphone addict. He admits that he is neither pro-smartphone nor anti-smartphone – just pro-reflection; ‘…we all need to stop and reflect on our impulsive smartphone habits because, in an age when our eyes and hearts are captured by the latest polished gadget, we need more self-criticism, not less.’ 

Reinke notes that ‘not everything in this book is relevant for every individual reader,’ and asks for patience as he discusses behaviours that may not immediately apply to you. All smartphone users are called to a balanced appraisal of their digital habits. The thrust of his argument is that our phones are changing us in ways imperceptible to even the most discerning. Even if we are not being ‘mastered’ by our devices, this book still offers useful reflections on the place of this technology in our lives. If anything, read so that your heart might grow in gratitude towards the One who has given us such good gifts. 

And though every demographic is affected by technology in a way, the research overwhelmingly demonstrates that not everyone is equally vulnerable to digital snares. The effects of our social-media saturated age on children, teenagers, and young adults are unique and unprecedented. If you have them under your care, this book is a must-read. It will leave you equipped to help others know how to take their eyes off their phones, and turn them towards Christ, who offers us abundant joy in Himself that no smartphone delight can rival.

That being said, there are three main reasons this book will be helpful for every Christian:

  1. Reinke applies Scripture thoughtfully, demonstrating its sufficiency for all of life, including our digital lives. 
  2. Reinke gives practical advice, offering steps we can take to avoid smartphone abuse. 
  3. Reinke focuses our attention on Christ, making our joy and satisfaction in Him the primary aim of cultivating healthy digital habits. 

Ancient Book v. Shiny Gadget

Putting an ancient book and any modern technology side-by-side seems pointless unless the book is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). As Reinke cites Christian scholarship, his research, and the common-grace insights of behavioural scientists, psychologists, and tech analysts, he reminds us that the science is only ‘a turnstile for us to move the discussion from the biological effects of our screen habits into the more important discussion of the spiritual push and pull between our online actions and the infinite consequences of our device behaviours. Eternity, not psychology, is [our] deepest concern’. And for this task, he employs God’s Word with care and deep insight. 

He begins by building a biblical theology of technology, defining it as the ‘reordering of raw materials for human purpose’. In creation, God makes image-bearers ‘wired for innovation’, and then he provides Adam and Eve with raw materials to harness for their flourishing. “Technology” did not begin with the smartphone. “Technology” captures everything from the common digging tool, to the pocket watch, to the advanced navigation systems aboard SpaceX rockets. “Technology” helps us push back the results of the fall by increasing agricultural efficiency, slowing terminal illnesses, and boosting our senses of seeing and hearing. So yes, that means your reading glasses could rightly be called “technology.” 

Reinke challenges us to consider, in light of God’s Word, how our smartphones transform our obedience. Take our speech, for instance – what does it mean to be honest, or for our ‘yes’ to be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ to be ‘no’ (Matthew 5:37) if our words can disappear in seconds in the self-destructing messages of Snapchat? As we slowly lose our literacy and we are ‘conditioned to skim’ by our phones, what happens to the sustained concentration we need to linger over the Bible and study sound doctrine? Might we come to prefer the three-point, spiritual do-it-yourself approach of blog posts on every Christian topic over the slow renewing of our minds in the truth (Romans 12:2)? 

The pace of technological advances means that today’s digital problems might someday seem trivial. Even then, the Bible will still be relevant because the problem will be the same. The smartphone simply divulges ‘in razor-sharp pixels what my heart wants. The glowing screen on my phone projects into my eyes the desires and loves that live in the most abstract corners of my [soul], finding visible expression in pixels of images, video, and text for me to see and consume and type and share.’ 

God’s Word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV) It points us to Christ and His saving work. The believers of 4022 will be just as equipped to navigate their digital world as we are to navigate ours. The important lesson Reinke’s writing teaches is that ‘scripture proves its ongoing relevance in the digital age,’ and it will do so in every age to come.

Demanding Discipline

But this book is not just a theological treatise on technology. Reinke gets practical – he shows us how we can make our smartphones serve us, and he does not hold back stern warnings about the real dangers we are exposed to as we use them. We need to be vigilant because we are prone to over-indulgence; ‘…over time, we may lose our hearts by the erosive power of unchecked amusements.’ We also need to be vigilant because “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12, ESV) Demonic powers will use every tool in their arsenal to wage war on our souls, even if those tools are our own – the ones that keep us connected, organized, and informed. 

Our phones fragment our attention, offering ‘endless diversions, from ten-second downloads to one-touch purchases. Our pings, alerts, and push notifications all redirect us from our greatest needs and realities.’ We must take careful inventory of the time we spend on our devices and become Christians who ‘live smartphone smart’, identifying and avoiding which digital pleasures are passing away with the rest of this world (1 John 2:15-17, ESV). 

If you publish words or produce art online, Reinke offers an extensive list of questions you can use to search your heart before you hit upload. Then he cautions us against becoming people who take a smartphone ‘into every open moment of their lives.’ In places where we impulsively pull out our phones – the quiet elevator or the hospital waiting room – we realize we are surrounded by eternal souls who need Christ, making us more inclined to turn our attention outwards.

Reinke then discusses the ‘spiritual epidemic’ of internet pornography that plagues the church and is accessible on our smartphones almost instantly. On the external front, some wisely fight by downgrading to a dumbphone – effectively cutting off their scrolling hand. Still, ‘on what your heart loves, your eyes will linger.’ Visual vices must be fought on the internal front too, Reinke argues, by remembering that ‘our Creator is no respecter of privacy laws’ – nothing is truly anonymous. We must seek to satisfy our hearts in the things unseen – Christ’s divine glory that is now invisible (1 Peter 1:8-9), but only until he comes back in power when all will see Him and bow before Him in worship. After all, the life of faith is about ‘comprehending the whole when we can only see a fraction.’

To What End? 

These calls to discipline and discernment might lead some to assume that this book should be titled How to Become a Digital Monk and Never Use a Smartphone Again. Ever. But the main question the author asks is ‘what is the best use of my smartphone in the flourishing of my life?’ The irony is not lost on him that we will likely learn about his book – or read a review of his book – on a smartphone, and his ambition is not to turn us into digital minimalists for its own sake. 

Cultivating good digital habits may deepen your intimacy with your spouse, boost your productivity at work, and help you meet your reading goal for the year. But what makes Reinke’s approach unique is that he also wants us to turn away from one thing, towards the ‘soul-calming sedative of Christ’s splendour, beheld with the mind and enjoyed by the soul.’ Christ redeems our smartphone use because He is the only one who can change our hearts. ‘Distraction management is a critical skill for spiritual health and no less in the digital age. But if we merely exorcise one digital distraction from our lives without replacing it with a newer and healthier habit, seven more digital distractions will take its place.’ Those who want to make much of Jesus in their personal devotions, vocations, families, local church, and communities will practice digital self-control for His sake. 

Smartphones change the local church when ‘our cognitive actions are separated from our bodily presence,’ and we ‘overprioritize the relatively easy interactions in the disembodied online world and undervalue the embodied nature of the Christian faith.’ When we are separated from flesh and blood by digital personas, relational friction is inevitable, especially in tense cultural moments such as the months before an election. Christians regularly put their phones down to embrace one other in ‘face-to-face fellowship, eyeball-to-eyeball love,’ as we obey Christ’s command to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34).  

Digital self-control comes downstream of a heart transformed by Christ, but it is also one means by which we feed our joy in Him. If you read this book primarily as a self-help manual, you will not receive its full benefit. ‘This book fails if, having read it, you only hate yourself more; it succeeds only if you enjoy Christ more.’ 

Conclusion

If you have never carefully considered how your phone might be changing you, or if you would like to help those around you – young or old, tech-savvy or tech-averse – become faithful digital disciples, then I commend this book to you. Most of all, if you want to know how to love God with all your heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37) and how you can employ your smartphone in that task, I commend this book to you and I pray that God might use it in your life to that end.

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