What an 18th Century Author Taught Me About My Smartphone

What an 18th Century Author Taught Me About My Smartphone

Not long ago I read the classic adventure story, “Gulliver’s Travels,” published in 1726 by Jonathan Swift.

If you’re unfamiliar, Gulliver’s Travels is a satire-fiction that pokes fun and critiques many of the absurdities of society and man’s fallen human nature that Swift saw so evidently on display in his own time.  It’s really quite ironic, because a lot of what he gives attention to I think is reminiscent of our own day.

In addition to being an author, Swift was a clergyman of the Church of Ireland, which is the Irish branch of the Anglican church.  As a clergyman, one of the things that bothered him was the gradual decay of Christianity he saw taking place in the culture around him, and that leading to a continued erosion of man’s sense of morality.  The decline he saw in his fellow man he saw displayed in the increasing corruption of the powerful, the adoption of humanist-Enlightenment thinking, the brutal divisiveness of people toward each other, government run education in which we allow the state to brainwash our kids, and so much more.

Basically, Jonathan Swift saw the whole of mankind—including his sophisticated European brethren—acting like a bunch of Yahoos, which he incorporates into his story as a character arch of society.  Where man is shown to end up isn’t as honored stewards of the earth, but as ravenous packs of animals.  Indeed, the longer we act like animals, the more God gives us up to live like animals.  It reminds me of the indictment of Romans 1:

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…[he] gave them up to dishonorable passions…[he] gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28)

That’s man’s depraved trajectory.

But before Swift’s story gets to that final state of man’s brutish corruption in the land of the Houyhnhnms, the adventure begins with Gulliver getting lost at sea and shipwrecking on the land of the Lilliputians, who are another European-like society of men though only 6 inches tall.  To them, Gulliver is a giant.

Finding Gulliver washed up on the beach after his shipwreck, the Lilliputians, with the ingenuity of their army, manage to capture him and move him to their city.  While in their custody, they seek to learn more about him, just as he uses the opportunity to try to learn more about them.

Throughout this process both Gulliver and the Lilliputians are humored by the silliness of each other’s customs and habits.  A close read reveals the jabs Swift is satirically making as he caricatures what he views to be silly customs in the real world.

At one point the Lilliputians search Gulliver’s pockets to see what kinds of things he carries around with him.  Discovering his pocket watch, a gadget unknown in their own society, the scene unfolds as follows:

“Out of the right fob hung a great silver chain, with a wonderful kind of engine at the bottom. We directed him to draw out whatever was at the end of that chain; which appeared to be a globe, half silver, and half of some transparent metal; for, on the transparent side, we saw certain strange figures circularly drawn, and thought we could touch them, till we found our fingers stopped by the lucid substance. He put this engine into our ears, which made an incessant noise, like that of a water-mill: and we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us, (if we understood him right, for he expressed himself very imperfectly) that he seldom did any thing without consulting it. He called it his oracle, and said, it pointed out the time for every action of his life.”

Think about that.  “The pocket watch must be the man’s god, for he seldom does anything without consulting it—It points out the time for every action of his life.”

Apparently, one of the silly habits Swift saw common in his own 18th century society was the obsessive, nearly idolatrous habit of people constantly checking their pocket watches to prompt them on what they should be doing, or where they should be, according to the particular time of day.  It was as if the pocket watch, as great an invention as it was, was dictating everyone’s morning-to-evening activities, so much so that an outside observer would assume the watch must be a person’s god because of the level of attention and devotion he gives to it.

Does any of that sound familiar?  I can’t help but think of the habit of people in our culture today, with everyone constantly checking their smartphones.  Can you relate?  I know I can.

For a lot of people today, the first thing done in the morning and the last thing done at night is a glance at the phone.  Sitting down to eat, we check our phones.  Sitting at the stop lights, we check our phones.  While standing in the elevator, we check our phones.  Even when using the restroom, I imagine, many are checking their phones.

When considering the level of devotion we assign to our phones, one has to wonder, what would an outside observer assume about us?  Is it possible they would assume our phones must be our gods because of how much attention we give to them?  Or, would they assume, like I hope they would, that our phones are just another tool, like any other item we keep in our pockets, that, while beneficial to us, don’t control us?

It’s convicting to think about.  Because it makes me evaluate how the time I actually do give in worship to the Lord compares to the time I give meditating on my phone.

I’ve had to ask myself, “How do my prayers, my Bible reading, and my time spent in devotion to the Lord measure against the amount of time I spend repetitively scrolling through my RSS feed?”  “What does the time spent on my phone say to those around me (especially to my kids who I know are watching me closely) about where my true devotions lie?”

According to Deuteronomy 6:7, I should love God so much that my kids see me diligently dwelling on the things of God “when I sit in my house, when I walk by the way, when I lie down, when I rise.”  Instead, what are they likely to see?  I’m ashamed to say it, but often times they see me diligently checking social media, not diligently seeking the Lord.

I mentioned Romans 1 earlier.  Romans 1:24 says,

 “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:24-25)

Folks, our phones are “created things” that, if we’re not careful, can start to capture our attention and captivate our gaze more than God does.

I’m not anti-technology by any means.  In fact, I’m using technology to make this post.  Most of you are reading this post using your smartphone.  Praise God for modern inventions like the one you’re holding in your hand that can make life a little more convenient, but, the moment we regard any created thing, including our phones, higher than the Creator, and we religiously consume ourselves with it, we’re sliding further down the slippery slope of idolatry like the culture in Jonathan’s Swift’s day, and we end up living like a bunch of mindless Yahoos.

Unplug your phones every once in a while and connect with God.  Instead of checking your notifications 50 times a day, check in with God.  See what he’s already tweeted about in his Word.  I guarantee it’s worth more of your time than your favorite blogger.  It’s definitely worth more of your time than reading this post.

So, with that, I’ll end things there.  Have a fruitful day, keep a close watch on your habits, and keep an even closer eye on God!

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