Book Review: A Pilgrim in Media Land

“How can we create more openness in our families when it comes to discussing our Internet activities and our use of media time? What agreements can we make with each other to put this into practice?” These are just two of the many discussion questions we read in the book, A Pilgrim in Media Land. This book, authored by Mr. Steef de Bruijn and Mrs. Henrieke Hoogendijk-van Dam, is originally written in the Dutch language as an initiative of the Driestar Christian University and the Erdee Media Group. The Modern Media Committee from the Lethbridge NRC has, with the permission of the authors, translated and published this book to be used in our denomination. We are thankful for this effort.

Much has been spoken and written already about modern media. In our Reformed circles we have always been very reluctant and cautious to use modern media like the Internet. We realize, however, that we cannot stop this development anymore, not even in our circles. Almost all of our families have an Internet connection to be used as a resource in schools and business life. Consequently, therein lies the danger that it gets used too much and in the wrong way. Therefore, this book is intended to be a guide for the proper use of modern media and to warn against the misuse of it. The title is well chosen as it clearly implies that we are in media land. There are many available devices which have good uses; nevertheless, there undoubtedly are also many traps and dangers.

Therefore, the authors take us by the hand in our journey through modern media land. They do that in a very appealing way. In eight chapters they provide a lot of information about many topics related to modern media. Repeatedly, they do this using attitude keywords such as temperance, consistency, reflection, and faithfulness. In a tender but honest way, they do not shy away from the practical dangers of appealing and alluring sins which have such devastating consequences. Therefore, each chapter starts with a real-life scenarios which can easily be recognized by parents and educators in raising our children and youth.

At the end of each chapter are questions for discussions. The vocabulary used by the authors should not keep us from reading this book because it is “to the point” and easy to follow. Most importantly, time and again we read the question, “What does the Bible say?” Based on specific Bible texts, the authors want to guide us in an honest and biblical way through media land and point us to a proper lifestyle. They realize that not everything is said when only warnings are given. “A Christian is characterized by watchfulness and resilience. Therefore, it is not enough only to point young people to the dangers of the web. It is important that we also demonstrate how to use modern media in a positive way. In this way, we can demonstrate to teenagers how we live as a Christian in a digital world.”

We were pleased to read that the authors realize that even with having everything in place to warn, inform, and protect, we still need heart-renewing grace. The hope for our day and age, for our youth and families, lies not in man, not in filters, but in the Lord who continues to gather His people until the last one has been added to His kingdom. Daniel and his friends also lived in the world but by grace did not want to be of the world. We read that Daniel had an inner room where he sought strength in God. He realized, like Jehosaphat, that in us there is no strength “against this great company,” but his eyes were upon the Lord. Daniel also knew that in order to fight this battle we have to use the means available to us. We do not battle against flesh and blood but against many spiritual enemies.

Finally, the authors see this book as “a small introduction to media attitudes and media wisdom.” We wholeheartedly agree with their wish that “our children see us living the life of a true pilgrim” and receive the desire to become such a true pilgrim themselves. Therefore, we cannot endorse the use of social media, and encourage all to stay away from social media such as Instagram and Snapshot because of the many dangers and waste of time associated with the use of social media.

Yet, we would like to see this book in the hands of our families and office bearers to build awareness. May the Lord use it to open many eyes for the manifold dangers inherent to the modern media. By nature, our own hearts are so connected to these dangers that we need the grace that is found in Him who still has a willing people in the day of His power. Such people may delight in God’s commandments. Do we recognize ourselves as being one of these people?

The book is available from local modern media committees or church book rooms.

—The Synodical Modern Media Committee

Rev. E. Hakvoort, Chairman

Elder John Van Zweden, Secretary

Pilgrims on Snapchat

This article, the last in a 3-part series written by Dr. ir. S.M. de Bruin, was obtained from the Lethbridge Modern Media Committee with permission from the author and has also been published in the September/October 2017 edition of “Insight Into“.

Living as a stranger here below, journeying to a city that has foundations – and then, at the same time, on YouTube and Snapchat… Can the two go together?

The greatest walking event in the Netherlands will commence in one and a half months, when 50,000 people will walk in and around Nijmegen for four days to receive the Four Day March Cross. The exertion and perseverance of these walkers can be used as an example for us when we contemplate the baggage of Christian Pilgrims and their media usage. These walkers don’t only make sure they have the right shoes and light clothing, but they also very carefully pack their backpacks. As they add every bottle of drink and every roll of energy candy, they ask themselves if they really need it. They will avoid all excess baggage, because they feel that every 100 grams they don’t need acts only as ballast. Similarly, the runners in Hebrews 12:1 are urged to lay aside every weight that can hinder them. During their journey, these walkers or pilgrims also manage their time carefully and avoid everything that can divert them from their destinations. A Greek myth relates that Princess Atlanta lost a race because her competitor rolled three golden apples over the racetrack. She couldn’t resist the temptation and picked up the apples, thereby losing the competition.

Habituation or addiction

What is the practical meaning of this for a Christian in the 21st century? How can a father apply this image of the pilgrim to the upbringing of his teens? “Come on, Dad. You can’t walk with your head in the clouds the entire day, can you?” One of the malicious sides of today’s media is that they continuously demand our attention. This was already the case back in the days of the old-fashioned telephone, which penetrated into our conversations, disturbed the peace or interrupted our meals. Modern media devices don’t ring anymore, but the vibrating signal is quite sufficient to interrupt our concentration.

Why is this? In the past few years, we’ve come to know more about what takes place in the brain during the use of social media. Checking emails, messages, or WhatsApp becomes a habit or even an addiction, because of the regular interesting “rewards” perceived by getting these messages. These rewards cause the brain to produce dopamine, a “stimulating hormone”, which gives it a kick and stimulates the recipient to go on: to another film, another reply, reading another couple of messages. Another vibrating signal again: perhaps there is another interesting tidbit? It is precisely the unexpectedness and the pull of the unknown (just think of Snapchat) that make this effect so strong. Dopamine is a material in the brain that performs all sorts of functions, but one of its involvements is in addiction and the associated experience of pleasure. Brains can become so used to dopamine stimulants that we need more and more of them in order to feel “normal”.

In his book Ontketen je brein (Unleash your brain), Compernolle, a Flemish neuro-psychiatrist, describes how we become so accustomed to all these small, unpredictable rewards from our smartphones that we are no longer able to go offline. The deceitfulness of this is that we find it pleasurable. A second result is that these media continually disrupt us when we want to concentrate or rest or sleep. This disturbs important mental processes, such as reflection and archiving. Therefore, Compernolle advises us to go offline for an hour a couple of times per day, only do one task at a time and take regular breaks. This will improve our concentration, our willpower, our self-control and our creativity.

Christians must take this advice seriously. Young people – but also older ones – regularly complain that they have a hard time concentrating. Do we realize that the devices that constantly demand our attention are like heavy concrete bricks in the backpacks of pilgrims? That those hundreds of stimulations per day are the golden apples that roll over our racetracks? They look attractive and promising, but they exact a high price when they distract our attention during the sermon, during Bible reading or during our prayers. Here, only a radical choice is fitting, and parents have the important task of being the example: Go offline an hour before going to sleep, reserve time to “reflect” and time to think about and meditate on God’s Word. Do not read your Bible on an electronic device. Make sure that digital stimulants cannot disturb your Sabbath rest, by silencing your smartphone from Saturday evening to Monday morning. Avoid social networks that exist precisely because of surprise and stimulation (i.e., Snapchat) as much as possible. If your (home)work allows, turn off the sounds and signals of other networks (i.e., WhatsApp, Facebook, e-mail, etc.) to the extent possible and limit yourself to only answering these types of messages at fixed times. If someone really needs
you, they’ll phone you.

Vlogs

Among the many forms of media distraction lies a second danger that the pilgrim should greatly fear. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, we see how Christian continually met with diversions. When he, together with Faithful, passed the town of Vanity and could not bypass the fair, they put their fingers in their ears and looked upwards. Further on, when Christian and Hopeful passed the Enchanted Grounds, where sleep would be deadly, they kept each other awake by means of spiritual discourse and singing. In a previous article in this series, we have seen the excellent possibilities that these new media can offer. The other side of the coin is the secular influence of the “image culture” on our families. Games, videos, and vlogs on YouTube and series via NOP and Netflix slay their thousands. It is very important for parents to watch what their children are doing online and to familiarize themselves with sites like Facebook, Instagram, After School, ASKfm, Kik, and LIVE.LY to name only a few.

It often appears that parents themselves aren’t really that convinced of the associated dangers and, for the most part, are only concerned about the use of obscene language. The American preacher John Piper has an entirely different opinion about this. The article he wrote in 1995 about TV is still completely applicable to the image entertainment of the current era. “Turn off the TV. It is unimportant. And it is a lethal spot for your relaxation. The penetrating banalities, the sexual suggestions, and the God-denying values do not uplift your soul. It is mind numbing. It drives God away. It quenches prayer. It darkens the Bible. It reduces the value of your soul. It corrupts virtually everything. It is unnecessary for most of you and is spiritually lethal for all of you.” Later, he wrote that, although we can be more selective on the internet, “yet you can also search worse things on it, while only the Judge of heaven and earth beholds you.”

Whoever takes these words to heart, will say, together with the poet of Psalm 119: “I have refrained my feet from every evil way” (verse 101). Then, we will be happy with filters and other aids that keep this form of “recreation” at a distance; for ourselves, as well as for our children.

Filters

But filters – they don’t work at all, do they? Indeed, if someone wants to circumvent digital protection, they will most likely find a loophole. But those who know the deceitfulness of their own hearts and are afraid of it, actually feel the need for protection. These fathers and mothers will tell their children that, in the first place, they need the filter for themselves. Then, like Christian and Christiana, they will urge all their children to depart from the City of Destruction and join them on their pilgrimage.

In relation to this, we can also draw a valuable lesson from the Four-Day Race: not everyone can join, just like that. Someone can join up with the procession of walkers, go through the same difficulties, walk the same distance, and come into the same city along the same Via Gladiola. However, only those who have officially registered and can show their identity card will receive the Four-Day Cross.

The same holds true for the Christian pilgrim. Media education begins with conversion. The English evangelist Arthur Pink points out that we may not be satisfied with raising children to be “rich young rulers”, as “it will not profit us when we each try to form a good character and do that which will gain God’s approval, if our sins stand between Him and our souls. What good are shoes to us if we are lame? Or what good are pairs of glasses if we are blind? The matter of the forgiveness of our sins is fundamental, of vital importance. (…) At the hour of death, it comes down to this: Have our sins been blotted out by the blood of Christ?”

Dr. ir. S.M. de Bruijn

Media usage along the way

This article, the second in a 3-part series written by Dr. ir. S.M. de Bruin, was obtained from the Lethbridge Modern Media Committee with permission from the author and has also been published in the July/August 2017 edition of “Insight Into“.

A step toward heaven and toward hell, you say? I sure see that last part, but I notice little of the first part in my family.” Sometimes a mother can add, while in tears, “If only you knew…”

Why is there no such thing as a “manual for media education”? In one of his books on raising children, Professor ter Horst, a pedagogue from Leiden, writes that he was once invited to speak for a Christian women’s group. Prior to the conference, he and the ladies were served a sizable portion of homemade apple pie. “Then, I heard a sugar-sweet woman’s voice behind me, asking: ‘So, Mrs. Jansen, have you succeeded in giving your children a Christian upbringing?’ When I turned around, I saw Mrs. Jansen, a somewhat older woman, sadly shaking her head, and the woman who had asked the question smiling triumphantly.”

Ter Horst didn’t enjoy the rest of his apple pie and he thought up a new topic on the spot, bearing the title: “Raising children is not like baking apple pie.” The recipe will never be as simple as: “put in A, do B, and then C will follow.” A child is not a product of our upbringing, and we cannot make it, but we can break it.

For that reason no cookbook exists for media education. Of course, all kinds of tips and advice abound, but these are only stopgaps if the basis of media education is lacking. What is this basis then? It is closely connected to the aim of the upbringing. In “De geestelijke kwekerij”(The Spiritual Nursery), a book on raising children, published in 1621 by school teacher Johannes de Swaef, he writes: “The main duty of parents is to bring up their children to a godly life.” In the New Media lectureship at Driestar Educatief [Christian secondary school in the Netherlands], we have worked this out to four aims for the upbringing of children. I would like to describe two of them below.

Amish

People regularly sigh that they would prefer to flee to a forsaken island without Wifi, 4G, or computers. Centuries ago, hermits and monks also had a similar urge. Pillar saints spent years on top of pillars several meters from the ground where they secluded themselves to escape the temptations of the world.

The Amish are also much admired today, as are people who withdraw into cloisters. Wilhelmus à Brakel isn’t very positive about life in isolation and speaks of monasteries as being “manure sheds, dens of murder, and unclean Sodoms. (…) We abhor this lifestyle.” Man is a social being and needs company. He has to let his light shine before people and use his talents for the welfare of others. À Brakel’s continues that people must give each other a good example and must sharpen each other [Prov. 27:17]. He writes that by secluding ourselves from others, we are more likely to become beasts or devils than angels. “Continued solitude prevents us from learning to know our corrupt hearts, humbling ourselves on account of them, and attempting to sanctify them.” This also agrees with the following petition found in the High priestly prayer: “I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:15).

If you were to extend this line of thought to media usage, then again, the deportment of a hermit would be seen as not fitting for a Christian. Christians have a divine calling. After creation, they were commanded to work and therein they may serve others and society (Gal. 6:10). But, another extreme threatens here, in the case of Christians who are so comfortable in the world that they become too attached to it. One can immediately see from their behaviour that they have taken root here, as if this is their final destination. While the hermit underestimates the enemy within, this type of inhabitant hardly notices the snares which the world lays for him.

Pilgrim and citizen

In the Media Attitude Model, we propose two different lifestyles that lie between these extremes and keep each other well-balanced: that of pilgrim and citizen. Pilgrims realize that they are traveling to eternity. Pilgrims are not tourists or globetrotters, nor are they wandering nomads, but they are on the way to a better Fatherland. During that journey they are, as Augustine already described, the citizens of two kingdoms: the earthly city and the heavenly city. They faithfully do their work because God calls on them to do so, but it also must be done in the spirit of the pilgrimage. They will never feel completely at home here.

Everyone will understand that this standard is very high. This demands a radical change in direction, because nobody is born a pilgrim. We cannot better illustrate how to become pilgrims than John Bunyan did in his beautiful book, in which Christian leaves the City of Destruction. After almost having sunk away in the Slough of Despond and brought along the wrong path towards the house of Mr. Legality, Christian is finally permitted to go through the straight gate. This also applies to media education: this doesn’t begin with some pruning here and there, but with the change that Paul describes in Ephesians 2: from “dead in trespasses and sins” to “quickened together with Christ”.

Is this a suitable answer for a mother in tears? Of course, it is her daily prayer that all her children will be converted, but in the meantime, she must see with regret how they are addicted to the smartphone. In spite of this, may she, as De Swaef wrote, persist to wean her children from evil and plant that which is good in them, thereby teaching them the fear of the Lord (Ps. 34:11). Then, she, just as Christiana, may take her children along through that narrow gate. This lifestyle of pilgrim and citizen teaches us much about handling the media.

  1. Pilgrims are on a journey. They want to prevent delay and they spend their time efficiently. They also continually ask themselves, while using media, what they are doing with their time. YouTube contains harmful and nonsense videos as well as useful ones, but watching the latter category also costs more time than is usually judged beforehand. We need to turn off YouTube on our smartphones and switch off “Auto play” (the little gear on the bottom right) on the computer so that the next video won’t start. Be an example, as an educator, by terminating time-consuming conversations and correcting others on the family’s WhatsApp group. Time for relaxation is useful and necessary, but must remain limited. Carefully define those borders by means of programs such as Kliksafe Mobi, Qustodio, or Covenant Eyes.
  2. Pilgrims don’t take anything with them that will hinder them along the way. Soberness is a Christian virtue that doesn’t only influence media usage. As educators, we can give an example by showing that we are not attached to expensive devices and immediately buy every new model. The conscious choice for a smaller internet connection instead of fiber optics, or for Wi-Fi instead of a data bundle, are suitable examples. Soberness and self-control appear when we don’t react to every signal and instead put smartphones away during mealtimes and coffee breaks. Pilgrims also feel that Satan continually wants to distract them and hold them back from their journey. They know their sinful hearts and are happy with every filter that keeps those temptations away from them.
  3. Pilgrims attract attention. They don’t follow the crowd but are recognizable as strangers and they are not ashamed of following a different course. In WhatsApp conversations, they protest against gossip and cannot bear others dishonouring the name of their King. Their Facebook-profiles aren’t neutral, just like their bookcases and baskets of magazines aren’t neutral: you can see in them what their hearts go out to and to what destination their journey will take them.

In the next article, we will inspect the pilgrim’s baggage more closely.

Dr. ir. S.M. de Bruijn

A Giant Step toward Heaven and toward Hell

This article, the first in a 3-part series written by Dr. ir. S.M. de Bruin, was obtained from the Lethbridge Modern Media Committee with permission from the author and has also been published in the May/June 2017 edition of “Insight Into“.

Smartphones are terrific inventions! Aren’t they? It isn’t very difficult to come up with ten dangers and disadvantages of modern media. By contrast, the advantages of these electronic devices often remain out of the picture. This is too bad, because it frustrates young people and stands in the way of a well-balanced conversation about new media.

The books and poems of the Jewish-Christian writer Isaäc da Costa are not read much these days. The best known quote from his work relates to the art of printing: a step toward heaven and a step toward hell. He literally wrote: “It was a giant step toward heaven – and toward hell. Yes, mankind! Also toward hell.” Da Costa did not apply this only to the printing press, he also directed it to the invention of the steamboat and the train.

A giant step towards hell. There are many examples of this: a little boy in elementary school who games for 4.5 hours every day; a sex film that circulates through Grade 6; bullying a Grade 5 girl by excluding her from  the class’s WhatsApp group; a divorce because an “old flame” broke up a marriage via Facebook; the image culture that slays its thousands. Just ask a few parents on the school grounds and you will hear one lamentation after another.

Then what about that step toward heaven? A leap, even? A giant step? That is more difficult to find. Is that because we hardly realize any longer what the world looked like half a century ago? Let us first mention a few advantages of modern technology.

Speed

The first postal connections straight through Europe came into existence around 1490. It took five and a half days for a letter from Innsbruck, in Austria, to arrive in Antwerp, Belgium. That was true in the summer, but in the winter it took a day longer, since the courier could only travel by day. Every 35 kilometers, another courier and a fresh horse stood ready to take over the mailbag.

Today, this slow pace would be unimaginable. The great breakthrough in connection with speed was (after the fax) the arrival of e-mail. Today, electronic letters arrive at their place of destination literally within seconds, at basically no cost. This has been an enormous breakthrough. Hand-written letters and postcards are seldom sent anymore.

In the meantime, the younger generation considers e-mailing to be out of date: you only use email to contact your teacher or the government. You exchange messages via WhatsApp or Facebook and if you really have to forward a document, then you do that with a Dropbox or OneDrive link.

What can we learn from this? Parents might wonder about the usefulness of all those messages via WhatsApp, Facebook, or Snapchat. It might help to compare your current use of e-mail to the former use of letters. Or, if you don’t e-mail, then compare your letter to that of the courier in 1490. To put it briefly: in the past, it was different, but not everything was better.

Multimedia

That letter from 1490, as well as the first Dutch newspaper in 1618, probably only consisted of words. Today, communication more often consists of images. Instead of telling someone at home that you ate a delicious meal at a restaurant, you post a picture of your meal. Baby’s first steps and Grandma’s birthday: WhatsApp is perfect for both.

But the current manner of communication is popular for more than just family news or geography homework. WhatsApp is increasingly used for business, especially when asking for advice. A carpenter posts a picture to a group and asks his colleagues for advice. When your washing machine is broken, you contact the appliance dealer via WhatsApp and send pictures of the error message. Last year, NRC [a Dutch media company] reported that doctors often consult each other on WhatsApp and exchange pictures to ask each other for advice. This has even saved lives in emergency situations.

Social media also have a valuable place in business communications. In the U. S., some businesses barely invest in websites anymore, but use Facebook to present themselves to their customers. Customers who use the Facebook page of KLM [the Dutch airline] say that they are assisted faster there than via the telephone. The NS [the Dutch national passenger railway operator] is known for its friendly customer service via Twitter. On YouTube, the most popular category, apart from the videos, music, and games section, is the “how-to” section. This section is full of instructions for doing anything from repairing a tire to applying nail polish to preparing artichokes to repairing false teeth.

It says a lot that both information and communication are now especially shared via social media. Discussions about the social media usage of younger people often include the accusation that all those conversations “aren’t about anything”, but that verdict is too short sighted. Of course, many discussions on WhatsApp are without substance. However, numerous messages have more substance than most correspondence or telephone conversations.

App Economy

Thus, the aim of social media is not just “having fun”. If the Netherlands had to go without electricity or telephone for 24 hours, the damage would be enormous – everyone realizes that. But the same goes for having to go without Internet, Facebook, or WhatsApp.

A third important development is that of the App-economy. Just as the steam machine, the railway, and the road networks have stimulated economic growth, the smartphone is now an “infrastructure” with revenue in the millions. In 2016, the App-economy itself was already worth 143 billion dollars, five times as much as Philips’s international turnover. And then consider that Philips has to sell thousands of deep-fryers, toothbrushes, LED lights, and ultrasound equipment, whereas, with an app, you don’t even need to use a screwdriver. Add to that the followers of these apps and the influence they have on the “regular” economy. That isn’t easy to express in dollars, but think about the influence of web shops on shopping centres, or of the Uber-app on the taxi world.

Giant Step

Thus, the fruits of the digital revolution are very diverse. The same WhatsApp that causes a divorce one day saves lives the next day. That is what Da Costa meant by a step toward heaven and toward hell. He wrote that “the art of printing produced novels which jeer at God’s ordinances, dethrone kings, pollute marriage, and kindle flames of revolution.”

But Da Costa also saw God’s finger in it, because “from then on, the Scriptures, the first thing printed, went to the corners of the earth ten-thousand fold.” That was the giant step toward heaven. When someone takes stock of the art of printing centuries later, one may reflect on this with amazement. By God’s grace, that invention, together with that of mail distribution, has contributed much to the Reformation!

But, at the same time, we see that the “section” for Bibles and good books in a Bruna-store [a Dutch bookstore] is nothing in size compared to the shelves full of junk. That is also what it looks like in the app-stores of Apple and Google, where Bunyan is rivalled by the Bouquet series and Martin Luther is rivalled by Minecraft. Someone who steps into this type of digital store can really imagine being at Vanity Fair.

For that matter, Da Costa did not limit that giant step toward heaven to the printing of Bibles, but he also included the “multiplication of light, science, word, will, and power.” This kind of list could easily be applied to the smartphone and its digital products. It doesn’t only count for that in-depth WhatsApp conversation between Grandma and her granddaughter or for listening to the church telephone, but it also counts for the Skype conversation with the children in Canada or the YouTube film of the mission in Powakka.

This article is not meant to gloss over the objections against the smartphone or the dangers of social media. On the contrary, these objections will be discussed in detail in the two following articles in this series. However, in order to find a good balance, it’s worthwhile to stay aware of the positive possibilities as well.

Dr. ir. S.M. de Bruin