The Age of Fragmentation: Spiritual Living in the Digital World

Not too many years ago, if you wanted to know what was happening in youth culture you could tune into a few key TV shows, peruse a few magazines, scan Billboard’s Top 40 and hang out at the mall for awhile. When there were limited options, it was relatively manageable to keep track of the culture. 

Today, in addition to scanning 470 satellite channels (radio and TV), subscribing to over 20 periodicals specifically targeting teen culture, and checking out the malls, you also have to monitor blog sites, visit chat rooms, and figure out which download and file sharing websites are the most popular. And you would just scratch the surface of the teenage “world beneath.”

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have been interpreted in today’s American culture as “my right to have limitless choices.” Technology and media are at the same time promoters and guardians of that right:

  • In .35 seconds I can Google 53,000,000 websites with the phrase “Term Papers.”
  • In a device a little larger than a half dollar I can store and listen to 250 songs.
  • In a best selling software game I can create not only towns and buildings, but people and manage their lives.

You get the idea.

The digital age with its limitless choices has ushered in what I call the “Fragmentation Age.” Each individual choice allows me to disengage from the larger culture and pursue whatever meets my interest or desire at the time. Although there are some “macro” cultural movements and trends that stand out, the Fragmentation Age is more characterized by a myriad of cultures occurring simultaneously. Where choice is an inalienable right, there’s no “one way” to do anything anymore. In fact, the Fragmentation Age has ushered in a mindset that allows seeming contradictions to coexist side by side.

In the world it sounds like this:

  • “I’m a Depublican–I like some of what the Democrats stand for and some of what the Republicans believe.”
  • “Love Your Mother”–seen on a bumper sticker with a picture of the Earth on a Ford Excursion. (SUV that gets 10-12 MPG)

In the faith community it also shows up:

  • “Jesus is cool, but Christians suck.”
  • “I can worship God, but don’t need church.”
  • “I like the Calvary Chapel Sunday service, attend First Baptist Youth Group, and go with Trinity Lutheran on their Mexico Mission trips.”

The Fragmentation Age forces us to re-think who we are, what we’re about, and how to be about it. The good news is that what’s happening all around us is a process that’s been going on a long time. History teaches us about all the “advances” science and technology have made over the last centuries: the printing press, the light bulb, the assembly line, the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, the television, the personal computer. With each of those advances come unique cultural challenges to which culture adapts and which Christians can use to communicate the truths of Jesus Christ.

So our challenge becomes: in the Age of Fragmentation how do we not only “protect” teens from being swallowed up by this culture but engage them to live by the power of God’s grace and positively influence those around them? In a world with so many cultures, so many choices, so many temptations how do we help them remain and grow in their faith?

The good news is that the Lord of the universe, who has been Lord over all the changes and cultural shifts in history, is still lord over the iPod and Razor phone. He is still Lord over My Space, AIM and SIMs. According to His Word, He still has a plan (Matt.28:19, 20), He still has a people (1 Pet 2:9), and He is still the Way, the Truth, and The Life (Jn.14:6).

If there’s one key for navigating teens through the whitewater of culture surrounding us it’s simply this: remind them who they are and what they are about. We cannot even predict, let alone protect, our teens from every temptation they face in this culture. But we can help to equip them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a great model for communication: “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…” In a culture that would distract God’s people from who they are and what their about, Jesus presents a counter culture truth.  A basic part of our identity and mission as His children is that we are holy, set apart, called out–in a phrase, counter-cultural.

Henri Nouwen, in his book Life of the Beloved, writes about spiritual living in a secular world. What’s intriguing about the book is that he takes the life of the follower of Jesus and parallels it to Mt.16:26, where Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the communion bread. Nouwen is taking a very specific sacramental text and giving it wider application, but I think it’s helpful in our quest to help teens live counter culture lives that don’t just survive, but thrive in the face of a culture that constantly works against them. The words of Christ instituting communion reflect the actions of Christ in forming our counter-culture mission and identity:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples. (Matt 26:26 , ESV)

“Jesus took bread…”: Each one of us is “taken,” chosen by God through Christ. Our first and primary identity is child of God, His beloved (1 Jn.3:2).  In a culture that says we are significant for what we look like, possess, or have to offer, the counter-culture Christ makes us significant simply because of His choosing (Jn.15:16). In a world that seeks significance by taking, we find ours in being taken.  What greater identity and significance can there be than in being chosen by the Creator of the universe, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords?

“…and after blessing it…”: Along with being chosen, our identity includes being blessed. Cultural identity says blessing is deserved and earned. If you have the looks, the talent, the money, the attitude, the opportunity blessings will follow. Live your life right, keep your chin up, just say “no,” fulfill the cultural mandates, and you’ll be blessed. The counter-culture Christ blesses us, not as a response to our goodness but as part of our basic identity. Our understanding of the world around us, then, comes from a position of blessing. When Jesus said, “Blessed are…” in Matthew 5, He was not talking about how to earn it by being good, but about a lifestyle identity. To be His is to be blessed.

“…broke it…”: To appear weak, in need, or out of control are major taboos of this culture. We are drawn to products and services that increase our knowledge, power, control, and influence. It’s the same old temptation (“you will be like God…”) with a Fragmentation Age twist. The counter-culture Christ identifies for us true strength, true wealth, and true life (Mt.16:24-26). Part of our identity is to be in the constant process of being broken–dying to the ways of this culture and embracing the ways of Christs counter-culture. Again, it is an identity thing; we do it because that is who Christ makes us to be.

“…and gave it…”: We live in a culture that says “The world exists for me.” The chief purpose for living is self-gratification. It does allow for acts of charity and kindness because such things make us feel good and they’re good things to do, but giving is optional. The counter-culture Christ takes flesh in the womb of a Virgin, walks on the Sea of Galilee, and touches the leper for one reason: that the world, the culture might be redeemed. Being in this world, this culture at this point in history is no accident for us. “As the Father sent me…” (Jn.20:21). We are given by Jesus as light, as salt, as witnesses to “declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Pet.2:9). Being given to this culture to offer a counter-culture hope is who we are, our identity.

Taken. Blessed. Broken. Given. It’s the identity that equips God’s people to reject what this culture offers and the mold into which it tries to force us. It’s the calling that propels us to not just survive this culture but to proclaim the counter-culture Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and is the key for transforming for any culture, especially ours.

Published March 15, 2007

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