Spiritual Formation with Catholics vs Legalism with Hard Partying Fundamentalists

I have some bad news for you if you’re a fundamentalist and also most likely if you’re an evangelical Christian.

There’s a pretty good chance that many of the leaders who enforce all of the rules and doctrines you’re supposed to follow are partying pretty hard on the weekends or have a secret vice that contradicts all of the rules for holy living they impose on you.

I’m serious about this. Some of these former pastors talk to me about publishing their stories because they know how hollow such a secret life can be. The number of national scandals of religious leaders who are household names are only eclipsed by those who are unknown but still mired in scandal and contradiction.

A well known court evangelical, who is outspoken in his partisan political positions and notable for leading an increasingly fundamentalist Christian university, recently posted a vacation photo of himself that clearly violated several of his own rules. In fact, many employees at Christian universities, churches, and other parachurch groups would be fired for similar photos.

This isn’t the first time this person has released evidence of his double standards, and he has a lot of company among similar pastors and fundamentalist leaders who enforce strict rules in public while living an indulgent double life.

There’s something rotten about it all. Considering that Jesus was most critical of the religious leaders who were laden with rules and remained “white washed tombs” on the inside, we should remain wary of a Christianity that demands adherence to excessive lists of rules. The longer the list of rules, the more likely adherents are to forget the point of it all.

Ironically, the leaders who enforce the rules of their tribes and issue warnings about “slippery slopes,” are among the first ones to slip and slide away from their own standards.

If you’re angry or despondent about such behavior, I don’t blame you. However, all is not lost. In fact, there is something much better for us if we’re willing to rethink what holy living can look like.

Spiritual Formation as an Alternative

The alternative to rule bound legalism isn’t anything goes, feel good religion or a surrender to the prosperity Gospel. Spiritual formation through the supernatural and mysterious work of God in our lives offers an alternative to the piles of rules for personal moral behavior.

In fact, there are still rules of a sort. We could say that a “rule of life” that guides our formation helps us keep space for God’s influence and transformative power. A rule of life helps us define our values and spiritual practices so that we make space for them each day.

Spiritual formation doesn’t rest primarily on external duty, obligation, or enforcement of rules. It looks to the inner work of God in our lives and trusts that the Spirit moves even in unseen ways in our hearts.

Catholic writer Henri Nouwen writes in his book Spiritual Formation:

“Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves.”

He then adds:

“Thus to live the spiritual life and to let God’s presence fill us takes constant prayer, and to move from our illusions and isolation back to that place in the heart where God continues to form us in the likeness of Christ takes time and attention.”

Sustainable Spiritual Formation vs. Double Life Legalism

The biggest difference between the duty of external rules and the formation of God’s internal work in us comes down to what’s sustainable. There is tremendous pressure and energy that must be exerted to stick with the program of external rules. Meanwhile, spiritual formation calls for discipline and space for practices, but it entrusts the work of formation with God’s indwelling Spirit.

The results of spiritual formation are determined by God as we surrender our lives. We have a role in the process, but God’s renewal comes to us regularly like a spring of water that sustains us.

It is quite likely that those laden with rules will either develop secret vices as a way of letting off some steam or simply run out of energy to uphold all of the rules. This type of legalism is powered by fear of being outed and expelled from the group. It struggles to show mercy to those who have failed because membership in the group demands following the rules.

If the power for spiritual transformation comes by faith in God’s power at work in us, then we have something that can last for the long haul. We will certainly fail, but our failure is often rooted in exerting control over our lives rather than surrendering ourselves to God’s love and to the Spirit’s quiet work in us.

Call me crazy, but even as an avowed Protestant myself, I’ll take Henri Nouwen’s sustainable and quiet path toward spiritual formation over the double life of hard partying fundamentalists. Besides the inner emptiness of legalism, I’ll bet the fundamentalists also have really bad taste in wine.

How to Make an Author Howl in Despair

 

No one ever made me literally howl with despair, as if I was lost in the bleak darkness of the wilderness, but I’ve had that feeling deep in my soul on many occasions when discussing my latest book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction.

The internal howling in despair often happened before I sharpened my elevator pitch for Reconnect. I told others little tidbits about the aim of the book:

  • It’s a book about using technology too much…
  • It’s a book about how technology makes it hard to pray…
  • It’s a book about how spiritual practices can help us transcend the harm done by smartphones and social media…

Each time I shared little tidbits like this, people naturally compared my idea to existing books—one book in particular came up, in fact.

  • “Oh, it’s like The Tech Wise Family, then?”
  • “Ah, I see. That sounds like The Tech Wise Family.”
  • “Hey, I just read The Tech Wise Family. That’s the same idea, right?”

This is where the internal howling kicked in. Perhaps a sophisticated answer like this passed through my mind as well:

“NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

There are two really good reasons for this response…

Authors Always Believe Their Books Are Unique

Part of the reason for this response on my part is that every author, for better or for worse, believes their books are precious little unique snowflakes that have deeply unappreciated intricacies that truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

Even the authors who write Bible studies on the book of Romans or something about fighting the stress of “too busy” with the whisper “you are enough” (don’t forget the flowers on the cover too) think their books are extremely unique. My gosh, it’s still a bit of a miracle that I got a book published in 2008 about “theology and culture” at a time when every white dude with an MDiv was “musing” about such things on their blogs.

Authors can’t help it. And to a certain extent, every book is as unique as the author. Even books that appear identical may find a new angle that benefits readers. And honestly, some topics just have a higher demand that publishers who want to keep the lights on can’t help meeting.

Yet, there is another really good reason for this howling in despair…

Authors Must Distinguish Their Books

One of the most stressful and challenging aspects of writing a book proposal for a publisher is the Competing Works section that lists five or six similar titles and compares them to your proposed book. The competing works is a difficult balancing act because you need to demonstrate an existing market for your book without overlapping completely with an existing work.

I’ve seen promising book proposals fall flat because similar books were either in a publisher’s pipeline or had been newly released.

When I developed a proposal for Reconnect, I listed The Tech Wise Family as a competing work and carefully distinguished my book from it. If I was pitching something that is “the same thing” as The Tech Wise Family, I wouldn’t be able to promote my book to readers, let alone to a publisher.

My internal howling and shouting at comparisons to The Tech Wise Family called to mind the painstaking process of defining my book’s place in the market.

I didn’t know of any other Christian book that merged an awareness of the design of digital technology and its formative impact with an awareness of spiritual formation and the ways technology could undermine spirituality.

When I managed to calm down my internal screaming during these conversations, I put it like this: The Tech Wise Family is accurate and useful, but it’s dealing with the flood  by proposing countermeasures to deal with the reality we have.

I’m seeking to look further upstream…

Why do we have a flood?

What is the design of the flood?

How can we keep the flood from reaching us in the first place?

How can we build a solid foundation of spiritual practices that can save us from being swept away in the flood?

Less Howling, More Silence

I fully endorse and use the ideas in The Tech Wise Family, but I have personally needed a different approach to digital formation. I needed to understand why I’m drawn to social media and my smartphone. I needed to understand the ways these technologies exploit my weaknesses and how spiritual practices can restore my soul each day.

Placing good barriers around my technology use has helped me, but I wanted to know why I needed these barriers in the first place.

Most importantly, I needed a soul restoring alternative to digital formation. For many of us, our excessive smartphone use is scratching at itch for something: distraction, connection, enjoyment, etc.

I wanted to find the alternative to digital formation, and many of spiritual formation’s practices offer helpful alternatives. Digital formation makes us reactive; spiritual formation helps us become thoughtful and aware. Digital formation creates despair and anxiety; spiritual formation helps us wait with patience and hope.

All of this is to say in a very detailed way that my book Reconnect is a precious little unique snowflake that has deeply unappreciated intricacies that only truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

I trust that you are just that sort of reader and that you are no doubt eager to read it now, rather than telling me it’s just like The Tech Wise Family

 

Learn More about My Precious, Unique Book

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

Learn more about Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

Order Reconnect Today

Download the FREE 4-Session Reconnect Discussion Guide

Reconnect

Is Social Media Giving Us More or Fewer Choices?

The promise of technology today is an endless supply of choices. We have so many apps to choose from, where an abundance of users deliver an immeasurable amount of posts, videos, and images for us to view.

Dotted throughout this ecosystem, we find links to articles, ads for products, and instantly streaming videos that are ready to go if we simply stop scrolling for a second.

Group video calls, personal video updates, and online watch parties enhance the experience and possibilities of social networking online. Book clubs, interest groups, and religious gatherings all benefit from these free and easy ways to get connected.

Each time we scroll through social media, the choices and possibilities may leave us feeling overwhelmed, especially in the midst of a rapidly changing national crisis such as police violence or the COVID-19 pandemic.

We may even spend much more time online than we intended, scrolling through news stories, expert commentary, and the reactions of friends, colleagues, and leaders we respect.

What Is Social Media Designed to Do?

Humming along in the background, social media companies track our actions, compiling profiles of users so that advertisers can better target each person with customized content.

Social media is now a vital part of advertising in the “attention economy.” The companies that can attract the most attention, have the best chance to make a profit from that attention.

The companies behind social media have every incentive to keep us hooked and have designed their products to be as addicting as possible. While we see endless opportunities to connect with others, to learn, and share our perspectives, social media companies simply want to consume as much of our time as possible.

The features on social media, such as infinite scrolling, the red notification alert, the likes and comments, and the groups and posts that show up in your feed are all designed to keep you hooked or to crave more.

What Are You Choosing to Do on Social Media?

This brings up a vital discussion about choice and freedom on social media.

If companies have every incentive to keep us hooked…

If the designers, engineers, and psychologists have maximized the addictive qualities of every feature to manipulate us…

If many former social media investors, executives, and engineers have stopped using social media for all of these reasons and more…

Then how much control do we have over our usage?

If social media triggers a pleasant little hit of dopamine each time we check on a new update or find an amusing post by a friend as we scroll through our feed, then why wouldn’t we keep checking in?

Why wouldn’t we feel unable to leave our homes without our phones if they are so good at delivering quick hits of pleasure that hardly last?

We are being manipulated through hacks to our psychology and physiology. Our good and healthy desires for community, information, and amusement are exploited against us to our detriment and to a company’s profit.

As social media sucks us in each day, our choices and possibilities become narrow. We feel the pull to return to social media, and once we’re on, we may struggle to leave.

We are free to stay, to be manipulated, and to continue to experience the quick hits of affirmation and pleasure, but the manipulation is strong enough to make logging off seem impossible at times. Our choice to put social media down isn’t cut and dry because of what we’re up against on our devices and in our feeds.

How I Give Myself More Choices

I have found that I have the most freedom and agency to choose what I will do with my day by limiting social media with blocking programs like Self Control 2, Freedom, or StayFocusd.

If my choices for the day include social media, I have found that social media is designed to captivate my attention to the point that it doesn’t share well with any other goal I have.

If I choose social media without a plan to block or track my usage at times, social media will end up choosing how I spend my free time much more effectively than I will. I have the freedom to limit my usage and to set up blocks to protect my time, but once I step out of those blocks, it may be extremely hard to follow more intentional boundaries for my mental health and the benefit of others around me.

The more I limit my choices on social media, the more choices I have everywhere else in my life.

The less I limit my choices on social media, the fewer choices I have everywhere else in my life.

There may be some people who can use social media without blocks or intention at this time, but given enough time and attention, the algorithms will go to work. When working properly, they will keep us engaged as long as possible.

As long as we are engaged with social media, we can choose whatever we want–on social media.

My hope in writing Reconnect is that more people will reclaim their time and attention, using social media within beneficial boundaries. This ensures that their lives will be filled with choices that align with their desires and not the desires of Silicon Valley executives.

Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

Learn more about Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

Order Reconnect Today

Download the FREE 4-Session Reconnect Discussion Guide

Reconnect