Adam Thomas, Digital Disciple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), 144pp.
Reviewer: Dr Tim Hutchings
Adam Thomas’ first book is a brief, personal discussion of faith in digital culture, drawing on his own experiences as “one of the first Millennials to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood” (back cover). Thomas’ youth, nerdiness, and Episcopalianism have been selected as the key selling points for this book, marked across both covers in text, review quotes, and photos; Thomas himself appears twice in clerical shirt, jeans, and fashionable glasses. Despite this marketing, nothing in the book itself is specific to the Episcopal denomination. Thomas’ theology is broad and uncontroversial, using Bible passages and classic prayer techniques to encourage a personal spirituality focused on awareness of God’s presence in everyday life. His writing style is informal and frequently witty, without assuming technological competence, and an appendix of questions aims to interest both independent readers and study groups.
Thomas’ first chapter, “Virtual People,” sets out his key arguments. “The Tech”—a shorthand term for the technological advances of the last 50 years (p. 5), particularly digital media—connects people while isolating them, creating dependence on gadgets and promoting a form of “remote intimacy” (p. 2). Technology can limit openness to the divine: God can be encountered online, but only if Christians practice awareness of his presence.
These suggestions are drawn out in more detail over the next four chapters. “From Connection to Communion” calls for Christians to recognize the ‘seed of holiness’ (p. 28) within every online contact, and identifies the emergence of a new kind of house church online—“meeting” whenever two people talk about Jesus, ask for prayer, or donate money to charity. Practicing awareness of God’s presence means cultivating these connections and seeing God in them. “Remote Intimacy” addresses the danger of technology-based communication, encouraging Christians to seek meaningful and preferably offline contact as well as transient online connections. “Empty Minds and Disposable Bodies” accuses the Tech of devaluing the body and the mind, offering easy substitutes for presence and memory. “Googling Prayer” focuses on time and expectation, identifying an incompatibility between the instant gratification and constant activity promoted by technology and the patient waiting required by prayer. Thomas’ final chapter, “Tech Sabbath,” offers one solution: brief vacations from digital connection, to experience solitude and regain appreciation for personal connection.
None of these suggestions are new, but Thomas presents them with unusual persuasiveness through personal anecdotes, particularly focused on his experiences in seminary and his heavy use and eventual rejection of the game World of Warcraft. There is little engagement here with academic theology or media studies, but Thomas’ reliance on his own experience still offers a considerable advantage over competitors in this rapidly expanding genre of Christian publishing. It is rare to find a book that combines appreciation and critique of media, treating neither as an after-thought, and rarer still to find an author who can speak with confidence about contemporary media culture. As an informal contemplation of contemporary Christian life, Digital Disciple is excellent—but we must hope that future books in this field will start to build on current offerings and offer some genuinely new insights.