The following excerpt contains sections from Chapter 7, “Faith for Exiles: Keeping Faith in Digital Babylon,” in Rooted: Growing in Christ in a Rootless Age by Stephen C. Shaffer (Peniel Press, 2022). Stephen graduated from WTS in 2013 with an M.Div. and is currently a pastor at Bethel Reformed Church in Brantford, Ontario.
Babylon is not dead; it just went online. In their book Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock describe our current culture in the West as a “Digital Babylon.” Once, the Christian faith sat at the center of many communities—as Jerusalem sat in the middle of Israel. Now, that faith feels pushed to the margins. Many of us may have grown up near a “spiritual Jerusalem,” but we now live in Babylon. Though we may not feel as if we have changed, the culture has certainly changed around us, and it can be disorienting, particularly as change seems to occur faster and faster.
We sense that fewer people are religious (or at least believe in the same way). We have now moved into Babylon. No one asked us if we wanted to move, but we are there, nonetheless. According to Kinnaman and Matlock:
Ancient Babylon was the pagan-but-spiritual, hyper-stimulated, multicultural, imperial crossroads that became the unwilling home of Judean exiles, including the prophet Daniel, in the sixth century BCE. But digital Babylon is not a physical place. It is the pagan-but-spiritual, hyper-stimulated, multicultural, imperial crossroads that is the virtual home of every person with Wi-Fi, a data plan, or—for most of us—both.
While Ancient Babylon used the threat of physical violence to impose its will, Digital Babylon’s weapons are more subtle, though no less powerful. The goal is not merely military conquest but cultural conquest.
Digital Babylon does not need swords and arrows to conquer us when it can use the internet and our smartphones. When we consume content on the internet, whether through apps, videos, music, tv shows, or social media, we are being discipled—shaped to consider some things important by how much attention they take from us. In this way, we can participate in our own colonization by Digital Babylon. “The idea of digital colonization may seem extreme, but here is the point: screens inform and connect, but they also distract and entertain. Through screens’ ubiquitous presence, [Digital] Babylon’s pride, power, prestige, and pleasure colonize our hearts and minds.” Digital Babylon works its way into our hearts through the devices we can never seem to leave behind.
Digital Babylon is driven by distraction. Our most precious commodity in the digital age is not our time or money, but our attention. Boredom is the new enemy, and everything we own seeks to capture our limited attention. The problem of distraction, however, runs much deeper than the temptation to scroll through Facebook at work. Our inability to sit quietly with our own souls creates the most significant spiritual problem of our times. When our hearts begin to ache, we self-medicate through technology. The discomfort, the quiet prick of our conscience, the unease that all is not right with ourselves, or even the hint that there might be something more—these fears are quieted quickly by watching another episode on Netflix, joining another Twitter crusade, or scrolling TikTok.
Big questions take time to consider. It requires attention to examine our deeply held convictions, to wrestle with uncomfortable and potentially life-altering truths.
Yet, utterly exhausted from needing to know the latest thing constantly, we have little energy to consider the deeper things. Trained to distract ourselves at the slightest sense of internal discomfort, we stop the hard work of soul searching before it even begins. “The problem occurs when antipathy toward sustained introspection and soul searching, cultivated through habitual distraction, becomes a barrier for hearing the gospel.”
The distraction at the heart of Digital Babylon is dangerous, not just for workplace productivity but also for our souls. Through digital addiction, we numb ourselves to the prick of our conscience, an instrument the Holy Spirit uses for our redemption and sanctification. We soothe our conscience, not through confession and absolution, but through the rush of distraction.
Let’s be honest—we are all in Digital Babylon now. We cannot go back to Jerusalem, at least not yet. We are called to live and to learn to live in this land of exile. We must, like Israel before us, learn to live as strangers in a strange land, to live as faithful people on foreign soil. I am not arguing that technology is inherently bad and that we should eliminate all digital technology from our lives. Instead, we need to recognize the culture we live in and how it shapes us to love and value certain things.
If we are unaware of how our culture shapes us, we will be unprepared for the struggles our culture causes. “If we assume that society will continue down the path of adopting invasive and distracting technologies, the question facing Christians becomes not only how can we resist these changes but also how can we speak the truth in a culture where this is the norm?” Like all exiles, we will need to learn specific patterns of resistance. In the biblical story of God’s people, we see how God gave gifts to his church—such as baptism, the Christian funeral, prayer, singing, the Lord’s Supper, and wisdom—that foster deeper rootedness in Christ in a rootless land.
We must be rooted in something deeper than our distractable, media-fueled days. We must root ourselves in Christ himself. Only when we abide in Christ, when we belong—not to ourselves, but to Jesus—will we be able to withstand the pressures of Digital Babylon. Digital Babylon may seem like a hopeless place to live. Yet, green shoots grow up among the rubble.