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I have a confession to make. When it comes to self-help books, I have kind of a strange definition of what “help” means. So many books written today are about empowerment and convincing yourself that you’re just the best, and that just doesn’t interest me for some reason. I have a weird tendency to gravitate towards books and authors that tell me what I’m doing wrong. When I’m reading a book, or listening to a podcast or sermon, the more convicted of my sin or shortcomings I feel, the more I’m motivated to change.
It’s this propensity for self-flagellation that moved me to pick up this relatively new book by author Tony Reinke, called 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. My sadistic brain saw the title and immediately thought, Finally! I can really see “what’s wrong with America these days” and I’ll be able to use someone else’s words to point it out. But what I got from this book isn’t a diatribe against technology, or even a subtle “If the kids would only put down their Snapchats” finger wag. It was a level-headed, well-reasoned discussion on, well… how your phone is changing you, as well as how it’s not.
I normally hate Buzzfeed-style listicles almost as much as I’m drawn to self-critique (also, I hate that the word “listicle” is acceptable to my spell checker). But when I saw that John Piper wrote the foreword, I decided to take the chance, and I’m so glad I did.
Reinke organizes the book into 12 chapters, obviously, each with a warning and an encouragement for Christian believers as we navigate this life with Siri, Alexa, and Google always by our sides. He starts with addressing our newfound addiction to distractions, moves through our relationships with other physical people, and finally lands on our relationship with our Creator. Then he does something interesting: Having covered all that material in the first six chapters, he follows it up with six more chapters essentially mirroring the same content all over again. Looking back at the end of the book, chapters 1 and 12 complement each other on our temporal place in the history of the world. 2 and 11 both speak to how our willful ignorance of people in the same room in favor of people on the other side of our screens lead to acting out of frustration, not love. And so on. It’s a really interesting way to cover this much material, and one that I thought was very well-done, almost not noticing the similarities until Reinke himself pointed them out in the conclusion.
“Life online is a whiplash between deep sorrow, unexpected joy, cheap laughs, profound thoughts, and dumb memes.” – Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You
Though it would have been effortless to turn a book of this subject into a writing off of our culture in its entirety, Reinke wisely refrains from doing so. He acknowledges that iPhones are no more the cause of our changing attitudes than wheels are the cause for our obesity. Tools are simply tools, and it’s up to us to use them wisely. Instead, he turns the mirror on me, the reader, and asks how I am handling this marvel of technology. There is much opportunity for mishandling a smartphone, but there is also unprecedented opportunity for good. We can now carry almost unlimited access to anything we want access to in our pockets. It’s the condition of our heart and what we want that’s the issue.
Yes, the smartphone is unlike any single piece of human achievement that we’ve experienced so far, but it’s not going to be that way for long. There will come a time, likely soon, where smartphones will be relics of the past. And yet, when we no longer have them to blame for our bad behavior, that behavior will undoubtedly continue.
“We grow emotionally distant with our expressions. We become content to “LOL” with our thumbs or to cry emoticon tears to express our sorrow because we cannot (and will not) take the time to genuinely invest ourselves in real tears of sorrow.” – Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You
As a result, Reinke reminds us, we need to recognize what impact our new technology landscape has on us, but quit blaming it for our shortcomings. Smartphone habits expose the heart, he says, so we need to make sure our hearts are right before God as we use these powerful tools. He stops short of recommending all Christians get rid of their smartphones, but he does provide a very impressive list of questions designed for self-reflection and cutting through the world’s marketing efforts to help us decide if we truly need a smartphone.
After closing the cover on the book, I immediately wanted to shout its praises… on my iPhone. It’s a delicate balance between this physical world and the digital one you’re reading this review from. And Mr. Reinke does a wonderful job of showing us how to walk that line as believers in Christ.
About the Author: Tony Reinke is a writer for desiringGod.org, host of the popular ‘Ask Pastor John’ podcast, and the author of three books: Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011), Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015), and 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (2017). He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three children.
Buy/Borrow/Pass: Definite buy. Even though it’s a book about technology, and books about technology don’t last very long, the principles inside it are immensely insightful. Ten years from now, he could re-release the book as “12 Ways Your Brain-Implanted Virtual Assistant is Changing You” and it would be every bit as helpful and worth the read.