Three Pieces of Glass
Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens
- ISBN: 9781587434228
- Published By: Brazos Press
- Published: May 2020
In the creatively titled Three Pieces of Glass, Eric O. Jacobsen offers an account of modern technology from a Christian pastoral perspective. Its subtitle tells us much about the author’s focus: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens. Jacobsen takes as his starting point a state of loneliness in modern culture, and argues that “the car windshield, the TV, and the smartphone . . . represent key choices we’ve made at the societal and individual levels to devalue face-to-face contact with other people for the sake of efficiency, autonomy, and entertainment” (ix–x).
Readers familiar with Christian reflection on technology over the past twenty years will not be much surprised by the author’s argument. Although the framework of these “three pieces of glass” is creative, the book offers little in the way of new theological reflection on media and technology. Unsurprisingly, Jacobsen offers the church as the answer to what he refers to throughout the text as the “problem of belonging.” He spends the majority of the text discussing different senses of belonging, mostly but not exclusively from a theological perspective, and does not return to those three pieces of glass again until chapter 12.
Jacobsen’s argument relies heavily on a few assumptions that remain contested not only in the social sciences but also in the burgeoning field of digital theology. He makes sweeping claims without qualifications such as, “devices pull us away from the significant places of our lives” and “from the primary narrative of our lives” (146–147). Smartphones, he opines, “have a negative impact not only on us personally but also on society” (147). Such claims not only pepper the text but are the underlying assumptions that set up the foil of church-related belonging that Jacobsen posits. He simply assumes that we all see the crisis that he does, providing little to no evidence beyond anecdotes and personal observation. These reflections do have a place in theological reflection, of course, but readers should be aware that Three Pieces of Glass is more of a pastoral reflection than a piece of academic theology. Moreover, by offering personal anecdotes as the persistent frame of these theological concepts, Jacobsen circumscribes his argument to a very particular context—namely, a suburban, affluent American Christian one.
The book begins, tellingly, with a fictional image of belonging that Jacobsen presents as enviable, at least on some level: the bar of the sitcom Cheers. For Jacobsen, Cheers does the work of reminding us that “in person,” local, casual, unstructured spaces are important for our sense of belonging. He goes on, then, to suggest that the church offers belonging in a much deeper sense, bookending the text with the suggestion that the church is “where God knows your name” (249). Jacobsen succumbs here to the temptation of idealizing ecclesial communities in order to critique digital culture. It is a common refrain in Christian pastoral reflection on digital technology, and those who are sympathetic to this perspective will feel comforted by Jacobsen’s argument. Technology—be it car, television, or smartphone—is an easy target for critique as theologians diagnose culture. Because Jacobsen provides no data to support the crisis of belonging and loneliness he assumes, it is difficult to know exactly what we thinks has caused this perceived crisis. In the end, the text reads as an indictment of digital technology with the added technologies of television and the automobile. The text would benefit greatly from an analysis of capitalism that undergirds these digital artifacts.
In short, Three Pieces of Glass relies on a model of digital culture that sees its forms of community, however lacking they may be from a theological perspective, as antithetical to ecclesial community. Jacobsen understands it all as a zero-sum game, declaring, “The time and resources we spend on our phones, watching TV, and driving cars not only shape us in ways that work against our sense of belonging; they also prevent us from investing time and resources in other practices that cultivate belonging” (xv). Published in 2020, this text unfortunately reverts to a dated form of theological critique of technology that fails to acknowledge the complexities of both digital culture as well as the church.
Katherine Schmidt is assistant professor of theology at Molloy College.Katherine SchmidtDate Of Review:August 20, 2021