by Jack Butler
The fight against Lucifer was going pretty well – until the devilish enginery appeared. As John Milton depicts the battle of Satan’s rebellious angels against the forces of Heaven in his epic poem “Paradise Lost,” the demons were on the backfoot, until they devise “implements of mischief” that will “dash/To pieces, and orewhelm whatever stands/Adverse, that they shall fear we have disarmd/The Thunderer of his only dreaded bolt.”
Not all artifices are inherently evil. But if the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel is true and demons “prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls,” they can show up in our devices, too. William Peter Blatty suggests this in his novel “The Exorcist.” The demon Pazuzu, having possessed a young girl, is asked if it minds being recorded. “Not at all,” the demon says. “Read your Milton and you’ll see that I like infernal engines. They block out all those damned silly messages from Him.”
But what does it mean for technology to obstruct our path to God? In a concupiscent world, there are many possibilities; all are to be resisted. Start with the one to which Pazuzu alluded: distraction. The world is now awash in screens, stimuli, beeps, vibrations, buzzes. They create a reality, pull us into it, and entice us to remain. Desert Father St. Anthony of Egypt endured unimaginable temptations during his life. A famous painting depicts him casually suffering assaults from a kaleidoscopic demonic legion. A modern version might show someone being constantly pinged by notifications from apps. Again, they might not be evil in themselves, but they can easily become a pathway for infernal influence.
Technology has made our lives better. But it has not altered human nature. In fact, it has exacerbated some of human nature’s worst tendencies, including the desire to sin. Modern social media make this particularly obvious. Instagram, which allows users to convey their lives selectively, facilitates pride (in our own curated selves) and envy (of the curated selves others create). On many apps, infinite scroll invites sloth. And readier access to pornography has multiplied the scourge of lust.
And then there’s Twitter. Henry David Thoreau, the great American Transcendentalist, was skeptical of his day’s version of Twitter, the telegram: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” He was wrong about this, but not just – or rather, not simply – for being a stick in the mud. It turns out that Maine, Texas, and everywhere else have a lot to say to each other. But much of it is, at best, useless, and, at worst, inimical to Christian virtue.
If there is one sin most endemic to Twitter, it is wrath – wrath produced in ourselves by learning of things that anger yet don’t really affect us; wrath spewed forth from ourselves toward some chosen foe; wrath at our own wrath. In this, it is deeply unhealthy, and un-Christian. Yet there are some voices, even Catholic ones, who profit from the wrath economy. These jackals have discovered that the platform rewards their anger, that pettiness there beats piety, and that exhibitionism on it beats out restraint. They have earned great followings. Worse yet, many Catholics, especially similarly overly online younger ones, have come to admire and even to imitate such voices, seeing in their performative outrage evidence that they are responsive to the supposed demands of this moment. But so many of our era’s maladies arise from precisely this kind of behavior. Thus, good Catholics are led away not only from the civic virtues that our republic requires, but also from what Catholicism itself teaches.
So what can Catholics do in the face of such challenges? Going off the grid, like a Desert Father, is impractical. But cutting ourselves off from or completely yielding to technological temptations aren’t our only options. Create rules for yourself to establish boundaries about when to use and not to use certain apps. Work with friends or family to limit time spent online. Take an honest look at certain habits and ask yourself if they are helping you toward God or just getting in the way. Reject malicious online voices.
And remember that the world these apps create is not real. Take Twitter. According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, 22% of Americans are daily Twitter users, and 80% of tweets come from 10% of users. That’s not truly representative of anything. The digital and the real do intersect these days, but the former’s influence depends on its ability to affect the latter. The physical world remains superior. Real spaces, like the local parish, want and need us. They will provide a better example of how the laity can sanctify the world as the Church instructs us to do.
In Milton’s epic, Satan’s devilish enginery does indeed put those loyal to God on the backfoot. But God intervenes, pushing Lucifer’s legions out of Heaven forever. Against the depredations of the same enemy, even when he appears in unexpected places, we have the same recourse. Let us strive to understand how best to turn ourselves to it.
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Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online, media fellow for the Institute for Human Ecology, and a 2022–2023 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies.