Two significant events took place in the same moment this past week. The first was the release of the iPhone 6. Of course, most of us could argue convincingly that this does not qualify as a “significant event,” but the fact remains that people freak out and line up every time a new iPhone is released. Culturally speaking, it’s a big deal.
The second event was the instant devaluing of our “old” iPhones. (In case I’m about to lose my Android-using readers, keep in mind that everything I say here is true of any smart phone, and any product, really.) My iPhone 5s was exciting, useful, and elegant—until last week. Now it’s outdated. It no longer does what I need it to do, or at least not with the style and speed that I’ve learned to expect this week.
I’m being a bit overdramatic, of course, but while most of us would never say this directly, we feel it deep down a lot more than we’d be willing to admit. This is because our society has successfully trained our desires. We in the church know that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), but we still really want the newest technology.
James K. A. Smith explains that this odd tension we feel between what we believe intellectually and what we desire in our guts comes from the “cultural liturgies” that train our hearts. Through powerful mini-narratives (like the one in the video below), through misguided messages about our identity, and through a host of tactile experiences in which we are invited to “taste and see” that Apple is good, we now know—in our hearts if not our heads—that the newest iPhone is essential to human flourishing.
The irony in this is that in teaching us to overvalue things, our techno-idolatrous society also teaches us to undervalue things. Smith explains:
“Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness…On the one hand, this practice invests things with redemptive promise; on the other hand, they can never measure up to that and so must be discarded for new things that hold out the same (unsustainable) promise.”
We always hope the newest phone or gadget will satisfy. But in the end, the thing is never more than a thing, so we quickly realize that our problems aren’t solved with technology. We are kept on the line, however, because as soon as we realize the iPhone 5s hasn’t delivered on its promises, the iPhone 6 is already whispering to us about the inadequacy of the 5s and the joys it can provide. By the time we realize the iPhone 6 can’t bring happiness, the 6s will be saying sweet things in our ears.
Again, this all sounds overdramatic. None of us would admit to buying a smart phone in an attempt to gain happiness. But I challenge you to listen to the ads and images around you. The next time you see an add for a smart phone, ask what you’re being promised. When you find yourself wanting to upgrade your phone early, ask whether you’re intellectually convinced of the superiority of the new phone’s features or whether there’s something more deep-seated and intangible that is drawing you to see your “need” for this new device.
I’ve explained before that a smart phone can be a glorious gift from God, a gift that can compliment our true humanity and serve God’s purposes in this world. But we must always keep a careful eye on our desires. And when we find our desires veering towards idolatry, we must begin retraining our hearts to seek first the kingdom of God.
 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)100.