The vital questions digital Christians need to be asking themselves

(Unsplash/Hans Vivek)

It's not often the Church of England is ahead of society trends – but 20 years ago it was already warning about fake news on the internet.

Back in 1999, 'Cybernauts Awake', a report published by the Church's Board for Social Responsibility, looked at the 'Ethical and spiritual implications of computers, information technology and the internet.'

Writing long before social media, smartphones, and the rise of massive networks like Facebook and Twitter, the authors warned web-users: "Digital deception is easy and nearly ubiquitous. A healthy scepticism about digital images and information is increasingly necessary – manipulation that would have been regarded as faking is now routine in many contexts."

It also wisely predicted, "The Internet is not a fad, and will replace the telephone as the dominant means of communication in most relationships."

And the report advised parents, "Learn to use this medium – it's tremendously useful, and fun, once you get over the first few hurdles. The moment your children get online, get online too."

Scroll forward two decades, and journalist and broadcaster Andrew Graystone is at the cutting edge of developments in digital technology. His new book, 'Too Much Information?' (Canterbury Press) sets out 'Ten essential questions for digital Christians.'

Twenty years after the CofE aired its concerns, Graystone is raising vital questions about how digital technology is changing us.

Graystone's questions include: 'What is happening to my world?', 'Who is my digital neighbour?' and 'Who can I believe?'

The book is well-written in Graystone's accessible and engaging style. It sets out its points concisely and with humour and lays out an agenda for any Christian wanting to discuss what today's digital age is doing to us as humans.

As Graystone told Christian Today in an interview, "What many of us are trying to do is to cope with the technology being thrown at us, like voice recognition, which phone to buy, what age we should give our kids a phone etc.

"But while we're worrying about the technology, we're missing out on some of the big questions around our values in the world around us, and what kind of world we're creating."

For me, the heart of Graystone's discussion lies in the question, 'What does it mean to be human in a digital age?' We are approaching Advent and Christmas, when Christians celebrate God coming to live on earth as a human being. God with us, God as one of us.

God in Jesus Christ showed the value of humankind by becoming one of us, living, dying, rising again and ascending to the Father.

Are we degrading that sacred view of humanity by applying names and human characteristics to computer systems and online applications? Graystone has argued, "We can give computers names, like Alexa, and give them genders and treat them as if they were people. And we can think that computers are deciding things or learning things, but the computer can't decide or learn or do or even compute by itself, because all these things come from humans."

In seeking to articulate a Christian view of digital technology, or at the very least to raise important questions, Graystone is going far beyond the basic questions of whether churches should have a website or a Facebook page. The Church of England has, for example, taken massive strides in its digital engagement and presence in recent years.

The issues he sets out are more fundamental. They are both for Christians to ask themselves and for Christians to raise in their wider engagement with society.

At the core of this debate is how far digital technology is dehumanising each of us – replacing our complex multi-faceted personality with data that feeds an algorithm - and to what extent we are complicit in this transaction by happily giving away our data so we can use a social network or a handy app.

Just as 20 years ago a far-sighted CofE report set out some reservations about the new digital age, Andrew Graystone has produced an accessible and challenging book raising key questions for 21st century Christians. I hope it will be studied in churches and home groups in the UK and around the world.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and a former CofE Director of Communications.