Eric O. Jacobsen. Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020. xv + 265pp. $19.99 [originally published in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January 2021].
In this engaging new work, Eric Jacobsen, a presbyterian pastor in Tacoma, Washington, presents a vision for belonging and connecting in a relationally fragmented 21st century North American culture. In the closing pages of the work, he states the problem: “We live in a culture that is experiencing a profound crisis of belonging largely because we have insulated and isolated ourselves from people, place, and story by encasing ourselves behind three pieces of glass—windshields, TV screens, and smartphones” (251).
Following an opening section in which he defines belonging in private and public contexts (part 1), he unpacks a vision of kingdom (part 2) and gospel (part 3) belonging with rich support from Scripture. From there, he discusses the crisis of belonging in the 21st century western world—the relational deficiencies that have developed because of technology (part 4). In the final sections, Jacobsen offers encouragement and constructive steps for achieving belonging (parts 5 and 6). He concludes: “We desperately need something or someone to break through these elements of our self-imposed exile and draw us in to the beckoning that we most desperately want . . . we can pray and work that we too would experience connection to people, place, and story right where we live” (251-52).
Most readers would affirm Jacobsen’s claim that technology (smartphones, TVs, cars) have contributed to growing isolation, loneliness, diminished social skills, and even mental illness among 21st century North Americans. To support his thesis, the author makes a number of insightful points. First, he shows how post-World War II city and neighborhood planning has contributed to isolation. Cul-de-sacs within suburban neighborhoods have created unwelcome barriers toward outsiders. The construction of homes with attached garages have allowed suburban dwellers to come and go without any neighborly interactions. During half hour commutes to work, drivers often demonstrate unkindness and even road rage toward other commuters. Some of them display similar unkindness on their phones in social media interactions with people they do not know.
Second, Jacobsen shows how relationships—even acquaintances or casual friendships—have suffered in the public or civic sphere. Because people are not commuting or shopping on foot, they no longer have relationships with grocery clerks, butchers, or neighbors along the way.
Jacobsen’s book provides much food for thought for pastors, church planters, missionaries, and believers desiring to have a witness in their communities. As we long for our neighbors to believe the gospel and belong to the body of Christ, it is helpful to recognize the structural, technological, and cultural barriers that have emerged. Many, like Jacobsen and his family, are moving into cities with high walking scores. They are striving to belong in the public sphere by commuting on foot and engaging public spaces and institutions, and through their life and witness, they are seeking the “peace and prosperity” of their city (Jer 29:7).
For Further Reading
James K.A. Smith. You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016.
Andy Crouch. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017.
Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon. The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012.