Richard Galliardetz remembers looking around his house with its requisite computer, TV, VCR, and microwave one day and thinking, “Something very fundamental has changed in the ecology of my home.”
The technological marvels that were keeping his family connected, entertained, and fed had become as essential as the lights, the plumbing, and the phone. He began to ruminate: How is technology changing the shape of our lives? How are microwaves and VCRs changing how we interact with the world?
His thoughts coalesced into a book, Transforming Our Days: Spirituality, Community, and Liturgy in a Technological Culture, and set the Catholic theologian off into an area of exploration apart from his usual preoccupation with church authority.
Dr. Gaillardetz said he wrote Transforming Our Days more as a parent of four sons between the ages of 5 and 10 than as a theologian.
He points to a shift in the modern world from active engagement to passive reception of commodities that are produced with little effort on the part of those who receive or consume them.
“I wanted to further Christian reflection on how these things can shape how we're receptive to the world. If they dispose me to look at the world in terms of commodities that some device offers me ready at hand without effort, how's that going to affect the way I look at my spiritual life and religion?”
Dr. Gaillardetz said he is concerned that technology already has had an impact on religion by “turning spiritual experiences into prepackaged commodities that we can access with no effort, no engagement, no discipline, no communal conversation.”
He said this can be seen to some extent in so-called “seeker services,” which he described as “slickly produced worship experiences that require very little engagement and few religious symbols that might be unsettling.”
However, noting that there is a fine line between Christian outreach and crass marketing, Dr. Gaillardetz said he is not saying churches shouldn't use the Internet or other modern technologies to reach people. “But I think we have to be a lot more critical about how we use them.”
Nor does he think the answer to dealing with technology in the home is to put a sledgehammer to the TV or computer. Rather, he wants to encourage reflection, especially on the part of parents.
Most Christian parents already are asking important questions about program content, he said. “That has to go on, but that shouldn't be the end of it. It's not just, `Is this TV show good?' but, `Is it encouraging my children into progressive disengagement?'”
That point was driven home in the Gaillardetz household recently when the boys invited a friend over for the day. They offered him the option of playing chess, Foosball, or basketball. Each time a choice was offered, the guest declined. “Everything was reduced to, `Do you have a Nintendo?' And if we didn't have a Nintendo, everything else was sort of not worth doing.”
Dr. Gaillardetz said although he felt for his sons because they had wanted their guest to have fun, he also saw in the situation a symptom of today's culture: “Unless you can provide the hyper-stimulation of an electronic video game or something like that, the kinds of play and recreation that require imagination, activity, engagement, improvisation are required less and less of our children today.”
In his home, he said, he and his wife, Diana, use weekly family meetings as a forum for their sons to negotiate the use of computer and TV time, for which strict rules have been set down.
Dr. Gaillardetz said he respects families who remove the television altogether, but that he and his wife have chosen to allow its measured use and to provide other activities that are more engaging such as camping, hiking, playing board games, and reading.
Although the Gaillardetz family since has acquired a Nintendo - one of the boys used his allowance to buy a used one from a friend for $5 - Dr. Gaillardetz said it was in use for only two weeks before it got put away. “We're still in negotiation about whether it will come out again,” he said.