Book Review: Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens – Eric O. Jacobsen

How might Christians engage and bring hope to a world where we have a loneliness epidemic? Three Pieces of Glass addresses this as a crisis of belonging. As expressed in the iconic show Cheers, “you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

The book is laid out in six parts: Definitions, Kingdom Belonging, The Gospel and Belonging, A Crisis of Belonging, The Shapes Choices Take, and Encouraging Belonging.

How are we to understand belonging? Drawing on the work of Jane Jacobs, Jacobsen argues that “belonging is a concept best studied as a case of organized complexity.” (5) Belonging has institutional, geographical, social and cultural dimensions, and there are four levels of belonging: intimate (as with a spouse or best friend), personal (as with family and close friends), social (as at the church coffee hour or PTA meeting), public/civic (as with fellow fans of a sports team or citizens of the same town). According to Jacobsen we all have a need to belong at these levels and we may have relationships that exist at more than one level of belonging. And, many Christians miss or neglect the importance of the civic level of belonging (with missed opportunities for addressing some aspects of loneliness).

Jacobsen describes the church as an instrument of belonging that has a vital role in helping alleviate the crisis of belonging through evangelism and discipleship for the lonely and displaced in God’s family and God’s kingdom. He also brings our attention to the ways belonging (or at least foretastes of the kind of belonging in God’s kingdom) occurs in settings like groups or institutions external to the church. These are instruments of common grace, contexts where God’s nonsalvific generosity is present.

It is important to note how Jacobsen characterizes loneliness as something more than lack of contact. While there are virtues to efforts like the Silver Line Helpline (similar to what is seen in this video), such efforts are destined for failure because they oversimplify the problem; it is a programmatic approach to a relational problem. If loneliness is a belonging problem of organized complexity, it is important to frame the issue as a deficit of belonging instead of merely a lack of relational interaction; what is important for people is to know they are part of a community, that they have “their people” as some would put it these days.

What are the three pieces of glass? The automobile (a windshield), the television, and the computer screen (especially the mobile screens we often have with us). Car culture has altered the way we spend our time and many of us have encounters with others mediated by the windshield; we tend not to encounter others as someone with whom we might connect in this mode. Through the television screen we get to “know” people who make no demands on us and there is no two-way communication. Via smartphones we have convenience and can stay in touch with people important to us while distracting us from interaction with those in physical proximity.

Jacobsen:

“The cumulative impact of the three pieces of glass is corrosion of our relationships… our relationships with other people are already difficult because of the corrosive effect of sin. But our windshields, TVs, and smartphones are exacerbating rather than helping the problem. These technological developments have made our lives more efficient in some ways and have provided more options for entertainment, but those things have come at a cost… The car, the TV, and the smartphone have together contributed to diminish our humanity and deemphasize the civic friendships that are so essential to our sense of belonging in the places that we live. (147)

Among Jacobsen’s responses to this crisis is an emphasis on daily liturgies. Inspired by James K.A. Smith’s work, Jacobsen draws our attention to what he calls “common-grace” liturgies such as walking as a form of transportation; in such liturgies one experiences community identification, engagement with nature and attention to particularity. As with churchly liturgies, reinforcement occurs when regularly practiced. These common grace activities are beneficial because they make belonging possible with those inside and outside the church.

Belonging via the structures of our neighborhoods, the cultivation of place, attention to proximity along with constructing and sharing local culture are key elements for addressing the crisis. The importance of story should be highlighted. Even the most rationalist among us have a connection to stories that are part of their identity and sense of belonging. As a pastor, Jacobsen rightly highlights an understanding of Christian faith that emphasizes story (not as in fable, but as in true narrative). As Christians participate in the grand narrative of God’s kingdom they have the perpetual opportunity to serve as a sign and foretaste of what is to come when God brings complete shalom. Participation in this story (and inviting others into it) involves participation in life outside the church as much as inside; this outside participation includes committed attention to civic participation. I find myself wondering about the number of congregations where the approach to spiritual formation includes the cultivation of the more complex form of belonging.

What are we to do in this moment of loneliness? While we await the coming of God’s kingdom and the experience of being among those who experience the most complete sense of belonging, our task is to seek the good of the places we now inhabit (Jer. 29:5-7) and help people feel greater connections to people, place and story (in the church and civic settings).

What does a book like this mean as we consider the steady stream of technologies that further refine the separations that come through the three pieces of glass? Whether one is among those driving innovation or consuming/experiencing the latest products on the market, Jacobsen’s book prompts us to pause and consider our current experience of belonging and the ways in which we need to deepen and strengthen our various communal bonds inside and outside the church. When we consider our mission as Christians, how much attention are we giving to our active participation in facilitating greater belonging in our various relationships and are we praying to be those who can convey signs of God’s kingdom, where we will be known better than anyone in Cheers could imagine?

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