How many times a day do you get off track, distracted from your work by “idle curiosity,” the term used by the church father, Augustine, for “the desires of the eyes” from 1 John 2:16? How has being “online” all day every day added to the seduction? I’m not talking about pornography here, though that is a deadly problem. I’m not taking about time wasters, chasing links here and there to learn this or that, the equivalent of scanning the tabloids at the Super Market check out. Tony Reinke’s post yesterday spoke to me, one link I clicked that I think might challenge you and help you avoid time wasting silliness.
By Tony Reinke | Nov 13, 2013 12:20 am
By “stupid links,” I mean hyperlinks on the Web that do nothing but tap our kneejerk curiosity. They do little for us because they have little to offer. We click, we read, we watch, and often we feel dumber for it.
Such clamorous links litter the Internet, offering up celebrity gossip, bizarre crime stories, violent videos, and sexual images — each link asking for little more than a click (such a petty request).
So just how pervasive are these links? As I write, the CNN home page features these seven hyperlinked titles as “Top Stories”:
- Crack-smoking mayor won’t quit
- Was pushed husband blindfolded?
- Woman killed in cougar attacks
- Misquotes fuel Tom Cruise attacks
- Deer pierced in the face by arrow
- Guess who’s back in skinny jeans?
- Do astronauts clean their undies?
The magnetic pull we sometimes feel to headlines like these predates the Internet and the evening news. It was a concern taken up by church father Augustine, born on November 13, 354 A.D. (more than 1,650 years ago).
Augustine and Idle Curiosities
Augustine reflected on the temptations clouding and distracting his own heart in his classic of church history, The Confessions.
There he builds off the biblical precedent in 1 John 2:16: “All that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world.”
This phrase, “the desires of the eyes,” Augustine interprets as idle curiosities. Such idle curiosities are not limited to the visual but encompass impulses of all five senses.
Vanity in Many Forms
The allure of the world’s idle curiosities is rooted deep in our ancestry, traced back to the rebellious curiosity of Adam and Eve over one tree in the garden. As their fallen children, we’re all hardwired with the same “frivolous, avid curiosity” which often “masquerades as a zeal for knowledge and learning” and “a thirst for firsthand information about everything.”
In Augustine’s day (like ours), such idle curiosity took many forms. It included gossip (1 Timothy 5:13). It included all forms of magic, astrology, and witchcraft. It was behind the vain fascination with signs and wonders (Luke 23:8). It was behind the lewd dancing in the theater. It was behind the cultural fixation with death, blood, and mangled corpses. And it was behind the bloodbath spectacles of animal killings and gladiator combat in the amphitheater.
The ancient Coliseum was a buffet of vain curiosities, all by design.
The public loved to be entertained by the massacres, which the emperors happily funded to boost approval ratings, all heightening into a popular showcase of violence very few pagan philosophers questioned.
Augustine was a dissenting voice. Curious spectators were participants in the evil, he said, and believers could easily get swept up in the wild passion of the event.
All together, vain curiosities of the fourth century offered themselves non-stop. Long before the curiosity of watching someone die was made available on YouTube, wrote Augustine, “the contemptible things that solicit our curiosity every day are past counting.”
The Problem with Idle Rubbish
Returning to our own day, here’s the problem: idle curiosities are miscarried thoughts. Vain curiosities are, by definition, dislocated from God and powerless to point us to Christ. They fill our brains and hearts with disruptive temporal trash. “When our heart becomes a bin for things like this, stuffed with a load of idle rubbish, our prayers are often interrupted and disturbed by it.”
Worse, these vain hyperlinks gather into a browsing history that can reveal something tragic about the soul’s condition. Wallowing in such “poisonous curiosity,” writes Augustine, reflects “the impulses of a soul that is dead, though not dead in such a way as to be motionless. It dies by forsaking the fountain of life (Jeremiah 2:13).”
Nothing trivial escapes God’s attention (Matthew 12:36). But is it a sin to enjoy three minutes of YouTube humor or new music videos or the feats of daredevils you clicked on through Twitter? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends where those videos lead your thoughts, and what thoughts led you there in the first place.
There’s a vain curiosity attracted to vanity and emptiness, and there’s a sanctified curiosity drawn in all things toward God’s beauty. This possibility is presented to us in every hyperlink.
And so Augustine emerges from history to ask us three reflective questions about our browsing history:
- Am I seeking out hyperlinks that offer me a promising pathway to see more of God’s beauty?
- Or, are my hyperlink habits unregulated, prompted by some inner whim, and terminating on nothing more than my vain curiosity?
- Or, most tragic of all, are the hyperlinks I click on really just a series of pint-size, pothole cisterns out of which I hope to slurp up a little gratification for my empty soul?
Much is at stake with mouse or mobile device in hand. On this day — Augustine’s birthday — may God give us his spiritual wherewithal to not brush aside such important questions in the seemingly mundane of our daily lives.