When blogger and self-described social-networking addict Esther Emery announced she was logging off from the internet for a year, she got one of two reactions.
Those who were older than Emery and had experienced life before iPhones and laptops asked, “Why?” They wanted to know what she thought she would get out of it and why it was a big deal, she said.
Those who were younger and never had known life apart from the World Wide Web asked, “How?” For them, it was a matter of survival, she said.
“I realized how quickly technology has changed our culture,” she said. “That I can look at someone in their 30s and look at someone in their teens and see those almost opposite responses was eye-opening to me in terms of how much exploration there is to do around this issue — how much there is that’s changed in such a short amount of time.”
Emery answers both questions in her book “What Falls from the Sky: How I Disconnected from the Internet and Reconnected with the God Who Made the Clouds,” published late last year by Zondervan.
The short version? She needed a project after moving from Southern California to Boston at a time when her marriage and her job as a theater director and stage manager were falling apart. Since her year without internet in 2009, she has moved to rural Idaho and gone off the electric grid; welcomed a third child with her husband; made peace with the legacy of her mother, Carla Emery, one of the pioneers of the modern homesteading movement; and reconnected with her Christian faith — all things she said she’s not sure would have happened if not for the yearlong experiment.
Emery discussed that experiment and what she learned from it with RNS. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You wrote at the outset of your year without the internet, ‘I’m just trying to find a way to live a life that matters.’ How can the internet keep us from doing that?
I think it reduces our capacity to be our best selves and to do our best work because we don’t know all the options. When you’re receiving constant information and constant stimulus and constant entertainment, it feels like you’re always choosing between Option A, Option B, Option C. You don’t have the opportunity for a new story to kind of evolve out of an open space.
My experience of the year without internet is that the hardest, truest things all came out of that empty space and those silences.
You give going offline credit for what you call your ‘faith reversal.’ Why is this? How did that impact your faith?
As a person who creates content for other people, as a writer and a person creating theater, I had a kind of persona. I had a face to keep up in the world, and reversing my attitude on particularly Christian culture was going to be something that would be really uncomfortable if I were doing it on a public stage. At the point where I was no longer reporting my location in a public way day to day, I had this freedom to say, ‘Maybe I’ll check it out’ — to sort of confess that I did want something different than what I had had before in my life, and I needed space and time to work that out.
I realized more and more through my year without internet that for me an experience of true silence and experience of God are almost synonymous. It was almost like I didn’t have to pray, I just had to be quiet, and that became a very natural form of connection to what matters and to this whole element of God’s presence in the world.
Later in the book, you wrote, ‘In the gospel is a promise of rest.’ I think when a lot of us think about rest, we think about unplugging. Why is rest an important spiritual discipline?
If you think about (how) Jesus died for our sins and we are given forgiveness, OK, what are we going to do with it? The other side of that forgiveness is to be forgiven, act forgiven, walk through this life as someone who has the capacity to do great things because you are not scared, because you are rooted, because you are capable of rest.
I think the ability to be unafraid and the ability to be still and the ability to accept rest — that’s what makes it worth doing this, really.
We spend a lot of time on the internet talking about authenticity. Is it possible to be wholly authentic online?
The bottom-line answer is no, you can never be your full self on the internet. You can’t be fully authentic. You’re always leaving something out.
You definitely can tell the truth on the internet. I’m not suggesting that we all should stop writing on the internet or using it as a means of communication. But I don’t think that you can be everything authentic on the internet. I do think, as a human, it’s possible to be truthful, but I think it’s impossible to represent the full scope of our reality.
Another theme of the book is this tension between your rural upbringing and your urban life. What do people who live in rural areas misunderstand about people who live in urban areas and vice versa, especially when it comes to faith?
I do think there are deep misunderstandings between rural people and urban people, and one of the fault lines tends to be around faith. For many people the identity of “Christian” and the identity of “conservative” are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. This means that left-leaning or progressive people hold bias against Christians, and Christians hold bias against liberal or left-leaning people.
My own faith journey was literally made possible by stepping out of the ring, so to speak, and experiencing my faith and my relationship with God freely, without the weight of cultural context. I think a little distance from the fray, stepping out of the ring as I did when I took my year without internet, is literally the only answer to saving relationships and the health of our political dialogue across this widening divide.