How To Save Your Soul

“How to Save Your Soul in a Digital Age” is the bold banner on the cover of The American Scholar (Spring, 2016)

By Martin E. Marty|April 4, 2016

“How to Save Your Soul in a Digital Age” is the bold banner on the cover of The American Scholar (Spring, 2016). No, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is not turning evangelistic. On page 22 the editors simply translate author James McWilliams’ title to one that is in keeping with secular times: “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie.”
Sightings, which keeps an eye out for accounts of both “souls” and “selves,” perked up and noticed. Texas State University professor McWilliams here offers escape or relief from the nearly absolute tyranny of headlines about religion (?) in the political campaigns. His article aspires to reach the inner life, even though there is bare mention of explicit religion.

The religious concept does show up in a sequence of his recommended “social contexts” where readers might find “companionship” so they can “confirm their special commitment” as in “a sports team, a religious community, a fraternity…,” etc. McWilliams’ concern is “identity protection” in the age of internet enthraldom. He writes: “Whether it’s to find information, entertainment, or social engagements, we reflexively seek to be wired—sometimes obsessively, usually uncritically, always expectantly—into other venues.”

The author does not spend much time on the obvious questions that he raises, whether the Internet “will fragment our attention spans or mold our minds to the bit-work of modernity.” To him the answer is obvious. Instead, he leads to the “deeper question,” which is “what can be done when we realize that we want some control over the exchange between our brains and the Web, that we want to protect our deeper sense of self from the digital media’s dominance over modern life,” a dominance in no need of documenting here. You can simply “google” or “click” to find abundant illustration.

McWilliams interviews a college student who wakes up to Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter to see “what everybody else is doing.” Then come her encounters with Spotify on her laptop, and with PowerPoint presentations when she goes to class. Important issues in McWilliam’s article, which we hope you’ll read (thanks to the Internet!) are fleshed out in subheadings: “The Allure of Ever Presence,” “The Self Under Stress,” the issue of “Being and Not Being Alone,” and more. Advice:

First, be alone to address the question “What’s it like to be you?” Second, practice and enjoy real conversation. “Texting” imparts information but is a frail enterprise that rarely contributes to the building of community. The third element of identity protection is friendship which encourages us to risk revealing more about ourselves than we do on social media. The fourth, as mentioned above, is companionship in, e.g., “religious community.” The American Scholar’s mission is healthily secular, but many who want to “go deep” with these four strategies may want to put a high premium on them.

Of course, religious community participation can be destructive, and McWilliams knows that. Moving on, he adds a bonus suggestion to readers: Read! He makes a strong pitch for reading, not merely glimpsing the half-sentences in the world of texting, but in reading of real books. Immersion into the depths of good ones “offers immersion into inner experience, engagement in impassioned discussion, humility within a larger community, and the affirmation of an ineluctable quest to experience the consciousness of fellow humans.” In this way, he concludes, “books can save us.”

McWilliams could have fallen into the popular habit of whining about digital dominance, but he does something better: he offers positive “soul-saving” strategies.


McWilliams, James. “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie.” American Scholar, February 29, 2016, Cover Story.

Johnson, Rory. “Have Digital Devices Become Modern Fetishes?” Sightings, April 10, 2014.—-rory-johnson.

Kelly, Heather. “Disconnected: My year without the internet.” An interview with Paul Miller. CNN, May 10, 2013, Tech.

Miller, Paul. “I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet.”, May 1, 2013.

Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2011.

Birkerts, Sven. Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age. First Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2015.

Davis, Lauren Cassani. “The Flight From Conversation.” The Atlantic, October 7, 2015, Technology.

Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press, 2015.

“Becoming an individual in an age of distraction.” Interview of Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your HeadNational Review, April 6, 2015, NR Interview.

Crawford, Matthew B. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Rustrum, Chelsea, Gabriel Stempinski and Alexanda Liss. It’s a Shareable Life: A Practical Guide on Sharing. Shareable Life, 2014.

“New Book: It’s a Shareable Life.” Interview of Chelsea Rustrum, co-author of It’s a Shareable Life: A Practical Guide to SharingCollaborative Consumption: Sharing reinvented through technology blog, January 20, 2015. Accessed April 2, 2013.

Image Credit: Matthew G / flickr creative commons.

Martin E. Marty headshotAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at



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