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Thursday, February 27, 2020

"Three Pieces of Glass" (Eric O. Jacobsen)

TITLE: Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens
AUTHOR: Eric O. Jacobsen
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020, (288 pages).

Relationship is the glue that bonds a society together. Driven by a desire to belong, we live in a challenging environment to navigate between our inner needs and outer cultural climate. Author Eric Jacobsen calls refers to this as "the crisis of belonging." Why a crisis? It is because of three key challenges or barriers that are keeping people from one another: Relational; Place; and Narrative. Throughout the book, readers will see how these three challenges constantly prevent people from finding their sense of belonging. Written in four parts, Jacobsen skillfully guides us through the reasons why we are increasingly lonely. Beginning with the scene from Cheers where the chorus chimes, "You want to be where everybody knows your name," he paints a picture where we all long to belong. With rising fragmentation of society, the diminishing common spaces to gather, and the loss of a common story that we can share in, it is becoming harder to build relationships.  The irony is that, while we all want to have our own private spaces in life, we hide that innate desire in us to want to connect publicly. Jacobsen looks at the problem of relationships and belonging through several different angles.
From a definition standpoint, he gives us the tools of language and the proper vocabulary to pin down exactly what is happening, what we need, and how to go about filling in relational gaps. He defines belonging as a "complex but ultimately coherent phenomenon essential to human thriving." Simply put, what makes it complex is the three key aspects of belonging: Relationship, Place, and Story. What makes it challenging is how to make them all coherent. From a relationship standpoint, we can understand relationships in terms of four levels. Intimate Belonging is most personal with our spouses or perhaps a best friend. Personal Belonging is the kind we have with family and other friends. Social belonging is that kind we experience with others we know fairly well while Public Belonging is about our experience with the rest. We need all four levels of belonging, albeit each at different circumstances. From a Church standpoint, Jacobsen reminds the Church that her call is to be a "sign, instrument, and foretaste" of the gospel. Such a call transcends all of the human relationships we form. In fact, the reason we desire to belong is to be part of the larger context of kingdom belonging. This is so significant that the author dedicates five chapters just to talk about the character, the shape, the differences, and the promise of covenant belonging. Only about halfway through the book, Jacobsen finally reveals what the "three pieces of glass" are all about. In fact, it is about the three technological symbols of car, TV, and the Smartphone. All of them are ubiquitous in their respective eras, the Car culture in the post-WWII era, the TV in the post-Vietnam war era, and the Smartphone in the Millennium. In fact, these three pieces of glasses are metaphors to describe how the technological age has challenged the age-old need of people to belong. They have become the very things that divide us, separate us, and keep us apart. Far apart. Not only do they increase our productivity, they also increase our propensity to be constantly busy. They feed on one another to worsen any state of loneliness. Jacobsen also cautions us on jumping in with inappropriate solutions. Solutions such as consumerism. For relationships cannot be resolved simply by throwing money at them.

Cars can bridge distance but they cannot necessarily bridge relationships. Smartphones help us connect from a distance but they distance us from people near us. Yet, Jacobsen poses a very interesting question: "Despite growing concern about it, why is smartphone use continuing and even growing?" Perhaps, it is habitual. Taking the observations of James KA Smith, Jacobsen uses the metaphor of the mall as a way to describe the effects of consumerism. The last part of the book is dedicated to putting forth ideas on how to live more intentionally with relationships and holistic belonging in mind. In design, we can find creative ways to ease community living. In proximity, we think of ways to put connectivity primary, and convenience secondary. In placemaking, we create spaces for interaction. In local culture, we encourage the sharing and telling of stories.

This is a very intelligently written book, full of metaphors and insights into our modern way of life. There are always multiple layers of understanding which the author clearly and carefully peels away to show us the root of the issue. Issues such as the different levels of relationships to help us decide which and how to spend our limited time and resources on. Of course, there are limitations to such a model due to the different contexts and the unique personalities. Plus, what is public now may become private overnight. Sometimes, relationships do become social or personal depending on the different roles and circumstances. What I like is the way Jacobsen takes the metaphors of visible objects like cars, TV, and Smartphones to drive home the problem of loneliness and our need for belonging. They also highlight the irony of life. With the rise in our standard (and cost) of living, we give up something much more valuable: Relationships. In fact, the author is quite brilliant in how he sets the stage first to present the problem. Like peeling an onion, with each layer removed, he exposes the innermost tears of desires in our hearts to connect and want to connect. We have substituted community for convenience; common interests with individualistic preferences; and common places for private spaces. If we do not take notice and modify our choices, we might not just be isolating ourselves into oblivion, we would also be digging our own graves of loneliness.

This book is a wake-up call that says our relationships are at stake. We need to pay attention to the very things that are dividing us before it is too late.

Eric O. Jacobsen is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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