A Feature Review of
Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens
Reviewed by Nathan Geeting
In the past two decades, there has been a shift in theological conversations regarding the body. What was once condemned as a sinful burden has been redeemed, so to speak, from the dualistic tendencies that were pervasive in Christian communities. Now the body is lovely and worthy, even good. Christians are not afraid to be embodied creatures. While this shift could seem insignificant in the scope of modern theology, it has caused a ripple effect on the thought life of modern believers. The church is now engaged in significant conversations about what it means to be an embodied soul in terms of sexuality, health, ecology, and more.
Eric O. Jacobsen’s Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens is another important ripple in the theology of the body. In many ways, the book considers what it means to live in a physical place as an embodied person. Jacobsen repeatedly suggests that Christians can address the crisis of belonging in American culture by embracing the communities (or the spaces) where they live. For Jacobsen, this means learning about the ways people both shape and are shaped by the built environment, institutions, and communal practices of their community.
Before discussing these issues, Jacobsen elaborates on the idea of belonging, equating it with the biblical idea of shalom. He further defines the concept of belonging as “organized complexity.” Belonging for Jacobsen is shaped by relationships, places, and stories and is divided into four levels: intimate, personal, social, and public. These distinctions become very important as the book progresses, in part because Jacobsen focuses on what he calls “civic” belonging or belonging on the social and public levels. According to Jacobsen, it is the civic domain in particular that has been most affected by the car, television, and cellphone—the three screens alluded to in both the title and the cover art.
The core argument of the book is that Christians can achieve civic belonging by intentionally participating with and investing in their local community; this, in turn, will help them address the crisis of belonging within the culture at large. This idea intentionally reflects the instructions given to the people of Israel while in exile: “Seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have called you” (Jeremiah 29:7, ESV). In so doing, Christians can serve as signs, instruments, and foretastes of the complete belonging that God offers in his kingdom. With this mission in mind, Jacobsen suggests that Christians should make intentional choices about where to live and how to actively participate in the culture of those spaces. Furthermore, they should be intentional about their use of television and cell phones, tools that can unwittingly keep them disengaged from the places they live and shape their cultural narratives. In short, Christians need to inhabit, be present in, and create narratives for the places they live.
Jacobsen details his thoughts in six parts of varying importance and merit. After defining belonging, he compares the image of kingdom belonging with the image of worldly belonging. He also argues that the gospel is a story of belonging told as a relationship restored, an exile ended, and king returned. Later in the book Jacobsen explains what he calls the crisis of belonging and the ways it appears in relationships, places, and stories. The last section—easily the strongest part of the book—discusses practical ways that Christians can embrace their local community. In it, Jacobsen offers specific design solutions that people can implement to foster a deeper sense of belonging in their city, things like walkability, thresholds, and hospitable spaces. He also talks about the need to establish new habits, routines, practices, and perspectives that encourage belonging. Additionally, he addresses the ways that people can create shared places and stories to develop a strong local culture. In short, this section is where Jacobsen moves from a relatively uncontroversial claim—that America has developed a physical and social culture of loneliness through the extensive use of cars, phones, and televisions—to the question that the claim elicits: What can be done?
One upsetting fault of the book is the lack of diversity in what appears to be Jacobsen’s intended audience: white middle-class Christians. Though he never directly claims that this is his audience, a majority of the spaces he talks about are single-family homes, suburbs, or middle-class neighborhoods. Furthermore, when he references diversity, it is typically economic diversity. Jacobsen seems to avoid racial diversity almost completely, including segregation and the other laws that have drastically affected American spaces. In fact, in a book filled with discussions about the ways local laws, regulations, and infrastructure have shaped American thinking, Jacobsen dedicates a single paragraph to the practice of redlining. He then concludes the paragraph by stating, “We are justifiably proud of the fact that it is no longer legal to exclude someone from buying a house in a particular neighborhood because of their ethnic or cultural background” (184). This statement comes directly after a section on the Supreme Court case, Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., which dealt with “economic” zoning policies that disproportionately affected families of color, something Jacobsen fails to mention. By neglecting the varying realities of class and race in the American church—let alone the nation—Jacobsen’s assessment fails to address an array of related issues and perspectives that would certainly affect his message. For a book about belonging, it seems like a dangerous oversight at best.
Despite this disappointing omission, however, Jacobsen’s book is still an important read for those seeking to understand the expanding theology of place. Though it fails to address the necessary scope of the conversation, it does effectively frame several issues while providing helpful, affirmative language for the conversations ahead. It also provides some tangible practices that Christians can use to address the growing crisis of loneliness and belonging. Beyond that, it gives the reader an important conceptual framework for understanding how they can serve as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of belonging—something this fractured, lonely culture desperately needs.