“‘Surface Tensions’ refers to the tension between inside and outside, isolation and interaction, solipsism and interpersonal unity. It refers to tension between the hollow, image-driven selves we attempt to create and the selves we humbly lay before each other’s feet––and how these tensions manifest themselves by way of the many modern surfaces (cell phones, movie screens, TV screens, tablets, and so on) that rest between us.”
–Nathan Roberts, author
In his new book Surface Tensions: Searching for Sacred Connection in a Media-Saturated World, first-time author and Harvard doctoral student Nathan Roberts offers us a millennial memoir grounded squarely in the digital age. From his passionate experiences of film and theatre, to his philosophical musings on the media in a post-modern world, to his own romantic relationships mediated through online platforms, Roberts weaves together a unique and highly personal account of growing up in a “surface” world.
We invited him to share more about his experience as a digital native seeking sacred connection for us at the Patheos Book Club. (Read a book excerpt from Surface Tensions HERE.)
I wrote Surface Tensions because it seemed that while lots of people have sermons about “the media” to belt, very few people talk about what it’s like––on a personal, experiential level––to live in our modern media environment. The world has changed SO much over the last 25 years and our lived experiences have changed along with it.
And this seemed an appropriate topic for a Millennial––a person who has developed alongside modern media, who has dabbled with and loved many media forms––to think about. It seemed like the sort of thing I could genuinely bring to the Thoughtful Literary Discussion Table at a young age, without feeling like a fraud or someone with an inordinately exaggerated sense of his own maturity and life experience.
I also knew that I wanted the book to be unusual in its breadth and depth. In (often excellent!) memoirs written about lives lived in our modern (or modernish) media age, media typically lies in the background. The point of the memoir is the self and how it grows, so stuff watched and music heard and video games played and webpages surfed are only significant insofar as they contribute to an exploration of personal development. On the other hand, a lot of media theory sticks with social, political, and economic generalities. Even Sherry Turkle, who teaches a class at MIT called “Technology and Self: Science, Technology, and Memoir,” tends uses a wide swath of personal anecdotes to illuminate very broad trends.
These two extremes are totally great in their respective genres. But I felt a gnawing need to produce something with a uniquely intergeneric bent. Therefore, I hope that my book connects with readers by giving them unique frameworks through which they can think about art, comedy, social media, faith, and so on––a complex, media-oriented vision of reality––AND greater knowledge of my own self. I love feeling like I’ve gained an intimate connection with a writer through reading his or her work, so I hope people feel like they gain an intimate sort of connection with me. Finally, I hope that through the combination of these takeaways, readers can begin to think through how the media forms with which they interact are essential to their own self-development. And I hope this helps them consider their own media interaction in personal, ethical, and spiritual ways.
Tell us about the title of your book and your fondness for the word “surface.”
The word “surface” came to me at a super important point in the writing process. I was sitting with a fifty-thousand-calorie meal at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, reading a promotional interview for the visual studies scholar Giuliana Bruno’s new book, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. (Bruno has since become my professor and I have since read her book and I must say that she is the true champion of the term “surface.”)
By that point in the writing process, I had thoroughly wrestled with a different word, “image,” and all of the baggage that comes with it. Christian theology espouses a positive notion of the image: we’re all made in the Image of God and that means we’re like God and that’s awesome. But in contemporary culture, when we think “image,” we often think negatively. Many modern images are made to be disingenuous representations of reality. We put on makeup to create a “flawlessness” image for Instagram; we smile for pictures even when we’re not happy; CGI makes it literally impossible to determine truth from fiction. If it’s reality we’re after, an image-centric world is not so good, by this account.
But as I wrestled with my own life, this only seemed like a partial truth––a distorted image of the truth, if you will. I haven’t only fooled people (or been fooled) through image generation. I’ve learned to love and embrace other people through various media forms in ways that were undeniably real. My life hasn’t just been one giant digital masquerade.
But I felt like I needed a different word, a different framework, to get at this idea. And that’s why the word “surface,” as Bruno uses it, became a vital counterpoint to the word “image.” It opened up a new realm of nuance.
The title, “Surface Tensions,” refers to the tension between inside and outside, isolation and interaction, solipsism and interpersonal unity. It refers to tension between the hollow, image-driven selves we attempt to create and the selves we humbly lay before each other’s feet––and how these tensions manifest themselves by way of the many modern surfaces (cell phones, movie screens, TV screens, tablets, and so on) that rest between us.
You make a parallel between your relationship with God, and your relationship with movies. How are they alike for you?
My relationship with God is a consistent exercise in learning to look outside of myself––beyond my oh-so-petty thoughts, desires, and wishes. It’s learning to steadily love other people, too. I think it’s impossible to love others unless you are able to have consistently meditate and focus on things that are broader than your little silly, selfish mental world, and God is the biggest and broadest Thing of all.
Movies are an exercise in literally looking outside of yourself. When you watch a film, you align your vision with the director’s vision. With meditation, prayer, and Bible reading, you––forgive me, this is gonna sound corny as f***––align your vision with The Director’s vision. When you pray for others, you empathize with them by making their own desires, longings, and troubles your own; when you watch film, you practice what psychologists call Theory of Mind and empathize with others by focusing on their big-screen-rendered selves. In both cases, you mindfully engage with their humanity. In both cases, you learn to see in otherwise unimaginable ways.
Not that I’m particularly good at either form of mindfulness, mind you! I just saw a probably-really-good film last week. But I was so concerned with passing a German test at the time that I couldn’t get in the right headspace in order to empathize with the characters; I “curved in on myself,” as Martin Luther would put it. I didn’t enjoy the film very much because I was hardly watching it.
Needless to say, my prayer life often looks like this. (At least we have the Lord’s Prayer, which I’ve found to be a pretty good prayer template; it often points me away from the confines of my stupid mind and toward the “bigger screen”.)
What do you feel the role and or purpose of the cinema is today?
I guess I sort of answered this in the last question. I will add that, compared to cinema’s chief rival, Television, I think that the traditional filmic experience tends to engender better mindfulness. Our eyes are made to look out over massive vistas with awe. We’re not made to slouch over and squint at little computer screens, or to even stare at 32” televisions from fifteen feet away. I really do believe that big screens lead to bigger attention, bigger awareness. And I think there’s something significant about the fact that film is a chemical imprint of reality, forged by light. (It’s hard to articulate why this is, though––although that difficulty hasn’t stopped many theoreticians from trying.)
Finally, as far as mindfulness and awareness is concerned, I think it’s good that films are relatively short! When people binge 267 episodes of House of Cards in a row, are they watching with rapt attention for the entire time? Of course not. They’re texting and cooking and so on. That’s not the end of the world, but I believe that that experience cannot in any way replace the experience of being sucked into a filmic experience for a mere 90 minutes, knowing that every second has been deemed vital to conveying a specific idea, a hyper-considered sensibility. The more TV shows I watch, the less I find myself paying attention to any particular TV show, much less any particular episode. The self-contained brevity of cinema engenders a sort of simple, bite-sized hyperawareness that I find healthy and refreshing.
What kept you connected to — and returning to — the church and Christianity in your college and young adult years?
A couple of things. The first thing is, quite simply, personal experiences that I’ve had with Jesus Christ. These has happened through a few specific, prophecy-related instances (one of which I recall in Surface Tensions), and then there are smaller instances. It’s funny –– I’m the kind of guy who can spend a lot of my week wondering why the hell I’m a Christian, and then go to church and find myself choking up repeatedly during worship. And then that cycle will continue.
My relationship with God is weird like that––but, then again, all relationships can be like that. I can spend a lot of time taking my family for granted and only realize during a few, isolated moments (one of which I also recall in Surface Tensions) how much I love them. Love wells up at strange, unpredictable times. And as Christian Wiman puts it, it’s necessary to be faithful to the times in which you’ve had faith.
Another answer to this question is that I’ve found myself consistently, throughout my entire life, surrounded by incredible Christian people through whom I experience God. I’m not saying they’re nice; I know nicer non-Christians, probably. But many Christians in my life aim to be active agents of peace and reconciliation in the world in a way that I can hardly describe. They are often both humble in active in a way that, I believe, only Christ can manifest.
Finally, on a more general level, I have yet to find a single hermeneutic understanding of reality that can compete with the general Christian worldview. It just can’t be touched.
What are the gifts — and challenges — of digitally mediated relationships, compared to in-person relationships? Is one more authentic or true for you than the other?
That’s a great, difficult question. I think it often depends on the person and the specific situation. It’s hard to generalize. So I think this question can be only answered in case studies (That’s why I wrote the memoir: it’s a giant case study!)
Let’s do a little case study that’s close to home: I’m typing out the answers to these questions. I think I’m a better as a writer than as an extemporaneous speaker, so my answers are more thought-out, and closer to the point, than any in-person answers would be. And because they will be distributed digitally, many people will potentially read them.
At the same time, there’s so much junk to wade through on the internet. The odds that this page––with its long, complex paragraphs––will go viral are very small. So will people actually find this? Will they have the concentration to read through the whole thing? I don’t know. If I were answering these questions in an in-person Q&A, it would be possible to leave the room, of course, but as long as you’re in the room, it’s easier to give longer answers undivided attention. You’d might also get a greater sense of what I’m like as a person; my true character might bubble to the surface. At the same time, I might try to project a disingenuous image: to try to make myself seem more academic or funny or personable or interested than I actually am.
I think it’s always true, at the very least, that in-person interactions give you more sensory data. And we’re fine-tuned, biologically, to interpret this sensory data, in all of its contradiction and complexity. So while the odds are low that my in-person words will be better, the odds are probably higher that you’ll get a well-rounded picture of what I’m like. And if we’re after truth… well, that’s advantageous.
You share a few personal stories of your own romantic relationships mediated through the digital world in your book. What advice would you give to others seeking such relationships?
Well, first of all, I wouldn’t advise people to intentionally seek digitally mediated relationships if they can help it. Why use Tinder if you think it might be cool to ask out someone you’ve been talking to in Biology class? Romantic relationships are hard enough in person, when they’re supported by a ton of sense data. Whenever you strip away sense data, you strip away communicative possibility.
At the same time, one of the things I realized while writing this book is that communication is always hard, and, in some ways, the effort and the intention to communicate, to be honest, to be open, to be genuine, is more significant than the medium with which you communicate. It’s all too easy to create a hierarchy of good and bad mediums in order to feel good about yourself––to feel like you’ve got your shit together, unlike all those poor kids these days with their Snapshats and their Netflix n Chillz. Whenever you get too comfortable with the mediums you use, with your capacity to communicate, I think you can easily ignore or deny the work it continually requires to relate to others. And so I truly believe that if a couple is working really hard to have a significant conversation over Coffee Meets Bagel, they can be more alive and engaged and unified than a couple having a banal, in-person dinner.
I think the trick (and I’ve had far more romantic missteps than positive steps, as the book makes clear, so I’m far from an authority on this) is to consider the proper medium for the type of desired interaction. When it comes to physical affection, Skype is obviously not a good idea. But when it comes to accruing some sort, any sort, of mutual visual recognition, then it’s not too bad.
We all already know this, though. It’s a classic dilemma: guy wants to show how much he likes a girl. Does he get her flowers? Opera tickets? Some sort of inside-joke-thing? Couples have always been considering the proper mediums for their affections. Now we just have to throw these digital mediums into the mix, and really think about what they’re good for and how it is at all possible to intentionally bond together through them––and to shrewdly decide when it’s not even worth trying to do so, too.
What would be your ideal church, or perhaps better said, your ideal physical or virtual “expression” of your relationship with the Divine?
Hmm. Well, these seem like two different things to me. An “expression” of my relationship with a divine seems, if I’m interpreting this question right, like a personal, medium-driven response to the Divine. And I’m not sure if there’s an ideal medium for that. I suppose that just don’t really think there is an “ideal” expression, since different expressions will inevitably get at different aspects of this relationship. Relationships are complicated! Expressing or communicating aspects of them is equally complicated.
I suppose I should say, on a more concrete note, that I think the expression must in some way be abstract, while, at the same time, grounded in the everyday. My relationship with the Divine is both quixotic and inextricably weird––both elements need to be preserved. Leave behind the everyday, the tangible, the unintellectual, and you end up in Woozily Spiritual, Abstract and Relative La La Land. It’s not totally honest, I think. It denies the reality of the banal. Leave behind the abstract, however, and you miss out on the way that you’re dealing with something larger than your own consciousness, beyond your own ability to totally understand and conceive. That denies the largeness of the Divine.
As far as my ideal church––that will be an expression, sure, but I see the ideal Church less of an expression of our relationship with the divine than the other way around: as the Divine’s expression of love, channeled through us. And that looks relational. It looks like a community continually committed to relating the inside to the outside, the personal to the interpersonal, binding themselves together as one utterly diverse, utterly unified body. That community will inevitably use many mediums to do this, and it’ll have to work really hard––but that very work forms the pulsing core at the center of reality. Even when my belief in God is shaky, this I believe with all of my being.
Visit the Patheos Book Club to read an excerpt from Surface Tensions.