Book Review: Ben Sasse’s THEM

Jan 16, 2019

I’m a fan of Ben Sasse’s. You know how it happened, right? He was the Republican senator from Nebraska who vocally opposed the election of Donald Trump, who declared that he wouldn’t vote for him, and has maintained his position throughout these follow-up tumultuous years.

 He’s also this scholarly dude with a Ph.D. in history, a reformed guy in the PCA church, and the author of two books. I read both. The Vanishing American Adult, like his latest, is not about politics. It’s about parenting and education—and, as a mom and a professor, I thought it was excellent. He’s a big advocate of reading, of parental involvement, and of connecting the American experience with a historical and philosophical understanding. He never shies away from the foundational role of his Christianity, though he writes for a broad audience.

 And now he’s recently published Them: Why We Hate Each Other–and How to Heal (October 16, 2018). I wholeheartedly recommend it to Republicans and Democrats, and Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s focused on our need for community, our inclination to be relational, the importance of having a sense of home, and how society is destructively fractured. It’s a book on American polarization, and it’s extremely relevant.

 He pretty much did scare me with his discussion on technology and kids. He discusses how the pliable brains of young people are impacted by an inundation of technology. The more attached to our phones and virtual community we get, the more alienated we feel. One mom he speaks to makes her house a “phone-free zone.” You know how you take your shoes off at the door of some houses? Well, this mom has them drop their phones off! He also speaks of a technology or social media Sabbath.

 I ran the idea of a phones-at-the-door policy past my kids, and they didn’t love it.

 However, I think mom and Ben Sasse are going to use a little of that power their position grants.

 We recently had a sleepover at our home—four girls camped out in the living room. Pizza, root beer, Pirate Booty (gross), and ice-cream. I gave them quite a bit of freedom. Tim and I left them for the bedroom. We seriously watched Bruce Springsteen on Netflix via computer monitor, having approved Evan Almighty for them.  

 They’re good girls, really. The two girls who came over were good girls also.

 I didn’t take away their laptops, though.

 At 3:30 a.m., I wandered into the living room.

 Animal Jam. They were playing Animal Jam, wild-eyed and amped up.

 The moral of the story: the next slumber party (which is relatively soon) is tech-free.

 I’m doing it.

 (A side-note and tiny movie review: we just watched Eighth Grade. Not with the girls! It also revealed the scary side of tech and kids. Just say NO to YouTube stations. I thought this was a great film. For those of you who remember the terrifying Kids of the nineties, this is the version for normal people. Check it out, moms and dads.)

 So Ben Sasse—who really speaks on many, many other topics—impresses me, frankly.

 I’ll offer a bit of criticism. I do think that he expresses a kind of down-home nostalgia that really doesn’t fit the lives of so very many people. In some ways, his own longing for the small town with its close-knit community smacks of “Leave it to Beaver” falsity.

 That said, he has a point. Quite a few of them.

 But I’ll leave you with a few quotes:

 “What we need are new habits of mind and heart. We need new practices of neighborliness. We need to get our hands dirty replenishing the soil that nourishes rooted, purposeful lives.”

And . . .

 “[A] digital age . . . constantly promises us we can be free from real places and real people. That’s a sham. If we really want to be happy, we must plant roots and tend them. That means, in large part, thinking carefully how to get the best out of the technology that liberates us from inconveniences—without letting our devices cut us off from the richest parts of life.”

 And . . .

 “It’s not taxes or tweets [that are ripping us apart]; it’s not primarily politics or polarization; it’s neither an unpredictable president nor the #Resistance that wants to impeach him. It’s not a new bill, or a blue-ribbon commission. The real culprit has less to do with us as a polity and everything to do with us as uprooted, wandering souls. . .  Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness, when only a recovery of rootedness can heal us. . . What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word . . . Loneliness.”