The mood was set perfectly. Friends gathered around the baptistry as I stood with Andrew who joined me in the water to give his life to Jesus. Andrew was about to become a new man when all of a sudden an iPhone leaped for joy out of the hand of the one videoing. He was capturing this glorious moment in high definition on a shiny new iPhone.
We all watched in horror as the iPhone hurdled the railing, smacked the floor beside the baptistry, and then dove neatly into the baptismal waters. I think it was actually more like a backflip but either way I’d give it a perfect 10. Like a scuba diver, the iPhone submerged peacefully to the bottom, capturing every glorious second on its still recording hard drive. I froze…for a second. It was one of those, “no way that just happened moments.” Finally, I reached down into the deep, rescued the iPhone, and handed it back into the hands of its owner who was as in shock as anyone. An awkward pause later, I let out a chuckle to break the tension that everyone felt over an iPhone that sought redemption. Moments later, Andrew became a new man in Christ. What about the iPhone? Read on. And as you do, let’s explore something together.
What is the role of technology in the life of a Christian? Does it help or hurt us on our journey? The answer isn’t quite that simple. Maybe a better question to ask is, can or should technology be “baptized” or redeemed? No, I don’t mean iPhones taking the plunge. What I do mean is something deeper.
Critiquing the role of technology is not easy for me. As I write this, I am pounding the keys of an expensive laptop computer. To my left is an iPad with digital Bible apps and note taking apps where some of my research has been ever so “efficiently” done and is now digitally stored and ready to “quickly” access. To my right is a Kindle e-book reader where I have “frugally” purchased and “consumed” some of the information to be reflected upon in this present task. A few feet away sits a large, flat screen television that beckons me to engage it rather than critique its high tech “brothers and sisters.” On my wrist is an “advanced” watch displaying the exact time to the second, reminding me of deadlines and how with each passing moment my time to finish this current work is slipping away. A few more feet away sits an iPhone, ready to make sure I don’t miss the demands of any one of hundreds of possible scenarios in which I might be summoned to action through an email, text message, Facebook message, or even a good “old fashioned” phone call. Why, then, is writing this essay difficult for me? Because I know two deeply engaging and vitally important questions are being asked of me. First, does modern day technology truly help or hinder my desire to be like Jesus? And second, what has been lost in the advent of a high tech world? Again, these questions are far from simple, “yes” or “no” answers. However, they must be asked. This is my attempt to develop an ethic that seeks to wrestle with these questions as I engage the role technology plays in the life of a disciple of Christ.
While it is tempting to think of technology in electronic terms, such as computers or gadgets, it should rather be thought of in terms of its end goal: to make life better, more efficient, simpler, and ultimately, more practical. Technology is defined by Wikipedia, a community based encyclopedia made possible only by advanced technology, as
“the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function.” 1
Note that the telos (goal) of technology is to “solve” and “perform” and that this is only made possible through the use of a man-made tool. This is interesting considering the word originally stemmed from the word techne which referred to an “art, skill, or craft.” It is easy to to dismiss the questions raised here by disregarding technology as neither moral nor immoral.2
This approach, however, misses the crucial task at hand and fails to see that technology has a creator who designed that technology with a specific goal in mind. A knife was invented by someone with the end goal of acquiring the ability to cut. Certainly that same knife can be used for both good and evil. Will the one who wields it cut food or will they cut people? The one who holds the technology has the decision to make on how to use it. Therefore it is both the original telos of technology and the telos of the one using it that must be examined. This creates an array of scenarios:
1) A technology is designed with a good purpose and is used for good. i.e. a knife being used to cut food.
2) A technology is designed with a good purpose but its purpose is changed in the hands of man. i.e. a steak knife used to attack another person
3) A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent and is used by man for that purpose, such as a machine gun being fired at a crowd of people
4) A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent but in the hands of “good” is repurposed for good.
5) A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent but is destroyed in the hands of good to keep it from accomplishing its original purpose.
With each of the above, there are interactions between the telos of the creator of the technology and the telos of the one wielding that technology. This leads to either the exploitation of the technology or the redemption of it. Any technology left unredeemed is dangerous. This danger is perhaps most prevalent, however, in a sixth option: A technology is designed for “good,” is then used for “good,” but too much of that “good” turns into a “bad” thing. Such has been the case with modern technology.
Whether it be “low tech” or “high tech,” old or new, the telos of most technology, at least the ones I have most often encountered, is to allow a task to be done with greater ease, more efficiency, more practicality, or some combination of each of these. It is here, however, that the telos of technology stands in juxtaposition with the way of the cross. While technology promises to make life easier and more efficient, the cross asks for nothing less than inconvenience and death to self. 3
Does this simply make all technology “bad” or sinful?” Not necessarily. It can however prove to be a stumbling block or an “off ramp” from the Way of Christ that results in the following teleological distortions.
First, technology offers the telos of saving time. It is a promise it cannot keep up with in the long term. While the Enlightenment opened our eyes to information, modern technology gave us access to that information. The “Information Age” inevitably became mostly intertwined, for better or for worse, with the church, the Gospel, and the Christian. The lure of fulfilling technology is nearly inescapable lest one “escape” to the wilderness without a GPS in hand. Why do we acquire new gadgets? The new one is faster and we will save more time and be more efficient if we have the new one. The telos then of each “new” technology is to save time. Ironically, what was fast a year ago now seems painfully slow. Has the device actually slowed down? In most cases, unless the device has not lived up to its original promise, no. Instead, the world has sped up. A “faster” world demands faster technology. A “dial-up” pace is no longer acceptable. I remember marveling at the “abilities” of a dial-up internet connection just a few years ago. Now, however, I become angry when my broadband equipped mobile phone briefly fails and achieves only “ancient” dial-up speeds. It is never enough.
This “need for speed” is not only unhealthy, it breeds addiction, and leads to the second stumbling block of technology – the promise of fulfillment. This process is subtle but steady. Technology creates a desire. It is a desire to consume. That desire become insatiable because it is utterly dependent on technology’s ability to “keep up.” The only thing that can fulfill the desire is something newer, better, and faster. Whether we care to admit it or not, this can be a form of idolatry. “Surely not!” we are tempted to declare. The words of Jesus leave no doubt.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” 4
Technology promises a treasure. That treasure is saving time and being fulfilled. How, then, can we know if our hearts are invested in technology’s “treasure?” We have to look no further than how deeply our wallets have invested in technology. Technology has promised treasure and our hearts and our wallets have followed. Only Jesus, however, has true treasure and can fulfill the deepest desires of mankind. The “God-shaped hole”5 inside of man cannot be filled with a gadget. Discipleship is not a speedy process and any attempt to speed it up comes with a cost.
The question then must become, “What effects does an unredeemed technology have on the follower of Jesus?”
Christians are called to follow “the Way” of Jesus Christ as a “people on a path.”6
This Way is an invitation to life in the very “way” intended by the One who designed the Creation. Only He can know best how it should be lived. Technology offers shortcuts. The Way of God, however, is a journey and a process. It cannot be rush. As Kallenberg points out, the way of God, is a process of “orienteering” which is only done through hands-on experience, learning from failure, and hard work. 7
The Way of God has never been a shortcut. Moses spent forty years as a goat herder in the wilderness before God sent him back to Egypt. Israel spent forty years in the wilderness learning to walk with God. Even Jesus, who only spent around 33 years in the flesh, appears to have spent 30 of those years growing in “wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man.”
The impact of a high tech world cannot be underestimated on discipleship. While Christ offers a narrow journey that requires self-denial, deep trust, bold faith, and rejection, technology offers another way. It is a “super-highway” that promises a “broadband” speedy journey into fantasy, pleasure, “fulfillment,” and an avatar that allows you to be whoever and wherever you desire.
The impact of this type of journey is not only felt in Christian discipleship but also in the discipline of education. Leonard Sax shows the impact technology has had on young people who have “learned” information but failed to acquire vitally important skills. In his book, Boys Adrift, Sax offers the following vitally important wisdom from Dr. Frank Wilson, a neurology professor at Stanford, who reflects on how difficult it is for many current medical students to understand the concept of the heart working like a pump. Wilson says this is difficult because,
“these students have so little real-world experience. They’ve never siphoned anything, never fixed a car, never worked on a fuel pump, may not even have hooked up a garden hose. For a whole generation of kids, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields, and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through [computers]. These young people are smart, they grew up with computers, they were supposed to be superior – but now we know that something’s missing.” 9
Technology offers the goal of making a person smarter by having more information but, in the end, it fails. The consumer of information has become consumed by the information in a way that nothing is actually “made” but only bought, 10 or to perhaps state it better, borrowed, using the so called expertise promised by technology. Expertise, however, without experience, is only a myth. It is not the Way of the cross. Being a disciple is not about gathering information but about gathering the experiences that come through a process of learning from failure. Jesus allowed his disciples to fail knowing they would learn and be shaped by the very things that were difficult and that hurt the most. This is a vital process that produces craftsmanship much like apprentices during the Renaissance learned after thousands of hours learning from a master. These men were appropriately called journeymen. 11
Life is a journey. It is a story. Any technology that seeks to shortcut that journey or offer an alternate story should be considered a threat to the telos of the Gospel.
Next, the telos of technology is often productivity and efficiency. Being high tech is meant to save time. Nothing about this telos may appear distorted on the surface. Most people today see work as a burden. Technology promises to ease that burden by making a task less difficult. It is here that we see a “fallen” world, an old “aeon,” creeping onto the stage. In the beginning, work was not a burden. Adam delighted in his work in the Garden of Eden. It was a privilege, better yet, a delight to partner with God as a co-worker in the Kingdom. What was Adam’s job? It began with naming the animals and then caring for them. It also included caring for all of God’s glorious creation and exercising a God-given task of ruling.
Everything changed at the fall. Work became a curse – a burden. From that day until this present one, technology has offered to ease that burden. The problem with this promise is that it is not healthy on any level for a person to live a life of ease. Growth takes place in the difficult places, in those “dark nights of the soul” that are so necessary for the disciple to endure. Bly suggests we need not of ascent, but descent. This descent takes a person on the much needed, humbling journey down to the basement kitchen. Bly says,
“for young men who have graduated from privileged colleges, or who have been lifted upward by the expensive entitlement culture, their soul life often begins with this basement work in the kitchen.” 12
It is the “kitchen” where technology takes a back seat to work. Without this journey, we are tempted to ascend too quickly, miss the value of hard work, and develop a sense of entitlement. Technology instead offers the “easy” way to the top.
This offer comes in several ways. One of those ways, as just mentioned, is to reduce the work load. Another, perhaps not as obvious, way is to offer an alternate identity. If we can harness the power of technology we are led to believe we can be someone who can rule again. Sadly, these dominions come in created fantasies that only technology can produce. As one recent video game maker offered in a commercial for its gaming system – “Live in your world. Come play in ours.” In other words, “Your world is work. That’s not fun. It’s not good enough. Come inside to a fantasy world where you can play and everything can be yours.” This sounds eerily similar to the temptation that led to the fall in the Garden.
This identity can also take the form of an earned identity. We are led to believe that if we harness technology in a way that helps us produce enough we will be valuable. It is the story of Babel retold a thousand ways as man seeks to build or technologically advance his way to God. There is, however, only one way to God, and that is the way of the cross of Christ. 13
Technology, then, should be seen as potentially offering a way of distraction. This is perhaps most seen in Jesus’ parable of seeds in Luke 8. One of the seeds falls on soil with weeds. Jesus explains that the original intent of the seed is good. But the one who “hears” over time is choked out by “life’s worries, riches, and pleasures” (Luke 8:14. Technology has the potential to be the weeds. The wielder of these technologies must then ask the question, “Are the ‘weeds’ of technology choking true discipleship in my life? If so, what am I going to do about it?” These weeds do not come up without a fight. They are deeply rooted. Pulling them causes pain and even threatens the good roots of the good plant. Technology has developed a similar choke-hold on many.
Technology can distort the nature of quality by replacing it with quantity. One has to look no further than Facebook for this to be seen. It is a place where people have hundreds, if not thousands, of “friends” while only truly being “liked” by a few. 14 In a similar way technology distorts authentic community by providing a synthetic alternative where “more” looks better but only offers less. This has been evidenced in recent years trough the cability technology has offered to download music through websites such as Napster. This music was “free” and could be downloaded by anyone. The problem with the music,however, is that the quality was drastically reduced in order to make the file size small enough to download. Many became obsessed with acquiring any and all music they could download regardless of the quality. Ironically, only a decade before, the CD promised a high quality music experience that exceeded anything ever heard before on the cassette or 8-track. The CD was expensive but it provided quality. Soon enough, people were less concerned about the quality of the music because it costs them too much to get it. Instead, they turned to the free, low quality version. The same comparison could be made between the DVD and YouTube. No less is true in discipleship in a high tech world where the temptation is to trade the quality of a journey that costs something for a cheap alternative that offers more while actually delivering less.
Technology also presents another stumbling block in that it has a tendency to replace the “joy” of work that was intended in the Garden with a mechanism. The danger of technology is that it can easily become corrupted, or fallen, even when the telos is originally good. An example of this is seen in the invention of the clock. While most assume the telos of the first clock would have been to work more efficiently, this was not the case at all. The first clocks were designed by monks who desired joyous reminders to balance intervals of the soul-elevating tasks of labor and prayer. 15
The clock did not make them work more efficiently but allowed them four to five hours of reading and prayer. It was invented, in ways not too dissimilar from the Sabbath, to produce freedom. The technology of the clock sadly became the measuring tool for efficiency and became a device, not for freedom, but for the “enslavement” of the work force. This technology “devolved” as it evolved. The clock gave birth to the stop-watch and was championed by Frederick Wilson Taylor who in 1911 took the stop-watch to the steel plant and invented rigid systems of efficiency for which he could declare,
“In the past, man has been first, in the future the system must be first.” 16
His prophetic words still ring true today. A technology that began with good intentions grew into an oppressive system.
It is exactly here that an ethic on technology must be engaged. Technology, when left unredeemed, is counter to the Gospel. By “unredeemed” I mean any technology whose telos either begins with, or is turned into, something that counters the way of the cross of Christ. Technology, like all of creation, must be subjected to the redeeming power of God.
This is not an easy task because there is no formula for “baptizing” an iPhone, although I’ve tried. So what about that iPhone? Amazingly it worked just long enough for us to all watch the whole incident on its wet screen before finally giving up the ghost. But when the owner took it to Apple, something quite remarkable happened. Although the phone would not stay powered up, it showed absolutely no signs of water damage to the Apple technicians. And so…they gave the owner a brand new one. I guess you could it was at least an echo of redemption. In the end, we must come back to the end goal. If the telos of any technology has hindered, distorted, or replaced the telos of the Christian Way, it must be uprooted, or should I say…unplugged.
2 Brad J. Kallenberg, God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age [Kindle Edition] (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011), e-book location 450 of 4685.
3 Luke 9:23
4 Luke 12:34, NIV
5 The description of a “God-shaped hole” is most frequently attributed to Blaise Pascal from his Penses. The original idea can be found in Penses 10.148
6 James Wm. McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), 50.
7 Kallenberg, e-book location 377 of 4685
8 Luke 2:52
9 Leonard Sax, Boys Adrift (New York, Basic Books, 2007), 29-30.
10 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 37.
11 Xan Hood, Sweat, Blood, and Tears (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010), 139.
12 Robert Bly, Iron John (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 70.
13 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996) 27-32.
14 This is a play on words to reflect the way in which users of Facebook can “like” something posted by another user by clicking the “Like” button underneath the posting.
15 James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 174-175.
16 Smith, 176.