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Even the least technical among us are being pressed from all sides by advances in digital technology. We rely upon computers, cell phones, and the Internet for communication, commerce, and entertainment. Yet even though we live in this “instant message” culture, many of us feel disconnected, and we question if all this technology is really good for our souls. In a manner that’s accessible, thoughtful, and biblical, author Tim Challies addresses questions such as: • How has life—and faith—changed now that everyone...
Even the least technical among us are being pressed from all sides by advances in digital technology. We rely upon computers, cell phones, and the Internet for communication, commerce, and entertainment. Yet even though we live in this “instant message” culture, many of us feel disconnected, and we question if all this technology is really good for our souls. In a manner that’s accessible, thoughtful, and biblical, author Tim Challies addresses questions such as: • How has life—and faith—changed now that everyone is available all the time through mobile phones? • How does our constant connection to these digital devices affect our families and our church communities? • What does it mean that almost two billion humans are connected by the Internet … with hundreds of millions more coming online each year? Providing the reader with a framework they can apply to any technology, Tim Challies explains how and why our society has become reliant on digital technology, what it means for our lives, and how it impacts the Christian faith.
My son has a rather odd habit when he talks on the telephone. When a friend calls him, he takes the phone and immediately begins to pace, walking in circles around the house. He starts in the kitchen, walks down the hall to the front door, turns left into the living room, walks through the dining room, and then heads back into the kitchen, completing a full circuit of our home. And as he talks, he paces, going around and around, again and again.
Recently, I was rather surprised to find myself doing the very same thing. Talking on the telephone with a friend, I noticed that I, too, was pacing around and around our house as I talked. You are probably familiar with the old expression "he's a chip off the old block." It's a phrase we use to describe a person who bears a resemblance to his father. It can be a physical resemblance, but more often than not, it's a similarity we notice in personality or habits. We see certain traits in a person and recognize that he shares something in common with his father. My son walks while he talks on the phone because I walk while I talk on the phone. Like father, like son. In the first chapter of the Bible, we read that God created man in his own image. "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness," said God. "And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth" (Genesis 1:26). These words are so well-known to us that they have undoubtedly lost much of their power. They tell us that we have been made to resemble the Creator of the universe; we are, to put it lightly, "chips off the old block." God, the Creator of all that exists, saw fit to share with us many of his divine attributes. Like God, we, too, are spiritual beings. We are able to love. We have a kind of moral freedom.
And we are able to create.
Just as God created, we create. God has given human beings the ability to think, to come up with remarkable ideas, to be innovative. Technology is simply the practical result of the creative process. Birds may instinctually use spiderwebs to build nests. A monkey may somehow discover how to use a rock to crack open a nut. But these aren't creative activities leading to new technologies. Animals don't act out of a desire to do something unique or distinct. They simply respond to their hard-wired instincts and do what they were made to do. But human beings create because of a God-given ability to be creative. And the practical result of our creative activity is something we call technology.
Our creative abilities have led us to craft all sorts of different technologies, from the most basic to the most advanced. We dream; we imagine new possibilities; we think of creative solutions. And in all of these activities we resemble our Creator. Ultimately, then, God himself is the author of all technology.
The Mandate of Technology
If bearing the image of God is what gives us our ability to create, God's mandate—his commanded purpose for human beings—is what drives our desire to create. When God created man in his image, he did it with a purpose in mind. He created man to have dominion over the world that he had created, to act as his appointed representative to the creation. No sooner had God formed man than he assigned a job to him. "And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth'" (Genesis 1:28). Man was to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth with more people. And he was also to subdue the earth, to rule over it for God's sake, to be a reflector of God's glory. Theologians sometimes call this God-given purpose the creation mandate. Author Nancy Pearcey writes,
In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." The first phrase, "be fruitful and multiply" means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, "subdue the earth," means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music.
God's basic instruction to mankind is to develop the resources of the natural world and use God-given abilities to bring glory to him. To put it in more practical terms, God is glorified in our creativity, whether that leads us to craft a painting that moves our hearts to praise or to design a plow that will better allow us to plant and harvest a crop. To do these things—building cities and schools and families, planting crops and composing music—we must rely on the practical fruit of our creative abilities: technology. Technology is the creative activity of using tools to shape God's creation for practical purposes.
God made us creative beings in his image and assigned to us a task that would require us to plumb the depths of that creativity. He knew that to fulfill our created purpose we would need to be innovative, developing new tools and means of utilizing the resources and abilities that he had given to us. In other words, obedience to God requires that we create technology. This tells us that there is some inherent good in the technology we create. Whenever we express our God-given creativity by coming up with something that will help us be more fruitful, that will multiply and promote human flourishing in a way that honors God, we act out of the imago Dei, the "image of God" in which we were created. This is true whether or not a person is a Christian or knowingly fulfilling God's design. God's common grace, the grace that he extends to all people, whether they love and obey him or despise and abhor him, empowers us to express our creative impulses.
The Fall and the Curse
Yet the relationship between human beings and the technology they create is not as simple as we would like to think. We know from the Bible that soon after man was formed, he disobeyed God, altering the relationship between Creator and creation. Man was alienated from God, an enemy now, no longer a friend. Though man's relationship with God was disrupted by sin, and the world changed by God's curse, the mandate and the desire to create and multiply remained.
But it would no longer be easy.
The earth was no longer a friendly place for human beings. To the contrary, the natural world was now hostile and actively opposed to man. They would now have to fight for survival, utilizing every gift and ability that God had given them. In such a world—a world cursed by sin—technology becomes increasingly important, enabling human beings to regain some control over their lives and to fulfill their God-given dreams and desires. A sinless world had no need of medicine, but a fallen world required the development of medical and health technologies to enable human survival and flourishing. A sinless world had no need of weapons, but a fallen world required the development of weapons technologies for defense against animals and other human beings. A sinless world provided for their basic needs, enabling human beings to live in relative comfort and ease, but a fallen world required the development of technologies that would keep them warm and cool in hostile climates and herbicides that would prevent their crops from being choked by weeds. In a fallen world, technology enables human survival. It is all that stands between us and abject misery.
The Morality of Technology
So while it is true that we please and honor God when we create and develop new technologies, we must also understand that technology is like everything else in this sinful world: it is subject to the curse. The things we create can—and will—try to become idols in our hearts. Though they enable us to survive and thrive in a fallen world, the very aid they provide can deceive us with a false sense of comfort and security, hiding our need for God and his grace. Though the devices and tools we create are inherently amoral, at the same time we would be foolish to believe that they are morally neutral. The things we create to assist us in overcoming the consequences of the curse also seek to dominate us, drawing our hearts away from God rather than drawing us toward him in dependence and faith. That iPhone in your pocket is not an "evil" device. Yet it is prone to draw your heart away from God, to distract you and enable you to rely on your own abilities rather than trusting God.
It is difficult to try assigning any sort of inherent morality to individual technologies like the plow, the printing press, or the iPod. Even when we consider something like the technology behind nuclear fusion that created Tsar Bomba, we must recognize that the same technology that can level a city and kill hundreds of thousands can also provide power to that city—to its people, to its hospitals, enhancing the quality of life for its inhabitants. The same technology that allows doctors to operate on an unborn child, repairing its body within the womb, allows those doctors to also tear the baby from the womb. In other words, it is not the technology itself that is good or evil; it is the human application of that technology.
Thinking about technology in a distinctly Christian way means that we consider these three key ideas:
1. Technology is a good, God-given gift. Created in God's image, we have a mandate and a desire to create technology. Technology is the creative activity of using tools to shape God's creation for practical purposes.
2. Like everything else in creation, technology is subject to the curse. Though intended as a means of honoring God, our technologies often become idols and compound our sinful rebellion against our Creator.
3. It is the human application of technology that helps us determine if it is being used to honor God or further human sin. Discerning the intended use of a technology, examining our own use of it, and reflecting on these purposes in light of Scripture disciplines our technological discernment.
When we hold these together—when we understand our mandate, remember the consequences of the fall, and recognize the power of our own sinful desires in our use of technology—we are able to think about our technologies in a distinctly Christian way. We understand that Christians have the freedom and even the responsibility to engage in the development of technology and find creative applications for it in ways that further God's purposes. And yet we must still regard all technologies with a measure of suspicion, considering them with discernment, knowing that they easily prove to be a snare to our hearts. Christian philosopher Albert Borgmann strikes a helpful balance when he writes, "We should neither try to demolish technology nor run away from it. We can restrain it and must redeem it." There is inherent good in creating technology. And yet there is inherent evil in abusing it or assigning it to a godlike prominence in our lives.
The Heart and Technology
We live with the harsh but undeniable reality that we are sinful people living in a world marked by God's curse. Technology presents us with a unique spiritual challenge. Because it is meant to serve us in fulfilling our created purpose, because it makes our lives easier, longer, and more comfortable, we are prone to assign to it something of a godlike status. We easily rely on technology to give our lives meaning, and we trust technology to provide an ultimate answer to the frustration of life in a fallen world. Because of this, technology is uniquely susceptible to becoming an idol, raising itself to the place of God in our lives.
Neil Postman, the late cultural critic and media theorist, pointed out that over time certain technologies come to be considered mythic, not in the sense of being fictional or legendary, but in the sense that they seem to have always existed in their current form. They have become part of the natural order of life. They become assumed, and we forget that they have not always been a part of our lives. Postman writes, "I have on occasion asked my students if they know when the alphabet was invented. The question astonishes them. It is as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented. The alphabet, they believe, was not something that was invented. It just is." We are all prone to the same error. We easily begin to think that the technologies that surround us—the devices, gadgets, and processes we take for granted—are a part of the natural world. "Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers—they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context."
As Postman points out, the alphabet has achieved mythic status in our culture, but what about the automobile and the telephone? Or the fact that television always has commercials and websites always have banner ads? Whenever we begin to assume "that's just the way things are and that's the way they've always been," we have stumbled on something of mythic power. For teenagers today, those who have been born and raised in a digital world, the television and the Internet are now mythic. A new generation is now unable to conceive of a reality in which instant worldwide communication does not exist. Yet just a few generations ago, having a realtime conversation with someone half a world away was only possible in the realm of science fiction.
When a technology has become mythic, we no longer view it as a strange outsider to our lives. We forget that it was invented by humans, that it was introduced into society by humans—humans who are just as limited, sinful, and shortsighted as we are. In fact, mythic technologies seem impossible to change. It seems easier to change ourselves and adapt to the new technology than to change it. Often, we assume that we must or should change to accommodate the new technology. We doubt that the technology could itself be the cause of a problem. We give technology the power to shape and change and fashion us, remaking ourselves in its image.
Consider the mobile phone. How easily we forgot that the cell phone and the pervasive communication it allows is a modern invention (or, as some would argue, a modern intruder into our lives). In the early 1990s, relatively few people owned a mobile phone, yet somehow those people survived! Today, the majority of us have a phone that we carry with us every waking hour, and we can barely imagine life without it. Already we are forgetting what life was like before the mobile phone, and we find ourselves thinking that it is a normal, natural thing to be able to contact one another at any time and in any place.
I was recently in the Dominican Republic, visiting some of the poorest homes in the poorest neighborhoods of Santo Domingo. And there, in a home without running water, a home that contained only the barest essentials, I saw two or three mobile phones. The mobile phone is a normal part of life as we know it today. And as a normal part of life it has begun to achieve mythic status in our culture. This means it falls outside of our normal social controls and our normal ways of thinking about technology. For instance, we may no longer consider it outrageous when a phone rings in the middle of a church service or when a person sends a text message from a funeral home. We are no longer outraged when someone interrupts a face-to-face conversation to accept a phone call or when a person spends an entire bus ride talking on his phone. Rather than changing the technology to fit our understanding of what is right and wrong, we change ourselves and our society's rules and mores, and we reshape ourselves in the image of the mobile phone.
Excerpted from THE NEXT STORY by TIM CHALLIES Copyright © 2011 by Tim Challies. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 16, 2012
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