Technological Wonderers and Wanderers

As time passes, the phrase “technological wonder” becomes a stale cliché. Eventually, our technological wonders no longer win over our admiration. So wrote G. K. Chesterton in his essay, “About the Telephone.” Thus, he asks, what really is the aim of our technological advances, if we lose our awe?

Man is born for trouble as the electric sparks fly upward, or wherever the electric sparks may fly; it is even hinted, though perhaps mystically and indirectly, that a life of peace, perfect peace, would be one in which the telephone ceased from troubling and the subscribers were at rest. But the truth goes deeper than any incidental irritations that might arise from the mismanagement of the instrument; it implies some degree of indifference even in the management of it.

We are incessantly told, indeed, that the modern scientific appliances, even those like the telephone, which are now universally applied, are the miracles of man, and the marvels of science, and the wonders of the new world. But though the inventions are talked of in this way, they are not treated in this way.

Or, rather, if they are so talked of in theory, they are not so talked of in practice.

There has certainly been a rush of discovery, a rapid series of inventions; and, in one sense, the activity is marvelous and the rapidity might well look like magic. But it has been a rapidity in things going stale; a rush downhill to the flat and dreary world of the prosaic; a haste of marvelous things to lose their marvelous character; a deluge of wonders to destroy wonder. This may be the improvement of machinery, but it cannot possibly be the improvement of man.

And since it is not the improvement of man, it cannot possibly be progress. Man is the creature that progress professes to improve; it is not a race of wheels against wheels, or a wrestling match of engines against engines. Improvement implies all that is commonly called education; and education implies enlargement; and especially enlargement of the imagination. It implies exactly that imaginative intensity of appreciation which does not permit anything that might be vivid or significant to become trivial or vulgar. If we have vulgarized electricity on the earth, it is no answer to boast that, in a few years more, we can vulgarize the stars in the sky.

Tell me that the bustling business man is struck rigid in prayer at the mere sound of the telephone-bell, like the peasants of Millet at the Angelus; tell me that he bows in reverence as he approaches the shrine of the telephone-box; tell me even that he hails it with Pagan rather than with Christian ritual, that he gives his ear to the receiver as to an Oracle of Delphi, or thinks of the young lady on an office-stool at the Exchange [the operator] as of a priestess seated upon a tripod in a distant temple; tell me even that he has an ordinary poetical appreciation of the idea of that human voice coming across hills and valleys — as much appreciation as men had about the horn of Roland or the shout of Achilles — tell me that these scenes of adoration or agitation are common in the commercial office on the receipt of a telephone call, and then (upon the preliminary presumption that I believe a word you say), then indeed I will follow your bustling business man and your bold, scientific inventor to the conquest of new worlds and to the scaling of the stars.

For then I shall know that they really do find what they want and understand what they find; I shall know that they do add new experiences to our life and new powers and passions to our souls; that they are like men finding new languages, or new arts, or new schools of architecture. But all they can say, in the sort of passage I quoted, is that they can invent things which are generally commonplace conveniences, but very often commonplace inconveniences. And all that they can boast, in answer to any intelligent criticism, is that they may yet learn how to make the sun and moon and the everlasting heavens equally commonplace, and probably equally inconvenient.

Let it be noted that this is not, as is always loosely imagined, a reaction against material science; or a regret for mechanical invention; or a depreciation of telephones or telescopes or anything else. It is exactly the other way. I am not depreciating telephones; I am complaining that they are not appreciated. I am not attacking inventions; I am attacking indifference to inventions. I only remark that it is the same people who brag about them who are really indifferent to them. I am not objecting to the statement that the science of the modern world is wonderful; I am only objecting to the modern world because it does not wonder at it.

Boring Ourselves Back to Life


In 2003 and 2006 Carl Trueman published a pair of editorials that are worth reading (annually). Here are the especially pertinent excerpts.

Carl Trueman, “Editorial: Boring Ourselves to Life,” Themelios, 28.3 (2003), 3–4.

Why do we pay sports stars, actors, and the various airheads that populate the airwaves more than we pay our political leaders? We do this because they help to take our minds off the deeper, more demanding truths of life, particularly the one great and ultimately unavoidable truth: death. It is not just the entertainment industry that does that: the huge amount of money expended on the health industry in general and the cosmetic surgery industry in particular also point us towards the basic drive in society to avoid this one at all costs. As Pascal himself says, ‘It is easier to put up with death without thinking about it, than with the idea of death when there is no danger of it.’ . . .

This is where boredom is so important. Stripped of diversions and distractions, individuals have no choice but to reflect upon themselves, the reality of their lives and their future deaths. Human culture has proved adept over the centuries at avoiding the claims of Christ and the truths of human existence revealed in him. The modern bureaucratic state, the instability and insecurity of the work environment, the entertainment industry and the consumer society in which our modern Western affluence allows us to indulge all play their part in keeping us from reflecting upon reality as revealed to us by God.

Let us take time to be bored, to strip away from ourselves the screens we have created to hide the real truths of life and death from our eyes. Let us spend less time trying to appropriate culture for Christianity and more time deconstructing culture in the light of Christ’s claims on us and the world around us. Only then will we truly grasp the urgency of the human predicament. Oh and by the way, if it snows again, don’t rent a video; read a copy of Pascal’s Pensées.

Carl Trueman, “Editorial: The Eloquence of Silence,” Themelios 32.1 (2006), 1–2:

One of the distinguishing marks of God as he reveals himself in Scripture is that he is a God who speaks. He is a God who is not silent. This contrast with silence is fascinating; and, in a world which is full of all manner of ‘noise’ — cultural, social, commercial — reflection on silence, and the significance this has for the God who is not silent, can be most productive. Indeed, one could argue that silence is, in its own way, one of the most enlightening things about the world in which we live and about who we are within that world, both positively and negatively.

I have reflected before in an editorial on the contribution of the Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal, to the development of Christian cultural criticism. I have looked at how, with his ethical understanding of the human thought and his categories of distraction and diversion, he probed the ways in which cultural pursuits, from entertainment to education to bureaucracy, could be used to avoid facing the moral realities of human sin and mortality, and the inevitable judgement that follows.

It would seem to me that one of the challenges that Pascal lays before us is that of silence: if cultural ‘noise’ is generated to allow us to forget or to avoid the reality of our human condition, then surely silence is useful as one context in which that condition can, indeed must, be faced. The measure of a man or woman, one might say, is the ability to sit alone and be silent in a room for an hour, contemplating nothing but their own mortality in the light of eternity.

Think about it. Think about the lengths we go to in order to exclude silence from our lives: from iPods as we travel to and from work, to the background hum of the television, stereo or radio as we go about our daily lives at home. Noise is everywhere. Much of it is unnecessary and a matter of our personal choice. We live in a world where silence is rare, and, if we are honest, is deliberately excluded even from those obvious contexts we have in which we might indulge in it. Yet silence is golden, for in silence human beings must face the starling reality of who they are.

A Mini Theology of Technology

Pastor Jim Samra, writing in the new book The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, assembled by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan (Baker; 2015), pages 67–68:

God has led me to realize that the Bible has much to say about technology — as long as we are willing to use a sufficiently broad definition: “Technology includes all tools, machines, utensils, weapons, instruments, housing, clothing, communicating and transporting devices and the skills by which we produce and use them.”

Stories from the first eleven chapters of Genesis give foundational principles relevant to the use of technology:

(1) Technology is possible because man is created in the image of God (Adam and Eve).

(2) Technology often hinders our ability to recognize our need for God and can be used to attempt to render God unnecessary (Cain).

(3) Technology can free us to sin by attempting to shield us from some of the consequences of sin (Lamech and Tubal-Cain).

(4) Technology is used by God to rescue us, to help alleviate some of the consequences of the fall, and to help us worship God (Noah).

(5) Technology is inherently dangerous because it is the product of purposive human activity, and we need help from God in limiting its use (Tower of Babel).

Of these five, I have found the last one to be the most difficult for people to grasp.

Studying the cross as a form of technology led to my recognizing that technology is dangerous inasmuch as it is constantly tempting us to imagine a better life available to us through technology: to covet and to put our faith in technology rather than God. The cross is associated with the Jewish leaders coveting a world without Jesus (Luke 20:9-19) and their idolatry in embracing Caesar rather than God (John 19:13–16).