Pulling Technology from Creation

Isaiah 28:23–29 —

Give ear, and hear my voice;
give attention, and hear my speech.
Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
Does he continually open and harrow his ground?
When he has leveled its surface,
does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and emmer as the border?
For he is rightly instructed;
his God teaches him.

Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin,
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
and cumin with a rod.
Does one crush grain for bread?
No, he does not thresh it forever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it
with his horses, he does not crush it.
This also comes from the LORD of hosts;
he is wonderful in counsel
and excellent in wisdom.

The long process of human science, engineering, and technological advance in agriculture is simply mankind being given the intellectual powers to read and take its lead from the possibilities inherent in the created order. This is akin to learning tech from the Creator himself.

Thomas Edison holds 1,093 patents and invented the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the alkaline battery, the X-ray fluoroscope, among many other things. He was a freethinker. More agnostic than believer. But he did believe in nature, and once admitted:

I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment — I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born. Everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.

So where do inventions originate if not in the inventor’s head?

As I’ve said previously, God makes lightning bolts (Psalm 135:7). And this act is the genesis of what we now call the digital age. The same is true of farming tech.

Without baptizing every use of technology as good, we can at least affirm that every technology must take its prompt from what is first made possible by the Creator in his created order.

* * *

Source: Edmund Morris, Edison (Random House, 2019), 12.

Why We Must Digitally Fast

article-2

It’s always an honor to talk with Dutch journalist Maarten Stolk of Reformatorisch Dagblad. Last month he interviewed me about my most recent book: Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Digital Age. The interview was published today in the Netherlands under the title: “Why We Must Digitally Fast.” With his kind permission, here’s the full English interview.

Why did you write Competing Spectacles after 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You?

My work seeks to help Christians think critically and biblically about the changing world of technology. But many of the technologies on my radar are too futuristic or abstract to yet draw popular attention — topics like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, autonomous domestic robots, companion robots, designer babies, social credit scoring, global surveillance, transhumanism, etc. Smartphone habits are immediately relevant to all of us. So my smartphone book serves as a both a practical how-to book and an introduction to a broader discussion of our tech age.

But at the end of that project, I knew that there were more questions to address about the power dynamics of digital media. Some have called Competing Spectacles a prequel to 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. I think that’s accurate. Shiny new technology affects all of us in many ways, but the dominance of digital media, inside what has been coined the “attention market,” is the bigger backstory behind why our smartphones are so addictive.

So this new book asks: What does it mean for Christians to live with eternal purpose inside a digital age filled with viral video clips, live sports, video gaming, on-demand television streaming, virtual reality dreamscapes, loudmouthed political pundits, brash political tweets, the latest blockbuster movies, brand new YouTube videos — enough eye-candy to consume every waking moment of a lifespan?

Why is it important for Christians to have periods of digital detoxes?

Attention is the currency of power. The more plays or “likes,” the more power. A digital detox is a withdrawal from this power-currency system. But a digital detox is a type of fasting. And fasting is how Christians say: ‘Food is not my god. Food is not my comfort. Food is not the basis of my happiness. God is.’ We use food rightly when God is at the center of our lives, not food.

In a consumer-driven age of abundance, you can imagine how fasting becomes even more urgent. Food is a powerful habit, and so are our smartphones. Every day, we habitually turn to our phones, more often than we turn to sugar. Smartphones are a virtual form of candy. So a digital detox is a way of saying, ‘The endless digital media available to me in my phone is not my god. The self-affirmation and acceptance I seek in social media is not the basis of my happiness. God’s acceptance of me, in union with Christ, is.’

Only when our lives are re-centered on God can we learn to use our phones in honorable ways and with eternal purpose. Digital detoxes are essential only because we have been showered with new gifts from God in the form of technology and media. Like all fasting, it’s sanctified gratitude, one way to ensure that our lives center on the gift-Giver, not on his proliferated gifts.

Is an image or a ‘spectacle’ theologically neutral?

Maybe. But every spectacle implicitly makes one of two claims, either: ‘God is the central reality to the universe.’ Or: ‘God is inconsequential to the universe.’ And most of our spectacles present us with a distortion of reality: reality minus God is a false reality, an unreality. Bluntly put, this distortion is demonic, a worldview that shrugs off God. But my concern is not in separating inherently good spectacles from inherently sinful ones.

Where I think the church has failed more commonly is in failing to speak to the dangers of spectacle-saturation in the digital age. Today we are conditioned to binge television shows, plunge into hours of gaming, to live online, and to soak up the lingua franca of our age in advertising, Hollywood movies, the music industry, and large-stadium athletics. We live inside a matrix of media like no other people in world history. Where do we draw healthy limits? That’s the question I’m chasing.

To what extent must the church be ‘countercultural’ in a visual world?

The Church is a counter-cultural resistance movement because our identity is shaped by our hopes and our convictions about unseen realities (2 Cor. 4:18). Particularly in the digital age, the church is countercultural because we set our minds and our hearts are affections and our hopes on unseen realities above, “where Christ is” (Col. 3:1–3).

The world hungers after the latest gadget, the newest thrill, and whatever is projected to them in the digital media that shapes the loves and longings that drive them. But Christians live with one foot in this world and one foot in an unseen world. Which means that our loves and longings are fundamentally shaped by a hidden realm. By faith we can see through the veil of CGI spectacles to behold an “eternal weight of glory,” heavier than a granite mountain, and more luminous than a diamond, and invisible to the eyes of the world today (2 Cor. 4:17).

Why are Christ and the church ‘spectacles’?

Since at least the Exodus, God has delighted to flex his own spectacle-making power for the world to behold (see Ex. 9:16). God is not against spectacles; he’s opposed to the fictional CGI spectacles of our movie age that grab more attention than his glorious Son. God’s people have been central to the celebration and re-proclamation of God’s spectacles.

This is no different today. We proclaim the perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Christ. We give testimony of God’s work to the people around us, pointing others to the great Spectacle of the universe, Jesus Christ.

How can Christians speak prophetically to demask spectacles? Can you give an example?

As Herman Bavinck put it, Christians are not, in principle, opposed to culture. We are opposed to worldviews that fail to subordinate this world to the world to come. So we can begin by realizing that the world doesn’t question the glut of digital media. Our world blindly plunges into all the world’s entertainment offerings. A small voice, all throughout Church history, has objected to this cultural plunge. I’m trying to echo that objection in my own way, in my own age, while also realizing that I am, and will remain, a minority voice in the Church.

Quite frankly, most Christians don’t want to hear it. We can fear falling out of step with modern media more than we fear overconsumptions of media. It is time for an awakening to begin inside the household of God. Then perhaps we can make broader inroads in our culture, as people who live with priorities beyond the latest viral video.

How do you know if the spectacles of this world are suffocating your heart?

Jesus Christ died, was buried, and raised to eternal life to purchase our joy now and eternally! There’s nothing more thrilling, no greater Spectacle. So we are commanded to give our most earnest and careful attention to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because even though we have not seen Christ, we can love him with a love that fills our hearts with an inexpressibly glorious joy (1 Pet. 1:8).

Only Christ can be this most brilliant Spectacle for us. But when our attention neglects Christ, we drift away from him (Heb. 2:1–3). And this drift is felt most clearly when we find ourselves always seeking after a new thrill in our media, meanwhile losing interest in the person of Christ, declining interest in the Bible, yawning through Christ-centered sermons, and spiritually snoozing through the Lord’s Table. Christ grows boring compared to the latest digital thrills. So we pump new thrills into our worship services to compete with the volume of digital thrills of our age, but we really only spotlight the decay of our holy affections.

We grow bored with Christ. And to be bored with Christ is to be disconnected from the great thrill of the cosmos, severed from God’s purpose for this creation — a theater to display the worth and beauty of his Son.

There’s no greater catastrophic loss imaginable to a soul than to grow weary of Christ, the Spectacle of all spectacles. And if I’m right, such catastrophe is accelerated in a media age like our own.

The ‘Perhaps’-es of Life Under God’s Sovereign Governance

Philemon 1:15 —

“For this perhaps [τάχα] is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever …”

Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 44, Word Biblical Commentary (1998), 295 —

Paul puts forward this suggestion about God’s purpose modestly with the adverb τάχα (“perhaps,” “possibly,” or “probably”; it usually occurs with ἄν and the optative mood, but in the two NT passages where the word appears, Rom 5:7 and here, the indicative is used without ἄν), since he is not assuming an acquaintance with God’s designs.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013), 1350–1351 —

For Cicero [beyond worship and prayer], the other two aspects [of religio] were the taking of auguries [omens] and the consultation of ancient oracular texts. Paul did not, of course, use divination, or consult the entrails (or the flight-paths) of birds. He did not expect to be guided, or warned, by a sudden clap of thunder. But he believed that the divinity he invoked guided him, at least when he particularly needed it.

[In Acts] it is noticeable that there are several moments when specific words from the lord give order and direction to Paul’s life, from his conversion itself through to the angelic encouragement he received shortly before the shipwreck. It is equally noticeable that there are several moments when we might have expected such things but none appear. Paul, Silas, and Timothy go wandering off northwards through Asia Minor without knowing quite where they are going. The only guidance, for a while, is negative: they are forbidden to preach here, prevented from going there.

Many of Paul’s decisions about where to go next, and when to move on, seem to have been taken on what we might think of as purely pragmatic or common-sense grounds, not least when he was being physically threatened or attacked and deemed it prudent to leave town in a hurry. If Paul urged his hearers to learn how to think things through, to develop a wise Christian mind, it was something he had had to do himself. Certainly Luke has made no attempt to portray the apostolic mission in terms of constant ‘supernatural’ guidance, though that kind of ‘intervention’ does happen from time to time.

In Paul’s own writings this kind of guidance seems at best oblique. He has long been intending to go to Rome, but things have got in the way. His journeyings have been planned on the basis of his overall understanding of God’s work in and through him, not ad hoc because of particular sudden impulses — even if some might accuse him of such a thing. God would use combinations of circumstances both to encourage him and to nudge him in a particular direction. There might be occasional moments of ‘revelation,’ but these are conspicuously rare.

As often as not, Paul sees the divine hand only in retrospect. For the present, the attempt to discern divine intent carries a ‘maybe’ about with it. Maybe, he writes to Philemon about Onesimus, this is the reason he was separated from you. To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps.’

All this might seem to lead to the paradoxical conclusion that Paul was less certain of the divine will, on a day-to-day basis, than his pagan counterparts.

Good Friday Is No Funeral

 

Charles Spurgeon was no fan of Good Friday. Too many people in his day ignored the church until “Holy Week,” a week so sacred that attendance on Good Friday and Easter apparently atoned for neglecting the church for the remainder of the calendar year. (Sound familiar?)

In this way Good Friday became, in his words, “a superstitious ordinance of man” — too rote, too structured, too formalized. Good Friday became a day when human emotions were forced, like a performance art, to impress Rome, “the kind of religion which makes itself to order by the Almanack, and turns out its emotions like bricks from a machine, weeping on Good Friday, and rejoicing two days afterwards, measuring its motions by the moon, is too artificial to be worthy of my imitation.”

In sermon 2248, prior to communion, he elaborated.

The Lord of life and glory was nailed to the accursed tree. He died by the act of guilty men. We, by our sins, crucified the Son of God.

We might have expected that, in remembrance of his death, we should have been called to a long, sad, rigorous fast. Do not many men think so even today? See how they observe Good Friday, a sad, sad day to many; yet our Lord has never enjoined our keeping such a day, or bidden us to look back upon his death under such a melancholy aspect.

Instead of that, having passed out from under the old covenant into the new, and resting in our risen Lord, who once was slain, we commemorate his death by a festival most joyous. It came over the Passover, which was a feast of the Jews; but unlike that feast, which was kept by unleavened bread, this feast is brimful of joy and gladness. It is composed of bread and of wine, without a trace of bitter herbs, or anything that suggests sorrow and grief. . . .

The memorial of Christ’s death is a festival, not a funeral; and we are to come to the table with gladsome hearts and go away from it with praises, for “after supper they sang a hymn” [Matt 26:30, Mark 14:26].

A number of scholars believe the disciples would have closed their Passover-turned-Lord’s-Supper gathering with a hymn taken from the joyful Hallel Psalms (113–118), perhaps even a majestic one like Psalm 136. Similarly, for Spurgeon Good Friday, like any celebration of the Savior’s death in the Lord’s Supper, was a proper and suitable context for worship, joy, and gladness.

In Spurgeon’s mind, Good Friday was no funeral.

Modern Aliveness Before the Camera

I’ve been enjoying Akiko Busch’s new book: How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. She makes the distinction between disappearing and hiding — the two are quite different, although easily confused in the digital age. Indeed, “it is time to question the false equivalency between not being seen and hiding. And time to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked in this new world” (10).

She’s not addressing the challenges as a Christian, but the book itself is beautiful, and it works as a fine conversation partner into my own thinking in contrasting personal virtue as performance art in the digital age and the virtues of charity, personal prayer, and fasting in their invisible forms (Matthew 6:1–18).

The desire to spiritually perform is even more challenging in the age of Instagram. In part this is because we live in an age in which exposure is increasingly equated with action, and where invisibility is more and more acquainted with passivity.

But something beyond mere performance is happening, as she explains.

Visibility has gone from being passive to active.

In Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel, Look at Me, Charlotte, a model struggling to reconstruct her identity after her face has been grossly disfigured by a car accident, explains her choice of profession by saying, “Being observed felt like an action, the central action — the only one worth taking. Anything else I might attempt seemed passive, futile by comparison.”

I agree. Teaching recently, I assumed an afternoon visit to my classroom by a camera crew documenting campus life would be inhibiting to students. I was sure the two young men with video cameras would make the students feel self-conscious and that classroom discussion would become stilted and awkward.

To the contrary, the students were suddenly participating more actively, sitting up a bit straighter, choosing their words more carefully, and citing sources with greater precision. The intensity of their engagement improved under the eye of the camera, and the classroom conversation found new energy. It wasn’t so much about performing for the camera as coming alive before it, engaging and perhaps even conversing with it. Of course, I later thought, these kids were filmed as they emerged from the birth canal, took their first steps, uttered their first words, and stepped onto that first school bus. Of course they find the camera not only a congenial presence but also an affirming one. (8–9)

The Church’s challenge will be to reclaim and recapture the beauty — the activity — of the invisible life in the age of “continuous exposure.”

 

Edwards Against the Technopoly

smartwatch.jpg

Jonathan Edwards championed the idea of authentic Christianity as dis-interested, and he made the argument in one of his profoundest books, The Religious Affections. It took me years to grasp his reasoning, more years to appreciate why he belabored the point, and only recently have I picked up on his implications for the digital age.

The Enlightenment world Edwards inhabited was an age of practical sciences and groundbreaking discoveries. He lived through the early era of a coming technological jackpot. A science-driven pragmatic age was gestating, and Edwards could feel the fetal movements.

This pragmatic age would bring massive changes in how people read the Bible, applied the Bible, and Instagrammed the Bible.

Edwards was concerned that people would read promises like Luke 12:32, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” as if those words were “immediately spoken from heaven to them.” The words in the gospels would become “sweet” but only because “they think it is made to them immediately,” and “all the sense they have of any glory in them, is only from self-love, and from their own imagined interest in the words: not that they had any view or sense of the holy and glorious nature of the kingdom of heaven, and the spiritual glory of that God who gives it” (W2:221).

He arrives here by making the argument that no promise of Scripture was made to anyone alive today. We cannot embrace Scripture’s promises too quickly, and certainly not because someone else has said we are an inheritor of the divine promises. Edwards’s experiences in the froth of revival led him to conclude that even Satan can manipulate people to think the Bible is a book of blank banknotes of personal blessings to be grabbed, rendering down the glorious God of the universe into a Pez dispenser of gifts and blessings.

So is there ever a personal application of Scripture to a saint? Yes, Edwards affirms, but not because someone else makes the claim. This conformation is a distinct work of the Spirit, “a spiritual application of the promises of Scripture, for the comfort of the saints, consists in enlightening their minds to see the holy excellency and sweetness of the blessings promised, and also the holy excellency of the promiser, and his faithfulness and sufficiency; thus drawing forth their hearts to embrace the promiser, and thing promised; and by this means, giving the sensible actings of grace, enabling them to see their grace, and so their title to the promise” (W2:224–25).

Where the Spirit is active, the Promiser is always greater than the promise. This was a priority Edwards feared would be lost as preaching and revival moved toward man-centric themes and approaches.

This coming shift in pulpits was riding the wake of the Enlightenment, a social shift that changed how millions defined happiness and pursued it. Once considered in the hands of God and in fate, or a divine reward for obedience, Enlightenment thinkers came in and said no, grab for happiness, change the fate, “change these things — change ourselves — and we could become in practice what all were intended to by nature be” (McMahon, Happiness, 13).

But the foundational work of God in the soul is not discerned in the grab for a gift or even for a rescue, it’s found in a soul that apprehends the beauty of the promise and the glory of the Promiser. Aesthetic appreciation of the King precedes the joy of holding the title to the kingdom. “And this is indeed the very main difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The former rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the latter rejoices in God” (W2:249).

In other words, saints “first rejoice in God as glorious and excellent in himself, and then secondarily rejoice in it, that so glorious a God is theirs: they first have their hearts filled with sweetness, from the view of Christ’s excellency, and the excellency of his grace, and the beauty of the way of salvation by him; and then they have a secondary joy, in that so excellent a Savior, and such excellent grace is theirs” (W2:250).

On the other hand, hypocritical professors “take more comfort in their discoveries than in [the] Christ discovered” (W2:252).

The dichotomy is clear for Edwards: “The grace of God may appear lovely two ways; either as bonum utile, a profitable good to me, that which greatly serves my interest, and so suits my self-love; or as bonum formosum, a beautiful good in itself, and part of the moral and spiritual excellency of the divine nature” (W2:262–63).

Self-interested religion, that uses the gospel “to serve a turn,” to serve some felt-need or pragmatic purpose as an end in itself, falters and eventually fails to lead toward a life of self-sacrificing holiness. Self-interested religion contradicts selfless sacrifice, as Paul was aware (Phil. 2:21).

Thus, “what makes men partial in religion is, that they seek themselves, and not God, in their religion, and close with religion, not for its own excellent nature, but only to serve a turn [a purpose and end in itself]. He that closes with religion only to serve a turn, will close with no more of it than he imagines serves that turn: but he that closes with religion for its own excellent and lovely nature closes with all that has that nature: he that embraces religion for its own sake, embraces the whole of religion” (W2:394).

Faith as pragmatic expedience is empty and stunted.

Faith that is aesthetic is whole and embracing.

So what has Edwards to do with technology?

Only recently did I notice the connection here, made by Yale editor John E. Smith (in 1959!).

“As we contemplate the renewal of interest in religion, we must not fail to apply these criteria,” Smith says of this dis-interest, in the introduction to the Edwards volume. “What permanent change is taking place in the depths of the self and with what consistency will it show itself in practice? More likely than not the vast majority of cases will be unable to pass the test. And one of the principal reasons for the failure is to be found in our by now well-established tendency to view everything as a technique used by the human will to conquer nature and master history. Edwards had seen this source of corruptions, and he had attacked it through the doctrine of divine love as disinterested. Religion is genuine and has power only when rooted in a love which does not contemplate its own advantage. Religion becomes false at just the point when we attempt to make it into a device for solving problems” (W2:51).

The gospel is not good because it’s useful for fixing life. The gospel is glorious because it reveals the beauty of God. So if I mainly embrace God’s kingdom because it means I get a bigger house in the end, I don’t understand the kingdom, because I’ve missed the beauty of the King.

Tell me Edwards didn’t see Freud coming with a therapeutic model of understanding all things, indeed of validating all things to the standard of immediate personal applicability.

Tell me Edwards didn’t foresee a pragmatic gospel (“Believe because it works!”).

Tell me Edwards didn’t see me-centered worship music coming.

Tell me Edwards didn’t see the prosperity gospel coming.

Tell me Edwards didn’t see lifehacking apps coming.

Edwards (the postmillennial) celebrated social progress, economic development, trade, and he “welcomed technological advances” while also understanding that “selfishness — self-interest, self-promotion, self-centeredness” governs in a fallen world (Edwards Encyclopedia, 85).

Speaking of anything “serving a turn” was the 18th century lingo of lifehackery. In the age of micro-apps and our well-established tendency to view everything as a technique used by the human will to conquer nature and master history, and where we are addicted to shortcuts and technologies of simplicity and expediency that promise to order our lives, we are led to think of everything in life in functional and pragmatic terms.

In every generation you will find doubting Christians, who have a taste for God’s glory but who need pastoral help to embrace the promises of Scripture for themselves. Edwards’s counsel may prove counterproductive for such souls. But he’s on to something really important for us all to note.

We must resist the temptation to transpose spiritual truth down to mere use — techniques, technologies of expediency, shortcuts of self-interest. We must fundamentally pray for an appetite for God in his radiant and holy beauty, for it’s in the aesthetics where the genuine work of God’s Spirit is to be first discerned inside us.