Edwards Against the Technopoly

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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.

Which Is More Isolating: Blindness or Deafness?

Praise God if you can see and hear. Both are miraculous gifts. But if you could only see or hear, which would you choose? It’s the basis of a classroom experiment by W. J. T. Mitchell, English and Art History prof at the University of Chicago. I heard him explain it in a 2006 interview.

A thought experiment I use with my students is asking them: “If you have a choice, you can either be blind or rendered deaf — lose your ears or your eyes — which do you choose?” And then I say, “Don’t think about it, just vote.” Always, 90% vote to be deaf, rather than blind, because they think [sight] is so important.

Then I introduce a discussion to see if the vote changes, and in the course of the discussion they learn quickly, after a moment’s reflection, that the loss of sight is much less a problem than loss of hearing. A loss of hearing means we couldn’t do what we’re doing [a recorded conversation in a studio]. We could be doing this on the telephone. All of our sociability depends on the oral channel. And even though we have this inflated idea about eyesight, actually in terms of our being, as social animals, it’s relatively secondary. Yet we make it into something really important.

At the end of our discussion of course there’s a few holdouts who say, “I still can’t bear the thought of living in darkness.” But they begin to realize that deafness is a much bigger handicap, and of course that leads on to discussions like why are all of the greatest poets blind, not deaf? And why is blindness associated with the insight of “the blind seer”?

There’s no question our lives today are ocularcentric, and we over-prioritize the eyes because we live in a glittered age fully invested in the impulsive power of images to grab our eyes. This is Mitchell’s point, and it opens a vast field of exploration for Christians whose gospel priorities explicitly stress the ear over the eye (Rom 10:14; 2 Cor 5:7).

But this point was also recorded in 2006, prior to the advent of the iPhone and prior to social media as we now know it. In the 12 years since, I’m left to wonder if our new relational structures, heavily patterned after visual/typed realtime conversations of the digital world, now fundamentally tilt this equation? Or is this factor x-ed out by dictation tech?

What do you think?

12 Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age

Do you think we have a smartphone problem?

Two weeks ago I was invited to speak to a room of church leaders on raising teens and tweens in the digital age, a message birthed from things I’ve learned from my wife and through years of personal wins and losses as a dad in my own home.

I landed at an airport, walked outside, got picked up by a 26-year-old Uber driver, Scott. A talkative guy, he asked me what I did. A journalist now researching smartphone habits and addictions, I said. Hardly having left the airport property, he choked back tears and explained that a week ago he broke up with his girlfriend of eight years, in part because of her smartphone addiction. “Me and my girlfriend,” he said, “we kicked our cigarette habit together. But we never could kick our smartphone habit together.” But Scott did. Feeling the urge to prove it, when we reached our destination, he showed me his iPhone and its nearly vacant home screen. He uses the phone only for driving and navigation. For everything else — he held up an old battered flip phone.

I thanked him, got out, checked into my hotel, walked for lunch, and sat inside a restaurant in a booth by a large window to enjoy the sunny cityscape. A few moments later a grimy homeless man walked along the sidewalk, stopped about ten feet from me, outside. Holding an empty Red Bull can smashed flat in the middle, and with the two ends slightly bent down at an angle. With both hands he held the can up in front of his face. With two thumbs he tapped and swiped and pinched and clicked on the flat surface for a full minute before holding it to his ear and walking off in a solo conversation. He’s simply trying to fit in, to look normal, and this is the normalcy he watches all day.

Do you think we have a smartphone problem?

Later that night in Louisville I spoke to a room of key pastors and leaders, parents and grandparents, who share my concerns over how smartphones and social media form and de-form teens and tweens.

Through the kind invitation of Collin Hansen (TGC) and the gift of three research days allotted to me by David Mathis (DG), I was finally able to pull all my thoughts together into one piece. The written form of the address is done, edited, and released a moment ago, under the title: Twelve Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age.”

Smartphone Gratitude, Smartphone Restraint: An Interview with Oliver O’Donovan

I wrote 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You after two years of research and nearly 30 interviews with experts. In the process I landed a 9,000-word interview with Alastair Roberts (here), and several individual responses from John Piper, like his six wrong reasons we check our phones in the morning (here).

In the process I was honored to get a few minutes to interview my favorite academic ethicist, British theologian Oliver O’Donovan (72). I first ‘met’ O’Donovan in Resurrection and Moral Order (1986), and then read along as he unveiled his Ethics as Theology trilogy:

Until now only bits of the interview have appeared, and only in my book. Here’s the full interview.


Dr. O’Donovan, thanks for your time. I want to ask you about digital technology. My first question sets the broader stage and it’s about embodied, face-to-face fellowship among Christians, which is superior to disembodied communication, whether via epistle or text. Paul and John knew this (see Rom. 15:32; 2 Tim. 1:4; 2 John 12). I think we all understand the value of vocal tone, hand gestures, warmth of voice, etc. in aiding communication and helping us to interpret meaning. But beyond these, what is distinct about face-to-face fellowship that proves itself to be irreplaceable for Christians when determining the joy of our fellowship?

Text is a communication that embodies and overcomes distance. Writing enables us to speak and hear across oceans and across generations; through textual exchanges (like this one) we may pose questions and offer answers between remote places and with sufficient intervening time for thought. God has hallowed the use of written books for his self-revelation in history, and in the Apocalypse all history is presented to us as a scroll in the hand of the Lamb of God. We cannot, and should not try to, live without texts.

Yet there is something higher even than the sacred text, which is God’s direct presence. His final purpose is represented to us as a city, to which men and women gather and in the midst of which he is personally present. We anticipate this when we gather in worship week by week, standing next to one another, listening to, and singing and saying, the same things together, looking together for God’s blessing on the whole human race. Reading Scripture is part of that experience, but it cannot be the whole of it. In private communication, too, we discover something of one another that written words cannot convey. That should not lead us to romanticise our very fragmentary and imperfect face-to-face encounters, but we should remember that in all their imperfections they carry a hint of something ultimate.

Imperfect presences and distanced textual communications each have their essential disciplines. The problem with electronic communications is that they appear to give us the best of both worlds, immediacy on the one hand, distance on the other, so that we think we can dispense with the disciplines. They actually need to be even stronger. Faced with a sudden email and anxious to send it spinning back to its originator, we write things we do not think out carefully — and so lose the benefits of writing. And we say things that we might be able to communicate successfully if we had voice, face and hand to accompany them, but which cannot be communicated in text — so we lose the benefits of immediate communication. Gigantic rows are caused by such hasty communications which are neither well enough composed as writing, nor well enough interpreted through personal signals of good humour and good will.

So two rules for the electronic era: (i) Polish even harder the skills and disciplines of writing, especially when what we intend what we write to be read by more than one recipient. (ii) Don’t rely on the rhetoric of personal communication (“Hi, Oliver!” as my electricity provider cheerfully addresses me) without investing in the reality of personal presence. And, of course, cherish corporate worship, that most counter-cultural of practices for which no virtual substitute can be found.

It seems we receive content in three distinct ways. God has spoken in his word (special revelation), and he has spoken in his creation (general revelation). On top of this we are fed a constant stream of the produced, content either mass produced by corporations or on smaller scale by artists, or now via social media by our individual followers, friends, and family. Christians need to prioritize Scripture and nature, but we are so often drawn to feed on the produced media that comes to us in various forms that seems so “relevant” in the moment. What are the spiritual consequences of over investing time in the produced?

We need not be alarmed about cultural mediations of reality. It is built into our social existence as humans that we learn both of the world and of God through one another. Cultural mediations range at one end from conversations (which Augustine thought should always follow sermons) to high art — the mighty theological reflections of a Michelangelo or a Bach.

Our concern over them should be twofold: (i) whether they are well-made, or whether they are shoddy, mass-produced stuff with a shallow understanding; (ii) whether we are capable of judging them before the bar of Holy Scripture read. These two concerns, taken one step further back, converge on a single concern: how do we measure our communications before the reality that is shown us by God through his word and directly through the world around us? That is what makes study and reflection essentially necessary to us. There are many disciplines of study, but they must aim at the same goal, namely, a “critical” purchase, which is to say, a “discerning” purchase on what is offered us as knowledge in the public realm To be “critical” of statistics, of news media, of scientific claims, of prophecies — not merely by being hyper-reactive and taking the opposite tack regardless, but seriously asking where they come from, what they may show us and what they are unlikely to show us. That used to be the goal of all education. Christians understand it as a discipline of “testing the spirits, to see whether they are of God.”

Huxley and Postman presumed we would lose our capacity for serious reading, not by the banning of books, but by a deluge of information. Others have said it’s not so much the deluge of information that should concern Christians, but the hyperpalatability of that information (it is increasingly shocking or brief or immediately stimulating, but of little eternal value). In your opinion, for the digital age, what is the greatest danger for serious Christian literacy?

My impression is that the damage to literacy is something of a fait accompli, for which the electronic media are usually blamed. There are other factors at work, too. Literacy was not in wonderful health before the 1990’s, and as for the collapsing standards of literacy in the church, it has more to do with the unwillingness of the faithful, or their leaders, to invest money in theological education than with anything else. We are, however, as you rightly suggest, a generation that believes, as no previous generation believes, in “information.” What is information? It is not “facts.” Though we throw that word around pretty freely, when politicians insist on “evidence-based policies,” they don’t mean anything that the philosophers or historians would recognise as facts. They mean figures — columns of statistics that can be projected into a shapely graph. Our generation counts things, without caring very much what it counts or even whether what it counts is connumerable.

What literacy used to mean was a capacity to interrogate an appearance, including the appearance of numbers. What do they mean? What is the lived experience behind them? In an attempt to get back to that we are often offered a rather salacious and sensational view of “lived experience” to go with figures: first the startling statistics on the growth of obesity, then the anguish of Elspeth, who has grown obese. These two taken together do not constitute the lived reality. They are merely the hooks by which a vast and various reality may catch our attention.

And perhaps the greatest threat we face is that of living with short attention-span, caught now by one little explosion of surprise, now by another. Knowledge is never actually given to us in that form. It has to be searched for and pursued, as the marvellous poems on Wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs tell us.

I know you’re not personally immersed in social media and the smartphone. But from your vantage point, as a respected ethicist, should Christians feel uneasy about the rise of digital communications technology? It seems that for most of us, email is a given. Smartphones are a given. But there’s a tendency for us to allow the potential of new technology to override the true usefulness of technology in our lives. What diagnostic questions would you raise to young Christians who are immersed in the world of smartphones and tablets and online mobile communications?

Feeling uneasy is not a sufficient response. All that can be received from God with thanksgiving, should be received with thanksgiving. My generation was fifty, and very busy, when the first personal computers hit, and so we have probably never overcome our ambivalence at the sheer disruption and disturbance they caused as we had to re-learn all our developed skills — and then learn them again, when the first wave of software gave way to the second. I have learned to type in Greek five or six times now, and every time I open the programme, I am afraid of remembering only what one had to do two programmes back! I can still thank God for some things these innovations have given me, and I would wish my grandchildren to be able to thank God for more. But how to learn to thank God? It is a real and difficult question, and not just a matter of being upbeat and believing in progress.

One cannot thank God for anything that one cannot understand. To take some facility for granted is not to be thankful for it. It is simply to take it for granted. Electronic communications are a question — for the younger generation more than for mine. It is they who have really to learn to understand the powers and threats that they embody, partly through trial and error, but also, and very importantly, through remembering what was of greatest importance before the communications revolution kicked in.

Nobody has ever had to learn this before. Nobody can teach the rising generation how to learn it. It is a massive challenge to conscientious intelligence, handed uniquely to them. The danger they face, of course, is that the tools set the agenda. A tool of communication is a tool for communicating something. Media don’t just lie around passively, waiting for us to come along and find them useful for some project we have in mind. They tell us what to do, and, more significantly, what to want to do. There is a current in the stream and if we don’t know how to swim, we shall be carried by it. I see someone doing something and I want to do it too, and forget whatever it was that I thought I wanted to do.

This generation has the unique task assigned it of discerning what the new media are really good for, and that means, also, what they are not good for. If they fluff it, generations after them will pay the price.

[end]

Digital Tabulation in the Narrative of Life

Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (MIT; 2017), 35.

A timeline does not recount the story of a life; it provides no biography. Timelines are additive, not narrative. Digital man . . . is always counting and calculating. The digital absolutizes numbers and counting. . . . The digital age is totalizing addition, counting, and the countable. Even affection and attachments get counted — as likes. The narrative dimension is losing meaning on a massive scale. Today, everything is rendered countable so that it can be transformed into the language of performance and efficiency. As such, whatever resists being counted ceases to be.

Justin Taylor’s Tweet Rant

Justin Taylor is a fictional TV character, or a book publishing genius, or the global director of digital marketing for Nike. The recent tweet-rant from the global director of digital marketing for Nike basketball version of Justin Taylor is worth a read:

This year I think we are going to see a huge drop off in social media usage across the board but especially from youth.

While the people posting won’t disappear, those willing to scroll through and engage with their feeds will decline.

The constant news cycle of Trump and negativity will start to wear on people, as well as their lack of faith in who to trust for news.

Kids especially will lose interest in “the internet” and revert more and more to 1:1 messaging and human interaction again (hopefully).

And shift trust more and more away from brands/news stations/tv and more and more to friends/influencers/athletes/celebrities.

This political cycle has made social media really “grow up” over the last year, and has become less and less a fun place.

The next generation aren’t broadcasters, they’re in their own little tribes making Snapchat, iMessage and Instagram DM groups with friends

Because when you’re a kid and you’re getting sick of people constantly “yelling” at you online, what else would you do?

/rant

And with all the signs indicating that American politics will get worse before it gets better, these trends in youth social media seem reasonable.

[HT: @stefanlgreen]