Tech in the Promised Land

In the exodus, God supernaturally sustained his people’s material needs (Dt 8:2–4, 14–16). As he did, he was leading them to an earthly home, to the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey” — the repeated shorthand slogan for its riches. God’s good land will lack nothing. It will have water and wheat and vineyards and olive groves and honey and never-ending bread, “a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper” (Dt 8:7–9). Israel will lack nothing, in part because all the metal tools and technologies she will need was already pre-infused into the land. In this we behold the generosity of the Creator’s covenantal love and the spring of human innovation, his created order, a globe stuffed with elements he invented, created, and distributed throughout the earth at his pre-determined scale, depth, and location — a sort of bait to lure discovery and invention from us, to behold God’s ancient generosity to us in the new, shiny things we make today.

But this richly infused land came with a divine warning to “take care lest you forget the LORD” (Dt 8:11). Material prosperity goes together with forgetting. “When you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Dt 8:12–14).

God’s people, in a future state of material prosperity, will face three temptations.

(1) They will replace God with the world’s false gods of security (Dt 8:19).

(2) They will forget God’s redemptive grace (Dt 8:14).

(3) They will forget the Creator’s preemptive material generosity by simply celebrating human inventiveness (Dt 8:18).

This Creator who pre-patterned into the material world every single technological advance we use today, that generous Giver gets ignored. We fall for the lie of self-confidence. It seems to me the church in the prosperous tech age must heed God’s warning to his people entering the Promised Land: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Dt 8:18). That’s the great spiritual battle in the tech age.

Our takeaways:

(1) Refuse to put your security and idolatrous self-confidence in man’s technological powers.

(2) Celebrate Christ’s redemptive work.

(3) Celebrate the Creator’s generosity on display in the tens of thousands of innovations we use daily, knowing none of them would exist if not for God’s kindness to us.

Taking those material gifts for granted, using them, but never seeing God in them, is spiritually perilous.

God never pitted the spiritual against the material. We are not called to choose a spiritual OR material existence. We are not called to choose worship OR iron. We are not called to choose to be a faithful Christian OR technologically adapted. But we are called to ensure the prosperous, material, tech age does not erode our worship. Life in the Promised Land, or in Silicon Valley, is ultimately all about worship. It’s about heeding the call: “You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Dt 8:18). In such a land, to forget God is as easy as starting up your car and driving off blind to the divine generosity that causes it all move.

War, Social Media, and the Collective Memory

Running notebook on war, narrative, on the ground social media capture, and why the invasion of Ukraine and the heroic resistance of its president and people are getting etched deep into the collective memory.

Background: Why the Gulf War (1990–91) was forgotten per Chuck Klosterman (The Nineties [2022], 56):

The Gulf War was a triumph of public relations. But it was forgotten almost instantly. We tend to assume that seeing an event ‘live’ deepens its imprint on the mind. It should, in theory, make the experience more intense, and the associated emotions should be more ingrained. But the prolonged liveness of the Gulf War produced the opposite effect. Like a CGI action movie with no character development, the plot vaporized as it combusted. The network footage was live and raw, but dependent on the military’s willingness to grant those networks access, which meant the rawness was clandestinely cooked. The public saw almost no casualties from either side. The strategic success was robotic. Despite the buildings that were annihilated and the civilian lives that were lost, there was no obvious emotional component to the war, which meant there was no narrative. And since American audiences had been trained to understand the world through the process of storytelling, a war with no story was a war they did not care to remember.

Daniel Johnson (Slate, February 24):

It’s been less than 24 hours since Russia invaded Ukraine, yet we already have more information about what’s going on there than we would have in a week during the Iraq war. Already, Google Maps has revealed Russian armored invasion routes due to civilians in the area getting caught in traffic, leading Google to send out alerts. We know almost exactly when Russian forces began their helicopter air assault near Kyiv. We know that one of two Russian soldiers captured by Ukrainian forces on Thursday is probably 20 years old — a reporter found his social media account.

If you’re interested, you can find footage of airstrikes, ground battles, Russian helicopters getting shot down, civilians being targeted. Most of it isn’t coming from traditional sources. … What is coming out of Ukraine is simply impossible to produce on such a scale without citizens and soldiers throughout the country having easy access to cellphones, the internet, and, by extension, social media apps. A large-scale modern war will be livestreamed, minute by minute, battle by battle, death by death, to the world.

Thomas Friedman (NYT, February 25):

Our world is not going to be the same again because this war has no historical parallel. It is a raw, 18th-century-style land grab by a superpower — but in a 21st-century globalized world. This is the first war that will be covered on TikTok by super-empowered individuals armed only with smartphones, so acts of brutality will be documented and broadcast worldwide without any editors or filters. … Welcome to World War Wired — the first war in a totally interconnected world.

Roger Cohen (NYT, March 1):

TikTok, the video-sharing app with more than a billion active users, has shaped views of the conflict and contributed to an intense wave of global sympathy for Ukraine. Call it Resistance 4.0, the influencers’ war against an unprovoked Russian invasion.

Sheila Dang and Elizabeth Culliford (Reuters, March 1):

When Russia invaded Ukraine last week, some of social media’s youngest users experienced the conflict from the front lines on TikTok. Videos of people huddling and crying in windowless bomb shelters, explosions blasting through urban settings and missiles streaking across Ukrainian cities took over the app from its usual offerings of fashion, fitness and dance videos. … Montages of residential buildings destroyed by missiles, empty grocery store shelves and long lines of cars piled up outside gas stations could be seen on the TikTok pages of top Ukrainian influencers. … The app has become so influential in this conflict that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to “TikTokers” as a group that could help end the war, in a speech directed at Russian citizens. Some TikTokers picked up where the politician left off.

Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman (Washington Post, March 1):

Early Monday, minutes after cluster bombs plunged into a neighborhood in Ukraine’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv, people nearby used social media to document the grisly aftermath. Ukraine’s underdog defense is nevertheless staring down a stark reality: that a fierce onslaught of troops and tanks, regrouping after early losses, continues to charge toward the capital. The glory of the scrappy resistance, less than a week into the invasion, could turn at any moment, and no amount of online victory will change that fact. But the information they’ve surfaced could help define how the world remembers the conflict.

Mike Allen (Axios PM email, after Zelensky addressed Congress via video from Kyiv [March 16, 2022]):

Zelensky’s speech evoked imagery of a youthful JFK, in his day the master of the new medium of TV, Axios politics editor Glen Johnson tells me. Zelensky is 44, using cellphone cameras and Zoom.

Obama come on what gif

No, this post is not important, it’s not political, and should make no sense to anyone right now because it entirely exists in the world preemptively because I, an author, thought it a great idea to footnote a gif in my forthcoming tech book, page 81, using the phrase that most likely brought the image up in a Google search, and did work very well in my writing phase, terms which were codified in said footnotes of a book now at the printers. Now those search terms got all changed up, and I recently discovered that for my footnote to work I needed to actually create a new url on the webs with this dumb title to preserve the original seo terms I used to find the image and thus got cited in my book so readers can find it without using the dominant acronym now used to title the gif, an acronym shared with: wow that’s fun. In sum, this is a teaching moment for authors. Do not footnote gif titles in book footnotes. You’ll be left asking: come on what?! Also, if you want to make sense of all this, the book can be pre-ordered on Amazon.

The Scandal of Pulpit Plagiarism

A few quick thoughts I shot off to an inquiring friend this morning, on why Litton’s sermon borrowing/plagiarism is unthinkable to someone like John Piper. None of it based on private conversations, all simply what I know from his books, particularly his latest trilogy.

  • A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (2016)
  • Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (2017)
  • Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship (2018)

For Piper, authentic preaching (like authentic Bible reading) is not ultimately about discovering true comments on the text, finding its outline, inner logic, picking up on grammar cues, or accurately stating the text’s intent. No. It starts with the text, but soon goes beyond interpretive accuracy. The end of the biblical text is to disclose a divine glory. Scripture, in this sense, must be transfigured (as Alastair Roberts puts it). Or we must experience the telos of the text, its divine glory (as Richard Hays puts it in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [1989], 137).

This point is developed at length in Piper’s trilogy on the nature of Scripture, its reading, and its preaching. Scripture, in Piper’s words, is a window. And the goal of Bible reading and sermon proclamation is not to marvel at the window (the text) but to freshly see in and through the text, as seeing through the window, to behold and encounter the glories of the divine reality explained by the text.

This dynamic (for Piper and Roberts and Hays) stems from the complex text of 2 Corinthians 3:7–4:6. The net result is that, unveiled to Christ by the Spirit, every Bible reader can see more than words on a page but, through those words, we see and encounter the divine reality itself—its glory—Christ himself. When this happens, each of us, unblindfolded, beholds the same divine glory, but we see it from different and unique angles. We each come away from our encounter with Christ having seen and felt something we then work to put into words so others perhaps can see it, too. This encounter is essential to what the preacher brings into the pulpit on Sunday.

Of course, this holds true for daily Bible reading, too. So here’s Piper on what an ideal encounter with God in daily Bible reading would look like, all leading to a sermon.

I would resolve every day in reading my Bible to push through the haze of vague awareness to the very wording of the text. I would push into and through the wording of the text to the intention of the author’s mind, both human and divine. I would push into and through that intention of the author to the reality behind all the words and grammar and logic. I would push into that reality until it became an emotionally experienced reality with emotions that correspond to the nature of the reality. I would push into and through this proportionately emotional experience of the reality behind the text until it took form in word and deed in my life. I would push through this emotionally charged word and deed until others saw the reality and joined me in this encounter with God. (APJ 1197)

But back to the trilogy, here’s a paragraph from book one, A Peculiar Glory (2016).

As I said at the beginning, the Bible has not been for me like a masterpiece hanging on the wall of an Alpine chalet but rather like a window in the wall of the chalet, with the Alps on the other side. In other words, I have been a Christian all these years not because I had the courage to hold on to an embattled view of Scripture, but because I have been held happily captive by the beauty of God and his ways that I see through the Scriptures. (18)

And in his second book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally (2017), he explained why in his pre-pastorate years as a New Testament scholar he didn’t spend much time defending inerrancy. Instead,

mostly, my energies were devoted to looking through the inerrant window, not at the Bible’s “inerrancy” itself. I loved pushing students’ noses against the window pane of the first epistle of John, and the first epistle of Peter, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the Gospel of Luke, and doing all I could, with prayer and modeling and asking good questions, to help them see the glory of this Christ-dominated landscape. (29)

Later in the same book.

All Paul’s letters—indeed all of the apostolic witness of the New Testament—bear the marks of this divine authority. These writings as a whole—not just a slice of them called “gospel”—are our window onto the glory of God. And through this window we see the peculiar glory of God by reading. (84)

A passion for Christ, by the Spirit, “is the key that throws open a thousand windows in Scripture to let in the brightness of God’s glory” (248). And in case this all sounds mystical or divorced from the text, it’s not, because “God’s glory does not float over the Bible like a gas. It does not lurk in hidden places separate from the meaning of words and sentences. It is seen in and through the meaning of texts” (299).

Finally, here’s a quote from the preaching book, the capstone, Expository Exultation (2018):

Preachers do not aim to draw people into their excitement with the shape of literary windows, but with the reality seen through the windows. We aim to draw our people’s minds and hearts to the world of glory, through the window of the Scriptures. The aim of preaching is that people experience the God-drenched reality perceived through the window of biblical words. Beware of making textual structures (whether microgrammatical structures or macrocanonical structures) the climax of preaching. Always keep before you the summons of the reality factor. (162)

All that to say, to borrow and copy from others shows a fundamental disconnect from the purpose of preaching. The preacher is to look in and through the window of Scripture, to encounter the glory there, and then to put this to words so that others (by the Spirit) are brought into the same encounter. To copy is to simply echo what others have seen. It’s a shortcut. But it’s inauthentic preaching, because it fails to originate from fresh seeing.

Thus, it’s rather easy to see why Piper finds it “utterly unthinkable” that “authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word rather than a trumpet blast of my own encounter with God’s word.” Preaching is “expository exultation”—truth and explanation leading to exultation. The preacher is actively worshiping from his encounter with God. On the other hand, copied sermons “expose a failure on the part of the preacher to see the beauty of truth and feel the value of truth. He is having to go to someone else to see what he ought to see in the word. He is having to go to someone else to express the feelings he ought to feel when he reads the word. This is a symptom of something gone deeply wrong and in need of quick remedy in the preacher” (APJ 829).

Borrowing from others, whether blatantly plagiarized, or by announcing that you’ll be reading from a nineteenth century homily (sorry Alastair!), or by constructing your sermon as a patchwork of citations from other sources, simply means you failed to look through the window for yourself into the glorious reality of divine glory that gives the sermon its ultimate telos, its final reality, its glorious Object, and provides the fuel to sustain a man in worship over a text for forty minutes.

Easter Changes Everything

Are you ready?

Christ’s resurrection from the grave changed everything. Seriously. Everything. Easter marks a cosmically epic moment in time — and yet the celebration enters and exits our calendars too quickly. So several years ago I slowed my life down in order to really soak in the implications of what Christ’s victory over death means for this world and for my life.

In the spring of 2009 I gathered up my favorite quotes on this important theme for my personal meditation in the month leading up to Easter. A year later I posted the quotes online for others to do the same. Friends who used the collection later encouraged me to expand the document with more of my findings during the intervening years. So I did.

The final product is a short book you can download here: Easter Changes Everything: A Theological Devotional.



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.