Read the series.
In our previous installment, we saw that human culture and technology are a necessary part of the creation mandate and as such should not be viewed as necessary or intrinsic evils. Moreover, we argued that religion is part of human culture, and it will, therefore, employ some of the tools of culture. But before we suggest some ways in which we can use modern technologies to advance the Great Commission, I’d like briefly to highlight the tension that exists between the benefits, tradeoffs, and dangers of technology. We’ve noted that human technology brings with it certain benefits or, to use a biblical term, “blessings.” Nevertheless, over and against those benefits and blessings, we need to be aware of the resultant tradeoffs as well as the potential dangers that new technologies introduce.
Lessons from the Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution brought with it many benefits. Various kinds of manufactured goods become more available and affordable. Many of the things produced by factories facilitated the services of other vocations and even occasioned the need for new vocations. As a result, many new jobs were created and people employed.
But there was a downside to the industrial revolution. With the benefits came tradeoffs or losses. For example, before the industrial revolution skilled craftsmen created most manufactured goods. If you wanted a quality-made shoe, you didn’t go to your local Footlocker store and choose from among several name brands like Nike, Adidas, Asics, and so on. Instead, you went to the local shoemaker, and he’d measure your foot and design a shoe to your liking. This was true with respect to other types of clothing, kitchenware, farming equipment and so on. However, the industrial revolution took work from many of these people. The industries didn’t need highly skilled labor to run the machines. And they could mass-produce products at a much lower cost to the consumer. Of course, that often meant lower pay and poor working conditions for the employees. But, as you can guess, the industrial owners especially infuriated the craftsmen, whose work was being taken from them. In some places, the craftsmen banded together, wrote threatening letters, and even set some of the factories on fire.1
So there was both an upside and also a downside to the industrial revolution. With the benefits came certain drawbacks and losses.
Lessons from the Technological Revolution
What was true of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries has also been true of the advances in modern technology that have characterized the 20th and early 21st centuries. Think, for instance, of the benefits of modernized forms of travel technologies. Cars, trains, and planes have made our world smaller. Now we can travel greater distances in shorter periods of time. It’s easier to visit faraway places as well as to relocate to new places. But with the upside of modern travel there are downsides and even dangers. Think of all the auto accident related deaths. On a more subtle level, think of how people are less rooted to their “places of origin” or hometowns and how, as a result, family and community bonds are weaker.2
Moving forward a few decades, think of the technological revolution of the Internet and the cell phone. These technologies have served to make information and people much more accessible. Ten years ago, only some people owned a cell phone. Today, nearly everyone, even the youngest and poorest are getting cell phones. And the great benefit is that we can contact nearly anyone via phone call or text virtually any time and any place.
The “worldwide web” provides dump truck loads of information from all over the world, and Google makes that information available within seconds. No longer do we rely on newspapers or even the six o’clock news on our local TV news station. We can get it all over the Internet. Moreover, Facebook and Twitter keep us up-to-date with minute-by-minute reports of what all our family, friends, and “friends” are doing and even thinking. And best of all, our computers, smart-phones, and tablets come with automatic notification features to ensure that we don’t miss anything.
However, despite the great benefit of increasing the breadth and speed of our access to people and information, many of us have also come to realize that there are downsides or drawbacks to this kind of technology. The Internet, for example, not only provides us quick access to lots of helpful information, but it also makes lots of harmful content available at the click of a mouse. What’s more, greater accessibility to people and information also means that people and information have greater accessibility to you and me. Think of all the “junk email” we receive. And think of the many times the ringtone of our cell phone or the flashing light of our iPad notification center has interrupted our train of thought or family time! Such interruptions not only affect our productivity and compete with other priorities, but they can be downright annoying. At times I’ve been tempted to set up my phone or email account with an automated reply from Proverbs 25:17-
Don’t set foot too frequently in your neighbor’s house,
Lest he become weary of you and hate you (NET).3
My point is simply to highlight the fact that new technologies not only bring benefits and blessings, but they also come with downsides and dangers. They have the potential to impact our lives and vocations both positively and also negatively.
Know Thyself and Be Watchful!
This reality of the positive and negative effects modern technology has upon people and societies has occasioned a new field of study called “Media Ecology.” Just as the biological ecologist studies the impact a new species has upon a biological ecosystem when introduced, so the media ecologist studies the impact new technologies have upon the personal and social environments into which they’re introduced. And some of them like John Culkin have concluded, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”4 Or, as Christian media ecologist John Dyer explains,
Technology, then, is the means by which we transform the world as it is into the world we desire. What we often fail to notice is that it is not only the world that gets transformed by technology. We, too, are transformed.5
Of course, we need to be careful not to demonize technology itself. To use a current topic of national debate, it’s not guns that kill people; it’s people who kill people with guns or sometimes with other technologies like knives or baseball bats. In other words, the tools themselves are not morally evil. And they don’t necessarily force people to sin.6
More precisely, human technologies may tempt us to sin or provide the occasion through which we express our sinfulness. Tim Challies is spot on when he notes that humans can treat technologies as idols or use them to facilitate their sinful idolatries.7 In a similar vein, John Dyer remarks, “We use our idols fundamentally as a way of meeting our needs apart from God, and this is our greatest temptation with technology—to use it as a substitute for God.”8
Whether ancient or modern, technology can affect us and our vocation in good ways and in bad ways. Just as there are real and potential benefits, so there are real and potential dangers. This fact is important to remember as we transition in our next installment to consider practical ways in which we can employ technology for the service of church ministry.
1 Tim Challies gives a brief history of the Luddite movement in England. The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 33-35.
2 David Wells notes these changes and their sociological effects in chapter one (“A Delicious Paradise Lost”) of his book No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Became of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 17-52. I think Wells’ book is somewhat guilty of the unwarranted nostalgia of cultural conservatism I allude in my previous article. For a fuller critique of Wells’ analysis, see John Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 881-82.
3 This verse forms a couplet with verse 16: “When you find honey, eat only what is sufficient for you, lest you become stuffed with it and vomit it up.” Together they enjoin moderation. As Bruce Waltke remarks, “Even things as delightful and desirable as honey and as neighborliness can become loathsome through excess.” The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, in The New International Commentary of the Old Testament, ed. Robert L. Hubbard Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 326. Charles Bridges also does a fine job of capturing the meaning of the axiom: “This maxim was … never intended to give a chill to the flow of neighbourly love, or to restrain its practical exercise. It only suggests, that kindly intercourse cannot be maintained without a considerate feeling. An ordinary acquaintance would give just umbrage in claiming the free and unrestrained intercourse of intimate friendship.” Proverbs (1846; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 472.
4 “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan,” Saturday Review, March 18, 1967, 51; cited by John Dyer, From the Garden to the City, Kindle edition, loc. 558.
5 From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), Kindle edition, loc. 547. For a fuller analysis of the upside and downside of technology than that which I’ve summarized above, I recommend the following resources: Tim Challies, The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion (Zondervan, 2011); Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 50-64.
6 Remember that Jesus lived in the first century culture of the ancient Near East, and he no doubt used the technologies of his day. If we view technology in a “deterministic” way that sees its negative effects as irresistible and unavoidable, then we’d have reason to wonder how Jesus managed to live a sinless life. Yet the fact is that Jesus used technology but never abused it or allowed it push him into moral failure. But some media ecologists seem to portray technology—especially modern technology—as if it inevitable leads every user to stumble. Thus, they speak of modern popular culture and technology as threats to healthy civilization, and come close, at times, to demonizing them. See, for instance, Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985); idem., Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993). Jeff Meyers, a Christian thinker, basically follows Postman’s trajectory and applies it to modern pop culture and technologies. See his All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, Kindle edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). For a cogent critique of analyses like Postman’s and Meyers’, see Ted Turnau, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2012), 107-164. John Frame also offers a brief critique of Meyers in Doctrine of the Christian Life, 882-83.
7 Challies rightly traces the sinful idolatry not to the idol itself but to the fallen human heart, which John Calvin describes as an “idol factory.” But the sinful heart is more than ready to make human technologies into idols or to use these technologies as “an enabler of idols.” See The Next Story, 27-32.
8 From the Garden to the City, Kindle edition, loc. 1304-3483.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.