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On Persistent Interest in an Idea
A shorter take today on something that I've been thinking about for 20 years.
Somewhere between 2005 and 2006, I began an intellectual deep dive into the nature of modern technology. Mind you, I was never a big “gadget guy.” I grew up on a farm, so we pretty much made our own fun. But as a young adult, I became very interested in (and concerned by) the way in which technology was inserting itself into nearly every area of human life. How quaint that I felt this way 20 years ago.
More than technology’s intrusion, I was fascinated with the social shaping of technology. As the old adage goes, there’s what technology does for us, and there’s what technology does do us. More broadly, how does our particular social milieu’s technological possibilities create a certain way of viewing human life? I’m sure Ken Myers must have been the one who got me asking these questions, but he wasn’t alone. Figures like Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, and Quentin Schultze were among the other early influences who nudged me further down this line of inquiry.
By 2008, I wrote my first extended paper on this subject. I submitted it for a seminary course, and then read a version of it at the Free Will Baptist Theological Symposium. It was entitled, “Sanctification and the Electronic Media: How Are Screens Shaping Us?” I was very fortunate they accepted it. It wasn’t terrible, but it needed some work. (I still remember comments—mostly positive—from Dr. Paul Harrison, Dr. Robert Picirilli, and the late Leroy Forlines.) I tried to take the suggestions offered and continue to work at it.
In 2011, I wrote a masters thesis entitled, “Modern Communication Technologies and Christian Social Experience: A Theological Appraisal.” It was passable, but I wish I had been able to work on it longer. (Having a USB drive get corrupted set me back some months, so I was fortunate to recover any of the work and complete it before I moved out of state!)
Today I will attend the same event that I presented my first academic paper at in 2008. It’s an interesting time to reflect on two things. First, the ongoing need to grow, learn, and get better at research and writing. Second, to see how the landscape of Christian reflection of technology has exploded.
On this latter point, it truly is something of a modern miracle for there to be so many wise and accessible books on technology written from a conservative Christian perspective. I only wish I had done more with my earlier research to enter the fray. However, just for fun, I’ll share an excerpt below from my thesis. I may seem a little bland, but I’m just getting warmed up in this part:
Human cultures always reflect something of their character in the tools and technologies that they use. Agrarian societies reflect their social, economic, and cultural ties to the land through their use of the plow. Information industries such as news stations reflect their value of objective reporting through their use of live camera footage. Likewise, nomadic cultures’ patterns of transience are evident in their places of dwelling, such as tents. Yet as many social scientists and historians have noted, those societies’ values and habits are shaped as much by their particular technologies as those tools reflect their interests and commitments. Stephen Toulmin in his important book Cosmopolis notes how the invention of printed books led to a significant rise in literacy among the non-elite classes. Without question, this changed the religious and intellectual culture of the day.
In Passage to Modernity, Louis Dupré advances this understanding of technology’s ability to shape human experience more poignantly. He explains that in the modern age science and technology came to be far more than tools for the advancement of the common good. He asserts, “More than applying the conclusions of a theoretical science to the solving of practical problems, technology construe[d] an alternative order of reality.” Though this claim seems radical, it is the essential nature of the claim upon which this thesis is partly predicated, namely, that technology does far more than simply facilitate human activity. It impacts the contours of human experience, and often in ways that go unperceived by its user. In Jacques Ellul’s words, when it comes to technological progress, “There are a great number of unforeseen effects.”
Newsletter #84 dealt briefly with the topic of infertility. In a recent episode of The Afterword podcast, Dr. Johnny Gibson and his wife discuss the experience of losing a child late in pregnancy. It’s incredibly moving. Do take time to watch and enter their story.
Quote of the Week:
Counter-cultural groups and networks are best positioned to establish new conventions and drive social revitalization, as history suggests. Christianity can once again be a revitalizing force in our cities if we will embrace the norms Jesus gave us. Christians can achieve this influence most effectively not by using state power, as many suggest, but instead by building and reinforcing communities that reflect its norms.
What were the new norms that Christianity offered? In the gospels, Jesus addresses the way people conduct their lives in common, providing instructions on how to deal with sin and interpersonal conflict (Matt. 18:15–19). Paul enjoins Christians to practice confession and forgiveness, pray, meet for worship and encouragement, and live chastely. Paul admonishes Christians not to take each other to court but rather to settle disputes among themselves. And he goes further, saying it would be better to be wronged or defrauded than to rely on civil courts (1 Cor. 6:1–8). The instruction points to the church’s grundnorm: love one another (John 13:34). Church members are to share with each other, honor one another, live in peace and harmony, and contribute their gifts to the life of the community (Rom. 12:9–21; Gal. 6:10).
Common Grace Wisdom: Policing and Race.
In the wake of some highly publicizing incidents involving police and younger black men, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was birthed. However, many of their stated goals have adversely affected the lives of people in predominantly African American communities.
In the Journal of Urban Economics, Travis Campbell has published some disturbing, though not surprising findings:
The findings of the event study suggest that the BLM protests led police departments to pull back from interactions with the public and obtain body cameras, leading to increased crime and decreased police killings. Specifically, over the five years after local BLM protests, property crime arrests decreased by approximately 12%, while reported murders increased by roughly 11.5%, which is over 3000 additional homicides. Moreover, the property crime clearance rate experienced a sharp decline of around 8%. These statistics are not only alarming but also offer compelling evidence of a substantial decrease in police activity.
Read more at “Black Lives Matter’s effect on police lethal use of force.”
On My Mind: Out West
I’m off to Oklahoma today for the annual Free Will Baptist Theological Symposium. I hope to see many of you there! If not, watch this evening at the Commission’s Facebook page.
 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964).
 Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 14.
 Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 74.
 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), 39.