Adopting the Grandkids of Cain:
A Theological Framework for Thinking about Technology
I. Technology and Theology: A Question of Categories
One of the challenges we encounter when we try to think theologically about issues related to modern technology is the question of categories. On the one hand, the modern use of that word “technology” is so broad in scope that it is hard to know what exactly we mean by it; on the other hand, most of the things we do mean when we refer to technology—computer science, wireless communication devices, social media and so on—simply did not exist in the world of the Bible and find neither reference nor parallel in Scripture. If we wish to approach them theologically, then, we must first ask: In which theological category do they belong?
The first and perhaps nearest reference we have in Scripture to something that today we would call “technology” is the account of Tubal-Cain in Genesis 4:22. Tubal-Cain, we’re told, was the original “forger of all implements of bronze and iron”; and while a bronze axe-head is admittedly a far cry from an iPod, there is still something instructive for us in this ancient account of the “origins of metalsmithing.” It can’t be accidental that Tubal-Cain, the father of all metalurgical technologies, is also the last son of Lamech, the notoriously vengeful grandson of Cain who will bring the whole of that failed line to its ignoble end. After Lamech boasts of avenging himself seventy-seven times on his enemies (4:23-24), the genealogical record abandons Cain’s line altogether and switches to the birth of Seth (4:26), a brand-new branch on Adam’s family tree, whose line will include Noah, and Abraham, and ultimately Christ. If Tubal-Cain is indeed the father of “technology” (or at least a father of certain kinds of technology), it must be noted that he is also the last of Cain’s fallen descendants. Whatever else we will say about the Bible’s perspective on “technology”, the fact that it first appears as fruit on Cain’s family tree assures us that for all its usefulness, it is still a fallen force in the world.
Biblically, then, technology is useful but fallen. And when we look for a theological category that allows us to talk about it both in terms of its usefulness to human life and its spiritual fallenness, the category that best holds these two aspects together is the biblical concept of “the powers.” Picking up on the many references to “the powers and principalities” in Paul’s writings (see, for instance, 1 Cor 2:8; Eph 1:20, Col 2:15), a number of theologians have suggested that when the Bible refers to “the powers” like this, it is describing the “invisible structures” or the “inner reality” of human life together (see, for instance, Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers; Walter Wink’s series on “The Powers”). As a theological category, “the powers” refer to the spiritual dimension that is inherent in any human effort to order society, from political and economic institutions, to cultural or religious ones to technological ones. All such “organizations” of human society are, of course, useful and necessary; but they are also inevitably “spiritual,” and, owing to the fallenness of human nature itself, inevitably fallen. In their fallenness, the powers exert unintended, often unrecognized spiritual influence over us, behaving, in Berkhof’s words, “as though they were the ultimate ground of being and demanding from [people] an appropriate worship” (Berkhof, 30).
We might point to the cult of Roman Emperor worship for an ancient example of “the Powers,” or to the inexorable power of the global economy for a contemporary one. We might point to the psychological impact of advertising media for a cultural example; and we might point the influence of the internet on our social interactions for a technological one. Though it is unlikely in the extreme that Paul had the iphone 5 specifically in mind when he said it, technology can and should be understood under that broad category of spiritual realities he was describing when he claimed that Christ has “disarmed the Powers.”
II. Christ and the Powers: Technology disarmed, Technology redeemed
From the vantage point we gain when we view technology as one of the powers, we are better able to see how the Gospel of Christ informs our response and redefines our relationship to it. After all, though the Bible says very little about Facebook, it has very much to say about “the Powers” and the way Christians ought to relate to them.
In Colossians 1:16, on the one hand, Paul affirms the Powers as a part of God’s good created order, insisting that all things (and he specifically includes “the powers and the principalities” in the list) were created by and for Christ. This moves us out of black-and-white, good-or-bad dualisms when it comes to things like developments in social media or the ubiquity of the internet. It allows us instead to recognize and affirm the positive potential of all such technologies, while at the same time insisting that they are not “ultimate,” that Christ is the Lord of whole wide world, even of the world- wide-inter-web.
On the other hand, of course, the Bible is hardly naive when it comes to the fallenness of the Powers. Paul states quite strongly that “the Powers and Principalities” are ranged against us in the struggle of the Christian life (Ephesians 6:12), and he implies just as strongly that in their fallenness the Powers do not recognize the Lordship of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:8). This keeps us from blindly accepting technology as “given” or “spiritually neutral,” and forces us to acknowledge that if they are to serve Christ, the Powers must be both dethroned and redeemed.
Which brings us, at last, to the Cross of Christ, where we discover that the Gospel actually shapes our relationship to things even as seemingly mundane as the text-message. In what is probably the pivotal passage for any theology of technology, Colossians 2:15 describes the redemptive work of the cross and then applies it specifically to the Powers. “God has disarmed the powers” he writes. “He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them through the cross.” The word translated “triumphing” here (thriambeuō) is actually a technical term for one of the special victory parades a Roman General would make through the city of Rome after a successful military campaign. They would lead their prisoners of war in a victorious procession while the citizens cheered on in triumphant celebration. Paul applies the potent symbolism of such a parade to the work of the Cross, indicating that through his death and resurrection, Christ has stripped the Powers of their idolatrous claim on our lives, nullifying their influence over us, and making them now to serve his purposes for them (in much the same way a defeated prisoner of war displayed in a public “triumph” served the political purposes of the Roman Empire).
Because the “disarming of the Powers” is so abstract but also so essential in developing a robust theology of technology, Berkhof’s analysis of Colossians 2:15 is worth quoting here: “Christ has ‘disarmed’ the Powers. The weapon … is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince men (sic.) that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and the ultimate duty for small, dependant humanity. Since Christ, we know this is illusion. We are called to a higher destiny … we stand under a greater Protector. … Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, [the Powers] have lost their mighty grip on men (sic.). The cross has disarmed them; wherever it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the Powers takes place.”
To spell this out in practical terms, we might say it like this: every modern technology, by its very nature as a human effort to order our life together, has an unseen spiritual dimension to it that exerts a very real spiritual influence over our lives. This influence is evident, for instance, when we accept new technologies unquestioningly as indispensible to human life, or when we depend on them for meaning and identity, or when we allow them to dictate the terms of our relationships and the means of our social interactions, or when we trust in them for a kind of “salvation” (i.e. to hold society together and keep us from sliding into chaos). In the death and resurrection of Christ, God has exposed all such claims (technology is ultimate, it’s a source of meaning, it’s a “saviour” from chaos, etc.) as the illusions that they are, showing us instead that Christ is ultimate, that life in him is the only source of meaning, and that he alone is saviour. Having thus disarmed the Powers like this, technology among them, the Gospel frees us to relate to the Powers, technology included, in ways that are: 1) redemptive (i.e. affirming their potential for good), 2) realistic (i.e. accepting their limits and acknowledging their subservience to Christ), and 3) intentional (i.e. discerning of their “spirit” and selective in how we will use them).
In this way, our redemptive, realistic and intentional use of technology becomes a concrete instance of what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 3:10, when he said, “God’s intent in Christ was that, through the church, his manifold wisdom should be made known to the powers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”
III. Technology among the Powers
Before examining what, exactly, a “redemptive, realistic and intentional” use of computer technologies would look like for Christians, it is perhaps helpful here to note some of the ways they exert a spiritual influence over us, to show why we have listed it as one of “the powers” the way we have. Though this field of study is still relatively young, a number of sociologists, psychologists and media theorists alike have begun to examine the impact of things like robotics, the internet, and social media on our culture, our society, and even our brain anatomy. Their findings suggest that technology does indeed have a significant spiritual dimension. In particular we will look at the impact these technologies have on our social interactions, on our experience of diversity, and on our mind’s capacity for traditional spiritual disciplines like silence, focused prayer or meditation on Scripture.
In her 2011 book Alone Together, MIT technology specialist Sherry Turkle identifies one of the ironies of our relentless use of social media: that “[Americans] brag about how many they have ‘friended’ on Facebook, yet [they] say they have fewer friends than before” (Turkle, 280). “Technology,” she argues, “has become the architect of our intimacies. Online we fall prey to the illusion of companionship, gathering thousands of Twitter and Facebook friends and confusing tweets and wall posts with authentic communication.” In particular, her research suggest that these technologies predispose us towards interactions that are superficial (in that they encourage us to meticulously engineer our online image), inauthentic (in that they encourage us to lie about or experiment with our online identity), insecure (in that they encourage us to craft our online messages carefully, sometimes obsessively, but then to post them as though they were spontaneous), and above all, ambiguous (in that they convince us that such superficial, inauthentic and insecure interactions are actually deep, authentic and natural). Turkle notes, for instance, the way such technologies have conditioned young people to avoid or even to fear face-to-face interactions (191); or the phenomenon of “risk-free” online confessing (236); or the way “we defend connectivity as a way to be close, even as we effectively hide from each other” (281).
Turkle’s work is of special concern for a theology of technology, inasmuch as authentic, deeply connected community is central to our experience of salvation, our spiritual formation, and our ongoing sanctification. We might consider 1 John 1:5-7 as one of many examples where the Bible aligns spiritually healthy community and a deepening life with God. Though Turkle is not specifically interested in Christian community, her work suggests that our growing and unreflective use of social media makes the kind of “fellowship with one another” envisioned in 1 John 1:7 increasingly rare and ephemeral. In Turkle’s own words: “in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. Sometimes people feel no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind, and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?” (12).
This brings us to a second area where we see the spiritual impact of internet technologies: their tendency to isolate us from perspectives different from our own. Again there is an irony here. Though social media promise to increase the range of our social networks, they actually shrink them, because they feed into our natural tendency to identify only with the like-minded. Sometimes called “the echo chamber,” a number of observers have noted this phenomenon: because it uses similarity as the main criteria for connecting, the internet tends simply to echo our own opinions back to us. Social activist Eli Parsier analyzes this problem extensively in his 2012 book, The Filter Bubble: How the Personalized Web is Changing What we Read and How we Think. He looks in particular at the “personalized filter algorithms” that sites like Google, Yahoo News or Facebook use to customize the information we encounter on the net. These filters draw on a variety of statistical data about individual users to predict what their preferences will be, and then “tailor” their query results to fit them. As an example, Parsier describes the day he noticed that Facebook had systematically removed all the “politically conservative” links in his Facebook feed, based on the types of searches he (as a political liberal) had been making. In a 2012 TED Talk, he suggested that filter-bubbles like these are moving us “very quickly towards a world where the internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”
The ethical, and subsequently the spiritual implications of the world-wide “echo chamber” deserve careful theological reflection here, because, as Paliser argues, “the structure of our media affects the character of our society.” A society that never has to encounter ideas that challenge, stretch or contradict it is likely to develop an ethically stunted character; a Christian who never has to encounter ideas that challenge, stretch or contradict him is likely to develop a spiritually stunted character. Indeed, for Christians especially, such “filter bubbles” should raise particular concerns. They feed our natural (but unbiblical) tendency to retreat from the world and surround ourselves with those who think and act just like us (see 1 Cor 5:10 for warnings against such isolation). They stunt our capacity to appreciate the radical gospel vision of unity in diversity, with people from “every nation, tribe and tongue” worshipping the Lamb together (see Revelation 5:9, 14:6 to catch the vision). And they limit our ability—even perhaps our desire—to genuinely speak the truth to one another in love, by pandering to the false belief that one’s own narrow, individual perspective on the truth is all the truth that needs telling (see Ephesians 4:15).
Along with the fragmentation of community and the creation of spiritual “echo chambers,” a third dimension of technology that deserves special consideration here is the physiological impact it has on our brain-functioning. In his 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that technologies are never simply “exterior aids” to thinking but are also always “interior transformations of consciousness” (Nicholas Carr, 51). He cites a variety of neurological research which shows that the brain is far more plastic than previously thought, continually adapting itself to the tasks it is called upon to perform; and he refers to a number of studies which suggest that the particular tasks the brain is called upon to perform while surfing the web have begun to change the way we learn, think, and process information. “The Net’s cacophony of stimuli,” he argues, “short circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again” (119). In particular, his research suggests that the internet physically reduces our capacity for deep, sustained concentration; that it develops the habit of scanning superficially for easily digested data-bites while reading; that it actually hinders our ability to remember and imagine and reason. “The mental functions that [we] are losing” he warns, “are those that support calm, linear thought—the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on experiences or contemplate outward and inward phenomenon” (142).
The kind of research Carr cites in The Shallows has huge implications for our theological analysis technology, because so many of the traditional spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith—lectio divina, prayer and meditation, silence, Scripture reading and so on—to say nothing of the more intellectually rigorous disciplines like theology and apologetics—require us to “traverse lengthy narratives,” to “reflect on experiences,” and to “contemplate outward and inward phenomenon”. If Carr is right when he argues that the internet actually discourages these mental functions, wiring our brain instead to be especially good at “locating, categorizing and assessing disparate bits of information in a variety of forms while we are being bombarded by stimuli,” then as ominous as it sounds to say it, it may actually be changing the way we know, and experience and relate to God.
IV. A Christian Approach to Technology: Redemptive, Realistic, Intentional
Having numbered technology among the powers and sketched out in broad strokes some of the ways it exerts a very real spiritual influence on us, and having reminded ourselves that in Christ God has disarmed the powers and freed us from their idolatrous claim over our lives—having reached this point—it remains for us to describe in practical terms what a Christian posture towards technology might look like. Our analysis so far suggests three themes in particular that should guide our discussions and decision making in this regard. Christian use of technology should be redemptive, realistic and intentional. To be redemptive, our use of technology will appropriate its good while acknowledging its subjection to Christ, who is Lord of all things (even of technology). To be realistic, we will acknowledge, accept and even place limits on our use of technology, identifying those things that it is not useful for, and refusing to accept blindly its promise to solve or save us from all our problems. To be intentional, we will approach any given technology with careful, prayerful and wise discernment, seeking to understand its spiritual dimension, weighing its impact on us, and resisting the “if-we-can-do-it-we-might-as-well-do-it” mentality that so characterizes our computerized world.
This, of course, is where the rubber of our theological reflections meets the road of our day-to-day Christian life, and it is important that these theological concepts become immensely practical, if we are to become “doers” as well as “hearers” of the word. To that end, we list here the kinds of redemptive, realistic, and intentional questions we might ask of any given technology as we try to decide when, where, how and even if we will make use of it in our lives.
A. Redemptive Questions.
God’s intent in Christ was that, through the church, his manifold wisdom should be made known to the powers. Ephesians 3:10
• What role do we see this media or technology playing in our lives or ministries (i.e. what are we expecting of it)?
• What, specifically, is it useful for (e.g. relaying information, initiating face-to-face conversations, coordinating events, enhancing or complimenting other forms of communication and interactions)?
• Have we clearly specified those uses?
• What potential does this technology have to serve Christ? What can or should be done to appropriate that potential?
• What potential does this technology have to turn us away from Christ? What can or should be done to mitigate this potential?
• What unacknowledged “hopes” or unrealistic “trust” have we have placed in this technology? How can or should we honestly acknowledge these “hopes” as unwarranted?
• What potential does this technology have to make a positive impact on our lives? What can or should be done to appropriate that potential?
B. Realistic Questions.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. Psalm 20:7
• What is this technology clearly not useful for (e.g. developing meaningful relationships, resolving conflict, replacing face-to-face interactions, creating a sense of identity or meaning)?
• What can or should be done to prevent us from using this technology in ways it is clearly unsuited for?
• What limits can and should we place on this technology? (e.g. “technology Sabbath times,” “no-phone-zones,” agreements about using computers in public space, etc.)
• What safe-guards do we have in place to prevent it from assuming an unwanted place in our lives?
• What are the potential “revenge effects” of this technology (“Revenge effects” is an idea proposed by author Edward Tenner, who suggests that all technologies have unintended negative consequences that counter-act their benefit; e.g. because it has made it so easy to “send” unnecessary communiqués to everyone in the office, the introduction of email has actually increased, not decreased our paper consumption).
• Have we realistically weighed these “revenge effects”?
C. Intentional Questions.
Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God. 1 John 4:1
• What is the “spirit” of this technology (i.e. what impact is it having on our communities, our culture, our world?)
• What potential is there for this technology to have a negative spiritual impact on our lives? What can or should be done to safe-guard against this impact?
• Have we prayed about this technology and the place it ought to have in our lives?
• Are we using this technology simply because we can, or does it serve a higher purpose (see the redemptive and realistic questions above)?
• Are there more simple, useful, or traditional methods that might accomplish these goals just as well or better? What benefits would be lost if we abandoned or replaced these?
• Have we honestly considered the possibility of saying “no” to this particular technology?
These questions, of course, are offered only as a sample of the kinds of things discerning Christians will ask about the place technology has or should have in our lives. In particular they are offered as suggestions for the kinds of things local churches might consider as they develop policies and establish procedures outlining how they will adopt these particular “children of Cain” as part of church life.
The issues we’ve looked at here will become increasingly complex as our world becomes increasingly computerized. On the one hand, as we’ve pointed out, these tools are exceptionally useful. They hold great potential for communication, innovation, collaboration and creativity when it comes to the Church’s mission to go into all the world and make disciples of the nations. On the other hand, however, they raise the kinds of ethical, cultural and theological issues that require us to couple the innocence of doves with the shrewdness of serpents. If we are going to appropriate their potential in ways that honour and uphold the Lordship of Christ, we will need a good measure of theological clarity, biblical wisdom and spiritual discernment. Because, as we’ve seen, adopting new technologies for the church’s age-old mission of disciple-making and gospel proclamation is never simply a matter of pouring old wine into new wineskins. Unless it’s done with great care (to vary an old saying) the wineskin is to likely taint the wine, and both are liable to be spoiled.
Appendix A: Annotated Reading List
For more on the Powers and Principalities, see:
Berkhof, Hendrik. Christ and the Powers. Herald Press, 1977.
Wink, Walter. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. The Powers: Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Wink, Walter. Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces the Determine Human Existence. The Powers: Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. The Powers: Vol 3. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1992.
For sociological studies of technological culture, see:
Jardine, Murray. The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society: How Christianity Can Save Modernity from Itself. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage, 1993.
Stahl, William A. God and the Chip: Religion and the Culture of Technology. Wilfred Laurier Press, 1999.
For theological reflections on technology, see:
Waters, Brent. From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology And Technology in a Postmodern World. Hampshire England: Ashgate, 2006.
For analyses of the cultural impact social media and other technologies, see:
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. W. W. Norton, 2010.
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How we Think. Penguin, 2012.
Tenner, Edward. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Vintage, 1997.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, 2011.
A Sample SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY (Developed by the FreeWay FMC, 2013)
WHAT IS THE PURPPOSE OF THIS POLICY?
– To establish clear guidelines in the use of social media as a form of communication within the Freeway and as a tool for outreach
– To protect our children, youth and adults in the use of social media
– To provide a clear understanding of how we will use social media and what it will be used for, especially for those involved in our children and youth ministries.
– To approve which specific form(s) of social media we will use in our communication.
WHAT IS OUR PURPOSE IN USING SOCIAL MEDIA?
Social media offers the possibility for collaborating with purpose. It can extend the community that gathers on Sunday morning into the rest of the week and integrate “church life” into daily life. In this regard, it is useful for:
– Holding public discussions or forums
– Sharing information
– Co-ordinating events or meetings
It is not useful for:
– Building personal relationships
– Resolving conflicts
– Carrying on necessary one-on-one conversations
POLICIES FOR USING SOCIAL MEDIA WITH OUR CHILDREN AND YOUTH UNDER 18
All communication related to those in our children’s programs (Grades K. to 6) will be done through the parents/guardians directly.
Texting: Texting will only be used when parents have been notified in advance.
E-Mail: All e-mails will be cc’d to the parents as well as the youth.
Facebook: Ministry workers do not initiate friend requests with youth 18 or younger. They can accept friend requests at their discretion, but they must also have the parent(s)/guardian(s) as friends. Facebook communication will not include private messaging.
At this time, we will not have any Facebook groups/pages for the youth. We will revisit that in an annual review of the policy.
BEST PRACTICES WHEN USING SOCIAL MEDIA
– I will use my own name in all communications
– I understand I represent the congregation’s ministry and my postings will be appropriate to the mission.
– I will keep all confidential and sensitive information private and will not post such information.
– If I have a question, uncertainty or concern about the proper nature of a posting, I will consult with a pastor, a board member or a ministry leader before posting.