Here is a thing I have noticed:
When I run into a problem with my computer, (download a file that won’t open, an application stops working, etc) I do the following: Google the problem, see if someone else has a similar problem, see if there’s a easy/free fix, and try things until something works. Sometimes this leads to me taking apart the DVD player to follow a YouTube instructional video on fixing the thing, but most of the time, it leads to me feeling all manner of triumphant over a box of circuits and wires. “You shall not master me, technology!” I shout inwardly. (Occasionally outwardly. I take great pride in my victories.)
Here is what my parents do when they notice a problem:
They call me. (They also read this blog. Hi Mom, Dad! Love ya’ll!)
They call me, concerned that the beeping, or the flashing, or the current unable-to-open file situation they are encountering will DESTROY EVERYTHING THEY HOLD DEAR. Every new message from the computer system signals an emergency, or approaching apocalypse. Technology cannot be trusted. When I went home for Christmas last year, I discovered that my parents hadn’t run a Windows system update or a antivirus update on their computer in over 5 years. “I don’t trust those pop-up messages,” said my mother. “They worry me and I don’t know what they mean, so I just ignore them so nothing goes wrong.” As a result, of course, their computer was now barely functioning. (I point out here that around the holidays, sites like Gawker and The Awl run articles about how to surreptitiously update your parents’ browser, etc, without throwing them into a panic, or overloading them with information. This is not a situation unique to my house.)
I raise this issue, not because one reaction is better than another, but because it points towards something else I’ve noticed–as used as we’ve gotten to calling the advances in technology “tools”, that we can put down and pick up, they are, just as much, an entire culture. And as a culture, this new world of technology has affected everything: our expectations, our world views, how we interact with each other, and each part, really, of how we live. I hasten to add that this has happened before–Walter Ong wrote a fabulous (and short!) book called Orality and Literacy examining how the advent of written language profoundly changed the way humans think and process the world around us. As people had access to more and more information, and as the access to that information became more permanent than someone’s memory, the way they thought, and the way they saw the world, changed.
Again, the changes, as Ong points out, were neither all good nor bad. They just were. As more information became accessible, thought patterns shifted from the concrete to the abstract. The repetition that was necessary to aid in memory gave way to complex language construction. It’s the difference between the Gospel of Mark’s limited vocabulary and the sweeping of the Gospel of John. One’s oral, one’s not. Both are beautiful and profound, but they were written for different audiences to do different things.
I have witnessed a lot of fear recently about the rise of technology, and the effect it is having on our Church. On the one hand, I’ve observed anxiety about whether emerging technologies will be ‘good for us or bad for us’. On the other hand, I’ve heard the concern that as the upcoming generations bring new technologies into the church, people will be excluded, and the Church will become a more exclusive place.
Look, the ship has sailed, mes amis. Emerging technology is already here. And this culture, like every culture before it, is both good and bad. American culture has always been both good and bad. First century Palestinian culture was both good and bad. It is our job as faithful, committed Jesus-following people to sort out the good from the bad. What parts of this culture serve God’s purposes? What parts of this culture are life-giving to us and our fellow creatures? What parts seek to destroy the creation of God? These are questions we have to ask again and again, in this and every generation. We can go back and forth as we wish about the answers. But it is criminally unfaithful to give up on the questions because we are afraid to do the work.
God does not give us a vote as to which culture we are immersed in. But God, by virtue of the Incarnation, shows up in all cultures, all contexts, in one way or another. Even this one, with its many gadgets. Our job, as faithful people, is to figure out the culture enough to find the divine fingerprints in it.