My second illustration also comes from my childhood. Edward Scissorhands was a 1990 fantasy film directed by Tim Burton that told the story of an inventor’s strange creation—an artificial boy made with scissors for hands. As you might surmise if you haven’t seen the movie, scissors for hands are rather useful in some circumstances, cumbersome in others, and downright dangerous in some contexts. Edward could cut paper with ease and carve intricate ice sculptures, but, also, at times he injured others unintentionally. Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, spoke of this concept when he described tools in his book Knowing and Being. Polanyi noted that a tool becomes, after practice, an extension of the person who uses it. For the surgeon, the scalpel is an extension of his hand, of his fingers. When he performs surgery, he doesn’t think about the scalpel; he thinks about the surgery, and his habit, skill, and tool perform the task at hand.
A boy with scissors instead of fingers and Polanyi’s insight into tools both have implications for how we use technology as Christians, especially in how we judge what technologies are beneficial and what aren’t. If we return to our example above, it can be an enormous benefit to have a blazing fast Bible search and a library of thousands of Christian classics on multiple devices, all within feet of where we live and work. But what if those devices are also conduits of distraction, disinformation, and the disintegration of meaningful social interactions? There are situations in which it is nice to have scissors for hands, but what if you can’t take them off? What if you can’t get away from them? What if basic tasks such as making a phone call, compiling a list, or writing a letter to a friend are all now bound up into a tool that also can access social media, pornography, video games, and a thousand advertisers paying good money to get and keep your attention? What if we can’t take our tools off, can’t set them down?
Again, I don’t think that we have clarity on this yet. I think clarity will take some years to gain. And we can point to discernible good that technology has done in the kingdom of God. So, we are left with this tension that I’ve attempted to describe. We should use our God-given gifts to advance technology—whether the printing press or the internet—so that it is of greatest benefit to the church, so that the greatest number of people as possible can hear the gospel. But we must also be aware of the ways that our technological tools are changing us and encroaching more and more into different areas of our lives. We must be cautious with tools we can’t take off or put down, or, worse yet, don’t want to put down.
And in the end, we can have confidence in our proven technologies—a Bible in the hand of a called and qualified pastor, preaching the gospel to a gathered local church, even if no one ever tweets about it.