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You know the scenario. Your phone screen lights up with that fantastic Bible app, the app that can search the entire Bible for an obscure phrase and find it in two seconds, a search that may have taken a Christian hours to perform a century ago. You have an extensive library of every conceivable Christian classic at your fingertips. But what is this? A subtle ding from your phone’s speakers. A notification bobs from the top of the screen but disappears too quickly for you to read it. You leave the Bible app, and there are notification bubbles, bright red—enticingly red—and filled with numbers. You click on one and then another. After five or ten minutes, you’ve forgotten all about your Bible search and are instead sharing memes with your second cousin on Facebook. Where did your focused study of the Bible go?
How do we reconcile modern technology with our faith? Is it even worth it? Should we instead take the Luddite route and return to paper, pen, and concordances? To be honest, there isn’t a good answer yet. We as a culture may gain clarity about technology someday, but we don’t have clarity yet. While we wait, I offer you the two illustrations I have kept in tension with one another as I’ve attempted to navigate my use of technology.
I grew up in Virginia Beach, and my childhood felt like it was surrounded by the military. My family was not military, but you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing military boats, planes, and weapons. I was enthralled with this kind of stuff as a kid, reading as many military books as I could get my hands on. It was fascinating to see how, and how quickly, the weapons of war had advanced through history. I also noted that it was the better-equipped army that usually prevailed, not necessarily the bigger one. And when it comes to our American soldiers, I want them to have the most advanced armor and munitions as possible. It would be ludicrous to send a Joint Special Operations Command unit on a mission with black powder muskets rather than M4 carbine rifles.
God has made men creative, full of ingenuity. He has placed us in a world in which technology exists, a world that can be advanced, built upon like building blocks. Advancements in technology, whether they are medical or military, are gifts of God’s ongoing and sovereign common grace. When technology is beneficial, we should embrace it with sincere thanksgiving to God. So, to return to our illustration, when it comes to our growth in grace, this spiritual warfare that we wage, we want to bring the most advanced weapons into battle.
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.