Twenty-First Century Luddism

In an ironic twist in my life, I’ve become rather a Luddite. The original Luddites were English workers who rebelled and destroyed a good bit of machinery during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. They believed the machines would eventually replace them as laborers (as indeed they did) and so decided to “kill” the usurpers, as it were. Mechanization and automation continue steadily, however, and even today people lose their jobs to the latest computer programs, robots, and other bits of machine wizardry. As in the factory, so in the home, and technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. For this reason, the term “Luddite” has come to denote anyone who opposes the inexorable onslaught of technological progress.

So when I say I’m a bit of a Luddite, that’s what I mean. Somewhere over the last ten-ish years I’ve given up on gadgetry. I’ve had a smartphone for about two years now, and my friends still tell me how weird it is to see me use one. To be fair, I probably only utilize a small fraction of its capabilities, and I slightly resent even that. But in a technology-driven society, I didn’t have much of a choice. I still tell people I’d rather have a typewriter than a computer, that I’d delete my social media profiles if I could quickly communicate with people without them, and that I very much enjoy my old-fashioned analog watch, thank you very much. Of course, I say that as I blog, so I’m not without a contradiction or two in my attitudes.

And remember: I called this Luddite attitude an ironic twist. Why? Because of all the people I knew growing up, I was the most tech-savvy. I’ve built computers, designed websites, programmed graphing calculators (oh, high school), and a half-dozen other things. I worked as an IT professional for two years, managing server farms, VoIP boxes, VPNs, and workstations. I’ve ran cables, punched jacks, and repeatedly said, “have you tried turning it off and back on again.” At one point, I wanted to be a biomedical engineer so I could design the next generation of cybernetics. I even had my favorite prosthetics picked out in case I lost a limb. I didn’t just love technology; I wanted to be it.

Obviously, hating owning a smartphone and planning a transformation into the Six Million Dollar Man are fairly opposed to one another.

For me, I think the change happened as I placed a higher premium on people. Sure, I embraced a larger love of books and history and such as well, but it seems mostly driven by people. Technology claims to bring us closer to together, but only parts of it do — and the rest does the opposite. When I lived halfway across the continent, for example, I was grateful to Skype for letting me see my family on occasion. But consider Facebook. Yes, we now know everything about the lives of everyone; all the current goings-on are online for the world to see (or just your friends, depending on your privacy settings). Or are they? People control what goes on their sites, after all, and it’s generally either a highlight reel or a litany of the worst of the worst. Few and far between are the posts saying, “I had tea. It was an average day.” That’s problematic.

Human beings are creatures of comparison and competition. We pit our lives against the lives of everyone else we know and try to prove ourselves to be the best, brightest, happiest, and most blessed. But if it’s my life versus someone else’s social media page, it’s not a case of me vs. them; it’s me at my most average vs. their highlight reel. It’s an unfair comparison by any metric. I fully believe it’s one contributing factor to the correlation between social media consumption and depression. The more we see others’ bests, the worse our worst (or average) looks, and we become depressed. Then we can factor in the number of posts which are deliberately incendiary and those which otherwise make us angry, sad, or another negative emotion.

That’s why most of my Facebook feed is books and bad Christian jokes.

Technology can also be rather obviously detrimental. Our culture’s widespread acceptance of pornography in its various guises has combined with the power of the Internet to give more access to smut than ever before in human history (and porn itself seems to drive the development of certain media technologies). As a result, we have a toxically pornified society where sex is almost a god in and of itself, an ultimate good to be gotten and revered at all costs. Anything standing in the way of sexual gratification — things like conventional morality — are quickly discarded. But the sex on the screen isn’t real sex; like our social media personas, sex acts in pornography are carefully crafted to produce a desired effect. There’s nothing real about it. Nevertheless, sex and porn have become genuine addictions for many, many people, and the content of porn has done everything from warp users’ sexuality to render men impotent in the presence of a physical flesh-and-blood woman.

One a more insidious level, technology has set us in a downward spiral into workaholism and burnout. When office e-mail and work contacts are accessible in a device you carry around 24/7, it’s incredibly hard to resist the temptation to check your messages or answer the phone as soon as it makes a sound. As a result, more and more people live in a reality of being on-call indefinitely, and leaving work at the office is an impossibility; after all, I can work out of my pocket. The constant connection to labor sans even a single day of genuine rest and distance takes a heavy toll, spiritually, psychologically, and physically. I admit I haven’t seen the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if productivity levels have actually decreased in the smartphone era. What I do know is that happiness is down, job satisfaction is down, anxiety is up, and a host of other horrible things as well. We can’t lay the full blame on technology, but neither can we naively dismiss it as a non-factor.

Then there’s the absent morality of Hollywood, television, music . . . and please don’t get me started on healthy people who skip church to stream worship and participate in “virtual Communion,” as if such a thing were possible.

Not all technology is bad, of course. Medical advances are good things, safer vehicles are good things, and I’m very much a fan of alternative energy and new ways to care for our environment. But technology is not the Savior. No, technology can be good, but even the good bits can have bad effects, and the good effects can’t save souls. There is no digital atonement. Samsung didn’t die for your sins. Zuckerberg will never be your friend in real life and offer authentic human connection.

Let us be wary of technology. Don’t adopt new gadgets uncritically. Don’t love things and use people instead of loving people and using things. Regard the tools as tools, not saviors. And give your life to Jesus who died for you.

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Forgotten Catechesis

I attended a debate on Sunday evening with our church’s college kids. The two philosophers in the debate threw out jargon incomprehensible to most of the people in the audience, which is why I will forever remember the excursion as “that time I taught modal ontology in Olive Garden.” The debate itself was whether one should believe in God. The champion of theism was a bit lacking, and he spent too long making the wrong sorts of arguments (never bring a rationalist to an empiricist fight), but he did a decent job of explaining the classical proofs for the existence of God. But the whole thing has me thinking. Neither presenter could accurately represent biblical scholarship in terms of doctrine or textual criticism. The audience couldn’t follow what was going on, on stage without a few philosophy classes under their collective belt. It seemed to me everyone involved needed more education.

I might be biased, but that’s my approach to life. The realm of education is my natural habitat; being back on a college campus was, for me, like tossing a beached whale back into the ocean. My view of my ministry is framed in terms of catechesis: my job is to teach the people in the pews everything I know about Jesus because that knowledge creates and strengthens relationship. I’m very passionate about learning and about teaching the faith, and I think this sort of discipleship/catechesis is something lacking in many of our churches today. We’re pretty good at evangelism and worshipping together on Sunday morning, but we’ve largely failed to teach people much beyond the basics. The high (and rising) rate of biblical illiteracy is a sad testament to that fact.

Beyond church things (Bible, theology, and church history), however, we also fail to teach people a great many other things. Philosophy is one of those omissions. Instead of teaching people how to think, we prefer to teach them what to think. Unfortunately, most of the “what” comes with an agenda contingent on its setting. Christian schools, for example, have vastly different curriculum than public schools for things like biology, human origins, and sex education. Colleges can be even worse depending on the instructor. But very, very few schools of any educational level require courses in critical thinking, logic, or epistemology. In a post-industrial information age where the sum of human knowledge is accessible through a device most of us carry around in our pockets, we have become obsessed with facts, not methodologies, with memory, not intelligence. Thus our educational standards reflect our cultural priorities.

Let’s go one step further to look at the facts we seem to value. I have nothing against the STEM fields (I’m the lone humanist in a family of scientists and engineers), but they can’t be the only things on the table. Even if you mistakenly believe there is no intrinsic value to literature or that no truth about humanity is to be gained from poetry, we can all agree grammar and rhetoric are necessary skills not covered by a STEM-only education. This is to say nothing of the fundamental worth and benefits of music, history, etc. A thing need not fit some rubric of practicality to have educational merit.

If we must have only the practical and practicable taught, however, let’s cover our bases. There is a great need for trade and vocational schools. Not everyone needs to go to university — nor should they. Many other employable skills are out there, skills we need someone to have — and those skills must be acquired, and therefore they must be taught. And not just taught as an alternative to college, but promoted as proper and worthy fields in their own right. Part of that statement is tied to our need and the practical nature of those trades, yes. But another part is tied to the sense of self-worth of those in those fields. A welder, small engine mechanic, or plumber is not a second-class citizen simply because they lack advanced degrees. They are still human beings equal to any other.

In short, there are many, many things we need to be teaching, both within the walls of the church and without. We cannot propagate a false equivalency between memory and intelligence, between knowing what to think and knowing how to think. And we certainly can’t afford, as a society, to prioritize the “what” above the “how.” That road ends in auditoriums filled, not with rational human beings waiting to learn, but with automatons waiting to be programmed.

F.A.Q.: A Smattering of Intelligence

My birthday is the feast day of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, and I find it fitting. Anselm is one of my personal heroes in the faith, and I have two of his maxims written in Latin on the markerboard in my kitchen: Credo ut intelligam (“I believe so that I may understand”) and fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). I feel like Anselm and I would have been friends, for his mottoes sum up my own faith journey fairly well. I tend to blunder my way into theological problems and have to research my way out (hence my current work on the biblical theology of death and its relationship to the natural sciences). Anselm’s words keep me going, and I was therefore highly upset when he lost to Florence Nightingale in this year’s Lent Madness. (Oh sure, she saved countless lives and all that, but Anselm gave us the ontological argument! Priorities, people!)

I think many of us live in the tension of faith and reason. To be sure, a run-in with a harsh fact or a hard-to-swallow premise has given rise to many a crisis of faith. Many people are devout atheists because they cannot view theism in general and Christianity in particular as intellectually credible. For that reason alone, sundry proofs for the existence of God have arisen over the years, all seeking to demonstrate theism is logically coherent. Now we fire off proofs left and right, and the field of apologetics has experienced a renaissance of sorts as more and more flock to it seeking ways to demonstrate the reasonability of Christianity to hordes of rampaging rationalists.

Some stalwart Christians oppose the renewed interest in intellectual defenses of Christianity, espousing a sort of warped, internal variant of the principle of non-overlapping magisteria. “Faith is faith,” they say, “and faith isn’t subject to reason.” A friend recently lamented one of her pastors early in life once delivered a sermon commanding one to sacrifice intelligence on the altar of faith, and, as an intelligent human being, she always found that hard to swallow. And personally, I agree such a thing is a bridge too far. If we believe intelligence is a gift from God, and if we believe being a rational, thinking creature is part of the imago Dei, it seems rather ungrateful and hypocritical to say, “God gave this to me, and it’s part of how I’m like Him, but I absolutely can’t use this in conversations about my relationship with Him.” It honestly strikes me as a bit rude. And also frankly unbiblical.

For starters, Jesus says the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, emphasis added). The word used here for mind is dianoia, and it refers to our ability to comprehend and think rationally — our intelligence. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems impossible to love God with your intelligence if you switch off your brain at the church door (or wherever you happen to go). Lest we ignore the words of Jesus Christ and break the most important commandment according to God Himself, let’s use our minds in our pursuit of God.

Secondly, Paul gives us the perfect biblical example of using intelligence in the defense of God and in evangelism. Aside from the masterful rhetoric and theology throughout his writings, an incident in Acts 17 demonstrates this for us. As Paul preaches in Athens, he engages polytheists by quoting from their own philosophers (Epimenides and Aratus in v. 28). His sermon in the agora rationally linked Christianity to truths from another discipline to show the veracity of his faith. When we fail to engage biology, geology, psychology, or other subjects and connect their truths to the God of truth, when we instead ignore their challenges and stick our heads in the sand of “it’s all about faith, not reason,” we fail to follow Paul’s example, the example of Scripture. (This is one reason I’m an advocate for public theology: Scripture teaches us to engage culture on Christian terms.)

That’s why I don’t believe God wants us to suddenly become sycophantic morons where faith is concerned, never thinking about anything but believing everything told to us. Are there things beyond the realm of human comprehension? Absolutely; the Trinity immediately comes to mind. We will never be able to fully grasp an infinite God with a finite mind. But we can and we should use our God-given intellects to pursue their divine source. We need to love God with our minds, chase the deep things of the Bible with reason and rationality.

Why? Because faith seeks understanding. Because, as Anselm said, I believe so that I may understand.

One of the Worst -Isms

One of my favorite Christmas movies is the original Miracle on 34th Street. Alfred, our favorite janitor/Santa Claus impersonator, while lamenting the consumeristic bent of Christmas in a department store, quips, “There’s a lot of bad -isms floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck.” And that was in 1947. Just look at how far we’ve come since then in the pursuit of wealth.

It’d be easy to decry all of our societal structures and institutions for giving in to commercialism, for so very many have. The American healthcare system (inasmuch as it can be called a “system” which “cares” for health) readily springs to mind. Costs are too high for most people to afford any real care they need, and it’d be unthinkable to have something as simple as a routine appendectomy or a tooth pulled without insurance — which is itself prohibitively expensive. Many families must choose between food and medication. Other countries have shown us that healthcare costs needn’t be so exorbitant, yet they still are. Why? In part because of the greed of commercialism. People aren’t embodied soul requiring loving care; they are broken fleshy machines people will pay anything to repair. And so they do; simple supply and demand.

If it’s terrible such commercialism has infiltrated the care of bodies, it’s positively abhorrent it has become part and parcel of the care of souls.

Here again it’d be all-too-easy to list those televangelists and fake faith healers who will swindle the widow out of her mite. I could go into detail about false prophets bilking the innocent out of their money to pay for their private jets, limousines, and sprawling estates. And while that kind of behavior is sinful in many, many ways, and while they will stand in judgment for what they’ve done to their victims, there’s another dimension of commercialism that has taken root in the church. It’s far more sinister — and far more accepted. It’s the rise of the consumer church.

If you want to know what I mean by “consumer church,” take a look at most megachurches. Really, just pick one that seems to suit your fancy. These have, by and large (with the occasional exception), ignored the traditions of the faith to provide something more aligned with the current whims of culture. There’s nothing wrong with using a different worship style, but there is great danger in altering worship content. A consumer church will typically change both. The more negative realities of Christianity (hell, sin, etc.) get dropped in favor of fluff which omits the need for salvation. Ministers no longer “preach,” since people don’t liked being “preached at”; instead, they “speak” or “talk with you.” The term “sermon” is replaced by “teaching time,” and songs are sanitized as all references to “wretch,” “worm,” and other non-ego-stroking terms for the sinful self are removed. And yes, names matter.

The worship service itself mutates from a corporate act into lots of individual acts carried out in close proximity to one another. Rites and rituals are either omitted entirely or left unexplained, bewildering newcomers and those young in the faith. Catechesis disappears as classes and groups wane due to a lack of emphasis.

In short, our ecclesiology has died. Our liturgics have been entirely forgotten. We no longer live and teach our theology in a corporate setting. The fundamentally Christocentric nature of worship is supplanted by an anthropocentric — or even egocentric — “worship experience.” And why? Why jettison such things? To appeal to consumers who view church as something to be taken in like entertainment instead of a dynamic connection to a living God. Because people don’t put money in the offering plate to hear you tell them to repent. And the more money, the bigger the church; the bigger the church, the more famous the pastor; the more famous the pastor, the more money people give . . .

Did I mention we preachers sometimes have ego problems, too?

Not all megachurch pastors suffer from such thinking. Some truly possess a servant’s heart, and that gives me great hope. But it remains a common pitfall, giving in to a consumer-driven, commercialistic mindset. So we have to remember: fads change. People will want a totally different church twenty years from now because what’s “cool” will be totally different by then. But God never changes. The gospel never changes.

The grass withers, and the parachute pants fade, but the word of the LORD endures forever.

Community

It’s inevitable, really. Whenever I join a new group of friends, or even whenever an older group gets to know me well, I get singled out as the group monk. Maybe it’s my lack of love life, maybe it’s my pursuit of knowledge, maybe it’s my dedication to God — or maybe it’s all the above (or none of the above). Whatever the reason(s), someone will eventually decide I would be a great monk. As one friend remarked a few months ago:
“It could be you. ‘We’ve not heard from Chris in a while.’
“‘Oh, yeah, he’s been reclusive learning the words of creation from a book of exalted deeds.'”

It’s funny, you see, because it’s true.

But when we talk about monks, we need to remember there are two categories of major monastic traditions. Anchorite monks, such as Saint Anthony of the Desert, are solitary hermits. On the other hand, cenobitic monks live their lives in monastic communities. Even though the word “monk” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “solitary” (monachos), it would seem some of those solitary figures realized a Christian life must still be lived in community. The life of faith cannot rightly be lived out alone in the desert.

I think we all have an innate grasp of that reality. We realize first that humans are gregarious creatures; we are social animals. One dimension of the imago Dei is the relational image. Like God, then, we are relational beings, and our lives are meant to be spent in relationships with others of our own kind. I specifically say “with others of our own kind” because some attempt to replace relationships with other people with pets or machines or some other surrogate (Crazy Cat Lady, anyone?). But none of them are equivalent replacements for another human soul, another being made in the image of God. As much as we’d like to believe Fido can understand every word we say, he’s incapable of expressing his doggy views on campaign finance reform, soteriology, and Mrs. Nesbitt’s low opinion of your casserole at the last potluck. Can we love such creatures and have a relationship of sorts with them? Yes, but it is the love and relationship of a greater to a lesser, a master to a vassal. It cannot serve as a substitute for the love among equals, for genuine human relationships and real human community.

If it’s impossible to be fully human without being part of a community involving other people, why would we think we can live a life of faith estranged from other Christians?

Recently I attended a dinner for one of our Sunday School classes. I have a standing invitation to their get-togethers, so I hastily made some macaroni and cheese (not the kind that comes in a blue box, either, but the real deal) and went to supper. Sitting at the table and listening to everyone swap stories, I was struck by two thoughts. First, I realized how much I myself missed being around the same group of people on a daily basis (a staple of academic life). Second, I wished each of our classes would do something similar. It doesn’t have to be a supper, although a common table has been the hallmark of Christianity since the time of Jesus. It could be a trip, a party on game day, anything. Anything which would bring people together and give them a chance to share their lives with one another. In the church of all places, we need those moments, those chances to rejoice, to weep, to laugh, to simply be present with each other without worrying about what comes next.

In an age defined by digital distractions, being mentally and emotionally present is increasingly difficult — and increasingly rare. We can all tell stories of going out to eat and seeing every person at another table on their phones. None of them were willing to be as present soulfully as they were physically. Things like that have repercussions. For one example, we use things instead of people as babysitters, and it turns my stomach. I admit I have no children (monk, you know), but it seems to me if you truly valued your children, you would spend time playing with them, teaching them, discipling them, disciplining them. You wouldn’t say, “Here’s my phone; now shut up and leave me alone.” You wouldn’t let an iPad raise your child for you. (Yes, you need time for self-care, but is that truly the best way to achieve that?) It’s a new form of absentee parenting: Dad didn’t leave, he’s just on the couch playing video games while the toddler sits glued to the tablet. There’s no interaction there, no community, only two strangers sharing space and a bloodline.

If parents can’t even live in community with their own children, it will take an act of countercultural revolution to get Christians to engage with one another on a personal level. Fortunately for us, Christianity has always been countercultural.

To live out this new counterculture, to reclaim the community which has been lost, we need to revisit a favorite verse we always quote for something else and add its context. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” We’ve all seen v. 25 used to tell us we should be going to church — and rightly so. But v. 24 adds another dimension to it. We come together to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” That can happen at a class supper, a lunch meeting, a trip with friends, a weekly time to check in with one another. It may find its fullness of expression on a Lord’s Day, but it needn’t be limited to corporate acts of worship. It is about living out our faith in a community of faith — the church. It is about being a part of a body (1 Cor. 12:12ff.). After all, a single body part can’t live on its own; it needs everyone else.

As the physical body, so the spiritual body. We cannot live out a vibrant Christian faith without being connected to a larger community. We can’t go off into the desert; we have to live and laugh with other people. Without others around us, our love grows cold, and without a love for others, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). So go be social. Live life in community. Be fully human, fully alive, and fully connected to God.