History is full of irony (a word that Alanis Morisette helped millions of fans to misuse...)
Just over 500 years ago, a monk by the name of Martin Luther attempted to call the Church to a life and practice that was more faithful to, and more in alignment with, the Bible. In a move that anticipated (and perhaps catalyzed) the Western world's shift from monarchy to democracy, he translated the Bible into the language of his people and of his day–so they could read it for themselves, learn it independently of the authorized channels and sole official interpreters of the Scriptures: a highly educated and powerful elite within the Church who handed down teaching which all were to accept without question.
Meanwhile, in Luther's home country, Johannes Gutenberg's printing press was just beginning to revolutionize society with the new reality of mass-production books. And at approximately the same time Luther was translating the Latin Bible into his native German (a rough 16th Century equivalent of Julian Assange publishing U.S. state secrets), another towering figure, the Swiss theologian John Calvin, wrote the following: "All right knowledge of God is born of obedience." If the irony isn't already apparent, stay with me for just a little longer.
The uneasy relationship between technology and faith is not new. It stretches all the way from the brick-making technique introduced on the plain of Babel to the so-called worship wars that still plague some sectors of evangelicalism. The significance of this is debated, but it is at least worth noting that, as far as anyone knows, Jesus never set foot in the Roman city of Sepphoris, a modern urban center replete with all the latest 1st Century Greco-Roman technology, located a mere 3.7 miles from Nazareth.
Technology has the potential to be harnessed for great good–including the kind of good that can both benefit Christians and be brought about by them for the benefit of the rest of the world. That being said, researchers have convincingly demonstrated that technology changes the people who use it. In popular Christian thinking, there is a formula that 'the message doesn't change, only the methods' (or media). The Mennonite advertising executive-turned-pastor, Shane Hipps, says: think again. In his view, the medium influences the reception of the message on such a profound level, that it ultimately becomes inseparable from it. He goes so far as to say, "The medium is the message." *
A message delivered around a village campfire by one of the community's most respected elders (respected, not only because of his age, but because his whole life has been lived out in the public view; his status is derived not only from his age or position, but by his character), will be received very differently than the way you are receiving the message being communicated to you by the glowing pixels on your screen as you read this blog post. I am writing on the shore of Lake Michigan. You could be anywhere–and you may or may not know me. The people sitting around the campfire, along with whatever news, lesson, or counsel is being given them, are also learning that truth is something that you obtain in community. It has significance to you because of your belonging to a group with a specific history and with specific concerns. There will be questions, probably starting with other respected leaders among the group: What does this mean for us? Is there anything we need to do in response? Can you explain what you meant by _______? After the family units disperse to their homes, there will be further discussion and explanation in the home: This is great news! There's no need to worry. Something similar happened 15 years ago, so we know what to do to get through it this time...
The message you're getting right now could not be more different. I learn truth in isolation. If I have questions, I will come up with answers on my own–or open up google in a new tab. There is no equivalent of the respected village elder in my world; instead, I go to teachers I respect and information sources that I trust. Above all, I go to my friends. I AM THE FINAL AUTHORITY IN DETERMINING THE RELIABILITY AND TRUSTWORTHINESS OF THESE SOURCES. Your age and your cultural and ethnic background will go a long way in influencing how terrifying you find these words. They represent a worldview shift of inestimable proportions; the scope and impact of their consequences for our world are as yet unknown. Yes, the world has changed. Going back is not an option. And pining for the good-old days (ask around: there has never been such a time) and being critical of everything contemporary will do nothing except erode your credibility among those for whom this normal is not new. It's just normal.
Right now, no small number of church-types are freaking out about the rise of what I call 'anti-social media' (I'm definitely giving my age away here), of VR, of the corrupting of a generation via violent and sexually explicit video games (they said the same thing about my generation, but the righteous indignation was mostly directed toward music). Only two weeks ago, I was speaking to a group of junior-high and high-school students, telling them that they are going to have to be intentional about how they use technology so that it will be a force for good in their world–and that no one in my generation is going to be able to instruct them on how to do that because the way they use technology has changed them to an extent that we are unable to relate to the way that it mediates reality to them. I am absolutely and completely ignorant of the 'mark' that it puts upon the message in the way that makes the medium and the message inseparable.
Here's the irony: just as Calvin was saying you have to obey God in order to know anything valid, Luther was saying that you can't trust the established authorities, and Gutenberg was paving the way that would eventually lead to you having all of the information in the world at your fingertips, as you do right now on your wi-fi enabled device (that you tend to use to stream cat videos and hip-hop rather than learning about the culture-creators who can help us understand how the world we inherited came to be.)
What I can't help but wonder is: how did the spirit of Luther come to dominate that of Calvin? (I also can't help but wonder if Luther would have done anything differently had he known there would be 30,000 Christian denominations in 2018). I'm neither endorsing nor criticizing either of these theologians or their denominational descendants. Nor am I eagerly awaiting the day when someone invents a time machine so I can go back and ensure that we end up with a world without books (Alanis: this is irony.) But why do you suppose that "obey in order to learn" has taken such a distant second to "I am dependent upon no one; I am capable of comparing all claims about truth and reality and coming to the right conclusion about what is the accurate, reliable, and superior account of what's true"?
If you know the Bible at all, your head should be exploding with thoughts that link up with the story in Genesis 3. There we find our story (whether you believe it is 'literally' true or not is of no consequence for this discussion) – the original crossroads where a choice we made irreversibly calibrated us toward a certain way of being in our world. "Obey, and know God and everything else? Nah – I think I'd rather find out for myself. I don't want anyone telling me what I can and can't do." There's a solid reason that the phrase 'learn it the hard way' refers to the same idea as 'ignore good advice.' The Good News is: ever since that day, all throughout the process of us becoming a people who insist on learning without having to listen to a teacher, on knowing without having to obey an authority, God has been repeating the same message to us: walk in My paths, they will lead you to life. The choice, now as always (and this should have major appeal for us), is ours – completely ours. "For if, by the power of God's Spirit, you choose to obey God rather than continue to follow your deeply-ingrained tendency to do whatever you want to do, you will live. To keep your mind focused on the things of the Spirit, and live with a determination to live in alignment with that Spirit: this–this is life and peace" (my paraphrase of Romans 8:13, 8:6). What will it be for you? Ultimate Truth? Or the ultimate consequences...?
*The following two paragraphs build on ideas presented by Hipps in his book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture. It's prophetic character grows with each passing year as technology develops in ways that Hipps couldn't have possibly anticipated.