Five Things We the Church Need Know About Technological Change (3 of 5): There is a Powerful Idea Embedded in Every Technology

This is part 3 of a five part series based on Neil Postman’s lecture “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” applied to the church.

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers

3. There is a Powerful Idea Embedded in Every Technology

image My friend Trey is an artist and a story teller.

Whether he has his camera in hand or not, he sees the world as pictures that tell stories. His recent photography and video editing work on www.iamsecond.com shows his skill, sensitivity, and passion (its gotten great reviews). Trey’s vision illustrates the old adage attributed to Mark Twain:

To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The ever-witty Twain is telling us that the tools we use shape the way we see the world. Postman put it this way: Embedded in every technology is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three ideas. To the man with camera, everything looks like a picture. To the man with a computer, everything looks like information. To the man with twitter, every life event is a clever 140 character statement. Of course, we don’t need to take these aphorisms literally, but they do tell us that every technology has a prejudice, a subtle influence, or an embedded message.

King David & Technology in the Church

The catch is that those embedded messages are sometimes at odds with the Gospel and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

king david bridgman For example, consider the story of King David and the census (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21). David, a lowly shepherd, became a king solely because the Lord was with him. But as king, he was presented with a powerful technology – the ability to count his soldiers and people. Whatever that technology was, it communicated that numbers – big numbers – were important. David sinned when he began to trust more in the number of his soldiers than in sovereignty of God. There was nothing morally wrong with counting, but the powerful idea behind counting had an influence on David’s spirituality. If he had thought through the implications of the technology of the census, perhaps he could have still used it without putting God second.

If Postman is right that technology always has a trade-off of some kind, then there is a chance that incorporating a new medium or technology in the church (or our personal lives) will have some influences which are compatible with Christianity and some which are not. Our task is to spend some time thinking about these influences before we implement them. Of course, most technology has the embedded message of “speed” which says, “don’t think about technology – just try to keep up!”

However, there are a few recent examples of technological products whose creator seem to have though through their possible negative messages and attempted to counteract it:

  • Nintendo Wii – By definition you play the Wii inside, but every 20 minutes or so, it tells you that you should go outside and play. This may not seem like a big deal, but when a $250 product is telling you “Stop using me,” that’s pretty amazing.
  • ROOV – For all the personal connections that Social Networks allow, they also encourage us to relate through a technology and not face to face. ROOV on the other hand is specifically designed to facilitate “offline” face to face relationships.

Perhaps if we spend some time thinking like Nintendo and Roov, we could enable the beautiful story-tellers, like Trey, while avoiding some of the pitfalls into which even great leaders like King David fell.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

10 thoughts on “Five Things We the Church Need Know About Technological Change (3 of 5): There is a Powerful Idea Embedded in Every Technology”

  1. It’s refreshing to hear a critical approach toward technology and the church/evangelism, which doesn’t at the same time discount its benefits. For me there’s a couple of reasons to be wary: 1)technology puts a tremendous temptation in front of people to focus on the ingenuity of man, not the God who made him and gave him the ingenuity. And 2) technology always presents the opportunity to increase noise in our lives. What gives me hope is that the more man-centered our world gets, the more God-hungry we become … and as Christ followers, we have the power and the wisdom to use the tools by which Satan enslaves to set those very same captives free.

    1. @Nick, it’s great to hear from a brother in the UK. I agree that it’s tough to walk the line between critiquing and yet not completely rejecting technology. Your insight is great.

  2. So (just because I’m curious and I’m trying to bring the point home for myself) what are some technologies that you think we’ve brought into the church that may have powerful ideas embedded in them (for or contrary to the gospel)?

    I’m trying to think about it on my end and I’m not coming up with much. Overhead screens, for example. Does that encourage the idea that weekend services are one more entertainment venue, or does it encourage the idea that the Church should be relevant to it’s culture?

    1. @Lex,
      Great question. I’ll try to just give a few examples:

      Postman give the example of how King Solomon was praised in his day for knowing 3000 proverbs. In a world before writing was common, memorization and oral recitation were valued with many Jews in Jesus’ day memorized the entire Pentateuch.

      Now that writing has become more common and everyone has a printed Bible, we have more access to the Scriptures than at any other time in history. Yet almost no one knows more than a few verses by heart. We don’t seem nearly as adept at “meditating on it day and night.”

      A more modern example would be how the video camera tends to be performance oriented. We usually pose to look our best for photographs and the same often happens with video cameras. For example, Richard Dortch, who was involved in the Bakker scandal of the 1980s said:

      ‘A television camera can change a preacher quicker than anything else. Those who sit on the sidelines can notice the changes in people once they get in front of a camera. It turns a good man into a potentate. It is so easy to get swept away by popularity: Everybody loves you, cars are waiting for you, and you go to the head of the line. That is the devastation of the camera. It has made us less than God has wanted us to become.’

  3. John,

    You make a good point with your example of King David. Without the resources available to him, he couldn’t have done a census at all. Like you say, “most technology has the embedded message of “speed” which says, “don’t think about technology – just try to keep up!” The same could be said of just about any thing ministers covet because they believe it will help their ministry succeed.
    How many times do I have to hear, “if only we had this new building for our church, we could do more ministry and.” As if a building is going to woe the lost to come through the church doors. I guess the same could be said for websites and the like.

  4. I think most technology has one embedded message in common, among the others: life or work will be easier. It’s helpful if we’re trying to make a necessary and effective ministry more efficient.

    But a lot of times we get some new technology, and do things because we can, not because we should. Then, because we weren’t committed to the spirit of project, we we waste time and effort doing it poorly, instead of putting the energy and planning in that might make it succeed.

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