This post is an abbreviated version of what I hope will one day become a book exploring technology and its role in the redemptive story of God and his people.
It sometimes feels like we are left either to believe the lofty promises of technology makers who tell us next year’s device will solve all our problems or wallow in the clever observations of cultural critics who tell us technology will be the end of humanity. Thankfully, the Scriptures have not left us alone in the wilderness as they deal with the subject of technology quite extensively, so much so that technology is integrated into the circuitry of the redemptive program.
In this longer than average post, I want to explore the Biblical story, reshaping the ideas of Jaques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, picking up insights as we go along.
Rejecting the Command, Making Clothing
Immediately after the Fall, we get a glimpse into the complexity of technology’s creative, sinful, and yet redemptive nature. Adam and Eve quickly recognize that they can overcome one of the effects of the Curse by inventing clothing to cover themselves (Gen 3:7). We don’t normally think of clothing as technology, it is a product of human creation and an expression of the creativity of God (Gen 1:26). Sadly, Adam and Eve use their creativity not to glorify God, but in a way that is representative of humanity’s rejection of God and attempt to live apart from him. But rather than condemn them, God pours out his grace and “upgrades” their clothing from leaves to the skin of an animal (Gen. 3:21). God’s action seems to support humans inventing things that overcome the effects of the Fall, yet he also shows the inadequacy of our solutions. Clothing can restore some of our humanity, but in this case it requires the death of an animal and falls short dealing with the pain and sin in our hearts.
From this first invention, we learn that technology is almost always designed to overcome an effect of the Fall. It, therefore, can function redemptively and yet simultaneously represent the inadequacy of our attempts to live without God.
Rejecting God, Making Music
After the Fall, a theme emerges in which a sinful brother is cast out (Cain, Ham, Nimrod, etc.) and he leaves to build a city (עיר `iyr, a Hebrew word who shares the same consonants with the word “anguish”). The city, in all its technological glory, becomes a symbol of man’s quest to restore the comfort and power of Garden without the presence of God. Babylon, Ninevah, Sodom, and others come to represent the enemies of God and the collective human desire to live happily without him.
And yet it is from these enclaves of sin that the first human tools, art, and music come (Gen 4:20-22). That God does not condemn them or their creativity screams of his grace and desire to redeem mankind and the works they create. It is only when humanity attempts use their creative powers to build their way into heaven (Gen 11:4) that God thwarts their open rejection of his command to fill the earth. He responds not by destroying their tower, but by confusing their languages. Ultimately, causes them to separate into cultures further magnifying their creativity.
From this we learn that technology, even when conceived in blatant rejection of God, is still an expression of the imago dei, the creativity of God in us. Technology then is inseparably tied to humanity’s rejection of God and God’s grace toward humanity in allowing us to continue. Technology can seen both as a subset of the individual cultures which create it and a superset of all cultures, spanning across and into all humanity.
Rejecting the Poor, Making Power
The next episode in which we are introduced to cities is during the Israelite captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh forced the nomadic people into slavery and crushes them in the gears of the city (Ex. 1:11). Pharaoh opulence and his rejection of Yahweh was built upon the backs of the innocent.
And so it is today. The Nikes on which we walk and the iPhones on which we talk are built in factories by workers making less per day than we spend on afternoon coffee. Our advances in transportation hide this from our sight, but not from the sight of God. Our ignorance of how we, through the ‘city’ in the broader sense, oppress the less fortunate is inherent in the size and scope of today’s technological world. Our devices seem like the exist independently of the world around them, but in reality every tool we use in intimately connected to the horrors and creativity of the city.
It is the tendency of the city, then, to destroy human beings in favor of human works. Though technology can express human creativity, it also expresses our darkness and need of redemption not merely at the personal level, but at the societal level. Thankfully, God is not simply interested in offering individuals forgiveness, he is interested in rebuilding a new world with a completely new order.
Rejecting Sin, Making Redemption
The center of the Biblical story is God joining himself to creation in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself was a “carpenter” (Mark 6:3) or a tektōn (τέκτων) the Freek word from which we get the English “technology.” To individuals, Jesus offers both kindness (John 8:11) and rebuke (Matt. 23:13), but when he addresses cities, he offers nothing but woes and curses (Matt 11:21). Though Jesus himself worked with technology, he still condemns the inherent diabolism of human attempts to live apart from the true redemption only he can bring by his life, death, and resurrection.
Yet, while Jesus curses the ‘city,’ graciously and curiously, has chosen to elect the city into a key role in the mechanism through which he ultimately redeems the world. Our story began in the natural beauty of the Garden (Gen 2:8), but we will not return there. Instead, God’s story will end with a city of his design coming down from heaven (Rev 3:12) complete with human inventions like gates and streets, buildings and wine (Amos 9:14), lacking only a temple (Rev. 21:21) and the need for artificial light (Rev 22:5).
Our Great God will somehow cleanly separate the horror of human depravity from the beauty of human creativity. We must remember though that it cost him dearly to do so. For reasons only known to the counsel of God, the Son of God had to suffer at the hands of the most advanced killing machine ever devised by the city in or that he might redeem all creation, all humanity, and even the things humans have created, thereby taking us from the Garden to the City.
Rejecting Technology, Making Technology
This short retelling of the Biblical story of redemption has left quite a bit out, but it leaves us with a few important observation about technology:
- Technology is an expression of God’s creativity graciously embedded in all of humanity. Let us direct our praise to Him who enabled us to create, not to the things that we create.
- Technology offers some relief from the Fall, but it also serves as a constant reminder of our rejection of God and the inadequacy of our tools. Let us long for long for the remdemption that comes only through Jesus Christ.
- Technological society (the ‘city’) and technological products (cars, phones, etc.) tend to reward the rich and powerful and oppress the poor and innocent. Let us not be ignorant of such injustice.
- The Gospel both expresses itself through culture and rages against culture. Since technology is both a subset and superset of human cultures, the Gospel and technology are similarly in constant tension. Let us remember we cannot serve both God and technology.
- Technology can both humanize and dehumanize. Let us make humanization that honors God our criteria for implementation rather than glitz, flash, or self-promotion.
- Technology, as with all of human culture, will be redeemed by the grace of God for the Glory of God. Let us long not for the next iteration of our favorite product, but for the second coming of our Savior.