From the Garden to the City: Technology in the Story of Redemption

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.

The Meaning of the City - Jaques EllulIt 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.

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/.

12 thoughts on “From the Garden to the City: Technology in the Story of Redemption”

  1. So John, in bullet point 5 are you suggesting that technology is neutral and can be used either way?
    And is it that technological products reward the rich and oppress the poor? Or is it that the rich tend to oppress and ignore the poor and technology is just another way of doing so and that technology has made it easier in that we no longer have to walk by the slave laborers but keep them and the destruction of creation at a distance.
    I like where this is going and look forward to reading more.

    1. I definitely wouldn't argue that technology is neutral. There are almost always unintended consequences whenever we create and use technology, and commonly those consequences are dehumanizing. However, we can work to recognize those consequences and do what we can to mitigate them, fully aware that our inability to do so points us toward the Savior.

      Regarding your second question, it sounds like a both/and. My main point was that these things are so intertwined that we cannot act as though a phone in our pocket or a soda can on our desk is disconnected from a world which brokenly reflects the image of God and horrors of sin.

  2. I like this, John. How does the use of technology to advance the gospel factor into this? I think of TWR's use of radio or T4 Global's use of MP3 technology.

    1. Brian, great question! I would probably say that whenever we share the gospel, by whatever means, it's always going to be imperfect. And yet, the the Holy Spirit still makes our imperfect attempts salvific. So, I'm glad for things like like T4 global while also trying to contain my excitement about technology, so that I don't misplace my trust.

  3. John, I was baiting you a little bit with the first comment – you have been clear that technology is not neutral, but the statement that it can both "humanize and dehumanize" made it seem like you were supporting the thought that technology is just a neutral tool which we use for good or bad as opposed to the idea that simply by using it we are being shaped by it. i was just checking to make sure that you hadn't made a wild turnaround in your thinking.
    As to the second point, I like where you are going with this. ISTM that one of the keys is that technology and modernization tends to separate us more and more from the impact of our choices. For example, i don't see the results of my buying six different computers in the last year and where all of those old ones went. There is also a strong connection between technology and consumerism in this discussion. Technology has changed our production capacity such that we are consuming far more than ever before (both because it's cheaper and we are subjected to more and more advertising) and we have become so reliant on technology and caught up in having the latest that we are always buying more and more. Or, your example of soda – how many resources are used up to produce a canned drink that has less nutritional value than a glass of water from the faucet?
    One other thought is how technology is seen as solution/savior, for example when computers are given to people in Africa as a way to "help" them. In other words, what they really need is more technology just like us.
    As always – thanks for making me think.

  4. John…I will definitely pre-order your book as soon as it is available! I've been thinking about these things for a little while now, even alongside your point about clothing and sewing as the first technology and processes — and God making animal skins as his early involvement in producing artifacts for humans. Also interesting are the next few things he produces in Genesis: a flaming sword; and a little later, a large boat for Noah (not to mention the detailed engineering instructions and processes).

    According to the biblical narrative it seems that these things somehow exist in the mind of God, which makes me wonder…what do clothes, weapons, tools, and vehicles have to do with the Kingdom of God?

    On your point #3 (the "city" tends to reward the rich and oppress the poor) I don't really follow. What do you think are the factors that make this tendency? Is it the economics of the situation (we, the city, want things cheaper)? Is it ill moral character (the city is just evil and wants to oppress poor people)? What is really happening in this situation?

    1. Sam, I think you've hit on a some great questions. About the city, I think you're asking, Is the diabolism inherent in the technology (a 'ghost in the machine') or is it driven by human sinfulness? Reading Ellul's works makes me think that it's all mixed up together, and can't be cleanly separated. For example, capitalism seems to favor efficiency and speed, which inevitably results in some people getting left behind. Capitalism might be a better overall system than other economic choices, but whether good or bad people are using it, it seems that good people down on the totem pole always get crushed by it eventually. It makes me long for the day when God will clean it all up!

  5. John, xlnt thoughts, as always. In your framing, the idea of "technology" can be expanded into just about anything that can wedge between Spirit and humanity. Capitalism is a great example, as is religion-as-ideology. interesting how emerging social technologies have the power to both accelerate the good news while simultaneously usurping it. Looking forward to that book.

  6. John, I really enjoyed this post. The imagery of a journey from garden to city & how God is at work in humanity to get us Home again is quite powerful.

    I'm personally wrestling with your third bullet. How do we not forsake "the city" when it seems to be a machine of oppression? How do we not forsake capitalism, when its ultimate end is more wealth for the wealthy on the backs of the impoverished?

    Today and ancient Egypt seem inseparably connected and the only good I can see coming out of an Egypt experience is the Exodus. And maybe that's your point… the tangible out-workings and misuse of technology should serve to breed hope in the hearts of the captives and turn faces back to The Creator, affording God an opportunity to magnify his glory.

  7. John,

    Great post…privileged that I saw you speak today a little on this topic. I have that book on my shelf and have only skimmed…but now I will go read it. Would love to talk more with you about it.

    Let me say one thing. Your talk today, and posts like this have really helped me become more clear with myself that I desire depth, and not just breadth…something you talked about today. We need more depth like yours in the discussion. Thanks for inspiring others to do that.

    Rhett

  8. Interesting post because recently I have been studying art and creativity from almost the same perspective as what you consider technology. Aspects of consumerism definitely seep into my technological creativity as I continually want more hardware and software to… create. I consider myself a visual worship leader and I embrace a digital workflow all done in hopes of glorifying God and leading others to worship. I hope my latest update for CS4 isn’t a fig leaf? Good thoughts. Less is more… maybe?

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