iPhones, Health Care, and Hope

Every June, I Get Anxious

iphone-medicineLast fall I bought a second generation iPhone which was the coolest phone I had ever owned – right up until the third generation iPhone came out. Its faster processor and better camera suddenly made my iPhone seem archaic. Of course, before the newer version came out, I didn’t even know I needed wanted those features, but once I tried them at the Apple store, I couldn’t help but be disappointed every time I used my clunker. I also had this strange feeling that AT&T should upgrade me for free since I’ve been a customer for several years. I don’t actually want to pay for the new features – somehow I just think I should get them.

I think this is what Postman meant when he said, “Technology tends to become mythic” – that is, if a technology has been around long enough we start to believe we’re entitled to it. We no longer view the older tool as “technology” anymore – it is simply the way things are. Only the bleeding edge seems worthy of attention.

The Cost of Progress

My response to the advancement of the iPhone doesn’t seem to be terribly different from our society’s response to the advancement of health care. In the 1800s, we thought aspirin was magical. Then in the 30s, aspirin became pedestrian, while the X-ray amazed us. In the 70s, the X-ray was superseded by CAT scans and MRIs; in the 80s, it was first artificial heart, and so on. We didn’t even know we needed these things before they were invented (like those new iPhone features), but somehow once they are announced, we can’t seem to live without them.

Medical technology continues to march forward, each time extending life a little further and costing just a little more. And yet, as the duration of our life is extended, the quality of our life seems to decrease as we worry about whether or not we’ll be deprived of a just announced as procedure or drug. In the past, a heart problem, was just one of the many things from which people might die. But today a heart condition is actually more horrific, because the patient and his or her family knows that a cure might be just around the corner or on a slightly better health insurance plan. But like an AT&T customer complaining that he has to pay the “rising costs” of upgrading his iPhone every year, we complain about the “rising costs” of health care forgetting that what is available today is light years ahead of just a few decades ago. Are we really any more entitled to the latest medical breakthrough than we are to the latest iPhone?

The Significance of Time

But is this really a valid claim? Can we really compare new features on a iPhone to a life-saving procedure like a heart transplant? No, of course not. That new procedure is not merely a fancy toy like the iPhone. It is the difference between life and death. And those extra years or even days that we gain from new medical technology can often have profound spiritual significance.

About five years ago on a hot July evening, I experienced this phenomenon up close when my step-mother, months away from death, received an emergency heart transplant. At first, I thought the primary significance of this was that she would be able to live a little longer. But then, a few months later my dad was arrested and put into prison for a rather unpleasant crime, and I am almost certain that he would have died there if he had been alone. But my step mother, with a younger, stronger heart stood by him, supported him, and forgave him, keeping him on life support so he could endure until he was released. I believe that that heart, plucked from some other unfortunate soul and gently incorporated into my step-mother’s life, saved both her and my father.

Over the past five years, I have watched my father undergo profound spiritual transformation as a result of those experiences, and I am ever thankful both for the work of the Spirit in his life and for the medical technology which created the space for it to occur.

A Firm Hope

Still, one day my step-mother will die. So will my father, my son, my wife, and finally I too will breath my last. There is no advance in medical technology – no matter what the transhumanists claim – that can prevent death and retain humanity. So does medical technology matter in the story we a living?

I believe it does because I believe that medicine can serve the same two purposes that all technology can: to offer a partial redemption from the effects of the fall and to simultaneously show us how inadequate our tools are to fix the deeper problems of the human (spiritual) heart. Sadly, when technology fails us or when the technological system (like the health care industry) fails us, our usual response is not take the opportunity to long for the return of our Lord, but to look to next year’s technology and next year’s leaders to heal our wounds. The heart of our faith – “He is coming soon!” – has been transplanted with a kind of utopian belief in progress – “Health Care is coming soon” that continually disappoints and frustrates us.

So every time we hear about health care on the news, every time we fill out a ridiculously long prescription form, every time our insurance doesn’t cover something, let us take the opportunity to pray, “Thy kingdom come” and “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” Let us praise our God for the medical advances which allow us to live another year in his grace (already) – as my father and step-mother did – while simultaneously clinging most firmly to the hope of all things being made new at the coming of our Savior.

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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/.

3 thoughts on “iPhones, Health Care, and Hope”

  1. Hmmm. I notice you’ve also dipped into Ellul. Ellul wrote little about medicine and healthcare, but a follower of his, Ivan Illich (also a devout Christian), wrote a great deal about healthcare. I’ve relied on both in Death and Life in America: Biblical Healing and Biomedicine (Herald Press, 2008). From what little I’ve read on this blog, I wonder if there might be some overlap…

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