Four Questions for Technology from the Biblical Story

A few months ago, in a post called From the Garden to the City, I briefly mentioned four aspects of technology that show up in the redemptive narrative of Scripture, and I’ve presented it at a few conferences. Drew Goodmanson recently asked if anyone had something like it, so I’m pulling a section from my book manuscript and putting it together as blog post.

four

McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media

After Marshall McLuhan died, his son Eric published Laws of Media: the New Science which contains what is now called the Tetrad of Media or the Four Laws of Media. McLuhan believed that when a new medium is introduced into an environment, it has four simultaneous effects: Enhancement, Obsolescence, Retrieval, and Reversal. We’ll use the mobile phone as an example:

  • EnhancementWhat natural function or older medium does the new medium amplify or intensify?
    The mobile phone amplifies the human voice and our ability to communicate. It also extends the range of older land lines.
  • Obsolescence: What natural function or older medium does the new medium drive out of prominence?The mobile phone makes land lines less important, but also other less instantaneous forms of communication like letter writing.
  • Retrieval: What the older medium or practices are recovered by the new medium?
    The mobile phone restores oral communication for those separated by physical distances who used to only be able to communicate via letters.
  • Reversal: What happens when the medium is overused or pushed to its limits?
    When overused, the mobile phone disconnects and isolates people. Users can also annoy those around them and no be truly present with those in their midst.

For more examples, see these previous posts: McLuhan’s Four Laws on Twitter and Crouch’s Five Questions on Twitter.

[Dyer’s] Tetrad of Technology in the Biblical Story

I would like to suggest a similar tetrad that addresses spiritual considerations with technology. It conveniently maps to the overarching biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Like a good DTS graduate, I’ve turned them into four ‘R’s.

  • Reflection: (Creation) How does this technology display the imago dei (Gen 1:26-27)? How does it help accomplish the creation mandate (Gen 1:28; 2:15)?
    When a person creates a new tool, the display of creativity and ingenuity glorifies God even if the inventor was not attempting to do so. Mobile phones draw on thousands of scientific discoveries all of which were enabled by the creativity God embedded in every person who bears and functions as his image. Mobile phones can enable us to work on huge projects some of which can fulfill the creation mandate to cultivate the earth.
  • Rebellion: (Fall) How does this technology attempt to live apart from dependence on God (Gen 4:17)?
    Just as Cain set up the first city as a kind of anti-Garden and a place to live apart from God, all technology has the potential to be used for sin. For all their usefulness, mobile phones can also be used for terrible things like sexting or the recent attempt to detonate a bomb in a downtown Dallas building. More subtly, mobile phones can prevent those in physical proximity from speaking to one another since someone “out there” is always available. The ability to find solitude and meditate on the Word of God can also be inhibited when we find it hard to put our phones away.
  • Redemption: What effects of the Fall can this technology help overcome (Gen 3:7; 1 Tim 5:23)?
    The first human invention in the Scripture (clothing) was a direct response to an effect of the Fall (nakedness and the elements), and to some degree all technology can be characterized as overcoming an effect of the Fall. Yet some technologies are more redemptively significant than others. Medicine and water filtration offer direct physically redemptive benefits allowing us to obey passages like Matt. 25:34-40. But technologies like mobile phones are more indirect in what they offer. In a few situations, like a stranded or wounded person calling for help, their use might be considered redemptive. However, in many cases mobile phones are used to solve problems that were originally created by technology such as the distance between families or the large size of today’s corporations. Seeing some technology as more significant than others may help us quell our idolatry of it. (on a related note: here is an example of a redemptive use of a beeper)
  • Restoration: What unintended consequences or shortcomings does this technology bring? Do these make us long for Christ to return and restore all things?
    I put here all of the non-moral, but undesired Neil Postman-type consequences that technology can bring such as how air conditioning tends to make people miss out on nature, remote-controlled garage door openers mean people see their neighbors less often, and cars mean families live further apart. I also put technological failure, such as dropped mobile phone calls, phones running out of batteries, and operating system lock ups and reboots.

    When these devices fail, rather than causing us sadness and grief, they offer us a chance to reorient our hope away from our technology and toward Christ’s return. The biblical story ends not in a return to a pristine Garden, but with a new earth and a heavenly city full of human technology and culture (Amos 9:14; Rev. 21:21) somehow cleansed of evil and tradeoffs. It is fascinating to think that God cares to redeem not only human souls and human bodies, but also human creations. So when you get a blue screen of death or an iPhone lockup, rather than curse in disgust, it should be an opportunity to say, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!”

The following table summarizes these four aspects of technology:

Positive Negative
Reflection
(usefulness, God’s glory)
Rebellion
(morality, sinful uses)
Redemption
(spiritual/physical help, albeit temporary)
Restoration
(non moral trade-offs, failures)

A Good Start

There are of course limitations to this, but I think it offers a good start for plugging technology into the redemptive arc of Scripture and acknowledging both the benefits and possible shortcomings of technology. One important thing to keep in mind is that McLuhan emphasized that all four parts of the Tetrad happen at once and they are inseparable. I think we too should keep in mind that all of these aspects of technology are operating simultaneously.

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/.

22 thoughts on “Four Questions for Technology from the Biblical Story”

  1. John,

    Great work! I liked how you made a biblical connection between the four R’s to McLuhan’s tetrad. I was thinking about point three “Redemption”. Would you say that a mobile phone could provide a “redeeming moment” when a person dials 911 when a person gets shot. I’m not sure if this is on track with what you are saying but it was just a thought I had.

    Matt

  2. Hey John, very thought-provoking post. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. The thing I’m having the toughest time grasping is how reversal, which seems like a negative part of the 4 laws of media can parallel restoration which seems like an overwhelmingly positive aspect of the Biblical narrative. Do you think the parallel breaks down there or can you help me better understand the similarities?

    1. Paul, yes I think some of McLuhan’s tetrad can be used to help flesh out the Redemptive tetrad.

      With the redemptive tetrad, I’ve tried to separate intentionally bad uses of technology (Rebellion) from unintentional bad outcomes (Restoration). We Christians are great at identifying the bad uses, but we’re not so good at identifying these unintentional side effects that technology often brings.

      Since McLuhan’s tetrad is not designed to offer moral judgments on technological change, it can be helpful in teasing out and thinking through some of these side effects. Hope that helps!

  3. Excellent stuff! Lots to chew on here.

    As a fellow programmer, how do you see applications that your write (or potentially new ones bubbling up in your head) apply to this model?

    For instance, after your recent post about the “prayer pager” and a family emergency we had last week, I started pondering applying this concept to a “prayer twitter network” type thing. I’ve seen a few things out there that seem to be the same, but I think the implementation is a little off. Say you have a prayer request and submit it to a page. Then as folks opt to pray for this, you get a tweet indicating they are praying for you.

    Part of me thinks this is a great idea to help put a “tangibleness” to a literally global array of folks praying for you. Part of me thinks this could be just a cheesy abuse (yet again) of the twitter front that would result in a bunch of spam.

    Thoughts?

    1. Sean,
      Great question. Certainly a site like that would have display a lot of the creativity that God has given us (Reflection). On the Redemptive side of things, you’re right to point out that different people might perceive things differently and its effectiveness would be hard to pull off. I can’t really think of any Rebellious things that you could do with a site like that beyond what you mentioned with spam. Then on the Restoration side, the unintended consequences that make us long for Jesus’ return could be that using websites and twitter for prayer could make prayer time more distracting and less focused.

      From a purely practical standpoint, it seems like prayer management is sort of like task management in that different people find different organization schemes more or less helpful. So if you see a niche our there that isn’t covered, it might be helpful to build it.

      PS. It’s fun to see you’re using BlogEngine.NET. I am a member of that open source team :)

      1. Woot! I love BlogEngine.Net, though I still need to tweak out my theme a bit. I know who to talk to now if I need some help figuring out my custom widget or something. 8^D

        But back on topic, thanks for your feedback. It gives me some more meat to chew on, and I’m reading over the entire post again for some new insights. Keep up the great stuff. Just put more in your code blog. 8^D

    1. I like the general purpose nature of Goheen’s approach. I was trying to figure out a way to include the Postman-like unintended consequences while also distinguishing it from tech usage that is outright sin. Thanks for giving me something else to think on.

  4. Loved the article. I have always struggled recociling technology and my Christian walk. To some extent I still do. I guess I’ve always believed that God intended for us to use natural resources instead of human made devices. An example would be like paper vs a computer or iPad. Or our legs to get us around instead of man made vehicles. I thing I’m taking on some form of naturalism. But then I read in psalms where it says some trust in chariots ( human made ) and some trust in horses ( natural ) but we trust in God. I have recently toyed with idea of keeping my bible on an iPad but am struggling with if this is ok. Can someone please help me with my dilemma if any of what I said made since.

    Thanks. Gene
    In him

    1. Gene,
      Thanks for your great comment.

      Someone once said that we tend to define technology as “anything invented after we were born.” Every thing before us we see as “stuff” and even consider them to be “natural.” For example, Since books were invented in 1450 and light bulbs in 1890, we don’t really see them as technology anymore, but since iPads are only a few years old we still see them as “technology.”

      I think I see this in your comment about paper vs. iPads. Both are technology and both are “unnatural” in the sense that a human made them from the natural materials of the earth. But in both cases, I think the inventors are in some sense fulfilling God’s command to “cultivate the Garden” from Genesis 2:15. Yet, we’re also called to “keep” the garden which I take to mean that we need to balance the natural (what God has made) and the unnatural (what we make from God’s creation).

  5. Forgot one thing. If it’s ok to use my bible on a human made device how does that serve Gods purpose. How does the iPad reflect Gods purpose?

    Gene

  6. Howdy would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with?
    I’m going to start my own blog in the near future
    but I’m having a difficult time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your design and style seems different then most blogs
    and I’m looking for something completely unique.
    P.S Apologies for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

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