Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Of Owls and Earpieces: The Praying Christian as Special Agent July 31, 2013

We don’t watch a ton of television at our house, so please take any sweeping cultural observations I may make with ample salt. Of the few programs I do watch, some of my favorites tend to be of the hour-long crime/investigation genre—I enjoy their taut and entrapping screenplays and the fact that most (due to their themes of good, bad, and justice) still have some moral ballast keeping them upright amid the sewage of pop culture.

One recurring theme of these series is the heroes’ use of a concealed earpiece that keeps them directly connected to headquarters as they go about their derring-do. I suppose Jack Bauer started it, but now such technology is S.O.P.—presumably in real law enforcement and military agencies as well as the fictional. Hackneyed though it is through repetition, it really is fascinating. Of course, in the context of the show, this simple innovation gives them a sort of superhuman knowledge of their location, the enemy’s strength, and available escape routes, not to mention instant access to backup forces.

I don’t think anybody pulls this shtick off better than Jim Caviezel’s Mr. Reese on Person of Interest (shameless plug: this is my favorite show currently being broadcast in the U. S.). With this constant link to his partner and consummate hacker Harold Finch and his surveillance supercomputer (the Orwellian “Machine”), Reese enters the most inhospitable places with preternatural calm. Though often comically outnumbered and outgunned, he almost always manages to turn the tables, rescuing yet another helpless victim while leaving the bad guys crippled. You’d think it would get old, as this scene replays itself with minimal variation at least once an episode, but there is something winsome about watching one man overcome such hurdles simply because he has access to insight hidden from his foes.

The spiritual overtones of this hit me the other day while listening to Josh Garrels’ song, “White Owl” (another shameless plug: his Love & War & the Sea in between is one of the best albums of God-honoring music I’ve heard in years). In a sense, this sort of action goes on each day in the lives of believers through the miracle of prayer. To a somewhat eerie tune, Garrels sings:

When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road

Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to, take the greatest flight

Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight

Like a messenger of peace, the beauty waits be released
Upon the sacred path you keep, leading deeper into the unveiling
As your sailing, across the great divide

Like a wolf at midnight howls, you use your voice in darkest hours
To break the silence and the power, holding back the others from their glory
Every story will be written soon
The blood is on the moon
Morning will come soon

Child the time has come for you to go
You will never be alone
Every dream that you have been shown
Will be like living stone
Building you into a home
A shelter from the storm

© 2011, Josh Garrels. All rights reserved.

His imagery pinpoints the nature of walking with Christ in a sin-darkened world. The way is treacherous, the light is dim, but the Christian is not walking blind like the worldlings all around, he is an owl—perfectly prepared to thrive in just such circumstances. Because he is in Christ and filled with the Spirit, there is nothing this world can throw at a believer that can compromise his mission.

Unlike the TV “earpiece heroes”, Christians have access not just to a friend or central office, but to the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe. Our connection to Him is not restricted by signal strength or distance from the source; it cannot be disabled by power failure or confiscated during a strip-search; it reaches across oceans and through prison walls. This is not some sort of invention or adaptation we can conjure by our own strength, but it was bought at the price of Christ’s own blood and is freely given to us.

It is the power in which Stephen held forth from the Scriptures at his own execution (Acts 7), in which Peter was led out of prison right past the guards (Acts 12), and in which Paul and Silas prayed and sang until an earthquake uprooted the very foundation to which they were chained (Acts 16). It is in this discreet strength that missionaries boldly take the Gospel into hostile cultures, pastors bring the fire of God’s Word to languid congregations, and persecuted families rejoice in the face of torture and incarceration.

These examples and our own experience should convince us that we should never undertake anything without first tuning in to “headquarters” for direction. Why, then, do we so often neglect to pray, doing our best to turn off or ignore the Spirit’s prodding for us to open the line? Why do we insist on plunging headlong into the challenges of life without our most critical and hard-won asset? What is the point of being a spiritual “Secret Agent Man” if you refuse to participate in mission briefings or to bring along the necessary equipment for the task?

If I do what I do in the power of God, fully submitted to His will, there is nothing for me to boast on those rare occasions when things turn out well. The counterpoint, of course, is that there is no one to blame but myself for all the other failures. The Gospel unburdens us of that crushing defeat, but only at the cost of our pride. Lord, grant us the wisdom to pray, trust, and obey as we navigate this world.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Technopoly, Sourdough, and Worship January 31, 2013

Neil Postman didn’t set out to write theology when he published Technopoly back in 1992, but I’ve seldom read theology that more accurately describes man and his flight from God. His classic critique of the unexamined acceptance and celebration of technology has helped me see just why it is that I find it so difficult to worship, pray, and otherwise give God His proper due in my daily life.

Though I confess to more than a few Luddite sympathies, neither Postman nor I are strictly “anti-technology”—broadly defined, technology (from the shepherd’s staff and the farmer’s plow on up) can be a tremendously useful piece of our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. Still, he urges caution, reminding us that the things we create to make our lives (ostensibly) easier and better always have unintended consequences, ranging in severity from the annoying to the catastrophic. Even the purported goods of a technology often reshape our world in ways that cause us to sacrifice skills and wisdom to its given mode of operation.

In particular, reading Postman has illuminated three things for me.

First, his idea of “invisible” innovations (i.e. things which once did not exist but now slide below our radar as part of “the way things are”), like the numeral zero, chemical contraception, or antibiotics,  alter our concepts of space, time, reality, and control. It’s easy for us to be wary and skeptical of big, visible technologies (say, atomic weapons), but it’s often the little things that have the biggest impact on our thinking over time. His ideas here have found eerie vindication in recent years as neurological studies have shown how our brains are actually “rewired” by the technologies we employ (see here, here, and here for just a few examples). We have to be careful to consider the implications and consequences of every new technology we allow into our lives, and this takes time, research, thought, and prayer.

Technopoly provides a good reminder that Marshall McLuhan’s warning that “the medium is the message” is as true as ever–in the technological realm, this is expressed in the idea that everything looks like a nail to a man wielding a hammer. We are always tempted to accomplish every task presented to us by means our favored gadgets (or schools of thought–even our categories for ideas are a technology of sorts). This gives Christians wishing to “engage the culture” a warning to avoid doing so through any technological means that demeans the message of the Gospel or reduces it to the same level as trivial things. There is a level at which the Word of God and Christianity as a whole will never be welcome within a fully technological world because the establishment can have no other gods before it.

Second, Postman shows how, the more and more technological (vs. physical/organic) our societies become, the more we are governed by the tyranny of statistics. If something is not trackable, quantifiable, and sortable, we are duped into believing that it must be somehow less than real. The dangers of this idea for the ministry of the Gospel are profound. In a world ordered this way, which makes more sense (and brings in more donations)? A ministry strategy that can point to x conversions, y recommitments, and z baptisms or a ministry that patiently wades through the morass of sin in the human heart to bring a handful of men and women to a saving and lasting faith in Christ over the course of decades? Leaving the 99 to reach the 1 doesn’t add up in the statistical realm.

Third, though Postman was not, to my knowledge, a Christian, he understood that people are designed to uncritically trust in something, giving it their full confidence and shaping their lives around its constancy. For much of human history, this trust was placed in the supernatural–whether in the One True God or in various false “gods”–men understood that there were things beyond themselves that they could not subdue, so they worshipped. Once that trust gets dislodged by doubt, desire, or dominion, however, Postman observed that it drifts from place to place. In our present era, it has landed on science and technology–there is no suffering under the sun that a new innovation will not ameliorate, no problem the experts cannot answer.

The trouble is that this new foundation is unstable, being wholly unsuited to the weight of the world placed on its shoulders. Once our technopoly (that is, the reign of technology) collapses, as it someday must, Postman fears mankind’s confidence may collapse with it, leading to despair and desolation.

As with most cultural critics, Postman is far better at diagnosing the problem than prescribing an effective solution, and Technopoly (like many of his other works) bequeaths that task to his readers.

The one thing that gives me hope after reading Postman (and a quick glance out the window to be reminded that his social observations were spot on and the phenomena he described decades ago are now in full flower) is that he doesn’t factor the actual existence and influence of God into his equations. God is not merely a pillar of support imagined by ancient man, but the Creator and sustainer of all there is. That’s why all such secular “doomsday” scenarios seem somewhat hokey to me–if tomorrow the worldwide power grid crumbled, God would still be on His throne, and my responsibilities before Him are still the same.

The challenge of worship in a still-functioning technopoly, however, is to remember that God is on His throne even when the whizbangery of the day wants me to believe that the apparent authority it has over me is absolute. This means shutting down, logging off, etc. is as important a spiritual discipline as anything else because it is a prerequisite of any of the others–I’ve never truly prayed, worshipped, or meditated on the Word while in the thrall of the digital.

A little lesson in this came to me over this past month. For Christmas, my wife contacted an old friend of mine–a baker–and arranged for me to spend the afternoon with him learning the art of sourdough bread-making. Since then, I’ve spent part of every weekend corralling “wild” microbes, kneading them into dough, and waiting for the mythos of fermentation and a 450-degree oven to turn this pungent goo into a loaf of bread worthy of the king’s table.  Once you’ve tasted this stuff, going back to the mass-produced air bubbles we call “bread” in this culture is not an option.

It’s been a visual reminder that the old ways can still be good ways (people have been making bread this way since time immemorial–it is a way to work with, rather than around, the created order of things) and that efficiency is not always synonymous with speed and volume. Just because something is billed as “the best thing since sliced bread” doesn’t make it a net good for your life. Next time somebody tries to sell you that lot, stop and ponder whether you’d rather choke down store-bought simplicity  or something better and more valuable than convenience can comprehend.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2).

Posted by Justin Lonas

N. B. – For a good reflection on technological issues from a Christian perspective (that also takes into account the current digital revolution), I highly recommend Tim Challies’ The Next Story.

Better Late than Never April 6, 2010

One of our readers, Dan Simmons, had this to say in a comment  about the church and social networking sites:

“We are looking at putting our church on Facebook…most comments I have received from others are positive, what do you guys think? Do you have any lessons learned, or advice for a chruch doing this? We have a website, but people do not use the blog feature, and I thought we would try FB as a blog and communication tool. Appreciate any help you can offer. Thanks.”

Below is what I wrote back to Dan in his comment. Since we’ve never had a blog post about this, I thought I’d re-post it here. Many others have already written on this (most of them probably with a lot more experience at it than us), but it’s better to be late to the table than to miss dinner entirely.

Facebook and other social networking sites seem to be the “hub” of today’s informal communication. Whereas we used to tell our friends things around the water cooler or over the phone, now we post them to our profiles–as you said, even blogs don’t get much traffic anymore compared with social networking sites. Many businesses have jumped on this bandwagon, using Facebook as a way to connect their customers to each other and draw them deeper into their market with coupons, contests, and special offers. We have our own Facebook page  which hasn’t taken off quite as I’d hoped yet, though it is opening more connections with readers than a totally one-sided model.

For churches, Facebook can be a blessing and a curse. Putting yourself out there definitely can open doors of ministry, by providing visitors and members an easy way to connect with church staff and other members and for you to communicate with members about upcoming events, etc. However, it can easily devolve into pettiness if you aren’t controlling the content of what people post.

I think you should move forward with the idea, but here are a few guidelines to remember:
1) Set the tone. Make the Facebook page feel like an extension of your church, with an emphasis on Christ, Scripture, discipleship & ministry. Get involved because this is a new way to further the cause of Christ, not because it’s “hip” to be on Facebook. Relevance should never be our goal as believers–becoming and making disciples of Jesus should always be our focus.

2) Control the content–gently. You can edit settings to control how much (or how little) you allow “fans” (the equivalent of “friends” for organizations) to post to the page. The best policy is to allow user feedback–that’s what makes Facebook different from a static website–just don’t let it get away from you. Check the page often, and if any comment threads or discussions are going in a poor direction, you have the ability as the page administrator to remove them. You want to facilitate healthy, spiritual interaction through the page, not serve as just another place for gossip or complaining.

3) Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. You want to make sure that you use your page to impress upon those who visit it that the church (and the pastor) are sinners saved by God’s great grace. Don’t use the page as a platform for moralizing, but turn people’s attention to the Lord. It’s okay to “be real” on Facebook within the context of pointing readers to Christ.

4) Don’t let it stop there. If visitors never make it past your Facebook page to a real interaction with you or members of your church, it’s not doing its job. “Community” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in Church circles today, and Facebook can be a way to create a pseudo-community that makes us feel good without actually accomplishing ministry. Be intentional about pursuing further conact with the people you may meet through the page, invite them to church if they’re local, and certainly take every opportunity to magnify the name of Christ. Used wisely, Facebook and its ilk can provide a great opportunity to move beyond the four walls of the church, but it doesn’t happen automatically.

The Sin of Boredom March 10, 2010

Did you ever stop to wonder why in an age where the entire world is quite literally at our fingertips through the internet and other digital media that we (I’m extrapolating from my own experience here) spend so much time being bored? We have so many choices that we can’t possibly decide what to do in any given situation without a nagging doubt that we’re missing out on something better. The end result is a something of a shutdown of our ability to make decisions and our desire to act–just look at the proliferation of devices whose appeal is based on randomization. We set our music players to “shuffle” because we have so many songs we can’t possibly decide what to listen to; we have iPhone apps that will select a restaurant for us; Wikipedia will pull up random articles for those craving information without direction; “Can’t make up your mind? Let us do it for you.”

We tend to view the inevitable dissatisfaction and boredom that our way of life brings as something that plagues us, something external to be removed (by what, more choices?) rather than something deeply wrong within ourselves. Are we bored because there truly is nothing exciting or meaningful to do, or because we know what to do and we know that it places demands on our lives that we are unwilling to accept?  Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop in more ways than one. Boredom can  open our hearts to sin, sure, but the boredom itself can be just as  effective a tool for Satan to keep us from obedience to  the Lord.

Perhaps  boredom is God’s way of calling us back to Himself and reminding us that nothing of this world can satisfy our souls. Perhaps He is using boredom to open up an empty space within our souls to be filled with prayer and meditation on His Word. Are we listening when that still small voice creeps into the void (in spite of our best efforts to squeeze it out with entertainment and the noise of life) or do we run from what it calls us to in pursuit of ever more unfulfilling “pleasures”?

Maybe you found this post because you’re surfing the internet out of boredom, no shame there, but I’d encourage us all  to listen  when the Lord is trying to get  our attention. When those “lulls in the action” of your  day  come, take it as a cue to take your soul off “shuffle” and bow your heart to God in prayer. Take time to read and re-read His Word. Spend a moment reflecting on the magnitude of His blessing and sincerely ask Him what He would have you do with your time, talent, and treasure. You may just find that  boredom only exists when you actively ignore God’s presence, and that there is nothing in life  quite so exciting and consuming as prayerful obedience to Him.

Posted by Justin Lonas

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