Archives For Science & Technology

iPhone 6Two significant events took place in the same moment this past week. The first was the release of the iPhone 6. Of course, most of us could argue convincingly that this does not qualify as a “significant event,” but the fact remains that people freak out and line up every time a new iPhone is released. Culturally speaking, it’s a big deal.

The second event was the instant devaluing of our “old” iPhones. (In case I’m about to lose my Android-using readers, keep in mind that everything I say here is true of any smart phone, and any product, really.) My iPhone 5s was exciting, useful, and elegant—until last week. Now it’s outdated. It no longer does what I need it to do, or at least not with the style and speed that I’ve learned to expect this week.

I’m being a bit overdramatic, of course, but while most of us would never say this directly, we feel it deep down a lot more than we’d be willing to admit. This is because our society has successfully trained our desires. We in the church know that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), but we still really want the newest technology.

James K. A. Smith explains that this odd tension we feel between what we believe intellectually and what we desire in our guts comes from the “cultural liturgies” that train our hearts. Through powerful mini-narratives (like the one in the video below), through misguided messages about our identity, and through a host of tactile experiences in which we are invited to “taste and see” that Apple is good, we now know—in our hearts if not our heads—that the newest iPhone is essential to human flourishing.

The irony in this is that in teaching us to overvalue things, our techno-idolatrous society also teaches us to undervalue things. Smith explains:

“Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness…On the one hand, this practice invests things with redemptive promise; on the other hand, they can never measure up to that and so must be discarded for new things that hold out the same (unsustainable) promise.”[1]

We always hope the newest phone or gadget will satisfy. But in the end, the thing is never more than a thing, so we quickly realize that our problems aren’t solved with technology. We are kept on the line, however, because as soon as we realize the iPhone 5s hasn’t delivered on its promises, the iPhone 6 is already whispering to us about the inadequacy of the 5s and the joys it can provide. By the time we realize the iPhone 6 can’t bring happiness, the 6s will be saying sweet things in our ears.

Again, this all sounds overdramatic. None of us would admit to buying a smart phone in an attempt to gain happiness. But I challenge you to listen to the ads and images around you. The next time you see an add for a smart phone, ask what you’re being promised. When you find yourself wanting to upgrade your phone early, ask whether you’re intellectually convinced of the superiority of the new phone’s features or whether there’s something more deep-seated and intangible that is drawing you to see your “need” for this new device.

I’ve explained before that a smart phone can be a glorious gift from God, a gift that can compliment our true humanity and serve God’s purposes in this world. But we must always keep a careful eye on our desires. And when we find our desires veering towards idolatry, we must begin retraining our hearts to seek first the kingdom of God.

 

 

[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)100.

DN16-405TRAFFIC-MBAn odd thought-process occupied my mind as I drove into Los Angeles the other day. It started as I was inching my way along I-5, and I thought about how crazy it is that we can simply check the flow of traffic on interactive maps while we “drive” (quotation marks owing to LA traffic). Then I looked out over this mass of concrete and humanity and thought—somehow all of this data is flowing through the air, filling our atmosphere, and landing inside of our cell phones.

And then my mind blew a fuse. The entire internet is blowing in the wind. It’s invisible and everywhere. It’s in the air I breathe. As I looked out over Los Angeles, everything I could see was filled with invisible data—anything you want to know about anything. But it wasn’t just “out there.” All of this data was also passing through my brain, my heart, and my liver. It’s doing the same thing now, in my office, as I write.

In my primitive understanding, cell phone data works in the same way as sound, light, satellite television, and wifi. It all travels through the air in waves, different frequencies carrying different bits of light, sound, or data. I have a hard time getting my mind around it (I haven’t even done a Wikipedia search on the topic), but somebody knows how and why it works. In other words, there’s a perfectly clear scientific explanation for why our atmosphere is filled with Google, episodes of I Love Lucy, blog posts, radio talk shows, and who knows what else.

Radio WavesBut being able to explain it hardly makes it less miraculous. The fact that we can explain it, at least in a certain sense, only adds to the miracle. Not only did God make a brilliant world, he made us with brilliant minds that can question and explain such phenomena.

God made a world in which data can fly invisibly across continents. Our very air, the atmosphere we look through in order to see all of the objects around us, is constantly hosting light, sound, and information. And the world, from the moment God spoke it into existence, has always been capable of this. Our atmosphere has always served as a freeway for light and sound, but not until very recently in world history have human beings thought to send radio signals, phone calls, and cell phone data through the air. But God designed the world so that it could. To put it in perspective, had Abraham been a techie, he could have labored to develop the technology to text message Lot.

I know my thought process is odd, but I think the basic point is something we all experience from time to time: This world is full of wonder! We take it for granted that we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. And yet how miraculous is each of these senses! What incredible gifts from the Creator! How is it that God allows us to walk through this world that plays host to so many wonders—constantly surrounding us, each truly unbelievable, and yet rarely acknowledged by human beings, enlightened creatures that we are?

We see the world around us every day, but only occasionally are we given the gift of seeing the world in all God’s glory. Our necessary familiarity with life makes us numb to the miracle of it all. Light and heat pour out of the sun and saturate our world, giving it life, making it inhabitable and enjoyable. Wind sweeps through our cities, unseen but powerful in its presence. Flowers bloom, leaves fall, clouds collect, birds sing—and rarely do we give a moments’ notice.

But the more we can learn to be amazed by the world God created and thereby be amazed by God himself, the healthier we will be. So there is one good thing, at least, that came out of LA traffic. Who knows what you can find on your daily commute or anywhere else?

In John 7, the Jews go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. While this festival is going on, there is nonstop speculation about who Jesus is. Everyone is talking, whispering, and accusing with regard to Jesus’ identity and intentions.

Some are convinced that “he is a good man,” and others are saying exactly the opposite: “no, he is leading the people astray” (7:12). The question of whether or not Jesus is the Messiah gets raised a few times (7:26-27, 31, 41). Others speculate that perhaps Jesus is “the Prophet” (7:40), an Old Testament figure that would rise up to fill the shoes of Moses in leading God’s people.

CandleIt’s in this context that Jesus addresses the people in John 8:12, and says simply: “I am the light of the world.”

Light is a common metaphor. It speaks of purity rather than filth. Of truth rather than error. Of knowledge rather than ignorance.

As it happens, we have many candidates vying for the status of “light of the world.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, we had “The Enlightenment,” where the wisdom of the ancient Greeks was re-embraced. Some of these enlightenment philosophers were set on escaping the darkness in which the church had held the world (during a period that came to be referred to as “The Dark Ages”), and shining the light of true humanistic, autonomous, philosophical light around the world.

Those types of thoughts are still with us. Some would say that knowledge is the light of the world. All we need is better education and we will step out of darkness and into the light. Or perhaps we could argue that science is the light of the world. As we learn more about our universe through science, we will finally be able to become the type of superhuman race that can rid the world of its evils and enter into a golden age. Others would argue that deep religious knowledge is the light of the world. We need to look deeply within and gain the type of inward knowledge that leads to enlightenment (this is the mystical/eastern/new age approach).

But Jesus’ statement is unequivocal. I—and I alone—am the light of the world! It’s fascinating to consider that Jesus made this statement hundreds of years after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle lived and spoke their profound philosophical teachings. As helpful as those insights may be—and some have said that all philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato, these guys still have a voice in the debates—there is only one light of the world.

The setting in which Jesus spoke these words is also significant. John 8:20 tells us that Jesus spoke these words in the treasury, which means that he was in the Court of the Women, which was the most public part of the temple. In this court were four golden candelabras. Each had four golden bowls that were filled with oil by the priests. On the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was either still going on or newly ended at this point, these candelabras would be lit. These may have inspired Jesus’ statement.

Pillar of FireBeyond that, the Feast of Tabernacles is significant here. They were celebrating God having led his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness (hence the “tabernacles” or tents), and into the Promised Land. Remember that God led his people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It was this unique light that guided the people out of slavery and into the Promised Land.

And here Jesus stands, at the conclusion of this feast, identifying himself as the light of the world. He is the one who will lead his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. And he will lead not only his Jewish people, but the whole world. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We won’t be lost, we will know where to go. We will know who to follow. We will have the light of life within us. And as we will see in the next post, this last statement is incredible.

 

When God created humanity, he commissioned us to rule the earth (Gen 1). Animals, plants, land, and sea—it’s all under our dominion, and this includes the culture and civilization developed from creation. Since we are created in God’s image, we are to bring God’s rule to bear over all aspects of creation. We should seek to bring God’s reign—His way of doing things—over our businesses, families, ministries, vocations, and all the stuff we develop from the world. And this includes our cell phones.

It’s staggering how quickly cell phones have become an essential part of life. It’s even more shocking that texting, rather than calling, has become the primary form of communication. And this applies not just to younger folks. Seeing gray-headed grandparents thumbing away at their phones is ajesusphone common sight—arthritis notwithstanding. The phenomenon of texting has pushed its way into our lives so quickly that we’ve hardly had a chance to take a break and think about our cell-phones, especially texting, from a theological standpoint.

So what is a theology of texting?

Texting is a form of communication, and communication is essential for relationship. And relationships are the life-blood of human existence, because God is relational (Gen 1; John 1; 1 Cor 11). When he created us in His image, He infused us with a desire for relationship—both with Him and with each other. So texting, as a form of relationship-sustaining communication is, or can be, a helpful avenue to live out our humanity. In as much as we use texting to sustain or deepen our relationships, then it can be a good thing.

But your cell phone is crouching at your door, and its desire is for you. You must master it. And here are a few ways to do this.

First, when you’re talking to someone face to face, leave your phone alone. Shut it down, ignore it, switch it to airplane mode, or whatever. When you’re having lunch with someone, leave it in your pocket. Or put it on the table face down to avoid looking at it every time it buzzes rather than maintaining eye contact—and therefore affirming the dignity of—the one bearing God’s image sitting across from you. When you’re in the embodied presence of another, they have the priority. Keep your eyes and attention on them. If you have an emergency, or some extreme case where you need to check your phone, then verbalize this to the one you’re with. “I’m really sorry, I don’t like to do this, but my wife is having contractions and I really need to get this…”

Second, don’t make texting your primary mode of communication (the same goes for Facebook). Quite frankly: texting is making the younger generation socially stupid. Ask people over 40 if they notice this in the younger generation. (Older people have the advantage of spending most of their lives communicating orally.) A friend of mine who owns a business says that he generally won’t hire sales people who are under 30 because oftentimes they don’t know how to talk to people. Texting isn’t bad, but it cannot sustain a relationship. If you already talk to the other person regularly, then texting as a secondary means of communicating may be fine. But relationships cannot be sustained by texting alone. They weren’t designed to be.

Third, texting to avoid talking to someone you don’t want to hear from—well, that’s downright dehumanizing. God didn’t send us a text. He sent a Son—embodied presence—to communicate His love to His enemies. And His Son listened back. He listened, because He cared. ingoring youSometimes (not all the time) we text because we don’t have time to hear what the other person has to say, or hear about the pain they’re going through. We need to.

Fourth, when you’re at home (especially if you have a wife and kids), leave your phone alone. Don’t carry it around the house with you. (Okay, starting to convict myself…) Don’t be enslaved to that leash held by the names in your list of contacts; be a servant to the ones who have waited all day to see you.

“Hey Daddy, guess what I did today! I did my first cartwhe…umm…daddy…daddy…DADDY!”

“Oh…what was that, sweetie? Hold on, let me finish writing this text to someone who is obviously way more important than your stupid jumping jack, or cartwheel—or whatever—that you did today.”

That’s what we’re communicating. And our kids, wives, roommates can smell it a mile away. We need to give priority to those who are present with us.

Please note: I wrote this blog not because I follow these principles perfectly. I don’t. But I want to. And I want you to (especially when we’re hanging out). So now, ya’ll can keep me accountable if I violate what I’ve said here!

Jim Book FaceHow many friends do you have?

When you hear a question like that, what comes to your mind? Do you start thinking through the number of people you hang out with on a regular basis? Do you think back to high school or college? Or do you open up your Facebook app and deliver a precise figure?

It’s not too much to say that Facebook has had a big impact on our concept of friendship. And for most of us, Facebook has had a big impact on our friendships themselves. The question is whether this impact on how we think about friendship and how we maintain our friendships is positive or negative. My perception is that opinions will be pretty divided on this one.

Many would say that Facebook undermines friendships. It destroys the meaning of the word “friend.” If I spent one evening hanging out with you as a friend of a friend two years ago, are you really my friend? Facebook says yes. If I choose to keep your photos and “status updates” from showing up in my “news feed,” in what sense are we actually friends?

Facebook FriendsSo maybe Facebook works against friendship. Maybe it offers us a cheap substitute for friendship. I don’t have to put any effort into my Facebook friendships. Your photos are there when I want to look at them, but I can’t offend you by not being interested in your recent vacation, and you don’t even know when I’ve taken you out of my news feed for sharing too many political opinions. How is that friendship?

But then again, I’m convinced that Facebook does a lot for many of my friendships. A lot of people that I care deeply about would feel a lot more distant were it not for Facebook. When good friends of mine move to New York, I can still get a sense of what’s happening in their lives. I can see snapshots and video clips of their daughter growing up. I’m not seeing them face to face, but I can share in their joys and trials to some extent at least.

I’d say that many of my in-town friendships are enhanced in this way as well. We can share our pictures together, tell each other jokes even when we haven’t had time to meet up, and share interesting bits of the web with each other with unbelievable convenience.

Facebook Add FriendSo which is it? Are friendships being enhanced or undermined?

The correct answer is both. Or maybe either. Or it depends on the situation. Or—and this one will sound biblical—it depends on your heart in the matter. If I want to be a creeper and live vicariously through the people I would otherwise have limited access to, Facebook will allow me to do that. If I want to stay in the loop with the people I genuinely love, Facebook will allow me to do that.

In reality, Facebook doesn’t make or break friendships. People do that. Facebook can’t keep a running total on true friendship. Our virtual friendship status may remain intact even as my selfish behavior hurts you deeply and challenges every meaningful definition of friendship. Being a true friend requires more than a mouse click. It requires love. And love can be shown in person, over the world wide interwebs, and even in the spiritual realm as a prayer goes up for a friend we haven’t seen in years.

The key is to be a good friend, whatever the context. Social media ebbs and flows; apps and platforms come and go. But love never fails.