How the Apostles Wrestled with Technology

The Bible is not silent on evaluating issues of technology. There are five passages that speak reference face-to-face communication.

One of the more powerful urges of the digital age is to do what is easiest when it comes to exchanging information with others. Whether it’s simply news that you cannot make it to dinner or that you no longer want to date your significant other, we are tempted to use the mode of communication with the least amount of friction or discomfort, like texting or email.

The Apostles faced a similar temptation, albeit from a different medium.

New Testament Technology

They had access to a new technology which allowed them to communicate with groups of people they had loose connections to but lived miles and miles apart from.

It was called letter writing.

Letter writing is old news today, of course, but it was an amazing technological innovation in that day. John and Paul, two pillars of the early Church, actually wrestled with when to write letters and when to meet face to face with the people they ministered to. Let’s look at each of these passages.

2 John 12

At the end of John’s second letter he writes,

“Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).

John is aware that letter writing, though potentially useful and profitable, has its drawbacks. So he expresses a preference for embodied, face-to-face communication over writing a letter.

David Mathis, executive editor of Desiring God, writes, “John is not angling to erode our appreciation for paper and ink (or pixels), but he is celebrating the priority and vitality of relating face to face.” John even says that meeting in person with those he ministered to would lead himself and those he met with to a place where their joy would be complete, a benefit readers are left to assume is not capable of happening to the same degree through technology.

You’ve said similar things before. When you really need to talk about something sensitive or want to spend time with someone close, you want to do so in person. If you really want to learn something, you find someone to show you in person.

John’s third letter finds him wrestling with similar things.

3 John 13–14

At the end of his third letter, John wants to continue writing down his thoughts and instructions, but wonders if it would be better to visit his audience in person. He decides on meeting in the flesh:

“I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 13–14).

While John reiterates his preference for embodied, in-person communication, he still clearly saw value in communicating through the medium of letter writing, otherwise, he wouldn’t have written them.

When he’s prevented from being with the church he wishes to join in person, the Holy Spirit worked through the circumstances and the letter. “So,” writes John Dyer, “fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the new technology of writing, John makes a calculated choice to use a disembodied form of communication in service of the embodied life of the church, and in doing so he honors our Lord and builds up his body.”

Now let’s look at some of Paul’s writings.

1 Thessalonians 2:17

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church traces a similar theme as John’s letters. Paul writes,

“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:17–20).

Just like John, Paul longs to see the people of the church face to face, for somehow his joy would be increased by being in the same place at the same time.

At the same time, one can sense Paul’s heartfelt and genuine longing to see his brothers and sisters in Christ in the flesh.

He has resorted to letter writing to keep communication going, but he prefers to be present with them if at all possible.

This sentiment is most apparent in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.

1 Thessalonians 3:10

Paul could pray and write letters remotely — and he often did — but he stilled prayed “most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess 3:10 ESV).

David Mathis notes Paul’s disposition, writing,

“For Paul, writing letters presented an opportunity for fruitful ministry, and seeing his people face to face represented even more fruitful ministry. Similarly, with the many churches he planted, he knew he could only do so much from a distance. Letters could be misunderstood, and recipients could get the wrong impression.”

Both John and Paul’s comments suggest there would be something lacking if they could not meet with those they ministered to in person; that something would be lacking without the embodied experience of being present in the same place at the same time.

Hebrews 10:24–25

Though it doesn’t mention the term “face to face” explicitly, Hebrews 10:24–25 stresses the importance of in-person communication and gathering for the purpose of building up the body of Christ:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

This text makes it clear that there will always be some who forsake the physical gathering of the saints, but this should not be so, for in the gathering of the people of God there is room for encouragement, building up one another, and urging each other to keep doing good works and pushing the mission forward.

Deciding How to Use Technology in Ministry

Can these things be done remotely? Yes—to a degree.

But according to John, and Paul, we should be striving to spend the majority of our time ministering to people in the flesh. And when we do need to resort to digital communication, it should be for the express purpose of building up the body in love, in service of people with whom we have in-person relationships with.

Face-to-face interactions are part of incarnational life, or bearing the image of God in the world He entrusted to us. And what does bearing that image look like in a technological world?

This brings us to a framework for assessing and applying technology, which I’ll cover in my next post.

Technology in the Cultural Mandate and the Coming Kingdom

Having discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly of technology, now it’s time to consider what the Bible says on the topic.

Technology and the Cultural Mandate

The first biblical consideration is the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28, where God tells the newly created man and woman,

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Remarking on this passage, Nancy Pearcey writes,

In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music.[1]

Genesis 2 expands that job description, stating, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).

So God created man and woman to “subdue” the earth and “to work it and keep it.” In other words, God created man and woman to make something of the earth.

God created something that was good (creation), then commissioned humans to make it better. To take what was given them and shape it into something better. Subduing the earth implies the use of tools (or technology), for without tools we would be incapable of subduing the wildness of all that God created. Technology is inevitable if humankind is going to rule over that creation like God intended.

Technology is implied in the cultural mandate and in the coming Kingdom.

Technology and the Coming Kingdom

If you fast-forward to the end of the Bible, you see the New Heavens and the New Earth coming together in its most potent form in the New Jerusalem. It’s hard to imagine the New Jerusalem being possible without technology. Consider this from Revelation 21:

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal

. . . . The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass (Rev 21:9–11, 18-21 ESV).

John, the author of these words, is struggling to make any connections to real-life materials in order to explain the visions he experienced. He’s seeing the New Jerusalem, the city where Jesus will reign for all of eternity, which is part of the New Heavens and the New Earth. The Bible describes the coming together of heaven and earth as a physical reality that resurrected sons and saughters of God will enjoy.

So what John is seeing is not some ethereal, spiritualized conception of reality—it is reality. And that reality would not be possible without some form of advanced technology.

From the Garden to the City

Civilization started in a garden, but it will end in a city. The New Jerusalem is what God intended for humans to accomplish from the beginning. When God put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them to make something of it, surely this is what He had in mind.

The transformation from garden to city does not happen without technology, so the impetus for humans to create technology is inherent in our design. After all, humans are made in the image of a creator God.

John’s vision of the New Jerusalem goes beyond showing us that technology is part of God’s design, however. John Dyer writes,

“The promise of this new city tells us that God’s plan is not merely to regenerate human bodies and resurrect human souls but also to restore human creations to a world untainted by sin. . . . In the new city there will be no more sadness, pain, or death, only everlasting joy and glory to God.”[2]

What’s seen in Revelation is a vision of a redeemed technological city and people which bring glory to the God who created them and made everything possible.

Next, we’ll look at how the New Testament authors wrestled with the embodied technology of their day.


[1] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 47.

[2] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 138.

Technology is Not Neutral

Most people think technology is neutral and can good or bad, depending on how you use it.

That would be true if forms of technology were value-less, or didn’t come with their own inherent set of values.

But they do.

Technology is not neutral. I repeat, technology is NOT neutral.

Why Technology is Not Neutral

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, says in an interview[1] that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are, indeed, not neutral.

Many people assume these platforms are neutral and believe their experience is based on how they choose to use them. But that understanding misses the reality that each of these companies has thousands of “attention engineers” working to distract its users away from whatever they are doing, and then keep their attention as long as they can.

Harris explained that the theories behind how they engineer their products are coming from the casino industry — an industry notorious for its manipulation of consumers. His comments from one an essay are worth quoting at length:

If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?

How often do you check your email per day?

One major reason why is the number one psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined.

… But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:

  • When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
  • When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
  • When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
  • When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
  • When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.

Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business.

Technology is not neutral; it’s designed to get your attention, whether intentionally or not. And that’s because technology has values.

Technology Has Values

Since most people today think technology is neutral and its moral value is found in its uses, they miss something crucial to understand about technology — it comes with its own values.

Technology is not built in a moral vacuum. A technology’s design imbues it with a set of morals which are then inherent to its use.

John Dyer uses the example of iTunes and the music industry to illustrate how technology has inherent values:

In previous decades, music was recorded on and sold by physical means — vinyl, cassettes, CDs.

In the years since iTunes was released, the music industry has shifted almost entirely to a digital (non-physical) medium of distribution, giving birth to a world where small bands could be known around the world, where consumers buy less music, artists get paid less per song, and many brick-and-mortar stores and businesses have gone bankrupt.

These changes happened because iTunes values quick, easy, and cheap access to music.

While these values may be neutral in and of themselves, iTunes is certainly responsible for positive and negative changes in the world of music.[2]

Another example Dyer gives is cell phones. Originally, people began buying cell phones for safety reasons; they wanted to be able to call someone in need of an emergency.

“We bought our phones,” says Dyer, “because we valued solving one problem (safety) without realizing that the phone also brings with it the value of constant connection.”[3]

Because we didn’t recognize that value of constant connection, we now live in a world where our phones beckon our attention away from whatever is in front of us around the clock.

Yes, anything we could want to know is available all at once, but to have that possibility required us to give up the ability to be fully present.

Technology is not neutral because each form of technology comes with its own set of values — values you may or may not share.


[1] https://samharris.org/podcasts/what-is-technology-doing-to-us/

[2] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 88 –89.

[3] Ibid., 95.

The Bad of Technology

The church must start thinking seriously about technology, as I’ve written. My last post briefly covered some of the good of technology and explained that technology always comes with tradeoffs.

Now it’s time to examine some of those tradeoffs.

Ignoring the Immediate

The first negative effect of modern technology is that it nudges us to ignore who or what is right in front of us. Sherry Turkle, one of the foremost researchers in this area, writes,

These days, we want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to whatever else we want to be, because what we value most is control over where we put our attention.[1]

Devices and services today promise their users they will never be bored. There is always a social network to check, a video to watch, and news to catch up on, and all of it is designed specifically for us.

This is why we instinctively grab for our phones in the checkout line, at stoplights, at the dinner table, and, yes, even in the restroom.

When we’re all distracted by a universe of our own making, there is little time for engaging in risky, personal interactions with strangers or family members. After all, there is no certainty these interactions will bring happiness, so the urge to jump back into our personalized portal is all the stronger.

Citing Proverbs 27:17, Tony Reinke, author of Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You, says,

The most shaping conversations we need are full of friction, and we simply cannot have them on our frictionless phones.[2]

For Christians, ignoring the people God has in front of us is especially problematic, as he often works through the people around us to conform us to his image and to show us tangible expressions of his love. C. S. Lewis said,

[God] works on us in all sorts of ways. . . . He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences. . . . But above all, He works on us through each other.[3]

When we’re lost in our phones, we may be missing what God wants to reveal to us through the people right in front of us.

Constant Distraction and Eroding Attention Spans

Perhaps not surprisingly, all the time we’re spending on our phones is eroding our attention spans. In a 2013 Microsoft study, humans living always-on, connected lives in Canada were found to have shorter attention spans than goldfish.[4]

While goldfish can hold their focus for an average of nine seconds, those surveyed in Microsoft’s study were only capable of focusing for an average of eight.

Regardless of the survey’s scientific merit, the study emphasizes something most people sense intuitively—that we are more distracted than ever, constantly feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of information that floods our eyes and ears.

To keep up with it all, the average adult checks their phone 150 times a day.[5] That means adults are spending an average of almost two hours a day on their phones. For most smartphone users, their phone is the first thing they see when they wake up, and the last thing they see before going to bed.

Even tech CEOs know there’s a problem. In an open memo to all Microsoft employees, Satya Nadella, the company’s CEO, said the world we live in is one where “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”[6]

An extreme example of how people are altering their behavior to cope with the constant distractions of modern life is “phubbing.” Sherry Turkle explains that the term “means maintaining eye contact while texting.” According to Turkle, phubbing is commonplace among her students, and they say they do it with relative ease.[7]

While the phenomenon of phubbing is concerning, so are the effects of distraction on literacy.

Literacy

Here again, the words of another powerful person inside one of the tech giants are illuminating.

In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Eric Schmidt, then the CEO of Google and now the Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), said,

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information—and especially of stressful information—is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.[8]

Schmidt is highlighting the deepening worry that many have about the digital world’s effect on literacy.

It’s not that words on a screen are inherently less readable, but that people don’t read text on a screen the same way they read text on the page. Tony Reinke writes,

With digital text on our phones, we are conditioned to skim quickly. With a printed book in hand, we naturally read more slowly, at a pace realistic for retention. . . . But we have been trained not to linger over digital texts.[9]

David Brooks likens the problem of comprehension in the digital age to that of a trying to read at an endless cocktail party. At cocktail parties, there are multiple side conversations going on as guests mingle with one another and work their way around the room.

Cocktail parties are great for entertainment, but not so great for concentration.

Brooks argues that the endless stream of social media and news forms the same background chatter as an endless cocktail party. Trying to read in that environment is simply too distracting, and it prevents one from forming what he calls “crystallized intelligence”—

the ability to use experience, knowledge, and the products of lifelong education that have been stored in long-term memory. It is the ability to make analogies and comparisons about things you have studied before. Crystallized intelligence accumulates wisdom over the years and leads ultimately to understanding and wisdom.[10]

Brook’s term “crystallized intelligence” captures the heart of the concern over literacy—that people are reading as much or more than ever, but are comprehending less and less, and therefore not accumulating wisdom.

Loneliness

The most significant negative effect of modern technology is loneliness, which I wrote about in detail here. I won’t re-hash that same material here except to say that loneliness is an epidemic in our culture and is wreaking havoc on our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

I’m excited to turn from the good and the bad of technology to what the Bible says about it, but before I do, I have to take the time to explain why technology is not neutral. That’ll be the theme of my next post.


[1] Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 19.

[2] Tony Reinke, Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You, 125.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 2009), 163.

[4] Timothy Egan, “The Eight Second Attention Span,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/the-eight-second-attention-span.html (accessed July 15, 2017).

[5] Kenneth Burke, “Here’s How Often the Average American Checks Their Phone Every Day,” TextRequest.com, https://www.textrequest.com/blog/americans-check-their-cell-phones-150-times-a-day/ (accessed June 29, 2017).

[6] Alyson Gausby, “Attention Spans: Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada,” https://graysonpope.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf (accessed June 27, 2017).

[7] Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, 4.

[8] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 164–165.

[9] Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, 84.

[10] David Brooks, “Building Attention Span,” The New York Times, July 10, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/opinion/david-brooks-building-attention-span.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

The Good of Technology

In my last post, I said the church must start thinking deeply about technology. To help move our thinking in that direction, it’s helpful to understand the good and the bad of technology.

Let’s start with the good.

The Benefits of Technology

The benefits of technology are almost too numerous to list. Here are some things that come to mind:

  • We can easily share and access the most impressive library of knowledge ever assembled.
  • We can reach loved ones via phone call, text messaging, or video calling almost anywhere in the world.
  • We can keep up with more people than ever before and have more diverse social networks than ever before.
  • We can attend college classes without having to stop our lives and live on campus.
  • People like me can work from home and live wherever they want if they have Internet.
  • We no longer have to stop for directions of pull over to read a map because of navigation apps like Google or Apple Maps.
  • We can edit documents in real-time instead of re-typing entire pages or using whiteout to cover up mistakes made on a typewriter.
  • We can take and save unlimited pictures and easily share them with friends and family, or the world, if we wish to.
  • Non-verbal children and adults with autism or people who have lost parts of their mouth or face to cancer can now speak through a computer.
  • Some deaf children and adults are able to hear through implants made possible by technology.

I think you get the picture.

Examples like these should be no surprise because God intended for us to develop technology to make something of the world he created and gave us dominion over.

God made Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden, then told them to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it (see Genesis 1:28).

If you fast-forward to the end of the Bible, you see the New Heavens and the New Earth coming together in its most potent form in the New Jerusalem, which appears to be some sort of technologically sophisticated city of the future.

As many have noted, mankind’s story starts in a garden and ends in a city. But you don’t get from the garden to the city without technology.

Technology has made our lives easier and better in so many ways, but it never does so without tradeoffs.

Technology Comes with Tradeoffs

Rod Dreher sums up the tradeoffs of technology (and in particular, the Internet) well in The Benedict Option,

I work as an online journalist and spend most of my weekdays [dipping in and out of social media and skittering from site to site.]

And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways than I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does everyday.

But the Internet, like all new technologies, also takes away. What it takes from us is our sense of agency.

… There’s a scientific explanation for that. At the neurological level, the Internet’s constant distractions alter the physiological structure of our brain. The brain refashions itself to conform to the nonstop randomness of the Internet experience, which conditions us to crave the repetitive jolts that come with novelty.

… The result of this is the gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply. Study after study has confirmed the common experience many have reported in the Internet age: that using the Web makes it infinitely easier to find information but much harder to devote the kind of sustained focus it takes to know things.

You may have never thought about the tradeoffs he mentioned because the further along a society is in the adoption of a technology, the harder it is to see these tradeoffs.

My next post will survey some of the tradeoffs of modern, digital technology.