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Technology and Theology: A Negative Example

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, June 11, 2009

In yesterday’s post I examined ways in which technology can support God’s work in the world. Specifically, I noted now the early Christian use of letters and roads helped to spread the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the Roman world.

Yet Scripture also bears witnesses to potential downsides of technology. A major negative example comes from Isaiah 44. The Lord has just revealed himself to be “the first” and “the last.” “Who is like me?” he asks. “Let them proclaim it. . . .  Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one” (44:6-8). Then the Lord speaks about idols and those who make them in an extended passage that speaks of the use of tools, i.e. technology:

All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.

The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!” (44:9-17)

The problem in this passage isn’t technology per se, but rather how it is used and how people respond to that which their tools have created. There is nothing wrong when the carpenter uses his tools to take wood from a cedar tree in order to make a fire to warm himself and bake his bread. But when he uses technology to form an idol, then he has done something wrong.

From the perspective of Isaiah 44, technology can be useful or harmful. It all depends on how it is used, on what it produces and how people use the product. The tools themselves are neither good nor evil.

This doesn’t mean that every technological innovation is necessarily value neutral. Certain tools, an Iron Maiden, for example, might embody evil in their very design. But much of technology falls into the category of the tools in Isaiah 44. (Photo: An Iron Maiden from the Torture Museum in Amsterdam.)

Isaiah 44 condemns the use of technology to make literal idols. But, when read today, it suggests an analogous implication. It seems to me that we have a tendency to idolize technology and its products. Though we don’t literally worship our inventions, we do tend to hold them in the highest esteem. We come to regard them as necessary tools for living. We look to technology to save us from all measure of ills (including literal ills). Even in the church, we sometimes imbue technology with power that belongs to God.

Some years ago, a pastor friend of mine, I’ll call him Eric, hosted another pastor from a nearby church. Eric’s church was experiencing exciting renewal, growing size, in enthusiasm, and in maturity. The other pastor came to visit Eric to learn his secrets, as it were. Eric talked with this pastor about the things that were transforming his church: strong biblical teaching, empowering of lay people for ministry, a new vision for reaching the community, and so on. The other pastor seemed somewhat interested, but not particularly excited. Then Eric gave the pastor a tour of the church facility. When they visited the sanctuary, Eric pointed out how they had added screens for digital projection. Now the visiting pastor got excited. From his point of view, screens were the key to church renewal. For the rest of their conversation, as Eric tried to focus on what really matter, the other pastor kept wanting to talk about the screens: how much they cost, how they were installed, etc. etc. etc.

This other pastor, it seems to me, was dangerously close to making an idol of sanctuary screens. He seemed to think that the renewal of his church was dependent on this particular technology, and that’s what stirred his heart. Eric was disappointed in the meeting, believing that, if anything, he had helped this pastor to move forward in the wrong direction.

A year or so later, the other pastor had left his church under difficult circumstances. To my knowledge, his unhappy departure didn’t have to do directly with screens in the sanctuary. But I expect his tendency to get his values upside down was a major reason why he was ineffective as pastor of a church desperately in need of genuine spiritual renewal.

Surely one negative impact of technology on our lives is our tendency to idolize it. Yet I fear this isn’t the only problem with technology. In my next post I want to raise another concern about the use of technology in our lives, and especially in churches.

Topics: Technology |

4 Responses to “Technology and Theology: A Negative Example”

  1. Ray Says:
    June 11th, 2009 at 4:07 am

    Yeah, I think screens are evil too. JUST KIDDING, no offense to my friends who like to worship with screens, projectors, electric guitars and elaborate sound systems. The technology of hymnals and organs (especially pipe organs!!!) is just fine with me.

    I think you’re right about most technology being morally neutral. Technology changes, but it doesn’t change our human nature. Just one small example: It gets under my skin when I see our youth, particularly my own daughter, texting away during worship. But, then I think back to when I was that age, and we passed notes back and forth to each other on the church bulletin. The technology has changed, but the basic nature of people has remained the same.

    Technology is a gift from God. We can use it as good stewards for God’s purposes, or we can use it to satisfy our own carnal desires.

  2. Rick Says:
    June 11th, 2009 at 6:20 am

    Interesting blog by Dr Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary a few days ago on the topic of cell phones:

  3. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 11th, 2009 at 6:49 am

    Ray and Rick: Thanks for the comments. Rick, that is a fine blog post by Al Mohler. Thanks for linking to it.

  4. Linkathon 6/17 at Phoenix Preacher Says:
    June 16th, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    […] D. Roberts on the downside of technology and theology and its unexpected […]


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