Jesus, values and technology

Present or absent? (Photo by e³°°°)

John Dyer at Don’t Eat The Fruit frequently has thought provoking meditations on the values implied by or developed by technology. His latest is a non-review of a project to offer “a social-media application built for church“. It’s a non-review because John has not seen the project, but it’s more than a review because it asks useful questions about the relationship between faith and technology, questions that too often get overlooked.

Among the interesting and challenging things John has to say in his post:The Table Project: Values Driven Technology? There are a few lines I’d like to question (as well as hopefully pointing you to the post to read for yourself because I am NOT pretending to have summarised it for you).

The task for Christians is to figure out where the values built into a technology’s usage conflict with the values system Christ gave us. For example, Jesus models things like being physically present, having  times of solitude and focus, and memorizing Scripture. We, however, through the use of online technology have come to value being virtually connected, being always online, and using our phones to search for verses we don’t want to memorize.

I think this confuses what Jesus DID with what Jesus’ values were. Take “being physically present” this is often produced by pastors and theologians as a trump card to beat down those who want to teach by distance or even do anything churchy online. But was physical presence one of Jesus’ values, or simply a by-product of the technologies available? The only alternative to physical presence for any sort of communication in the first century was hand written, hand copied, hand delivered letters (or other documents). Jesus did not choose physical presence, he had NO choice.

But as soon as the Christian movement was at all established, still within the first century Paul (and others, but none seem to have matched Paul’s prolific, enthusiastic and effective use of the technology) started writing letters. Others began telling the gospel in writing… Even Jesus, when faced with a crowd too large for just talking (without an amphitheatre – more technology to distance presence) used a boat and the hills of Galilee as a makeshift amphitheatre.

The issue is not PHYSICAL but PRESENCE. The problem with Facebook, Twitter and the rest is not that they are not physical for they manifestly are! It is that they attenuate presence. (I have a string of posts discussing “presence” do read one or two). Basically presence is not binary. Two people can be in the same room, but barely mutually present. People can be at the four corners of the earth, but highly present to and for each other. It is presence that matters, not physicality!

Memorising Scripture is also potentially a problematic value, as Socrates points out in Plato’s Phaedrus the technology of (hand)writing destroys memory. The issue again is not the technology but (perhaps) how we use it. If we use our phones etc. to recall a passage whose exact wording we have forgotten this is potentially a good thing, for we may see the “verse” in context. The ancient who relied on memory often had little idea of context, we can…

3 comments on “Jesus, values and technology

  1. Andrea Candy

    A little story on the themes of memory, technology, presence and prayer: My mother (an ancient at the age of 83) was thinking about her missionary friend’s colleague, currently imprisoned for his faith in Central Asia. The words of an old poem came to mind in her prayers “Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage” but she couldn’t remember where those lines came from. So I googled it and discovered Richard Lovelace who wrote the poem while imprisoned for religious/political reasons in 1642. My mother and I then discussed whether Lovelace’s situation was in any way comparable to that of the Central Asian prisoner, 370 years later! Technology made the whole interaction so much richer by providing some context.

    I like the thought that “It’s presence that matters, not physicality.” An associated idea that has always intrigued me – to what extent does prayer render two people ‘present’ to each other in spite of big gaps in distance and even time? Maybe prayer rivals technology in some ways, but can also be enhanced by it?

  2. tim

    Thanks Andrea for both the neat story, and the link.

    And the thought of prayer as technology on steroids… well that’s not quite what you said, or quite right either, but prayer is another great example of presence despite distance.