Book of the Month/July 2012

This book, From the Garden to the City, is a fantastic treatment, developing a biblical response to technology, and it does so by laying out basic foundational principles. This is not a methods book; this is a book of basic principles.

GardenCity

The basic reason this book is so good is that Dyer walks a tightrope that few other Christian thinkers are able to walk. The two errors (that do not successfully navigate this tightrope) are these — first we see the worriers who correctly grasp how technology changes everything, and who glibly assume that the changes will be consistently negative, and in the second place we see the first adapters, and those right behind them, who belong to the “change wahoo!” school of thought.

The worriers, from Plato on down, have expressed grave doubts about every new adaptation in communication technologies, and the wahooists have been those people unable to see all the areas where the worriers actually had a point. What John Dyer does is show that technology is not neutral, that it has a particular bent or bias toward trouble, but that it is a good gift from God nonetheless, and that the use of technology is an essential part of what makes us human. In other words, he successfully balances the creational mandate, which drives us to develop really cool tools, and the reality of sin, which distracts us and makes us want to forget God.

The appropriate demeanor is one of wary gratitude, which we will not cultivate if we believe that any new technology is just one more vanilla neutral thing. If technology is evil, we shouldn’t use it at all. But if technology is neutral, why be careful? If it is simply good, then why be careful? We need an extra variable — technology is good, and — because of the Fall — it is dangerous. A man who receives a Christmas present from his wife of a hunting rifle, or a chop saw, does not get to forget all safety precautions simply because the gifts were “good,” end of discussion. Good gifts can come to a bad end, with somebody’s finger on the garage floor.

Dyer does a wonderful job in showing how various technologies shape us, but then going on to show how we can accept this shaping process thoughtfully, doing so as Christian disciples. He is a web designer, and is not offering any unlearned critiques from outside the world of technology. At the same time, he has heard the critics out, and capably grants their point, when they have one, and rolls the whole thing into a narrative that begins in Genesis, and God’s purpose for us, and takes it to the culmination of that purpose at the end of history. The Bible begins with a Garden, one that had no charging stations for your devices, and ends with a Garden City, which won’t have them either, but that will only be the case because the batteries will be lasting for five hundred years by that time, and will cost ten cents to replace.

Technology can best be thought of as a form of wealth, and we should treat it as a form of wealth. Wealth is good, wealth is a gift from God, wealth is a blessing, and those who gotta be rich fall into a snare. Wealth is good, not neutral, but in a fallen world, every good blessing brings with it a temptation to value the gift over the Giver. This is what Moses warned the children of Israel about in Deuteronomy — when you come into wealth, which the Lord their God was giving them, they would be tempted to think that their own smarts had done it, and would forget the Lord their God. There is nothing different here, because on this kind of issue, there is nothin new under the sun.

The Bible is an example of distance communication, even for the writers and recipients alive at the time — and even more so for us. But Dyer shows that even here, the writers always preferred face-to-face communication. This should not make us dismiss the book of Ephesians as something substandard, but it should make us think about what we are comparing things to. Being with the Ephesians was best for Paul, but a letter from a distance was better than silence from a distance. Is Skype good? Compared to what?

Ironically, or maybe not, considering, I read most of this book on my Kindle, and the rest of it on my phone. Why would someone read a book on a phone? Oh, I don’t know. Redeeming the time in lines at the Post Office, things like that. Did that way of reading it affect my reception of it? Of course. But why is that bad? Compared to what? We should not compare my reading of it that way to reading a leather bound copy of it by the fire in a rich mahogany library, which I don’t have, but rather compare it to fifteen minutes of jingling my keys in a line at the Post Office.

We are smack in the middle of a new world, and we need thoughtful writers like Dyer to help us figure out how to program and run this dang worldview GPS we now have. My kids were schoolchildren when the Internet first hit, and at that time I was older than they are yet. My grandkids don’t know what it is like to live in a world without the Internet. “But Papa, how did you google things then?”

We need other options than your basic neo-Amish disgust-fueled recoil, on the one hand, and on the other, Christians flocking to that hot Apple retailer downtown, with mobs of shoppers jabbing at screens at all those stations, and the deep initiates sacrificing a heifer in the back, or whatever it is they are doing. I can’t see from the street very well, and I don’t want to go in.

Every pastor needs help on this subject, and every parent needs the same kind of help. That help needs to be biblical, principled, practical, and balanced. This book is just the place to start.

 

 

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