The Same Old Things
So I have been assigned a topic that delights me. I am the son of a colporteur, an antique word that refers to the peddler of religious books. Not only was my father an avid distributor of literature, he was one who thought about the whole enterprise carefully, and who pounded a number of principles about it into my young mind. Not everything I want to share with you tonight came from him, but a lot of it did, and what did not is nevertheless still traceable to him in some way.
We are ministers of the Word, and so we believe that in the beginning was the Word. Before there were any “platforms,” there was the Word. By way of contrast, the soulless and materialistic cosmos that the secularists want to pretend we live in is a place that is just matter in motion, just chemicals jostling around, just time and chance acting on stuff. They believe that these jumbling platforms can somehow generate the Word—as when Ovid had the gods spring forth from the primal chaos. They say, in their naïve and quaint way, that in the beginning was the platform, and somehow, don’t ask us how, information showed up. Blind chaos groping gave us the hummingbird’s heart, and all God’s people says, “yeah, right.”
Contrary to this, as Christians, we believe that the Word was prior to all platforms, and that any platform that can carry the Word is thereby dignified by it. We also believe that the cosmos is hierarchical, which means that not all platforms are equal. The apostles were very plain that the Word is best communicated when the messenger is breathing the same air as the listener (Acts 20:38; 1 Thess. 3:10; 2 John 12). But as we will note later, when that was not possible, papyrus and ink would certainly do in a pinch.
Platforms for information change and develop over time. Now at every inflection point, there are always worries. And the worriers are not insane—there are things that can go wrong, and frequently do. At every inflection point, certain things are lost, even if the gains outweigh the losses. Plato worried about reducing learning to paper. What would this do to memory? Augustine was astonished when Ambrose read silently to himself, and ancient forms laid down to die. Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press, and the Reformation became a possibility. Neil Postman worried about typographic man being replaced by men who communicated by means of images on flickering screens. And now we are worried about the next great transition—which would be into the realm of AI.
At every one of these transitions, there were people who were concerned, people who were worried, and people who were freaked out. And, given what was done with all these technologies, each in their day, all of the concerned had something of a point. But at the same time, the adapters also had a point. Not all of it is inevitable, but much of it is, and so we need to think through all of these issues carefully.
Can the Word be carried by this platform? Air? Yes. Cuneiform? Yes. Papyrus? Yes. Vellum? Yes. Print media? Yes. Radio? Yes. Television? Yes. Movies? Yes. Blog posts? Yes. Apps? Yes. Podcasts? Yes. Digital translation? Yes.
But can these platforms be used to carry lies? Also yes. Forgeries have been perpetrated by means of papyrus, and deep fake videos are also lies. There are two things we need to hang onto as we navigate these waters. The first is that God looked down upon everything He had made, and He declared it good. The created order is good, and the created order has immense capacities embedded in it. Try to imagine explaining to Aristotle what would one day be done with the silicon in sand. But the second is that our first parents rebelled against God in this good and plentiful world, and the result has been deep levels of damage. We must look to the Scriptures to see how good the created order is, and we must look to the Word to remember how busted up it is.
So, we are to remember creation and fall, and as ministers of the Word, we are to bring the message of redemption. These three—creation, fall, redemption.
A Few Scrapes
I am speaking to you now from notes contained on my iPad. I am sometimes asked if anything can go wrong, and the answer is yes. It can, and it has. Imagine getting up to deliver a talk, and noticing then that the battery didn’t recharge. But I had mishaps back in the good old paper days. Imagine getting up and discovering mid-sermon that pages 2 and 3 didn’t print out. So there is always something.
Then there was the intersection of medical technology and the pulpit—that time that an optometrist talked me into trying soft contact lenses. One Sunday when I got to church I could see that something was wrong, and tried to fix it, and by the time I got to the pulpit I think that I had at least one of them inside out, and couldn’t see anything, including the text. All that was left for me to do was to try to preach through the blur.
One time I was counseling a married couple, and the husband was being difficult. I was urging him to “search his heart,” but because my phone was sitting there on the table, it was apparently ill-advised for me to use the word search. My phone recorded what I said, auto-corrected it erroneously to a vulgarity, and then rebuked me for its misunderstanding. My phone interrupted our counseling session with the loud expostulation “your language!”
Another time I was drafting an email to a woman in a church discipline situation. It was a very difficult circumstance, and I was needing to confront her about her lying. It was the kind of situation where you finish the draft, stare at the screen, say a little prayer with your hand on the monitor, and click send. But when in this instance I clicked send, a pop-up screen appeared with a couple of jalapenos on the screen. Maybe three jalapenos, I don’t remember. And the message said something like “the average recipient of this email might find the contents offensive.” Now in defense of the programmers, they were probably just trying to protect boozy emails sent to somebody’s boss at two in the morning. But still, I was the pastor, and here I was, just trying to do my job. Was that so wrong?
And some of you may have seen the recent video clip in which I was speaking in fluent Spanish, while learnedly discussing paedo-communion. It was my voice, synced with my mouth, and with the unfortunate rendering of “paedocommunion” as “duck communion,” it was also my content. Is this okay? It is spooky, certainly, but is it lawful? And if lawful, a good tool to use?
Some Basic Thoughts
So let us begin by remembering that if we are approaching this rightly, we are learning, as my father taught me, always to act, not react. If you are always reacting, the world coming at you will always be terrifying, and you will always be on your heels, in a defensive posture. That is not how the Great Commission will be fulfilled.
Also keep in mind the fact that we know next to nothing about the future, and so we are not to make any decisions on the basis of what we know about it. Because God is good, we should expect any number of (serendipitous) unintended consequences.
Principles, not methods:
Principles translate from method to method, while methods cannot be translated from method to method, by definition. The problem here is that people get hidebound, attached to one particular method. If they can be prevailed upon to move to another method, they retain some of the techniques that worked in the older method, but which don’t transfer over readily. I was recently talking with a gentleman in our community, and he indicated that his father came to email later in life, and had once told his son that he had forwarded him a particular email message. The son checked and said that he had not received it. The father said “you will,” and a bit later, he did receive it . . . by means of snail mail. His father had printed it out, and mailed it with a stamp.
Say that an actor learned his craft with live stage productions, and he had to act in such a way as to convey his emotions to the people in the back row of the auditorium. But imagine if he tried to transfer the same method over to television or movies—the results would be quite different.
Principles of successful wordsmithing would include things like clarity, or balance, or striking metaphors. These would be valuable regardless of the form. But the clarity of a long-form essay and the clarity of a proverb express the same principle, but not the same virtues. And proverbial expression adapts well to a platform like Twitter, and the gifts that equip a man with proverbs and adages would probably also serve him well in the making of memes. And so don’t disparage Twitter, or memes for that matter, because of their brevity. The reason you shouldn’t do that is because your criticism would apply equally well to the book of Proverbs. If an honest answer is like a kiss on the lips, an effective meme can be like a punch in the mouth. Example: if you meet someone whose six-year-old is transitioning, it is like meeting someone with a vegan cat. We all know who is making the decisions.
One of the principles of war, for example, is mobility. That principle has been fulfilled over the years by means of chariots, triremes, locomotives, and F-16s. In the realm of spiritual engagement and warfare, technologies can certainly augment a minister’s mobility. Charles Spurgeon was able to preach a sermon, have it printed and bound, and have it edifying believers in New Zealand in a matter of mere months. Now one of Spurgeon’s heirs could preach a sermon and have it in New Zealand through a few clicks in a matter of seconds. Mobility.
Compared to what?
No technology, or app, or platform, should be evaluated in a vacuum. If a married couple are out on an anniversary date, they should not be sitting in the restaurant texting each other. That is because they are stupidly foregoing the greater blessing for the sake of a lesser blessing. But if he is deployed with the military, and is across the world, texting her on their anniversary would be a wonderful blessing. Always ask what the alternative is.
Distance learning is not as good as learning in three-dimensions, as the apostles made clear through their expressed preference to be there in person, but it is much to be preferred over distance ignorance. The book of Romans is distance learning, and so we ought not to sneer at distance learning. It would have been a great blessing to have learned these great truths from the apostle himself, but as he was going to die sometime, it was a wonderful thing that he put his thoughts down in one language, with various pieces of paper carrying those thoughts through the course of centuries, with other scholars then extracting those thoughts from different pieces of paper, and translating them into English for me. That is quite a bit of distance.
Nobody wants people attending church on their laptop as a simple matter of convenience. You know it is just a matter of time before somebody has a cyber-church where if you want to partake of the sacrament, you go buy your roll from the Starbucks barista, and then you just need to click the little bread icon. That would be appalling for the same reason that the couple texting at the restaurant is appalling. But what if you were in a house church in a country where worship is illegal. Would it be sinful to sing and pray together, watch a sermon on YouTube, and then have communion? What is the alternative? Compared to what?
Optimistic suspicion, suspicious optimism:
As mentioned earlier, the created world is good. Because of our rebellion, in this fallen world, we must deal with our bent toward sin. But we have a tendency to locate sin in the stuff, as though alcohol were the problem, and not a lack of self-control. But there is no sin in the alcohol.
There is sin in our hearts, and there is sin in our hearts whether we are sinning through drunkenness or sinning through fastidious legalistic abstinence. So we should be optimistic because God placed us in a fruitful world. We should be a bit cynical, because we have rebelled against God, and are always looking for ways to justify our sin. But we must not be cynical about the goodness of the created world. The thing we should doubt would be ourselves. Doubt your hearts. Search your hearts. Turn Siri off and search your hearts.
One place where a lot more sunny cynicism would be in order would be during those times when we have not yet developed the cultural mores that accompany a new technology. I remember learning telephone etiquette as a young boy—this was in the era when phones were used for making what were called phone calls, and the phone was attached by a wire to a wall in your house. Then, as I recall, we got fancy, and somebody started putting buttons on those things. At any rate, when you called somebody, you were to let it ring six times, and then you should hang up. When you answered the phone, you would say, “Wilsons, Douglas speaking.” You were not supposed to say, “Yankee stadium, third base.”
As things change, we develop email etiquette, and texting etiquette, and so on. But in the wild west days of each new platform, a lot of people revert to a state of Hobbesian nature, where everything is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. They do things with the new technology that they wouldn’t dream of doing with the old. Some of the people misbehaving in YouTube comment threads are possibly very polite in person.
Zero sum thinking:
One of the deadliest errors we have fallen into is the universalization of zero sum thinking. This is true in very limited areas. If you are dividing a pie between eight people, it is quite true that a huge piece for one of the eight means a smaller piece for the other seven. Three guys interested in the same girl—that’s a zero-sum situation also. But out in the wide world, in the world we are talking about, the pie is constantly growing. The great opportunities that are created do not usually eliminate opportunities for others—quite the reverse.
As George Gilder points out in Life After Capitalism, the digital revolution is riding on the back of three platform elements—silicon, oxygen, and aluminum—the three most plentiful elements in the earth’s crust. We serve the God of thirty, sixty and a hundred-fold. The deadly belief at the center of zero-sum thinking is the deep fear that God is stingy and tight-fisted or, if you are a secularist, the idea that our heartless cosmos is stingy and cruel.
But remember what I said about the fall. We are the ones who are heartless and cruel. We are that way, and so we love to project. And in projecting our fears, we are revealing what things would be like if we ran the show. Our jitters and fears—about weather, about the economy, or about technological jimjams—are often created by our illusions concerning our own omnicompetence. But we are not omnicompetent, and we have no right to be overwhelmed. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
In the meantime, do not assume that we are somehow at risk because we must entrust our future to God. God is our heavenly Father, and we are called to trust Him. Moreover, it is not irrational to trust Him. In fact, it is irrational not to. He did not create a zero-sum world, and in those few places where there are zero-sum spaces, it is because God wanted to bless us with particular blessings—e.g. a specific spouse, and legitimate children with particular names that you gave them.
But in most areas, we are reminded of how the Lord gave the entire planet to one human couple, telling them to exercise dominion. There is, in other words, a lot of blue sky above us. The cultural mandate was repeated again at the time of Noah, after the fall, and after a stupefying judgment on global sin. And if we compare the Great Commission, Psalm 8, and Hebrews 2, we can say together with the apostle, “we do not see all things put under him, we do not see dominion yet, but we see Jesus” (Heb. 2:8-9). And not a zero-sum Jesus either.
Back to the Word
And we need to bring all of this back to the Word. The central message is always, of course, Christ and Him crucified. That is our pole star. What is light? In the beginning, we see that light was the Word speaking. What are the heavens and earth? Again, the Word speaking. What are all the mountains, lakes, trees, and prairies?
Whenever a new opportunity presents itself, a new platform, a new method for communicating, two questions should present themselves. The first is whether or not Christ can be proclaimed by this means. The second is whether or not this method, if adopted and utilized, would tend to take away or rob or compete with some of the older more established means of communicating the Word, particularly with regard to preaching in the context of incarnate worship. And if there is any real question about any of this, then we should look where Christ Himself taught us to look. Is the orchard fruitful?
Well, look to the fruit.