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EPISODE 66: The Wonders and Worries of Technology

 

We benefit greatly from the technological advances we’ve seen in our world in recent years. But there are problems that come with those advances. Keith Plummer and I discuss the pros and cons of technology and, in particular, how it can shape us in ways we may not realize.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm Randy Newman, your host. And today, I'm going to be thinking together with my friend Keith Plummer about how technology affects our spiritual growth and our discipleship.

Keith is a professor at Cairn University. He's also the dean of the School of Divinity there at Cairn University up in Pennsylvania. Just recently, he has become a fellow in The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Keith and I have known each other for quite a while, and this is a real delight for me. Keith, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thank you very much, and thanks for the invitation.

Let's just do a little commercial for a second here about this new thing, The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. I'll link to that in our show notes. Tell us a little bit about what that's all about.

Sure. That is a collaborative team of people who are interested in and practicing, in various forms, cultural apologetics, and it is designed for the purpose of mutual encouragement, connecting with resources, and collaborating in terms of creating what we hope will be beneficial resources for the church in an increasingly post-Christian age to engage the culture in winsome ways concerning not only the truthfulness of Christianity but its goodness and its beauty.

Man, there's going to be some great resources that come out of that! Nice, nice, nice. Well, we'll be watching to see how the Lord blesses that.

Thank you, and your prayers are much appreciated.

Yeah. I think apologetics, making a case for the gospel, is something God has always called God's people to, but it but it keeps evolving and changing as the audience or the people that we're talking to have different questions, different objections, different resistance levels, and I think we're in, like you said, a post-Christian era, a whole new set of not just questions that need to be answered, but sort of like attitudes that need to be addressed. And I think that The Keller Center is going to really help us a whole ton with that.

Well, let's shift here a little bit. So you have a doctorate in systematic theology, and you have pastoral ministry experience for over 18 years. You teach classes on apologetics and theology, but you've just recently added to your academic quiver, I guess, a class on technology and Christian discipleship. Tell us about that. And how did that come about that you came up with this course?

Well, the genesis of that goes back to even prior to my being here, when I was on the front end of the Internet in the early 2000s and was fascinated, like everyone else, with all of this capacity that we had to communicate and to access data. I was spending a lot of time on the chatroom environment of AOL, if anyone remembers that. And found there are a number of people who were interested in the same kinds of questions and issues that I was interested in. And I also just really became fascinated with thinking about this new technology theologically. I came across work by Douglas Groothuis. Then, it was called The Soul in Cyberspace. And it is the first that I can recall, the first theological work that I had come across that was trying to make sense of this new online ethos. And that got me really intrigued, and then, over time, I started to notice some changes in myself, with respect to attention, distraction, and so forth. And at some point, I came across Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and in that, he said…. Well, actually, that came out of an article that he did for The Atlantic, I believe, called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Yes. I remember that article.

And in that, there was a description that he gave of himself with which I really resonated. He was talking about how it was that he was, at one point, able to immerse himself in a book for an extended period of time and just enjoy it and that, since going online, he realized that there was a significant noticeable change in his ability to do that. And he uses this word picture that grabbed me, he said that he used to be like a scuba diver under the depths in a book, but now he found himself like a guy on a jet ski skipping along the surface.

Oh, man!

And I read that, and I thought, “That’s me.” I can't stay down as long as I used to stay down in a book. I am looking for something to distract me, stimulate me, and so I started thinking about that, and then there were some other voices that came into play, people like Sherry Turkle and her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. And what interested me is that here, with Nicholas Carr and with Sherry Turkle, you had people who weren't approaching this issue from any particular theological or spiritual frame of reference.

Right.

But they were putting their fingers on things that I thought were really noteworthy and troublesome, that Christians should be giving thought to, because we do have the framework in terms of who we are as humans and what we are created for and how it is that we are intended to relate. And I started thinking about how it is that our practices, the expectations that we generate because of our use predominantly of digital technologies, communication technologies. How does this play out in terms of our call to love God and to love our neighbor? If my ability to attend is eroded, degraded, then that is going to have implications in a variety of ways. My ability to attend to God, whether that be in prayer, thinking through reading scripture, our fellowship, our ability to spend time with one another that may not always be entertaining or stimulating but nevertheless is necessary. And that was some of the beginning of my thinking about the need to explore this issue of technology as it impacts us as followers of Christ, and I began thinking about what wisdom looks like with respect to living in this increasingly fast-paced age, in which the expectation is—unspoken but I think it's there—that we're going to continue to create devices that are calling us to live at a faster pace, and we will just continue to adopt to them. And I don't think that that is necessarily a good expectation.

Oh, man! This is…. Well, I guess I'm disturbed, but I'm not surprised by what you're saying. You know, I read Sherry Turkle's book, a different one than you mentioned, the one, Reclaiming Conversation.

Oh, yes.

And I was very grateful that she chose the word “reclaiming” in the title, so she's not hopeless and she's not even pessimistic, I think, but she's very cautious. But her whole theme in that book: We can reclaim conversation, but only if we're very, very intentional about it, because we're losing the ability to converse well and to listen and attend. Famously, she pointed out that, when people just are having a conversation, if a cell phone is on the table, visible between the people, it reduces the level of conversation. It shuts down or diminishes the intensity, because everybody knows at any minute that thing is going to buzz, and it'll be an interruption. So you don't want to get too far into a really deep thoughtfulness, just knowing that, at any minute, “Well, we’ve got to….” You know. So have you just gotten rid of all the technology in your life? I don't think so. You have a microphone.

No. We wouldn’t be doing this if I had.

Yeah. How have you handled this?

You’ve heard people say that we preach and we teach what we most need to hear. One of the reasons that this just so grips me is because it's something with which I'm continually wrestling in my own life. This is certainly not me speaking from the heights in terms of how I overcome. But it is me saying, “You know what? I recognize that this is an impediment for me, in terms of my own walking with Christ and my own interacting with people in ways that are wise and loving. I want to address it, and if you want to come along for the journey and the discussion, let's do that.”

Now, let me say a little bit more about the class, too. We do more than just simply focus on these things, as important as I think they are. What we're also trying to do is to answer questions like, “Where does technology—understood as more than simply bells, whistles, electronics, and so forth, but just technology in a general sense. Where does technology fit within the biblical story? How do we situate it? You don't find it in our concordances or anything like that. But we talk about how do we think about… given what we know, God created humans to be and to do and to exercise dominion over the earth, where does technology fit within that? How does the fall impact our creation and use of technology? And are there redemptive ends to which technology can be put? We believe that there are, even looking at things such as the fact that our redemption was accomplished in part because of technology, namely that of the cross.

And so just thinking about the stages of the redemptive story and thinking about how technology fits into it, we look at such topics as post-humanism, transhumanism, the hyper optimism that, in the secular mind, technology can have, such that it is seen as potentially a way of even overcoming death and taking us to a new stage of evolution in which we are participating by merging technology and our biology. So we look at a whole host of things related to technology, but with the hope that students will come out of it more mindful and more intentionally thoughtful about how they make use of technologies, and in some cases, whether they make use of particular technologies. We also talk about, on a corporate level, decisions made at the level of like a church in terms of how we make use of technologies. One of the things that really interests me and concerns me is I think for too long, though this is changing considerably, and I'm glad. I think for too long Christians have solely evaluated their use of technologies of various kinds based on whether or not they were using them for explicitly immoral ends. So we evaluate, “Well, are you using technology into be sexually immoral, pornography on the internet or using texting to be inappropriately communicating with someone not your spouse?” Those kind of things. And those are certainly questions that we need to consider.

But the thought that as long as the content that I am using particularly information technology for, as long as the content is good, it doesn't really matter about the medium.

Yeah.

And so we spend time talking about media ecology. We look at some of Neil Postman's insights on those things. And just looking at how the media that we use to communicate something has impact on the message that we're looking to send, as well as on us as communicators.

You know, if you use a smartphone or a voice assistant like Alexa or Siri, if you've gone through airport security, if you've shopped online, then you already have encountered, whether you know it or not, artificial intelligence, or what many call AI. That's going to affect us for the rest of our lives, and we need to think clearly about it, so you may be interested in what John Lennox has to say about that topic. He's a professor of mathematics, emeritus, at the University of Oxford. He's a fellow in mathematics and the philosophy of science and pastoral advisor at Green Templeton College in Oxford. He's brilliant. And he recently talked with us at the C.S. Lewis Institute about artificial intelligence and its impacts on humanity. You can watch the video. Go to our website, cslewisinstitute.org, then type, after cslewisinstitute.org, slash resources slash artificial hyphen intelligence. Or just go searching on our website for John Lennox, and you'll see a whole bunch of resources, video, audio, written. He’s really helped us a lot and helps us think clearly about really important topics.

Oh, this is really important. So, in other words, it's not just looking at the content that is being delivered to us through technology. It's how the delivery system itself is shaping us and affecting us. Is that right? Am I getting that?

Yes. And the practices that are associated with the delivery systems themselves. And I want people to understand: This is certainly not intended as an anti-technology class. One of the things that we look at in terms of redemptive uses—and by redemptive, I don't only mean using technology as a vehicle for the gospel, but certainly that is the most redemptive. But looking at how technologies can be and are being employed to—at least on a partial level—work against some of the effects of the fall. So, for example, there are some fascinating things that are being done with virtual reality in treating people with PTSD, like the veterans from warfare, who are placed in controlled, highly monitored, virtual reality settings, recreating somewhat what they had experienced and gradually upping it under the supervision of someone who is psychologically trained and so forth. And there are some really, really impressive results in treating PTSD symptoms and cases of phobias by exposure therapy in virtual reality settings. So we want to be thinking about that as well.

Mm-hm. Yeah, right. Sure. With every technology that has ever been developed, God has used them in some really powerful ways. I mean, the technology can be used for God-glorifying ways or running away from God. So the printing press, you know, gave us mass-produced Bibles and mass-produced literature that tells lies and terrible things. So I'm curious about how your students, and I'm thinking these are undergraduate students?

These are undergraduates. We do have a graduate-level program because I think that, especially those going into pastoral ministry, in like our M Div program, this is something that pastors are going to have to address, and I think institutions of theological education, pastoral preparation certainly need to be helping people to think about what does it mean to shepherd people who are in the thick of this technological society?

Well, there were several years when I was teaching out at Patrick Henry College, and I taught an undergraduate class on basically spiritual formation, and it was kind of like a catch-all course, but it had a lot of things in it about spiritual growth and discipleship. And I had the students read an article that was titled something like, “Are cell phones ruining a generation?” or, “Have cell phones ruined a generation?” and I thought that I was going to get a whole lot of resistance and push back from students, but I didn't. All of them, 18, 19, 20 years old, they were, “Oh, yeah. Yeah. This is right. This is true. Yeah. We need help with this.”

Yes.

And I had to come along and say, “Well, I think this article has some really good things. I think ‘ruined’ is a little too strong. I'm not so sure it has ruined a generation. And I am sure of this: It's not just your generation. It's all people. Not, ‘Oh, it's these young people and their problems.’” No. It's because that's how powerful the technology is. And unless we're thoughtful about it, it will erode our ability to be attentive, and it also erodes our capacity for compassion. If we're just shallow about everything, well we don't feel the depths of people's pain or their joys or…. So it is crucial for us to think deeply about this.

Well, you know, going back to Sherry Turkle, one of the things that she said in her research was she was hearing from people cross generationally, that…. The term she uses, she hears from people who say, “I'd rather text than talk.” And that was another thing that got me thinking about what our theological perspective should be saying to that or does say to that, because what was troubling Sherry Turkle was people were preferring mediated means of communication over face-to-face interpersonal communication. And I remember that made me think about something that I did read in Groothuis. When I first started reading in this area, he was making the point that, in two of John's letters, he says that he has much more to tell his readers, but he doesn't want to do it via pen and ink.

Yes, yes.

But, you know, I will speak to you when we're face to face, so our joy might be complete. And that made me think about the technology that was available to him. It was good, and he made use of it. But he didn't regard it as being on the same par or superior to being present. And when Sherry Turkle was saying, “I'm hearing people of all ages saying I'd rather text than talk,” if Christians adopt that mindset. I think that is contrary to all that we profess, with respect to what it means to be image bearers of God who are embodied and the supremacy and the superiority of presence over other forms. That's not to say that there is not a necessity at many times for us to communicate in other forms, like we're doing now. But when we, as Christians, start adopting a mindset that is essentially that of those who don't know the Lord and say, “Well, I'd rather text than talk, too. I think that this is preferable. I think that this is more valuable,” then I think we're doing a disservice to our humanity.

This is so important, Keith, because what you're doing is you're grounding these arguments in the scriptures, in theology, in what God has revealed to us about our essence, our ontology, and those are categories that some of us never think in, but we need to. If, in fact, we are persons created in the image of God, we communicate, we connect, we're in community. How does that shape our thinking about technology?

Yes.

And here, let me throw a softball at you, a toss. So we've got to bring in the reality of the incarnation. God took on flesh and dwelt amongst among us. That’s not unrelated to this, is it?

No. No. It's not. In in fact, another piece that, many years ago, was influential in my thinking is something that Ken Myers of the Mars Hill Audio Journal wrote, for… I don't know if it was the Dallas Morning Star. It was some local newspaper somewhere. It was called, “How would Jesus call?” And he wrote this. This was long before smartphones. He was just talking about regular cell phone. And he was concerned about the ways in which people were accustomed to making use of cell phones in a manner that was seemingly disregarding of those in their immediate presence. And I just thought, “This is excellent!” He's doing the kind of thinking that, as you said, often escapes us. Where we’re not. I think what we tend to do is to think in very pragmatic terms.

Right.

And there is a sense in which that makes sense. We’ve got a message that we want to get out. There is an urgency about the message, but yet think about what happens to the message when we try to adapt it to fit certain means of communication that in some ways truncate it or dilute it or trivialize it. A great book for this—I was looking at it because I was exploring it for one of our recent discussions—is Alan Noble's Disruptive Witness.

That's a good book. Yes.

Oh! A great book, where he talks about the two major obstacles that he believes that we, in the 21st century now have to deal with. One is distraction, and the other one secularism. And he has a line in there… I just wanted to pull it up, because I just thought, “This is gold!” He says, “The space between the trivial and the crucial has shrunk. Everything is important all of the time, and you are obligated to keep up. Just as it is harder for us to sort all our correspondence when it comes in the same medium, it can be difficult for us to communicate the gospel if we primarily use mediums that are traditionally devoted to triviality.”

Oh, my goodness! You just asked a really crucial question of, what happens to the message when we deliver it through certain media? That's really important. Because we may be presenting a false gospel. We may be presenting a message that implies or conveys, “This isn't really all that important.” It's another option, like so many options. “Here's option number 755,000.”

Yes. When I was in pastoral ministry, you remember the easy button?

The easy button!

The easy button with Staples.

Right, Staples. Yes.

And, you know, you press the button, and then the office supply thing you need is there, and Staples is just that easy.

Right.

Well, around that time, there was a T-shirt, and we've all seen these kind of T-shirts that are trying to co-opt some kind of ad campaign and make it serve gospel ends.

Oh. I’m getting nervous.

There was a T-shirt. Actually, I had been given one at one point, and it was the recognizable easy button, the red button, but instead it had Jesus on it.

Oh.

And the saying on the sign was—it was something like, “Salvation. It’s that easy.”

Oh! Oh, no!

Now, when somebody does it, I'm sure…. Giving the benefit of the doubt, people who create something like that. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt, and I'm going to say take away all of the monetary motivation that might be behind it. Just take that away. Let's just assume the best of motives.

Right.

What happens when you make that connection with an advertising slogan that really is trivial, but you use it to try to convey the greatest and most grave message that exists.

Yeah. Oh, man.

One of the ministries we have here at the C.S. Lewis Institute, we call it Keeping the Faith. It's a program that's been developed to equip you, particularly parents and grandparents and other adults who are caring for children and grandchildren, the intentional discipleship of the children that God has placed in your life. And we've got a lot of resources at the Keeping the Faith tab on our website. We know that, if you're caring for children, that you're busy, and you're tired, and so our goal is to provide you with resources that will be available to you at a moment's reach, as well as deeper, more thoughtful resources when you have the time to fill your well. So you'll find videos, articles, monthly newsletter, recommended resources. We regularly post on Facebook and Instagram. We also have two study programs available, so please check out this resource at our website, cslewisinstitute.org/keeping-the-faith. And it's keeping hyphen the hyphen faith, but you don't even need to know all that. Go to our website. I think you'll find Keeping the Faith pretty easy to find, and there's a wealth of resources there. Thanks.

Oh, this is really important stuff for us to think about and to discuss. I want to encourage our listeners: If you're in, you know, a community group in your church, and I hope you are, or a Bible study, kick around some of these ideas. And propose the idea that, during our community group, we're going to turn off all phones. For the next hour, we're going to have no phones, or those kind of things. I do want to try to offer some practical suggestions for people. And so the more that you have, the better. I'm thinking…. One for me, that's very helpful for me. You mentioned earlier, at the beginning, about how you found it becoming more and more difficult to immerse yourself in a book. So I'm trying to, when I'm reading a book, I want to get away from everything else that could be distracting. So the computer's not in front of me. The phone is turned off. If I'm reading on my iPad, which I really like doing for all sorts of visual reasons, I turn off everything else that could just pop up and interrupt the reading. And I even set time limits and stuff, like, “Okay. For the next 40 minutes, I'm not going to get up. I'm going to just read,” and there's a level of concentration that you get to, but it takes, for me, at least 20 to 30 minutes to even get there.

Yes.

So that's one, the discipline of reading as a way to fight against the shallows. Turning off distractions, having some agreed-upon friendships with people, where we say, “Listen, when we get together for a cup of coffee or lunch or whatever, we're going to put our phones away. Are you okay about that?” Unless, of course, there's an emergency going on.

Sure.

Yeah, of course. Do you have any other practical suggestions for us?

Well I like the one that you mentioned about reading because I found myself needing to do that myself. It’s gotten to the point where I'm reading maybe a long form article in a journal or a magazine. And I will say, “I'm not going to get up until I finish this article.” Or I will have a book, and I've done the same thing in terms of setting an alarm and say, “I'm just going to read for this period of time, and I'm not going to allow myself to be distracted by anything during this time,” and sometimes it's really hard. But then there have been other times where it has… once I've gotten into the rhythm, where I've gone actually beyond the time that I had said.

Sure.

And that's a major victory. But other things: I love. And it’s appropriate for this setting. I love podcasts. I love listening to things, but I have tried to incorporate more into my routine, just some intentional non-input time. So-

Oh, my goodness! You mean nothing?

Nothing!

Not hearing? What a radical! So you're driving around in your car, and you're not listening to anything?

I know. But, you know, I say, okay, I'm not going to listen to anything. I'm not going to be consuming. I'm going to try to use—and I don't have a long commute to work, or it might be like I'm going somewhere else for a longer period of time. But I'm going to use this time. I’m going to pray. Or I'm just going to think on something that I have been reading. So those are some things. The idea of putting the phone away when I'm meeting with someone. I try to have my phone in my pocket, as opposed to on the table. I have yet to be regular, and I want to do this. I need to do this. I have yet to be regular in having like weekly just day away from, particularly my phone.

Yeah.

I have heard people who are in that practice, and that is one that I've been too sporadic about, that I would like to have more routinely in my life.

Oh, man. Well, we need to end this podcast because you have now crossed the line, and you've become terribly convicting, and my phone has been buzzing while we're doing this. I have texts I have to respond to. I have emails I have to send. So, I'm mostly kidding, only mostly. But we do need to kind of bring this to a close. But you've given us some really, really important things for us to wrestle with. And and I appreciate your honesty that you're in a sense a fellow struggler in this.

Oh, definitely!

It’s not like you’ve arrived at some mastering of this. Any final thoughts for us as we think really critically about the world in which we live and how it shapes us, whether we want it to or not?

Well, it's a common saying amongst Christians. Technology is neutral. It's whether or not you use it for good or for ill. And I know what people mean by that. But a lot of what we've been talking about has been, well, the technologies that we use and the practices with which we engage, they do have an impact upon us, and it may not necessarily be morally. I'm not saying that you're going to become a wicked person because you're using this and so forth. But what I am saying is your dispositions, your expectations—like we haven't even talked about how it is that we have become acclimated to immediacy and the expectation of immediacy, which plays upon the cultivation of patience, contentment, and so forth. So I would encourage people—there are there are just so many good, recent resources and some older ones that I think it would be just valuable for people to read through. You mentioned a group. Some of the books—we talked about Disruptive Witness. John Dyer has an excellent book that I use in my class called From the Garden to the City: The Place of Technology and the Story of God. Jason Thacker has a book, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, which is a really accessible volume.

So, as you already encourage people to do, I just want to echo. We need the accompaniment of one another. These aren't the kinds of things that it's just a matter of exerting willpower in isolation. There is a socialization about and around technology that has to be met with an alternative socialization, and so people banding together and saying, “Let’s talk about this. Let's pray about this. Let's try to help one another to engage in practices that help us to cultivate and exercise wisdom and how it is that we make use of technology.” I think that that is really, really important.

Well said. And I'm so thankful for this conversation.

Me, too. It was good talking with you.

Yeah. Thanks, Keith. Well, let me bring this to a close and say to our listeners, we certainly hope this has been helpful, encouraging, strengthening. We hope you'll visit our website, cslewisinstitute.org, check out a bunch of our different resources there. And then we also invite you to turn off your computer and go away from the cslewisinstitute.org website and just be still and enjoy the silence. We do hope that all of our ministry activities, here and on our website, help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks for being with us.

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