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Talking Tech with Tim Challies

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2011 25 Mar


A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to preach at a conference alongside some great speakers/thinkers, including uber-blogger Tim Challies. Tim and I have run into each other at various conferences, and we've often corresponded via email. But there is nothing like face-to-face, lengthy conversations. In a superficial sense, I knew Tim before the conference. But now, I think of him as a friend that goes beyond the blog world of cyberspace.

I give you the details of this account because it helpfully illustrates one of the main principles from Tim's new book The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital ExplosionTim points out the benefits and drawbacks from the onslaught of new technology in society. One of the truths you walk away with is that embodied presence cannot be replaced or replicated by online communication.

So today, I'm talking technology with Tim Challies in anticipation of the release of his new book, The Next StoryZondervan has put together an interesting promotion for buying the e-Book version. For every 200 books pre-ordered, the price falls by a dollar. And no matter what price you order it at, you'll get the lowest pre-order price possible. But right now, let's get on with the conversation...

Trevin Wax: Honestly, Tim, I had no idea that your book would be as helpful as it is. My initial thought was, Another book on technology? At least, Tim will help us think theologically about it. But you do so much more than help us think theologically. You are not only increasing our awareness of new technology and how it shapes us; you are also getting into really practical things regarding the usage of technology. Give us a summary of the "three circles" you want us to live in.

Tim Challies: Thanks, Trevin. That's good to hear. My challenge when writing about technology was to about topics and to write in such a way that the book would be relevant to all of us. My mother carries a cell phone everywhere she goes, has a Facebook account and uses the Internet on a daily basis. So she needs to know about technology as much as her grandchildren do.

The three circles is an illustration I use to represent experience, theory and theology.

  • We all have experience with technology; every time we check email or watch television or answer a call on a cell phone we further develop that experience.
  • Many of us have some theory of technology. Perhaps we've read a book by Neil Postman or we've seen a TV special on the subject. Along the way most of us have picked up some theory of technology.
  • But what few of us have done is consider the biblical perspective on technology, which means that few of us have a theology of technology.

If you put these three circles together in a Venn diagram you've got a space that overlaps all three of them. What I want people to do is to try to find that spot, that spot where they are integrating experience, theory and theology.

Trevin Wax: Here's an example of how these three circles have affected me. Last spring, it was time to get a new cellphone. I upgraded to a Verizon Blackberry and started getting emails on my phone. For the first few weeks, the phone was a help. It kept me from being on the computer checking email. It let me know when there was an urgent email I needed to respond to, or just normal emails that I could respond to at my leisure.

But my experience with the Blackberry became increasingly distracting. I didn't even realize it had gotten bad until I decided to stop taking my phone to church. There were times in church, or in the hall, or when walking, that I would notice this nervous tic of wanting to check my phone. But alas, it wasn't there! It dawned on me just how much the technology had seeped into my life and changed my habits.

Tim Challies: That's a common story. What we are really bad at doing is pausing to consider the implications a new technology before we introduce it to our lives. Technology theory will teach us that every new technology brings unintended consequences--secondary consequences that can have a profound impact on our lives. We tend to be myopic--we see only what's right in front of us. What we need to train ourselves to do is to look farther, to try to see the greater impact of any new piece of technology.

  • What will it do to my time?
  • What will it do to my family?
  • When else will I use it?
  • What other purposes will I begin to use it for?

When we understand the biblical perspective on technology we'll see that technology inhabits a fallen world. Technology is not evil, but it exists within an evil world and, therefore, will very often be used for evil (or by evil). Your cell phone is not bad and has no inherent morality. But it will lead your heart away from what's most important if you don't ensure that you remain its master. The cell phone, like the ground around us, will bring forth "thorns and thistles."

Trevin Wax: Your advice reminds me about Andy Crouch's "five questions" to ask about cultural artifacts:

  1. What does this artifact assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does it assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does it make possible?
  4. What does it make impossible, or at least a lot more difficult?
  5. And what new culture is created in response?

We tend to think of new technology solely with the "what does it make possible?" category. Like with my phone: Wow! I can check my email anywhere now! We don't always think through the implications of #4 and #5: What does it make difficult? (unhurried, undistracted time). What new culture is created? (a frenzied lifestyle). About the cell phone, you write:

"The cell phone, a device meant to enhance my communication with others, can increase my ability to communicate with those who are far from me, often at the cost of communication with my own wife and children - those closest to me."

Tim Challies: Andy's questions are good, and I can see McLuhan's influence in them. I'm not really smart enough to read McLuhan, so I get his ideas filtered through Neil Postman. In that way he was quite influential in The Next Story.

But you're right. We tend to go straight to question #3. And so do the advertisers. Apple is fantastic at giving us all kinds of possibilities for #3--"Use this new iPad and you can talk to your family using these amazing new video cameras (that we deliberately left out of the first generation iPad so we could make it seem like a triumph to add them in the second generation)." But if you go back to questions #1 and #2 you'd realize that cameras are more of a concession than a feature. We should want to be face-to-face rather than mediated via cameras and screens.

Trevin Wax: What do you think about how churches are using technology? Do you see more reflection there or less?

Tim Challies: Generally I think churches are very quick to see the benefits of any new technologies, but to ignore the risks. We'll replace a hymn book with Powerpoint without thinking about the short-term or long-term ramifications of such a decision. That's not to say it's bad to switch to Powerpoint. Rather, it's to say that there are always implications and we'd do well to think those through. Many churches broadcast their services across the city and onto screens in other locations. That is not necessarily a bad thing to do, but we ought to think long and hard before giving people a virtual preacher.

So I guess I'd see about the same amount of reflection which is to say, not a whole lot.

Trevin Wax: What do you hope the takeaway from this book will be? What's the overall goal you hope it will accomplish?

Tim Challies: I was often asked that same question after I wrote The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment and I would usually answer something like "If people can take away that they are responsible before God to genuinely seek good from bad and right from wrong, I'll be happy."

When it comes to The Next Story, I will be thrilled if people walk away with a couple of practical ideas they can implement along with a change of thinking in their relationship to technology. If I can convince people to take just one day to think about the new iPad before they rush out to buy it, I think I'll be happy. That's especially so if they can now think in a distinctly Christian way about that iPad. "This thing is wearing its benefits on its sleeve (or on its box, as the case may be). But it inhabits a sinful world, so there is more to it than just those benefits. So what will the hidden cost be to me, to my family, to my way of thinking?"

Trevin Wax: Thanks for stopping by, Tim. And I look forward to more unmediated face-to-face talks in the future!