Technology, culture and public theology
Perhaps less writing than previously still seems to regard technology as
the enemy of culture. There is an issue here, but technology is a very broad category, too broad
to be held responsible in symbolic or causative terms for all the dangers
of contemporary existence or all the promise once attributed to scientific
Technology is part of culture, high, popular and simply
how we do things around here. Culture is about how things as they are, not
just about how we think they should be. I do not believe that "high" culture
as in arts, music and literature, is intrinsically of greater value than
"pop" culture, which seems more at home with technology, though
I do have preferences. There are also "cultures" more or less at home with
technology, there are still residues of science vs arts mutual incomprehension.
There Christians and some others who love technology and its power but are
dubious about science, despite that's being its basis.
theologian and pioneer of the use of the internet in Christian ministry,
provided a framework for talking about the potential for good and
evil of Information Technology. This still usefully applies to discussion
of technology in general.
The Information Superhighway as
a Missiological Tool of the Trade, (Missiology,
January 1999), and those below
draw on Lochhead to encourage critical engagement and suggest that we should
seek to understand the difference a particular technology makes, be
confident about using the good, cautious about generalisations and not
be surprised by unintended consequences.
The term "public theology" is more recent, but the role of
technologies in society, and the significance of the attitudes which are needed
to create and utilise technologies for good and evil are part of common human
concern. It is a "public" arena in which Christians can contribute to
discussions we will always need to have.
"Facing up to Twitter"
Candour, May 2009.
It seems a long time since weekly family letters or telephone
calls were part of how we intentionally built communities. Now there are endless
tools whose cost is largely what we spend in front of the computer sorting them
out, yet their usage is easily driven by novelty more than need or social
Facebook and Twitter are among the more recent to have been
taken up by politicians. Easily seen as gimmicks, and not for the
serious-minded, they may deserve some of the derision of cartoonists that has
come their way, yet these two forms of social networking have also proved
significant in sharing breaking news, and in providing an unexpected database
for research which anyone can access. And of course there are others.
Texting on the cell-phone has become a familiar pastoral tool
for many, but do these forms of texting on the web have the same promise?
Beyond the transient excitements of early adopters looking for another fix, is
there something here of value? Web services mean public information (awareness
of which should cap some pastoral exchanges), but it also means open
conversations about spiritual matters can find a wide audience.
The line between tool and temptation is fine. Tweets –
messages of up to 140 characters shared on the internet – abound from the bored
in presbytery meetings and the distracted in theology lectures. Not a lot of us
need something else to play with when we should be facing responsibilities.
There is a caution in the title Amazon emailed me today: Just Do Something: How to Make a Decision
Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses,
Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. That may be
about other forms of religious procrastination, but the new generation
of web-based programmes provide endless possibilities for the avoidance
of obvious duty. Are they also up there with creative possibilities for
worship, mission and community?
This is one area where the idea of placing mission
first can help. There have been a number of tweets with the reminder
that Christology should come before both ecclesiology and missiology.
However much I agree with that, the practical task of deciding the “To
Do” list of the day requires a sense of what it is we are trying to do
and who we are doing it with.
The “who” of our ministry requires attention to where
people meet and how they communicate. If our people are on Facebook and
or Twitter then that is one place we can meet them. It is wrong to
assume that everyone is using it – but it is also an issue if we fail to
connect with those who are. Confidential conversations may be OK
on cell-phone text, but really require telephone or Skype if face to
face is not possible.
In the area of “what”, of course youth leaders and
younger ministers ‘just do it’. It has been interesting to see the buzz
after the church camp with people tagging each other in photos and
sharing just how cool the whole experience was. Others of us may
need some encouragement to see the potential for self-expression,
communication, getting it out there, and extending the conversation.
For public information Facebook and Twitter and longer
forms of blogging are in effect forms of public theology – putting our
life out there for people in general to interact with, not just our
target or church-based audience. At some point we may want to follow the
PCUSA and put church news headlines out on twitter – or teasers for what
is coming up in sPanz! The Church of Scotland 2009 General Assembly had
an official Twitter feed, as well as generating plenty of comments from
those who may not have their cell phones off during the sessions.
Education and training rapidly accommodate new tools.
The content of our training may depend primarily on our identity as a
Christian Church in the Reformed tradition, and its formulation will owe
something to the felt needs of people in leadership, but its delivery
must also take account of where our present and potential leaders are
and what they are used to. Where will the next generation of elders come
from and how do they communicate with each other? What does this say
about training and support?
We are in another phase of internet development in
which applications in the internet “cloud” create possibilities for new
forms of activity and interaction without the need to buy any software
at all beyond whatever computer or mobile phone we use to access the
The implications for reference information are huge.
Most encyclopedias are now practically obsolete as a form of information
delivery even if they should not be by virtue of the quality of their
content – the accessibility of Wikipedia and the development of the
self-authoring wikis in specialist disciplines over-rides whatever
cautions universities make about not referencing Wikipedia in
assignments. In my view, whether you reference it or not you would be
foolish not to check what the Wikipedia
article says on any research topic. The scope is also there to add to
what is available for others to read. Book reviews on Amazon are another
useful outlet for Christian reflection, more so probably than letters to
Facebook has enabled me to locate two members of my
family, one of whom no one had had any contact with for years. It has
renewed links with old friends. It tells me what some younger family
members are up to – more perhaps than they realise – and it has also
generated some annoyances in the form of virtual gifts I can mostly
Twitter has enabled me to track what people think
about Presbytery and Synod meetings (see below), to see how much the
word missional is part of people’s religious vocabulary (there is even a
missional “Twibe”), and to track the interest building towards Calvin’s
Accommodating changing technology is part of life. Perhaps
Calvin’s theology warns us about expecting more than we should from the material
things, and the dangers of self-absorption and idolatry, but he also one who
fully used the technology of his day to create and support an astonishing
network of Reformers whose impact is still felt.
A few sample tweets on the key word “Presbytery”:
“I'm glad we came! Good times and good food :)...”
“Presbytery worship was good. Not 747-style good, but
“Good sleep. Good quiet time with Lord. Good coffee.
Good Presbytery meeting. Now home for a good night with my fam.”
“Presbytery Meeting Today ! I'm so excited, I just
can't hide it! I love dreaming with other leaders!”
Believe it or not!
Towards a Theology of Technology, Candour, April 2005.
Technology and theology meet pastorally
when sympathy is needed for the owners of data lost in crashed hard drives,
liturgically when new sound systems and data projectors become sanctuary
furniture, and ethically when boundaries are strained by new medical possibilities
and techniques, bandwidth poverty leaves information captive in the hands
of the powerful, and the destructive power of new means of warfare outstrips
any possible benefit of its use. In these situations the power of technology
is creating loss, meeting needs, and changing what is possible. It is both
addressing and exacerbating economic, cultural and political inequalities.
A theology of technology could be expected
to say something about technology in the light of our understanding of God,
and something about God in the light of our understanding of technology.
Our use of technology, like other forms of Christian praxis, will also say
something about what we believe about God – what intentions and uses do
we have for the things we make, and why do we make this stuff anyway?
A Christian understanding of God might
remind us that the things we make are tools and are not ends in themselves,
that they can be for good or for evil, and that the temptations arising
from the fact that things we construct easily take the role of idols are
often realized. We need to remember that people do matter more than things.
We might also remember that technology is a result of creativity which is
in turn part of the image of God in ordinary people, that although the Bible
is more about other dimensions of life, Jesus was a carpenter and the son
of a carpenter, his disciples sailed boats, caught fish with nets they made
and mended, and Paul could support himself making tents.
Our use of technology and our appreciation
of it may also say something about our understanding of God. The idea of
the worldwide web may echo an idea of God. The experience of loss of data
that was not saved is not a completely crass analogy of what Christians
have often said about judgement and salvation. Creating possibilities for
electronic and social communication may say something about a belief that
human interaction is a value enhanced by our sense that God has communicated
to us in Christ, and that in mission communication within the Trinity spills
out in love to the world. The application of technology to worship and medicine
indicates our belief in those things which says we also want to maximise
their potential through the means that are available to us.
The late David Lochhead,
professor of Theology at St Andrew’s College, Vancouver, was an early adopter
of information technology and a pioneer in linking people in ministry through
the internet. He also thought theologically about technology and his short
book, Shifting Realities, WCC, 1997, is still worth reading. Technology
has changed, but his theological framework encouraged people to take sin
and creativity seriously, and avoid seeing technology as such as either
demonic or messianic.
Others have not been so balanced. Those
for whom technology represents the artefacts of industrialisation, pollution
and war, such as Jacques Ellul, seem to have had difficulty seeing technology
as anything other than a product of greed and an enemy of culture. Ellul’s
concerns need to be heeded, but although his concern was as much for the
proliferation of belief in technique as it was for the spread of technology,
it was unfortunate that he appeared to work with the idea that technology
was not so much a dimension of culture to be tamed, but a mechanical inhuman
enemy of the human to be deplored. However the issues with technology are
surely to do with the values and purposes to which it is put. It seems to
me that it is not technology as a category of human activity that was the
heart problem of Ellul's concerns, but people and what they want to get
particular technologies to do for them. Technology as such is hard to avoid
if you read books and newspapers, eat meals cooked by gas or electricity,
value clean water and good sanitation and expect public transport and telephones
Technology - mechanical, electrical,
electronic, medical or military - can be very intimidating to those who
find it confusing and a beast they somehow never manage to tame. Those
for whom cell phones and computers mean fear and confusion need much more
sympathy than they sometimes get. People have different gifts. One of the
things which a theology of technology also needs to say is that God still
loves people for whom this is just not their thing at all. We might add
that whether they are sympathetic and understanding or not, they, like Ellul,
may also be the very voices we most need to heed if the potential for good
is more to be realised that the possibilities of evil.
Jaques Ellul, The Technological Society,
New York, NY: Vintage, 1974.
David Lochhead, Shifting realities:
information technology and the church, Risk book series 75. Geneva:
WCC Publications, 1997.
John Roxborogh, The Information Superhighway
as a Missiological Tool of the Trade. Missiology 27 (1), 1999,
SHIFTING REALITIES : Information
Technology and the Church. WCC, Risk Book Series, 1997.
(Review published in Reality
As disaster unfolds in Kosovo, bombs rain on
Belgrade and refugees flood into Albania and elsewhere, the internet has
become one of the new dimensions of international conflict. The technology
of “smart” missiles is not unrelated to email messages from relatives and
missionaries nearby, or to the hacking skills of Serbians attacking Nato
information sites on the Worldwide Web.
is a theologian, an early user of internet communication, and a thinker.
He outlines how Christians appropriated computers as an aid to ministry.
Just as importantly he asks questions about how perceptions of reality are
also being altered, the dangers of the culture it creates, as well as the
benefits, and what it means for Christians to appropriate technology at
the same time as they are critical of its impact.
His is the informed critique of an involved
user. It is refreshing to read someone who understands the risks, believes
in the benefits and is not scared by the one or seduced by the other.
Christians should have some experience in dealing with the demonic and messianic
labels that technology can acquire on its way to being tamed. Information
Technology is no exception. Lochhead overviews the computers of our
fears and imagination as well as of the exploding capacities of technology
itself. He explores the ambiguity and promise of the “digital word.”
There is sin in cyberspace - real enough to those whose emails include daily
doses of unsolicited pornography. His explanation of the language
and of the opportunities which those who have never used email or searched
the Worldwide Web find hard to imagine, is helpful, as is his description
of computers as “possibility machines” operating with information of all
kinds reduced to binary code. Underlying it all is the paradox that
“a bit is a ‘nothing’ that can represent anything.” This may be a
key to the basic ambiguity. The moral neutrality of the instrument
is one thing, the way it empowers the morality, or lack of it, of the user,
and the cultures it creates in the process are something else. This
is not “guns don’t kill people, people do” because guns are built for that
purpose. The purpose of the computer is much more in the hands of the user,
notwithstanding its inviting capacity for wasting time in the name of saving
does not appear familiar with the growth of computers for mission, but traces
well the parallel developments in church administration and among hobbyist
clergy. Priests and laymen contrived to liven up Sunday School classes,
track members, choose hymns and correlate the way theologians made use of
the Bible. Modems created information sharing which went beyond sermons
as denominational networks evolved, died and were reinvented. They
created new communities by spectacularly ignoring old boundaries.
The chapter on the “digital Word” shows
the benefits of Lochhead’s theological and philosophical background, as
he sorts through the representational nature of language and the way this
is and is not changed by reducing symbols to binary code. The “Gospel
and Culture” paradigm remains important for exploring the social effects
of the world of communication Information Technology has facilitated.
There are issues in the reversion to icons as pictures of truth, and in
the way in which the logic of hypertext links changes the structure of information
presentation (as on a web site) as well as the way a user can follow the
trail of their thought without regard to the structure of the author’s presentation.
Patterns of reasoning are not the same when we are dealing with mind-maps
writ large as when we were dealing with the linear structure of stories,
sentences and books.
had his own website and articles with charming
titles such as “Have you hugged your computer today?”
Sadly he died in June 1999.
Tributes to him as a person, a theologian, and a
pioneer of theological reflection on the
implications of the internet, are
found on http://www.religion-research.org/irtc/lochhead.htm).
Appropriately he also now has a page on
memorial conference was held in 2006 and some of his writings and
further tributes can be downloaded from
See also the David
Lochhead Institute for Religion Technology and Culture.