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 progress.

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.

The late  David Lochhead, 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 article 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.

John Roxborogh

"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 purpose.

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 worldwide web.

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 the editor.

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 manage without.

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 500th birthday.

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 still good.”

“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!

John Roxborogh

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 to work.

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.

John Roxborogh

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, 117-122


David Lochhead, SHIFTING REALITIES : Information Technology and the Church. WCC, Risk Book Series, 1997. (Review published in Reality c. 1998)

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.

 Lochhead 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 it.

 Lochhead 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.

 Lochhead had his own website and articles with charming titles such as “Have you hugged your computer today?” Sadly he died in June 1999.

David Lochhead (1936-1999)

Tributes to him as a person, a theologian, and a pioneer of theological reflection on the implications of the internet, are still be found on Appropriately he also now has a page on Wikipedia. A memorial conference was held in 2006 and some of his writings and further tributes can be downloaded from Selected Works. See also the David Lochhead Institute for Religion Technology and Culture.