A Theology of Technology

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In the beginning, God created stuff, including us. Since we are made in God's image, we like to create stuff, too. God created from nothing; we create using all the stuff God created. And that is, in brief, my definition of technology: It's all the stuff we make, using the materials of God's creation. To put it another way, technology is the marriage of our creative impulse with God's resources. So by this definition, an apple is not technology--God already created that--but an apple slicer is. Apple juice is. An Apple computer is (although it uses several materials, none of which are apples).

As early as the fourth chapter of Genesis, technology explodes onto the biblical scene: Enoch builds a city (technology!). Jabal becomes the ancestor of all those who live in tents (technology!). His brother Jubal becomes the ancestor of those who play the lyre and the pipe (technologies!). Tubal-Cain made all kinds of bronze and iron tools (more technologies!). And the technologies doen't stop there...

Despite our long-standing tradition that Jesus was a carpenter, and the son of a carpenter, the Greek word used by the gospels for this vocation is more expansive: τέκτων (tekton). It's someone who makes stuff, and if the Greek word sounds familiar, that's because it comes from the same root as our modern word "technology." Yes, Jesus was a techie. When Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion, he did not choose as elements things that could simply be found and consumed in their created form (like fruit or water), but rather things that had to be made through a technical process by skilled hands--bread and wine, though commonplace, are rather complex technologies, too. How many of you can make your own wine, or make bread without the aid of tools?

The Apostle Paul carried out his evangelical work using the great, innovative technologies of his day: Pen, parchment, and the Roman highway. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century was made possible by the technology of Gutenberg's printing press, which placed bibles, commentaries and hymnals into the hands of the masses. And for most of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the church pipe organ reigned supreme as the most complex music technology ever invented.

In the closing years of the 20th century, projectors and screens found their way into Christian churches, along with electric guitars, synthesizers, church websites, and touch-screen offeratory kiosks that swipe credit cards. And yet, it is only these last few things that are generally recognized as "technology" and subsequently reviled or embraced, depending upon one's technological outlook.

I've walked us through this "brief history of technology" for a reason--to remind us that we live on a continuum, where new technologies are constantly being introduced, where the most useful ones gradually become more common, the least useful ones disappear, and older, trusted technologies stop being referred to as such and just become part of the common fabric of our lives. Time marches ever onward.

How, then, do we approach technology in our churches, in our worship services, in our ministry?

I think we need to begin by viewing technology not as a menacing intruder or a knight-in-shining-armor, but something that has always been with us, and always will be. Something that is part of a never-ending cycle (not unlike our liturgical calendar!).

Our worship and ministry should embrace old technologies as well as new ones. In Matthew 13:52, Jesus tells his disciples to be "like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." In my congregation, we have a pipe organ with choir, as well a praise band with praise singers. We appreciate both, and try hard to discern which one is appropriate for any given occasion. Sometimes they've even played together!

Finally, we need to view technology not as something flashy, spectacular, and magical, but rather as something...ordinary. It doesn't call attention to itself for its own sake, or to say "look how high-tech we are!" but rather like medieval paintings of John the Baptist, it points to Jesus. The best technologies--old and new--are the ones that quickly fade into the background because they are unobtrusively helping us to worship, to fellowship, or to share the gospel.

In 2008, there was a lot of buzz about a new, online virtual reality platform called "Second Life." I checked it out, quickly connected with some other Presbyterians, and pretty soon we had formed an online worshiping community. We called it 1st Presbyterian Church of Second Life. A lot of people (myself included) probably came initially for the novelty. It was flashy, trendy, high-tech. But what kept me coming back for the next seven years, right up to the present time, wasn't the technology.

It was a small handful of amazing people who became the core of the group--people who happened to be dispersed across various time zones and states. The technology was what best allowed me to worship with them, pray with them, share communion with them (that's another story for another time), fellowship with them, and grow with them as disciples.

Two thousand years ago, we might have written letters to one another. Twenty years ago we might have been a telephone-based support group. Today, worshiping with others in a virtual world may sound spectacular (or scary!) but to me it's already ordinary, and not in a bad way. It's part of the rhythm of my life, and the technology has faded into the background. I suspect that even more amazing things will become routine and commonplace in the years to come.

What hasn't changed, however, is the reason we gather, the reason we create worship spaces at all--whether made of brick and mortar, roads and parchment, or pixels and bytes. The One who created us still calls us together, to be co-creators and tektons, using all the resources of creation. And so we answer that call in whatever way we are able. The technology is ordinary. But the God we serve is extraordinary.