It began when our children were around nine and six years old: Lent was the time when the TV would be turned off. Sundays would be a day of reprieve—after all, Sundays are in Lent and not of Lent. I wasn’t sure whether the tradition would hold this year. While we claim not to watch inordinate amounts of TV (I know of no family that does), TV viewing has increasingly become our pastime of choice. However, as Lent approached and the annual ritual of fasting from TV was presented, the TV was turned off without hesitation or argument.
As every year before, the change that results from this single choice takes us by surprise. Our way of being a household is re-vised. It is no longer tele-vised. More time is spent at table, outside playing, reading, trying new activities. One of our sons has taken up painting miniature soldiers in his newly established workspace in the basement. In so many ways our everyday engagement with one another changes. As the TV recedes to the background, a new foreground comes into view. TV is not demonized, it is simply marginalized. It remains visible, but no longer commands our attention in the same way. This simple decision to ignore the TV opens up space in our life together for new forms of engagement.
Patterns of Our Lives
I relay this experience of our household not to make the case for watching less TV but to help us see the way in which a single technological device has the capacity to pattern our lives in significant ways. The philosopher Albert Borgmann puts it this way, “Once a television set is in the house, the daily decisions whether to read a book, or write a letter, or play a game, or tell stories, or go for a walk, or sit down to dinner, or watch television no longer really ranges over seven possibilities. The presence of television has compressed all alternatives to one whose sub-alternatives are contained in the question: What are we going to watch tonight?”1
Television becomes but one instance of what Albert Borgmann calls the technological pattern of our lives. It was in the Spring of 1996 that I first read Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. My reading of our cultural situation has been under revision ever since. Borgmann says:
The problems that beset technological societies are thought to be extrinsic to technology; they stem, supposedly, from political indecision, social injustice, or environmental constraints. I consider this a serious misreading of our situation. I propose to show that there is a characteristic and constraining pattern to the entire fabric of our lives. This pattern is visible first and most of all in the countless inconspicuous objects and procedures of daily life in a technological society . . . that characteristic approach to reality I call (modern) technology.2
Borgmann’s analysis calls for an awareness of the moral significance of the material setting within which everyday life is situated. To a people for whom bread, wine, and water have sacramental significance, and to those who have learned that things are loaded with idolatrous potential, attending to the moral significance of material culture stikes me as a page out of our book. Too many of us find ourselves caught up in a way of life that problematizes the wrong things: caring for our children, preparing and eating meals together, reading books, playing musical instruments, writing letters, gathering for prayer and worship, keeping Sabbath, and so on. Most of us have an intuitive sense that the things we live with—and that we seem unable to live without—have something to do with our struggle to live well.
“Tools” As Idols?
Beneath the ubiquitous complaint from pastors and the members of their congregations that they are too busy and out of time, there abides a largely inarticulate ambivalence with the technologically patterned character of our lives. Our capacity to identify, name, and explore this ambivalence is dependent, in part, upon a willingness to question technology and to acknowledge our acquiescence to the way of life technological devices makes possible. For whatever reason—perhaps from a fear of appearing out of sync witht the times we are in—the kind of interrogation of everyday life Borgmann is calling for is yet to be undertaken by pastoral leaders. Indeed, it is a common claim that the technological devices that increasingly inundate our everyday lives and structure our daily practices are merely “tools.” Consequently, our unreflective adaptation to the way of life mediated by the employment of such “tools” continues unabated.
But surely, “tools” that shape and mediate such realities as words, images, light, time, and space—as well as promise to profoundly increase our capacities for remembering, knowing, and communicating—are tools that warrant theological apprehension and critique. Surely such “tools” are to be regarded, at least, as potential idols in an age so captivated by the promise and momentum of technology. There is a need for us to pay more attention than we have to the theological and moral significance of material culture—particularly to the technological devices that predispose us to, and integrate us into, a particular way of life.
Author Erik Davis, in his book Techgnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information, provides a theologically suggestive critique of technology. Towards the conclusion of his exploration of the gnostic tendencies embedded in technology, Davis writes, “Amidst all the distracting noise and fury, the hoary old questions of the human condition: Who am I? Why am I here? How do I face others? How can I face the grave?, sound distant and muffled—like conundrums we have learned to set aside for more pragmatic and profitable queries. Waking up is hard to do when we rush about like sleepwalkers on speed. I suspect that unless we find clearings within our space/time, such questions will never arise in all their implacable awe.”3 Congregational life ought to be one such clearing.
Living Faithful Lives
It is not inconsequential that the practices that constitute the church are pre-technological. There remains a fundamental correspondence between the communities that gathered for worship in the first century and the twenty-first century: electricity was and is not necessary. Incarnation was and is. What is required is that individuals be gathered in time and space in order to pray, sing, confess, pass the peace, break bread, preach, baptize, and read Scripture. These practices have an unmistakable material quality to them and they have the capacity to orient our lives to God and to one another. Deep participation in a face-to-face community of persons that is centered by certain focal practices (singing, confession, prayer, Eucharist, Scripture, preaching, baptism, sharing meals, and so on) mediate to us a knowledge of God, ourselves, one another, and the world that makes our engagement with reality possible.
What would it mean for congregational life to be a place where television and its capacity to order our lives would come into view? What kind of lives would we need to live as individuals, families, and congregations in order for television to become an inconsequential device in the structure of our everyday lives? In our congregations, how much awareness have we developed concerning the existence and use of computers in our homes? This kind of questioning of technology is best done as a response to the question of how our lives are to be oriented, centered, and ordered. As Christians, what do we belive is necessary to the living of faithful lives? What are the practices that bear witness to faithfulness and what are the material conditions that are most conducive to the cultivation of such practices? Raising
, let alone answering, such questions requires the grace and courage that comes amidst the fellowship of friends whose common life is embedded in a moral tradition that trains us to regard material culture and its artifacts as anything but neutral.
Moving beyond the question of the use of technology in our homes, we can and should talk about the possible uses of technology in the common life of our congregations. But if such exploration does not also pay careful and disciplined attention to the way that technology uses and shpaes us, then we are in danger of reflecting, in our common life, the very distractions and hyperactivity that characterize our culture. As our common life becomes smoother and more efficient with our employment of technological devices, we are getting more done—but are we doing the right things in the right way? As worship service become increasingly focused on and by technological devices, are we losing our capacity to discern the sacramental power of ordinary things such as bread, wine, and water? Patterned as our everyday lives are by technological devices, perhaps we need sanctuaries where such devices are marginalized in order to recover our remembrance of what is necessary. How do we encounter Logos amidst a world captivated by the logo?4
One of the seminal thinkers about the impact of technology upon culture was Marshall McLuhan, a devout Roman Catholic. One of the deep disappointments in his life was the failure of the Church to grasp the theological significance of electronic technology. As McLuhan put it, “electricity has made angels of us all . . . not angels in the sense of being good or having wings, but freed from flesh, capable of instant transportation anywhere.”5 McLuhan named this kind of life “the discarnate life.” The only hope he saw “was through the transformation of mankind by the sacraments of the Church, and the development of the awareness of self through community.”6 Embedded in McLuhan’s claim is the understanding that the Table situates us in the material world—it mediates our knowledge of God and one another, and thereby establishes the conditions for our engagement with reality. This engagement is unmistakably incarnational. This is the witness we bring to a world captivated as it is with the discarnate life.
1. Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 112.
2. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 3.
3. Techgnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information (New York: Harmony Books, 1998), p. 335.
4. A wonderful application of Albert Borgmann’s analysis to the life of the Church is found in Richard R. Gaillardetz’s Transforming Our Days: Spiritually, Community and Liturgy in a Technological Culture (New York: Crossroads, 2000).
5. Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 57.
6. W. Terrance Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, A Biography (New York: Basic Books, 1997), p. 219ff.