I’m an academic in the humanities. I’ve been an academic for a while. There’s often been this kind of anti-academic attitude among certain technological pragmatist that academics are technological cave men. Thus, any discussion about social change or even technology really shouldn’t involve any academic from the humanities department.
I’d say nothing is further from the truth. In fact, such a view is naive to the extreme. Worse yet, such a view has dire consequences.
To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to resort to Plato. The first critique on writing by Plato comes in Phaedrus. It comes in the dramatic dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutor Phaedrus. Via the words of Socrates, Plato criticized what was the high technology of his day. While recognizing some use for the written word, Socrates ultimately points out the problem writing possess. If we were to analyze what he said about writing, orality and memory, whatever he said is still being studied today in our media age because the issues remain very similar. I’m not going to discuss the topic of written versus oral words here, as I have already done so in my second book on preaching (in Chinese). I’m using Plato to point out one very simple truth. People do not often know the name Phaedrus. Neither do they know (or discuss) who Plato’s scribe was. Phaedrus seemed to have trusted technology. Plato’s scribe wrote using the new technology, but all we discuss these days, are still Plato’s ideas. Why? It’s because ideas matter.
What dire consequences might we have if we ignore any discussion by those in the humanities in favor of technological hegemony? The dire consequences can be seen daily in China, one of the greatest polluters of the earth. China’s new leadership has worshipped technology because the West has demonstrated the usefulness of such technology. Those who rule China often come from a technological background. Zu Ronji was an electrical engineer. Wen Jiabao studied geology and engineering. These men have been partially responsible for China’s economic and technological surge. With growth, one element is still missing. There’s no discussion about what this growth will do to the overall quality of life in China. In essence, China has become its own victim.
What does all this have to do with church? A lot!
As I look around, I see churches being obsessed with the new technology and social media. In fact, there is a list on top social media churches. In some circle, cyber footprint and the latest technological innovation have become the expensive substitute for healthy spirituality. All the while, with such high tech, people are less literate about the Bible or the Christian faith than ever. Why? It’s mainly because these modern day “Plato’s” are excluded in the conversation in favor of a discussion about Plato’s unknown scribe and how updated his pen and scroll are. At the end, we’ll have scribe with no content and paper will no words. Life becomes an empty high tech shell.
Instead of being watchful over the new technology, we collect the latest and greatest. In the church, what we need right now is more intellectual watchdogs like Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman to come alongside of the Steve Jobs. Otherwise, we’re collecting more and more with less and less benefit. The end product is a kind of technological idolatry. We all know where the idolatry will lead us.