Blog Archives

Technology is either destroying us or making us better…it’s hard to say

I’ve run across quite a few good technology related posts lately. Rather than trying to comment on them all individually, I decided just to gather them in one roundup. Here you go.

There’s something, something I can’t explain, about the way a book feels to hold and read that no digital version can match.

A study published in tomorrow’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms what researchers have long suspected: that long conversations on cellphones affect parts of your brain. Trouble is, not even the study’s authors, the National Institute of Health, know how the calls affect you.

There are some pretty specific feelings that can only happen in the Internet age, as a consequence of it. Or, at least, as a consequence of our angst about it, in the shadow of the self-obsession it facilitates, even encourages.

Now I just feel annoyed, having spent $600 on a device that hasn’t done anything to improve my life. A salad spinner would have been a better investment, and I don’t even eat that much salad.

  • And, here’s a compilation of people talking about the internet before people really knew what the internet was.

 

The surprising benefits of not paying attention

A recent Wired article argues that we’re paying too much attention to the importance of paying attention. In “Bother Me, I’m Thinking,” Jonah Lehrer argues that the modern world is obsessed with being “focused,” and has missed out on the benefits of distraction.

As he points out at the beginning,

We live in a time that worships attention. When we need to work, we force ourselves to focus, to stare straight ahead at the computer screen.

Indeed, focus is so important that we routinely diagnose kids as having a disorder if they can’t pay attention sufficiently.

But, he goes on to summarize a number of recent studies that suggest there are real benefits to paying less attention.

For instance, researchers have found a surprising link between daydreaming and creativity—people who daydream more are also better at generating new ideas. Other studies have found that employees are more productive when they’re allowed to engage in “Internet leisure browsing” and that people unable to concentrate due to severe brain damage actually score above average on various problem-solving tasks.

The rest of the article focuses on several recent studies that support the conclusion that distraction actually helps promote creativity.

None of this suggests, of course, that we don’t need to be able to pay attention. He recognizes that focusing is a skill that most people need.  He just wants to highlight that for some people “distractibility can actually be a net positive.”

Although we think that more attention can solve everything—that the best strategy is always a strict focus fueled by triple espressos—that’s not the case. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is surf the Web and eavesdrop on that conversation next door.

Why the printing press will kill books

I tell you, sir,” he whispered, “it is the end of the world. Never were known such excesses of the scholars: it is the cursed inventions of the age that ruin everything: artillery, serpentines, bombards, and above all, printing, that other pestilence from Germany. No more manuscripts! No more books! Printing is cutting up the bookselling trade. The end of the world is certainly at hand!”

………………………..~Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

via Michael Hyatt

Interactive videos: the wave of the (YouTube) future?

Interactive online videos are becoming ever more common. Are they the wave of the near future for online video technology? Who knows. But, they’re fun.

Mashable offers their roundup of 10 Incredible Interactive YouTube Videos. As they say:

Like a 21st century version of the choose-your-own-adventure books, interactive YouTube videos can up the engagement factor by letting the viewer decide the course of the action, or just play around with the content.

Here’s one good example from Patrick Boivin.

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I wonder how these could be used in theological education? I could certainly see using them as a way of illustrating case studies. Beyond that, I’m not sure. Still, it’s intriguing.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/27)

Though most churches have a website, there is a divide between congregations that use their sites only for one-way communication and those that maximize their online presence with interactive technology.

Joel Osteen found himself forced to answer a question that every Christian — and certainly every Christian leader — will be forced to answer. When that moment comes, and come it will, those who express confidence in the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin will find themselves facing the same shock and censure from the very same quarters.

The 14 year old is ripe for the picking in terms of Augustine’s discussions of sin, God, prayer, etc. The narrative and reflective style of the book is perfect for having Socratic and mind-blowing moments with 8th graders.

  • And, the Old Spice Guy is back.

Is social media making us “alone together”?

Are technologies like Facebook and Twitter destroying intimacy and contributing to social and personal breakdown today? That’s what one prominent sociologist, Sherry Tuckle, argues in her recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

As an article in the Guardian noted yesterday, Sherry Turkle’s argument is pretty simple:

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

The article goes on to summarize a number of other recent books that have come out in criticism of social media and their impact on us today. But, the article also goes on to explain that this “backlash” against social media has it own critics and that there is much work yet to be done. 

If you’re interested in this, you should also check out Stephen Colbert’s interview with Sherry Tuckle. Colbert, of course, plays devil’s advocate and argues that constant use of social media is a good thing.

That’s multitasking; that’s productivity; that’s how we’re going to beat the Chinese.

Tuckle responds  by arguing that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with social media. She isn’t arguing that we should get rid of social media, but she does think that we have to come let it dominate our lives in some extremely unhealthy ways. So, she calls on us to “take a step back” and reconsider the role social media should play in our everyday life.

And, she makes an argument at one point that any educator should take note of. In response to Colbert’s suggestion that her book is too long and should have been written in 140 characters or less, she responds:

We have lost our respect for the fact that some arguments really do take…the long form.

Now, as one who blogs regularly and has both a Twitter and a Facebook account, I definitely think that social media can be used in a balanced manner that leads to greater communication and creativity. But, I do think we need to be aware of the  problems that an unbalanced use of social media might be causing in society. So, books like this are worth paying attention to, regardless of whether you agree with the alarms being raised.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/18)

David was a man after God’s own heart because he hated sin but loved to forgive it. What better example of God could there be?

  • A recent BBC article asks, Does more information mean we know less? Along the way, it presents an interesting comparison between our modern compulsion to stay “current” with the religious impulse to reflect deeply on the past. (HT)

We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than St Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

One of the silly characteristics of our age is the credulous and naive veneration of science. It has led to the emergence of what we call scientism–faith in science as the ultimate source of truth and wisdom.

  • And, a in Orange County, a cat has been ordered to report for jury duty. Of course, this rather odd situation was partially caused by someone who saw the cat as such a part of the family that she listed it on the family’s census form. Why would you do that?

Is technology wiring teens to have better brains?

PBS News Hour has a very interesting story on how technology is affecting the brains of our “digital natives” – i.e. the kids who have grown up using technology at an unprecedented level.

The story does a nice job summarizing several of the more important strands of research being done in this area, before concluding that technology is wiring our brains differently and possibly beneficially.

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Review: Worship and the Reality of God by John Jefferson Davis

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of John Jefferson Davis’s Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP, 2010).

★★☆☆☆

I had a difficult time assigning a final score to this book. On the one hand, I picked it up ready to be convinced by its basic argument: evangelical worship is often theologically shallow and driven by pragmatism and experientialism.  And, indeed, Davis offers much food for thought in this direction. But, on the other hand, I found many of Davis’s core arguments unconvincing and his criticisms of evangelical worship either unfair or insufficiently explained. So, although the book provided a useful occasion for thinking through what God’s “presence” in worship actually means and why evangelical worship is often frustrating and shallow, I’m not convinced that Davis offers the kind of meaningful engagement necessary to provide a helpful way forward.

Summary

Davis opens the book by laying out his fundamental concern: evangelical worship focuses more on “worshedutainment” (great word!) than on fostering “a vivid awareness of God’s presence as the central reality in worship” (9). This lack constitutes “the growing God-vacuum in modern American evangelical worship” (12).

And, this problem stems from our failure to understand (1) the importance and priority of worship; (2) the nature of worship; (3) the participants of worship; (4)  the elements of worship; (5)  the “ontologies” of modernity and postmodernity and how they undermine true worship; (6) the need to learn new behaviors and new ‘doxological skills’ for the enjoyment of true worship.” Thus, evangelical worship suffers from a terminal shallowness and captivity to non-Christian ways of thinking and acting in the world.

In response to those problems, Davis calls for us to develop churches that are deep, thick, and different:

that is, a deep church that is marked by the depth of its encounter with God in worship and the spiritual disciplines, rather than a church oriented toward numerical growth; a thick church characterized by thick relationships and commitments rather than thin personal relationships of consumerist and postmodern culture; and a different church of ‘resident aliens’ (Hauerwas) that is unashamedly distinct from the culture in its ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior. (32).

Such a church will be very different in its beliefs and practices from any group formed by one of the competing ideologies of the modern world: scientific materialism and digital virtualism. As Davis explains,

The real problem lies at the level of ontology—that is, at the level of a fundamental background theory of the real that is operating in the hearts and the minds of the people, the preacher and the praise band, even before they walk through the door of the church or onto the stage. (14)

So, any real solution to our problem requires that we ground ourselves in ways of thinking and being that orient us around the true ontology – Trinitarian theism.

Each of the four main chapters of the book focuses on helping us accomplish this very task. In chapter two, Davis explains three key problems in evangelical worship: Your ‘God’ is too ‘light’; your vision of the church is too low; your view of your self is too high, and consequently, your worship is too shallow” (38). Instead of being grounded in a robust theology, Davis contends that our worship is pragmatic and shallow:

The personal presence of God in the ecclesia, by virtue of his covenant promises, his Word, sacraments and Spirit, invests the ecclesia with an ontic weight that does not obtain with merely  human organizations and assemblies. In practice, it seems that ordinary evangelical Protestant concepts of the church reflect notions that are more sociological than theological, more functional and pragmatic than ‘mystical’ and ontological, more Pelagian that Pauline and pneumatic—that is, an eviscerated ecclesiology in which the church is viewed as a voluntary human organization gathered for certain activities. (63)

Chapter three focuses more particularly on the question of God’s presence in worship.

Christian churches need to constitute in their practices—especially in their practices of worship—alternative plausibility structures that can embody and experience the presence of the divine in a way that directly challenges the suffocating naturalism of the dominant culture. (83)

Davis argues that the revivalist background of modern evangelicalism often causes us to focus more on bringing the individual to a point of decision than on the centrality of God’s presence in worship, regardless of how Trinitarian or orthodox our theology might be.  So, in place of this individualistic revivalism, Davis calls for and understanding of worship that orients space and time around God and his Kingdom.

With the strong emphasis on God’s presence in worship, it is no surprise that chapter four focuses its attention on the nature of God’s presence in the Eucharist. Davis deals briefly with some of the major perspectives on real presence, but focuses on the reality of God’s special presence in the Eucharist (however it is understood) as the focus for most Christian traditions. So, Eucharist should be a key focus as we seek to retrieve a sense of God’s presence in worship today.

And, the final chapter focuses on identifying some practical applications for the theological and theoretical insights developed throughout the book. So, he focuses in this chapter on offering some specific thoughts for developing churches that recognize and manifest the real presence of God in worship by being deep, thick, and different.

Strengths

Probably my favorite part of the book was his emphasis on how the way that we view ourselves, our churches, and reality as a whole affects worship. To put it another way, ontology matters.

Davis also joined the growing chorus of voices criticizing the evangelical church for an unhealthy focusing on preaching as the almost exclusive focus of the service. Although I think he goes too far in his critique of preaching-centered services, he does do a nice job pointing out the danger of becoming unbalanced in this area. It does seem interesting that seminaries typically requires multiple preaching courses but few classes on worship (if any). Without a robust theology of worship, a “worship” service can easily lose its way and find its focus in some other purpose (e.g. instruction, entertainment, outreach).

I also liked his call for us to think through each aspect of our worship services and wrestle with what these practices really signify in the life of the congregation. I didn’t think his presentation was as theologically nuanced as that offered by James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, but he still presents some interesting ideas worth considering. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on understanding the formative nature of technology:

Such cultural artifacts are real and have ontic weight to the extent that they display internal structures and coherence, embody intentions, meanings and symbolic references, encode information, have stable existence over time, and have the power to shape and influence behaviors and institutions. (109)

I’ll make some more critical comments on this point in the next section, but we do need to realize that such technologies are value-laden.

Weaknesses

One of my greatest frustrations with the book was the fact that Davis repeatedly claimed that evangelical worship lacks an awareness of God’s “presence,” but he makes very little attempt to explain or justify this conclusion. For example, after attending one evangelical service, he comments: “A sense of the presence of the holy in the administration of holy Communion was  obvious that morning” (113). But he offers no justification for this conclusion. He routinely points to liturgical practices as offering a deeper sense of God’s presence and at one point compares American evangelicalism unfavorably to the more Pentecostal worship of the global south. But, in neither place does he explain why these different worship practices necessarily evidence God’s presence better than those he is criticizing. Indeed, he leaves himself open to the charge that it is merely his preference for liturgical worship that causes him to find other forms of worship unsatisfying. (I don’t think this is the case, but the shape of the argument makes it look like it.) So, at the end of the day, his central conclusion – “contemporary evangelical Christians have lost their awareness of the presence of the living and holy God as the central reality of all true worship” (100) – seems unjustified.

Additionally, he failed to provide any explanation for why liturgical acts are better suited for shaping Christian worship and identity. Like many proponents of liturgical worship, Davis claims that such practices shape time/space in particularly Christian ways and are, therefore, more conducive to truly Christian worship. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with this, his failure to provide any meaningful argument for this liturgical perspective seriously undermined the value of the book. If he is going to suggest that liturgical practice is a key part of the solution to the lack of God’s presence in modern worship, I would have liked to see a much stronger  defense of that conclusion.

I also didn’t like the fact that all six of his areas of deficiency were phrased in entirely cognitive ways. I teach for a living, so obviously I think understanding things is important. But, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that the weakness of contemporary worship is simply a failure to understand. I also found the emphasis on cognitive failure rather odd given his similar strong emphasis on liturgical practice as the solution.

His discussions of technology could also be more nuanced. While I appreciated some of his comments (see above), he consistently painted technology in a very negative light, often neglecting even to mention that there are other perspectives. For example, he commented at one point that technology is “altering the nature of human consciousness itself” (15). This is a highly contentious statement that should be defended rather than asserted. And, even if true, it fails to engage the fact that this would be true for all technological development – not just the recent ones. This may seem like a small matter, but since he made technology central to one of this three primary worldviews, digital virtualism, this actually became a real weakness.

As a result of all these weaknesses, his suggestions for practical application remained unconvincing. He concludes that we need to move toward an “ancient-modern blended worship” that highlights: (1) liturgy, tradition and ritual, (2) visual arts; (3) right use of electronic media; (4) promotion of spiritual gifts; (5) ancient-modern musical canon; (6) weekly Eucharist. I’m not against any of these things, but he did not succeed in convincing me that these come from theological conviction rather than personal preference. And, it’s hard to see how we can deepen our worship practices by moving from newer personal preferences to older ones.

Conclusion

Overall, Worship and the Reality of God gave me a lot to think about and some interesting ideas to chew on. But, in the end, I found its basic argument unsatisfying and insufficiently nuanced at key places. It is probably best suited for someone wanting to become more familiar with some of the ideas behind recent criticisms of evangelical worship.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/10)

This shift of focus away from the activity of the church towards the activity of God, however, exposed a critical bifurcation in the argument, a fork in the road—and many theologians took the concept of missio Dei in a direction altogether unintended by Barth and the German missiologists….If the church participates in the mission of God, the possibility arises that the mission of God in the world may be thought to happen more or less independently of the church.

But there are other indications that though this event was used to bring about peace for a time, the twelve might not have been as faithful leaders at this point as we might have hoped.

One of my pet peeves is the fact that most Christian lay people and even many pastors don’t seem to know what they think the “Kingdom of God” means or have no idea what the Bible really says about it and yet use the phrase all the time.

  • Here’s a roundtable discussion on Christians an Internet Presence with Trevin Wax, Steve McCoy, and Brandon Smith discussing social media, blogging, and other forms of Christian presence on the internet. One interesting quote from Trevin Wax:

The blogosphere is a neat thing, but it’s also a gigantic echo chamber, and the noisy links create the false perception that we are very important and have something so valuable to say.

  • If you spent way too much time during your teen years (or youth  ministry years) watching The Princess Pride, here is the quiz for you: “Prepare to Die: A Princess Bride Quiz.” I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I scored a 10 out of 10 on this one.