The Next Story

Earlier this year I was asked to review the highly anticipated book by Tim Challies. Originally, I had no intention of publishing my opinion; however, as I put together a list of recommended books I see I simply must include “The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion” as part of my collection. My hope is that you prayerfully consider the following and that, should you find yourself as convicted as I, you will seek His will concerning this all too prevalent part of our lives.

Overview:

Virtual church communities, the emergence of “gamers” as a cultural subset, online socializing, family disintegration vs. techno-integration—where are we all headed?

 “This book began with a question. Actually, it began with an uneasy feeling that begged a whole series of heartfelt questions… Am I giving up control of my life? Is it possible that these technologies are changing me? Am I becoming a tool of the very tools that are supposed to serve me…? How has the digital explosion reshaped our understanding of ourselves, our world, and, most importantly, our knowledge of God? If technology is a good gift from God, with the potential to help us fulfill our God-given calling and purpose, why does it so often feel like we are slaves to our technology, like we are serving it instead of demanding that it serve us? … Is there a way, then, to live virtuously, immersed in this strange new digital reality?”

Challies begins with an invitation to explore the implications of the digital age. The title, borrowed from a poem,[1] tackles the question of where the existential “I” begins and ends. Am “I” the sum of all my gadgets? And if so, what does this mean for my faith? What are the implications for the Gospel?

Part One of the book deals with the necessary why’s and wherefore’s; Part Two renders a more practical how-to.

Major themes of the book:

Drawing from three main components—theology, theory, and experience[2]—Challies seeks a synergistic “sweet spot”, and more importantly, a Christologic view of technology. As the author puts it, “It does us no good to know how to use technology if we haven’t critically questioned our use of it. And it does us no good to use technology, even with critical insight, if we don’t understand the God-given reason and purpose for technology.”

Challies presents three variant views of technology. In brief:

  1. Enthusiastic embrace of the latest and greatest. Proponents are recognized by extensive usage of the word “relevant”
  2. “Come out from among them.” Adherents claim “them” includes Microsoft, Mac, and, and various other mega-tech moguls
  3. Middle ground. This requires what Challies calls “disciplined discernment,” meaning, that, “a Christian looks carefully at the new realities, weighs and evaluates them, and educates himself, thinking deeply about the potential consequences and effects of using a particular technology. … He disciplines himself to be discerning, to embrace what can be embraced and to reject what needs to be rejected. He… relies on the Holy Spirit, who speaks his wisdom through the Bible, to learn how he can live with virtue in this new digital world.”

What are the key ideas of the book?

“Rich vs, theology poor” 

  • “Each of us has had plenty of experience with technology, but few of us have the theoretical or theological tools to make sense of the consequences of our use of technology. And so we find a tension between how we use technology, how we know technology operates, and how God expects us to use technology.”
  • “Many of us… have never invested any significant effort in understanding the theory of technology and have never paused to even consider the theological dimension of technology. We use technology without thinking deeply about it, without really understanding what it is or how it impacts our lives and our hearts.”

Idolatry

  • Though not original to the author, Challies relied heavily on Tim Keller’s definition of “idol” to identify “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” It is “anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”

The redemption of technology for the glory of God

  • Challies argues that we have been given a “mandate of technology,” reasoning that the Genesis 3 command to “subdue the earth” includes the invention of tools and technology to accomplish the task. Man, created in the image of the Maker, glorifies the same as he applies his God-given creativity to discover ways to bring disease, hunger, thirst, etc. under control.
  • “To put it in more practical terms, God is glorified in our creativity, whether that leads us to craft a painting that moves our hearts to praise or to design a plow that will better allow us to plant and harvest a crop. To do these things—building cities and schools and families, planting crops and composing music—we must rely on the practical fruit of our creative abilities: technology.”
  • “Technology is the creative activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes. God made us creative beings in his image and assigned to us a task that would require us to plumb the depths of that creativity. He knew that to fulfill our created purpose we would need to be innovative, developing new tools and means of utilizing the resources and abilities that he had given to us. In other words, obedience to God requires that we create technology.” Continuing in this vein, Challies asserted that fallen man—though an image still—is a shattered one at best. His imagination is marred, as are the products (technologies) of his hand.
  • It was here that Challies whispered the word “redemption,” leading readers to reflect on technology in a new light—in light of the Cross and Christ’s power to reclaim, to rescue every aspect of fallen man and the world in which he lives.

Man’s voluntary submission to technology, becoming a “tool of our tools;” reshaping our lives—even our societal mores—to the convenience of our gadgets.

The Morality of Technology: technology is a tool that reflects the heart of man. As believers, we must biblically consider technology, perceiving it in light of our God-given purpose—“to glorify and enjoy Him forever.”[3] Otherwise, technology is nothing more than another idol for man to worship.

  • “It is difficult to try assigning any sort of inherent morality to individual technologies like the plow, the printing press, or the iPod. Even when we consider something like the technology behind nuclear fusion that created Tsar Bomba, we must recognize that the same technology that can level a city and kill hundreds of thousands can also provide power to that city—to its people, to its hospitals, enhancing the quality of life for its inhabitants. The same technology that allows doctors to operate on an unborn child, repairing its body within the womb, allows those doctors to also tear the baby from the womb. In other words, it is not the technology itself that is good or evil; it is the human application of that technology.”
  • “Rather than changing the technology to fit our understanding of what is right and wrong, we change ourselves and our society’s rules and mores, and we reshape ourselves in the image of the mobile phone.[4]

Methodology as Message

  • News as “entertainment,” etc.
  • With the advent of the telegraph, “information also became a commodity. No longer was it simply useful as a resource to solve a problem; information became a good in itself. Its value was not in its usefulness or applicability but in the speed with which it could be communicated and the level of human interest it contained. The telegraph’s value was not that it could analyze information or separate out the relevant from the irrelevant. It simply moved information quickly and in large quantities. Gone was the idea of news as “functional information.”

Technology is not additive but ecological, changing the very structure of life and society.

Technology shifts power.

Technologies cause biological change as the human body adapts to its most important influences.

  • “Our brains actually change in response to new technologies. The brain of a person raised in the age of print, a person who learned from books and who read books in time of leisure or study, has a brain that is markedly different from a person who has learned primarily from images or who has watched videos in times of leisure or study.”
  • “[Technology] has placed many of us into what has been described as a state of continuous partial attention, a state in which we devote partial attention to many tasks simultaneously, most of them having to do with communication. While we sit at our desks working on a report, we are also monitoring our mobile phones and our instant messaging accounts, giving partial attention to a host of different media. As we do so, we keep our brains in a constant state of heightened stress, damaging our ability to devote ourselves to extended periods of thoughtful reflection and contemplation. After some time, our brains begin to crave this constant communication, finding peace in little else.” (Frightening thought when considered in light of the biblical commands to “be still and know that I am God!”)
  • “Images communicate in a way that is very different than words. The initial impact of an image is not so much a thought as it is a feeling. Look at a newspaper from the nineteenth century, and you’ll find advertising that describes a product using words. Today you’re likely to find images that create a feeling and elicit an emotional response. The human brain processes images and words in completely different ways. The word is processed by the brain’s left hemisphere, the area that deals with logic, sequences, and categories. The image is processed in the right hemisphere, the realm of intuition and holistic perception, not linear analysis. An image is processed in an instant, while words take time and sequence.”
  • “Learning through images and visual media is directly opposed to learning by reading, which requires a more sustained focus and actually generates new skills and capacities in the brain.”

What are the weaknesses of the book?

At times I had the suspicion that Challies sat down one day and developed a writing outline from which he never deviated. The book’s progression appeared to follow a strict formula: “emphasize—elaborate—reiterate.” However much this may delight my (admittedly OCD) scholastic nature, the reader in me wanted more. I think a more conversational style may have better suited the material. Still, this is a small thing, and I would by no means strike a negative view because of it.

Conclusion

It’s Challies. One is tempted to the vulgar colloquialism, “Nuff said.” Tim Challies is a gifted author whose great strengths include his frank and earnest style, and the almost vulnerable nature of his introspection. His writing begins and ends at the Throne and readers are left with the pervading sense of a lifted veil and truth unfolded.

The pages of the book inspired so many “ah-ha” moments for me. However, when I tried to find the exact word or phrase to capture the notion, I found I could not. I discovered that the book—though powerful in itself—actually did more than tell me a series of facts or principles; it introduced me to ideas I had not previously considered—beginning with “in the beginning.” Indeed, Challies’s tour of the Garden included profoundly unexpected byways, every one of which culminated in the grandeur of the Cross. I confess he challenged my thinking in ways that left me startled as the magnificence of the Everlasting met the boundaries of my very limited mind.

At the end of it all, I suppose this is probably the best thing that can be said of Challies—or any other author, for that matter: he caused me to think.


[1] See page 14.

[2] For the sake of brevity, I’ll define the terms as follows:

  • Theology: technological discernment in light of God’s Word
  • Theory: More than raw data, theory refers to an understanding of the way in which technology impacts humanity
  • Experience: general interaction; technological aptitude

[3] Westminster Shorter Catechism

[4] Think church services and funerals here. Twenty years ago, a mid-service telephone call met the collectively scandalized glare of the congregation; today the same event evokes little more than a disinterested glance or two. More telling, today’s mourners often text condolences to grieving family members, thus revealing a societal shift in acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior.

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3 thoughts on “The Next Story

  1. I found it very illuminating also in that it opened my eyes to the fact that I am giving in to my own technologies myself and will take that up with my Lord….on the other hand, he gave me pause and made me think about all things like food, wine, etc. done in excess is an idol as he ( or you ) said. So, that also gave me pause in my own life!!!
    It also, made me think about where I get my devotional studies each day. I get them from several different places, then read them (online) pray then I usually post what I feel led to post to my Facebook account, and I do that because I have sooo many unsaved friends, and it is an outlet for me to share God’s word each day, with whomever may be reading on each particular day. In this particular way, I’m ok with, the sharing on Facebook part. Where the Lord has pricked my heart, and He has before, so I am thankful for this post, I am relying on just the technology and not stopping when I get the scripture then stopping and going to the Word and reading it myself, which I used to do…I’d read the selected scripture and all that was around it, so I’d better understand what was going on in that particular selection. Then I would have my prayer time, then so on!!!
    So, thank you for this post, I am definetley prodded, as you’d say to “rethink” how I use my technologies in my life and will immediatley take them up with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and see His will for my life in this area!!
    Thanks so ever much.
    I found the passage from his book reflective and like you said it gave me a “umm” pause in my mind and heart. So, I would suggest this book as a good read, it definetley makes the mind and heart think and ponder. And, if you are a child of God, you will definetley do just that!!!!
    Becky D

  2. Yes! I definitely agree — especially with regard to the reading of Scripture! I love Bible software and certainly use it for in-depth studies, but for my morning quiet times I have been led to turn to the printed page. I am just so easily distracted! In my hunt for peripherals I neglect the “one thing needed,” and forget to simply sit at His feet; to hear and meditate upon His Word. You are so right about that! I am praying for you sister!

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