I just finished reading Mary Harrington’s new book, ‘Feminism Against Progress’. I forget exactly when I first came across her writing but it was immediately clear to me that she was not just another cultural commentator. She was willing to say things that were at odds with prevailing orthodoxies and she was clearly well-read. Plus she had a snappy style about her prose that I really liked. Having learned a little bit more about her in subsequent years, I see now why she had these qualities. She was educated at Oxford, went deep into queer theory in abstract and personal ways throughout her 20’s, and was then radically re-oriented by her experience of motherhood in her 30’s. She is one of those modern writers who has been through the swamp of post-modern ideology and emerged the other side sounding a little bit like a conservative. Well, that’s the slur typically deployed against such people; the once-faithful adherents who have abandoned the progressive enclave.
One of the most memorable phrases Harrington uses in her writing is that of meat lego gnosticism. Now that’s a phrase that needs a bit of unpacking the first time you hear it, sort of like moralistictherapeutic deism. “Say what now?” Harrington argues that the logic of the current iteration of feminism is leading our society into a tech-enabled dystopia of meat lego Gnosticism: ‘meat lego’ because we are talking about human bodies that are “liberated” from the biological constraints of gender and sexed differences, and fundamentally reduced to collections of exchangeable parts. And ‘Gnosticism’ because that ancient (and ever-present) heresy rejected the created goodness of embodied existence and made the internal (or spiritual) self the ultimate authority. So whatever I feel myself to be internally is the north star by which all other considerations are guided.
The myth of progress sold to us centers around the idea that ever greater freedom equals ever greater progress. We have equated those two concepts: freedom & progress. Therefore autonomy is prized over responsibility, and constraints are by definition to be resisted. But having achieved historically unprecedented levels of freedom and opportunity already, the modern woman is faced with the uncomfortable reality that women are not really any happier for all their gains. This is one of the book’s strengths: cataloguing all the ways in which a deep malaise haunts men and women who are beholden to this view of freedom-as-progress. So that leaves many in our culture facing the following choice. Either the fundamental promise of liberation was wrong or we just haven’t broken through enough constraints and inequalities to usher in the golden age. Folks on “the right side of history” (as they see it) are convinced it’s the latter, while Mary Harrington makes the case – rather persuasively to my mind – that it’s the former.
There are many other things to commend about this book and Harrington’s other writing in general (typically at the website UnHerd, where she is a regular contributor). She is not a conservative Christian like me, but it is precisely due to this difference of theological and cultural location that her particular insights shine brightly. She sees things differently, comes at them from different angles, and has read entirely different kinds of books. Yet I recognize in her that glimmer of common sense, of seeing the world rightly, of following the evidence when it collides with cherished beliefs, and pursuing truth at the expense of cultural capital among the bien pensants.
This book is precisely the thing to give that person in your life who has bought into all the mottos and slogans of modern feminism. This is not a conservative diatribe against feminism. Those books have their place, though usually not in convincing feminists to rethink their ideas. But this book, written from inside the feminist framework, can accomplish exactly that. And as our world hurtles ever on towards the dystopia of tech-enabled bio-libertarian meat lego gnosticism, Mary Harrington will be a thinker who will help us all to think carefully about the choices we face.
As she points out in this book, the greatest thing we may have to fight for in the coming decades is the right to remain fully and truly human.
I like the image of the bright green snake picked out by the editor, but the title I proposed fell a bit flat. I’m no expert in marketing or anything, but it seems there should be a little twist of intrigue in the title of a piece that piques the interest of the prospective reader. In my case, I just bluntly stated the thesis of my piece in three words and left it at that. No mystery. Upon further reflection, even adding a single word would have helped: How Pornography Poisons Everything. Ah, that’s better. Well, lesson learned.
Despite the title I’ve been very pleased with the engagement the piece has received, as it was linked to by the main TGC website and Twitter account as well as Tim Challies – major boosters of traffic! Such was their reach that I’ve now got a little radio interview scheduled to discuss the topic further with the fine folks at Moody Radio Florida. I expect this will consist of me trying hard not to say anything spectacularly stupid and my wife trying to keep the kids quiet while I talk into my computer.
I have been reflecting on the themes in the article for a number of years, so I am grateful that people seem to find it helpful, or at least confirming of some intuitions they held. What I tried to make clear is some of the subtle ways pornography influences individuals, families, churches, communities, and societies. I found it helpful to use a combination of Scripture and Natural Law reasoning (also known as common sense) to make this case.
I noted in the piece a shifting tide of opinion in some quarters on the question of pornography. The libertarian laissez-faire approach of “do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt me” has proven disastrously inadequate for helping our society, and especially impressionable youth, deal with the wave of pornography that has multiplied proportionally with the spread of Wi-Fi and high-speed data-enabled cellphones with HD screens. And this all the more given the fact that foolish parents anxious to be liked by their teens are pushovers and give them these devices with absolutely no guardrails. Disaster.
So thoughtful people are waking up to the fact that this is noxious and dangerous stuff which is harming a whole generation recently come of age, and that wise leaders will no more allow this to go unrestricted and unregulated as they would let drug dealers open up booths in our community high schools and at local parks. Why? Because young people do not have the moral or even biological resources to muster up a strong defense against the open availability of such powerful stimulants. It’s been interesting to see secular people coming around to this realization and starting to make moral cases against not only open access to pornography for minors but the industry itself.
Another fascinating angle is the growing activism and legal challenge to the frankly criminal behavior of PornHub, the world’s biggest porn site. The lawsuits are huge, and well, money talks. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is a large amount of content on that site which not only depicts heinous crimes but is criminal itself; freely available images and videos that may someday soon be entered as incriminating evidence in a trial. Outrage over that fact should be widespread and non-political, and I have hope that awareness is growing. While we’re on the subject, perhaps you want to sign the online petition over at Traffickinghub.com.
I hope to write more about this in the future, but in the meantime I need to write the promised Part 2 where I try to offer some help for those still ensnared and enslaved to porn. Stay tuned for that in coming weeks.
This brings me to a related topic: anthropology. I know, I know – another big word which we’ve all heard before but aren’t really sure what it means.
And for my most faithful readers, this will feel like a re-run of a previous post, but I’m firmly convinced that it is a necessary word to understand the nature of the rapid transformations taking place in our time. One of the most helpful thinkers in this regard is Carl Trueman, who has made the transition from church historian to cultural critic with great success. And boy can he write. Consider for example this article just published today over at First Things, where he responds to the same controversy I alluded to in my piece, namely the statement made by Dennis Prager that pornography use and lust are not necessarily morally wrong.
Prager’s statement reveals that he lacks a real grasp of what is causing the social and political problems that he claims to abhor: We live in a time of anthropological chaos, where the very notion of what it means to be human is no longer a matter of broad social and political consensus.
Pornography is a great example of this. Behind the problems that should have been obvious to Prager—the objectification of other people, the human trafficking, the transformation of sex into something that is self- rather than other-directed, the reduction of the participants to instruments of pleasure for the spectators—lies a basic philosophy of life that sees me, my desires, and my fulfillment at the core of what it means to be human. Pornography is thus part of an anthropological shift that manifests itself most obviously in sexual mores but is far more comprehensive in its significance.
Later, he adds:
Now, sex and pornography are the most dramatic examples of where this plays out, but they do not exist in isolation from broader considerations of what it means to be a human person. Therefore those, like Prager, who see pornography as having a legitimate function are complicit in this shift. And this change underlies no-fault divorce, gay marriage, and (in its subordination of the body and its functions to the individual’s sense of well-being) even transgenderism. It is foundational to the progressive cause. To concede here is to concede everywhere.
I do encourage you to read the whole thing. This analysis goes much deeper than the moral outrage of an offended conscience and gets at the roots of what is driving a multitude of bewildering cultural phenomena. We do not need the momentary heat of Twitter-depth indignation which tempts us to feel morally self-righteous. That is cheap. But we do need the light of historically-informed thinking that sees through the chaos and confusion of the day and makes clear the deep tectonic shifts happening in our culture. That is “men of Issachar” type stuff.
I hope, in some small way, to continue making contributions to that good work. As always, thanks for reading.
The breakdown of political discourse and the crisis of legitimacy that traditional democratic institutions now face is therefore apocalyptic, in that it has unveiled this underlying, technologically fueled anthropological chaos. The “who are we?” question—always important, given that we are intentional, not merely instinctive creatures—has become the only question, no longer anchored in commitment to a notion of universal human nature, with limitations, a moral structure, and some common goal or range of common goals. Without such a foundation, without answering the “what are we” question, how can we answer the “who” question in any stable or meaningful way? How can we build any stable or coherent society?
Covid restrictions highlighted this in a painful way. Virtual Man, who works through his laptop and can thus work anywhere in general and nowhere in particular, found such restrictions to be far more reasonable than Real Man, who has to go to work in a particular time and particular place because he works with material, not virtual, reality. That is not simply a vocational divide. I would suggest it is an anthropological divide. Real Man experiences the world—and his own sense of self—in a fundamentally different way from Virtual Man. This is reflected in so many of the conflicts now straining western democracy, from the French Yellow Jackets to the rise of working-class nationalism to the Canadian truck protests. In each case, we see what Mary Harrington has dubbed the clash of the Virtuals versus the Reals. Underneath that divide lies a conflict of anthropologies between a technologically liberated view of human beings as disembodied wills who can transcend the limitations of the materiality of the world and a belief that embodiment and place are critical to survival.
For the Virtual elite, the most unforgiveable thing about the Physicals, and the physical world in general, is that they stubbornly refuse to yield to full, frictionless control. There is a reason the dominant informational class is today most comfortable in a purely virtual environment – it’s one where they can have direct, instantaneous control over (virtual) matter. Real matter is stubbornly resistant, a reminder that the self doesn’t control the universe. It’s dirty, polluting, a reminder of one’s vulnerability, even mortality. And the need to rely on other humans to deal with it is super awkward.
So expect the Virtuals of the ruling class to double down on trying to exert control, moving with all haste to develop new and innovative methods of information management and coercion to try to eliminate every human vulnerability from the machine. Self-driving truck startups are about to have an excellent next funding round.
So the farmer and the trucker get discipled into a kind of humility with regard to nature. Their relationship to the nature of the cosmos and of human behavior is such that they must adjust themselves, like a partner in a waltz, to the larger forces they reckon with and harness. The best farmers, or plumbers, or electricians, or woodworkers — all those hands-on trades — are those who best discern and adjust themselves to the raw material they handle, and the natural forces which act on that material. This willingness and ability to adjust to nature as we find it is a kind of humility which is absent from those who aim to remake the world.
Trueman’s piece is important and helpful because he focuses in on anthropology. Anthropology is the study of man – what is man? What is human nature? He traces the loss of broad agreement on the answer to those questions from the Reformation to today. He makes an important point that I am not at all convinced most Christians are clear on:
Christianity takes the material world very seriously and sees it as having an authoritative moral structure that limits how we should act. Most obviously, it sees human nature as a real, universal thing, inextricably connected to our embodiment. From identity and sex to family and community, from the private sphere to the public square, this is foundational to Christian thinking. And in a world that wishes to assert the opposite, this means that the emerging terms of membership in civil society are increasingly those that will deny Christianity and Christians the possibility of full membership.
When I was growing up, I saw the conflict between orthodox belief and the unbelieving culture in the issues of exclusivity (Jesus as the only way to salvation) and sexual morality. But then over the course of my 20’s and early 30’s it dawned on me that a more fundamental divide was emerging, that of anthropology. Trueman does a good job making that divide clear in his piece.
What first alerted me to the deep significance of one’s anthropology was the difference I observed between the ‘Christian counseling’ content I read in popular books and through some teachers at my Bible College and the ‘Biblical counseling’ content I was starting to come across from David Powlison, Paul Tripp and others at CCEF. Much of that difference boiled down to two very different ways of seeing the human person. The former approach adopted rather uncritically the concepts of secular psychology and tweaked the therapeutic advice to accord with Biblical statements. But the latter approach questioned the premises of secular psychology and sought to arrive at an understanding of human nature that was deeply informed by the Scriptures. This approach led to a deeper appreciation of the multifaceted effects of indwelling sin and of life lived in a broken world.
The writing and teaching of the folks at CCEF struck me as qualitatively different from what I had encountered in the popular Christian psychologists like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. Larry Crabb, though their work was still very helpful in some ways. Nevertheless, this experience settled a conviction for me that a thoroughly Biblical anthropology was crucial for building on. Simply put, it serves as the substructure for your view of sanctification and human flourishing. This experience also convinced me that this was one of the areas where regular church folks and ministry leaders had imbibed an awful lot of unbiblical assumptions from the world around them.
Fast forward to today and we find that many of the most pressing moral issues of our time are directly related to the question of human nature: transgender ideology, the dystopian dreams of the transhumanists, and the advances of AI.
Now, more than ever, the church needs to search the Scriptures diligently and gain a new level of clarity and conviction on what human nature is, what God’s intent for humanity is, and how this informs our response to the challenges that are coming at us with increasing complexity and velocity day by day.
While Trueman closes his piece with a glimmer of hope, his overall analysis is very sobering. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here is how he wraps it up:
Yet here, perhaps, is a glimmer of hope. The reason for this is something we all intuitively know: we human beings are not simply whoever we wish to be; we are not simply disembodied wills; on the contrary, we do have a nature—a “whatness”—that cannot be indefinitely denied with impunity. We are embodied, and those bodies involve biological limits (we all die, even if we choose to self-identify as immortal) and a moral framework—we never exist in isolation but always within a network of dependence and obligation. If the time of Covid revealed anything, it revealed that most human beings still have some intuition that embodiment, and the communities of obligation and dependence that are intrinsic to our embodiment, are of critical importance to what it means to be human.
The challenge for the church, embedded as she is in this technological age, is to embody that reality in her life. The path forward is to take our coming marginalization seriously, as an opportunity, not merely a setback: an opportunity to embody in our own lives and congregations what it means to be truly human.
Only a meathead of a man would dare to speak prescriptively to women’s issues these days.
Anyways, here are some interesting links exploring the intersection of modern technology, womanhood, and feminism.
These issues present themselves in different ways in the church compared to the culture at large. While the church appeals to Scripture as authoritative, the culture does not. And so I see the need for intellectually rigorous discussion in the public square on these issues, and I am grateful when I find it. Today I leave you with three examples.
First, a piece by Mary Harrington, whose writing I’ve enjoyed in a few places recently. I don’t know if she is a Christian or not, but she is a thoughtful voice. Over at First Things, she has a book review called Gender After Eden, based on a book by Abigail Favale. In it she deals with some profound questions:
‘The Genesis of Gender’ addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women.
She also interacts with the work of Judith Butler. Here is an extended quote that I think is first-rate:
But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.
Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.
Onto our second link, which deals with similar themes from a different angle. Andrew Klavan, whose memoir of conversion to Christianity, The Great Good Thing, I enjoyed back in 2017, was recently on with Jonathan Van Maren’s podcast to talk about his most recent book, The Truth and Beauty. It purports to show that a close reading of the English romantics—specifically Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley—can shed light onto the meaning of the words of Christ in the gospels. If nothing else, a fascinating hypothesis.
In the course of the discussion, Klavan lays out some interesting ideas about how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—perhaps the very first work of science fiction—is centered around the question of motherhood in a technological age. Shelley’s own biography hints at this, as well as certain elements of the text itself. He goes on to posit that this is in some ways the central question facing our culture. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so you’ll have to listen for yourself to get the details. It’s the kind of claim that seems implausible at first; it’s too fundamental. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he may be on to something. And of course he is by no means the first or the only person to suggest these connections. I just started reading his new book The Truth and Beauty and will hope to post a reflection on that when I’m done.
Thirdly, here is some further engagement with the writing of Abigail Favale, over at The Public Discourse. The value I find here is the substantive engagement with feminist literature (which, admittedly, I do not know well at all) from a religious and/or conservative perspective. Rejecting feminism out of hand as an unbiblical ideology is easy to find among conservative Christians. But those approaches are aimed at other Christians, not the culture at large. They do not really take the questions raised by feminism seriously. When it comes to talking with friends or family members who aren’t conservative or Christian, it’s helpful to be able to have more nuanced conversations that do not rely on appeals to Scripture.
I’m sitting down today to put down some thoughts on my month-long absence from social media. Actually I thought today was the last day of April but—lo and behold!—’tis the first day of May. As I write this then the thought occurs to me: I could go check my Facebook right now! What juicy notifications await! But I will finish writing this first.
The simple conclusion here at month’s end is that the role of technology and social media in my life has been healthier this last month than at any time I can remember. That isn’t to say there isn’t still room for improvement—there is—but it’s been a very significant step in the right direction. As a family we have spent more time together, and I have been more present when present. I’ve also had time to read and write more than usual, although I didn’t have any great outburst of creative productivity. I guess a part of me was hoping I’d wake up two weeks into April and have a brilliant novel or short story just pouring out of me. Alas!
Twitter I did not miss at all. Even with the Elon-buying-Twitter drama playing out in real time, I don’t really feel I missed anything by my absence. The constant screeching of real (and manufactured) outrage, the preening self-righteousness, the craven virtue-signaling, the over-active users who somehow tweet a hundred times a day (but how?!), and the creeping notion that Twitter somehow is or even represents real life—good riddance to it all. The best part of Twitter for me is interacting with people I have some existing connection to and being able to share bits and pieces of my writing. But that was perhaps 10% of my time on there. The rest of it was just a yielding to the power of the algorithm.
Facebook is a bit more complex. Of course the same addictive neuro-hijinks are at play. The reason people become enslaved to gambling machines is the same reason many of us check Facebook dozens of times a day: the delicious possibility that something amazing might be there the next time. So we need to break that stranglehold with honesty, wisdom, and self-control. The positive side that I do miss is interacting with friends and the genuine exchange of ideas that, despite everything else, does occasionally happen. l do enjoy “thinking out loud” and hearing from people who have something to say. I’m a weird guy who thinks about things most people in my life do not and so Facebook puts me in touch with other folks who are likewise interested.
But is that reason enough to step back onto Facebook?
I’m not sure.
What is clear is that it needs to stay off my phone. The role of the “phone”—a ridiculous misnomer at this point—is a key piece of this whole techno-puzzle. It would be more truthful to name them rightly, for the word “phone” does not even begin to represent honestly the role they have come to play in our lives. And “smartphone” is no better. So what shall we call them? Our glowing rectangles, our pocket super-computers, our handheld digital universe gateways, our AI-powered attention absorbers, our voluntary surveillance devices (too conspiratorial?). A bit of a mouthful, but closer to the truth. I increasingly hear the word devices used. That’s not bad—it trades a sleight-of-hand, as if phoning is what we used our phones for, for ambiguity; a device might be used for anything, as is in fact the case with these.
My hope is that the collective effect of all these will be to shift the thinking of a critical mass within the church and the culture on these questions. And to correct many parents’ unthinking embrace of every new techno-gizmo for their kids. Indeed there seems to be a shift taking place, as indicated by the springing up of grassroots movements like 1000 Hours Outside (“The entire purpose of 1000 Hours Outside is to attempt to match nature time with screen time“).
As for me, I will not be stepping back into the social-media Matrix like before. I don’t want to. The challenge will be, given my personality and various weaknesses, to dip a toe back in without being pulled in entirely.
Is it just me, or are we all talking about technology far more than ever? It might be just me. I’m reminded of a strange phenomenon I have experienced a few times. It comes time to replace a vehicle, and I start doing a whole bunch of research, eventually zeroing in on one make and model. Suddenly I am noticing them everywhere: parking lots, streets, and even zipping by in the opposite direction on the highway. They were always there, but I never noticed them. Attention is a mysterious thing.
Last week I was at the last T4G in Louisville, KY, without Twitter, and so I spent a lot of time walking around and looking at things. I’ll admit I felt a little bit like this:
With impeccable timing, Chris Martin wrote a piece titled “Things Are Real Even if We Don’t Share Them.” Ironically, I am sharing that piece with you now, dear reader. But not on social media. Unless you post thispost on social media, in which case we will have achieved maximum self-referential absurdity and the fabric of the universe will unravel.
I plan to write some more on my time at T4G, so stay tuned for that. Lastly, I have been pondering the whole idea of natural and creaturely limits as well as technology’s endless quest to transcend and transgress those limits. There is perhaps no greater illustration of this dynamic tension than the project of transhumanism. It was with great interest then that I read this piece by Wesley Smith at First Things: The Impossibility of Christian Transhumanism.
I got it into my head that it would be good to take a month off social media. This decision, of which more later, came about after a few months of reading a lot about technology, media, the internet, and the massive changes causing so much upheaval in the West. There are tectonic shifts occurring under our feet in real time. Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in 1989 that we had reached The End of History, that liberalism had prevailed, and that we had entered a golden age wherein democracy would continue to spread across the world. Such a feeling was perhaps understandable, but it is no longer credible. With war in Europe once more, and liberal democracies everywhere struggling with debt, decadence, and internal decay, such illusions are dissipating. Even Fukuyama himself agrees. History has started up again.
I’ve been getting clarity on the fact that my relationship to technology is not that healthy, even in the process of learning so much about how technology so often shapes us more than we think. The words of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman are coming back to me. The medium is the message. Each technology has an inherent logic that works itself out despite the intention of the user. As one writer pointed out in an essay titled Technology and the Soul:
Every major smartphone app, especially social media, is the interface for an artificial intelligence “algorithm” which constantly processes everything it “learns” about you, updating a virtual representation of you, testing hypotheses about it against your real behavior, and continuing to update the model. The goal is not merely to predict your patterns of behavior, but, by presenting you with customized digital stimuli, to actually shape what you do. What is commodified is not information from and about you, but your very attention and behavior.
The closest analogy is to the insidious, absurd, but dangerous manipulation of demons as described by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. Like Screwtape and Wormwood, digital technology companies observe and gather and analyze information about you, and it is not the “data” itself they seek to harvest, but your very mind and your will. Jaron Lanier, a former artificial intelligence innovator who has become a sharp critic and an evangelist for more responsible technology, clarifies that the “product” of social media is not information or attention but “the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception.”
That’s helpful and sobering. So all this nudged me towards trying to do something concrete to reset and reboot the role of technology and social media in my life. But a big part of me, the addiction-prone part, didn’t want to change anything. So I posted my intention to take a month off of social media on… social media. This meant I was on the record – no backing out now.
But why exactly am I doing this? It’s important to be specific about the goals for such an undertaking. In order to answer this question, it’s worth reflecting on what negative effects technology and social media are currently having in my life. First, Facebook and Twitter can easily act as huge time-wasters. Too often I have found myself passively scrolling the endless string of content from the algorithm that was designed by expert psychologists and neuroscientists. They have chosen to use their hard-earned PhD’s to hijack the dopamine loops of countless millions, including me. Second, if I post anything to these platforms, I tend to compulsively check for engagement with that content every few hours for the next couple days. Third, daily news content & opinion comes my way via email, news websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos. My intake of these varies from day to day, but at times is excessive and unhealthy.
In addition to these effects upon me, there is also a definite negative impact on my family relationships. I am not nearly as mentally present with my wife and children if I have my phone in my hand. But even with the phone elsewhere, if I’ve filled my mind with these things to the point of saturation, I’m still not as engaged relationally as I want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been a complete zombie, but the difference is measurable and therefore lamentable. My wife and my family deserve the very best I have to offer, and I have too often given them far less – and for what?
So these are some of the things I am hoping to change during this coming month. I have removed Facebook and Twitter from my phone entirely, and will block access to them on my browsers. I will not watch news or current events opinions on YouTube, but take that kind of content in only through published articles. I will aim to not have any passive time on my phone, and to have nothing available on it to which I instinctively turn in those many small moments of tedium or delay throughout the day.
But what will replace all of this? You cannot create a vacuum without something filling its place. Well, more silence would be good. Silence encourages a prayerful heart, reflection, thoughtfulness. Good spiritual food is another thing I want to emphasize. Bible reading or audio is good, as is the daily prayer service of the Church of England. I would like to find a sermon series or seminary lecture series that I can dig into as well. I’m open to suggestions. It’s also a great chance to be outside more, with the weather warming up here in rural Quebec.
We moved out to the countryside a year and a half ago. A few things have been more difficult, but by and large I have loved it. The natural beauty is awesome and endless: stunning sunrises and sunsets, flocks of geese noisily settling down for the night in nearby fields, a distant train quietly moving across a winter field with a long trail of snow floating behind it, the power of the wind whipping across the landscape, and on and on. Living out here, you can’t help but recognize that, despite our modern conceits, we still need to bow to the natural forces that can so easily overwhelm and humble us. The city erases the wild; the suburb domesticates it; the countryside just barely keeps it at bay. Unplugging from ubiquitous technology allows for a deeper connection to natural beauty which, for me at least, speaks to my soul of the undomesticated Creator.
I will also aim to write more. Silence really helps me to write more, as the stillness allows my heart and mind to come up with ideas. Although I’ve been writing on and off for about 20 years, creative writing has been very intermittent. For example, after a season of reading a lot of poetry, I found myself writing some. I say it that way because it sort of bubbled up; I didn’t sit down and decide to write poetry. Recently, I noticed that I stopped writing poetry immediately upon returning to work after a season of parental leave.
I’ve long wanted to try my hand at fiction, whether through a short story or a short novel, but nothing has come yet. I recently discovered a chapter’s worth of fiction that I wrote about ten years ago, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t really remember writing it, so it felt like reading someone else’s writing – and I enjoyed it. If I could find the right idea, and then have the mental space to develop it, who knows? I might just write something worthwhile.
And of course I want to write about this specific experience of resetting my relationship to technology and social media. I’m not sure what that will look like, but it will probably include some shorter pieces on this blog, and then something like a personal reflective essay with some broader application. I am not, after all, the only one who struggles to keep technology in its place. If anything, I belong to the last generation that will have had a memory of life without technology and the internet as an ever-present reality. I suspect that in the coming years our society, and young people especially, will be desperate to reconnect with nature and the transcendent as technology leaves them empty, frazzled, and addicted.
We carry in our pockets little devices with incredible power. We do not really understand how they are made, how they connect to other devices, or how they affect us. And yet increasingly our lives are enmeshed with them. Like so many others, I struggle in my relationship with technology. I find impulses and compulsions at work in me in relation to social media, emails, and other aspects of connectedness that indicate, if nothing else, that this symbiotic relationship is tapping into aspects of my mind and heart that I do not fully control or understand.
While it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, we must nevertheless make the observation that our society is integrated with technology like none before. The fundamental nature of technology has not changed so much – a tool, device, or technique that allows you to exert influence and control over some aspect of the natural world – but the interconnectedness of those technologies and devices certainly has. And the reach they have into our lives has also deepened significantly. All of this begs for wisdom. We need wisdom and understanding if we are to think and act rightly. Thankfully we have a promise that such a request made of God is gladly met: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).
We also have wise teachers to guide us in the particulars of this challenge, gifted men and women who have pondered these questions and written prophetically and insightfully. Among those often cited as authorities on the subject of technology is Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). In the rest of this post, I will share some thoughts on his book Perspectives on our Age, the only English book of his I could track down at the main Montreal public library. It is not one of his major works, but rather an adaptation of interviews he did on his life and work for a radio broadcast of the CBC program Ideas. Which is probably why so much of the book was biographical.
This was my first attempt to read this author that I have heard so much about. It was not quite what I expected. Nevertheless, it was thought-provoking and displayed that originality of thought for which he is famous. The first section was largely autobiographical.
I was surprised to find that Marx was a major influence on Ellul throughout his life. He eventually rejected the Communist cause due to his interactions with their groups, and what he saw as their departure from Marx’s thought. He speaks of “a revolutionary tendency in me.” He said it was Marx who “convinced me that people in the various historical situations they find themselves, have a revolutionary function in regard to their society.”
My jaw dropped however when I read his claim that “Marx was not opposed to the family. He himself started a family and was a good father who married off his daughters and so on.” This is patently false, and certainly hinders my ability to take at face value his evaluation of Marx. See Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals (which is valuable despite some lamentable shortcomings) for a rather more sombre view of Marx’s family life. It was not pretty. Ellul’s takeaway from all this however is a decision to side with those who are poor (in the sense of alienation), the ‘excluded’ such as the aged, the unfit, those at the fringes.
Ellul eventually rejected Marx’s atheism. He was disappointed however by the religious authorities that he turned to for answers to his questions, such as the local pastor. He embraced an intellectual attitude where he did not look to anyone to explain things to him but sought out solutions to problems and questions that he had. This would certainly encourage originality of thought.
Turning to his conversion to Christianity, Ellul says that the Bible offered answers to his existential questions, such as the meaning of life, death, and love. The Bible gave answers on a different level than Marx had:
“I was converted – not by someone, nor can I say I converted myself. It is a very personal story, but I will say that it was a very brutal and very sudden conversion. I became a Christian and I was obliged to profess myself a Christian in 1932. From that moment on, I lived through the conflict and the contradiction between what became the center of my life – this faith, this reference to the Bible, which I henceforth read from a different perspective – and what I knew of Marx and did not wish to abandon. For I did not see why I should have to give up the things that Marx said about society and explained about economy and injustice in the world. I saw no reason to reject them just because I was now a Christian.”
It seems that he lived the rest of his intellectual life with these two sources of authority, Marx and the Bible, refusing to let go of either one, nor to create two domains, one material and one spiritual, but forged on in some kind of dialectic holding the two together in a kind of “permanent contradiction.” Fascinating.
He joined the reformed Church in France, which was only faintly Calvinist at that time. But it led him to read Calvin, who he found very interesting for his “rigour, intransigence, and total use of the Scriptures.” He went through a Calvin phase but then moved on to Barth. Indeed, Calvin was completely eclipsed by Karl Barth.
When World War 2 arrived, he was dismissed from his teaching role, his father was arrested, and his wife was in danger of being arrested. So he joined the Resistance. After the war, he tried to influence change in the French reformed Church for 15 years, but failed due to the “traditionalism of Christians,” and the “indifference toward change.” His verdict: “Once a movement becomes an institution, it is lost.” I can only say that, given the nature of the far-reaching changes he had in mind, it seems to me that the mechanism of that institution protected it from being radically redefined. But I don’t know enough about the details of it all to say whether that was for the good or not.
Ellul then tried to change the study of theology: “I kept trying to find what would be possible for a Christian who analyzes society with the apparatus of Marx’s thinking.” What strange echoes this has today as evangelicalism, these forty years later, wrestles with the role of Marxist modes of criticism like Critical Race Theory and intersectionality.
As I said, I was surprised to find so much Marx in Ellul’s intellectual biography. Given the way Marxist categories have so profoundly infected and poisoned so much of Western (especially North-American) intellectual life, and the allergic reaction that the name Marx now triggers in many, it certainly seems to me that Ellul will not gain many friends or eager ears in my circles.
But now we move on to his seminal insights into technology and ‘technique’. In studying the modern world he came to see that technique, as defined by him, had a similar or greater explanatory power than did capital in the works of Marx for the 19th century.
Distinguishing technique from technology, or from machinery, Ellul points out the common theme of efficiency, what we now sometimes refer to as ‘hacks,’ or the relentless pursuit of ever greater efficiency in every sphere and domain of our lives, including our minds, our sleep, our bodies, our meetings, our organizations, our transportation, our schedules, our athletics, our psychology, et ceteraad infinitum (and other Latin phrases). “This expansion of technique to human groups, to human life, is one of the essential characteristics of our world.”
This seems to me to be precisely right. Ellul is helpful in exposing how technology and ‘technique’ have a kind of internal logic and telos which override whatever human aims we claim for the technology we invent. It remains the case that someone comes along, builds on what has been done before, and finds ever better ways of applying technology to more of life, revolutionizing sphere after sphere of human life to conform to this overriding principle of efficiency and inter-connectivity.
The history of technological development since the Industrial Revolution seems to bear this out. It is easy to think that the individual or small group developing some technology is acting in isolation and that the effects of their work is limited to the applications they themselves have in mind. But a broader view suggests that all such efforts are part of an unstoppable wave of technological advancement and expansion.
It is important to be clear-eyed about this reality and to take stock of our relationship with technology. We must never believe the lie that we merely use technology like a tool. Instead, technology shapes us more deeply than we usually like to recognize. And this process shows no sign of slowing down – indeed the rate of acceleration is increasing. Instead of being carried along in the powerful current, we must ask hard questions about how much technology we should really embrace in our lives, and ask how much of that technology is actually leading to human flourishing.
But to answer that question, one needs to have a definition of humanity, of the good, and therefore of what the ‘good life’ is. That is perhaps one of the most important things we need to recover – a vision of human nature. Are we merely biological machines, like the materialists insist? Are we free to define and redefine ourselves by our own authority, as the gender revolutionaries assume? Are we subject so some universal moral law that we ignore and defy to our own detriment, as the classical and Christian traditions teach?
I’ll admit I did not find as much applicable insight in this book as I was hoping. Perhaps other thinkers have gone further and have spoken more directly to the modern challenges facing us today and into the future. If you have one to recommend, please let me know in the comments!