Today Craig Detweiler shares why he wrote iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives.
It probably started at the trendy Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Ten years ago, I sat across a producer who had invited me to lunch. And yet he spent the entire lunchtime sending and receiving text messages. I didn’t understand how he could be so completely outside of his surroundings, lost in the electronic ether. Clearly, I needed to catch up with this strange, new out-of-body experience known as texting.
Four years ago, I was struck by my students’ inability to resist the call of Facebook. They couldn’t get through a two-hour class session without updating their status and checking for new friends. Why would a mass communication professor have to banish computers and cell phones from his classroom?
Last summer, I watched my children wander around our house carrying iPads. They never turned on the television. They simply streamed whatever they wanted on Netflix, from old episodes of Drake and Josh to every season of How I Met Your Mother. The TV set had gone mobile, untethered from a particular time and place. Yet the convenience that accompanied boundless programming also led to some addictive behaviors and far more consumption than traditional TV.
In each instance, technology was altering human behavior, pulling us into new ways of relating to our world and one other.
If a smartphone or software could change the dynamics in a friendship, a classroom, or a home, then how might technology alter our relationship with God? I began my research for iGods on a quest for a deeper understanding of where technology springs from and how people of faith and conscience should respond to new breakthroughs. I’d grown so accustomed to upgrading to new operating systems that I never bothered to question how the quest for faster and more efficient programs might be altering my values. Was I born to be an information processor? I needed to think more consciously about where technology is taking us.
What did I discover, and what surprised me? For centuries, the Christian community was at the forefront of technological innovation. The mechanical clock, pews, stained glass, and organ were once new technologies. They altered our religious practices and crossed into much broader use. Yet when I look at the current leaders in technological innovation, I don’t see the Christian community dominating Silicon Valley. Churches may have adopted electronic instruments, projectors, and PowerPoint, but they do not own the companies that create these tools. In a race to catch up, we often employ new technologies without considering their full implications.
While we may not find computers or cell phones in Scripture, we can see that God exerted considerable will in bringing chaotic elements under control. The primeval prologue in Genesis documents how a creative God ordered and organized the universe. When Adam and Eve’s hunger for knowledge drove them out of the Garden, God responded with clothes and tools as a consolation. Technology like an ark preserved biodiversity amid the flood, but platform-building at Babel revealed the height of human hubris. Sometimes God encourages technology; at other times the Lord frustrates it.
As I started raising these issues with friends and colleagues, I was told that Jesus was more than a carpenter; he was a tekton. Could the Greek word for carpenter be translated as handyman, architect, maybe even engineer? In our contemporary era, would we call Jesus a geek? Would we find him amid the techies, solving problems, making others look and sound good? Maybe I needed to catch up with what God was doing in the world through technology.
I decided to study the “iGods” of our age—Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram—to figure out what made their contributions so valuable. Why do we view their services as so useful? What have they done for us to earn such unprecedented riches? They help us deal with the newfound challenge of too much—too many books, too many songs, too much information, too many relationships to keep track of. We’ve been trained to think about our economy in terms of scarcity. But the iGods got rich by helping us manage our abundance. Perhaps the idea of abundance is a place for us to start. I’m not advocating a prosperity gospel that falsely suggests God helps those who help themselves, that connects wealth to God’s favor. I’m suggesting that the social media moment allows us to connect with more corners of the world than ever before, to make microloans through kiva.com, to redistribute resources in swift and essential ways. Perhaps a theology of technology begins with a theology of abundance.
Craig Detweiler (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is an author, award-winning filmmaker, and cultural commentator who has been featured in the New York Times, on CNN, and on NPR. He is professor of communication and director of the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Detweiler is the author of Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century, coauthor of A Matrix of Meanings, and editor of Halos and Avatars.
For more information on iGods, click here.