Sanctification in the Technopolis

Since I’m not writing much these days, here’s a link to a talk I gave recently on the subjection of technology in relation to Christian sanctification. If you’ve been around the blog for a while you’ve seen me write on this a good bit. This is the first time I’ve condensed much of this information down into a talk.

You can listen HERE or watch below:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”


Who Provides the Metaphors? Natural Mythology

I think it justifiable to say that in the nineteenth century, novelists provided us with most of the powerful metaphors and images of our culture. In the twentieth century, such metaphors and images have largely come from the pens of social historians and researchers.

-Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections, p. 15

In context, Postman is making the case that what has come to be known as ‘social science’ is really a narrative form of myth-building. This has continued on into the twenty-first century to be sure.

Where do you shelve Malcolm Gladwell? Is his work some form of ‘science?’ He deals with facts and statistics, right? Actually, he is a story teller. And he uses facts and statistics in order to support certain narratives. It’s not fiction, but it’s not really non-fiction either. Yet somehow it sells as a form of social science. What is Gladwell doing that fascinates us. I’ve read nearly half-a-dozen of his books, and I don’t think I’ve really learned anything from them. I’ve taken the narratives with me, but I don’t feel that I have a better grasp of real reality for having read him. If I want reality I’ll read Charles Dickens, or The Odyssey, or The Wind in the Willows.

This is not to say that the so-called social sciences have no value. They do. They can certainly have value. I started to say I had learned valuable things from my 15 college hours of psychology. But then I realized I actually haven’t. Bad example. It’s just bad stories for the most part. Especially Freud and Skinner. You remember the one about the kid who stopped breast feeding too early? Or about the mouse that learned to push a lever? Or about the Cat in the Hat with two Things? I’ll take Dr. Seuss. “A person’s a person no matter how small” is better than anything I got from my psychology classes. Anyhow.

Postman argues against the title ‘social science.’ He thinks it is misleading. I agree. But, of course, I think that science itself is pretty much always built on narrative. We won’t go there for the moment. The first important thing I want o note here is that he deems social science as ‘moral theology.’ I think natural mythology (or perhaps personal mythology) might be a better term.

The second important thing to note is that we have to figure out why it is that the symbols once supplied by fiction are now supplied by such down-to-earth mythologizing. We were not content that made up stories should serve as symbols of who we are; we now have to have real stories made up to form some sort of mythological narrative. Forgive the post-modernish me; I don’t have answers, just questions.

My hunch is that Postman was right in Technopoly in his point that Science speaks with the voice of a god in our culture. ‘Thus saith Science’ is the mark of infallibility. If one wants to speak authoritatively about anything, one must use the language of Science to do so. Therefore if one wants to create a convincing narrative, one must at least give the appearance that it is scientific.

Ironically, Amazon lists the Postman book I am quoting from under the categories of ‘Social Science’ and ‘Sociology’ – two of the very categories he is arguing against.

52 Novels (16): Notes from Underground

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 16.

-Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

I determined not to know anything about the book going in. Even with that as the case, you can quickly tell that the ‘underground’ he speaks of is essentially the life of the mind, or psyche if you will. I hesitate to use the term psyche; and that is what makes it all the more interesting. I’ve studied a good bit of psychology myself, and realize that this Mid-19th Century predates anything like what we would call psychology.

Dostoyevsky takes us on a journey deep into the inner ruminations of a full-fledged basket-case. For the first time I can think of, I found myself gritting my teeth as I read the thoughts of the narrator. Some of his emotions were relatable (who hasn’t wanted to intentionally bump into someone who has made you mad), some weren’t. But the overarching idea that sterilized Scientific culture has stripped man of his full-orbed humanity rings true.

Parts of the book remind me of Fight Club (I’m not sure if Palahniuk drew anything from Underground). You have a man stripped of his dignity, working in a cubicle, craving for anything raw and guttural. Your psychologists and scientists will never be able to quantify raw angst. You will never be able to turn man into a machine moulded by natural cause; he will defy you; he will marvel you with his nervous breakdowns that defy quantification, that no troubleshooting tool or amount of chemicals can fully squelch.

He needs a good fistfight. He needs to visit a brothel. He needs a good drunken binge. He needs to pass out in his own vomit. He needs to tell off an authority figure. Put that on a chart.

He calls Behavioral Psychology, Wikipedia, and Fitness Apps well before they exist:

All human actions will, of course e classified according to these laws- mathematically, like a logarithm table, up to 108,000 – and entered in a special almanac. Or, still better, certain edifying volumes will be published, similar to our encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be calculated and designated with such precision that there will not longer be any actions or adventures in the world (1.12).

This will lead to “halcyon days,” in which “everything will be extremely reasonable” (Ibid).

A pharmacist once gave me a lesson on Halcyon. Halcyon was a mythical bird. There are different versions of the story, but the central idea is that either the bird, or one of the gods, was able to calm the wind and waves of the sea in order for Halcyon to hatch her young. Hence, years after Underground, when scientists constituted the drug Triazolam, which was (and is) a nervous system-depressant that aided with sleep, marketers (or whomever) decided to name it Halcion. Halcyon days indeed. Such calmness; such tranquility; all in a little pill. The storms have ceased as though a god has waved his arm over your bed.

Dostoyevsky warned us: it wasn’t that calm and restful days awaited; rather days of sedation awaited. Tranquilizers lay ahead.

Still, the ‘underground’ cannot be silenced. The alpha anti-hero calls us to wake up before we all end up like him – shells, miserable, fighting to break out from the dull life of cubicle drudgery and attempted quantification. The book is a gloomy call for us to remember our humanity.

Recent Reading: Transposition, by C.S. Lewis (from The Weight of Glory)

Dawn Treader

I am still relatively new to C.S. Lewis. I only started reading him about four years ago. For this reason, I often hesitate to post about his writings. Like Chesterton working so hard to craft a worldview only to come to the realization that his newly constructed worldview was only that already held for centuries by the Christian church, I am always afraid of re-inventing the wheel. And, I probably am doing just that once again. Anyhow, it’s new to me. Writing helps to solidify thoughts.

I read Lewis’ address/essay entitled Transposition for the first time recently and found it to be very stimulating. The first element of intrigue, for me, is that anyone who has read Lewis’ fiction will realize that this idea of Transposition was important enough to him that it crept into his stories. It’s there in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as the painting on the wall comes to life. It’s also there in The Silver Chair, as the ‘queen’ of the underworld tries to convince the children and the marsh wiggle that the ‘overworld’ doesn’t really exist. It is also there in The Last Battle, in the unveiling of the new Narnia. Finally, it is there in The Great Divorce, in the form of a ‘world’ that gets more solid as you get closer to heaven. Is it, perhaps, some form of Platonism? My very amateur experience says probably. But I am not philosophically astute enough to know for certain. You tell me.

Lewis’ starting point toward his doctrine of Transposition is, of all things, the phenomenon of ‘speaking in tongues.’ He uses this phenomenon, essentially, to make the point that the ‘higher’ experience of the emotions draws up the ‘lower’ experience of bodily sensation and affect into itself in such a way that the two, though distinguishable (I think), cannot be separated. (I am not going anywhere near any argument relating to ‘tongues,’ and I don’t think that was really Lewis’ focus either – only his starting point, seeing that the talk was originally given during the feast of Pentecost (see pp. 18-19)). In other words, our experience as embodied creatures is such that, while we recognize soulish love as superior to bodily appetite, we cannot completely separate the two. From there, Lewis goes on to make all sorts of interesting illustrations and applications of the point.

His first major application relates to the idea that Christianity uses natural (earthly) images to convey supernatural (heavenly) realities. Why does heaven just look like a fancy version of earth? His answer to that question is this:

If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense (Transposition, from The Weight of Glory (Harper), p. 99).

In other words, if God is to reveal himself to us, and communicate himself to us, in a way that we can understand, then we must allow for some similarities and some difference between the pictures he draws and the reality to which they point.

Which leads to his next illustration of the point: that of drawing (this is the analogy that relates fairly well to The Silver Chair). If a person has only seen sketches of a road on white paper with pencil, he might not be able to differentiate a road from a rectangle. But this is not the reality of what a road is. Lewis says,

Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun (p. 111).

He continues,

If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too ‘illustrious with being.’ They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal (p. 111).

That’s the heaven of The Great Divorce in a sentence.

How then does this more glorious, more solid world relate to ours in the present?:

In a word, I think that real landscapes enter into pictures, not that pictures will one day sprout out into real trees and grass (p. 112).

That’s the painting in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The painting didn’t magically become Narnia; an image of Narnia was in the painting all along, only lacking its true solidity and glory. There was a certain glory to the painting itself, it looked quite ‘Narnian,’ but once the lines were taken away a new glory was revealed. This is reminiscent of the words of Hebrews 8:5 concerning Moses’ writings about the construction of the tabernacle:

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

Now comes the point where Lewis gets really clever. He says that modern man has essentially made himself into an animal by not realizing the reality of Transposition. The materialist (I would say Scientist, but I mean that only in regards to those who hold some form of Scientism) looks at the world and sees only facts – this is the way it is. The result of this is that

He is therefore, as regards the matter at hand, in the position of an animal. You will have noticed that most dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all. his world is all fact and no meaning (p. 114).

As someone who has trained a couple of Labrador Retrievers to follow hand signals, I relate to this one. This then results in things like evolutionary psychology:

A man who has experienced love from within will deliberately go about to inspect it analytically from outside and regard the results of this analysis as truer than his experience (p. 114).

And in the end

The critique of every experience from below, the voluntary ignoring of meaning and concentration on fact, will always have the same plausibility. There will always be evidence, and every month fresh evidence, to show that religion is only psychological, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral biochemistry (pp. 114-115).

Hence he has progressed from speaking in tongues to the Scientistic (not scientific) deconstruction of all that is true, good, and beautiful. And it all boils down to not being able to make proper application of the signs, the pointers, that we have been given. We’ve looked at the painting and only seen it as chemicals on solidified tree pulp when we should have stood in awe and prayed for the hastening of the day when the frame would be removed and the real color would appear.

More to come.

You will not understand a word
Of all the words, including mine;
Never you trouble; you can see,
And all directness is divine—
Stand up and keep your childishness:
Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
That can’t be told in coloured pictures.

-G.K. Chesterton

“Will Sci-Fi Save Us?”

On my drive home from church Sunday I caught a really interesting installment of Studio 360 on NPR; the title: ‘Will Sci-Fi Save Us?” The episode dealt primarily with how science fiction literature influences scientists.

A few points of note: One was the pushback against science fiction to present positive narratives about science rather than traditional dystopias. I couldn’t help but think that this is related to something I mentioned a while back: the narrative of scientist as hero (read about that HERE). This is what really caught my attention. In today’s Western culture of Technopoly (as Postman called it), should it really surprise us that there is a pushback against literature that makes us consider the possible negative ramifications of scientific ‘progress.’ I hope the dystopias keep coming, and more than dystopias, we need all sorts of literature making us question our unswerving allegiance to technological progress as the barometer of progress in general. The very title of the episode points us to the fact that we still need dark dystopias. We will be needing them as long as we are asking questions relating to science and salvation.

Second, the show dealt with how science fiction serves as fuel for the imagination of actual scientists. They note an example of an element in a fictional story that has led to the theorizing of a possible way of traveling to the nearest star. This is quite long shot, since we can’t even travel to Mars yet (and to say that would be a pretty big achievement is an understatement). The scientist interviewed on the program noted that at the current speed of space travel it would take about 80 thousand years to get to the nearest star. That’s humbling.

Third, they discuss a class at MIT that reads science fiction and develops plans to actually create some of the contraptions they read about; but in the process they discuss not only how things could be made, but whether they should be made at all. It’s nice to hear that intelligent people are still asking that question.

All in all, it was quite interesting; you can listen HERE.

Recent Reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Reading this book turned out to be a happy occurrence of providence. I had never even heard of the book when I happened to stumble upon a copy for 25 cents at a thrift store during my vacation last month. I grabbed it, along with some other books, packed it in my bags, and forgot about it for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t sure if I was going to read it right away. For me, it takes a good deal of desire, with my schedule as it is, to commit to reading a decent size work of fiction (especially quality fiction, which I find harder to read in some ways than academic books).

I decided to read the first couple of pages before deciding whether I would take the time to read the rest, and here is what I read on the first page:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the princple on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principles on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!’

These are the words of Thomas Gradrind, the schoolmaster in Coketown.

I knew immediately that I was dealing with a story about Scientism (in some way, shape, or form), and I was hooked.

Dickens summarizes this ‘just the Facts’ approach:

Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder (Book 1, chapter 8).

He then describes life in the Gradrind household:

…Life at the Stone Lodge went monotonously round like a piece of machinery which discouraged human interference (1:9).

This sort of mechanical life had enveloped the entire town and had created a miserable working class dominated my the culture of the mechanical:

So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, forever (1:11).

Mr. Gradrind’s son, Tom, becomes especially victimized by this mechanical culture. He falls upon hard times as bad as, or worse than, the rest. Early on,

Time, sticking to him, passed him on into Bounderby’s Band, made him an inmate of Bounderby’s house, necessitated the purchase of his first razor, and exercised him diligently in his calculations relative to number one (1:14).

Thinking ‘relative to number one’ dominated the thinking of those in power in Coketown:

Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing that little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it? (2:1).

As for Tom, his ‘scientific’ education yielded surprising results:

It was very strange that a young gentleman who had never been left to his own guidance for five consecutive minutes, should be incapable at last of governing himself; but so it was with Tom. It was altogether unaccountable that a young gentleman whose imagination had been strangled in his cradle, should be still inconvenienced by its ghost in the form of grovelling sensualities; but such a monster, beyond all doubt, was Tom (2:3).

So I have set the atmosphere. I will not give the plot away. Now I only offer a few reflections:

The book is, in some ways, a romance. That is, it displays what the innocence and love of one simple circus girl can do for a world in which love has been suffocated by school and machines. The redemption of Louisa Grandgrind-Bounderby, and the redemption of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind through her, is wondrous to behold. It moved me as much as any book has ever moved me.

The book is reminiscent of three books that I have read: Brave New World, That Hideous Strength, and The Abolition of Man. It is superior to the first two because of the realistic picture it paints. It is not so much dystopia as it is the ideas of those dystopias enfleshed in a real-looking society. And it goes beyond The Abolition of Man for the same reason – enfleshing. It takes the same principles and draws them out with masterful storytelling and complex characters.

Louisa Gradgrind returns home to visit her dying mother:

The dreams of childhood – its airy fables; its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible adornments of the world beyond: so good to be believed in once, so good to be remembered when outgrown, for then the least of them among them rises to the stature of a great Charity in the heart, suffering little children to come into the midst of it, and to keep with their pure hands a garden in the stony ways of this world, wherein it were better for all the children of Adam that they should oftener sun themselves, simple and trustful, and not worldly-wise – what had she to do with these?…

Her remembrances of home and childhood, were remembrances of the drying up of every spring and fountain in her young heart as it gushed out. The golden waters were not there. They were flowing for the fertilization of the land where grapes are gathered from thorns, and figs from thistles (3:9).

As Mrs. Gradgrind lay on her deathbed with her daughter Louisa close at hand, and her husband away on political business, she says,

‘You learnt a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother. Ologies of all kinds, from morning to night. If there is any Ology left, of any description, that has not been worn to rags in this house, all I can say is, I hope I shall never hear its name…But there is something – not an Ology at all – that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don’t know what it is. I have often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never get its name now. But your father may. It makes me restless. I want to write to him, to find our for God’s sake what it is. Give me a pen, give me a pen’ (3:9).

Mr. Grandgrind finds what he had missed, or forgotten – it is the glory of humanity – that is, the glory of love.

I can’t recommend this book too highly. I think it serves much the same purpose as Brave New World as a subversive narrative against the culture of cold Scientism, but it paints its picture with much more empathy and realism. It shows, in beautiful (though ugly) pictures, what happens to man when he has become the tool of science and technology and what redemption from that captivity might look like.

The Inward Compulsion to Stand

In [commitment] a person asserts his rational independence by obeying the dictates of his own conscience, that is, of obligations laid down for himself by himself. Luther defined the situation by declaring, ‘Here I stand and cannot otherwise.’ These words could have been uttered by a Galileo, a Harvey or an Elliotson, and they are equally implied in the stand made by any pioneer of art, thought, action or faith. Any devotion entails an act of self-compulsion’…

…The freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to do as he must.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. 308, 309

It is not merely objective, detached reasoning that produces beliefs or convictions. The point is that it is inward compulsion, not external pressure, that causes people to take stands.


Man’s Chief End in Technopoly

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology…Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity’s supreme achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 71

Notice a a few things here:

First, Postman’s idea of the deification of technology (the making of technology into an idol) entails finding authority, satisfaction, and law. Satisfaction is sandwiched in between two terms relating to submission. I do not know whether Postman had this in mind, but this is an exact perversion of true Deity:

Romans 11:36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

From is authority, through is satisfaction, and to is obedience.

Technopoly, the culture surrendered to technology to the point of idolatry, finds its grounding in technology; it finds authority, satisfaction, and law. It is from, through, and to technology. Man’s chief end in Technopoly is to glorify technology, and to enjoy it forever. The great problem is that, glorify it as we may, the satisfaction and joy that it offers is fleeting at best – like pixels on a screen – though it may appear for a moment as an angel of light.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can use technology without deifying it; but this is becoming increasingly difficult with Technopoly so deeply imbedded into our culture.

Next, Postman’s point about technical progress is well-taken. It would do us good, very often, to consider our own opinions here. How do we define progress? Have we truly ‘progressed’ ahead of our grandparents because we have digital technology? Perhaps we are more comfortable in some ways, but I doubt that many people would say we were better. The ‘greatest generation’ didn’t even have televisions at the time. But they had more resolution. Beware of ‘chronological snobbery.’

The Narrative of Scientist as Hero

Since I have been writing a good deal about technology lately, I thought I would share this.

As I was driving to church Sunday morning, I was listening to Weekend Edition on NPR. One story particularly caught my attention. Here’s the summary from the website:

Several new TV shows this year revolve around the idea of a deadly virus that grips the world, destroying much of the population. Enthusiasm for these shows is downright infectious.

From The Walking Dead and beyond, it seems that television and movies are tapping into modern man’s great fear – the loss of health and life (which amounts to a loss of control or sovereignty). As fictional mankind (on the screen) suffers from uncontrollable diseases and random zombie bites, and real mankind lives in fear that these things might actually happen, it seems that a new hero has arisen to save mankind from its plight – the Scientist.

Superheroes are still big, but a new hero is moving into the cultural narrative – and boy was the scientist they interviewed happy about it. Listen to the short segment from Weekend Edition HERE.

Technique Over Truth (Technopoly)

I want to share two quotes under the heading ‘Technique Over Truth’:

We might even say that in Technopoly precise knowledge is preferred to truthful knowledge…

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 158

This quote reminded me of something I came across a while back that was attributed (though I’ve never found the source) to G.K. Chesterton. He was reported to have said something like ‘not facts, but truth.’ The idea of the statement is that the Christian is interested in more than simple facts; The Christian’s primary concern is the Truth itself. This does not, or at least should not, mean that we downplay facts. But it means that a general sense of the Truth is preferable to a precise knowledge of things. I could illustrate this by saying that I would trust a psychologist who has a good understanding of the human soul with little understanding of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) than one with a precise understanding of the DSM and a poor understanding of what the human soul is. (This immediately makes me a Psychology heretic by the way).

As a preacher, I cannot help giving another illustration. I would prefer to hear a preacher any day who has a great general idea of the truth of Scripture (the message of Scripture) over one who has a precise knowledge of Hebrew and Greek with little understanding of the message. If he has both, that is all the better.

I understand that this opens up all kinds of problems and objections. Yes, I would rather have a ENT doctor who understands human allergies though he is weak on Truth in general than one who is strong on Truth and weak on noses. But this does not have to be an either/or. Ideally, we would want both. I would have to work through the objections on an individual basis.

A problem with modern ‘technological’ man, according to Postman, is that he values precise knowledge, technique if you will, over the Truth. For us, the genius is one who can postulate and solve complex scientific formulas, even though that same scientist may be a terrible grouch who has been divorced three times and is an atheist. We laud him because of his precise knowledge, though he is far from the Truth.

Because this is the case, education has become much more concerned with the student’s acquisition of precise knowledge of things rather than a larger view of Truth itself. This leads to the next quote. Postman relates technological man’s take on art and literature in this way:

They are interesting; they are ‘worth reading’; they are artifacts of the past. But as for ‘truth,’ we must turn to science (p. 159).

The Lord of the Rings may be an interesting read, and it may be somewhat imaginatively enriching, but it has nothing to teach us about the truth. We don’t need fiction to teach us about bravery, or friendship, or love, or sacrifice, or humility, or the danger of technology; rather, we must turn to Science alone, with the end result that we are content to know techniques and be ignorant of the Truth. That is another angle on Technopoly – the culture that exalts Science to the point of it becoming a religion.