Do you own your technology or does your technology own you? This is a deeply probing and provocative question. “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 (p. 11)?” Answering these questions put Tim Challies on a quest which resulted in his recent book The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion.

Whether we want to be or not we are all plugged into technology. Some of us more than others by choice or by profession. Some of us are plugged in as little as possible and resist the technology pull every step of the way. Still others are plugged in more than they realize and are unwilling to admit it. Whoever you are and how ever much or little you are engaged in technology today, you are affected by it and you need to read The Next Story.

Since technology is here to stay and we all take part in using it (even the resisters) Challies offers a description of engagement called disciplined discernment. This disciplined discernment is when

A Christian looks carefully at the new realities, weighs and evaluates them, and educates himself, thinking deeply about the potential consequences and effects of suing this kind of technology……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 (p. 17).

Part 1 of the book deals with a theology of technology, the theory of technology and our experience(s) with technology. Challies takes the above approach to technology, versus total rejection of it, because he sees technology as the natural result of mankind fulfilling the cultural mandate in Genesis. God is creative and he created us to be creative. Technology is thus the result of our God given creative ability (p. 22-23).

With the theory of technology, Challies offers several angles to help us better understand how our use of technology can effect us. It involves risk and opportunity, each medium carries with it a message when used, it shifts the balance of power and has biological effects. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan, Challies gives us four questions to ask ourselves before we involve ourselves in the newest technology in order to “identify the deep-rooted nature – and possible impact – of a new technology (p. 41):

  1. What human trait, sense, or experience is enhanced by this new technology?
  2. What existing technology is made obsolete by this new one?
  3. What old, abandoned technology does this technology bring back to mind?
  4. What unintended opposite effects might this technology have?

Asking and thoughtfully answering these questions will help us to become better disciplined discerners when it comes to our use of technology.

The final aspect of technology Challies considers is our experience with it over time. He provides a fascinating and sweeping digital history starting with Samuel Morse in 1844 with the invention of the telegraph and running right up to today with the invention of the computer and cell phone.

Before moving to part 2 Challies asks us to consider four more questions we need to ask of our technology before we use or don’t use them (p. 61-64).

  1. Why were you created? – For business or entertainment?
  2. What is the problem to which you are a solution, and whose problem is it? – Is the ‘problem’ this technology addressing even real and if so is it my problem?
  3. What new problems will it bring? – Will the negative effects of using this technology outweigh the good?
  4. What are you doing to my heart? – Is this technology going to become an idol of my heart or is it going to be an avenue through which I will fall deeper into an already existing idol?

Part 2 addresses a number of important aspects of technology, how they shape our lives through our experience with them and how we need to respond with disciplined discernment. Throughout part 2 Challies tries to weave the aspects of theology, theory and experience as he discusses everything from technology as communication, mediation/identity, distraction, information, truth/authority and visibility/privacy. At the end of each chapter Challies recaps the theological, theoretical and experiential issues he discussed, offers some suggestions on how to think about our technology in light of them and then provides some probing questions to answer to help us think about and evaluate our use of technology.

An Obejctor

While I love this book I did have some objections or concerns with some of Challies theological points. It seems there is a disconnect between Challies theology of technology in part 1 and how he applies it later in the book. Due to space I will only address one of them.

In the chapter on mediation Challies defines a medium as “something that stands between (p. 91)” Fair enough. Applied to technology “a digital medium is a device or tool or technology that delivers some kind of data or information. It stands between the one who creates sounds or images and the one who receives them (p. 91).” Were still ok up to this point. Where I think Challies becomes inconsistent or at least tries to draw a false comparison is when he looks at God’s mediation with us through Christ because of our sin and our use of mediation with others through our technology. Challies writes,

The best relationships we can have are not those that rely on mediation, but rather the ones that allow for unmediated contact and communication. This becomes apparent as we examine God’s intention for us as people made in his image. What type of relational interaction were we made for, and hwy is a mediator now necessary for us to experience relational intimacy? The Bible does, in fact, teach us that mediation is necessary for us to know God fully and love one another, but as we will see, this mediated communication is a concession from God and a consequence of man’s sin. Face-to-face contact between human beings is inherently richer and better than any mediated contact (p. 92).

First, it is a false comparison to say that because God used mediation through Christ to bring us to himself because of sin, this makes all mediatorial things inferior to unmediated contact.

Second, following that, this is inconsistent with Challies theology of technology as the natural result of mans creative ability as endowed to him by God at creation. If technology is a result of mankind fulfilling the creation mandate, and it is by definition mediatorial, then how can it be that it is inherently inferior? Would technology not have a mediatorial aspect if sin had never entered the picture? Would we not be using emails or phones to speak to people from around the world? After all God commanded Adam and Eve to form and fill the earth. It seems that mediated communication would be necessary even in a world without sin. Further, when heaven and earth are brought together and sin is removed how will technology be changed? Will God remove all mediated technology? I think this is an issue and these are some questions that we need to think through before adopting this view of mediation and technology.

Many Praises

Despite the faults I find in the book, there are well more good contributions this book brings to the table when it comes to the intersection between faith and technology.

First, while I am not a techie junkie, this is the only book of its kind that attempts to bring theology to bear on technology.

Second, Challies asks the penetrating questions and really identifies with his readers and fellow technology users with them. He asks the good hard questions of us because he has first asked them of himself.

Third, Challies does not make us feel dirty for using technology even though it is used for some pretty sinful stuff. He brings a balance and even-handed approach to it.

I think this is a book that is long overdo but probably could not have been written even 3 years ago. This is a book that only a hand full of people could have written and Challies is certainly qualified. I think every Christian needs to read this book. I do wonder how well many people will be able to make the necessary adjustments in their lives when it comes to their use of technology. I am by no means heavily entrenched in technology (maybe I am and just don’t see it yet) but I found myself walking away with many things I need to think about and have already begun the process of evaluating my own use of technology – changes will be made.