Technology and the Tower of Babel

This morning I jumped in the car to do a hospital visitation and my car radio was stationed to KLOVE.  I do not normally listen to the radio while I drive but it was already on so I listened.  The ‘between song’ topic of conversation was about a piece of Colorado state legislation-ballot initiative no. 29. As the Washington Post has reported (you can read the article here), a dad and Denver-area anesthesiologist Tim Farnum has worked to make the sale of smartphones to people under the age of 13 illegal.  Not only could a pre-teen not buy a phone for themselves, the bill would also make it illegal for parents to purchase smart phones for their own children.  If the Bill has its way smartphones, much like alcohol, will become a controlled substance or contraband for the youth and children of the state.

The issue has both fierce support and strict disdain from parents in the Denver area.  The idea that the government would invade the sanctity of the home and parental decisions about the welfare of their children has been the real topic of debate.  Dr. Farnum’s support base has seen what many other adults have seen. Kids are addicted to technology! Addiction is a loaded term that people don’t like to throw around because for many substance or sexual addictions have been soul crushing experiences. Even still, the term is appropriate when describing the enormous personality and mood changes that constant technological stimulation brings out in our kids.

“‘If you tell them to watch the screen time, all of a sudden the fangs come out.’As he tells it, his once energetic and outgoing boys became moody, quiet and reclusive. They never left their bedrooms, and when he tried to take away the phones, one of Farnum’s sons launched into a temper tantrum that the dad described as equivalent to the withdrawals of a crack addict.”

It is at least true to say that technology is changing the social arena. Conversations that once were deemed to sensitive or personal for even a well thought out formal email now happen flippantly through text message.  Instead of learning how to read body language and dealing with the emotional ramifications of delivering challenging news in person we just click “send”.  We are forced to suffer alone.  We receive and deal out harsh words through text or social media that we would never have the gaul to say in person.  The dark recesses of anonymity and distance embolden us to say heinous things and inflict emotional abuse in new ways.  In a world of constant connection that is marketed as tolerant, there has never been a time in history where we are more emotionally distant, cold, and hateful.

Technology has the potential to bring out the worst in us.

Technology also gives us immeasurable advantages.  I am currently writing a blog post on my MacBook Pro while occasionally glancing at my iPhone.  I am far from a tech hater.  Much of the discussion so far has been political or moral in nature but what about the theological?

I remember one day in college sitting down for a Greek exegesis class on the Gospel of Matthew with Prof. Scott Frost but the discussion was not about Matthew.  Somehow we had gotten him talking about a paper he had written in Seminary (if memory serves me right) about the rise of technology as a second Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

-Genesis 11:1-9

He attempted to make the biblical case that it was only when the nations were unified in language in Genesis that God sensed a threat and acted.  He moved on to suggest that there has never been a time since that the world has been so connected (other than a momentary glimpse of kingdom reconciliation at Pentecost when everyone heard the Gospel in their own language).  Sure, you may be able to see someone of a different nationality on a street corner in a city but you would still have a language barrier.

Once we were separated by distance, language, and culture.  Now, western culture practically dominates global interaction, anyone can be in your virtual presence on your smart phone as fast as it takes to push the FaceTime, Duo, or Skype application, and advancements in translation software can have you understanding or speaking any language without any effort.  He asked the question: Are we in danger?

I found this an interesting thought.  I think the ultimate answer is yes, but not maybe for the same reason he suggested.  I just don’t know if language is the real problem here.  The narrative of Genesis thus far has let us know that humans broke faith with God and in breaking faith we God they sullied their connection to him and as an unforeseen consequence their connection with one another was also tarnished.

The relational divide is both vertical (with God) and horizontal (amongst humans).

Leading up to Genesis 11 and the story we are considering one witnesses the snowball decline of humanity’s situation with the brokenness culminating in the flood narrative where:

The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.

-Genesis 6:5

The situation is dark indeed and it is far from resolved in the Noah story. Over and over sin causes relational divides between God and his creation and between people.  Many biblical scholars are puzzled by the placement of the Babel narrative within Genesis.  A number of people have suggested it really ought to be earlier in the book “historically speaking”.  But what if this story is not meant to be a historical insight but a theological one highlighting the ways that humanity ceaselessly tries to downplay their situation and unify in an attempt to squeeze out the necessity of God?

In Genesis 11, a unified language eases social pressures and allows for a false sense of relational connection that ignores the foundational human ailment – estrangement from a holy God.  In this story, humanity experiences a false sense of hope that God judges will only lead them to destruction. God has to destroy the very thing that conceals their need.  He does this in our lives too, tearing down our facades and showing us the root of our issues as sin.

One thing that technology has the potential to do is numb us to the reality of our situation.  Constant connectivity to the world seems to mask our broken connection to God in sin.  One Google search will fill the affirmation void we crave in justifying our sinful desires as we find communities at the click of a button that are more than willing to call our sin “harmless self-expression”. The relational and physical distance of wireless communication allows us to deal substantial emotional and spiritual damage without having to witness their affects or pick up the pieces.

Because of screens we are dulled to our real brokenness and the real solution in Christ.

Theologically speaking then the question should be changed from whether or not a child or pre-teen having a smart phone is medically or socially problematic.  The discussion should not center around an issue of personal or states rights in legislating smartphone control.  Instead as Christians we need to ask the question:

Does having a smartphone bring us closer to Jesus?

Now specifically, does subjecting children and teens to the fullness of technological freedom and anonymity contained in smartphones help show them their need for Christ and holiness?

Sadly, I haven’t seen much theological reflection on the nature of our technological world (at least that isn’t wacko).  Maybe we need to have a deeper conversation about the void that technology has been filling in our younger generations and ask what the church’s role is in shaping the future of technology…

In Memory of John Pitzer

*Disclaimer* It is probably a little outside the norm to write about a man you barely knew after he passes and without the consent of his family but I bear with me because I have something to say.

A few weeks back John Pitzer passed away.  I have not been able to get definitive information about the nature of his passing but familial rumor has it that he fell off the wagon and overdosed on his substance of choice.  As a pastor I get the chance to mourn with families and friends at the loss of their loved ones more often than I would like.  Still, I cherish the opportunity to get to try and bring some words of hope and peace to grieving people.

Death sucks…

John was not an avid attender at our church.  He had other priorities, vices, and jobs that sometimes took him away.  No lie though, when John did show up I had a better Sunday.  I couldn’t have been the only one.

John had a way of bringing a sense of openness, vulnerability, and authenticity to our service.  I would often times get to talk with him briefly before or after services and I won’t forget the cheeky banter but also the cut to the point, no holds bar, confessional type moments where he laid bare his concerns. These moments are precious to me. He lifted my heart in the few times I got to talk with him and I don’t want him forgotten.

Drugs sucks…

So many times, once we give in to the pressure to smoke, snot, swallow, shoot, or swill (you name it), I think the Enemy of God breathes a sigh of relief–one less person to lead to destruction.  Don’t get me wrong, in the Name of Jesus we can find liberty, freedom, hope, power, and new direction.  God was able to raise Jesus Christ from the grip of death by the power of the Holy Spirit so redeeming people from the chains of drug addiction is well inside the bounds of the power of Christ’s work.  Sadly though, that power is only made effective in the lives of people who seek the Lord and yearn for his will for their lives over their own.  God is always working, always wooing, always calling us to him but drugs have the profound ability to grieve the Holy Spirit and make the still small voice of God mute for all intents and purposes.  Drugs suck!  Once they have their claws in us to many times we manage to isolate ourselves, destroy our relationships, disappoint ourselves and others with alarming frequency, and get ourselves into financial pinches that only heighten the stress and perpetuate our dependence on substances other than the sustaining power of God in our lives and the peace that walks us through every situation (high and low) by the power of his Spirit.

John Pitzer struggled with drugs.  Those who knew him well have felt the sting of disappointment, stress, and anger.  But John was created in the image of God. C.S. Lewis has a famous line, “you have never met a mere mortal.” John bore the precious image of God.  He was made for a purpose.  He was on this planet to love and be loved and drugs robbed him of that.  Worse even, drugs led him to squander the image of God in him.  We all bear the mark of our God.  We were created to live in this world has stewards of his creation, fully alive in him, in perfect harmony with God and with each other but instead we chose our own path–a path of sin.  In our own ways we all have mocked the image of God rooted deep inside.  Instead of showing love we show hate, instead of kindness – bigotry, instead of patience – rage, instead of hope – despair.  We all have chosen paths other than what God had for us.

In the end we all face death.  It is our curse in sin.  But, because of what Christ has done for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension though we have a choice in how we face our foe.

It is a great tragedy to see a human being die.  John is no different.  A life marked by drugs is often quickly forgotten, even by close friends and family because drugs manage to severe ties long before death and we tend to mourn the loss of our loved before they even pass because in all reality if feels like we lost them a long time ago.

But there is hope!  John should not be forgotten.  He was a precious child of the living God.  The Lord loved him so much even through his bondage to substance abuse that his own Son (Jesus Christ) suffered and died in his place.  As Christians we leave ultimate judgement to God.  We resist the temptation to become put ourselves on the judges bench, judging others mistakes, vices, behaviors.  Instead we ought to pray to see the people around us who are suffering with the eyes of a suffering God who never gives up on his kids.  John should not be forgotten because he will never be forgotten by our holy God.  

It is a terrible thing to see someone squander the image of God implanted in them.  We are all destined for eternity but we sometimes treat life like it is fleeting, useless, unwanted.  Drugs become a friend in that darkness, but a dark friend indeed.  Instead of leading us to the light–wholeness, healing, mended relationships–they make us retreat into the darkness, alone, isolated…

If you are struggling with substance abuse today, please don’t forget John.  Instead, seek help.  Seek the blood of Christ.  Seek counseling.  There is hope today even if you can’t see it in the middle of your situation.

We will all see John again one day.  Some day soon, Christ will come again in glory and we will all stand accountable for our lives.  Instead of debating which side of the isle John will be on we should take this time to look inside ourselves and ask if we are squandering the grace of God in our own lives.  Are we living lives worthy of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

John will be missed.  Don’t forget him, and may his memory move us to action.

A Wink and a Nod

“People who wink at wrong cause trouble, but a bold reproof promotes peace.” -Proverbs 10:10

When I read this verse from Proverbs I immediately think of two things:

1) My dog Penny.  She loves to hop up right in front of you on the couch and get her chest rubbed until she goes almost comatose.  At this point she gets a little lazy, yawns and sticks out her tongue way further and a tongue should be able to go, and then she looks at you all bleary-eyed and winks.  It is crazy cute (almost as cute as the winking koala).

2) I imagine the wink and a nod that a Grandpa gives to his grand babies when mom or dad leaves the room after pointing out to the kids (who know better) and the grandpa (who most certainly knows better) that something they were doing was wrong.

Now, as I write this my wife is but hours or days away from giving birth to our first child–Emery.  I can already see a time when my Dad tries to get back at me for all the ways I subverted his authority throughout the years.

When you are a grandparent you get certain liberties.*BE ADVISED it doesn’t work if you undermine your spouse in this way by making mommy or daddy the bad boy or girl of the house.*

Pulling the “grandparent card” is all well and fun for the most part.  What is not okay though is a wink and a nod when it comes to legitimately sinful behaviors whether it be those of a friend, spouse, child, etc. Unfortunately I observe this phenomena all to often (and I have been and will probably be guilty of this again in the future).  When it comes to having tough conversations with our kids or friends about spiritually destructive behavior, instead of “a bold reproof that promotes peace” as our text suggests, we give a sideways nod to the behavior.  It usual says, “Oh I wont tell anyone. What the h**l,” or “I see what you are doing and you know I disapprove but lack the backbone to do anything about it.”

In my short experience as a pastor (and as an human being) I find the “trouble” of these “winks at wrong” to be incredibly stunting to spiritual growth.  It sends a couple of messages:

1) We take more serious our role as “friend” then our role as a brother or sister in Christ (or actual parent).

2) For a kid, teen, youth, or young adult, if we are the types of friends, parents, or mentors that wink at their wrong doing while we are supposed to be the spiritual authority in their lives, they tend to pick up a view of God (or more usually the “friendly Jesus” perception) who is perfectly content with the dumb or damaging things they do, “heck, they are only human right”?  Wrong.

Take some time to day to reflect on the truth that God sees the wrong things we do and wishes to bring forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing; not permission to continue our bad behaviors like the winking grandpa.  How are you reflecting the character God to your kids, friends, co-workers?  In Christian love do you own someone a bold reproof? It may not feel like this action leads to peace immediately.  Ultimately though, what matters is we find peace with a holy God. Are you the type or person who goes with the crowd with a wink and a nod? I imagine there where quite a few of those in the mob who shouted for the crucifixion of Jesus.  Also self-reflect: Are there patterns or behaviors in my life that I know are wrong that I continue to do anyways because I see Jesus as a “buddy buddy” but not LORD?