Monday, July 13, 2009

Primal Technologies

I'm reading Understanding Media (1964) by Marshall McLuhan as a way of better understanding Flickering Pixels (2009) by Shane Hipps--a book which I fell in love with and will be facilitating discussion of in August. Hipps gives major props to McLuhan (known and perhaps misunderstood for his phrase "the medium is the message") early on in the book as a prophet of our current technological malaise--we can do seemingly all things, but we remain largely blissfully unaware of what all we've signed over of ourselves in the process. So Hipps, following McLuhan, is looking for ways of recalibrating our symbiotic relationships with our technologies, such that we remain masters rather than servants and users rather than worshipers.

McLuhan was writing in the early days of the "electric age," when television and film were on the rise, when computers filled rooms and launched objects into space. It's hard in such times not to settle into starry-eyed wonder or horror-filled apprehensions about new technologies, but McLuhan managed to step back far enough to put the electric age in context. He argues that in the same way that technologies have always served to simultaneously extend and render obsolete human capacity--the wheel, for example, extended the capacity of the foot but made walking embarrassingly quaint--the electric age is distinct in its extension of not just our limbs and senses but our central nervous system. In the electric age, he suggests, it's possible to relocate all sensory experience and its interpretation outside of ourselves. We've given ourselves external hard drives. We conduct our lives increasingly not directly but through avatars. Whoah.

To embrace the thesis of either Understanding Media or Flickering Pixels requires embracing an expanded definition of technology. That's given some of my friends, particularly those who consider themselves especially spiritual, a great deal of pause. Both McLuhan and Hipps would argue that our spirituality can be understood technologically; for example, to be Jewish is to have adapted our spirituality through the technology of Torah, so that the Ten Commandments organize our ethics, and the stories of the Patriarchs establish for us how we relate to one another, to God and to the world. To be Christian is to extend the technology of Torah via the New Testament, so that now instead of hearing "Thou shalt not kill" and thinking that murder is bad, we hear "Thou shalt not kill" and consider it wrong to harbor hate for another person. The technology of the gospel--Jesus' life and death and resurrection and ascension--eliminates the need for the more complex technology of Torah; as the writer of Hebrews suggests, Jesus becomes our once-for-all high priest, and his once-for-all sacrifice fulfills the ongoing sacrificial system prescribed in the Old Testament.

So our formal relationship with God is a function of a kind of technology. So, arguably, are our relations with one another. If, as McLuhan suggests, technological advances are propogated as a solution to some perceived stress, then it's reasonable to perceive marriage, as presented in Torah and elaborated on in the New Testament, as a kind of technology. "It's not good for the man to be alone," says God, and so God takes one of the man's ribs and makes a helper for him--literally an extension of his person, flesh of his flesh. The apostle Paul is quick to remind us that thereafter man comes from woman, so that the technology of relationship is truly symbiotic. This technology becomes totalizing: to separate a marriage is to tear it asunder, and to isolate individuals from a larger community is to subject them to "excessive sorrow" (2 Cor 2:7).

Sin, it's often observed, separates. The person who sins created distance between herself and God, herself and other persons, even herself and herself. The sinner experiences what Adam and Eve experienced: exclusion from the garden of Eden, where fellowship with God was direct and intimate. The sinner experiences what Cain experienced: restless wandering with no friends, a punishment that is "more than I can bear" (Gen 4:13). So the engine of the technology that God extends to us is reconciliation. The gospel extends our reach, so that we can once again have direct interaction with God. The gospel recalibrates our vision of one another, so that we're not competitors for God's affection but members of God's body, bricks in God's temple, priests in God's court.

But reconciliation is totalizing, as well. We are instructed by Jesus to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We are encouraged by Jesus to leave our gifts to God on the altar when we're not yet reconciled to the people God has connected us to. We're confronted by the apostle John with the notion that to the degree we can't love the people around us, we can't love God. Like any other technology, reconciliation takes as much as it gives.

Unlike many technologies, however, reconciliation comes from God, and God makes stuff good. This, I think, is a way of understanding Bonhoeffer's notion of costly grace: we're handed it and promised an infinitely better life by way of it, but it "demands my soul, my life, my all."

There's more to be explored here, and Hipps has another book coming that will deal with some of it: the technologies, for example, of prayer, Scripture, praise, sacrament and so on. But in the meantime, it's worth considering that technology is the lingua franca of the electric age, and so to speak meaningfully of the gospel here and now is to understand it technologically.

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