From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer – 2011 Books of the Year

This is probably a particularly good books to highlight on Christmas Day.  Our world is changed by technology and in many ways we look to technology to make us better, give us more, solve our problems.  God created us with the ability to create and use technology, but technology is neither all good nor all bad.  Technology is both shaped by us, but also shapes us in often unexpected ways.  Cell phones give us the ability to leave our homes, go to the park with our kids while we are on-call, but then we often spend the time talking or texting instead of playing at the park.  I have read three books on how to think Christianly about technology this year, without any question From the Garden to the City is the best.
From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of TechnologyTakeaway: Technology is shaped by its human creators, but also in turn shapes its human users. (This is the book I have been searching for on Technology and Christianity.)

Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

I am a geek wannabe.  I fix a lot of friends computers and my less techie friends often ask for advice.  But my skills pale in comparison to John Dyer, John Saddington, and a bunch of other twitter friends.  In spite of the fact that I am a nanny and not a full time tech worker, I have been thinking a lot about technology and how we as Christians should be reacting.  Over the past couple months I have read two decent books on Technology and Christianity, Tim Challies’ The Next Story and Adam Thomas’ Digital Disciple.  Both have real value, but the book I have been looking for is John Dyer’s From The Garden to the City.

The main theme of the book is that while we as humans create technology (and that is part of our God given role), the resulting technology shapes us in ways that we often ignore.  A personal example happened yesterday.  My wife and I are heavy users of our phones for social media and texting, but we do not actually use them to make a lot of phone calls.  Our smart phones are not neutral devices as many Christians want to say, neither good nor evil.  Yes, we can choose to do good things or evil things with the phones, but the very fact we have the phones affects the way we interact in the world.  Technology is not deterministic; we can overcome natural tendencies.  But without reflection and insight we, often are just unaware of how the technology affects us.

So yesterday, we had tentative plans to meet up with friends.  But we had not heard from them.  So we tweeted where we were at, we posted some pictures on Facebook, but we never actually made a phone call and talked to our friends.  Our friends were at the place we talked about meeting, at the same time we were, and we did not know it because we were affected by the technology of our phones.  We expected that if they were there, they would have contacted us by texting or through Facebook or Twitter.  We left and 10 minutes after leaving, they sent us a Facebook message.  They had not seen our previous Facebook/Twitter posts.  By that time we were committed to something else and it took almost 3 hours for us to get connected again.  We had a nice dinner and hung out together, but nearly missed them.  And it was not because we did not think about calling them, we had explicitly rejected the idea, because we did not want to ‘bother them’ if they had decided to not meet us.  Twenty years ago, you would not have made plans to maybe meet someone (two hours from home) at an unspecified time.  But we do that today all the time, because our tools allow us to.  The easy availability of our smart phones affected the way we interacted with the people around us.

One of the things I most appreciate about this book is that Dyer starts from scratch.  Dyer quotes computer scientist Alan Kay, inventor of the concept of computer windows, as saying about the traditional ways of understanding technology  as “anything that was invented after you were born.”  But he does not leave it at that, he takes technology by to a much more useful concept.  Tracing through scripture several ways that God both encourages and discourages the use of technology, Dyer makes sure that this is not just a book about technology, but a book influenced by scripture and theology about technology.

In many ways, other books I have read spend time talking about theology of technology, but never explicitly talking about the ways technology shapes us.  In a very similar way, I have heard many people talk about the dangers of pornography, but never really read about about the physical, emotional and spiritual reasons why pornography affects us until I read Wired for Intimacy.  Dyer spends a significant portion of the book explaining how technology works, where it can be redeeming and where we need to be careful.  There are three quotes that I think illustrate his end point from slightly different perspectives.

Today nearly every tool available to us enables us to perpetuate the myth that we can live apart from dependence upon God. Instead of affirming that the Son holds every speck of the universe in place, we amass tools with the belief that they can help us overcome our deepest problems. Yet even though Adam and Eve clearly abused their creative powers, we’ll soon find out that God didn’t condemn them for their technological activity.

Then a couple chapters later, but on a similar theme…

Today our technological creations still honor God, and they are still a reflection of his creativity. But we must be careful not to believe the lie that the right tools will enable us to live independent from our Creator, the sustainer of life. Medicine may help us live longer, but we all still die in the end. And microphones might help us reach more people, but only a movement of God’s Spirit can save them.

And finally…

Yet we must also be careful to affirm that the redemptive capacity of technology is limited and temporary. Advances in technology can give us the illusion that it might someday overcome death, but this is a tragic and distracting lie. Clean water and ample medicine can only hold off death for so long—eventually death will find us all. Instead, we should view the redemptive capacities of technology as a temporary means of keeping humanity going while God does his work. He used the ark to keep humanity going long enough to save us, and we too can think of technology as a way of keeping humans alive while God does his work in and through us.

Throughout the book, Dyer carefully navigates between the two tendencies, on the one hand to become dependent on technology as a way to exert our own independence (from God) and on the other to reject the creativity that God has placed in us (some would say the actual image of God is our creativity) for fear of the potential of sin.

I am looking forward to reading this again in a couple of months.  The only point that I question is some of Dyer’s use of Genesis 1 and especially his use of the Hebrew word often translated at create or make.  I have recently finished reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One for a second time.  After several long discussions with a Hebrew Professor friend of mine I am pretty convinced that some of John Dyer’s theological reflection around the concept of creating or making in Genesis 1 may be misplaced.  I do not think it raises any serious theological issues for the book, but I would encourage him to read Walton if he has not and have some discussions around those ideas with some professional Hebrew scholars.  He may not think he needs to change anything, but I would be interested to see some reflection on those concepts of functional creation instead of physical creation.  In many ways, I think his point may be actually strengthened.

Overall, I strongly recommend you pick up this book whether you think of yourself as a techie person or not; we are all affected by the technology we use.  Those that do not reflect and think about their use of technology are the ones that will be more likely to adopt sinful attitudes and uses of technology.

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A PDF of this book was provided by the author for purposes of review.  I did not read past the introduction using the PDF when the book was released in Kindle format.  So I purchased a copy of the book to actually read.

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You can read a sample chapter (and more chapters will be available over time) by going to http://fromthegardentothecity.com/

 

4 Comments

Whoa. Sounds incredibly interesting.

    Vicki –

    It’s gonna be sick! I would encourage you to check out all of the posts by all of the bloggers. Granted I’m a bit biased, since I’m one of the bloggers – but it’s been cool to get everyone’s perspective. Not to mention you’ll probably find more blogs to frequent. I’ll be recommending the book to a couple of staff members here at the church. Also if you post all of the weeks you are entered into a drawing for a free signed copy of the book.

    Blessings, Jerrod

incredible book. this is THE book that i’m telling a lot of people about.

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