Monthly Archives: June 2011

An Exercise in Irony

I have been plugging away at teaching composition courses this summer, and I am now on the second week of a course in research and argumentation.   For the class I am currently teaching, the topic is technology, and how it is transforming the world around us.  We kicked off the course last week by viewing the PBS special, Digital_Nation.

What we know for certain is that technology is not just changing what we think about (everything from instant news to an explosion of pornography), it is also changing how we think.  We are becoming more visual and more vocal now that anyone with a computer has a tool of mass communication.   We have also rapidly adapted to getting information in bits and bytes.  With more information to think about, we have ever less time to think deeply.

What we don’t know for certain is how exactly this is going to change us as a society.  The Jasmine Revolution suggests that the internet has the power to transform political realities in the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press facilitated the Protestant Reformation.  Among the potentially positive effects is that political apathy will decline as young people recognize the empowerment technology offers when it is used wisely.

Digital_Nation also exposes what the producers might consider the darker side of technology — video game addiction, for example, or sexting.  Yet I can’t help thinking that these are not so much the darker side of technology, as they are new expressions of the darker side of human nature.   There is the tendency to construct fantasies for ourselves and to cling to them desperately,  and the pride that wants to define and enlarge ourselves as individuals at the expense  of community.  Above all else, there is the repeated denial of dependence – the insistence that we are completely in control even when we are not.

The most striking example of this in Digital_Nation was the discussion of multitasking that came at the beginning of the program.  The interviewers asked students at MIT how good they were at multitasking.  Everyone insisted that they were effective multitaskers, and most students expressed indignation at the refusal of professors to recognize that they were perfectly capable of performing tasks online while taking in lectures.  Yet, the brain scans performed by scientists offered undeniable proof that multitasking doesn’t work.  The brain is  not designed to do more than one thing at a time.  We have plenty of devices designed to boost our productivity, but the more we use them, the less productive we become.

The problem with discussing how technology changes us is that we are so immersed in it on a daily basis that we find it hard to step back and think about how our relationships have changed since they became digital, or how our work changed when we began to work with word processors instead of pens and notebooks. Even this discussion, an online post rather than a conversation around a dinner table, is an exercise in irony.  Still, I think that there are two things I can take away from Digital_Nation.

The first is to never take for granted my mastery over the tools I use.  The repeated insistence of tech users that they were in complete control even when they were obviously not begs a reference to Psalm 19:12, “How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults” (NLT).  Perhaps, we will be wiser in our use of technology if we pay attention to the feedback of others around us.  (Such as when my mother sarcastically refers to my laptop as “Anne’s beloved.”)  Or, perhaps, we might look to lesson two.

Lesson two is to recognize that our one-task-at-a-time brains are the invention of an all-wise God.  Rather than seeing our inability to multitask as a limitation, we should be grateful that God has given it to us as a safety net.  We are told by Jesus that our words and actions have deep roots in the thought life (Mt. 12:34).  We are also commanded in Scripture to meditate on God’s Word (see Psalms 1, 19, and 119).  God has designed us to make Him the single focus of our lives.  If we meditate on Scripture and interact with Him more persistently than we IM the people on our buddy list (I Thess. 5:17), we are going to have victory over the things that distract us spiritually and destroy our fruitfulness.  Why?  Because we can’t multitask spiritually.  A mind that is turned toward God can’t be turned toward sin and addiction at the same time.  God has made it physically impossible.  He has wired us for success if we only embrace the spiritual discipline of God-centeredness.

This is why Paul characterizes victory over sin as “taking captive every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2).  Technology has no power to overthrow the God-centered mind.  Rather, those who obey the first commandment to love God with all their minds are in a position to take technology captive to the eternal purposes of God’s kingdom, and that’s something worth plugging into.

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Going Hence

The evening before last, a precious saint of our church went home to be with the Lord.  She was what I like to call (from the song of Deborah) “a Mother in Israel” – one of those women who lead in every congregation by their wisdom and tireless example.  It doesn’t matter if your denomination ordains women or not, every congregation that’s worth anything has its Mothers in Israel.  They are the beating heart of the church family.  Agnes was just such a one.  A promoter of missions, an esteemed Sunday School teacher, and a bundle of life and energy even into her 92nd year.

I have watched with increasing sorrow, the departure of one after another of the older members of our church.  I have been reminded with each and every obituary of the words of John Donne, “Every man’s death diminishes me.”  When members of our community pass away, they take their experiences, memories and skills with them.  It is right that strangers should pause for funeral processions.  The whole community loses something with every departure.  Every grave of someone I know (including that of my own father) has become to me so much buried treasure hidden away from the world.  It would not be true at all to say that we no longer feel the benefits of those lives.  Their impact is all around us.  Rather, we feel the absence of what they could be doing among us now.

A certain fatalism tells us that, since it happens in nature, death must be natural.  Everyone dies, an inevitability so undeniable that Shakespeare makes it an imperative:  “Man must endure his going hence.”  But there is nothing that nature abhors more than death.  Nature is continuously regenerating, continuously bringing forth life, continuously struggling against the predator that stalks us.  You can say all you want to about the survival of the fittest, but even the weakest straggler in the herd runs from a lion.  There is something in all of us that longs for continued existence.  Solomon would say that it was “eternity in our hearts.”

If we feel hostility toward death, that agent of separation, and call it our enemy, we can know that we are in good company.   The Apostle Paul said, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”  When he tells us in I Thessalonians that we do not sorrow as those without hope, this is what he means.  When we see a life end in death, we are tempted to think that death is the last thing.  In reality, it is only the last thing to be destroyed.  Death shall die (to borrow more words from Donne), and then there will be no more death for anyone.  Revelation 21 tells us that God will cast both death and hell into the Lake of Fire.  He will throw them away, and seal the door of their prison forever.

My heart literally leaps up with joy as I write these words.  Christ did not just lie down on a cross and die.  He was raised up on it, and He caught Death in such a grip as a champion wrestler might use to hold his opponent.  He commended His soul to the Father and dragged Death down into hell with him.  And when He emerged from the grave again, He held authority both over the prison-house of the dead and over that old Jailer, Death, who had once had such power over the children of men.

He speaks to us today in the same words He used long ago to comfort a lonely, old man exiled on Patmos:  “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
And we answer our Champion in words that Paul taught us to say, “O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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God’s Pleasures

My last post discussed the problems with Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure in Ecclesiastes 2.  I had a great moment Monday night as I was preparing to teach this lesson to my Wed. night Bible study.  I had one of those moments that come sometimes to teachers of Scripture when you think the lesson is going to be about one thing, but it takes a left turn and goes somewhere else.  When that happens, it is almost always because the Holy Spirit has taken the wheel and pointed you to the lesson He wants to teach rather than the one that you want to teach.

I thought I was going to teach a lesson on “good” pleasures.  Whereas, Solomon’s pleasures were all about his own power and importance, I was going to find the New Testament verses that tell us how to find God-pleasing pleasures.  After all, I love to quote Ps. 16:11, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  And haven’t C.S. Lewis and John Piper both written about a Christian hedonism that sees the glory of God in the joyful lives of His people?  Well, yes.  And I still think they’re on to something.

The problem is that, when I looked up NT references to “pleasure”, the results were disconcerting.  Far from describing the pleasures of the Christian life, every place in the NT that speaks of human pleasure does so in a negative context.  I’m talking about passages like 2 Thess. 2 that tells how those who choose pleasure over truth will be given over to a strong delusion.  Or James 5 which pronounces the judgment of God on those who live in luxury at the expense of the poor.   I mean, these are some verses that are seriously down on pleasure.

On the other hand, all the verses that present pleasure in a positive context talk about God’s pleasure or that God is pleased to do something.  Sometimes, it depends on the translation you are looking at (and I looked at several), but there seems to be something synonymous in the original Greek (which I haven’t studied) between what God wills and what gives Him pleasure.  Naturally, if God is omnipotent, He wills and does as He pleases.
There is some food for thought in that.  What gives God pleasure?  Are we somehow being left out in the cold by a sovereign God who pursues His own pleasures while condemning ours?

That’s where the lesson got really good because here is the list of pleasures I found:

Revelation 4:11 — We were created for God’s pleasure.  Why do I exist?  Because long before the world began (see Eph. 1), God thought of me, and the idea of me gave Him pleasure, so here I am.

Luke 10:21 — God is pleased to reveal Himself to His people.  Those who come to him with the faith of a child receive a revelation of God’s person that is hidden from those who are wise in their own opinions.

Luke 12:32-34 — It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.  Not just a kingdom, but the kingdom, as in The Only Kingdom That Matters.  Solomon’s rich and mighty kingdom vanished.  Archeologists sit around their dirt holes and argue over whether or not it was ever actually there.  But God gives His people an eternal kingdom, and it is His pleasure to give.

Ephesians 1:5-11 — For His own good pleasure, God has adopted us and given us an inheritance.

1 Peter 2:19-20 — God takes pleasure in our patient endurance.  Not in our suffering, mind you, but in faith-filled endurance that overcomes that suffering.

Hebrews 11:6 — God is pleased with our faith, and without faith, it is impossible to please Him.  Specifically, He wants a faith that trusts Him to reward our pursuit of Him.

Philippians 2:13 — God receives pleasure from the results of His work in us as we learn to will and act in ways that honor Him.

All this left me wondering:  If God made me for His own pleasure, what is it about me that gives Him pleasure?  I know better than to think that it is my frequent bad attitude or sniping over whatever circumstance I’m in.  I know what God thinks of that!  But what is it I do that is pleasurable to Him?   I don’t just mean my good choices, but when I do the sort of work that He created me as an individual to do.  When does God look over my shoulder in enjoyment at what I’m engaged in?

I’m going to spend some time thinking about this because – whatever it is – I want to do more of it.

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