Is Technology Holy or Worldly?
Hello, everyone. Tony Reinke here with a solo episode — just me today. An exciting day for me today because my new book is out: God, Technology, and the Christian Life. That’s the title, and I get to share with you a few thoughts today on why I wrote it.
I’ve dreamt of writing this book for several years. Back when I wrote 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, it proved hard to write, harder than I expected, because I couldn’t find a baseline theology of technology that would root my thinking with smartphone habits specifically. I came to discover a theological gap in how Christians think about modern-day technology, which surprised me.
Without that foundation, I had to build one of my own. So, I wrote a little ten-page introduction in the smartphone book, and I called it “A Little Theology of Technology” (pages 29–39). Some big categories had to be in place before we addressed Steve Jobs, his iPhone, and our social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
I also knew this smaller theology of technology would need to eventually become a larger theology of technology. And I knew, if I could pull this off, it would serve a need in the church in the tech age. But I would have to answer one massive question: What is God’s relationship to Big Tech? What does he think of smartphones, and space travel, and nuclear power, and agricultural innovations, and on and on? I had to answer that huge cluster of questions. Are the innovations we use today from God? Or is it all a product of godless worldliness? Because what we do with our technology will never be clear if we cannot answer this more fundamental question.
Bigger Theology of Technology
So, I am thrilled to announce that my fuller theology of technology is written, published, and now out from our friends at Crossway Books. Soon I will be, Lord willing, inside Silicon Valley, busy with four events spread over two days across the Bay Area, to celebrate the book launch and to give away hundreds of free copies. It’s never about book sales. It’s about books distributed. So, we are giving away hundreds of copies of my new book to key leaders inside Silicon Valley, something possible because we have generous ministry partners making those giveaways possible. So, thank you for your support! You make it possible for us to do this.
Your prayers would be greatly appreciated for those events, if you think of me, on January 25th and 26th. One event, on that first day, January 25th, is scheduled to be livestreamed online. Watch Desiring God’s social channels for details if you want in on that. I’ll be talking about the origins of electricity and jumping into a huge theological debate that Ben Franklin accidentally stirred up in New England. It’s a great story. I’ll be sharing it on January 25th. And we are launching my book through our friends at Westminster Bookstore, our official retailer. There you can get the book for 50 percent off. Check it out at wtsbooks.com if you’re interested.
Hard Reset on Tech
So seven years ago, when I began writing my smartphone book, I came to see that the church lacked a basic framework for evaluating technology. This is tragic because, on the one hand, it breeds a Christian dystopianism, where it seems like one key to holiness is to shun innovation, or at least never say anything nice about it — furrow your brow, squint your eyes, turn up your nose, be suspect of all new tech like you would treat a new R-rated movie. That’s godliness.
But it’s not godliness. It’s a mindset that often leads to a type of wannabe agrarian who lives with this air of anti-technology about him, but who also has an iPhone and drives an SUV and sees no irony in it.
On the other hand, without a clear framework for approaching tech, it also breeds a Christian who eagerly adopts every new gadget from Apple without working through any of the consequences of how the new, shiny device will serve him or undermine his life. Both of them — the wannabe agrarian and the eager adopter — tend to live from a flat, overly simplistic view of the world.
So, I came to discover that the church could use a hard reset. In understanding God’s relationship to science, innovation, and Silicon Valley, we need to take this whole topic and unplug and re-plug it back in. That’s how I typically fix electronics problems. And that’s what I’m trying to do in this new tech book. It’s a restart. Power down. Power up. Let’s clear the cache and start from scratch.
But it also means returning to an age when theologians began building the scaffolding for the vision that we need today. I’m particularly thinking about the French Reformer John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Calvin was a Reformer — he sought to bring reform to the church. And he did reform the church in many important ways, three of them significant for how Christians relate to science and industry.
First, Calvin destigmatized wealth. He distinguished the sin of loving and hoarding wealth from the virtue of capital employed for the good of society at large. That was big, especially when a dominant vision of peak spirituality was the monk in a desert monastery. Calvin said, “No, you can be a shining example of godliness as a wealthy Christian who stewards that fortune selflessly to employ others, to grow industries, and to serve needs.” And of course, that’s where new innovations originate — from industrial wealth. So, Calvin unleashed diligent Christians to pioneer new businesses.
“Calvin set a vision of science and human innovation that was radically God-centered.”
Second, Calvin unhitched the church from what Rome attempted to do, which was to adjudicate major scientific discoveries. He said, instead, “No, the Protestant church will preach Christ and him crucified. Scientists will do their thing without the church meddling in their business as the final arbiter.” When you remove the threat of heresy for observable phenomena, it changes the church’s whole relationship to science, it encourages new discoveries, and it encourages Christians to make those discoveries.
Third, and maybe most importantly, Calvin set a vision of science and human innovation that was radically God-centered, a vision we simply call “common grace.” He said there were two plans enacted by God. God was unfolding his plan for the church — “uncommon grace” or “special grace” in Christ, in his gospel, and in his people. But God had a second plan — a “common grace” for the growth of society, economics, and industry. And Calvin went so far as to say that the same Holy Spirit that regenerates us is the same Holy Spirit that causes profitable human culture and scientific discovery and innovative creativity among Christians and non-Christians alike. Amazing.
Fifty Years That Changed Everything
Calvin’s remarkable vision of the world would later find its highest expression inside the world’s greatest watershed of human innovation. When we speak of tech today, we often make the mistake of limiting our discussions to Apple gadgets, computers, smartphones, smartwatches, electric cars, robots, AI, and things like that. But the story of tech stretches way back to past centuries. One of the most important came in the late 1800s.
Three hundred years after Calvin died came a fifty-year span of human innovation in which everything changed: 1863 to 1913. During this generation, cities were electrified. Light bulbs replaced candles in homes. Electrical motors came to power industry. Music was first recorded. Photography was first employed. Video recordings were invented, made, and movies projected. Airplanes first lifted off the ground. Huge iron, ocean-worthy vessels connected continents. Gas-powered engines began to pop. Cars replaced carriages and family horses. Tractors replaced farm horses. Typewriters replaced pens. The QWERTY keyboard layout we still use today was invented. Telegraph wires began sending electronic messages at unthinkable speeds over unbelievable distances. Wireless radio waves united mass audiences by live broadcast. Medical advances in germs and vaccines ended many awful killing diseases and viruses.
Literally everything in life changed between 1863 to 1913 — advances in science and medicine and travel and shipping and communications and industry, permanent changes that continue to shape our daily lives today.
With all this new innovation speeding along at full tilt, Christian thinkers leaned in and asked the key questions: What does it mean to be a people of faith living inside such a massive, life-altering technological revolution? How are we to think of these endless scientific discoveries and new innovative promises? Where does it come from? Is this innovation of God? Is it of the world? Is technology godly? Is it godless?
Inside this tech era, a writer by the name of Abraham Kuyper took up these questions and returned to Calvin’s old vision. Kuyper was a journalist, theologian, and one-time Dutch prime minister. He knew the world, he knew politics, economics, industry, and he experienced this great, watershed technological revolution firsthand. And he knew his Bible well. And he came to see — like Calvin three centuries earlier — that God was still governing the story of human innovation by his Holy Spirit in his gifts of common grace.
So, it seemed like the church was progressing well in understanding innovation in the nineteenth century. But this technological revolution, these fifty years, with all its incredible promise and progress, was abruptly followed by World War I, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War. And it became really clear, really fast, that for all our new innovative powers to heal, humanity had also mastered the art of massacring at a scale never before witnessed.
The conversation over God’s common grace changes when your tech can now incinerate 100,000 people in the hyperblink of a nuclear explosion. Theologians would have to account for new powers of mass destruction. Following two world wars, then the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, the church’s theologians changed their tune. The tenor of the Protestant conversation about human technology veered dystopian. Our theologians more likely demonized technology in Babel-like categories — innovations as agents of power, dominance, inequality, and mass destruction — rather than as expressions of God’s Spirit and gifts of his common grace.
Reclaiming Common Grace
And so, without diminishing very legitimate concerns, I’m bridging back, over two world wars, to a vision of God’s common grace in which there were both tech warnings alongside a healthy dose of Godward thanks for the technologies that adorned daily life. Those must exist together: warnings and appreciations. And they do — they hold together nicely when we turn our attention to the Bible.
So, we need to look afresh at the origins of industry and the birth of human innovativeness (as we find them in Genesis 4). And we need to see where technologies — the actual material technologies themselves — emerge from the created order (as we discover in Isaiah 28). And we need to look at God’s relationship to the most powerful and dangerous technologists in the world (as we see in Isaiah 54). And we need to look at how man so easily idolizes his technological powers as idols and false saviors (as we see in Psalm 20). There are idols at play, but the incredible generosity of the Creator is also at play in giving us a universe loaded with oil and gas and electricity and uranium and metals and plastics and silicon and computer chips and the sixty natural elements that comprise our smartphones. All our innovations are owing to the incredible generosity of our Creator.
“For me, talking about tech is just another way to explore the generosity of our God.”
In other words, the challenge is to reclaim a vision of human innovation in which we see God’s common grace once again. For me, talking about tech is just another way to explore the generosity of our God. And so, I’m asking, Which is bigger? Is Big Tech bigger than your God? Or does your God dwarf the powers of Big Tech?
We know the right answer in our heads. But do we believe it — truly believe it in our hearts? Because I fear when it comes down to practice, for many Christians, Big Tech seems stronger than God. So, we get insecure and threatened by tech, because we hold a vision of a god bullied by the power players inside Silicon Valley. That must be reversed. And it’s not reversed by demonizing tech, but by seeing the gift of God in the tens of thousands of innovations we use daily and take for granted, not to mention for the layers of innovations at play for you to hear me right now. All of these are gracious gifts of common grace.
This Book Is For You
I wrote this book for non-Christians, for Christians, for techies, for non-techies. And I’m launching it inside the belly of the beast, inside Silicon Valley. But you don’t have to live in a tech center to see its relevance. We all live in the tech age.
Ultimately, I want all the innovations you take for granted every day to turn your eyes to see the generosity of our eternal, unchanging God. So, you can imagine my thrill when Pastor John took time to read my book slowly, and then said, for him, it was “a worship experience.” That’s my aim. I hope you’ll join me in worship. God, Technology, and the Christian Life — my new book — is now out.