A sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 given to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican), June 19, 2022. Part a four-part series on “Technology & the Christian: Navigating the Technological Maze as a Disciple of Jesus.” By Fr. Justin Clemente
The Issue We Can’t Avoid
For some time now, our neighbor has been supplying Copeland with the weekly Sunday Funnies. Some of them are actually funny. One of my favorites is “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephan Pastis. According to gocomics.com, the purpose of the comic strip is to offer caustic commentary on humanity’s quest for the unattainable. Sounds like Genesis 11! Here’s one of my favorites, which features Rat in therapy.
Too true. Technology today is the issue we simply cannot avoid. Unlike the late 90’s, people today do not “go online” – they live online. Today’s digital technology is the air we breathe, though some of us are “natives” and some of us are digital immigrants – not quite at home but living in this digital age all the same. The tech revolution of smartphones coupled with high-speed internet has taken place in two decades. The first iPhone, we should remember, was released in the grand old year of 2007. The massive consequences of this shift are still unfolding today.
Some of these consequences are being felt most acutely felt by teens. The documentary The Social Dilemma tracks the rapid rise in teen anxiety, depression and suicide directly to the rise of the smartphone (Yes, I understand that there are more factors at work than just this one, but the links are pretty undeniable).
More narrowly, when we think about the impact upon Christian discipleship and formation in the Faith, there are massive impacts, too. In his recent podcast series, “How to Reach the West Again,” Pastor Tim Keller called technology and social media one of the greatest unique challenges of our time to committed Christian faith and deep discipleship. He states, in so many words, that social media and increased time online (especially for younger folks), amounts to a near 24/7 immersive disciple-making machine, including what constitutes a person’s beliefs, identity, freedom, happiness, and morality. The church has not had to engage and combat such a challenge before. Nor have parents. Nor have children. A well-formed or deformed relationship to technology is either a well-formed or deformed disciple of Jesus.
It is my prayer and hope to speak the truth in love in the series, and to assist parents, families, and individuals in doing the same when comes to technology. My aim is not to speak down to you (after all, I’m with you, raising a family in the 21st century), but it is my intent to pastor you and faithfully speak into this area.
Where to Begin? The Human Heart
But where do we begin? Do we burn the smartphones? We’re livestreaming, so wouldn’t be a good idea! To rightly deal with the subject of technology, we actually have to begin somewhere else: the human heart. In the collection of C.S. Lewis writings called God in the Dock (one of my personal favorites), Lewis imagines a conversation between the body and the soul. In it, the body gets blamed for all kinds of coarse sins. In the end of the conversation, the body retorts, “You give me the orders and then blame me for carrying them out!” (pg. 217) As Christians, we believe that the physical world, including what we can make of it, is essentially good though captive to sin and decay. But the real problem begins with us.
This takes us into Genesis 11 – the original passage on technology in the Bible. Look at verses 1 to 3. The means by which the idolatrous tower is, in fact, built is a new technology: the brick. It occurs to me that smartphones are about the size of a brick, too. I don’t know what that means!
The hardened and burned brick allowed humanity to build to new heights unavailable before this. Now, bricks themselves are a good technology, but the motivation in using the technology is the problem. So, in verse four the people say, Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Here, like in the garden, man is again transgressing the limits and trying to be his own god.
Some of you have probably seen 2004’s The Village by M. Night Shyamalan. In the movie, a group of people decide to remove themselves from society because of the rampant evil they see in culture. To ensure no one goes outside of the bounds of The Village, they even set up elaborate and fake monsters called “Those of Whom We Do Not Speak.” But the plan backfires, and they discover evil is not “out there” but rather “in” the human heart. This is powerfully conveyed when one of the members of The Village, whose name is Noah, ends up brutally stabbing another young man in The Village out of jealousy over a love interest. A simple, primitive looking knife is used in the assault. You see whether it’s a knife or iPod, paper or a laptop, the problem is not ultimately technology. In the words of Jeremiah the prophet, the problem is that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
Think of it: without the sinfulness of the human heart, the internet would be a wonderful place to be. Were it not for lust, greed, hatred of neighbor, jealousy, or avarice it would be great! If people actually loved God and the neighbor with their whole heart, social media would be a joy.
Here’s what I’m driving at: our response to technology has to have appropriate depth. Getting rid of it is an option (sort of), but it doesn’t deal with the heart. That’s why we don’t take the Mennonite or Amish option when it comes to technology. If we just say, well, we’re going to mandate we only drive black cars because we don’t want to be immodest or we’ll only use technology up to this era, then we’re not dealing with the idolatry of the human heart. As much as I respect those communities, that kind of legalism never gets to the heart of the issue.
Look at how the Lord deals with deals with the people of Shinar (v.8). If the technology were the issue, he could have just destroyed their tower or burned up all their bricks. But no, he scatters the people and confuses their language as a merciful judgment, because the problem is deeper than their technology.
I was talking with a neighbor recently, and he expressed his dismay over school shootings, and how violent and graphic video games seem to have such a hold on our young people. My response was to say yes, that’s a problem, but it is only symptom of a larger problem – the darkness of the human heart. But the gospel of Jesus does deal with the human heart, and because of that we can have a right relationship to technology with appropriate boundaries.
So when it comes to technology, there are two extremes we can adopt: unbridled naive adoption or prohibition. Unbridled adoption is foolish (and I would say, it’s actually negligent on the part of parents) and complete prohibition is actually unrealistic. Everyone uses technology in some way or fashion. If you used a wheel today, you used technology. But the Via Media, the middle way is walking wisely as a disciple of Christ, realizing that the true issue centers on our own heart.
Self-Examination & the Gospel (The Actual Gospel)
Are you spending too much time curating a “non-life” on social media, and neglecting your actual life, vocations, family, and work? Are you looking for validation and worth through online relationships that aren’t even actually relationships? That’s an issue of the heart.
Is technology an opportunity for escape more than it is an opportunity for education, connection, and engagement with the real world around us? That’s an issue of the heart.
Could you go a day without your smartphone? Are you buying into the restlessness that digital technology creates? Buying into FOMO (fear of missing out). Is your smartphone on your leash, or are you on its leash? That, my friends, is an issue of the heart.
Replacing the Gospel of Technology with the actual Gospel
There, at the tower of Babel, a kind of “Gospel of technology” was at work, a sort of technolatry or techno-gospel. It fails, and, if we’re Christians, we don’t need it.
In place of a digital air-brushed life, we have the righteousness of Christ, our purity in him by his shed blood. And we’re assured that our lives don’t have to be perfect in order for him to receive us because he has done the work necessary! Indeed, all the fitness he requireth is to feel [our] need of him (“Come, Ye Sinners”). Moreover, our worth is given to by Christ, not earned by the life we can curate.
In place of digital escapism, the gospel tells us that the physical world (our real lives by the way!), lived out in time and space really matter! Matter matters. God likes matter – he created it! Moreover, he came to redeem it! The Bible tells us that because Jesus died and rose again, creation itself will be redeemed. St. Paul writes, “19 The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. … 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”(Romans 8:19, 22)
In place of restlessness, we have true rest in the gospel because we haven’t missed out on the one necessary thing. As Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.” Here’s what I’ve found: the digital world (especially social media) is a very weary world, with so very many looking for actual rest. Christ says, “Come to me, and I will give you true rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Christ says sit at my feet, for I am the good portion and the one thing needful. (Luke 10:42)
May the Lord use our time today to bring us to place of self-examination and reassurance in the Gospel throughout the week as we seek to walk wisely in our digital age. Amen.