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A Prophet from Outside the Church

15 September 2008

Occasionally the people of God – qb includes himself in this indictment – get too wrapped up in ourselves and our freely conferred identity as God’s children and Jesus’ friends.  We begin to think that how we are currently doing things and how we are currently looking at things need no justification.  Our points of view and our methods are self-justifying.  Because God’s children and Jesus’s friends are the ones looking at things this way and doing things that way, those ways become identified with the will of God; after all, if God did not want us adopting these perspectives and those techniques, we wouldn’t be.  

That is especially true in the modern evangelical context in the United States, where the church-growth movement has gone to seed.  But what if our premises are wrong, and what if the perspectives and the methods that flow from those premises are not morally neutral, as some critics will always protest?

If we cannot see ourselves clearly, we must have someone wander into our living room and set us straight.  That is what the late Neil Postman has done in his book, Technopoly:  The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York:  Vintage Books, 1993).  It is stern and soundly argued, and it deserves the attention of the church.

Postman’s first, recognizable targets are the Robber Barons:  influential, talented “men who were quicker and more focused than those of other nations in exploiting the economic possibilities of new technologies” (p. 53).  Postman goes on to observe that “what they were robbing – it is clearer now than it was then – was America’s past, for their essential idea was that nothing is so much worth preserving that it should stand in the way of technological innovation…their greatest achievement was in convincing their countrymen that the future need have no connection to the past.”

Postman is no reactionary Luddite.  He begins his book by distinguishing among three types of cultures, the tool-users, the technocracies, and the Technopolies.  But neither does he permit the reader to entertain any notion that technology is morally neutral, as we often like to suppose, as we often hear from our technology-obsessed friends.

In the evangelical megachurch, the notions of family and clan are being lost, and though we recognize it at one level – witness the many artificial forms of “family” and “clan” that we have dreamed up to replace the real thing, such as “life groups” – we really ignore it.  Postman argues, chillingly, that we have no time for petty reflection on such troublesome ideas.  “We could get places faster, do things faster, accomplish more in a shorter time.  Time, in fact, became an adversary over which technology could triumph.  And this meant that there was no time to look back or to contemplate what was being lost.  There were empires to build, opportunities to exploit, exciting freedoms to enjoy, especially in America” (p. 45).

But are Postman’s ideas consonant with the biblical witness?  In qb’s judgment, the answer is clearly yes.  What Kenneson has done from squarely within the Christian tradition (Life on the Vine, Selling Out the Church), Postman is doing from without.  The messages are the same:  do not let the prevailing world view overwhelm your will to resist its essential godlessness.  Think, and pray, and question, and probe.

*****

To my friends in exile from the evangelical megachurches of Amarillo, in exile from the mode of thinking that gives rise to such monstrosities:  do not yield in your thinking.  Question, reflect, call to account, subvert.  And get a copy of Technopoly, a prophetic voice from without.  We may yet find that Postman was a gift from the very hand of God.

qb

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