20 May 2011

Is It Legitimate to Wring Ones Hands About the Uses of Technology on the Internet?

Dear Denomination-Specific Christian Publishing House From Which My Church Body Obtains a Majority of its Materials,

I received an email inviting me to participate in an online market research survey about products and services available via the Internet and for smartphones and/or e-readers. I hesitated to take the survey because I know myself as a consumer. I am conservative in many things, including but not limited to consumering, theology, and technology. I figured the questions you would ask me wouldn't really apply to me.

I took the survey anyway, mostly because by taking it I was promised a chance to win a Kindle, which I would kind of like to have, despite my conservatism, for two peculiar purposes (which, in my opinion, make me different from the target market of e-readers). First, I spend a good deal of the day nursing an infant who will not tolerate my reading a book while I am feeding him. In fact, he tolerates very little, other than my quietly sitting while he takes his meal, and I think that the passivity of propping and occasionally touching an e-reader next to me on the couch would not disturb this baby's sacred requirement for tranquility. Secondly, I want to read the thirteen volumes of Anton Chekhov's short stories translated by Constance Garnett, which are available at bargain-basement prices as ebooks, and I don't want stare at my computer screen to read these stories.

To my justifiable dismay, I discovered a survey that takes for granted my unmitigated approval of almost any use of technology in the life of the church, asking me to evaluate products and services based upon potential usefulness to my church's ministry and perhaps, because my denomination tends to get persnickety, upon the theology of the content. I say justifiable because, if you don't know it by now, you're the closest thing to the Magisterium the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (there I said it) has. Professors at the seminaries can write all the journal articles or CTCR (Commission on Theology and Church Relations) documents they want to, but the average Lutheran layperson will study the Bible in a format that you have developed and published; the average laychild will memorize the scripture that you have chosen and the VBS songs and characters that you have created; the organist will play and the congregation will sing hymns that you have chosen and compiled. Due to your thorough service of our church body, there isn't a single facet of church life you haven't touched. Certainly, a pastor, teacher or musician may cull media from other sources, but only this publishing house prepares materials with a uniquely Lutheran perspective, and we wouldn't be Lutheran if we didn't value of a uniquely Lutheran perspective.

Now, last I checked the Confessions, there's very little about the use of digital technology, or indeed any technology. If anything, we Lutherans should embrace the advantages afforded to us by "technology", seeing as we are the direct and possibly most famous beneficiaries of the printing press. Just as the descendants of the Puritan Pilgrims to North America thank the Native Americans for saving their cold heinies that first winter by fertilizing corn with fish carcasses, we thank Mr. Gutenberg for his felicitous invention and give it credit as the vehicle by which the Reformation was driven. If it weren't for the printing press, one might posit, Martin Luther might have remained an obscure but dissatisfied Catholic monk in Germany, and if he was excommunicated, he couldn't have made any difference and his only legacy would be that of a defeated heretic. And so we bless the printing press and the god of technology who situated it thus in history.

If I may, I wish to apply Luther's famous question, "What does this mean?" to some of your digital products and services, both present and pending. For example, let us pretend that my pastor elects to train ushers and other volunteers with an online tutorial that you might offer. What does this mean? It might mean that the pastor thinks he has better things to do than to gather with the hands and feet that will serve his congregation during divine worship. It probably means that any union these individuals might have felt as a group is greatly diminished. It definitely means that any habit of meeting together, as is our habit in training volunteers, is utterly neglected. Take it from a mother of two very young, and because of their youth, mysterious boys: more than know-how, people need people. I need my internet connection a lot less than I need the support my own mother and the wisdom of her experience. My children appear to thrive without a single digital device but even an orphan in possession of a Nintendo DS is pitiable for a good reason.

The online usher tutorial was reason enough for dismay. How interested, the survey continued, would I be in using an online elder tutorial? An online tutorial for evangelism and outreach? Only if it covers preaching to, and possibly converting, the Internet trolls (unless they're pastors hotly commenting on theology blogs).

And maybe I would be interested in online learning courses for dayschools, laypersons, high schools and seminaries if I were only a brain with eyes and fingertips. But I'm not, and neither is anybody else. The curriculum is more than just the pixelated word on the screen or ink on the page. What I do with my body teaches me, ultimately, to discern between good and bad, right and wrong. If I use my body to stare at a screen and interact with others anonymously through a depersonalizing interface, and if I learn that this kind of socialization is okay, I become one kind of person. If I use my body to find my way to a classroom, greet fellow students, raise my hand and make eye contact when I ask a question, I become another kind of person.

More and more, the curriculum of culture is forming, whether we realize it or not, the former kind of person as it opens its arms to technological advancement, which amounts to a gospel of convenience and a Babelesque story of humans-conquer-time-and-space. Even though we know the old story, we humans still don't seem to be able to consider the drawbacks and the costs of any new technology until after we have let it run rampant all over this frustrated creation. You can argue the good side of the Industrial Revolution, the assembly line, the combustion engine. But you do have to argue.

Your survey asks about Bible apps, Sunday School apps, and children's book apps, some of which I can only assume are to be used by children. Boy, does that open up a can of worms. Seems like somewhere along the way we forgot what makes an appropriate plaything or learning tool for a child. I might have to write you a whole separate letter on behalf of Lutheran children everywhere, the most malleable in the Body of Christ. I'm trying to teach my own to worship with their bodies, and I don't really want to confuse things with a smartphone that shows them pictures of Jesus.

Finally, I don't know what "online 'on-demand' confirmation" is, but I don't seem to be able to put a good construction on it.

I understand you have a business to run and so you seek to provide goods and services to meet the needs and wishes of your customers in a time of budding possibilities, so I do not ask that you abandon the use of digital technologies. After all, I'm not using papyrus here myself. I do ask that you count the costs. Whenever possible, members of Christ's body should gather together in person. Digital technology that makes fellowship old-fashioned is not a good idea. If we're going to love our neighbors, love in deed and in truth rather than word and talk, and offer our bodies as living sacrifices (I think I heard about that somewhere), we have to know our neighbors and use our bodies. If we believe that the Gospel Of Jesus Christ is formative to the whole human person, we had better act that way. There is a theology in the medium, even when the materials themselves are "theologically correct". Our church body looks to you to be discerning about these things. Thank you.

Anne Tinetti