Review: Modern Technology and the Human Future

modern tech

Modern Technology and the Human FutureCraig M. Gay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the factors shaping modern technology and how a mechanical view that fails to acknowledge embodiment has diminished human flourishing.

Unplugging retreats. Technology sabbaths. Concerns about technology addictions. These are all symptoms of a growing unease with how technology, rather than serving and enhancing human existence, is shaping and controlling and diminishing our lives. Craig M. Gay digs into the factors that have shaped our technological world, and how we might think Christianly about technology. He contends that what we need are not practical, technological fixes but a different philosophical and theological perspective to shape our development of and engagement with technology.

Gay begins by describing some of the ways that technology, far from enhancing human existence has diminished us, particularly in de-skilling us in both mechanical skills and cognitive function, and through invading our private lives. He traces much of this to the development of a mechanical view of the world coupled with an economic logic driving increasing efficiency, and assembly and bureaucratic control systems that have shaped the development of a technological worldview. Gay summarizes a discussion drawing on the work of theorists ranging from Charles Taylor to Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul as follows:

“As we have now seen, this mechanical world picture has deep and extensive roots within the Western tradition. To use Charles Taylor’s terms, modern culture is characterized by an ‘instrumental stance’ toward life, a stance that is ‘overdetermined’ in the sense that it has arisen from a number of different sources and is even now buttressed by compelling convictions concerning the meaning and purpose of human life. Not only is the instrumental stance supported by modern science, Taylor observes, but it has also become, largely by way of religious convictions, central within the modern ethical outlook. That outlook continues to place a high value upon taking rational and efficacious control of all things by way of methods, procedures, techniques, and technologies” (p. 129).

Gay contends that, for Christians, we must return to a Christian narrative of “where we are and who we are.” A mechanical/technological worldview loses sight of a creation brought into existence as a loving work of God and our own embodied existence. Far from a gnostic, “virtual reality,” God considers our embodied existence good. Instead of facing our fallenness, humans often have resorted to technology to evade and transcend the vulnerabilities of our bodies, and the reality of death. The redemptive work of Christ delivers us from our own technological attempts to save or extend our lives with the hope of resurrection. He contends for an approach to technology that “practices resurrection” in it valuing of human embodied existence, and adopts a non-mechanical way of relating to the world as a creation to be loved rather than stuff to be manipulated.

This is not a “how to” book on managing your technology. Gay does something far more challenging. He teases out the way of thinking that has become our “default mode” for engaging our world, even for those of us who claim to embrace a “Christian worldview.” His insights on how the logic of money is connected to technological development is worthy of reflection for those who claim to worship God rather than Mammon. It is rare, for example, to hear Christians reflect on how the logic of money has destroyed local “Main Streets” in our preference for big box and online vendors that enable us to buy more stuff for less, while destroying vibrant local economies and personal connection with vendors. Gay is also one of a growing number of prophetic voices awakening us to the dignity of our embodied life and future destiny. He invites us to recover a relationship of love and care for a creation that drives us to careful, even scientific study, but not mechanical exploitation, of God’s good creation.

Technology will not go away. Gay helps us see we have a choice between depersonalizing technological thinking, and a creational, incarnational, and embodied engagement with technology that pursues the flourishing of people and creation. The quality of future human existence may well depend not only on what we do, but how we think.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: An Introduction to Christian Worldview

an introduction to christian worldview

An Introduction to Christian WorldviewTawa J. Anderson, W. Michael Clark, and David K. Naugle. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A work designed for classroom or personal study, defining the idea of worldview and its importance, delineating the Christian worldview and responding to critical objections, and outlining and critiquing other major worldviews according to criteria established in the first part of the book.

I was first introduced to the idea of worldview in the summer of 1974 during my collegiate years. I heard an early presentation of the ideas that would form the core of James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door (now in its fifth edition). These gave me a critical tool as a student studying in a public university. Sire’s seven basic worldview questions helped me read critically the different texts of my courses and discern the different ways of seeing and engaging the world reflected in those texts. Not only that, I found I could apply these ideas as I watched films, or advertising, or engaged with different-believing friends. Worldview helped me understand why people would talk past each other on issues like abortion or sexual ethics. As you can see, “thinking worldviewishly” was, and still is, a powerful tool in my “intellectual workshop.”

This new work, designed to serve as a textbook for a college-level course on Christian worldview, builds on the work of Sire and others. It is organized in three parts. The first introduces the whole subject of worldview, dealing with definitions and what the authors consider the four major worldview questions that are important to answer:

  1. What is our nature?
  2. What is our world?
  3. What is our problem?
  4. What is our end?

The authors go on to discuss how worldview operates in our lives. They discuss confirmation bias, experiential accommodation, and how worldview shapes our pool of live options. They note circumstances under which we adjust our worldview or even convert, noting that this is more likely when our worldview assumptions are unexamined, which leads to a discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of worldview study. The final chapter in this part focuses on the critical work of worldview analysis–how worldviews hold up under scrutiny. Three criteria are developed:

  1. Internal consistency: logical coherence.
  2. External consistency: evidential correspondence.
  3. Existential consistency: pragmatic satisfaction.

These criteria are then applied to analysis of both the Christian worldview and the other major worldviews discussed in the book.

Part two focuses on the Christian worldview. First it is considered narratively around the story of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification, with a preliminary discussion of revelation. Then, using the four worldview discussion questions noted above, Christianity is discussed propositionally. One thing I noted, which may be a defect of the four question schema, is that significant space under “what is our nature?” is devoted to God’s nature. Certainly this is necessary to understand our nature, but it suggests that a prior question, like Sire’s “What is prime reality–the really real?” may be an important one to ask. I found this so with the other worldviews as well. The third chapter in this part then uses the three criteria of worldview analysis to critique Christian belief. Numerous possible objections are considered, particularly that of the problem of evil, and responses are given.

Part three then considers western and global alternatives in two chapters with a propositional description of each worldview using the four worldview questions followed by use of the three analytic criteria on each worldview. The western worldviews considered are deism, naturalism, and postmodernism, and the global alternatives are Hinduism and Islam. It was striking to me that 125 pages are devoted to the Christian worldview, and less than 100 to the other five considered in this book. Far more space was spent both in outlining the Christian faith, and responding to possible critiques. It might have been interesting to have a response from proponents of these other worldviews to the critiques of those worldviews, as was the case in the objections raised to the Christian worldview. That would “keep it real.” Space limitations may have come into play and the authors may have deemed it more important that Christians be able to understand and defend their own worldview.

The conclusion challenges people to embrace a consistently Christian worldview, rejecting various “worldlyviews”:  scientism, hedonism, consumerism, blameism, apatheism, dogmatism, universalism, functional atheism, and conformism. This list acknowledges the growing realization that worldviews, as they discuss in the beginning, are not mere matters of propositions but also the orientation (conscious or not) of the heart.

This work incorporates several elements that make it particularly useful as a text. Sections conclude with reflection questions on what one has read. The end of each chapter includes as “mastering the material” section identifying key learning objectives for the chapter, a glossary of terms possible term paper topics from the chapter, and a core bibliography for the chapter. The text includes occasional sidebars illustrating concepts from film or contemporary culture.

This work is clearly designed as a text for a “worldview academy” or Christian college course on worldview. I think it could also be used individually or in a collegiate ministry or adult education context. It is a valuable work in helping students identify the “unexamined,” both in terms of Christian faith, and other worldview assumptions and heart orientations intermixed with these. While I would add a question on prime reality, the four questions and three analytic criteria are clear and memorable. For those who would teach or lead courses, I hope either written materials or live representatives of other worldviews might engage the critiques of those worldviews in this book. This happens all the time in graduate student education, and the Christian student will be better prepared for this eventuality if they are exposed to it as undergraduates.

Consciously examining one’s worldview, learning to think critically about worldviews, and think Christianly, and bringing Christian assumptions to all of life have been a powerful influence in my own life. A resource like this, far more systematic than my initial exposure to these ideas (a talk drawing on a seminar Sire had given before his book was first published) can’t help but equip students to think rigorously about these matters. Hopefully this will bear much fruit in discerning reading, viewing, and acting, and in engaging the views of others.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Learning for the Love of God

Learning for the Love of GodLearning for the Love of GodDonald Opitz and Derek Melleby. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014.

Summary: Written for undergraduate college students who are Christians, this book explores the idea of academic faithfulness as an integral part of the student’s discipleship and how this is cultivated.

In the next week, many young men and women will head off to college, some for the first time. This will include many who have grown up within the Christian faith. Much attention is focused on the more obvious perils of campus life–the sexualized, alcohol-driven culture. What gets far less focus is the primary, at least formal, pursuit of college life–academic studies. If there is any attention placed on this, the focus tends to be on studying enough to get the grades one needs for grad school or job while not making an idol of one’s studies or allowing the intellectual life of the campus to corrupt your faith.

The authors of this book propose that what gets overlooked in all of this is a great discipleship opportunity, what they called in the first edition of this book “the outrageous idea of academic faithfulness.” Basically, they contend that if we call Jesus Lord, then he is Lord of what one does in the classroom, and that the call to be faithful to Christ includes loving him with one’s mind and seeking to bring a Christ-shaped mind to whatever one is studying. After considering this basic idea, they look at the example of Daniel and his friends at “Babylon U” as models of what this faithfulness might entail.

The question they explore through most of the remainder of the book is “how does one develop a Christian mind?” The authors, coming from a Reformed perspective, approach this primarily through the lens of learning to think in terms of “worldview”, and particularly, the classic Christian framework of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. They set this alongside modern and post-modern worldviews and then go deeper and elaborating the four aspects of this framework, both in the traditional terms and in what they called a “four-i-ed learning” framework: integration, idolatry, investment, and imagination. I found this latter approach a fresh take, and one of the highlights of the book, helping me think of familiar territory in fresh terms.

The final two chapters look at how one lives out this idea of academic faithfulness. They call for a life that is both connected to God and connected to the world in real acts of service and not mere intellectualizing. They challenge students to the patient work of digging deeply into an academic field, listening carefully and responding thoughtfully after one has done the hard work rather than parroting glib answers. This includes the hard work of “double reading”, considering both course material and outside reading of Christian sources on that material. They encourage students both to cultivate big dreams, and consider everyday acts of faithfulness as steps toward those dreams. And they conclude that the fruit of this hard work is that work becomes in one sense, play, in that there is always joy in knowing one’s work enjoys the pleasure of God.

Having worked in the collegiate ministry world for many years, I welcome this book. It is too easy for our ministries to overlook the academic aspect of the discipleship of our students. And yet, to think Christianly about one’s studies is crucial preparation for thinking Christianly about whatever work one does after college, and whatever one is thinking about.

If I were to quibble with anything, it would be that most of the emphasis is on worldview and the creation, fall, redemption, and consummation framework. While I use this approach, I also want to complement it with cultivating spiritual attentiveness through prayer as one studies, by cultivating communities of intellectual formation, by fostering what one friend calls “doxological fascination” with what one studies, and by thinking about our witness in the classroom as well as the residence hall. None of these are absent in the authors’ discussion, and may have been limited by the length of the book (127 pages).

The book includes appendices of sources, a kind of liturgy of academic faithfulness, and quotes from student interviews. Each chapter concludes with well-written questions for reflection and the material is presented conversationally and includes student testimony throughout. For that reason it makes a great gift to students headed off to college, or a welcome gift to students from a campus ministry on campus.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

In Defense of Reading Slowly

It has often been said that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

How to read slowlyThe other night on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Fallon did a piece he called his “Do Not Read” list, probably parodying all the reading lists circulating this time of year. True confessions, we caught this, although I was dozing when Fallon included on his list How to Read Slowly by James W. Sire. My wife succeeded in waking me up just in time to see a close in shot of the book. Fallon’s comment was, “It’s actually a pretty good book. I’ve been reading it for years. I’m only on page 4 but so far, so good.” You can catch the video here and the part on Sire’s book is at the 2:02 mark.

James Sire is actually a good friend whose book Apologetics Beyond Reason I reviewed recently. So I got a laugh out of this for different reasons than most of the audience. I’m also hoping How to Read Slowly saw a spike in sales because of Fallon, that his publicity actually helped. It has been many years since I read this book and it is actually one of the best books on reading I’ve read, better, and more accessible, in my opinion, than Mortimer Adler’s more famous How to Read a Book. I’m relying on memory as well as the Amazon “table of comments” preview (I lent the book out to someone who knows when and it has not found its way back to my library) but here are some reasons this should be on your “To Be Read” list:

1. This is a book about reading better, not faster or more. Sire introduces to the process of engaging books with our minds and entering into the world of the author. He has been one of the leading exponents of thinking “worldviewishly” and one of the things he does is help us look for cues to the underlying premises in whatever we read–what is the view of ultimate reality, the really real, what are the author’s assumptions about human beings and the human condition, what’s wrong with the world and is there any remedy, where is history going, if anywhere, and so forth.

2. Sire wants us to read both sympathetically and critically. He wants us to really understand authors on their own terms, and yet also critically engage their “worldview” in light of our own (and perhaps in the process clarify our worldview as well).

3. As a former English professor, he gives us cues on reading different genres of literature from non-fiction to poetry, as well as how we might read “contextually” to better understand the world of the author, or the world the author is creating in the work.

4. Throughout this, as well as in other works, Jim illustrates his points from a variety of written works. More than once, his use of these has intrigued me enough to seek out those books for myself. I would likely not have come across Stanislaus Lem otherwise, for example.

5. Somehow, Adler’s book seemed to make reading a chore, as helpful as many of his suggestions were. Sire’s book stoked my love of reading and enriched it. His concluding chapter gets at the essence of “better reading” in talking about what to read and when.

Sire inspired me in my own reading life, particularly to engage books more deeply and thoughtfully, and to savor the richness of good books and to allow myself to be changed and enlarged by those encounters. So I hope the publicity, whether through Fallon, or this blog might acquaint an new generation with slow reading. I even hope Jimmy Fallon might get beyond page 4!

 

Review: Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America

Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right's Vision for America
Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America by James C. Sanford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to be honest. I was prepared to dislike this book. Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Francis Schaeffer are personal heroes to me and they are included in Sanford’s critique of the Christian Right’s vision as intellectual forbears. Furthermore, I have taught “worldview” as a heuristic that is helpful in discerning the underlying premises of everything from a TV ad to a work of philosophy to a college textbook, something I believe important to critical reading skills.

What I found instead was a carefully researched history of the intellectual lineage and practical efforts to bring a Christian Worldview into our national discourse. Particularly significant is his work on the contribution of J.R. Rushdoony’s proposals to institute biblical law in contemporary society and the ways that Francis Schaeffer helped popularize these notions late in his career. He surveys the landscape of political activism that arose in the 1980’s beginning with the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and succeeding movements and how these were influenced by what he calls “Christian Worldview” ideas. He chronicles well the political alliances (which I would call a form of political captivity of the church) formed with conservative Republicans at the state and national levels pursuing everything from introducing Intelligent Design into schools to electing a President.

My fundamental concern as I finished this book was the tone and some of the rhetoric that I believe represents a mirror image response to the kinds of ‘secular conspiracy’ rhetoric he chronicles with regard to the Religious Right. His repeated usage of language like “idealogues” “absolutists” and, most notably “Jihadists” is inflammatory and creates the kind of “be afraid, be very afraid” tone that I think undercuts the good descriptive research he has done. While every movement has extremists, it is unjust to define a movement by its extremists. For example to equate a Nancy Pearcy or the late Charles Colson with isolated incidents of people who murder abortion providers only perpetuates the us/them divide of which he criticizes the Religious Right.

Similarly, instead of a nuanced discussion of the intellectual and activist lineage he traces, he paints the whole thing as absolutist, dogmatic, and intolerant. Too often in our national discourse, these words are easily thrown about to dismiss what we don’t like without doing the careful work of distinguishing between what might be right or commendable in an interlocutor’s ideas and where we think they are wrong and why. For example, the idea that if there is a God, that God may well be sovereign over all physical and human affairs stands to reason and has been affirmed by most orthodox believers through history. To conclude then that we must attempt to forcibly impose our understanding of the sovereign God’s commands on the political order is wrongheaded. God Himself does not do this in the Garden, nor does Christ or any New Testament writer commend this to the church. Similarly, Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty recognizes that the sphere of government is just one of a number and is a good protection against tyranny. Some thoughtful commentators like James Skillen have extended these ideas both to encourage political engagement and define the limits of political engagement in very different ways from the Religious Right. My point is that good critiques look for common ground as well as points of difference rather than pursuing a “scorched earth” approach.

The usage of the term “Christian worldview” as the umbrella under which to gather the intellectual influences and current players in Christian Right is unfortunate. As I noted early, it fails to differentiate between those who use it as rhetoric to underscore a perceived cultural divide, and those including authors like James Sire, who use this primarily as a heuristic to promote understanding and irenic engagement with those holding different premises from our own.

To conclude on a positive note. the author speaks in terms of having an “open” rather than naked or sacred public square. Open, or as Os Guinness has termed them, civil public squares allow for the expression of diverse and disparate ideas. Civility in particular seems to imply refraining from ad hominem attacks and inflammatory rhetoric on all sides while encouraging critical engagement that looks both for common ground and recognizes and respects important differences. The author calls for critique of the views of the Christian Right and their successors and I would agree with the need for this. However, I would like to suggest that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” What if each “side” to these discussions were committed to improving the thinking of the other in a common pursuit of the public good? This will only happen if we stop believing the worst of each other and affirm the good wherever we see it. I hope the writer of this book will devote his excellent skills of research and articulation to help foster the understanding and civil engagement so much needed at this time in our history.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Review: Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews

Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews
Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews by Mary Poplin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Poplin poses a challenging question for our public discourse. Is reality secular? That seems to be the prevailing assumption that governs public discourse in politics and public policy, public media, much of the world of business and the world of higher education. It is often argued that secularism provides the only neutral ground where a pluralistic world can meet. Poplin would argue that this is not the case. Secularism is not neutral but rather a worldview that is arguing that its “take” on reality is true.

Poplin should know. She chronicles her own journey through materialistic naturalism, secular humanism and pantheism before her spiritual search led her back to a vibrant Christian faith. She writes as one who is persuaded that these other accounts of reality are inadequate and that, while others have valid insights, only Christianity provides a comprehensive view of reality that is intellectually, existentially, and spiritually true and satisfying. She outlines her purpose for this book as follows:

My position from study, observation and life experience is that the Judeo-Christian worldview encourages more freedom, supports more diversity, and is safer and healthier than secular or other religious worldviews. Indeed I will propose that the Judeo-Christian worldview includes all the true and productive principles found in the other worldviews, fills the gaps between them and offers much more. I believe it can be demonstrated that it is a more accurate description of reality (p.42).

The major part of this book then is a survey of four worldviews that she believes offer contesting views of reality: materialistic naturalism, secular humanism, pantheism, and Judeo-Christianity (really Christianity). Given her basic position, it follows that her assessments of the three rivals to Christianity are critical: Regarding naturalistic materialism, she criticizes its reductionism, its scientism, its lack of inherent purpose, its exclusion of miracle and its ungrounded ethic. Secular humanism is critiqued for its exaltation of human reason, its radical freedom, and its view that somehow morality can arise out of human dialogue with neither divine commands nor a sense of sin. Pantheism is problematic for its inadequate response to suffering, its denial of good and evil, and the pantheon of gods and spirits to which one opens oneself with potentially deleterious effects.

By contrast, she argues for the embrace of Christianity as providing a wider rationality that opens up our minds to reality, a Triune Creator God who offers a narrative of the world that all peoples can embrance, a redeemer Christ who addresses the deepest needs of the human condition. She argues that all aspects of reality from the physical world, to human culture, to the arts are signposts of this greater reality.

What is surprising in all this is that Mary Poplin is an accomplished academic who neither nuances her argument nor hides it behind academic jargon. She makes no attempt at “neutrality”, believing this impossible, and speaks with candor about her own life before Christianity and bluntness in her assessment of its inadequacies. As a result, some may be put off by her honesty. But this is someone who believes both thoughtfully and passionately in truth and the law of non-contradiction. There are only two possibilities for her: only one, or none, of these mutually contradictory worldviews can be true. Life, purpose, human flourishing and eternity hang in the balance. If that is indeed the case, then nuance and ambiguity are out of place, and her candor warranted. I think her assumption is that the genuine truth-seeker, no matter where they are beginning from, will welcome that candor.

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