New world metaphors

January 19, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 2
Phil Wagler |

Human ingenuity cranks out things that are windows into the heart of the age. Our technological dreamworks become tools of convenience, toys of amusement, gadgets of annoyance, and objects of idolatry. Since Babel, every epoch has had its technological metaphor. The great tower of Genesis 11 betrayed humanity’s cultural self-understanding. We were kings and queens of the castle, then we got confused.

Dash forward and we can trace a fascinating series of tech symbols since the 15th century. Gutenberg’s printing press of 1450 was a technological wonder. His press made culture-quaking ideas capable of spreading like wild fire. It expedited literacy. It empowered the individual to rise from the dust of a feudal cultural grave.

Fast forward a couple of centuries to philosopher Blaise Pascal. This calculating “homme,” who defined the emerging individual rationalism of the Enlightenment with “I think, therefore I am,” was also apparently the first to wear a wristwatch. If individual reason had won the day, why not individual time, too? The clock became the technological metaphor for a new era, one in which time became money, and the dirty second hand, not the rhythms of creation, ruled the roost.

Things ticked along until the “thingamajig extraordinaire” was sprung upon us. The computer hotwired Gutenberg’s press and Pascal’s watch into a plastic tower making power personal and Pacman an icon. With the Internet the world, quite literally, came home. The computer now amuses, aids and controls. The web connects us to a wide world and disconnects us from our family and neighbours. It can save time and waste it. It can liberate and imprison. It can bring order and disseminate chaos. It is the technological metaphor for the world we all know.

But we haven’t stopped there. The technological metaphor of the dawning world is the smartphone, which puts a shrinking world in my pocket. It seems to have life and yet has none. It is the perfect metaphor for the entitled culture I find myself swimming in. So much of our lives is dominated by these technologies.

How does this apply to the life of the church? Well, for one thing, everyone in our churches is treading in these cultural waters. Even those determined to stay untainted by “the world,” ironically put the world in their pockets or depend on people who do. Pretending we can deconstruct what’s been constructed is irrational.

Furthermore, we are conditioned to think very mechanistically and therefore look at our churches in the same way. True to our technological metaphors, we believe we can and should be able to program the ideal church to put in our pockets. But the church does not exist to be the virtual spiritual equivalent of your favourite app; the church exists to give glory to God!

It’s not that we don’t love the church. We do, but perhaps wrongly. We love her so much we want to control her by making a technological widget out of her. However, we are not called to love the church; that’s what God does (Ephesians 5:25). We are called to love God and neighbour, make no graven image, and, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, be a resurrected people through whom God reveals his wisdom, not ours, to the powers that be. Without doubt, this requires the creative tools of our technologies, but, even more so, the surrender of our need for programmatic control to the wild, creative and unpredictable breath of the Holy Spirit.

Phil Wagler ( typed this on a laptop with a smartphone in his pocket while constantly reminding himself that all he is and does is really in the hands of the Good Shepherd.

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