Denver Journal

Denver Journal

Habits of the High Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age

01.01.03 | Denver Journal, Apologetics and Ethics, Douglas Groothuis | by Quentin Schultze

    A review of Quentin Schultze's, "Habits of the High Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age," by Dr. Douglas Groothuis.

    Schultze, Quentin Habits of the High Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2002

    The important book contributes what is nearly always lacking in discussions of cyberspace technologies: (1) a strong sense of moral order as it impinges on our informational habits, (2) the cruciality of character and community for all our communicative endeavors, (3) the need to critically assess the nature and effects of new technologies instead of merely ratifying their innovations and their potential to "change everything" (supposedly for the better), (4) the theological imperatives regarding our souls, beliefs, and behaviors. Let us hope that this book will open up the moral, philosophical, and theological discourse so sorely needed in our understanding of cyberspace technologies. Schultze's effort is a kind of academic jeremiad, a lament that we have become (in the words of Thoreau's book Walden-not cited by Schultze) "tools of our tools." To my knowledge, there is no other book that calls the cyber-world to account before the higher realities of God, the moral law, and the imperatives of virtue-outside of my own book, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997; Wipf and Stock reprint, 1999).

    Habits of the High-Tech Heart is not another "how to" book or a digitopian oracle. It is, rather, a sober and sobering assessment of the downside of computer-mediated communication. As such, it is a needed tonic to the mindless and irreligious hype that so often accompanies the topic. For that matter, it is also an antidote for the uncritical Christian hyping of the Internet as ushering in the next great wave of evangelism and so on. I hope Schultze's book stirs other Christian thinkers to think deeply and act wisely on this vital topic. With the exception of Jacques Ellul, to date, the most cogent critiques of cyber-culture have come from non-Christian thinkers (many of whom Schultze cites) such as Neil Postman, Lewis Mumford, Swen Birkerts, Theodore Rozsak, Clifford Stoll, and others.

    Schultze also draws heavily from Alexis Tocqueville's insights-both sociological and ethical-and to very good effect. Schultze drinks deeply from Augustine and Kierkegaard. From them (and from other notable modern Christian writers such as Eugene Peterson and Ellul) he finds a significant point of reference-something far above and behind the hypertrophied propaganda that pervades literature about cyberspace. Theological critiques of culture must draw on both theological and sociological sources. The "Audience of One" (Kierkegaard) must be brought to bear on the pressing matters of our day. We must, at once, exegete the Bible, our culture, and our own souls (in light of Scripture and culture). Schultze's book is medicine for the soul in this regard. Although his Christian commitment is firmly in place, he crafts his prose in such a way as to draw in those who might not share his perspective. Bravo! This is wise, and ought to be more common among Christian critiques of culture. We evangelicals need a saner, wiser, and more resonant cultural voice.

    Although Schultze seems less taken with media-critic Marshall McLuhan than I am, he realizes that the medium carries with it in-built potentials for good and evil. I put it this way: no communications medium is intrinsically good, intrinsically evil-or morally neutral. Each medium has its own unique set of potentials for good and evil. As Neil Postman sees it, each medium becomes a "metaphor" for culture. Or, as McLuhan put it, "we become what we behold." If we value computers for their speed and efficiency, we begin to value speed and efficiency above all else. Other values-moral values-are either marginalized or forgotten. As Schultze points out, this is why Bill Gates says that religion is "inefficient." He should be doing something more productive on Sunday morning that wasting time on religion.

    We should remember that every medium must be culturally exegeted as to its biases, limits, and potentials. Given the well-documented American tradition of uncritical boosterism regarding technologies, the darker side of these technologies have not been adequately analyzed. But the Apostle John calls us to avoid worldliness and to embrace godliness (1 John 2:15-17), as does the Apostle Paul (Romans 12:1-2). Any Christian's unreflective use of cyberspace invites worldliness, which undermines character, witness, and community.

    The word "community" is everywhere used and typically abused. It becomes a nearly meaningless term, such as "awesome" has in recent years. Not every assemblage of people with some "connection" is a "community," as Schultze highlights in his chapter, "Nurturing Virtue in Community." The term ought to be reserved for those who are bound to each other and bound to something beyond themselves in a personal manner. True community is not possible on-line, although users of computers may trade data. On-line communication is more personal and responsible when one has already established a relationship with someone off-line.

    Along these lines, I routinely require my students to engage in some kind of "media fast," in which they abstain from an electronic medium for at least one week. During this time they are required to reflection several portions of Scripture-the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the fruit of the Spirit, etc.-in light of their experiences. In the six or so years I have been assigning this fast, the results have been nothing less than profound for the vast majority of the students. Having withdrawn from the world of TV, radio, computers, they find more silence, time for reflection and prayer, and more opportunities to engage family and friends thoughtfully. They become more peaceful and contemplative-and begin to notice how media-saturated most of our culture has become. So, we need some asceticism. Any area of culture that decreases godliness and enhances worldliness must come under the loving discipline of Jesus Christ-for his glory, for our good, and for the good of those we serve. Christians need to withdraw from aspects of our technological culture (which Postman calls a "Technopoly"-a culture dominated by technology) in order to gain perspective on ourselves, God, and our culture.

    Schultze is right to claim that we "detechnologize our religious traditions" (196-199). Every technology should pass through a "truth filter" to determine its use in the church. For example, I recently gave a message on Christ and culture to a group of about 80 ministers and spouses. The jumbotron (large video screen) was used during worship and to project the image of the man who introduced me. I requested that it be turned off during my lecture, because I wanted to engage people face-to-face. The video screen-although so common in so many aspects of contemporary culture-did not belong in this setting. I later found that this request offended several people on staff with the hosting church. I tried to seek reconciliation, but to no avail.

    Another example is when church-goers leaves their Bible's at home because everything they need will be projected on a PowerPoint presentation. Is this a good "habit of the heart"? How is this technology undermining our respect for the Word? Many churches never even ask these kinds of questions. But they must ask them if they read and reflect on Habits of the High-Tech Heart.

    Here is one last example of how technologies can work against us. Another professor and I administered a doctrinal oral exam to one of our Master of Divinity students. He did poorly when asked to relate the larger narrative of Scripture to doctrine. We later found that his method of study was primarily to use a computer program that printed out acres of isolated Bible verses on various topics. By studying these verses, he collected Bible "factoids" (as it were), but lacked a deeper, wider, better sense of God's providential revelation as recounted in Scripture.

    Unless Americans take seriously the biases, limits, and meaning of computer technologies (what they can do well, what they cannot do well), "communal systems of moral meaning" will decline just as the technologies "advance." Biblical notions of truth, virtue, character, and community cannot be sustained entirely in cyberspace. As Schulze writes, we need to speak with one another, worship with one another, and remember the importance of geography and history! Without these "habits of the heart," our data may increase, but our souls will shrivel.

    Douglas Groothuis
    Professor of Philosophy
    Denver Seminary