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From the Garden to the City: the Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology

by on March 3, 2012 in Book Excerpts

This is an excerpt from From the Garden to the City, published by Kregel Publications, 2011.

Chapter 3: Reflection

If you’ve ever tried to learn any computer programming, you might recognize the words “Hello World.”

That’s because whenever a new programming language is created, the first thing its creator does is explain to everyone else how to write a simple program that makes the words “Hello World” appear on-screen.

For example, in the famous programming language C, the code looks something like this:

main() {
  printf("hello world"); 
}

And in PHP, the language used to make popular websites like Facebook and Wordpress, it looks like this:

<?php
echo "Hello World";
?>

Even if you’ve never seen the code for a computer program before, these examples should be at least partially readable to you. You can spot the words “Hello World,” and you might have guessed that everything else around it tells the computer to send those words to the screen. One of the things that has always fascinated me about programming is that it allows us to create working tools using nothing but words. We don’t need any raw materials or physical strength, just pure creativity. Of course, our task in this book is not to learn about programming but to understand something about what the Scriptures say about technology. And when we open up to the first pages of the Bible, we find God doing a kind of programming of his own. He, too, is not dependent on raw materials but can instead create by the power of his word. Yet unlike our dependence on computers or electricity, God really can create something from nothing.

In this and the coming chapters, we will reexamine familiar biblical stories and look for clues about how we should approach technology. From the outset, I want to make it clear that we won’t take the time to acknowledge every nuance or important theological detail in the text. Neither will we attempt to answer questions about the relationship of science and history to the biblical stories. Instead we will simply assume that the Scriptures are trustworthy, and that they have much to tell us . . . including some things about technology.

How We’re Programmed

In the opening chapter of Genesis, as God is creating the universe, he gives each of his creations a purpose and a function. To the stars he gives the job of separating day and night and marking out the seasons. To the plants he gives the job of sprouting fruit and seed. To the fish—what the Hebrew literally calls “the swimming things”—God says simply, “Swim.” And to the birds—literally “the flying things”—he says, “Fly.” During those first six days, every plant and animal received a place and a function within God’s world. What they are made to do—shining, sprouting, swimming, and flying—in part defines what they are.

What, then, are human beings? If all the other creatures are defined by what they do, what is the thing that we humans do that makes us human? In other words, how did God program us?

Later on the sixth day, God answered this question by defining humanity not as creatures that sprout, swim, or fly but by saying, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26). This means that our job, and the essence of what it is to be human, is to reflect God’s image to the rest of creation. Of course many theologians have worn out their keyboards trying to demystify what it means to reflect God’s image, but we can expound using four categories.

First, humans display God’s ability to think rationally. Although some animals display a form of intelligence, humans are clearly distinct from the rest of the created order.

Secondly, many thinkers have noticed the plural language referring to God (“let us”) and proposed that humans reflect God’s relationality. In our sin we attempt to live independent of our need for God and others, but God originally designed humans to function in a deeply interdependent way that reflects the tri-personhood of God.

Thirdly, just as God is the ruler over the entire universe and all created things, his image-bearers are to rule over this tiny little planet. In Genesis 1 God commanded Adam (and successive humanity) to “have dominion” and “subdue the earth.”

These three facets of humanity—our rational thinking, our relational nature, and our call to subdue the earth—are all undoubtedly reflections of God’s nature. But we discover a final category as we move into Genesis 2, and it is this one that needs a bit more explanation.

Whereas Genesis 1 offers a panoramic view of the entire universe, Genesis 2 zooms in on God’s design and production of humanity. Unlike the lush, full world of Genesis 1, chapter 2 begins with a barren, lifeless landscape where “no plant of the field had yet sprouted” (Gen. 2:5). Part of the reason for this was that “God had not caused it to rain,” but the other issue was that “there was no man to work the ground.” In Hebrew, there’s a little wordplay going on because the word for ground (adama) sounds like the word for man (adam). Literally it reads, “there was no adam for the adama.” Then God responds by picking up some of the dust from the dry, barren landscape and sculpting that dust into the first human being.

But God’s image-bearer wasn’t meant to live in an arid wasteland, and so before God does anything with Adam, he first plants the Garden of Eden and fills it with tall trees, ripe fruit, and flowing rivers. Once the garden is prepared, God gently sets Adam down within and gives him a simple job: “cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15 NASB). The air has flying things that fly, the sea has swimming things that swim, and now, finally, the adama has Adam to cultivate it. If the fish were programmed to swim and the birds were programmed to fly, then humans were programmed to cultivate the garden.

This tells us something important about both human nature and the garden. It means that God designed the garden—even before the fall, sin, and death—in such a way that it needed to be worked on. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the garden, it’s just that God didn’t intend for it to stay the way that it was. Instead, God wanted Adam to “cultivate” or “till” or “work” what he found in the garden and make something new out of it. God created the garden not as an end point but as a starting place. Adam’s job was to take the raw materials of the earth—from the wood of the trees, to the rocks on the ground, to the metal buried deep within the earth—and create new things from them. In a sense, Adam was to take the “natural” world (what God made) and fashion it into something else—something not entirely “natural”—but sanctioned by God.

Of course, God did put some limits on Adam. As we all know, God warned Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But God also put limits on Adam’s creative powers. The command to “cultivate the garden” was coupled with the command to “keep the garden.” That word keep can also mean “guard” or “watch over,” and it conveys the idea that Adam was not only to shape the garden but to maintain something of its original form. He was not to overcultivate it or use its raw materials in a way that would unnecessarily harm it or God’s creatures. This is, of course, easier said than done especially in the unfortunate circumstance we find ourselves in today where “creation care” and “the environment” have become highly politicized. Nevertheless, it seems that God is asking us to strike a careful balance between “natural” and “unnatural,” between the acts of cultivating and keeping.

Within these limits, Adam could do whatever he wanted in the garden, rearranging and creating from it as he saw fit. He could add a row of stones around trees he liked or make a bridge over one of the rivers. He could build a storage shed out of shells or collect seeds and plant them in rows. Whatever he chose to do, he would be taking what God had made and remaking it into a creation of his own. And in doing so, Adam would be reflecting the creativity of his Creator (who, at this point in the story, had done little but create).

The final aspect of our role as God’s image-bearers, then, is our ability to create. When we cultivate the garden, that is, when we make things from what God has made, we are reflecting the image of God.

But something else important happens when we create. By choosing to put rocks around one set of trees and not another, Adam would be making a decision about what was important to him. By adding a bridge over this part of that river, Adam would be making a choice about the way he thought things should work. With each creative act, he would be making decisions about what matters and how things should be done. As he modeled behaviors to Eve and their children—and then Adam’s children in turn modeled those same behaviors to their children—Adam’s choices would form the basis of what these people considered important and meaningful.

Theologian Stanley Grenz groups the things we create into four broad categories: things, images, rituals, and language.1 A thing is simply any physical object that people create, from a bridge over a river to the utensils with which we eat. Images, though objects also, are designed to represent something else, like a company logo, a symbol on a traffic sign, or the cross that represents our faith. Rituals are what we do with those things and images, including the time of year when we plant vegetables, how we wake up in the morning, how we brush our teeth, and the way we make coffee. Finally, language is the tool we use to share the meaning of these objects, images, and rituals.

As we create and use things, images, rituals, and language with others, we are sharing not only those items but also what they mean to us. The word we use to summarize this transfer of meaning is culture. In fact, these passages in Genesis 1 and 2 have sometimes been called the “culture mandate” because theologians find in it the command and responsibility for humans to create culture.

Now, there are probably as many definitions and views of culture as there were trees in the garden—and the word culture brings with it things like “culture wars,” “high culture” versus “low culture,” and the debate over “Christ and culture”—but we are going to use the word culture in a very simple way. My good friend Professor Barry Jones would say that the sharing of things, images, rituals, and language mediates three things to us: identity, meaning, and values. Theologian Emil Brunner captured this idea when he wrote that culture is the “materialization of meaning,”2 but I did not fully understand what he meant until I experienced it firsthand.

An Altar in the Garden

A few years after I graduated from college, I started to wonder how my mom managed to raise four great kids as a single parent. One day she answered my question by taking me on a walk at a nearby park we used to visit when I was growing up. As we were walking along, my mom stopped for a moment to point out a small pile of rocks a few yards off the main pathway.

The pile was small enough that I hadn’t noticed it at first, but once she pointed to it, I could see that it was human-made. The rocks obviously couldn’t have gotten that way themselves—someone had collected and arranged them. After looking at them for a minute, I asked her, “What is it?” My mom started to talk about how hard it was on her when my dad left. He gave her a lot of financial support and came to see us regularly, but she still felt crushed by the weight of raising us alone. Most of the time, the only thing she felt strong enough to do was pray for us. So every day while we were off at school, she would walk out to this spot and spend a few hours begging God to protect us. As God answered her prayers, she found some nearby rocks and built this little altar to mark the place where God had been faithful to our family.

As she told her story, that ordinary pile of rocks turned into something of enormous meaning to me. My mother had made this little place more important than the places in front of us and the places behind us. God had done something meaningful for my family, and my mother materialized that meaning into a tangible, visible, material form. She did this by taking what God had made—a few simple rocks—and remaking it into something that reflected the creativity and goodness of God.

Growing up, my mom never talked about her little altar, but when she finally told me about it, it changed me. I could never again see myself as a person whom God had forgotten. My identity was altered such that I now see myself as a person who was an answer to prayer. Those stones said I would not be who I was if God had not acted.

Using Grenz’s terminology, my mom’s altar was a “thing” around which she had built a “ritual” of consistent prayer for her children. When my mother shared her altar with me, it was deeply meaningful to me, and it mediated the value of a life of prayerfulness as well as a new sense of identity. While the example of my mom’s altar might seem extraordinary, this kind of mediation of values happens anytime we create—and even when we rearrange—everyday things.

For example, imagine that you walked into a roomful of twenty chairs. If those chairs were arranged in four rows of five with a podium up front, you would immediately know this was some kind of classroom with a clear authority figure. But if those same chairs were arranged in a circle, you would tend to interpret it as a group-oriented setting where everyone is equal. The “culture” of the room would be determined by both the presence of chairs and the arrangement of them. Every day we participate in dozens of these little cultures. Our homes, offices, churches, cities, and countries each encompass a unique set of things, images, rituals, and language that forms its identity and communicates meaning and value.

Technology Culture

So what does all this talk of culture and meaning have to do with technology? Underneath those things, images, rituals, and language are the tools we use to create them. Andy Crouch recently wrote that culture is simply “what we make of the world,”3 and we might say that technology is “how” we make what we are making. But tools are also themselves “cultural goods,” and as we discussed in the previous chapter, they not only help us cultivate the garden, they also work to cultivate us. We use tools to create cultural goods, yet because those tools are themselves elements of culture, they too mediate a set of values, meaning, and identity back to us.

If you ask the average person, “What is the meaning of your cell phone and what sense of identity and values does it mediate to you?” you might be answered by a confused look. But if you ask, “How would you feel if you lost your cell phone?” the immediacy of the answer would betray deep beliefs about what it means to be connected. It may be that the cell phone is not just a tool but an integral part of the person’s identity, who they define themselves to be.

We will spend much of the next chapter more carefully distinguishing technology from other cultural goods, but before we close this chapter, we should address one final question about creating and culture. We don’t live in the Garden of Eden, and the things, images, and rituals of today’s cultures and subcultures don’t always reflect the values of our Creator. The wickedness of much of today’s culture has led some to believe that culture is synonymous with worldliness. Therefore it’s hard to believe that culture and technology actually existed in the garden.

Yet the word translated cultivate in Genesis 2 is elsewhere translated till, an action that assumes the use of tools. This seems to indicate that using tools was a part of God’s design for humanity even before the fall. But even more importantly, if we look carefully at Genesis 2, we’ll see that the first elements of culture—and the first tools that both shaped the world and the humans who used them—were created in the garden.

The First Technology

If you ask a cultural anthropologist or evolutional biologist to identify the most important tool developed by early humans, they will invariably say it was language. Even monkeys use stone tools, but it was language that allowed humans to build and share knowledge. Interestingly, Genesis seems to agree with this line of thinking.

After God put Adam in the garden to “cultivate and keep it,” he gave Adam his first creative task. As God created the animals, he “brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” Genesis goes on to say that, “The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field” (Gen. 2:20).

From the way this section of Scripture ends, we surmise that this exercise was in part designed to show Adam that none of the animals could serve as a “suitable helper” for him. But the text also tells us that God had a second purpose in mind. Apparently God wanted “to see what he [Adam] would call them” (Gen. 2:19). In other words, he wanted to watch as Adam created language.

There in the garden, as he created words and names that didn’t exist before, Adam started reflecting the image of God. These words would serve as the lens through which Eve and their children would see those creatures. Now we don’t ordinarily think of language as a technology, but language is very much a tool. Not only is it a tool, but it is a tool we use to inform and categorize the way we see the world. Embedded in our language lies our values and identity.

When my son was learning his first words, my wife and I loved to see what he called things. The first animal name he learned was “duck,” and since that was the only word he knew, he called everything “duck” . . . dogs, cats, birds, elephants, and every other living creature. He was constantly pointing to anything that moved and shouting, “DUCK!” Thankfully, he soon started learning additional categories like fish and cat and bird, and the more words he learned, the more he could communicate with us.

Later he began learning his colors, and I loved watching his little face as he studied an object, categorized it, and then blurted out a new word. Where he used to just see a collection of undifferentiated objects, he could now organize that visual space using the colors and names we had given him. But we don’t just use language to categorize things; we also use language to represent our values. For example, the word bachelor describes a man whom our culture believes is old enough to have married but who has not done so. The existence of the word bachelor shows that English-speaking cultures value marrying at a certain age.

As we teach my son the English language, we are introducing him to our culture and giving him the tool set through which he will see the world. But if we were not English speakers and we taught him a different language, then he would see the world in a slightly different way. Language, like all of our tools, operates as a filter between us and the world. The language that we speak and through which we think tints what we see in the world.

For example, English words generally don’t have gender, but most German and Spanish nouns are categorized as masculine, feminine, or neuter. This is important because some words like bridge are feminine in German, but masculine in Spanish. Other words like key are the opposite— masculine in German, but feminine in Spanish. When you learn these languages, teachers usually say that the gender doesn’t actually matter, but a recent study proved otherwise. It showed that German speakers tended to describe bridges in feminine terms like “elegant” and “peaceful,” while native Spanish speakers used words like “towering,” “strong,” and “dangerous.” When it came to keys, they did just the opposite. The Germans felt that keys were “hard,” “heavy,” and “jagged,” while their Spanish friends spoke in terms like “intricate,” “little,” and “lovely.”

That study is evidence that language works like a pair of sunglasses; it colors the way we see everything, from bridges to keys to other people. The authors of the same study also found a small Aboriginal community whose language lacks directional words such as “behind” and “in front of.” Instead, to identify an object, members of the community use cardinal directions like “the mountain to the north” or “the man to the west of you.” They might even say, “There’s an ant on your southwest leg.” This kind of language requires them to stay oriented in space at all times in order to function.

Unlike those of us who see objects in the world in relationship to other objects, their language identifies the object relative to the earth itself. This is valuable for a culture who spends most of its time outdoors. But language of this nature has no value for those who live mostly indoors. In other words, the value system of this Aboriginal dialect would conflict with the value system embedded in the English language.

Cultures develop and modify language so that it reflects the culture’s needs, that is, what they want from the world. Today this is evident in the adolescent culture with teenagers who do much of their communication via text messaging. Teenagers are constantly introducing new abbreviations, shortcuts, and combinations of characters that help them transfer their values back and forth among themselves. As they change their language, though, they are also creating a distinct culture. Those who do not understand these texting conventions may not be a part of their culture. This means that kids and parents living in the same household can be a part of different cultures. This fits with the idea that culture mediates not only values and meaning but also identity.

Language is not only purposed for the transfer of information. Another aspect of language that makes it more tool-like is that we actually use language to accomplish something.

For example, the words “I now pronounce you man and wife” perform the function of marrying a couple. And the words “I nominate Rebecca as team captain” have actually done something. When one person says to another, “I hate you,” we say, “Those were hurtful words,” because the words didn’t just transfer the state of hatred—they actually functioned to wound the hearer. Linguists use the term “speech acts” to describe this aspect of language 5 and they have identified dozens of things we do with language: we confess, forgive, frighten, inspire, and so on.

So it turns out that what I thought was special about programming— creating and doing things with language—is not so unique after all. From the opening pages of Genesis, we find God speaking the entire universe into existence and Adam making up words as his first creative acts. Language is our first example of how humans create within the creation of God, imbuing each creation with value and meaning. God designed the world in such a way to be cultivated and shaped by humanity, and when we create we are operating as God’s image-bearers.

Sadly, we don’t get to stay in the perfection of the Garden of Eden for long. We have to move on to Genesis 3 and the fall, a world in which our creativity is tainted by sin and sinfulness. But first, we need to spend some time distinguishing technology from other elements of culture. To do that, I’ll take you to a dinner party in north Dallas.

John Dyer is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, where he serves as Web Developer. This excerpt © 2011 by John Dyer, from his book From the Garden to the City, published by Kregel Publications.

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