June 2, 2011

The Next Story by Tim Challies

When considering the history of mankind we can point to a number of inventions which produced revolutionary changes in society. The later half of the 19th century alone was responsible for such wondrous achievements as the combustion engine, what we would today call plastic, the telephone, incandescent light bulb, automobile and radio. It's easy to see how man, in this same period of time, walked further away from God and more fully embraced technology as the true savior of civilization.

And yet just 50 years later would see the dawn of a whole new world which would astound everyone with its achievements and give rise to a whole new era of technological wonders. In the late 1940s something called a transistor was invented which would herald the end of the vacuum tube era that, up until then, was the backbone of the new electronic age of TV and radio. This tiny device would later shrink considerably in size ushering in the first integrated circuits which set the stage for the age of the microprocessor.

Computing power which had required the size and resources of an entire building would eventually fit on a piece of silicon smaller than a thumbnail. Such marvels could then be fit into every device imaginable giving them power and capabilities that were considered science fiction just 50 years earlier. And if you are middle-aged like me, you have witnessed a fundamental change in society over the past 35 years, primarily due to such devices, which has remarkably altered how we as a people conduct our business and leisure activities.

Technology is still seen as the universal savior of man--probably now more than ever. If there's ever a problem, just wait and someone, somewhere will come up with a new technology that promises to solve its ills. It is definitely a (brave?) new world with new rules and roles for everyone who partakes. The change in roles effects nearly everyone and as Christians we would be wise to consider what this means to our lives and testimonies as we live in the new, digital era.

Tim Challies, noted Christian blogger, is no stranger to the digital world and has made an effective living and ministry by using the means of technology to edify the body of Christ. His recent foray into writing started in 2007 with his first book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. Being a Challies reader for some time, when I heard of this book and its topic, I immediately put in my pre-order and anxiously awaited delivery. I was not disappointed by Tim's first authoring and consider it a book whose content is much needed in the Christian realm.

Fast forward to 2011 and Challies has just released, "The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion." When I first heard about this title I was intrigued but unlike before, I did not rush to pre-order it but simply added it to my wish list (of some few hundred books I'd like to buy and read before I die). But that would change soon enough when Zondervan announced the blog tour for Tim's book. When the offer came I felt the Spirit move me (besides, who can turn up a free good book?) and signed up for a copy to review.

As I waited for the book to arrive in the mail (you see, there is still some good use for the old pony express and printed words on real paper), I began wondering just how material there was on such a subject. Was there really enough material to fill up an entire book? I was dubious but after reading Tim's latest I can promise you that this book is filled with piercing questions, thoughtful reflections and discerning insights about how Christians should be working and living in the digital age. Even more so as we should be seeking to live God-honoring lives and not be taken captive by the philosophies of the world which would seek to pull us further away from our Savior.

Tim's basic premise for the book is to ask if technology is serving us or is it the other way around? Are we simply using the new tools of our age or could it be that they are changing us in ways we don't even know about? As Christ made abundantly clear in the Sermon on the Mount, man can not serve two masters. So we must be careful where we place our allegiance with the use of our technology. The use of technology comes with hidden dangers that many of us are blind to. And while the world would tell us that every new device and service is designed for your pleasure and benefit, much of the time what it does is pull us of the path, further from God and weakening our service to Him.

The Next Story is divided into neatly into two parts. The first part (chapters 1-3) is geared toward achieving a better understanding of what technology is from a theological point of view, how God would have us understand its role in our lives and what past experience tells us we can expect concerning this new digital revolution (remembering that the constant in all equations is sinful man). The second part (chapters 4-9) is concerned with the practical aspects of discerning how we make sure that technology serves us in God-honoring ways instead of it becoming our master, changing us for the worse.

Challies begins with the view that the creation of technology is part of our God-given mandate to rule over the earth. In doing so we need to be mindful that the use of such technology should fall into line with everything else we do as Christians--it should bring glory to God. But since we understand that we live in a sinful world, technology is more often than not created by those who care little of glorifying God not to mention the masses who will use it. Just as Dave Ramsey will tell you that money is amoral, Challies informs us that technology is as well. The problems come when we pesky humans put technology to use. Even the best of inventions can be turned into something evil in the wrong hands (think of the wonderful things cellphones do for us but the problems teens are running into these days because of sexting or the deaths caused by texting while driving).

The pace of American life (or anywhere in the world, really) along with the pressure to have the latest and greatest gadgets leads to various other issues we must deal with. Putting aside arguments like really needing to part with your hard-earned money to upgrade your smartphone every year, we are under such delusions of grandeur that we don't stop to take a moment and consider if we really need what the advertisements are pushing. Even worse, we rarely stop to think of the negative impact ownership will have on our lifestyle. Devices which some would consider luxuries suddenly become necessities , so much so that we can't even think about parting with them. Worse yet, we invest so much time and money in some modern gizmos that they become idols that relegate worship of the living God to secondary status. We find more and more satisfaction in these devices than in the One in whose image we were created.

Considered as a whole, the technologies invented in the digital era were created to increase the speed and scope of communications. Notice the type and quantity of information conveyed as the telegraph is replaced by the telephone. Step up to the television medium and things change even more remarkably. Now take all of this in conjunction with an information superhighway spanning the globe and you have a world wide web of information whose content is almost inexhaustible. And even though most would decry the information overload that's upon us, it seems we can't live without it. Psychologists studying the use of technology see an ever increasing dependence on 24/7 communications so much so that it creates an addictive effect in which more and more information is sought to keep the "high" while severe withdrawl is experienced when deprived. More and more of us are unknowingly becoming slaves, fearful to look in the mirror lest we not like what we've become. This alone is justification enough for this book.

Life in today's world is fast paced and furious. In an attempt to foster great communication between people (note the cellphone, e-mail, Facebook, chatting, etc.), the devices designed to help us reach out and connect quickly and easily have fostered relationships which are numerically impressive but spiritually deficient and shallow. In the very act of trying to be more we have become less. We seem more interested (and proud) of the number of friends we have on Facebook instead of making true face-to-face time to know people in a way that fosters intimate fellowship. We've embraced quantity while rejecting quality (which is where the hard work and true rewards are at). This is having a profound effect on churches. One look at the growing ranks of cyberchurches is all the evidence we need to prove that humans are bent to take the path of least resistance. Why get up early on Sunday, shower and eat, get dressed, grab our Bible, drive to church and deal with real people when we can just plop down in front of the flat-panel two minutes before video-streaming starts with donut in hand whilst still in our pajamas? All we need now is a digital-style exegesis of Hebrews 10:25 to put us at ease and quiet our conscience. As Challies states it so well, "Could it be that our desire for control is short-circuiting the process of change and transformation that God wants us to experience through the mess of real-world, flesh-and-blood, face-to-face relationships?"

One of the most convicting chapters to me was the one in which Tim related his experience of getting away for a week's vacation without any digital distractions. As he reflected on this time of quiet and "enlightenment" he came to the conclusion that so many distractions in the modern world have trained us to be shallow thinkers (since we live in a constant state of distraction we never have time to dwell on any one thing) which inevitably leads to shallow thinking. And this can't help but have a profound impact on the church and the edification of its saints. Distractions create an environment which goes against the lifestyle which God would have us partake in which needs periods of quiet reflection, time in prayer and meditation on His word such that we might renew our minds and be ever-changing into the likeness of Christ. This effects not only our relationship with God but in the roles we have as worker, parent, spouse, friend and servant. With that said, the contents of this chapter alone are worthy of serious study, reflection and application.

A subsequent chapter deals with a proper understanding of the difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Suffice it to say that our world is enamored with information which is where most people stop due to overload and multitasking. Few make it to the level of knowledge and only the tiniest percentage make it to the level of wisdom. The following chapter dovetails perfectly by reflecting on our society's fascination with what is relevant according to the majority. No longer is truth an issue. It's what R.C. Sproul has referred to as "statistical morality"; whatever the majority believes makes something true. This is nothing more than a sign of our postmodern times and truly frightening. As Challies points out, if everyone has an equal say in the process, what happens when cop and criminal or parent and child butt heads except to say that authority will become as ancient of a concept as truth.

The final chapter is a stark glimpse into the world of digital information and those who use it to make a living off. Google and many, many other companies like them spend lots of time, effort and money to mine the information used create a digital identify for each of us (which changes the concept of man from something created in the image of God into an abstract, soulless quantity of numbers) so that they can better market what they sell and, even scarier, try to predict what we will do and buy next.

And gone are the days of digital innocence for every scrap of information is stored indefinitely thanks to the availability and low cost of memory devices. While I never had to be put under the digital information microscope that exists today, my children will. When the go to apply for college, get a job, apply for a loan, buy insurance or a myriad of other common transactions, their personal data will be used to scour Internet databases across the world for every scrap of information that can be found on them. Everything they have posted, tweeted, bought, etc. will be brought to bear in providing, or denying, some of their life's most important transactions. As the saying goes, what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet ... forever!

As I mentioned earlier, I had a hard time understanding how an entire book could be written about our lives lived out in the modern, digital age. I could not have been more mistaken. But when all is said and done, I guess I'd have to say that the only people who need to read this book are those who have either a cell phone, video game console, e-mail account or Internet browser. Everyone else can safely ignore this book. Get my point?

This book is filled with invaluable information and it would be wise to read it multiple times to glean every nugget of information and make sure we have the knowledge needed to better understand today's technology, how we are using it (or if it is using us) and if God is being glorified through it. When I finish reading and marking up a book and there is more information highlighted than not, I know I've found something unique and valuable. I think you will too.

In closing I'd like to thank both Zondervan (for providing this book for review) and Tim himself for making this much needed and invaluable resource available! Tim truly is the master of life and faith after the digital explosion. Praise be to God for putting this all together and getting me to read a book I might not have otherwise.

P.S. So, Tim, what's the next book going to be about and when can we expect it?

Buy this book at Monergism or Westminster Bookstore and support a God-honoring business in the process!