technology and worship: part 3

(I’m still thinking about our use of technology in worship. This post continues my earlier thoughts: Part 1 and Part 2)

The best books on technology and worship offer methods for carefully appropriating devices that contribute to the unique form of a congregation’s worship. Technologies should not be imposed from above, but should arise from the communal discernment of the church. I’ve already offered two authors who take this route (see links above).

While I appreciate these critical investigations into the liturgical use of technology, they aren’t haunted by the voices that I can’t get out of my head. They haven’t yet exorcised the histories of terror that come with each bit of technology. From their explorations, one is left assuming that devices magically appear in catalogs and electronic stores like Best Buy and Circuit City. But we know that technologies are not creatio ex nihilo. They have a history; they come from somewhere; and they materially remember what we would like to forget.

Walter Benjamin, the tormented Jewish Philosopher, teaches us to be honest about the history of oppression that produces the cultural achievements that we enjoy. In his essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (see Illuminations, pp. 253-264), Benjamin describes how the barbarism of progress delivers to our doorstep the useful fruits of civilization:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures… For without exception the cultural treasures [the observer] surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

The record of civilization is also a record of barbarism. Truthfulness demands that we wrestle with the barbaric debts of our technological sophistication. Our technologies owe their existence to the losers of history, trampled underfoot as civilization marches into the future. Progress is horrific.

In his book The Lexus and The Olive Tree, Thomas L. Friedman describes the powers of violence that makes technological development possible (revised edition: New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000). The technologies of Silicon Valley can only happen “in a world stabilized by a benign superpower, with its capital in Washington, D.C.” (443). Technological production requires a flow of capital and a secure market, thus the protection of a superpower. As Friedman puts it, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist” (ibid.). He continues: “the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps” (444). Without knowing it, Friedman corroborates Benjamin’s analysis above by citing the work of the historian Robert Kagan, who writes, “Good ideas and technologies also need a strong power that promotes those ideas by example and protects those ideas by winning on the battlefield” (ibid.). Fredric Jameson argues that the link between our military might and technological advancement should be extended to all aspects of our postmodern culture: “this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military adn ecnomic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror” (Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 5).

It is hard to imagine a way forward once our ears begin to pick out the cries amidst the rubble upon which rest the storehouses of accumulated knowledge and inventions. As God puts it, “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). The screams are paralyzing, if we care to listen. How can we ignore the cries of our sisters and brothers reverberating through our speakers, mediating the melodious voices of our worship teams and amplifying the preacher’s inspired sermon? Every amplified voice is haunted, no matter what the hopeful message may be. How can we redeem technological devices that are possessed with a demonic history? If there’s a way forward, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that we can ignore the dead whose life-blood fuel our technologies.

Romand Coles uses Benjamin to argue that it is “our dead ancenstors who should be the focus of our responsibility” (Coles and Hauerwas, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, p. 32). Coles goes on to say that “we care for the world as we care for the dead.” But this kind of responsiblity is not at all straightforward. He asks: “What does it mean to be responsible to the murdered…?” There is no clear answer. One thing is certain: to ignore those murdered voices of the past is to silence them again. Our task, according to Coles’ reading of Benjamin, is “To be responsible for preventing re-murder” through our stubborn remembering of what the victors of history want us to forget. For Coles, we acknowledge how the victims of the past haunt us. Therefore, if we want to be honest, we have no choice but to live in that tension. But tension-dwelling is the only place where hope may come. It’s those who wait at the tomb who witness resurrected hope. As Harvey Blume comments on Benjamin’s “Theses”, “with complete unforgetfulness goes complete expectation. [Benjamin’s] Judaism is the symbiosis of total memory and total hope” (Blume, “For Benjamin: The Theses of the Philosophy of History,” Telos, no. 41 [Fall 1979], p. 156).

So, our question: is there a way to harken unto the victims of technology that doesn’t lead to paralysis?

Comments (16)

  1. Josh B

    A couple thoughts in response to your question. First, it could be said that the use of a technology is morally neutral. It is the intention which makes the innovations questionable. We can acknowledge that the production of the technology is oppressive and violent, as you have done above. May own theoretical statement seems equivocal, but it is something we need to keep in mind as we consider the material things of our lives. It is especially important as we consider the intricate web of production and capital in our culture.

    The second, and I think most pertinent to your post, is the way the material of our lives can be used for the subversion of the very violent structures you name. Here I am thinking in terms of De Certeau’s description of tactical practices. In the Practice of Everyday life De Certeau describes the practices of all people which utilize the things around them for their own use rather than use intended by the power structures. The inane example which comes to mind is the use of a work computer for the production of a resume for another job. Here the worker uses what is available for her own means, thus subverting the companies goals. In the case of technology, it seems to me in this light that the use of a computer or screen in the liturgical life of a community is the PRECISE place it should be used. By participating in the liberating practices of worship and the ultimately participating in the Kingdom of God, these material means subvert the culture of death which produced them. What is more, these products of Silicon Valley expand beyond the Church walls and participate in things like this blog, the CPT website, and other means of exchange which can disseminate the very information and critique of these structures of production and violence.

    So then I come full circle. It ultimately depends on the use of the technology by us as the People of God. As I said above, the liturgy of the Church is probably the first place this technology should be implemented. By participating in the proclamation of the Reign of God these computers, screens, and projectors can be redeemed from their destructive production.

    Great question! I look forward to the conversation.

  2. IsaacV (Post author)

    Hi Josh, thanks for your comment. I like your use of Michel de Certeau. That seems like a really helpful direction. And your example of using a work computer (and staying on the clock!) to apply for another job is really interesting. But there is a step missing between your example and the incorporation of technology in our liturgy. It seems like the analogy would require that only stolen goods can be used in worship! That’s quite subversive.

  3. Josh B

    Or someone’s personal computer…or even better still a work laptop! Though the irony here is that we are using the very means we critique.

    As is often the case in discussions of War Tax Resistance, we might have to ask what is a real separation from the means of violence (communal living completely off the grid so to speak) and what might be considered a token protest. I am not convinced that this is a real dichotomy, or for that matter a useful distinction, but it does press us to ask how we can subvert the structures we consider violent and antithetical to the Gospel. (My personal take is that complete autonomy is impossible, a sentiment formed by Jesus’ injunction to “render unto Caesar.”)

    A more practical element of the discussion might also be the collection of ideas regarding re-use of hard-ware, collection of Open-source programs, and the possibly co-ops for computer sharing and support.

  4. Tim Baer

    I echo Josh B’s response that technology is morally nuetral. Using the Cain’s story to symbolize a speaker or amplifier is theologically reckless, at best.

    No doubt that mankind’s technological progress forward is stained with blood. But you imply something in your writing, that is that the lack of technology produces is blood free. I would argue that with or without cardoid microphones the human race will still have both reason and ability to commit atrocities against each-other.

    Cain didn’t need a superpower to murder his brother.

  5. IsaacV (Post author)

    Tim, why do you think “technology is morally neutral”? To make such a statement without any argument is logically reckless, at best. I gave you my reasons to posit the opposite. You could do the same.

    I never said that a “lack of technology produces” a “blood free” world. Nor did I attempt to imply such things. It would have been more appropriate for you to ask something like, “So, Isaac, do you think that getting rid of technology would solve the world’s problems?” And I would have quickly responded: “No. The powers of sin will always find ways to destroy God’s good creation.” We could have had such a nice conversation…

    Fredric Jameson argues that the Postmodern condition is a way of life where we consume without borders or barriers. And we are able to do so because products hide the marks of their production. Because if we knew the destruction that went into their creation, then we would have a really hard time enjoying them. That seems like a problem to me.

    Here’s a line from Jameson’s book, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism: “a product somehow shuts us out even from a sympathetic participation, by imagination, in its production, It comes before us, no questions asked” (317).

  6. Tim Baer

    technology is morally nuetral. It’s production is not.

    We can still have a nice conversation.

    I think it’s pointless to argue whether or not our lifestyle is something to feel guilty about. We live in a great society that has produced some great works of art and science. We are far from perfect. But the idea that we should feel guilty I question. We are no worse than the Islamic slave traders or the 18th century, the Hutus who slaughtered their brethern 10 years ago, or the Myans with their human sacrifice.

    I won’t feel guilty about our way of life, even if I think some things are far from perfect.

  7. tomdunn

    I didn’t even read the whole post, but I want to be a part of this “nice conversation.” Tim, I have heard people express this sentiment of refusing to feel guilty for our way of life before, and I want to hear more about it.

    Could you explain yourself? Why don’t you feel guilty? Is it just because there have been worse cultures (like you named)? Maybe guilt isn’t the right word. When I hear people say “I don’t feel guilty,” or “I wont apologize for…” I hear people saying, “I refuse to admit there is anything wrong with my way of life, and how dare you suggest otherwise!”

    I will stop myself here, because I don’t want to get too caught up in my own bias opinion before I hear you respond.

  8. Josh B

    Wow, who ever said Anabaptists aren’t aggressive! We have passive aggressive down to a science, even on a blog.

    In a less polemical tone, I might say the guilt is our MO as Anabaptist. It is what we use when think someone isn’t trying hard enough, or for that matter living like me. Guilt is also our way into the paralysis that was noted in the main post. If you want to make sure someone doesn’t do something, use guilt to freeze them in their current way of life.

    Unfortunately, guilt is not Christian. It has become socialized within our tradition, but ultimatley it is antithetical to any idea of Grace.

    So to break out of my Anabaptist Passive Aggressiveness and to risk being considered “violent”: knock of the guilt and cut out the ad hominems!

  9. Tim Baer

    Hey Tom,

    I guess I look at the guilt thing like this. We could obviously do things much much better. But to suggest that we, because of technology, are somehow worse than those who lack it seems far fetched. The Hutus killed their Tutsie brothers without an overabundance of electronics.

    I guess, what I see from the left, is this notion that we are more murderous than those less technology advanced. Or that somehow, in our nature, because of technology the urge to kill is greater. I would disagree wholeheartedly. We have great means to kill, undoubtedly, but so would anyone else in our position.

    In fact, one could say that we, in the west, are less murderous than other nations or cultures. I daren’t point out reasons on this forum.

  10. IsaacV (Post author)

    Folks, thanks for all your thoughts.

    I don’t know why we have to talk about guilt just yet. I think we moved there way too quickly. Besides, “guilt” is not a concept I’m working with at all. That’s something ya’ll could talk about with your friends and pastors. What I’m interested in is telling the truth. Truthfulness is how I framed my thoughts: “Truthfulness demands that we wrestle…” I want to know the truth and tell the truth. And the truth of the matter seems to be that there is a direct link between this computer that I’m typing on and our country’s ability to procure resources and markets through military might. Is no one else stunned by the quote from Thomas Friedman above!?! He thinks it’s a good thing that Silicon Valley is tied to the Armed Forces. I happen to believe that killing people is a bad idea. But at least he’s telling the truth. Our personal feelings of guilt shouldn’t shield us from looking at the harsh truth.

  11. Tim Baer


    Should a country that grows a lot of crops question their ability to feed their own soldiers?

    Dotted lines all over the place. The question isn’t even worth asking because there is nothing you can do about it.

  12. tomdunn

    I agree that guilt is a poor motivator, and should not be tied to the Christian message. It is amazing how quickly we can get over our guilt and numb/desensitize ourselves to anything.

    I still have a problem with the “I refuse to feel guilty” sentiment. For Josh’s sake, lets get rid of the word guilt, and re-word it to say, “I refuse to change my ways.” Is that satisfactory?

    No matter how you word it, it reminds me of the way that people of Israel responded to Isaiah, Jeremiah and other prophets who told them they where not where God wanted them to be. Pointing the finger at other societies does not get us off the hook. I’m sure we are better than them in some aspects, and they are better than us in others.

    Our job is to critically self exam ourselves and our church, our culture etc. and see how that lines up with the prophetic witness of the scriptures/Jesus/God/Holy Spirit. That seems to be what Isaac is doing with technology.

  13. TimN

    Isaac, there’s lots of great stuff here. It’ll take me a while to chew on all the meat here. For the moment, I’d just say that for me “stubborn remembering of what the victors of history want us to forget” is at the core of the gospel. As Girard points out, Jesus’ call to identify ourselves with the victim rather then the victor is unique. Humans don’t like to feel guilty or face the need to change.

  14. Tim Baer

    Hey Tim,

    “Jesus’ call to identify ourselves with the victim rather then the victor is unique.”

    Can you explain this more?

  15. TimN

    Tim B,

    As I said in my earlier post my view on Jesus identifying with victims comes from Rene Girard. A number of years ago I read Violence Unveiled, Humanity at the Crossroads by Gil Bailie. Bailie explains Girard’s main thesis in a much easier to read way then Girard himself. I highly recommend the book (the link above is to a brief review of it).

    I did a bit of web browsing just now to see if I could find a quote or two to offer you. I found a chapter by Girard entitled God of the Victims. Here are a few excerpts:

    The God of the Gospels is clearly a candidate for the role of the God of victims. The Father sends his Son into the world to defend the victims, the poor, and the disinherited. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus calls both himself and the Holy Ghost a Paraclete. The word signifies advocate for the defense in a law-court

    Jesus enjoins men to imitate him and seek the glory that comes from God, instead of that which comes from men. He shows them that mimetic rivalries can lead only to murders and death. He reveals the role of the scapegoat mechanism in their own cultural system. He does not even conceal from them that they are dependent on all the collective murders committed “since the beginning of the world,” the generative murders of that same world. He demands that they recognize the sons of Satan, devoted to the same lie as their father, the accuser, “murderer since the beginning.”

    Jesus scarcely convinces anyone. His revelation receives just enough acceptance to invite suppression by whose who hear it. By revealing the truth, Jesus threatens the domination of Satan, the accuser, who in turn exerts on him the greater force of the unanimous mimesis of the accusation, the scapegoat mechanism. He becomes, inevitably, the victim of that same satanic force that, as accuser and persecutor, controls the world and has already killed all the prophets from Abel to the last victim mentioned in the Bible

  16. Tim Baer

    If Jesus identifies with the victim by this measure how can peace be brought?

    Firstly, who says who is the victim? Old testament law? Modern law? The law of the jungle? Victims can be identified by a variety of cultural and religious norms.

    Secondly, if Jesus identifies with the victim, then how can peace be established?

    The Jesus I read about sides with no one, but establishes a new law. The victim needs to forgive. The violator needs to make amends.

    In the parable of the Ten Virgins half are left without oil. By today’s standards that half might be considered the “victim” (I can hear the screeching now: “They were poor!” “Downtrodden!” “Never had a chance!” “Minorities!” “Paid too many taxes!” Ugh.)

    Our world views may clash. Who is the victim? Depends on who you ask.

    No, Jesus asks much more of us then simple identifiers like these.

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