The religious practices of technological consumption are eerily like the practices of Judaism. In the last post, we explored those connections in depth, but there are theological implications that we have yet to unpack.
Marshall McLuhan, the devoutly Catholic scholar of communication whose ideas inspire this discussion of liturgy and technology, was humble and ahead of his time. He refused to “theologize on the basis of my understanding of technology” because he “lacked scholastic terminology and concepts.” I don’t pretend to have the grasp of the scholastic terminology and concepts that McLuhan lacked, but since I’m a young and reckless college student, I’m going to throw caution to the wind and try theologizing anyway.
It’s important to recognize that there are two different gods operating behind the technological religion of consumption and the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Behind the latter is the one, true, God—the I Am. But behind the former is Mammon, the god of consumption and wealth who slowly takes more and more, giving less and less in return. Technological consumption may soothe alienation for a time—at least, that’s what Mammon and the Marxists want us to believe—but in time, we’ll be more alienated than we ever were before, from God and from our fellow man. The Master’s words ring in our ears: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Mammon reaches his icy fingers into all realms of the heart that are concerned with status, wealth, privilege, social standing, security, and the self.
When Yeshua came to earth, he didn’t abolish the liturgical expressions of Jewish praxis any more than he abolished the Torah itself. What he did was rebuke the individuals who were using the Jewish liturgy to serve Mammon’s desire for status. It was the corrupt and hypocritical among the Pharisees and Sadducees—the “blind guides”—who had most fatally fallen prey to Mammon’s clutches. They were the ones who made “their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
Within the technological religion of secondary orality, this twisted, self-serving, liturgical use of technology is, of course, all too rampant. Mammon has been the object of worship for far too many individuals who use their technology in seemingly benign ways, neglecting to see how much of a hold it has on their lives. It’s hard to see where this slippery slope begins, but it’s not hard to see where it ends. It ends with the destruction of the soul for the sake of the body. It ends with the perfect inversion of the work of Yeshua, who sacrificed his body of the sake of the souls of billions. It ends with man attempting to become his own messiah.
Futurists like Ray Kurzweil of Google have predicted that we’re only fifty years away from bio-technology that, when integrated with the human body, will be able to prevent death. Kurzweil himself has kept to so strict a “liturgical” lifestyle that doctors have said he is biologically almost twenty years “younger” than his actual age of 67 years. Kurzweil says his lifestyle is only meant to keep him alive until science has progressed to the point where his conscience can be sustained technologically and he can continue life as a hybrid of human and nano-technology. It sounds like science fiction to our ears, but I fear this future isn’t far off. Kurzweil calls this coming future the “next step in human evolution,” eerily the exact phrase that C.S. Lewis used in his terrifying novel That Hideous Strength to describe the antagonists’ own attempts at human engineering. In Lewis’s story these antagonists dream of creating “the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man, free from Nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by,” they say, “but now we kick her away.” Far from being another rung in the evolutionary ladder, bio-technical enhancement of the human body sounds to me like man playing God or worse, trying to become his own redemption.
This is the self-serving idolatry of Mammon taken to its logical extreme. When we believe we can turn up our bionic noses at the curse of death, it’s in that moment that we have truly died. It’s in that moment that we have lost our souls. It comes as no surprise that the most debated ethical problem surrounding this “next step in human evolution” is whether or not the soul can be technologically codified. I think the obvious answer coming from a position of faith is a frank “no." Defeating death is something only the true Messiah can do. Attempting to become our own messiah will only lead to ruin of the eternal sort. McLuhan was right when he speculated that “this [the electronic age] could be the time for the Antichrist.” For, he said, “Lucifer is the greatest electrical engineer.”
Regardless of how dark the future may get as we forge deeper into the wilderness of secondary orality, this nasty potentiality shouldn’t leave us, as a believing community, in a lurch when it comes to technological engagement. If we take Yeshua’s simultaneous acceptance and critique of Jewish praxis as our guide, we have a clearer path forward as we seek to bring the light of Yeshua to the light of our retina screens. Yeshua returned the true God to expressions of worship corrupted by Mammon. Yeshua made liturgy a matter of the heart, as it was meant to be. He set an example of humility and privacy within praxis, going “up on the mountain by himself to pray.” Like the liturgical practices of Judaism, technology is empowering. But it’s a power that cannot be used to promote the self at the expense of others’ dignity. It’s a power that must be used to build up the community—to create meaning in ways that promote human flourishing or “tikkun olam.” Andy Crouch, the editor of Christianity Today, calls this type of power “creative power.” It’s a power that gives healing, abundance, and teeming. It’s a power that excels at empathy, storytelling, and exploration. Mammon would have us use our technology to consume. Yeshua would have us use our technology to extend our empathy further than our line of sight.
Practically, our appropriation of liturgical elements taken from the modern technological religion should respect a distinction between us and the technologically “ultra-observant,” in the same way that Messianic Gentiles’ liturgical practices should show a healthy distinction between the practice of the Jew, so as not to create confusion or compromise identity. These are decisions that must be made in communities and households, and ultimately serve to create healthy boundaries between the public and private: Don’t let your phone get in the way of real people, don’t allow your wearable tech to be a mere sign of status, etc.
Recognizing patterns gives us creative power over them. When we recognize that history is repeating itself, that the liturgical practices of Judaism are experiencing a resurgence within technology, and that the antichrist may indeed be a “great electrical engineer,” we should be all the more aware of how easy it is to fall into the self-serving traps of Mammon. Empowered, we are able to better reflect the light of Yeshua for the restoration of the world.
- Gerard Stearn, Hot & Cool, ed. McLuhan (New York, NY: Signet Books, 1967), 98.
- Luke 16:13 ESV
- Matthew 23:5 ESV
- Ray Kurzweil, “Reinventing Humanity: The Future of Machine—Human Intelligence,” The Futurist, (March, 2006): 43.
- Lev Grossman, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal,” Time, (February 10, 2011).
- Kurzweil, “Reinventing Humanity,” 46.
- C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York, NY: Scribner, 1946), 194.
- Ibid., 174.
- Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, 209.
- Matthew 14:23 ESV
- Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).