Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Technological Laments

Lament is part of a healthy life of a world in travail (Romans 8:18-26), because the world is fallen and because we need to recognize this sad fact. Without lament, we lose loss. We fail to emotionally and intellectually record the passing of objective goods that ought to be there, but which now are not there. In this biblical spirit (an entire biblical book is called Lamentations), I note two losses:

1. Bookstores are dying. Christianity Today recently featured this in an article on the decline of the traditional Christian bookstore as a place for books, fellowship, and counseling. Corporate chains sell the bestseller cheaper and more people acquire books on line. So, we loss the physical personal place once again--a place to browse and serendipitously encounter people and ideas. Corporate chains are also taking over bookstores once owned by colleges and seminaries, because the latter are less profitable because of on-line buying. There will be fewer titles and more "merchandise" unrelated to the mission of the schools.

2. Email and class web pages seem, to me at least, to cut into the time I spend with students in my office hours. This hit me just recently. I'm sure that ten to fifteen years ago far more students stopped into to talk about class issues and other things because they did not have email. Now students rarely leave phone messages or come by my office. There may be many other reasons for this desertion (use your imagination), but the Internet is surely one cause. Once again, the physical and personal place is abandoned for more impersonal contexts.

For these things, I lament. I hope you do as well. If you don't, you should lament your loss of lament and lament your loss of loss. Selah.

On lament, see:

1. Michael Caird, A Sacred Sorrow.
2. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son.
3. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

21 comments:

Clint K. said...

Interesting thoughts here. It's funny (or sad), most of my deepest conversations with professors from the seminary are not from office hours, but in the lobby of the Starbucks where I work.

I think this is more of an indictment on myself, though, because no matter what professors say I always feel as though I am imposing.

However, I will never forget when right after passing orals I asked for more resources on a particular subject on which I was weak. One of the professors gave me the names of some authors but then said, "And you know, it's okay to email us questions from time to time after you leave here." I realized that not only am I not "imposing" but by not taking professors up on their office hours I am robbing them of their precious gift of ably guiding and leading their pupils. Until then it never occurred to me that teachers have a need as well: to engage and shape students on an individual basis, not just corporately.

Tom Hinkle said...

Sorry, I don't lament the decline of the so-called Christian bookstore. Christian bookstores have sold out to corporate interests long ago, so that all they push is pablum and, many times, error. The "Left Behind" series, the Prayer of Jabez, books by hacks like Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer--I haven't set foot in a Christian bookstore in years, because I'm just not interested in what they have to sell, for the most part.

Doug Groothuis said...

Clint:

Profs differ, buy my students are terribly important to me. I want to invest in them outside of official class situations. I don't do much work in my office, so visits there are never impositions.

Tom:

Yes, many Christian bookstores have been bad from way, way back, but not all,. Christianity Today mentioned one excellent one that died. My seminary's bookstore is being taken over by Follit's, and a fear the result. I love that place now...

Sarah Scott said...

These are indeed worthy of lament! In a world ruled by Amazon, Facebook, e-mail, and Google, human beings' quality and quantity of physical interaction have begun a painful process of functional atrophy.

Beitler said...

It is a point well taken, that we are less personal. I know I am guilty of it.

I do wonder, however, how much of our insulation from one another occurred earlier, at least in a premature form, due to our Western, mechanized society. Chesterton lamented the rise of the factory for these reasons, for the impersonalization it represented. Perhaps we could even go back to Descartes. The day we mechanized our orientation toward God and ourselves, we set the first and resounding precedent for depersonalization among our fellow human beings.

How far down will we have to go for it to hurt enough??

Randy McRoberts said...

But leaving phone messages is just the earlier layer of technology. Life changes and it always has. I guess we need to adapt.

Robert Velarde said...

I'd have to agree, in general, with a previous post noting that many Christian bookstores fall far short of the mark. Most are merely gift shops that also happen to carry some books. And the books they offer are of poor, pop quality, as well as being theologically deficient.

A stroll on the grounds of any major Christian bookseller convention will also be enough to turn one's stomach. Lots of junk. Has Western Christendom degenerated so much? Apparently so. Jesus would overturn many of their tables.

Still, it would be great to find thoughtful Christian bookstores, staffed with insightful individuals who know their books and their theology.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I'm sure people lamented every turn of history (Reformation, Industrialization, etc.), but at some point you choose to either move on or just wallow.

"Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions."
Ecc 7:10

Beitler said...

Erdman,

Asking why the old days were better than these is a very good question, if one is seeking wisdom. Indeed, sometimes the old days were wiser than these. The pursuit of wisdom demands that we go back and look around in such a case.

"Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing
and benefits those who see the sun." (Ecc 7:11)

Floyd Collins said...

Eliot sums it up nicely (and almost 75 years ago)in a bit from his Choruses from the Rock:

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Sarah Scott said...

Jonathan,

As Neil Postman said, technological advances always produces winners and losers. It is fitting to recognize and lament (this is different than wallowing) the losses in any age as a result of various technologies.

Doug Groothuis said...

SS:

That is a key insight. It deeps you from being either a technophobe or a technophile. Exegete the medium. Ask what the medium qua medium does to your soul, your body, our society, and the word. Then, act accordingly.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sarah/Doug,

Good thoughts. I very much agree.

Your thoughts are consistent with many postmodern theorists who have discussed how culture marginalizes the other.

Doug, what your post seemed to suggest was that lament precedes evaluation. Lamenting and grumbling seems to be the paramount virtue of a curmudgeon, which is why I can never be one. I prefer to embrace the contemporary moment and evaluate it. Any lamenting for me is the rest of thoughtful/emotional/spiritual reflection. Exegesis of culture should precede lament, not the other way around, as seems to be the m.o. for most curmudgeons. You seem to work under the a priori that the old days were better than these, hence my reference to Ecc 7, which turns this presupposition on its head.

I do lament technological "progress." I am of the Fight Club generation, where the vision of an organic society leads to the facist destruction of the entire culture of consumerism with its manipulation of the meaning of the self via advertising.

David said...

On the use of email as a communication tool between instructor and student, as a matter of principle I (generally) do not reply to student emails, with the exception of emergencies or unusual situations which require use of the medium.

At first students have a difficult time accepting this approach. They will persist in sending the emails, hoping that I will give in and reply. But eventually they realize that I mean business, and they find time to come to my office to ask their questions.

I find that in most cases this approach weeds out those students who are just being lazy or who are asking trivial questions that don't need to be answered or could easily be answered elsewhere.

And above all, it gives me the opportunity to interact with them in person, and thereby learn about their background and goals, and develop empathy and concern for them as human beings.

Doug Groothuis said...

Jonathon:

Nothing I wrote here (or anywhere) even suggests that "lament preceeds evaluation." One must lament only what is lamentable. Where did you come up with the idea you accuse me of? I wrote a whole book, several scholarly articles, and many other articles on the philosophy of technology. I lament after much study, writing, and teaching.

I have a specific understanding of "curmudgeon" that is stated on my masthead. Please read (or reread) it.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Doug,

First, there is the comment in the post itself: "For these things, I lament. I hope you do as well. If you don't, you should lament your loss of lament and lament your loss of loss. Selah." In other words, even if I examine the issue and find no reason to lament, your advice is to lament my lack of lamentation! Perhaps lamentation does not precede examination in this case, but there is certainly an a priori commitment to lamenting regardless of whether one sees the need to lament!

Secondly, it's just a general feel I get from reading your blog. I get the general sense that as a critic you place an enormous burden of proof on anything new or on anything that comes from pop culture. Even the mission statement at the top of your blog suggests this in your desire to "sniff out lies." Why is the goal of a curmudgeon stated in the negative? I think that in itself is telling.

I think that yourself and others (e.g., Moreland, Kokul) have encouraged a damaging attitude toward anything "postmodern," despite the fact that in most (but not all) cases the writings of postmodern theorists themselves are not addressed. Your Truth Decay is about the most in depth I have seen on the issue by Evangelical critics (who dismiss "postmodernism" in wholesale fashion), and even this is merely a popular level treatment of the subject. Moreland is even worse. In his 2004 ETS plenary address on the subject of truth, he called "postmodernism" an immoral viewpoint; but this despite the fact that he has never (to my knowledge) produced a shred of scholarship discussing the writings of any major postmodern theorist!

I don't blame you, Moreland, et al. for your wholesale dismissal, but until specific postmodern works/authors are addressed in a more in-depth and scholarly manner, a credibility gap exists in the minds of those of us who are familiar with the material and find redeeming value therein. Must one either be a "postmodern" or non-"postmodern"? That suggestion is about as silly as suggesting that one must be a "modern" or a non-"modern," in my opinion.

I was on a bit of a rabbit trail, but it goes to the issue of whether being too negative at the outset can damage one's ability to think critically either negatively or positively about an issue/viewpoint/topic.

Doug Groothuis said...

J:

1. Truth Decay was not merely "popular"! Check the endorsements and the footnotes and the arguments.

2. Being a constructive curmudgeon will win few friends and generate much misunderstanding, as your comments attest. If you don't like my approach, feel free to read other blogs.

Best,
DG

Kevin Winters said...

Either this just didn't go through or it got deleted (for some reason; it is a valid point relating to your methodology and does not have a single logical fallacy or personal attack in it), so I'm reposting it with a few very small modifications:

Given the (in my mind) excessive reliance on secondary sources, "popular" is an apt term for Truth Decay, at least at the level of research methodology. If I wrote a work critiquing analytic philosophy and (1) more than half my sources were secondary, (2) more than half the quotes from primary analytic philosophers were also in secondary sources, and (3) more than half of those were from secondary sources that are inherently antagonistic to analytic philosophers, surely you would be up in arms, yes?

Doug Groothuis said...

Kevin:

This is a warning. We interacted extensively on postmodernism and Truth Decay in the past. You never gave up, so I banned you for a time. Then I let you back.

I do not find it fruitful to engage you in this forum on this issue. So, I will not respond. If you keep this kind of thing up, I'll delete you.

Doug Groothuis said...

Kevin Winter is now banned again for bad conduct.

But just for the record, half of my footnotes in Truth Decay were not to secondary sources. Moreover, no one has shown that any of my secondary sources were wrong. It is red herring.

Goodbye, Kevin. Sorry it didn't work out. I have better things to do.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Why did Kevin get banned and I didn't?

I think we leveled the same criticism.