Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.


Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.


Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

Thinking Theology and Technology III: Technology Among the Powers

Before examining what, exactly, a “redemptive, realistic and intentional” use of technology would look like for Christians, it is perhaps helpful here to note some of the ways it exerts a spiritual influence over us, to show why, after all, we have listed it as one of “the powers” the way we have. Though this field of study is still relatively young, a number of sociologists, psychologists and media theorists alike have begun to examine the impact of internet technologies on our culture, our society, and even our brain anatomy. Their findings suggest that technology does indeed have a significant spiritual dimension. In particular we will look at the impact of these technologies on our social interactions, on our experience of cultural diversity, and on our mind’s capacity for traditional spiritual disciplines like silence, focused prayer or meditation on Scripture.

In her 2011 book Alone Together, MIT technology specialist Sherry Turkle identifies one of the ironies of our relentless use of social media: that “[Americans] brag about how many they have ‘friended’ on Facebook, yet [they] say they have fewer friends than before” (Turkle, 280). “Technology,” she argues, “has become the architect of our intimacies. Online we fall prey to the illusion of companionship, gathering thousands of Twitter and Facebook friends and confusing tweets and wall posts with authentic communication.” In particular, her research suggest that these technologies predispose us towards interactions that are superficial (in that they encourage us to meticulously engineer our online image), inauthentic (in that they encourage us to lie about or experiment with our online identity), insecure (in that they encourage us to craft our online messages carefully, sometimes obsessively, but then to post them as though they were spontaneous), and above all, ambiguous (in that they convince us that such superficial, inauthentic and insecure interactions are actually deep, authentic and safe). Turkle notes, for instance, the way such technologies have conditioned young people to avoid or even to fear face-to-face interactions (191); or the phenomenon of “risk-free” online confessing (236); or the way “we defend connectivity as a way to be close, even as we effectively hide from each other” (281).

Turkle’s work is of special concern for a theology of technology, inasmuch as authentic, deeply connected community is central to our experience of salvation, our spiritual formation, and our ongoing sanctification. We might consider 1 John 1:5-7, as one of many examples where the Bible aligns spiritually healthy community with a deepening life with God. Though Turkle is not specifically interested in Christian spirituality, her work suggests that our growing and unreflective dependency on social media makes the kind of “fellowship with one another” envisioned in 1 John 1:7 increasingly rare and ephemeral. In Turkle’s own words: “in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. Sometimes people feel no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind, and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?” (12).

This brings us to a second area where we see the spiritual impact of internet technologies: their tendency to isolate us from perspectives different from our own. Again there is an irony here. Though social media promise to increase the range of our social networks, they actually shrink them, because they feed into our natural tendency to identify only with the like-minded. Sometimes called “the echo chamber,” a number of observers have noted this phenomenon: because it uses similarity as the main criteria for connecting, the internet tends simply to echo our own opinions back to us. Social activist Eli Parsier analyzes this problem extensively in his 2012 book, The Filter Bubble: How the Personalized Web is Changing What we Read and How we Think. He looks in particular at the “personalized filter algorithms” that sites like Google, Yahoo News or Facebook use to customize the information we encounter on the net. These filters draw on a variety of statistical data about individual users to predict what the user’s preferences will be, and then “tailor” their query results to fit them. As an example, Parsier describes the day he noticed that Facebook had systematically removed all the “politically conservative” links in his Facebook feed, based on the types of searches he (as a political liberal) had been making. In a 2012 TED Talk, he suggested that filter-bubbles like these are moving us “very quickly towards a world where the internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

The ethical, and subsequently the spiritual implications of the world-wide “echo chamber” deserve careful theological reflection here, because, as Paliser argues, “the structure of our media affects the character of our society.” A society that never has to encounter ideas that challenge, stretch or contradict it is likely to develop an ethically stunted character; a Christian who never has to encounter ideas that challenge, stretch or contradict him is likely to develop a spiritually stunted character. Indeed, for Christians especially, such “filter bubbles" should raise particular concerns. They feed a natural (but unbiblical) Christian tendency to retreat from the world and surround ourselves with those who think and act just like us (see 1 Cor 5:10 for warnings against such isolation). They reduce our appreciation for the radical gospel vision of unity in diversity, as people from “every nation, tribe and tongue” worship the Lamb together (see Revelation 5:9, 14:6 to catch the vision). And they limit our ability—even perhaps our desire—to genuinely speak the truth to one another in love, by pandering to the false belief that one’s own narrow, individual perspective on the truth is all the truth that needs telling (see Ephesians 4:15).

Along with the fragmentation of community and the creation of spiritual “echo chambers,” a third dimension of technology that deserves special consideration here is the physiological impact it is having on our brain-functioning . In his 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that technologies are never simply “exterior aids” but are also always “interior transformations of consciousness” (Nicholas Carr, 51). He cites a variety of neurological research which suggests that the brain is far more plastic than previously thought, continually adapting itself to the tasks it is called upon to perform; and he refers to a number of studies which suggest that the particular tasks the brain is called upon to perform while surfing the web have begun to change the way the brain learns, thinks, and process information. “The Net’s cacophony of stimuli,” he argues, “short circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again” (119). In particular, his research suggests that the internet physically reduces our capacity for deep, sustained, and focused thought; that it develops the habit of scanning superficially for easily digested data-bites while reading; that it actually hinders our ability to concentrate and remember and imagine and reason. “The mental functions that [we] are losing” he warns, “are those that support calm, linear thought—the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on we reflect on experiences or contemplate and outward or inward phenomenon” (142).

The kind of research Carr cites in The Shallows has huge implications for our theological analysis technology, because so many of the traditional spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith—lectio divina, prayer and meditation, silence, Scripture reading and so on—to say nothing of the more intellectually rigorous disciplines like theology and apologetics—require us to “traverse lengthy narratives,” to “reflect on experiences,” and to “contemplate outward and inward phenomenon”. If Carr is right when he argues that the internet actually discourages these mental functions, wiring our brain instead to be especially good at “locating, categorizing and assessing disparate bits of information in a variety of forms while we are being bombarded by stimuli,” then as ominous as it sounds to say it, it may actually be changing the way we know, and experience and relate to God.

Thinking Theology and Technology, Part II

Whew! This is turning out to be harder than I thought.  Here is the second section in my draft of a "theology of technology."  Still only at the "thinking out loud stage," but here's what I got:

II. Christ and the Powers: Technology Disarmed, Technology Redeemed

From the vantage point we gain when we view “technology” as one of “the powers,” we are better able to see how the Gospel of Christ informs our response and redefines our relationship to it. After all, though the Bible says very little about Facebook, it has very much to say about “the Powers” and the way Christians ought to relate to them.

In Colossians 1:16, on the one hand, Paul affirms the Powers as a part of God’s good created order, insisting that all things (and he specifically includes “the powers and the principalities” in the list) were created by and for Christ. This moves us out of black-and-white, good-or-bad dualisms when it comes to things like developments in social media or the ubiquity of the Internet. It allows us instead to recognize and affirm the positive potential off all such technologies, while at the same time insisting that they are not “ultimate,” that Christ is the Lord of world, even of the world- wide-inter-web. (See also Ephesians 1:21, where Christ is pictured enthroned in the heavenlies, “far above all ‘power’.”)

On the other hand, of course, the Bible is hardly naive when it comes to the fallenness of the Powers. Paul states quite strongly that “the Powers and Principalities” are ranged against us in the struggle of the Christian life (Ephesians 6:12), and he implies just as strongly that in their fallenness the Powers do not recognize the Lordship of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:8). This keeps us from blindly accepting technology as “given” or “spiritually neutral,” and forces us to acknowledge that if they are to serve Christ, “the Powers” must be both dethroned and redeemed.

This brings us, at last, to the Cross of Christ, allowing us to see how the Gospel actually shapes our relationship to things even as seemingly mundane as the text-message. In what is probably the pivotal text for any theology of technology, Colossians 2:15 describes the redemptive work of the cross and then applies it specifically to the Powers. “God has disarmed the powers” he writes. “He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them through the cross.” The word translated “triumphing” here (thriambeuō) is actually a technical term for one of the special victory parades a Roman General would make through the city of Rome after a successful military campaign. They would lead their troops, their chariots, and especially their prisoners of war in a victorious procession while the citizens cheered in triumphant celebration. Paul applies the potent symbolism of such a parade to the work of the Cross, indicating that through his death and resurrection, Christ has stripped “the Powers” of their idolatrous claim on our lives, nullifying their influence over us, and making them now to serve his purposes for them (in much the same way a defeated prisoner of war displayed in a public “triumph” served the political purposes of the Roman Empire).

Because the “disarming of the Powers” is so abstract but also so essential to any theology of technology, Berkhof’s analysis of Colossians 2:15 is worth quoting here: “Christ has ‘disarmed’ the Powers. The weapon ... is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince men that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and the ultimate duty for small, dependant humanity. Since Christ, we know this is illusion. We are called to a higher destiny ... we stand under a greater Protector. ... Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, [the Powers] have lost their mighty grip on men (sic.). The cross has disarmed them; wherever it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the Powers takes place" (ibid, 39).

To spell this out in practical terms, we might say it like this: every modern “technology,” by its very nature as a human effort to order our life together, has an unseen spiritual dimension to it that exerts a very real spiritual influence over our lives. This influence is evident, for instance, when we accept new technologies unquestioningly as indispensable to human life, or when we depend on them for meaning and identity, or when we allow them to dictate the terms of our relationships and the means of our social interactions, or when we trust in them for a kind of “salvation” (i.e. to hold society together and keep us from sliding into chaos). In the death and resurrection of Christ, God, has exposed all such claims (technology is ultimate, it’s a source of meaning, it’s a “saviour” from chaos, etc.) as the illusions that they are, showing us instead that Christ is ultimate, that life in him is the source of meaning, and that he alone is saviour. Having thus disarmed the Powers like this, technology among them, the Gospel frees us to relate to the Powers, technology included, in ways that are: 1) redemptive (i.e. affirming their goodness and potential), 2) realistic (i.e. accepting their limits and acknowledging their subservience to Christ), and 3) intentional (i.e. discerning of their “spirit” and wisely selective in how we will use them).

In this way, our redemptive, realistic and intentional use of technology becomes a concrete instance of what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 3:10, when he said, “God’s intent in Christ was that, through the church, his manifold wisdom should be made known to the powers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”

Thinking Theology and Technology

One of the projects I'm working on for the FMCiC's Study Commission on Doctrine is a "theology of technology," which would lay out a theological framework for thinking about technology as a Christian.   As I mentioned earlier, I hope to use this blog as a place to "think out loud" as I work through this project, and to that end, I'm posting here the first section of draft one. I welcome feedback.

One of the challenges we encounter when we try to think theologically about issues related to modern technology is the question of categories. On the one hand, the modern use of that word “technology” is so broad in scope that it is hard to know what exactly we mean by it; on the other hand, most of the things we do mean when we refer to technology—computer science, communication technologies, social media and so on—simply did not exist in the world of the Bible and find neither reference nor parallel in Scripture. If we wish to approach them theologically, then, we must first ask: In which theological category do they belong?

The first and perhaps closest reference we have in Scripture to something that today we would call “technology” is the account of Tubal-Cain in Genesis 4:22. Tubal-Cain, we’re told, was the original “forger of all implements of bronze and iron”; and while a bronze axe-head is admittedly a far cry from an ipod, there is still something instructive for us in this ancient account of the “origins of metalsmithing.” It can’t be accidental that Tubal-Cain, the father of “all” metalurigcal technologies, is also the last son of Lamech, the notoriously vengeful descendant of Cain who will bring the whole of that failed line to its ignoble end. After Lamech boasts of avenging himself seventy-seven times on his enemies (4:23-24), the genealogical record abandons Cain altogether and switches to the birth of Seth (4:26), a brand-new branch on Adam’s family tree, whose line will include Noah, and Abraham, and ultimately Christ. If Tubal-Cain is indeed the father of “technology” (or at least a father of certain kinds of technology), it must be noted that he is also the last of Cain’s fallen descendants. Whatever else we will say about the Bible’s perspective on “technology”, the fact that it first appears as fruit on Cain’s family tree assures us that for all its usefulness, it is still a fallen force in the world.

Biblically, then, technology is useful but fallen. And when we look for a theological category that allows us to talk about it both in terms of its usefulness to human life and its spiritual fallenness, the category that best holds these two aspects together is the biblical concept of “the powers.” Picking up on the many references to “the powers and principalities” in Paul’s writings (see, for instance, 1 Cor 2:8; Eph 1:20, Col 2:15), a number of theologians have suggested that when the Bible refers to “the powers” like this, it is describing the “invisible structures” or “inner reality” of human society (see, for instance, Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers; Walter Wink, Naming the Powers). As a theological category, “the powers” refer to the spiritual dimension that is inherent to any human effort to order its life together, from political and economic institutions, to cultural, religious or technological ones. All such “organizations” of human society are, of course, useful and necessary; but they are also inevitably “spiritual,” and, owing to the fallenness of human nature itself, inevitably fallen. In their fallenness, “the powers” exert unintended, often unrecognized spiritual influence over us, behaving, in Berkhof’s words, “as though they were the ultimate ground of being and demanding from [people] an appropriate worship” (Berkhof, 30).

We might point to the cult of Roman Emperor worship for an ancient example of “the Powers,” or to the inexorable “givenness” of the global economy for a contemporary one. We might point to the psychological impact of advertising media for a cultural example; and we might point to the way the internet has begun to shape and redefine our social interactions for a technological one. Because, though it is unlikely in the extreme that Paul had the iphone 5 specifically in mind when he said it, technology can and should be listed under that broad category of human institutions he has in mind when he talks about “the Powers.”