Mar 16, 2011

Evangelicals @ the A.V. club

The recent universalist kerfuffle & Rob Bell twitterstorm is only another example: conservative American Christians are very actively engaged with new technology.

There's a persistent notion that they're not, though. That they're technology averse. Or unsettled by it and by the "new fast pace of the world." Longing for the good old days ... etc.

The evidence says otherwise.

The evidence says evangelicals and conservative Christians dominate when it comes to technology, and are avid, eager users.

In evangelical apocalyptic fiction, where one might expect to find technology bringing about evil and the end of the world -- this does happen, after all, quite frequently in secular imaginations of the end-of-the-world -- technology is presented as a tool. It's neutral and can be used for good. The internet is used to fight the antichrist. Doppler radar demonstrates the glory of God and the fulfillment of prophecy. Cell phones connect the righteous. If anything, the characters in apocalyptic evangelical fiction are a little too gadget happy.

One case I know of in the contemporary apocalyptic stuff where technology is evil, is Frank Peretti's The Visitation. It turns out, though, that the radios and blenders and dishwashers were just demon-possessed, and are not in their own right evil, but actually just neutral tools that can be used either way.

The fiction reflects the experience of America's conservative Christians, too. They have seen technology (especially media technology) as a tool. They have been eager adopters, even early adopters.

Bethany Moreton, in her book on religion and Wal-Mart, gives a good brief overview of the history of American Christian technophiles:

... evangelical culture was busily disproving secular assumptions about religious hostility to technology. Keen appreciation for mass communication had fueled the popularity of such prewar figures as Pentecostal leader Aimee Semple McPhereson, who founded one of the country's first Christian radio stations in Los Angeles in the 1920s. During the 1930s, religious broadcasting boomed with programs like the Old Fashioned Revival Hour and the Radio Bible Class. Then, frustrated by lack of access to the staid Big Three television networks and mainstream publishing outlets, conservative Christians pioneered alternative communications techniques after World War II. Borrowing talent from Hollywood, evangelicals next broke new ground as an alternative film circuit in the 1970s. In the same years ... [they] married humble direct-mail techniques to political mobilization via new computer technology. This innovation allowed the New Christian Right to mobilize millions of new conservative voters. By the mid-1990s, the country boasted over 200 Christian television stations and nearly 1,500 Christian radio stations .... As long as the tools of technology could be put to use to spread the saving message, religious conservatives -- evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist alike -- found every reason to embrace them (131).
The story extends forward to today's online intra-evangelical fight (Al Mohler blogs; John Piper twitters; Christianity Today is a web site with a magazine) and also backwards -- back as far, I would argue, as the the disestablishment of religion in America, where concerned conservatives formed the American Bible Society and American Tract Society, and used the very latest and greatest printing technology to get the Bible and tracts out to the unchurched frontiers.

The question, then, is why does the persistent notion that conservative Christians are opposed to technology persist? Why is that the secular assumption, counter to what's actually going on?

I have three possible answers. Proposals. I think this would be worth coming back to, but this is my first reaction and intuitive guess:

1) Very public opposition to modern science (e.g. evolution and global warming) and cultural developments (e.g. birth control) is taken as across-the-board reactionariness (modernist anti-modernism is confusing.

2) There is a general, secular anxiety about technology, which is being displaced. The cultural equivalent of "I've got a friend who has a problem." Society at large can't quite own the worry, and needs a stand in to take that anxiety on. And there aren't enough Amish, so conservative Christians act as proxy, a cultural locus for the worry, which has to come out somehow. (This, I think, would be a particularly interesting argument to pursue).

3) The secularization thesis seems like it should be true. It seems like there should be an inherent conflict between the use of technology and the belief in the supernatural -- like the radio's existence should act to undermine or even refute the radio preacher's preaching, making it implausible or even impossible to believe. As Rudolph Bultmann said, in arguing for a "demythologized" gospel, "It is impossible to use electric light and radio, to call upon modern medicine in case of illness, and at the same time to believe in the world of spirits and miracles of the New Testament." It's clearly not impossible, given the history and even current activity of conservative American Christians, but still, for many, seems like it should be.

As with so many parts of the cultural reality of religion, there's more going on here than is usually (so casually) assumed.