“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Power of Gates Compels You? One Thing That Microsoft Can't Do

I'm interrupting the schedule of blogging topics that I have assigned myself for the next few months to say some things about Monday's Gospel and the Microsoft commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. A friend of mine who's a theology student sent me the ad suggesting that I write about it. He said, "[It is] one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen." In case you missed it, here it is (and in case it fails, here's a link):


My first thought is, wowall of that is true. We members of the human race have achieved amazing things through technology. All of those advances in medicine and science ended in new legs for that little boy and the new ears for that woman. There's no doubt about that, for their testimony is proof. But it's also true that way too many people have taken that fact and turned it into an idol. Christians know that faith and reason work togetherreligion and science can peacefully co-exist. Yet people today walk around clutching their iPhones (here's Jerry Seinfeld joking about that "juiced-up hard rectangle") in the way that people in the Middle Ages clutched their rosaries. The cart has gotten ahead of the horse in a big way.

So many of us are just like Kip from Napoleon Dynamite in our relationship with God: "Yes, I love technology, but not as much as you, you see; but I still love technology, always and forever." I experience this struggle every day when my baby goes down for his nap and I'm faced with the choice to engage in mental prayer for fifteen minutes as I plan and pledge to do or check my email, scroll through Facebook, or refresh my blog stats just for a sec. Screwtape has a blast.

Technology is a good, but it isn't the Good. It isn't an end in itself. Also, it doesn't do great things for us; people do great things for us with it. It's a tool, and our use of it makes us either better or worsebrings us closer to God and others or pushes us farther away. We have to struggle to keep this perspective when computers and phones and cameras are just so awesome right now. Everything that Steve Gleason says in the Microsoft ad (with the help of a computer) ought to be attributed to God, of course: "Technology has the power to unite us." ... "It inspires us."... "It gives hope to the hopeless." Without God granting us the gifts of His image and likeness, we would have never discovered all of the glorious truths of our universe through the power of our reasoning and intelligence. The ad features the lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearingso many of the miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospels. It's clear that the capacities of human imagination and ingenuity are amazing and even mind-blowingly so. It's easy to think there's nothing we can't do, nothing we can't control, nothing we can't master. Professor Patrick Deneen described this in an article from The New Atlantis while discussing two transformations which mark modernity:
In the second transformation, natural phenomena were to be understood not as a subject of theoretical study — that is, the object of contemplation — but rather, were to be understood as material to be worked on, as a domain that could be altered and transformed through human knowledge and activity. Action upon nature was to become the main object of modern science, particularly as inaugurated by Francis Bacon. The truly practical sciences were now understood to be the natural sciences which would act upon nature, altering its original form to exist in conformity with human comfort — to provide for “the relief of man’s estate,” as Bacon put it.
Theology, however, remains otherwise. It searches above and beyond while it teaches us our limits and our finitude. As Hamlet says to Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Here I want to focus on just one of those things—one of the invisible things in which was say we believe when we recite the Creed : demons. Let us consider demonic possession as one of the many things that technology simply cannot solve.

Exorcisms don't make it on the news too much. They're usually private affairs handled by the family of the victim and the local exorcist of their diocese. But our culture harbors a deep interest and even obsession with exorcisms, because like the "healed" people in the Microsoft ad, the afflicted victims and their witnesses have provided testimony. Every few years there appears another blockbuster all about this bizarre reality. I've never seen The Exorcist, but I have seen The Exorcism of Emily Rose and I think it is a really good and very important movie. At the very least, it depicts in vivid detail what possession really looks like, the priest is fantastic, and there's quite a surprising twist at the end. The movie explores the possible cause of Emily's transformation by pitting natural ones against supernatural ones in a courtroom drama setting. The most important piece of evidence is the audio recording of the exorcism itself (which used the tape from the real life events that inspired the movie). Ultimately it becomes clear that something supernatural is the cause, and only the supernatural can rescue the poor, tormented girl. 

I've heard plenty of homilies that have suggested that the possession and exorcism accounts in the Gospels are merely metaphors for sin and repentance or that these were all just physical or psychological disorders the people back then didn't understand. There might be some of that in a few of the accounts, but not this one:
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:14-29)

Take three minutes to watch this scene from Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. It's better than you remember, though it does leave out some of the important dialogue. In the Gospel passage, Jesus makes a distinction between types of demons, types of possession. Here he tells us that there is at least one kind against which science and technology are powerless. Only the power of Christ channeled through one of his ordained ministers will overcome this particular obstacle. Of course plenty of people simply reject this. They don't encounter the supernatural in their own lives, so it's easy not to believe in it. If you'd like to challenge your skepticism, I submit to you this story of demonic possession which came out at the end of last month. This ran in several regular news outlets. It's amazing and terrifying. Many reading this would still find it hard to believe. The events go far beyond what natural science can explain; their remedy is therefore beyond the scope of technology. 

Technology is an attractive good because it is also a good we can master. And this makes it easy to set aside and draw a box around the things that defy technological explanation and masteryincluding God. Even those of us who do believe have to be reminded every once in a while. Faith is something that must be nurtured if it is to flourish. The prayer of the father in the Gospel passage above is really a perfect one for all of us: "I believe! Help my unbelief." For years I've been repeating this phrase in my heart at the moment when the priest elevates the consecrated Eucharist in the Mass. It helps me to experience that moment with both wonder and humility.

Wonder is certainly one word that comes to mind when I watch that Microsoft ad. But my hope is that humility will also followthe humility to realize that the human genius that develops this technology is a gift from God; and the humility to appreciate the limitations of technological tools, which stop where the natural order ends and the supernatural begins. In our time, the means of reason and rhetoric are being highly challenged by media technology. But the Church offers technologies (if you will) of its own that use reason and rhetoric differently and that submit to different standards of evidence, belief, and proof. Exorcism is among the most dramatic examples of this. When faced with the problem of demonic possession, Microsoft's claim to be a Christ-like healer will prove hollow. "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer"prayer which calls the supernatural power of God into our midst.

If you want more information about exorcisms, check out the book An Exorcist Tells His Story by Fr. Gabriel Amorth. I have some mixed feelings about its value mostly because of Tolkien's warning to Lewis as he wrote The Screwtape Letters (a book that I find extremely valuable) that delving too deeply into the craft of evil would have consequences; but I know a few people whose faith was significantly strengthened by it. What are your thoughts?

Next topic: A meditation on Divine Providence for Lent.


  1. Great new post. I like that you pinpointed the problem with the commercial in one sentence: technology doesn't do good things for us, people do good things for us through technology. Aside from the drama of possession and exorcism, technology also doesn't answer the problem of happiness. The guy with ALS can talk...he is also rapidly dying. There is a "supernatural" need - the meaning of his life - to work out, quite apart from possession!

    1. Very true. I knew that it wasn't necessary to bring in exorcism in order to critique the commercial, but the idea for it came to me in prayer after reading Mark's Gospel so I thought I should do it.

  2. Kathryn,

    This is really excellent. A couple of thoughts:

    You refer to the Church’s “technologies.” That you do so analogically seems to be indicated by the parenthesis, “(if you will).” I will. But it seems worthwhile to spell out the ways in which the analogy does and doesn’t work. The Church’s “technologies,” I take it, are the means of grace entrusted to her by the Lord—above all, the seven Sacraments, then the sacred Scriptures, sacramentals, prayer, and so forth. As means of grace, these all flow from the blessed Life of God mediated to us freely (never mechanistically—that would be a misconstrual of sacramental efficacy ex opere operato) through the humanity of Jesus Christ. To avail oneself of that power, that “technology,” which truly gives “hope to the hopeless,” thus always and everywhere entails configuration to that Life, which means configuration to self-giving love.

    So, by their very nature, the Church’s “technologies” aren’t something that can be harnessed and deployed as extrinsic tools that could leave their user unaffected. That’s why Jesus couldn’t do miracles where He found no faith. Abusing the Sacraments is, in part, such a serious offense because it means you’re maliciously involving these freely given, unimaginably costly gifts in a self-contradiction that I would characterize as pornographic, because it would illicitly separate both the gift and your own person from the Person and intention of the Giver. You would be falsifying the very meaning of the gift, making it an incoherent sign. Abusing technology, on the other hand—say, by dropping an atomic bomb or performing a sterilization—does not involve any intrinsic contradiction of what technology itself is, because technology has no built-in intentionality as do the Church’s means of sanctification.

    Along with your incisive observation that the Microsoft commercial displaces people with the technology they’ve developed and used, I would add that this completely papers over the fact that our real problem is not one of insufficient technology but one of insufficient—or misdirected—love. Even Jesus’s miracles of healing, after all, are not ends in themselves: they point to the ultimate healing that is found only in the love that is stronger than death. On the Christian account, this is that love by which Jesus loved us “to the end” (John 13.1). This divine love, made human in Christ, revealed on the Cross, vindicated in the Resurrection, and made sovereign in the Ascension, is poured out into the hearts of believers by the Holy Spirit, and that means that it’s communicable among human beings by the action of that same Spirit. Isn’t that what’s being replaced, implicitly, by technology in the commercial? Isn’t love what we’re actually lacking, which lack ultimately deprives us of hope? And if that problem of lovelessness (i.e., sin) isn’t solved, do we really think that all we’re missing is more technological advances? And, if and when those advances do come, won’t they just be exploited? How many ALS patients in sub-Saharan Africa (or in lower-class America) can expect to receive voice software? How many children in Indian slums can expect to receive mechanical legs? Do they count?

    And to return to the question of love, can a mechanical leg ever hope to replace the loving embrace of a Blessed Theresa, who lived a selfless life out of love for a God whom she didn’t experience, at all, for years and years, plunged in a deeper existential darkness than most of us can imagine (numbed as we are by all our, well, technological distractions)?

    I don’t mean in any way to denigrate the beauty of the images shown in the commercial. They are truly beautiful and praiseworthy, but that’s precisely why it’s so insidious that they are presented in a way that allows Microsoft and millions of Superbowl viewers to pat ourselves on our tech-savvy backs and ignore the deeper maladies that technology cannot, even in principle, no matter how advanced, ever hope to heal.

    Sorry this is so long!

    1. After talking to my husband about my use of the phrase "Church's technologies," I wanted to take out that sentence all together. But I'm glad that your comment beat me to it because it is so beautiful and thoughtful and I want everyone to read it. So worth my imprecision!

  3. One of the reflections that struck me when watching the movie Gravity is how tenuous is the world constructed of technology. It doesn't take much for it to topple. Think about how much of the wonders of the technological age grind to a halt when the grid is messed with either by a collision in the stratosphere or a bad rainstorm or freezing rain or man-made blackout. The miracles of technology are still subject to the laws of entropy and in need of constant re-tooling and re-charging. The miracles of God have a living force that comes from above. Think of Jesus at the well telling the Samaritan woman that He could give her living water that would spring up within her. She thinks it means she won't have to come to the well. But soon she forgets even her present thirst and puts down her bucket to tell others of the Encounter. Thank you for this thoughtful post. It is great for preparing to enter into Lent and the beginning of a technology fast.

    1. What a great observation! Thank you so much.

      Gravity is out on DVD now, everyone; so be sure to see it!

  4. Thank you for referencing Kip's song from Napoleon Dynamite.. it will be in my head for a long long time!

  5. There's a lot of food for thought here, especially with the recent Oscar buzz over the film _Her_, which I haven't seen.

    One thing that your piece reminds me of is that technology, as a term, entered English as a means of distinguishing between theology and disputations about theology. This quote from Isaac Casaubon--a 16th/17th century Reformer--sums it up (I've updated spelling): "Men, void, of God's spirit, commonly and promiscuously did dispute of spiritual things, and convert Theology into technology, that is, make no other use of Divinity but as a matter of learned, or artificial discourse, as they talk of other arts and sciences out of human reason." Technology, in all its senses, seems to obscure some of our abilities to order reason and experience. Your juxtaposition of media technology and possession helps me think through some of these fine distinctions.

    I was also put in mind of a simple quote from the ballet choreographer, George Balanchine: "God creates, I assemble." It offers a nice way of thinking about subordinating technology in our lives.

    1. Thank you for these wonderful additions! I'm so glad that others will get the benefit of them through this wonderful piece of technology, blog comments. ;)

  6. "But I still love technology. Always and forever." –Brilliant use of this line. I never realized how pertinent Kip when it comes to these questions.

    I really like this post as well as the comments that have been made already. A few thoughts:

    1) I'm totally with you on making sure technology does not straightjacket our imagination and desire within the narrow confines of what it can itself fix or provide. We definitely should be talking about wounds, needs, and desires that point us beyond the realm of technology's power. The question of demonic possession seems to expose especially well the impact of technologically reduced thinking even in most Christians today. Thank you for drawing attention to that; I hope people continue to do so. Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9-25) seems pertinent here too.

    2) Also, I agree that the devices should never get nearly as much attention as the people who use and design them. One of the things that really bugs me about that commercial is how it continues to fetishize this amorphous entity called “technology” (and the equally amorphous "we" who wield it) when the real message is that a particular group of human beings with the right kind of resources and expertise "have the power to heal us," etc. There is certainly a way in which the object, the device, becomes a mask and a proxy for our lack of responsibility in using it and our unwillingness to hold the designers responsible.

    3) At the same time, I'm hesitant to associate technology too straightforwardly with powers that always remain under human control, are empty of 'built-in intentionality,' or have no influence (at least a soft one) on the actions by which we use them or a tendency to pull us into conformity with a certain way of life. Technology is certainly within the realm of nature, but the realm of nature is a gift from God. Hence, as many popes have reminded us, technology too is a gift from God. This already implies a 'built-in intentionality.' It must be used for the universal common good. Apple and Microsoft don't have the prerogative to "write over" this built-in intentionality.

    On the other hand, to think that technological objects are completely open as to the 'way of life' they can be used for (at least without strong and constant resistance) is already to play into a technological mindset that encourages us to think of the whole natural order as equally open to whatever ends human beings assign to it. Discerning the 'way of life' implicit in a horse saddle, a plow, a diary, a contraceptive, a BMW convertible, an iPod, or an assault rifle can be a good preparation (but of course, only a preparation) for discerning the 'way of life' implicit in the created order.

    Meanwhile, although it is true that the world of technology can be surprisingly fragile, so can the world of nature--but both can also be surprisingly beyond our control. Any reflective parent with teenagers right now can attest to how his or her options are constrained by Apple every day. Even within the natural order--in fact, even within those realms of created nature where human artifice should be most adept!--technology seems busier solving problems we created with it than problems that existed before. The irony of this attests both to technology's fragility and to our lack of control over it. I'm all for taking more responsibility over how we use and design our devices, but it would also be a good idea for us to start praying more often that God would heal our technological addictions and give us what we need to exercise that responsibility.


  7. Also, I wouldn't give up so soon on talking about "the Church's technologies." The differences are obviously large and significant. But the more similarities there are, the more the life of the Church can teach us something about how we should be using other kinds of technology. If the Church is an "expert in humanity," and if technology is essentially within the scope of what it means to be human (like culture generally: more than nature but not in itself against nature), then there's no reason why the Church shouldn't also be an "expert in technology."

    The Sacraments can be especially difficult to talk about in this way (as they should be!). But there are tons of other easier cases. Books, architecture, and music seem like especially good examples. As these are used in and by the Church, all three examples can and should be centrally considered means of grace and works of art. That is beyond question. But it doesn't prevent us from also reflecting on them as kinds of technology--and to the degree that we can think about them in that way, this means that the Church has a history of dealing with technology that ought to teach us something about our current problems.

    For example, then: the fact that in Scripture revelation is committed to writing means, above all else, that God's Word lovingly condescended to be present to us in and through the particularities of human culture. But books are also, inevitably, a technology. If we are in fact grateful that God allowed His Word to be communicated in writing and not just orally (not, I think, something we should take for granted), I don't see how we could be grateful for that without implicitly valuing writing as a technology (e.g., as a device that allows us to share words over temporal and geographic distances). But writing is not an unambiguously positive technology. If you go to places in the world today where literacy is still being introduced, the way adults respond to books (whether positively or negatively) has striking similarities to how adults in our society respond to smartphones. Presumably, then, the Church's history with books should (among other more important things) teach us something about how books can be used and designed well rather than poorly. And this in turn ought to teach us something about how we should deal with smartphones today.


    1. So much great stuff to think about here. I am abundantly honored to have such thoughtful readers!

  8. I am behind on the blogs, but I have been thinking a lot about this blog the last few days. I wonder if in addition to things like exorcism, a good way to address this problem is simply to teach the Four Last Things. It seems to me that different people will find something different in each of the Last Things that could help them "repent and believe in the Gospel." In addition, perhaps an indirect approach would simply be to encourage people to check out of the smartphone world for, let's say, 5 minutes to start, or 15, just to think about things.

  9. Kathryn, I wouldn't feel guilty about employing "the technology of the Church" in your post. It seems to me that it might function as a sign for us to rethink and reinterpret the meaning of the very word "technology." A quick flip through the Liddell-Scott Greek Lexicon provides a wealth of connotations for "techne" which exceed our notions of passive devices or simple tools. True, techne can be an intricately crafted artifice but its most prominent meaning lies in designating craft or art itself. Surely this is not an inappropriate term for the nature of the Church's sacramental ministries if Christ himself is called the "icon" of the Father. The work of the Church is the handicraft of God: the divine techne. Perhaps Athanasius' analogy concerning the Imago Dei and the Incarnation would be further proof of its suitability. Humanity's damaged and bleary image of the divine is touched up, as it were, by the coming of Christ in the flesh. Our nature, like a dilapidated building has been mysteriously renovated.
    And finally, let us not forget St. Ignatius of Antioch's beautiful metaphor of construction technology in the Epistle to the Ephesians:

    "Forasmuch as ye are stones of a temple, which were prepared beforehand for a building of God the Father, being hoisted up to the heights through the engine of Jesus Christ, which is the Cross, and using for a rope the Holy Spirit; while your faith is your windlass, and love is the way that leadeth up to God."

    If St. Ignatius can say our salvation comes "dia tes mechanes" (through the machine) of the cross, then I think you're far from temerity in speaking of the "technologies of the Church.