I used to believe that technology hated me. I am sure many of you will be able to identify with that. If you have ever had a video or sound-clip form a critical focal point of your presentation only to have it suddenly refuse to play at the crucial moment; if autocorrect has ever embellished a text in a way that makes it deeply embarrassing to you; if, in the midst of silent prayer, a microphone hooked onto the guitar on your lap has ever amplified your growling stomach to a politely restrained congregation; if your vacuum cleaner has ever tried to electrocute you (it’s a long story…); if you have ever found yourself embroiled in one of the myriad variations on this theme, you will know how I might have arrived at the conclusion that technology hates me.
It is patently absurd, of course. I realise that now. These are machines, after all, incapable of human emotion, and they are only acting according to their programming. Besides, these kinds of “accidents” happen to everyone – I cannot possibly find legitimate grounds for taking it personally. If there is a malevolent force at play, it is not directed at me per se. It just feels that way sometimes.
That was the point I was at until last week, at any rate, when a seemingly small thing happened that made me question my newly adopted, more rational stance. I was due to conduct a workshop at a new school. I asked Google for directions (I love voice recognition, and this, combined with Google maps, has transformed navigation for men all over the planet – now we can ask directions with reckless abandon and not have our masculinity called into question) and it quickly calculated a route for me. I did not have to look at the screen (that is dangerous when you are driving, but as it turns out, might have saved me a lot of trouble), and simply followed the directions my phone issued.
I started to get suspicious when I was directed onto a very rudimentary dirt road, away from any discernible signs of human habitation apart from the nearby mine-dumps. And then Google confidently announced (did I detect just a hint of malicious glee, or is that me projecting?) that my destination was on my right. On my right, as you will see in the photograph below, was only veld. What there definitely wasn’t was a large school. I called the school and asked for somebody to ping me the location (I know, I should have done that from the start) and it turns out I was a good 50 kilometres away from where I needed to be. The conspiracy theorist in me pictured some antisocial computer geek, sitting behind a screen in some remote cabin, buried deep in faraway wood, chuckling and moving on to another faceless victim. My revised theory is this: technology does not hate anybody; it is merely a tool used by people who hate other people.
I would like to be able to leave this anecdote as a parable for the reader to interpret. This is a blog about theology after all. But the teacher in me is insisting that I at least start to join the dots in case some of my readers need assistance. There are a number of truths in the story, but there are two in particular that I wish to highlight.
The first is this: the Bible is a lot like Google navigation, in that when we engage with the Bible we are engaging with the map rather than the terrain. While the map might make a very honest attempt to depict the physical reality, the two things remain distinctly separate. The map is always a static and selective interpretation of a larger, more dynamic phenomenon. The map-maker invents lines and symbols to convey a truth to the map-reader that is impossible to encapsulate on a page. But the lines and symbols have only a limited usefulness because the map is not the terrain, and the cartographer must of necessity, and not always consciously, select which aspects of the terrain to represent on the map and how to go about doing so. The cartographer will not – cannot (because she is limited by her senses, her education, her paradigms) – depict absolutely everything that makes the terrain the terrain. She cannot capture wind currents, seismic activity, the flights of birds and butterflies, the effects of erosion over time, air pressure, shifts in temperature, or any of the thousands of subtle characteristics that make this terrain unique. She notes landmarks that she deems important and universal and records those as faithfully as she can using symbols that she has at her disposal, and which she assumes will allow for common understanding. Likewise, the Bible is not God; it is a collection of various people’s maps of God.
The second thing is this: no matter how faithfully you follow a map, if the map is not of the place you want to go, you will not get there. Theology – thinking about God – is a journey, and we rely on various maps. None of them can ever fully represent the reality. But that does not make all of them equally worthy (or unworthy) of our trust. Not if we assume that people undertake religious or spiritual journeys not for their own sake, but rather because they have some sort of “destination” in mind. Granted, we may have differences of opinion in where we ought to be going – for some it is Heaven, for some Enlightenment, for others it may be harmonious cohabitation with members of the same species, or even simply happiness. But we do what we do for a reason, however poorly we may have conceptualised those reasons, or how conscious we are that those motivations exist at all. Every now and again I think we would do well to take a moment to reflect on how effectively the maps we are using are designed to take us to where we want to be.
And that, I suppose, is what I try to do in this blog. I am not questioning traditional Evangelical Christianity or key Protestant doctrines like Biblical inerrancy and Penal Substitutionary Atonement out of some personal hurt. I critique them because I am not convinced they provide the right map to where we need to be. And I say that because I have seen too many people left frustrated and angry on the side of the theological road because the maps that they were told to trust betrayed them. The theological maps that Evangelical and Reformed Christianity (and others, I am sure, but these are within the scope of my experience) offer have not made the world a more loving, more peaceful place. Not as much as they should have, anyway.
A frequent response to my posts is that the reader has not, contrary to what I often seem to suggest, become racist or homophobic or hateful as a result of their devotion to the Bible. I would argue that the good in the world – the work of the Spirit in human hearts – is not a result of any unquestioning trust in the Bible. Rather, it is the work of God in them despite their unquestioning trust in the Bible. It is the result of faithfully following parts of the map that correlate strongly to the terrain, even when other parts of the map are completely inaccurate.
In the same way, I see far too many people who are too quick to throw away the map when they begin to notice its flaws. Who, having been deceived by the map, take the betrayal personally (it is hard not to), picturing a distant God, spiteful and capricious, who treats people like playthings and leaves them broken on the floor, or alternatively some malicious conspiracy of cartographers. I know far too many people who gave up on faith because those who interpreted the map for them ended up being hypocrites, unable to follow it themselves. I know too many who saw in the map a promise of a way out of misery and loneliness and poverty, but found themselves bemired even deeper, and so concluded that the destination was a myth.
Theologically speaking, I find myself, having followed the Bible as faithfully as possible – like so many of you – on the side of a rural dirt track, with Google announcing “your destination is on your right”. But the scenery I find myself staring at out of my car window is not what it ought to be. Bibliocentric theology has not made the world more loving or more peaceful, nor has it brought us closer to the Kingdom of God (which I now believe is more a way of being and relating than it is a place; more an ontological reality than a physical one). And it would be easy to believe that technology hates me, that it has all been an elaborate hoax with me as the butt of the joke. But once the emotion dissipates, I see that things a little more clearly. We have been using the wrong map. So I am trying something new: maybe Jesus makes a better cartographer than the writers of the Biblical texts ever could. Maybe we have been expecting a map that would take us away from the horrors of this fallen world when all along – through Jesus and his mission of both preaching and practicing forgiveness and loving relatedness – God was giving us directions for restoring what Hen created as good. When did we forget that we were never called to abandon this world to its brokenness but to steward it towards wholeness?