(Reprint of article in January 2012 PeaceSigns)
Be not conformed to this world but rather be transformed by the latest app.
Oops! I misquoted. But sometimes I wonder. I am fascinated by the phenomenon of friends who seem to be more excited over the latest app than the application of their faith to everyday life.
So how do we as modern-day Mennonites relate to technology? I believe our early Anabaptist forebears offer us some clues.
The Anabaptist concept of the church set them distinctly apart from the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant reformers of their day. To them, the notion of the church and society as one unit was unacceptable. Instead the early Anabaptists believed in a voluntary church separate from the world. So strongly did they believe in such a separation that they were willing to suffer persecution at the hands of this said alliance of religious and civil authorities rather than conform to the status quo.
The early Anabaptists took seriously the misquoted verse above: they were among the first non-conformists, attempting to live separate from the world, a “peculiar” people. They tended to behave in ways that were different from the general population. I am reminded of this not-so-distant heritage every time I visit my Amish relatives in Ohio or my conservative Mennonite kin in New York. They have chosen a very different relationship to society and to technology in particular. They are doing fine and perhaps, are even more content than I. Such visits lead me to ponder whether Menno (or Jesus for that matter) would stand in line for hours just to get the latest I-gadget.
But the early Anabaptists did not reject technology out of hand. They believed in separation from the world with two exceptions: a commitment to evangelism and a willingness to offer criticism of the social order. Such commitments led them to seek more effective ways to get their message out.
The Reformation, and its rebellious step-child Anabaptism, owed its rampant growth to the invention of a technology comparable to the Internet of today, namely the printing press. By 1450, Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type and the printing press, had set up shop in Mainz, Germany, and had begun his most famous project, The Gutenberg Bible. Eventually, as a result of a monetary dispute, his two financial partners, Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, took over the operation. By 1525, Protestants and Catholics controlled most of the existing printing presses but it was not long before Anabaptists seized upon the invention as a means to spread their message. In fact, Peter Schöffer the Younger, son of the former Gutenberg partner, moved his shop to Worms in 1524 and by 1527, had joined the Anabaptists, printing a variety of works by Hans Denck, leader of the Augsburg Anabaptists. By 1554, Menno Simons joined other oppressed Anabaptists living under the protection of Bartholomeus von Ahlefeldt, on Wüstenfeld, one of his large estates. Here, Menno’s printer began to publish new books by Menno and revisions of his earlier writings. Menno’s writings in particular were well received and contributed to the furthering of Anabaptist thought.
Technology can bring about positive change. For modern day examples, one need only look so far as the so-called Arab Spring as well as other similar movements to see the impact that social media in particular can play in uniting people to bring about a more just and equal society.
So I am not advocating that we throw our cell phones out the window (though I did write a song with that title a few years ago). But we need to be as intentional in our relationship to technology as with any other area of our life. Our faith should inform our relationship to media, not the other way around. In other words, my decisions regarding what technology I possess and how I use it should be driven by my Anabaptist values.
In this day and age, it is easy to buy into, and buy, the latest sexy gadget that comes along. But my early Anabaptist kin lead me to ask several questions:
- Is this a need?
- How does it fit with the values of nonviolence, simple living and good stewardship?
- How does it help me further the Kingdom?
- How does my having to have the latest version contribute to the tons of older technologic junk polluting the world?
- How can honoring the Sabbath assist me in taking regular breaks from media and technology?
And finally, if I am asked to give it up, would I be able to do so and remain happy? Do I possess this device or does it possess me?
Be not conformed to this world but rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This verse in Romans 12 can provide guidance in how we relate to media by offering us a caution as well as a reminder of our ultimate objective. Why is this “mind renewal” so important? The second half of the verse offers some insight; “that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Technology is transforming us as a human species and as we continue to engage with technology, further transformations will occur. At times the latest manifestation may seem to be magical, possessing God-like qualities. But we must remember; it is not divine. Ultimate transformation, the renewing of our minds, comes about through the mighty creative work of God’s Spirit moving across the waters. Such a Spirit is not bound by any human construct, is not limited by any plastic box, and is far brighter than any pixeled screen.
Hallelujah! Now that, my friends, is good news!
The European History of the Swiss Mennonites from Volhynia
Martin H Schrag 1956
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online
Mennonite Historian, Volume XXII, No.3, September, 1996 http://www.mennonitehistorian.ca/22.3.MHSep96.pdf
A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical. Historical. Constructive
Thomas Finger 2004
Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science:
Volume 23 – Poland: Libraries and Information Centers in to Printers and Printing
Allen Kent, Harold Lancour, Jay E. Daily 1978
New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia
The Bible: New King James Version