Last year, Meghan and I had the opportunity to travel to Germany. It was a unique privilege for me as I had never been to Europe. Driving around southern Germany, captivated by the majesty of the Bavarian Alps, was a rather mesmerizing experience. I had the option to visit several castles, including a smaller palace called Linderhof. Built by King Ludwig II, it functioned as a private escape, patterned after the French style of Versailles. Of the many intriguing aspects of the palace, Linderhof features extremely ornate and handcrafted golden wall accents, true craftsmanship covering each space in unique ways. One reason they are so intriguing is that the tour guides will tell you that the work of this incredibly detailed artistry is not replicable in our contemporary society. In other words, no one can do it. The skill, they said, has been lost to history. There exists no artist on the face of the globe that can accomplish such art. Disciplines, as it were, can be lost.
Though not one of his ten tech-wise commitments, Andy Crouch makes a helpful distinction between technology and tools. He writes, “For almost all of human history, tools were quite limited. They weren’t everywhere; they were in specific places. Tools were in the field (agriculture) or in the kitchen (cooking) or in the toolshed (work). And while tools helped us do our work, they did work on their own … Even though tools made human work easier, they weren’t necessarily easy to use. Ask anyone who’s tried to use a hammer skillfully, let alone a chain saw. Learning to use a tool requires patience and practice.” (Crouch, 48) On the other hand, technology offers us ways of accomplishing work that requires little to no effort on our part. In many ways, technology moves beyond the category of tool and moves into the category of replacement.
The primary point that Crouch makes is that it robs us of human learning. Tools become an extension of the body, requiring developed skill to operate with precision and mastery. “Increasingly, our lives have been colonized by things that don’t just help us accomplish a task but do the task for us. And this technology, at its most beguiling, requires almost no effort or learning at all.” (Crouch, 49) Toward the end of the book, Andy makes an important observation. “Up until about one hundred years ago, there was only one meaning to the phrase “play music.” It meant that someone had to take up an instrument, having developed at least some skill, and make music, in person, in real time.” (Crouch, 185) For Crouch, technology carries the innate potential to move us away from a life of discipline, excluding the opportunity to master skills and develop our use of tools.
When you think of the word ‘discipline,’ what typically comes to mind? For many, we associate discipline with punishment. Discipline becomes a form of correction or consequence due to some infraction. While that may be a legitimate use of the word, we also may differentiate discipline from punishment by arguing that punishment carries more punitive connotations while discipline seems to imply a more restorative agenda. But even more importantly, a broader perspective of discipline includes the notion of training. It is the development of the person to some desired end or goal. Discipline as a correction/consequence may function to train. Even so, we may discipline ourselves to be able to accomplish some feat or develop a specific skill. We discipline ourselves to learn the knowledge and skills for our profession, to learn how to swim, to grill the perfect steak, to hit a golf ball, or to learn a language.
I have recently enjoyed developing the skill of woodworking. I would not call what I currently do skill. However, working with wood to build furniture, frames, and other projects has been a desire for some time, hindered by the usual suspects, time and resources. In one of my first projects, I noticed that after I applied the stain that there were significant swirls in the grain of the wood. After some research, I discovered that it was because of my sander. Actually, it was because of me. Pressing too hard on the spinning sander will cause swirl indentations in the wood, becoming increasingly more visible once the stain has been applied. Let the sander do the work, was the lesson. Rookie mistake. The skill of sanding required some discipline. Learning a knowledge of how the tool should be used and how it should not be used, along with the practice of right movements and pressure, help me become a more proficient woodworker. I needed discipline.
Aside from the important question of ‘why should I pursue a disciplined life,’ how might technology hinder of life of discipline? As I consider that question, wastefulness typically comes to mind. Certainly, much of our technology seems to consume our time, dumping it into places that have such little value. I think specifically of time spent scanning news articles that have little to no bearing on my life. So much of the news seems to only function to cause my anger and anxiety to rise! But beyond the negative component of wastefulness, it seems that technology often tends to dull my appreciation for the excellence and beauty of developed skill. It is easier if don’t pursue ’x.’ I’ll have to give so much time to this thing or that thing. The reality is that while God gave us gifts and abilities and friends and family, he has also given us some time (though we never know how much). And we, as creatures of desire, give time to the things we love. We make space for them. What are the things I give my time to? And what does it say about what I love?
Irrespective of any desire that you might have for developing, or not developing, a specific disciplined skill in life, the life of discipleship is a life of discipline. We typically think of the spiritual disciplines. We pray. We read the Bible. We study the Bible. We learn how to meditate. We practice the art of Scripture memorization. But even beyond these, we learn the discipline of forgiveness and showing kindness. These spiritual disciplines train us towards godliness. They train us to be effective workers in God’s kingdom, becoming laborers in the field for the harvest. They train us to become more like the Master.
Additionally, the discipline we face as a disciple may include things we do not choose. Suffering is typically not on our agenda. The author of Hebrews describes this aspect of discipleship: “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” (Hebrews 12:7-8) The passage is lengthy, but worth reading through. “Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:9-11) In this way of viewing discipline, we are reminded that it confirms our sonship as well as trains us for righteousness. Discipline trains us for heaven.
With these things in mind, while it may or may not be important to you to learn a new skill like a musical instrument or a new language, it is important for the believer to consider how technology hinders or helps their discipline in their discipleship. Does technology serve the goal of greater discipleship? Or does it tend to distract and maneuver you away from precious time spent with God in his Word? Do you find that your level and kind of consumption crafts you into the image of the Master? Or do you find that your consumption crafts you into an image unlike the Master, more in line with something you might generally see in society? Such questions move us in the direction of the examined life, which is a discipline in and of itself.