Evangelicals love magic. On the face of it that doesn’t sound like a true statement, perhaps you remember the mild panic over Harry Potter in the early 2000s, or the much bigger panic over Dungeons and Dragons in the eighties—witchcraft remains something we are inherently nervous about, sometimes leading to absurd extremes.
Which is true enough, and yet we engage in magical thinking all the time.
Andy Crouch in his recent book The Life We’re Looking For makes a distinction between two different kinds of technology: instruments and devices.
Instruments are technologies that expand our capacities and reduce our burdens. But, in order to do so, they require something from us. A bicycle is an instrument, as is a literal musical instrument. We can travel further and faster, or make sounds we couldn’t with our voices, but in order to do so we have to change. We have to become the kind of person that can ride a bicycle or play Bach. You can do neither on your first attempt.
Devices make the same promises as instruments: they can expand our capacities and reduce our burdens. But they maximise the distance between power and character. Smartphones and computers do this, we have enormous access to knowledge and the power to create at the tap of a few fingers. We can essentially conjure what we want. They require little from us and are essentially magic except that we might understand how it works.
Crouch is concerned by the effect of devices on us. He is at pains to point out that unlike instruments, devices also restrict capacities and enforce burdens. Because they exist there are things that are harder or impossible to do and new things that we have to do. They don’t extend our abilities like an instrument, instead they change the world. They are blessings and curses.
I’m concerned by the same sorts of things Crouch is, particularly the impact of the smartphone and the worlds it creates on our lives, the way we think, what we think about, and the stories we tell each other about ourselves.
In a podcast with John Mark Comer, Crouch laid out these distinctions but took it in another direction. He suggested that Christians—like everyone else today—are so formed by the way devices change our thinking that we approach the Christian life like it’s a set of devices. We treat the Christian disciplines like magic.
In other words, we take something that is supposed to be slowly learned over time, where our ability to use it to our advantage is supposed to grow with personal effort, and where we have to change in order to successfully play it well—we take that and we turn it into an input/output device. Got problem A? Do solution A! Solved!
We turn gardening into online banking. Let me give you some examples.
Say we’ve got a problem or a question in our Christian life and we think “aha! I should go to the Bible!” That’s a great impulse that I would want to encourage. The problem is that we think the Bible is an instruction book at best, which is a description that’s only possible in the modern world, and that if only we find the right sentence it will tell us what to do in our situation.
The Bible is not a magic book. It will not yield instant answers to you. It is the word of God, but it’s an instrument: it requires you to become the kind of person who reads it well. How do you do that? Practicing over a long period of time, especially in community with others.
You can’t flip to a page and get an instant answer, and not only because we need context and all the rest of it, but also because wisdom comes through the careful chewing and reflection of God’s words in communion with the saints (living and dead—in books and in front of you). This is especially true in the wisdom literature. Are you supposed to answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26), to take the most obvious example?
Lonely? Want some community? Great! Join a small group, we say with much gusto. The thing is we typically treat small groups, and friendships, as devices. We expect that if we input x we will get y. Going to a small group every couple of weeks will neither stop you being lonely or get you any friends.
Sorry to break it to you.
I like small groups, but to say otherwise is magical thinking. To become part of a community you have to become the kind of person who is part of a community. In our isolated age, that’s actually a big ask of all of us. It takes time and patience and the commitment to something that has yet to reap a benefit until we have change enough that the ‘technology’ of the structures the church puts in place can do something.
Friendship is the same. You have to become the kind of person who is a good friend. How do you do that? Through lots of mistakes and time and frustration and trying as you and your friends work it out together. It’s much more beautiful though: the difference between me playing Bach on Spotify and you learning how to play Bach.
Do we treat prayer like a magic device? But I asked x where is my y!
This is the one most of us are more live to. We’re wary of treating God like a vending machine, and well aware that he will not give us sportscars just because we asked.
We have to become the kind of people who pray, which we do by praying (badly) over a long period of time until we have changed. Most young people I pastor who struggle to pray regularly will give some variation on the complaint that they don’t ‘get anything out of praying’ so they struggle to continue.
Which makes us huff and wonder how you can not get anything out of spending time in the presence of our glorious Father and almighty Friend. Except we forget when we too struggled and persevered and changed, even if just a little, into the sort of people who pray. We’ve got further still to go too.
Equally as we pray for ourselves or others to change we should not be sad if we don’t yield instant results. Now, I should nuance this a little. I believe in the immediate power of prayer: I’ve seen people healed, demons flee, and lives be transformed in moments of prayer. I’m a firm believer that we should pray with authority (especially those of us that have it) and with an expectation of the Lord intervening. I’ve also seen people be confused when that doesn’t happen and just pray harder when what’s called for is the long walk forward where we all change more into Christ’s likeness.
The Sabbath is trendy again, for all I’m not sure if all of that chat actually lines up with the Bible’s idea of Lord’s Day observance. We treat rest like a device too when we expect that if we take a day off we’ll feel better. We can’t recharge, we aren’t machines.
Perhaps you try having a day of rest a few times and it seems like hard work—not restful at all—and so you stop. As with everything worth having, it takes a little longer than that. We have to learn the rhythm of rest, to become the kind of people who know how to rest, to literally settle into stopping.
In a similar way, the Christian life of repentance and forgiveness and the mortification of our sin can easily be treated like a device. “But I’ve already forgiven them, why am I still having these feelings!” Honestly, because you need to keep doing so, not because you didn’t do it ‘properly’ the first time, it’s not a formula because it’s not a device, it’s something we learn to do as we become people who forgive.
So, dear friends, let us shed our magical thinking for a richer opportunity. We can instead become the kind of people who are like Jesus, inch by inch, day by day. Let’s offer people that instead. It’s tougher and it takes longer, but it’s much more beautiful. It may not sound like it in an age formed by the devices we’ve made to enslave ourselves with, but it’s also the path of freedom.
Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash
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