Blogtour: "The Next Story" by Tim Challies

Tim Challies. The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion. Zondervan, 2011. 208 pgs. 

Digital technology is everywhere. We all know it; we see it (or not), experience it, live with it, use it, and are surrounded by it all the time. From cars to cell phones to shopping to reading, 'the digital explosion' is as good a phrase as any to characterize our time. However, there are many important questions to ask in the face of this explosion. Questions like: How has life and faith been changed by these technologies? How does out constant connected-ness affect us? And what does it mean that we are under surveillance most of our lives? These, and more, are the questions Challies addresses in this book as he seeks to help the reader know how to think about technology as a Christian.

Challies first spends three chapters examining how we have arrived at this place of digital explosion. He then lays out three principles to keep in mind while evaluating technology. 1. It is a good, God-given gift. 2. It is under the curse, just like everything else. 3. "It is the human application of technology that helps us determine if it is being used to honor God or further human sin." With these in mind, Challies explores 5 major issues: speaking the truth in love (communication), mediation and identity, distraction, information, truth and authority, and, lastly, visibility and privacy. 

Next is a book which contains some great insights; it is an important addition to Christian literature. There is a great need for teaching and good material on how to think about technology rather than what to think about technology. There are simply too many new things coming at us to fast for us to rely on other people to determine for us what we ought to think and how we ought to react to each new item. This is, above all else, the great strength of Next: That it seeks to aid the reader in just this way, despite only succeeding at times. 

Challies words were particularly penetrating as he spoke, in various places throughout the book, about how technology or information can easily become idols in our lives. Of all the problems of technology this age-old issue is the worst; it is a must-have discussion in most of our churches. 

Unfortunately, Challies has also written a very inconsistent and, at times, shallow book. He does not keep to his own definition of technology, nor the list of three points he makes about technology (which I noted above). At times he speaks as if it is the application which makes a technology good or bad, and at times he does not. Frankly, I find point number 3 to be naive at best; the instrumentalist approach to technology is widely and, in my opinion, rightly rejected. The fact that we can use technology for good or ill is an obvious, and overstated, truth. The deeper truth is that technologies affect us in ways independent of how we use them. Challies bounces around the instrumentalist approach, affirming it here and denying it there. He notes that technology is a good gift of God but several times writes as if it were merely a necessary evil. Which is it? Further, his thoughts on mediated vs. unmediated communication are a muddle at best; skip that chapter. 

Overall, the best chapters in this book were on distraction and information. This is where Challies theological insight is keenest and where he focuses on idolatry and how technology, in general, is affecting us. The rest of his book was both philosophically and theologically weak. Yes, technology is under the curse, but what do we do with that? Challies never says. His conclusion is that we just need to think better about technology. While this is certainly true it is not enough. In many cases, technology itself inhibits better and deeper thinking. I would put a much stronger emphasis on digital fasting than Challies did, as well as on several other time honored practices of the Christian faith. 

Conclusion: 3.5 Stars. Conditionally Recommended. This is a good, and needed, book on the intersection of technology and faith. It is worth reading. Be aware, however, that it contains a subtle but extremely negative view of technology (Edit: as Challies pointed out in the comments, his negative view is towards digital technology specifically, not all technology. Near the beginning of Next he does speak of technology, in general, as part of the creation mandate and, therefore, something good)and has embedded within it several areas of naivety in regards to what technology is, how it affects us, and how we can or should respond.

Thanks to EngagingChurchBlog for the chance to review this book. 


Tim Challies said...

Thanks for posting this review of my book. It's much appreciated. I'm sorry, of course, that you found it theologically weak.

In reading reviews I guess I've seen that one point I could have pressed harder was the relationship of technology to our God-given mandate. I say this at the outset but perhaps do not circle around to it again. Technology in the big picture is good because it is a necessary condition to carry out our God-given mandate. So while I am often negative when it comes to digital technologies, big-T Technology is inherently good.

Andrew said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to read my review and for your gracious response.

You are right that you spoke about big-T technology as a God-given mandate at the beginning (of course; you would know your own book :) and I should have mentioned that in my conclusion; I will edit it accordingly.

I do have a question though. Even here, in your comment, you acknowledge your mostly negative views of digital technology. From reading your book, I understand how you believe digital technologies are detrimental (and I mostly agree with you) but is there no positive aspect to them which can counterbalance the scales? Big-T technology is equally detrimental in many ways and yet you are able to speak well of it at times. Is there more to your negative view of digital technology or is it that you simply find very little positive about it?

jdbowman said...

Andrew, this is a very thoughtful review. I found it on Amazon, and now this has led me to you. I have enjoyed my first impressions of your writing.

Have you encountered other writers on the intersection of theology and technology that you recommend? (In addition to Jacques Ellul, that is.)

Jonathan Bowman

Andrew said...


This afternoon I saw your comments on amazon, and here as well, and I want to thank you very much for the encouragement.

It is always affirming to know that my reviews are helping people.

To answer your question: a lot of books on this topic are similar to Tim Challies book. Parts are helpful, parts are not. I find this especially true about more recent books which try to deal with the 'explosion' of technology. Of course, when you turn to older books parts are helpful and parts are irrelevant...

One book that I highly recommend as a place to start is "The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist" by Craig Gay. Only one of his chapters focuses directly on technology, but it, and the whole book, is good.

Another book that got me thinking a lot was "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier. As far as I know he is not a Christian and he is definitely not writing about the intersection of theology and technology, however his perspective on technology is very thought provoking.

Beyond that, I think that there is a great need to think deeply not just about digital technology, but technology in general. I also think there is no place to start but some classic texts... unfortunately, they tend to be difficult and specialized and take a lot of work to get into... so, I recommend these only hesitantly: "The Question Concerning Technology" by Martin Heidegger and "Understanding Media" by Marshall McLuhan.

I hope that helps.

What are your own thoughts on these issues? Do you have any books to recommend? How are you dealing with this whole host of issues as a pastor?

Thanks, and God Bless,

jdbowman said...

Andrew, I am currently an associate pastor, but I have worked in both IT and web programming in the past. I am fascinated by computing technology, not so much the "gadget factor" (although I might be if I had the money), but learning about and making things (software or hardware). At the same time, I can easily observe the negative impact that "advances" in information technology have on young and old alike, and on me personally.

Some of my happiest moments have been in working/playing with information technology. And some of my biggest regrets derive from the same. Strange.

If I ever, by God's grace, discover that fire in the belly necessary for a doctorate, I think that information technology and theology will be a likely subject matter.

I enjoy thinking theologically, but have often come up short in finding theologians who shed much light on our present dependence on complex electronics. Or that help me answer a deeply personal question: to what degree is my affinity for information technology compatible with following Jesus?

I will have to read McLuhan. Those who I have heard interpret him in the past have been prone to over-generalization or ignorant of technical details regarding the technology they criticize. I will take your advice and go to the source. Thank you, also, for the other source recommendations.

I have dabbled a bit in Jacques Ellul, a French theologian, and began reading The Technological Society (1964). It is not for the faint of heart, however, and I have not yet made the time necessary to get through it.

Quentin Schultze's Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age was a good read as I recall, but it has been awhile, and I should re-read the paper I wrote on it in seminary before recommending it unequivocally.

Love to chat more if you are ever interested.

Andrew said...


Sorry for the long wait on a response from me; I will do so shortly.