Advent Hope in the Empire of Technology

The Rev. Ryan Boettcher recently attended the Listen and Speak Conference where speaker Andy Crouch began a conversation on human flourishing in the empire of technology. For Ryan, Andy’s talks were the catalyst to address an issue he was already feeling convicted by: his own soul-numbing technology usage. As we seek to be present and wait on Christ this Advent, Ryan explores the danger of constant distraction and how only a connection with Christ can truly restore our humanity. 

by Ryan Boettcher

Recently, I had a “kairos” moment, of sorts. Actually, it was more like a series of these God-breaking-into-time moments in order to reveal something. It started, unbeknownst to me, a few months ago, when my wife suggested a mobile app that I try to help me track my iPhone usage. In a mix of stubbornness and ignorance, my response went something like: “Why would I need that?”

The next “kairos” came soon after. I happened upon a series of PSA videos put out by Common Sense Media starring Will Ferrell that were utterly hilarious—but the kind of hilarious that turns quickly to utter shame because of how accurate a picture it portrays of how I typically engage with my smartphone within my own family. The videos are the kind of funny that is funny because it is soberingly true.

The last “kairos” (clearly I wasn’t getting the message) took the form of a two-day conference in Charleston, South Carolina, with Andy Crouch, speaking on technology, its influence, and the church’s response. Throughout his lectures, Crouch painted a picture of how we have become captives to the “empire of technology,” an empire that is far more pervasive and controlling of a group of people than any nation-state or political reality. Technology (especially screens and devices) has created a culture of “easy-everywhere” where we have easier access to everything in life, but is utterly inept at forming us well.

We have greater access to more people in our lives, through smartphones and social media, but we have far less connection with those immediately around us. Technology has formed us, but it has formed us into something less than human. Screens, devices, smartphones have altered our ability to be fully heart-soul-mind-strength complexes who can easily slip into loving God and loving neighbor well. As Bryce Dessner wrote in a song ten years ago now, but still rings true: “we’re half-awake in a fake empire.” And our screens and devices have an influence on us that is devastating.

Technology has formed us, but it has formed us into something less than human.
One of the most provocative (and, yes, entertaining) accounts of this reality that I can think of comes in the form of a Pixar film—WALL-E. The plot: sometime in the future, Earth has been abandoned by humans who have consumed so much stuff, that garbage has overtaken the entire world and it is no longer habitable. The humans leave on a spaceship, and leave behind Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class (WALL-E) robots, powered by the earth’s sun, to clean up the mess, in the hopes that someday they might return. After 700 years, only one of these robots remains. And we get a glimpse into WALL-E’s daily life and rhythms in the first part of the movie.

On the flip side, the humans who have left for space have entirely succumbed to the “empire of technology.” They have all but forgotten about Earth, they ride around on personal hovercrafts, they communicate with others solely through their phone screens in front of their faces, and are entirely oblivious to everything going on around them. Their lifestyle has caused them to become so obese, to the point where they are physically unable to walk on their own anymore.

The picture that is painted in the film is one of stark contrast. Because of technology and consumption, the humans are no longer human anymore. The robot that they created to “solve” their garbage problem on Earth has developed the capacity to be more human than they are. WALL-E longs for connection with others. He recognizes his limits (indeed, we begin to see WALL-E as human), and faithfully goes about his daily rituals always mindful of his need for sun and protection from storms. And when he begins to interact with humans eventually in the film, we find that he is the one teaching them how to be human again.

Slowly, but surely, most of us have become like the humans in WALL-E (Eighty-seven percent of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones according to one account). We have become a constantly distracted people, often unaware of how much we have lost connection with others. The scenes at the dinner table in the Will Ferrell-PSA clips are not uncommon for many of us, and we all feel the effects that screens and devices have upon our lives and relationships. We desire to connect with others, but we often succumb to the temporary connections and dopamine hits we get with our devices. And as Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas has argued in Being as Communion, these experiences of separation and disconnect have resulted for all of us—a loss of personhood.

In Advent, we await, and in Christmas, we find—the God-made-flesh who can teach us how to be human again, and break the bonds of captivity to this empire of technology. The very language that we typically use during Advent is that of connection—“Oh Come, oh Come Emmanuel (God-with-us). We desperately need Him to be here, as the opening of this year’s Advent lectionary from Isaiah clearly reminds us: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” (Isa 64:1) Like WALL-E’s faithful remembrance of his need for the sun, Advent is an opportunity for all of us to remember on our own need for restoration. And our Advent hope is that Christ will come near, as He did so long ago, and continue the work of restoring our personhood.

In Advent, we await the God-made-flesh who can break the bonds of captivity to this empire of technology.
We talk often of Advent as a time of anticipation, of preparation for Christ to come. We are called, in our Advent waiting, to be present to His coming—which necessarily involves discerning those things that are distracting us from being present. And we are called as the church, in Andy’s Crouch’s word, to “rebuild the household,” to rebuild our church communities to be places of Advent hope, where we all can know and be known by one another.

“O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace…”

Malcolm Guite, O Antiphon Sonnet

  • What effects of technology do you see in your community, and in your own life?
  • Does your Advent practice influence the way you use technology?
  • How can the Church engage a culture suffering from disconnection and a loss of personhood?

The Rev. Ryan Boettcher is a deacon at Christ Redeemer Milwaukee and the Administrator for the Telos Collective. He also oversees digital communications for the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others. Ryan grew up in the Milwaukee area, and has a deep love for the city. He is married to Bliss and they have a son, Thaddeus. Ryan and Bliss own their own design/website company, Lemmon Design, and an offshoot company, Modern Liturgic, where they aim to create beautiful, liturgical calendars, prints, and other materials for the church.