Culture / Discernment / Pluralistic World

When Progress Breeds Problems

Usually we are simply swept along by progress, and hardly notice how the advances in technology and the marketplace actually work themselves out in our lives. We’ve become used to incremental change, as long as it stays incremental. Occasionally we do notice, of course, when the change is too big to slip by us, or when things fail to work as they should or freeze when they are needed or when we are surprised that some latest advance takes away even as it gives. Several years ago I updated my laptop and was astounded to discover the new version did not have a slot for DVDs. What were they thinking? (Actually I know what they were thinking, but their thinking excluded my needs so I had to purchase an external drive.)

Most people don’t usually think of progress taking away even as it gives, but we should because that is what happens. A remote allows you to watch television from the comfort of your couch, yet you must juggle three in the right order to watch an episode of American Gods on Starz. Central heating keeps my family warm through the cold Minnesota winters, yet removed the necessity of my son doing the healthy chores of chopping, stacking and feeding wood into the boiler. Everything is electronic, automatic in my car, yet when anything breaks only a trained mechanic with computerized diagnostics can fix it. My cellphone is sleek enough to be with me constantly, yet now I can be interrupted anytime everywhere I go. All represent advances, all are seen as progress, all are good things for which I am grateful and yet every one of them takes as well as gives.

The Christian perspective provides a lively metaphor for understanding life at this point. It recognizes that in a finite, broken world there is always a dialectic in play, so our experience of things is—and here is the metaphor that is so richly informative—for blessing and for curse.

The concept is an ancient one. When Israel was being formed into a nation by being brought into solemn covenant with God and receiving his law the contrast was placed before them. “See,” Moses told them, “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).

This was not an artificial dichotomy made up at the moment for religious effect, but an accurate reflection of what life is like in a fallen world. At each point we find there is a way leading towards life, and a way leading towards death. Things can be used for God’s glory or misused for our own glory or in the service of some tawdry golden calf. It may not always reveal itself in such stark terms, of course, but we sense the reality of the choice. The new job may be better financially and more satisfying, but it may also require us to spend less time with our family or to move to a city where none of the churches will nourish us spiritually. Receiving news alerts throughout the day may make me more informed, while also increasing my cynicism or despair.

The brokenness of the world has worked its way down into every aspect of created reality. Dig down into anything and never will you come across a section of reality untouched by the fall. We ourselves are glorious ruins, bearers of God’s image and yet sinners. A new friendship may be the best thing that’s happened to us all year, but it will take time and energy that is already is short supply. As the old saying goes, never say Yes to anything without knowing what you will first say No to in order to make the commitment possible.

This is the nature of things as we actually experience it. Seeing life in such terms is thus simply realistic. It prompts us to be grateful for the good that comes while reminding us to be cautious about jumping on every bandwagon that accompanies it. And it provides us a reason to be alert to discover the hidden costs of things that are good, but that take as well as give.

This suggests a need for discernment. To see the good and be thankful, while spotting the hidden costs in order to make allowances. Examples worth discussing are everywhere we look, if we have eyes to see.

Market competition spawns impatience
In a sermon on patience, the Tim Keller points out that the growing efficiency of the marketplace tends to reinforce impatience. He loves one-click shopping he says, yet the competition of modern marketing makes him impatient with having to wait to receive what he has ordered. I’m the same way. If one company will deliver the product more quickly to my front door, that’s the company I will use. I’ve come to believe that I deserve to receive things quickly, and am impatient when that doesn’t occur.

Last week I ordered some briefs, and was sent a tracking number with my receipt. My package has been at a “shipping partner center” (what is that?) for three days (three days!), and I’ve actually considered cancelling and ordering from someone else. A first world problem, I know, but still, there it is.

It used to be that the normal operation of the marketplace helped consumers to develop patience. Each step in the process took time, and we accepted that. I can remember waiting for something to arrive that we had ordered, by mail, from a catalogue. “Be patient,” my mom would say. “It’ll come.” And it did, and in that process I learned to wait. Just today I checked—twice—the tracking number on the package I just mentioned. Twice. As things get faster, I seem to be less comfortable with things that move slowly, even if that speed is actually the normal pace of life in that instance.

As with so many things in culture, the speed of the marketplace comes with both blessing and curse. Blessing us in its efficiency and speed, and cursing us in breeding impatience and a sense of entitlement.

Cell phones are addictive
This is old news, I know, but it’s interesting nevertheless and it’s doubtful cell phones are going to disappear anytime soon.

A fascinating article in the New York Times reports on “a curious bright spot” that “has emerged in the youth drug culture: American teenagers are growing less likely to try or regularly use drugs, including alcohol.” The numbers are down, and of course the question that needs to be asked is, why? What has changed?

Various theories have been proposed and research has begun. “But researchers are starting to ponder an intriguing question: Are teenagers using drugs less in part because they are constantly stimulated and entertained by their computers and phones? The possibility is worth exploring, they say, because use of smartphones and tablets has exploded over the same period that drug use has declined. This correlation does not mean that one phenomenon is causing the other, but scientists say interactive media appears to play to similar impulses as drug experimentation, including sensation-seeking and the desire for independence.”

This is not a reason to throw out our cell phones nor is it a reason to hide our children away in a gated—literally or metaphorically—community with old-fashioned dial phones. We need not be afraid or just react but we should be wise. Besides, the research has just begun—though our faith already suggests that moderation in things is always prudent. The question is what is moderation in this case, and how to instill it in our children.

A fast paced life
This too is old news, but even those of us who try to keep from being sucked into the fast pace of modern life still feel the pull. It’s like swimming in a river while trying to keep away by the current. Even as we quietly float in the shallows we can sense the pull of the current trying to take us downstream.

Yet fast and slow are not merely matters of time, and pace. They also correspond to ways of thinking and life, as we should expect if we think about it.

Carl Honoré in his In Praise of Slowness says: “Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections—with people, culture, work, food, everything.”

The fast pace of life has increased productivity, allowed more people to do more good things in more places, provided activities for children that previous generations had no chance to experience, and permitted me access to the goods and services I want and need when I want and need them. Are those not reasons to be grateful? And the loss of the slow—well, listing what we have lost is a worthy task to fully understand what is at stake.

Being informed leads to unhappiness
Compared to previous generations we have more news and information at our fingertips than the most informed would have imagined possible. We can be updated frequently since our sources are updated constantly and we have immediate access to them 24/7.

Arthur Brooks, who studies and writes about patterns of happiness, has made an observation worth noting. “Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views,” he reports, “being ‘very interested in politics’ drove up the likelihood of reporting being ‘not too happy’ about life by about eight percentage points.” His article is worth reading for the details he uncovers and the suggestions he makes—I recommend it to you.

“Many of us consume political news and commentary in a compulsive, concupiscent sort of way,” Brooks says, “voluntarily subjecting ourselves to gratuitous information and stimuli, particularly on social media. The unhappiness results speak for themselves. A friend of mine—a well-known journalist with a large social media following—once confided in me that there is little that brings him more anxiety than checking his Twitter feed. As he clicks on his notifications, he can feel his chest tighten. Maybe you can relate to this.”

I am glad to live in the modern era, after the inventions of the printing press, the Internet, and inexpensive devices that I can use to keep up to date with the events, news and people of my world. These are things for which I am grateful. But I can identify with what Brooks writes about here, and admit that my mood is affected by the news I consume.

We love to vacation at a lovely cabin that is nestled in the woods at the edge of a lake in northern Wisconsin. This is not roughing it—the cabin is generously equipped with all the accessories and devices of modern first world life. All, that is except the internet, so for two glorious weeks we are gloriously out of touch with what is happening. And when we emerge we always find the world has gone blithely on and not noticed our absence.

Brooks suggests we “pay less attention to politics as entertainment. Read the news once a day, as opposed to hitting your Twitter feed 50 times a day like a chimp in a 1950s experiment on the self-administration of cocaine. Will you get the very latest goings on in Washington in real time? No. Will that make you a more boring person? No. Trust me here—you will be less boring to others. But more important, you will become happier.”

Part of the difficulty here is that no one wants to appear “uniformed,” and so we assume the problem is not in the situation but in our weakness. Both turn out to be mistaken ideas.


1. What is your first impression(s) of the examples of blessing and curse listed above? Why do you think you reacted as you did? With which of these, if any, do you find yourself struggling? 2. What other examples come to your mind as possibly worth consideration? Discuss each one, exploring the dynamics involved and identifying the difficulty we have in dealing realistically with them. 3. Some would argue that technology and market efficiency are neutral, and so it is a mistake to think about them in terms of blessing and curse. How would you respond? 4. In Psalm 1, the ancient Hebrew poet used plant metaphors to get at the notion that life either tends towards blessing (shalom, or a full flourishing as intended by God) or towards something far less that eventually leads to death. The contrast the poet uses is between a tree, unmovable and fruitful, on the one hand or on the other, a pile of chaff blown about by the wind. Read the psalm and reflect in its meaning as a poem. Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. What does Psalm 1, in all its lovely simplicity, tell us about life? What sort of things have you grasped only to find them blowing away from your hand like dry chaff?


Sermon by Timothy Keller, “Patience” on James 5:7-12 (RS 368-09, 8/28/16) available online ( Cell phone from “Are Teenagers Replacing Drugs With Smartphones?” by Matt Richtel in the New York Times (March 13, 2017). Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness quoted in Reading for the Common Good (p. 25). “Depressed by Politics? Just Let Go” by Arthur C. Brooks in the New York Times (March 17, 2017).