October 2021 Feature
Arthur Clarke, the British futurist who co-wrote the 2001: A Space Odyssey film, once remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (a formulation now known as “Clarke’s Third Law”). Writing in 1973, Clarke already had a sense that modern people are attracted to technology precisely because of its ability to act “like magic.” The user does not need to understand how technology works, only that it will work and continue doing the bidding of its human masters.
In many ways, the advent of “Zoom gloom” has upended our relationship with technology. The need to be online continually during the pandemic means that technology has not only lost some of its lustre, but that it frequently becomes indispensable to the point that the servant is now the master. Ironically, the technology that provides instant convenience at our fingertips is also the source of relentless pressure due to the need to maintain our usual efficiency despite a world full of setbacks, restrictions, and lockdowns. So how do we think Christianly about the inability of human effort and ingenuity to solve our problems? While this may seem like a new predicament, the Old Testament offers ancient wisdom for modern people who are buffeted by anxiety when the “magic” of productivity fails.
The first lesson from the Old Testament is that productivity tends to bring more stress than satisfaction. Walter Brueggemann describes the demands of ancient Egypt in terms that are achingly familiar: “Pharaoh’s system of production and consumption had, as its major output, systemic anxiety that pervaded every level of society.” The Hebrew slaves, among others, could attest that the ruler of Egypt needed endless labour to maintain his vast state apparatus. Any obstacle to efficiency was an existential threat, as when Pharaoh accused Moses and Aaron of distracting the people from their work (Exod 5:4–5) and gave them the impossible task of making bricks without straw (Exod 5:6–19). This episode shows that anxiety is not just a byproduct of having too much time to do too much work, but is often intentionally designed into systems to wring more productivity from the people within them.
A second lesson is that it takes greater faith in God to rest than to work. This is not to excuse laziness, but simply to highlight how elusive rest can be for those who believe the creed of modern society that “time is money.” In his classic book on the Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel saw clearly that workaholism of this sort comes from a potentially lethal combination of pride and discontentment: “It begins when man, dissatisfied with what is available in nature, becomes engaged in a struggle with the forces of nature in order to enhance his safety and to increase his comfort. How proud we often are of our victories in the war with nature … [Y]et our victories have come to resemble defeats. In spite of our triumphs, we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.” Heschel went on to observe that the intentional and regular act of stopping in God’s presence liberates us from an unhealthy attachment to the work of our hands. In effect, the act of Sabbath-keeping frees us to remember that we are creatures with a good Creator rather than disposable machines without souls.
A final principle is that inefficiency and unproductivity can even be gifts from God. Living in a meritocratic society like Singapore, the tendency is to see these traits as signs of weakness which human effort can overcome. But inescapable vulnerability of this sort is essential to how God has designed humanity to relate to him. In giving Israel the land of Canaan, for example, God provided a rather arid place that we usually know from the Bible’s descriptions as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (e.g., Exod 33:3; Num 14:8; Deut 6:3). This portrayal was only true, though, when both the autumn and spring rains came (and they often did not). Gary Burge rightly notes, “This will be a land that demands faith. Far from being paradise, this is a land that will hone a people.” The modern state of Israel has solved its water problems by developing cutting-edge desalination plants, but ancient Israel had no such luxury. Geography was intended to teach an impatient people that waiting on Yahweh, rather than Baal, was never time wasted.
In short, the modern desire to automate the world is really not so different from animism—the primal desire to control unseen powers for one’s own benefit, as well as the frustration that stems from the inability to do so. Christians of a pragmatic bent have always been prone to this temptation to turn God into an impersonal force that works for them. Such a reality is what prompted Edwin Good to state, “The chief enemy of faith in the Old Testament is magic,” by which he means the superstition that “the right deed at the right moment, or the wrong deed at the right moment, will inexorably be followed by results good or bad.” Clarke’s Third Law notwithstanding, the “magic” of what our hands expect to accomplish is ultimately a pitfall that is equally characteristic of animists and their rituals as well as technologists and their tools. But as this enchantment with productivity fails, could it be that God is reorienting his frantic and weary children to seek him for who he is, rather than what he can do for us? The Christian’s hope lies not in the end of Covid-19 and “Zoom gloom,” but in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our God in the flesh who is equally at work in defeat as in victory, in slowness and in quickness.
Rev Dr Jerry Hwang (PhD, Wheaton College) currently serves as Academic Dean of Singapore Bible College’s School of Theology (English), where he has also taught Old Testament and Hebrew courses since 2010. His research interests lie at the intersection of the Old Testament and mission studies.