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Putting a Leash on Leviathan(?)

June 27, 2011

“Putting a Leash on Leviathan(?)”Job 28:1-28; 38:1-21; 41:1-11 © 6/26/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s the end of the 15th century, and a technological and communication revolution is going on. Gutenberg had invented the printing press in the previous century, and it had been spreading throughout Europe. The Bible could now be translated into local languages, and people could read for themselves what it said, instead of relying on the Church. There was a flood of literature, much of it only fair in quality. Clay Shirky writes: “[Common language] versions of the Bible and distracting secular writings fueled religious unrest and civic confusion, leading to claims that the printing press, if not controlled, would lead to chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life” (“Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” ).

In other words, the printing press was a Leviathan, the mythical sea monster known from both Canaanite and Hebrew culture in the ancient world. This creature was said to have seven heads, breathe out fire and smoke, and embody chaos. Its name means “twisting one,” something writhing that you can’t quite get a hold on. If only you could tether it somehow and keep it under control, it wouldn’t be able to do its damage.

Today it’s the Internet that’s become the Leviathan.

Some worry it will make young people stupid or that’s there too much throwaway and wrong material online. One sociologist is concerned that the Internet “contributes to disorders such as dissociation, grandiosity, narcissism, attention-deficit disorder, violence, infantile regression, lack of im­pulse control and failure of individuation. It leads to relational disasters, ignorance, polarization, security breaches and attacks on privacy. And to make things worse, it seems to be addictive” ( ; book review by LaVonne Neff, April 18, 2011).

Be that as it may, we have come to depend completely on the Internet and other technology, like laptops and pads, cell phones, HDTV, and an array of medical and military devices. We set up our bills on auto-pay, make reservations, manage money, get our news all on the Internet. We stay connected and informed about the smallest detail of our friends’ lives through Facebook and Twitter or even old-fashioned email. A 30-something bride at a wedding we attended not too long ago was tweeting as she was walking down the aisle, as was the groom as he waited. Apps on our phones guide us to the best restaurants or check us in to our flights, GPS devices are our companions on the road, Kindle and similar readers make a bid to replace printed books. The first place people look now for information about a business or a church is the Internet, not the phone book. Our language has even changed because of technology. A cookie is now not only something tasty we have with milk; an icon is no longer merely a religious artifact. And we have for at least a decade regarded “Facebook” as a verb, as in “Facebook me,” as well as using “google” as a synonym for “search on the Internet.”

It’s hard to imagine a world without the kinds of technological tools we now employ every day, and indeed, those under 25 cannot imagine such a world. They have no memory of a day without cell phones, computers, TVs, the Internet or video games. Even those of us who will never see emerging adulthood again, and who remember having only a landline for a phone or a typewriter for a word processor may wonder with professor Barbara Brown Taylor what we did back in the day with all the time we now spend online (“Before Computers,” The Christian Century, July 13, 2010: 35). Or at least we ask what we did before microwave ovens. We have all come to assume that not only is today’s tech a pretty good thing by and large, but that tomorrow’s will be even better. Smaller, cheaper, more intuitive, faster. As someone has put it, “[t]echnology is now a ‘constitutive aspect of modern humanity.’ In other words, in the boardroom, in church meetings, at the doctor’s office, at sporting events, in movie theaters and even during such everyday activities as eating, we presume the use of technology—and that the future holds even more technology” (Jana M. Bennett, review of Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, The Christian Century, March 8, 2011: 38).

So what would the authors of Job think of all this? Would they want us to leash Leviathan or at least try to hook a restraint to it, avoiding if we can all the virtual and digital fire and smoke and fangs? What would the writer of the poem of Job 28 say about the level of human achievement and the multitude of discoveries and the products of our ingenuity that continue to awe and help and yes, even hurt, us and our neighbors? How are we as faithful people committed to our sovereign Creator to think about and regard technology like the Internet or computers or the ever-present cell phone?

First of all, we can say that the wisdom teacher of Job 28 recognizes and celebrates what humankind can do and has done. He is no Luddite, opposed to technology. He applauds using it to find and make useful things.

The specific example the poet uses is mining for various metals, an astounding feat of engineering then and now. In that ancient day, of course, everything had to be done by hand and without electricity or explosives. That people could hollow out a shaft without drills and bring up the ore in baskets, then refine it, is truly astounding. The poet clearly respects the skill and daring of these workers.

In the speech from the whirlwind, God challenges Job to live up to his full human potential. He tells him to “hitch up his pants like a man” as we would say. One of the characters in the book says that humans are little more than worms, and a good bit of our theology has followed suit. “Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” Those were the original words of Isaac Watt’s hymn “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?” But the poets of the whirlwind speech and of Job 28 reject such a low estimate of humanity. God considers Job a worthy conversation partner; Job simply needs to learn a thing or two about the real issues and structure of the universe. It’s beyond his imagination and his control. And Job 28 does not dismiss human achievement simply because, having found precious metals or put probes into space, we still fail to find the dwelling place of wisdom. These texts won’t let us off the hook of fulfilling the responsibilities and embracing the privilege of all we’re called and created to be. As Walter Brueggemann put it years ago, we are God’s trusted creatures (In Man We Trust).

Having said that, though, both the author of Job 28 and the writer of God’s whirlwind speech would say that there are limits to what humans can do. That’s because no matter how much we learn, how much we discover, we can never know everything or know and remember it perfectly and for all time. We have great skills and amazing brains, but we remain creatures, made by one who creates but is not created. That means that in our very DNA we are limited. As Hamlet famously said to a friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And that indeed is the point of the biblical writers. No one but God knows where wisdom can be found. We still must sit mute and in humility while the Creator roars his challenges from the whirlwind. And indeed, we cannot put a leash on Leviathan, before whom even the gods are afraid or driven insane. We may create and access and control technologies like the Internet or harness the atom for good or ill, but the elemental powers of the cosmos are beyond our grasp. Most of the universe, made up of dark matter, we can’t even see; we can’t control the weather or what might come zooming in from the Oort Cloud. We can discover, but barely understand, weird phenomena like quantum entanglement or that there are organisms on Earth whose DNA is based on arsenic, not phosphorus (see Time special issue 100 New Scientific Discoveries).

So there is no place for our arrogance. Science is not an exercise in exalting ourselves, but in constantly rediscovering ourselves. The late biologist, researcher, and physician Lewis Thomas wrote 30 years ago that the scientific endeavor, which of course includes technology, is “not, as is sometimes thought, a way of building a solid, indestructible body of immutable truth…. Science is not like that at all: it keeps changing, shifting, revising, discovering that it was wrong and then heaving itself explosively apart to redesign everything. It is a living thing, a celebration of human fallibility. At its very best, it is rather like an embryo…. We are in trouble if we are persuaded we know everything” (“On the Uncertainty of Science”).

Instead of using technology to exalt ourselves or destroy our neighbors or the earth, we are called to use it in three important ways. First, we are summoned to use it to care for others in our global neighborhood. Living Waters for the World is a fine example of how appropriate technologies can be used to make life better. If you’ve ever seen one of their systems, it’s modular and adaptable to the specific needs of the location. It will fit on a board mounted to a wall in a hospital, village center or school. There’s a filter, a microfilter, and a UV or an ozone disinfection component to get rid of bacteria in the water. Living Waters systems can treat a tank of 300 gallons at a cost of about $3000 for the hardware. Operational costs, including replacement parts but excluding labor per 100,000 gallons are a half cent to one cent per gallon. This is sustainable tech for villages and rural areas
( ).

So, we use sustainable, appropriate technology to care for our neighbors. Second, we use technology to be good stewards of creation. Take a common example: electric cars. Time magazine reported in a recent special issue that “the planet will be the real winner regardless of which country emerges first in electrics. Electricity is far cheaper than the cheapest oil—plug-ins generally run on the equivalent of 75 cents a gallon.” Switching to plug-ins, the article goes on, will reduce greenhouse gases even if the electricity is generated by coal. On another front, Google has a new technology called “Earth Engine” which will monitor changes in the planet’s environment, like forests. The project’s chief engineer Rebecca Moore says its purpose is to create a “living, breathing model of the Earth” with all the data available.

But not only do we use tech to care for our neighbors and for the planet we share. We can and do use technology to bring meaning and help us find wisdom. Whatever tech people use or invent, they will still be made by and for God, with a deep spiritual longing. Josh Carney, a Baptist pastor in Waco, Texas, says: “As the world changes, people don’t. Folks do lots of things they didn’t do ten years ago: carry iPhones, send Facebook messages, buy fuel-efficient cars. But people are hurt the same way and need the gospel the same way they did ten years, 100 years or even 2,000 years ago” ( ).

Landon Whitsitt is the tech-savvy, 30-something vice-moderator of the most recent General Assembly of our denomination. In a video posted on his blog, Whitsitt reflects on the use of technology in the church. He insists that we use it correctly, by which he means to do mission, to connect with people. Here is a statement that may shock us: “Young kids don’t care about having a screen in the sanctuary. They want us to offer them something life-giving, a way to connect to God. If you can do that and employ tech in the process, they will love it” ( ).

Arianna Huffington wrote recently on the Huffington Post about the maturity of the Internet. Her comments seem almost like a response to the poet of Job. “The Internet,” she says, “is no longer a ‘virtual’ public space where we have the semblance of connection–it’s a real public space where we really connect.

“Remember all those scary movies about how humans were going to become machines in the future? Well, as it turned out, the machines ended up enabling us to be more human instead.

“The Internet of the future, the mature, grown-up Internet, has the potential to take what’s best about the human experience–our passion, our knowledge, our desire to connect–and channel it into an online experience that truly resonates with how people live.

“The bridge to this more connected, more human future is to be found in directing our energy and resources to the foundational pillars of trust, authenticity and engagement–principles that can help all of us navigate the world, whether it’s the real world or the World Wide Web.”

Where can wisdom be found? We’re not there yet, and we are still wrestling with Leviathan. But Huffington ends her piece with a surprising comment: “So now that the Internet has arrived at adulthood, the next stage will be what we euphemistically call the Golden Years. That Internet won’t have the drawbacks of our old age, but I’m hoping it will have its main benefit: wisdom” (“The Internet Grows Up: Goodbye Messy Adolescence,” The Huffington Post daily brief 6/17/11).


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