Sometimes the most powerful explanatory concepts are profoundly simple. Einstein’s key insight was written in only 5 characters (e=mc2) but it transformed physics, laying the groundwork for the GPS in your phone. The invention of the transistor in 1947 is the basis for the screen you’re looking at and the computers monitoring your local power grid. Basic, simple insights can change everything. But the concepts Scripture offers are only more sweeping in their explanatory power. Here’s one simple idea that can guide your thinking on everything from culture to technology.
In Genesis 1-2, every element of creation receives the same evaluation when the narrative records six different times, “God saw that it was good.” At the end, when all has been done, the narrative concludes with “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”
And then it wasn’t. Eve saw that the forbidden fruit was good for food, realized that she could come to know good and evil and choose disobedience. The epidemic of sin immediately spread across all of creation, destroying everything it touched.
But the goodness of God’s original creation remained. In fact, both cosmic realities remain until the present. Everywhere you turn, you’re looking at a mixed universe—a chimera of good and evil, existing simultaneously and ever at odds. There is a deeply rooted evil in everything you see—the spreading, intractable corruption of the fall. But even sin cannot erase the deep goodness that God put into what He made.
And this basic principle touches every aspect of life—everything you see is a mixture of goodness from the Creator mingled with the corruption of sin. Here’s what that looks like in application:
The first time you land in a foreign culture, your attention goes to all the differences and it’s all too easy to move to one extreme or the other. Some visitors feel like everything in the new culture is wonderful. “I met people who were so happy, even though they’re so poor” is a common and unhelpful refrain from visitors to developing countries. Or worn down by the frustrations of cultural assimilation, others can only see the bad. “They’re so materialistic, bad stewards of money, too up-tight, too irresponsible, too lazy, too busy”—criticisms that essentially boil down to “too different from me.” I’ve heard people try to fix an entire culture without even getting it, or accept wholesale some very tainted things because “it’s just culture.”
The more biblical reality is that culture, like everything else is a mixture of good and bad. Every culture you’ll ever experience, including your own, has some really good things about it—remnants of God’s blessing on all creation. All cultures also have some really negative elements—the results of sin. The task of missionaries and all believers, in fact, is to be aware of the difference. In general, we do the worst job when it comes to our own culture. For instance, consider the arts.
Somehow we seem to stop thinking when we turn to the arts. I can’t possibly count how many times people have dared me to prove that music has the capacity to be unacceptable for believers. The assumption seems to be that as long as it’s categorized as music, nobody’s allowed to even ask whether it might be tainted. From a historical standpoint, this is an odd and rather maverick viewpoint.
The bigger question, from a theological standpoint, is how the arts could possibly be neutral. If the fall of man affected the diets of lions and the behavior of mosquitos, is it not ridiculous to think music came out unscathed, or to assume a priori that worldliness couldn’t possibly taint this medium because somehow it’s essentially different than the rest of reality? Would it not be more responsible for us to think art and music might be the same as everything else in our world—a mixed bag of some really good, beautiful elements, standing alongside the tainted and perverse?
Everyone agrees that technology is changing our culture quickly. We just disagree about whether or not the changes are good. To some, technology is destroying our ability to think, read, and do much of anything for ourselves. To others, it’s democratizing information, recasting our society into a true meritocracy. For some, discarded technology and mass industry will destroy the planet while others see it as the hope for our future.
But a more biblical and balanced view recognizes that these are aspects of both. The truth is, technology has improved your quality of life. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be using it. But it’s hardly a panacea. New innovations bring new problems. Because of the remaining image of God, people use technology to accomplish some truly remarkable and genuinely helpful things. Because of the sin in their hearts, they also use it to extend their rebellion against the Creator. Culture realities emerging in 2015 go back to deep theological truths revealed in the first days of the world’s existence.
There is of course an element of futility to all of work. This is the thorns and thistles that God warned of at the fall. But somehow we tend only to see that, viewing work as the purgatory we endure to get to the good stuff—relaxing on the weekends.
Rather, in spite of the frustration, we were in fact made to work, and it’s part of the blessing of God’s image in man. Work carries both joy and frustration; both blessing and curse.
The ultimate hope for culture, the arts, technology and work is also a story told in Genesis 1-3. Someday, the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). In short, the hybrid, mixed nature of life as we know it is only a temporary reality. Jesus will restore all of existence to what it should have been. This, and nothing else, is the true hope of humanity and the hope of Creation itself.