A theory I entertain is that we are motivated by what we collect. Most of us (it seems to me) collect something. I have a friend who wanders the ocean shores of Maine looking for sea glass. Most of my pastor friends are collectors of books. One of my best friends had a massive collection of almost 14,000 records before he had to sell most of it when his home was foreclosed on by the Death Star of American Banking, Bank of America.
I collect books and live with book collectors. Umberto Eco has said (I am paraphrasing), a person does not have a library because they have read all the books in it, but because she or he knows where to find the book when they need it.
I still haven’t figured out how to find information on my Kobo Reader, but the 2800 books on there are also part of my book collection. The great philosopher, Erasmus, said, “When I have money, and I have to choose between food and books, I choose books.”
Even if a person has an austere living space, they collect something. They are probably collectors of intangibles. For instance, I used to collect conspiracy theories. When I watched the first couple episodes of “The X-Files“,
I was thrilled I was familiar with the conspiracies in the show. I also collect theological stories, ideas and people’s stories. I try to collect quotes from ‘important’ people (see above). I am a limited but devoted collector of martial arts forms.
In the post-modern, advancing electronic age we all live in, there is one more thing many of us don’t even know we collect. We collect techniques. There are techniques for your personal development – for working out better, reading faster or more comprehensively, thinking more coherently and clearly, meditating better, cooking more healthily. There are techniques for your workplace, from the relational to the practical – 3 steps to managing people for productivity, how to speak to your boss to get a raise, 12 shortcuts in MS Access for database builds, increasing worker confidence. There are techniques for your sex life, raising your children, mixing your drinks properly, investing your money in better ways. There are thousands of books and articles for all the techniques you need to live a better life.
If you spend any time on FaceBook, you know how demoralizing it is when you see something like “You Are Peeling A Banana All Wrong“. Every few months, I have a new reason to take a break from FaceBook, but one of the breaks I had to take was because so many articles showed up about all the wrong ways I was doing my job and the techniques that would help me, a pastor in a rural area of Maine, grow my church into a thriving, sprawling megachurch. As a pastor of a church, believe me, there is always a wrong way to do it, and there is always someone to let you know why you are doing it wrong.
One of my favorite philosopher theologians is a French Heugonot named Jacques Ellul. Ellul was a radical in the best sense of the word. He was a Christian pacifist anarchist, which I find inspiring and so passionately idealistic, I can’t help but agree with him on many things. When Ellul wasn’t writing about theology, he was writing about modern culture. The primary quality about human beings in the modern world, he thought, was their desire to create techniques to accomplish things, to ‘get technical’, if you will.
Ellul believed that this created a kind of steampunk mirage of gears, wires, and metal between us and God’s perfect, created order. He traced this need for the technical and technique all the way back to the fall in Genesis. Cain, the wayward son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother, Abel, is the primary expression of this drive to, and need for, technique. Cain founded the first city and, thus, civilization itself. For Ellul, civilization can only exist on a foundation of techniques, rejection, and violence. Civilization is always in direct opposition to God’s perfect and perfected creation, and our participation in the civilized techniques of the world are at the expense of our relationship with God.
The other great thing I love about Jacques Ellul is that he never gives a solution to this vast, ancient, intractable problem. He just holds up a great mirror which reflects the grand illusion in which we live. As you read this on your computer, or tablet, or e-reader, and I write this on my laptop, we are now completely dependent on the technical and the required techniques of our lives. Ellul suggests, strongly, that techniques turn us into mechanical creatures, and our various electronic devices are not changing us, but rather are merely an external expression of what we have already become -sentient beings who were once fully human, but have now evolved a shell of capacitors, relays, and nickel-plated circuits through which we process the external world.
Techniques abound in our work, our leisure, and in our spiritual disciplines. There are people who are very adept at collecting techniques and then passing them on for us to apply in our own lives – to become better, smarter, more beautiful, more spiritual, comfortable. I have a large inventory of collected techniques for many, many things I do.
I even fantasize how much easier it would be to have a ‘wetport‘ so I wouldn’t have to access Google and Wikipedia and the Interwebs with yet one more electronic device. Instead, the readout would just be reflected off my retinas.
As I consider my work, leisure, and spiritual disciplines, Ellul is an occasional angel, or demon, on my shoulder reminding me to wonder deeply whether my engagement with the activity is overwhelmed with the screen of technique, or if I am seeing through the screen to the true experience on the other side of the technique. The devices aren’t going away. I will always be interested in the newest technique to exercise more efficiently, learn quicker, meditate more creatively, preach more effectively…on and on and on.
But the techniques and the technology I use to find out about the techniques are not the Promised Land –
they are the dark glass through which I see glimmers of that Land, toward which we are always striving.
The technique is not the truth.