All I Want for Christmas

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Who is your favorite superhero?  A few years ago I reconnected with Carl, a childhood friend, who reminded me that as kids, one of our favorite role-playing games was to play superhero.  He needled me because I always wanted to be Superman.  Of course!  The Man of Steel was the champion of justice who was invulnerable, incredibly strong, and could fly.  For a scrawny first grader who sometimes got picked on by the playground bully, those were rather attractive attributes, even if only for daydreams. 

If I were to pick my favorite superhero today, it would be a different story.  You canít grow up to be Superman—you must be born with it.  So these days Iím more attracted to the superhero who gets by on his wits, one who enhances his merely mortal senses and skills with instruments and technology.  His gadgets are always at the ready to get him out of a tight spot.  Sure, even with the technology, he still needs to work out to stay physically fit.  Even with the technology (including some impressive body armor),  he takes a lot of grueling punishment at the hand of some of the evil villains he fights.  But those limitations and struggles make him a bit more human:  a hero with whom I can empathize. Guess who yet?  Thatís right—Iíd pick Batman.  He is a prime candidate as the superhero for a technological society.

Technology is a tool, an instrument to enhance capability.  Much of the attraction of technology is because it amplifies our abilities, making us each a superhero of sorts.  We can extend our vision with telescopes to see farther, microscopes to see closer, MRI and X-Ray machines to see inside.  We can extend our limbs with tweezers to grab small slivers, hammers to pound harder, stilts to stand taller.  Technology not only makes individuals more powerful, but it also makes nations more formidable.  Military inventions have often provided the decisive factor in battle.  Think of the advantage of the crossbow over the older bow and arrow.  Think of the advantage of aircraft over exposed land troops.  Think of the ominous threat of thermonuclear warheads delivered by missile.

Technology is a tool, a means to an end.  Its primary worth is practical, instrumental, and utilitarian.  We value it because of what it can do.  A tool that does a job well is good; a tool that also does the job transparently, so that you hardly notice the tool itself, is exceptional.

Technology is a tool, part of what makes us human.  There are professionals that develop new gadgets, processes, and devices.  However, technology is too important to be left to the experts.  We all have a stake in it:  both the benefits and the potential harms accrue to all users.  Our culture and society is heavy on tech, intertwining government,music, literature, and more with technological aspects.  The technological devices and infrastructure—from tiny transistors to massive bridges—are themselves cultural artifacts.  While engineers might design tech products for a living, we all have an innate tool-making ability.  If youíve ever used a piece of gum on a stick to retrieve a tiny item, youíve invented your own tool.  If youíve ever used a broom or rake to dislodge a toy that got caught in a tree limb, youíve improvised your own tool.  We all have a little Batman in us.

Unlike technology, people ought never be our means to an end.  Treating people as tools to achieve our own objectives is to treat them with disrespect.  As Godís creatures and particularly as image-bearers of the Creator, people deserve dignity, deserve respect, deserve to be treated as ends and not means.  When we use someone, we make them an unwitting slave to our own desires.  Those of us working daily with technological devices and products are especially prone to seeing all the world as a tool.  We easily fall into the trap of assigning primary worth by what a person does.  For example, when you first meet someone, how quickly does the conversation turn to asking what your new acquaintance does for a living?  How often to we adulate athletes for their physical prowess or admire singers because of their melodic voices?  While appreciation of skills is natural and even respectful, if we only see the person for that skill or ability, we have done them an injustice.  We have not seen the whole person.

While we should take care to avoid treating people as tools, the turnabout is not only fair, it is a calling.  When we choose to serve the needs of others, we choose to make ourselves a tool, becoming the means to help another achieve their ends.  Our tendency to identify with our work is a healthy habit if we choose to be tools in Godís hands.  Such service, freely given, is admirable.  Such service is our calling as servants of the Lord most high. 

Mary chose to be Godís instrument.  When facing the angel Gabriel and learning of Godís will concerning a child that would be conceived within her by the Holy Spirit, she concluded: ďI am the Lordís servant.  May your word to me be fulfilled.Ē (Luke 1:38, NIV)  She chose to be a tool in Godís hands, achieving not her own will, but Godís. 

As kids we were always ready with an answer to ďWhat do you want for Christmas?Ē  We had long lists of gift suggestions for our parents and grandparents, hoping for the latest toy or game.  The first Christmas certainly was a celebration and brought the ultimate gift to humankind, but to focus on gifts for ourselves this coming Christmas would be to miss the point of that gift.  God the Son became flesh.  Christ the King poured out his life as a sacrifice to accomplish Godís will.  We are Godís hands and feet, to do his will in this world.  We are his tools. This Christmas, instead of considering what you hope to receive, consider what you hope to be:  an instrument of God.

Naming Creatures

Thursday, December 01, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. Genesis 2:19-20 (NIV)

The story of Adam naming the animals is within the context of God providing a suitable companion.  He creates Eve immediately after this episode in the Genesis creation story.  This short preamble to the creation of woman is itself an amazing tale—the act of naming is the creation of language.  What an astonishing gift, what an incredible act of delegation, for God to allow Adam to name all the animals that God himself had created.  I think this is probably one aspect of God ordaining humans to be stewards of his creation and also an indication that God gave humans an ongoing role in the dynamic unfolding of that creation.

The work of naming has never ended.  Two chapters later, we learn that Tubal-Cain was forging tools out of iron (a natural material) and bronze (an alloy that was an invention of human creativeness).  It isnít clear whether Tubal-Cain himself invented these tools and the alloy of bronze—but the mention of this specific career of an early blacksmith is notable.  Tubal-Cain was unfolding the creation by putting earthly resources to practical use. The new inventions needed new names. Today, scientists continue this work of Adam and Tubal-Cain.  When they discover a new star, a new chemical, or a new biological process, one of the first orders of business is to name it.  Today, engineers continue this same work of naming.  When they develop a new gadget, a new manufacturing technique, or a new algorithm, one of the first orders of business is to name it. 

When developing a new system architecture or electronic component, I have often found it an enjoyable challenge to come up with just the right name for it, one that fits its function and evokes the right connotations, a name that has a nice ring to it.  I think that joy of naming is because it is part of that creative ability that God gave us starting with Adam.  Next time you need to name something, take joy in the naming:  you are unfolding a little more of Godís good creation.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest