God, the Hacker: Technology, Mockery, and the Cross

god the hacker crucifix

The antiquity of the Bible may lead one to conclude it has little to say about technology. Yet, technology, broadly understood, is also ancient and the Bible actually says much about it, even giving examples of God’s own interactions with it. This article will explore the Bible’s attitude towards technology, focusing on God’s appropriation of the technology of the cross.

Mockery, the Biblical Virtue

The first step is to define technology as an assembly of artifacts and processes that people construct from nature to increase our power in achieving our goals.

Technology can be seen throughout the Bible: Adam and Eve’s clothes, the tower of Babel, an idol crafted from wood, David’s sling, money, et al. These man-made artifacts were constructed from nature and increased someone’s power in achieving a goal. For example, money increases our productivity in exchanging value, while an idol is meant to increase our power over the cosmos (an overhyped gadget if there ever was one). Further, technologies are typically assemblies of sub-technologies, which in turn can be processes or artifacts. Lastly, precisely because of its effectiveness at increasing our power to achieve the end it is designed to facilitate, technology develops a pull towards that end that calls for wisdom in restraining it. Money is not evil in itself, but it must be treated with much care lest it control us.

One of the consistent biblical themes on technology is mockery. Sometimes it is subtle and ironic, and other times it is in-your-face sarcasm. Some examples:

  • Genesis 3: Adam and Eve become aware of their shameful position after disobeying God, but their ridiculous response to cover up from their omniscient creator is the first technology in the Bible. They sew fig leaves as loincloths.
  • Genesis 11: People in their pride unite to build an impressive tower that reaches the heavens, with the goal of making a name for themselves. God has to come down to see this great tower, turns their words into babble, and speaks words of promise to one chosen man: “I will bless you and make your name great” (12:2).
  • Judges 3:12-30: Ehud, Israel’s left-handed judge, kills the enemy’s king in embarrassingly gruesome fashion. God grants Ehud success in his mission, who passes the king’s stone idols during his escape (v26). These artifacts, entrusted with protecting the king and his people, just stand there.
  • 1 Samuel 17: Goliath’s impressive war technology is described in detail. Yet a mere boy with a slingshot who comes in the name of the LORD turns Goliath’s own advanced weaponry against him. David is left with four spare stones still in his pouch.
  • Isaiah 44:12–20: The idea of someone worshiping as their deliverer an artifact they have made from half of what they have just thrown into the fire is ridiculed with naked sarcasm.
  • Matthew 17:24-27: The Son of God’s right to enter his father’s house is questioned by men – does he have the money? Jesus lets Peter in on the joke by asking him to go catch a fish with the right change in its mouth.
  • Luke 12:13-21: The rich fool dies moments after putting his trust in the full barns he has built.

Why mockery? W. Brian Arthur notes in The Nature of Technology that we put our hope in technology, yet we mistrust it. Technology thus stirs two emotions in us: pride and fear. We can see pride and fear clearly at each side of a valley in 1 Samuel 17. As Goliath shouts his proud challenge, Saul and all Israel were “dismayed and greatly afraid” (v11, repeated in v24). Into the valley descends a mere boy with a mere slingshot, controlled by neither pride or fear, but filled with hope and trust in God: “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts” (v45). If technology is about our own resourcefulness to increase our own power in achieving our own ends, then it is no wonder it tempts us to pride. Yet the suspicion that our tools are false gods who will betray our trust leads us to fear. Mockery seems to be the Bible’s great antidote to both these feelings. It is hard to be either proud or afraid of what we mock. Mocking our idols will lead our attention to God, in whom we can put both our hope and trust, and who is intent on achieving His ends without our resourcefulness.

The Cross as the Ultimate Hack

God’s ultimate act of mockery against our technology was performed on the cross. It was a sophisticated and elaborate form of mockery with a technical name: hacking.

The cross is indeed a technology, found both at the very centre of the gospel and identifying Christians around the world. It is a very effective killing artifact, constructed from dead trees that God created. The device itself was embedded within a technique of torture and humiliation, performed by technicians who knew both the process and tool. More than a killing machine, it was also a very effective communication technology used to send a clear message: Rome is in charge, fear her power.

Broadly defined, hacking involves the hacker getting inside the technology’s assembly and with a little twist reversing its function. This overcoming of the technology’s strong pull towards its design purpose requires a wise shrewdness, bringing glory to the hacker and humbling the technology’s owner. When a terrorist breaks into the CIA’s website and inserts anti-American messages on its homepage, he is hacking the system. When a protester inserts a flower down the barrel of a police officer’s rifle, turning a killing tool into a life-sustaining flower vase, she is hacking the gun.

God ‘hacked’ the cross by overcoming the technology’s pull towards its design purpose.  It was designed to take life slowly and painfully. Yet God uses it to give eternal and joyful life. It was designed to declare Rome’s supremacy and ruthless justice, but God used it to display his sovereignty and his loving grace. God took this technology, which caused much pride and fear in many, got ‘inside it’, and with an apparently small but eternally momentous act He turned it around. Through this, He would bring glory to Himself, achieve His purposes, humble the proud, and save the humble.

God’s wisdom is on display at the cross, a wisdom that humbles his enemies (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). He uses it to show his glory, love, and justice. God uses the cross to show the weakness of the Roman Empire. The centurion acknowledging Jesus can be seen as a symbolic first surrender of a Roman military leader to this king on his throne. God subverts the human-made technology and reverses its design purpose.

The way the cross was used to mock Jesus at the start of the process (Matthew 27:27-31) and in the sign placed on top of the cross (“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”, v37) suggests Rome’s pride in her power, so ruthlessly symbolized by the cross. The people no doubt feared this device. At the cross, humanity came against God with one of the cruelest technologies of torture we have invented, but Jesus came in the name of the LORD of hosts. He did not fear this technology but rather despised its shame (Hebrews 12:2) and put his hope and trust in his Father (Luke 23:46). On the third day after this taunt, God had the last laugh: “actually, he’s the king of the universe”.

Learning to Be Hackers

How then should we relate to technology? We should humbly but courageously laugh at technology’s boast and shrewdly hack it so it furthers God’s purposes. The following principles are suggested:

  • Shun both fear and pride. When we put our hope in God, we won’t fear technology but remember our almighty Father who watches over us. Neither will we become proud with the power and promise of technology. Hearts humbled by God will know their own fallenness as the real problem in the world. Rather than fixing it, technology is likely to be twisted by our depraved minds into deeper sin and harm.
  • Mock it. Children of the sovereign God ought not to take technology too seriously. On reading that a particular technology will either destroy humanity or bring world peace, a quiet chuckle may be the best response. When we know God’s might and our own weakness, the pompous threat and the utopian promise will sound equally amusing.
  • Be shrewd. In his essay titled The Deceiving Virtues of Technology, Stephen Talbott recommends we both use technology and treat it as our enemy. If we think of shrewdness as wisdom exercised against an opponent, it becomes a helpful attitude to adopt. We will study carefully a technology’s design and assembly to look for ways it may pull us, deceive us, or betray us.
  • Hack it. Rather than naively thinking a blanket avoidance of technology would make us ‘clean,’ our shrewdness will lead to a different and redeeming way of using technology. Indeed, it will lead to small but wise changes to technology so that it empowers us to further God’s purposes. We will devise ways to overcome our own devices.

As an example, these principles can be applied to a technology central to civilization: money. Money is an artefact we have constructed to increase our power to exchange value. It is an assembly of sub-technologies, both artefacts (e.g. paper notes, coins, checks, credit cards) and processes (e.g. anti-forgery printing techniques, protocols for its exchange and lending, quantitative easing). Money is naturally linked with pride, since it is intrinsically a token enabling the trade of human work. As John Piper has noted, money is the currency of human resources. Money therefore naturally pulls us to focus on our own resourcefulness apart from God. On the other hand, a lack of money is a very common cause for anxiety. Mocking money will help us avoid pride in our resourcefulness and anxiety in our lack of it. When tempted with pride, we can laugh at the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), lest we become the joke. When anxious, we can chuckle at the comforting thought of serving a Lord who can produce money out of a fish’s mouth (Matthew 17:27).

The Bible warns us to be wary and shrewd with money – as a dangerous tool to be used with extreme care. There is no command to shun it as an evil thing in itself, but Paul gives a stern warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils”, even leading some to wander from the faith (1 Timothy 6:10). Jesus tells us “you cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24) and warns us of the “deceitfulness of riches” (Matthew 13:22b, emphasis added). A shrewd Christian will know money’s pull and deceitfulness, but will know how to overcome these so as to use it for God’s kingdom.

How can money be hacked? The Bible tells us generosity is the godly way to treat money. Generosity hacks money by turning around its design purpose; from the good we can gain from others’ work to an effective and powerful way to make our work bless others.

Child sponsorship seems a particularly clever hack. Money gains its power partly from the increased reach of people whose work we can pay for, albeit at the expense of the distant and abstract relationship that we can have with a factory worker on the other side of the globe. Sponsorship, on the other hand, increases our reach of whom we can bless with the fruits of our work in the context of a personal relationship.

The same analysis can of course be applied to any technology. Hacking often requires creativity and the strength sometimes to act against the prevailing culture, yet we can remember we have our Lord as our ultimate model.

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About the Contributor

Martin Olmos

Martin M. Olmos
Martin M. Olmos works as Educational Technologist at Moore Theological College, in Sydney, Australia. He has several years' experience in designing technology to support learning. He is passionate about using technology in innovative ways to provide theological education to Christians in the Global South. His first computer was a Commodore 64. One of his proudest achievements is writing assembler code for it which searched for magic squares, even though it never found any. 

Comments

  1. First, I really like the way you frame hacking within Christianity. Sometimes I think this comes across sort of disingenuous or lame…but you make it work. I think most of what you say resonates with me and my approach to art and media. Though, here’s where I think you get it wrong. Hacking, as you say, is certainly creative, but it is also transgressive. When you hack, even in the most banal sense, you’re breaking the rules. A synonym of hack is “exploit.”

    To hack is to break through…I think you understand this, it definitely shines through in the way you talk about the cross as a hack: an instrument of death is hacked and becomes an instrument of eternal life. Though, when you translate your christian hacker ethic into practice you end up somewhere rather normal. Where’s the hack in sponsoring children?

    Now, who would argue that sponsoring a child is bad? Not me, that’s for sure. The only thing I challenge is that you don’t seem to carry through with how radical or transgressive the hack is. Generosity is certainly transgressive in the capitalist political economy. Though, simply sponsoring a child seems like a very tame answer.

    • Hey Matt,

      Thanks for your comment, I thought about it for a few days. You know, you’re the second person to tell me ‘that could have been lame, but …’. Phew! It’d be a shame to be wrong, but it’d be horrible to be lame! :-)

      As I hope it was clear from the paper, money and generosity was just one example of thinking through a particular technology through this lens of ‘hacking’. I hope others can consider other technologies, and indeed further applications of how we treat money. I wish generosity generosity in general, and child sponsorship in particular, was more normal than it is – my own heart finds it very radical.

      I suppose there’s much semantic sprawl over ‘hacking’. Yes, I’d agree hacking is ‘transgressive’. I’d add that it ‘breaks into’ without ‘breaking’ the technology. There lies its ‘cleverness’.

      Thanks again,
      Martin

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