The Tech of the Amish

techoftheamishMany of us could afford a sober spiritual evaluation of our love affair with technology

| By Phil Wagler

I grew up in technological no-man’s land. The plain-living non-conformity of Amish and Mennonite bloodlines and locale shaped my childhood. We had no television in my home until I was nearing my teens. I remember the absolute magnetism TV initially held for me. I watched everything I was allowed. Weren’t the Smurfs amazing? La, la, la-la, la, la…precious memories…I digress.

My parents agonized over that purchase. They had grown up in a religious tradition that banned such worldly things. Mom and Dad had left such legalistic religiosity for a new world before I was born and that new world inevitably meant the blessing and curse of doing technological ethics alone.

In their old community technological rights and wrongs were decisions made by church leaders for the sake of the community. Certain things were permitted (like cars—but they had to be black and radio-less—and tractors—which strangely could remain whatever shade they came in). Other things were forbidden (like televisions and instruments in church buildings).

These decisions were not made willy-nilly or in fear, but designed to balance the need to provide and do good while curbing the corrupting effects of “the world” on the souls of the righteous. The motives were pure, the aim admirable and the fruit at times beautiful. See, for example, the incredible servant nature of these communities, their mutual support of one another and their commitment to live the God-ward life simply and lightly.

However, avoiding certain technologies could not undo one sticky reality: it is not technology that corrupts the human heart; it is the human heart that corrupts technology. And so it was that my first exposure to the technological wonder of the glossy porn magazine came via some who were not allowed to have a TV or listen to rock and roll. How’s that for irony?

I’m now a parent. Today VCRs collect dust next to 8-Track Players and Atari consoles and I’m raising my kids in an iPhone and Wii world. What’s a man to do? Now it’s my parents who have cable TV while our kids endure bunny ears (which at least made the Vancouver Olympics look snowy). We have a cell phone, but not one as savvy as those of my relatives who don’t have radios in their cars. I’m typing this on a laptop, while some of the Old Order Mennonite boys I went to grade school with drive horse and buggies and operate businesses out of their sheds that require the Internet.

So, who has the best handle on this tech stuff after all? Are we all just a bunch of hypocrites? Or, could it be that we’re all just negotiating that treacherous tightrope between technology and theology?

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7).

Technology is ethically neutral in that it has no power for good or ill on its own, but it is not spiritually neutral because we who create technologies are natural born worshippers. While humanity is gifted to create technologies that advance and amuse, the disturbing pattern is how enamoured we become with what our hands create. We are smitten idolaters and idol-makers.

Want proof? Ever tried avoiding e-mail on your day off? Ever watched two people sitting at a table texting all the while avoiding eye contact and conversation with each other? Ever threatened to take a video game away from your teenager? Ever tried to work up the courage to get rid of cable? Ever talked yourself into a toy you didn’t need, just because you thought it was cool?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying technology, the reality is many of us could afford a sober spiritual evaluation of our love affair with technology. Some communal Amish testing couldn’t hurt toward that end: Is use of this going to deaden our souls and close our eyes to one another? Will it weaken our ability to live as a community and be a unique witness to our world? Will it unnecessarily tie up our money in ways that will hinder our ability to be generous?

Will this technology become our god and master? Will its use enable us to do more good and bring God more glory? Should we take some time before jumping on a new tech bandwagon (whether gas, solar or equine powered) until we can think, talk and pray through the long-term implications on our following of Jesus, our ability to be human and on creation?

Those are sobering questions. They are questions we must be willing to ask and keep asking in a world where horses and chariots of a more docile kind can become the tech-idols we never advance beyond.

Phil Wagler is lead pastor of Kingsfield-Zurich Mennonite and Clinton churches in southwestern Ontario and author of Kingdom Culture: Growing the Missional Church.

The article above was featured in the July 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.