Toward an Evangelical Theological Understanding of Technology, A review of ‘From the Garden to the City’ by John Dyer and ‘The Next Story’ by Tim Challies


Joseph E. Gorra

Article ID:



Sep 20, 2023


Sep 18, 2013

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 6 (2011). For further information about the Christian Research Journall click here.


Book reviews of

From the Garden to the City:
The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology
by John Dyer
(Kregel, 2011)

The Next Story:
Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion
by Tim Challies
(Zondervan, 2011)



Information and communication technology is one of the most consequential powers at work in shaping contemporary discourse, culture, politics, economics, and civic life in the late modern age.

American evangelicals are often producers and consumers of communication media as much as our non-Christian counter parts, whether we are talking about news broad casting, television shows, movies, radio, music, books, websites and social media, or mobile-device apps. In many cases, we are experienced users of the technology, but often inattentive to how the medium shapes not only our messages but ourselves as well (e.g., consider how the values of the Internet as a medium are rarely discussed when dealing with porn addiction). To be sure, non-Christian messages need to be critiqued, but inattention to the communication medium itself must not be tolerated if Christians are to offer a wholistic, genuine, and fruitful countercultural witness. We need theological reflection to come to bear upon our experiences with technology. Otherwise, we will be ruled by our tech-enriched experiences and desires.

This, among other reasons, is why I celebrate the evangelical perspectives of John Dyer (From the Garden to the City) and Tim Challies (The Next Story). They offer a generalist, inter-disciplinary, and beginner-intermediate translation of key sources in areas of media ecology, philosophy of technology and communication, and theology of culture. I say “generalist,” even though they are experts with different specializations to varying degrees, because their presentation is not intended for the tech specialist alone. They write in an accessible style playing to each of their specialist strengths and reputations (for Dyer, from his web development and IT administrator experience; for Challies, from his blogging and “Christian blogosphere” pioneering and networking). While they are primarily engaged in a theological interpretation of technology, they do so with insights drawn from other bodies of knowledge.

A Theological View of Technology. As Challies correctly “experience,” “theology,” and “theory” (Challies, p. 14–17). In their own distinct ways, their theological interpretation of technology is resourced (in whole or in part) by the overall narrative themes of Scripture (“Creation,” “Fall,” “Redemption,” and “Restoration”—see Dyer’s chapters 3, 5, 7, and 9; see Challies, e.g., pp. 22–25; 92–94). But the organization of Dyer’s presentation comes closest to mimicking the specific, scriptural themes above, whereas Challies’s approach is more technology issue/problem driven, yet certainly attentive to some of Scripture’s overall narrative.

Specifically, the following main doctrines underwrite both of their views to some extent:

  1. The Genesis “creation mandate” informs our view of tools, technology, culture-making, and Christian responsibility in the world (Dyer, 46–48, 51).
  2. Human beings are divine image-bearers and therefore imitate the Creator when they engage in creative activity, including language usage (Dyer, 51–54). With allusions to computer functionality and programming, both authors tend to speak of humans in “user” terms.
  3. The “Fall of Adam and Eve” introduced both moral and spiritual evil in the world and the corruptibility of our tools and their use (Dyer extends this discussion in light of how the Tower of Babel, Cain and Abel, and Paul’s teaching of “flesh” teach us about tech corruptibility [cf. 96–97]).
  4. The Incarnation reveals the goodness of human embodiment in contrast to the “new Gnosticism” that being online often imitates. Challies calls this “digital disincarnation” (97–102). It’s the problem of being “mediated” in the world by technology. Here one can hear allusions to Douglas Groothuis’s important work, The Soul in Cyberspace, along with his and other similar articles and reviews in the Christian Research Journal over the years, (e.g., vol. 19, no. 3; vol. 22, no. 1; vol. 26, no. 2; vol. 33, no. 3; vol. 34, nos. 1–2). But contrary to Challies, maybe mediation is more than simply “standing in between” something but also being an enabler.
  5. Because of what the Incarnation means for the value of human embodiment, “community” is more than “mere communication” (Challies, 103); this stands against the sort of “networked individualism” that often besets our notion of “online presence” (Challies, 104–105).
  6. The biblical wisdom tradition reminds us of the importance of reflection, cultivated memory, and moral deliberation and how shallow thinking is related to shallow living; data/information alone is not enough to sustain the flourishing of human life (Challies, chaps. 6–7).
  7. Scripture’s authority is justified in forming both our experiences/practices and our norms/conventions, which stands against the “radical egalitarianism” and the “truth-as-consensus” and “truth-as-relevance” tendencies of the Internet and the user’s experience with search engines (Challies, chap. 8; cf. Dyer chaps. 10–11).

In addition to the above, Dyer’s presentation is further strengthened (and Challies’s weakened) by his chapters 7 and 9, where he seeks to offer a realistic hope for what is to be done with the fallenness of technology: it is to be redeemed and restored. However limited and temporary, “sometimes God uses the tendencies and value systems inherent in technology to move along his redemptive purposes” (e.g., Noah’s ark; 99–100; cf. 140–43). For Challies, is technology simply a necessary evil of some kind? For Dyer, technology exists pre-fall, yet meant to be redeemed as a result of the Fall.

Technology, Culture, and Communication. Historically, “technology” has had four different meanings, including (1) the skill of making things; (2) the study of the skill of making things; (3) the tools used to make things; and (4) the things made with these tools (Dyer, 56–58). Sometimes Challies, for example, shifts from (1) and (3). But Dyer (65; cf. 56–60) and Challies (23) offer nearly identical definitions of technology (they actually credit each other in their endnotes). Their inspiration is from Stephen V. Monsma’s more nuanced definition, which Dyer and Challies paraphrase: “[Technology is] a distinct human cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends and purposes” (Responsible Technology [Eerdmans, 1986]).

Dyer and Challies develop the framework of this definition throughout their books and show the truth of these relevant extensions:

  1. Technology is often “mythic” in light of its use and the lesser perspective we have of our use (Dyer: “It’s the way of life that people think of as normal,” see 25–27).
  2. Given its “mythic” aspect, we often tell different “formational” (my word) stories about our identity in relationship to our technology (Dyer, 33–42).
  3. There are “four layers of technology”: technology as hardware, manufacturing, methodology, and social usage (Dyer, 60–65).
  4. Technological change is not additive but ecological, to borrow from Neil Postman (Challies, 40–42; Dyer, 88–92); its consequences are complex like in an ecosystem, often unpredictable and irreversible. There is both “risk and opportunity” involved (Challies, 35–37).
  5. Technology shifts power (42–44) with respect to how the “advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are not equally shared across society” (43). Yet, technological progressivism still tends to be the dominant paradigm in developed societies, despite inequality of outcomes (Dyer, 145– 46).
  6. Technology is biological, given how our brains and other parts of our bodies can be habituated differently in response to technological use (44–46).
  7. Perhaps most importantly, the “medium is the message” (Challies, 37–40; 90–92; Dyer, 38–39; 117–26). Technology is not itself values-neutral because it has tendencies intended by its makers and further empowered by the values of users; technology can often become an “extension” of one’s habits and outlook (Dyer, 83–88). There is a moral-forming capacity to the technology (Challies, 24–25), which is not altogether surprising when one considers how the desires of the heart are often directed and controlled by technology (Challies 26–32; Dyer 93–97). Predictably so, the problem of technology as idolatry is probably more common than not. This is of great concern for both Dyer and Challies.

But unlike Dyer (cf. 84–86), Challies appears to be something of a “soft instrumentalist” in earlier parts of his book, where he says that our devices are “inherently amoral” 24), since “it is not technology itself that is good or evil; it is the human application of that technology” (25). Perhaps he says this to avoid a technological determinism? Maybe his apparent omission of a theology of technological redemption and restoration orients his view toward instrumentalism?

Similar Perspective, Different Presentations. While From the Garden to the City and The Next Story offer similar perspectives, the organization and features of their presentations are different. Organizationally, Challies’s Part One provides a foundation for discerning and understanding the meaning of technology (chaps. 1–2) and navigating where we are now in the story of digital technology (chap. 3). Part Two (chaps. 4–9) addresses specific issues/problems in light of the power of the technological story, including how “communication” is redefined (chap. 4), how technological “mediation” stands between our identity and the world (chap. 5), how to address the “distraction” (chap. 6), information “glut” (chap. 7), the problem of authority and truth (chap. 8), and what it means to be private/public (chap. 9) with new technologies. Challies’s 204 pages are centered on a framework for discussing common issues (often felt needs/questions). He doesn’t have an author or subject index.

Dyer does not have different parts, but his 192 pages (including an author-subject index) are organized by eleven chapters that weave in and out of a biblical narrative trajectory. For example, his chapters 1–2 are meant to offer a way of seeing how technology is embedded in everyday life, thought, and practices. Chapter 3 inaugurates an account of how we reflect the Creator in our creative activity and culture-making. Chapter 4 offers a definition of technology in light of the biblical theology work and theological reflection of the previous chapters. Chapter 5 addresses how the “rebellion” of mankind corrupts technology. Chapter 6 addresses our approach to the values and morality of technology in light of its corruptibility. Chapter 7 focuses on what it means to “redeem technology” so that we have a better stewardship of the limitations of the values of technology as a communication medium (chap. 8) in order to anticipate the proper “restorative” use of technology, eschatologically, in a new heaven and a new earth (chap. 9). This helps to critique the prevalent utopian attitudes of “technicism” (chap. 10) and “virtualization” (chap. 11).

Perhaps the biggest chapter-to-chapter presentation comparison between Challies and Dyer is that Challies has periodic para-texts, including “Asides,” “Application,” and “Questions for Reflection” (61–64; 85–87; 110–13; 131–37; 154–56; 174–75; 190–91). But Dyer’s book does not at all neglect the need for cultivating personal action as a result of reading his book. Both his “Recommendations” pages at the end (175–79) and his “Appendix: Technology Tetrad” (180–82) are full of important factors and questions to consider when seeking to think and act practically with his vision in everyday life. Combined, readers are treated to what I would describe as a substantial, practical theology of technological practice. John Dyer and Tim Challies’ contribution collectively provides effectual thought leadership with their theological understanding of technology. Pastors, parents, educators, apologists, philosophers, and theologians would do well to steward, extend, and adapt their perspective to their leadership, thinking, and equipping.—Joseph E. Gorra

Joseph E. Gorra is the manager of Academic Programs and Research for Biola University’s graduate program in Christian apologetics.

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