The Future is Here: Artificial Intelligence & the Changing Workforce

George Jetson and his family lived in a future with flying cars, a household robot, and other high-tech luxuries. The Jetsons originally premiered in 1962 as a sci-fi fantasy cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera and relaunched in the late ’80s. The Jetsons lived a fairly simple life in the sky with all of the things that we thought the future would hold. Even with all of the luxuries and gadgets that made life easier, George often complained about his job because it consisted of pushing a button repeatedly on the RUDI (Referential Universal Digital Indexer) computer for one hour a day, twice a week. It was too much work for George and his Space Age peers.

In the Jetsons, many of the common jobs that we have today were replaced by computers and robots, leaving humans with little work to do. Is this what the future holds for us as technology continues to revolutionize the workplace? While it might seem laughable to think about computers taking over our work, this concept is a serious consideration for many in the technology field.

We don’t have flying cars or household robots, but we do have self-driving cars that are being tested. Some of us even own a personal robot that is tasked with the chore of cleaning our homes. Technology is growing at such an exponential rate that many technologists are starting to worry about and plan for how these advancements will affect our society at large, specifically as more and more of our jobs become automated. Automation is not a future sci-fi idea but a reality in today’s workplace. The future is here, and we, as the church, need to think critically about the impact that these technologies will have on our lives, especially on our work.

What is artificial intelligence and automation?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an emerging field of technology defined as non-biological intelligence, where a computer system is programmed to accomplish a stated goal based on a set of algorithms or computer formulas. Commonly known examples are Apple’s Siri, Google Home, and Amazon’s Alexa. AI is also used in many distinct fields for an array of purposes. From home automation to image recognition software, AI inhabits a vast landscape and is being used more frequently to automate certain tasks or jobs. Automation is the process in which a goal is accomplished through the use of AI without the need for a manual intervention from human beings.

Think about the emerging concept of the internet of things (IoT). IoT consists of web-connected devices, commonly known as “smart” devices. I have equipped my home as a version of a smart home with certain automation tools that make life easier for my family. From turning on our porch light at sunset to adjusting the temperature based on the occupancy of the house, automation accomplishes pre-set goals without the need for me to tell the system what to do in that moment. I set it and forget it. The AI runs without my help all day and night, monitoring things and completing tasks on my behalf.

Work and AI

So how will AI and automation affect our work? This is a hotly debated question among leading theorists and researchers, but most technologists predict a massive shift in our economy and jobs in the semi-near future. Lower-skilled jobs or ones that require repetitive tasks are being replaced as we speak, and some predict that even higher-skilled jobs will be replaced by AI and machines within the next 20–100 years.

AI is already replacing some jobs we perform because it can be cheaper, quicker, and more accurate. Jobs ranging from manufacturing to data processing are being replaced daily by new technologies using various forms of AI. For example, our factories used to be full of people who worked long and hard hours. Production used to require a high level of human interaction, providing many job opportunities. But today, fewer workers are employed because of the use of industrial robots and computer systems. These have made manufacturing cheaper, faster, and in many ways, safer because they help eliminate human error and fatigue.

In addition, many jobs that were thought to be off limits to AI and technology are now open to automation because of ever-improving technology. Many jobs, such as warehouse workers, cashier clerks, cooks, and drivers, are predicted to be partially if not fully automated in the near future. For example, French officials have already constructed a subway line in Paris that operates without a human driver in the train. An AI interface manages the workflow for multiple trains that operate on the single line of the transit system. This AI system is monitored by one central human controller who can intervene in the case of an emergency or system malfunction. What once took the direct human involvement of many is now being shifted to a single operator.

Certain jobs might not be fully automated in the near future, but many of the tasks that accompany that job will be. Examples included data processing for paralegals, bookkeepers, tax accountants, and personal assistants. Today, you can sign up for an AI personal assistant called Amy/Andrew Ingram (AI) through the company x.Ai. It will help automate your schedule and book appointments for a small monthly rate. This AI assistant doesn’t require breaks, overtime pay, and never asks for a raise (unless the company decides to charge more for their services), making it more appealing than its human counterpart.

The church’s response

The church must respond and think critically about the rise of AI because it will have a massive impact on our lives and those in the communities around us. From job loss to retraining, most of our people are seeing these effects now or will experience them soon, no matter how old or experienced they may be. It is not a question of “if,” but “when?” So, here are two ways we can begin to prepare.

First, we must train the next generation to think critically about what professions they choose to pursue. While a complete AI takeover of the workforce is not likely imminent or even possible at this point, many of the jobs that are currently available might not exist in the near future, or will look very different. We can join the next generation in learning about these changes in order to set them (and ourselves) up for future success. Many schools and colleges are now providing programs and degrees in technology-related fields, such as computer programming, computer development, and mechatronics. The need for these types of jobs will continue to grow as technology becomes more thoroughly integrated into our lives.

Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, gives three questions that I believe are helpful to think about when we talk to our kids about their future careers:1

  1. Does it require interacting with people and using social intelligence?
  2. Does it involve creativity and coming up with clever solutions?
  3. Does it require working in an unpredictable environment?

Tegmark’s questions are helpful because they show that there are certain tasks that AI is not able to perform at this point. The level of intelligence needed to replace humans in these things is probably many generations away, if possible at all.

Second, the church must help cast a vision for work that is more than a means to an end. It is an essential part of what it means to be human. We were given the ability and desire to work by God before the fall, which means work is not a by-product of sin but part of the Imago Dei (image of God).

In a technological age, we might be tempted to seek AI-based machines to work for us so that we have more time for leisure and play. In fact, there has been a rise of robots that take on our chores. From robot vacuums to lawn mowers, these devices can perform tasks for us, saving time and money. But there are downsides that come along with all the benefits of these advancements.

Growing up, I was taught the value of hard work and discipline through mowing our lawn. Mowing over one acre of land was a shared chore between my sister and me. While I would have loved a Jetson-like robot to do my work, I learned about perseverance, the value of hard work, and developing a strong work ethic through the sweat and labor. Simply automating our jobs and life for the sake of leisure misses a crucial aspect of human dignity. We were created to work, not just to provide for ourselves, but to grow us and help us become more like Christ. Work is part of our sanctification, and without it, we will actually become less human.

As the church living in the age of technology and AI, let us commit to casting the vision that work is a good part of creation, and technology can aid us in that calling. New technologies will continue to come and may even perform certain things better than we can, but technology will not and cannot change what it means for us to be a human created in the image of God. We have a choice about the type of future we will inhabit. We need to cherish work rather than teach the next generation that button pushing is beneath us and that life is about procuring leisure with our flying cars, household robots, and high-tech luxuries.

1 Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 121.

Article originally appeared in Light Magazine at ERLC.com

Why driverless cars (and other tech advances) benefit society

You might see a new way of driving hit the streets of California in April. Last week, California became the first state to allow driverless cars the freedom to be on state roads without a human safety driver. In the past, autonomous cars have been required to have a human counterpart in each vehicle to take over in case of an emergency or system malfunction.

Many of Silicon Valley’s biggest firms are deep into developing driverless car systems including Apple, Amazon, Waymo, and Uber. Before this development in California, most self-driving cars were tested on various types of closed tracks and even abandoned air force bases. Waymo, the self-driving car unit of the Google parent company Alphabet, has already logged well over 3.5 million miles of driving on these closed tracks.

Many have written about the potentially devastating effects of these new technologies, from job loss to safety issues. Russell Moore wrote about how the church must prepare to care for those who will lose their jobs and livelihoods because of these advances in self-driving technologies. While these concerns are valid and something we must prepare for, I believe the driverless car movement is a good thing for society and will lead to more human flourishing.

Technology’s display of glory

While many lament technological developments like self-driving cars and other AI-based systems, these type of advances actually serve a greater purpose than just cutting down the commute to work. When God created us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27), he gave us minds and tools to create. When we create new things, including technologies, we are actually imaging and glorifying God. Driverless car technology is a monumental achievement by mankind that displays the glory of God as we tackle complex problems. No other part of creation can dream of a future and then set goals to bring that dream into reality.

Technology’s tangible benefits

Driverless car technology is a monumental achievement by mankind that displays the glory of God as we tackle complex problems. No other part of creation can dream of a future and then set goals to bring that dream into reality.

While I understand the trepidation that many feel with the growth of these technologies, especially around job loss, I am confident that they will benefit society. Through the creation of new technologies and techniques, we often bring about a higher degree of human flourishing. After President Kennedy set the seemingly unattainable goal of reaching the moon within a decade, the space race was on. Many technological advances derived from the space program. From microwaves and food safety protocols, to water filtration systems and digital image sensors that allow you to take photos with your smartphone, space exploration brought about countless tools that have caused us to thrive.

We cannot even imagine what might come about through the development of autonomous vehicles, but the impact will be game-changing for the transportation and economic sectors of our society, not to mention the personal lives of people all around us. For example, I commute at least 45 minutes one way to my office during the week. While I have discovered a love of audiobooks to redeem my time, the countless hours I would gain back with a driveless car sound appealing. These vehicles will also lead to safer roads because of the elimination of human error. In addition, they might lead to greater mobility for those who aren’t able to drive because of medical restrictions.

Technology’s path to progress

Many prominent technology, business, and civic leaders have been sounding the warning signals about these kinds of advances for years. These concerns and fears are reasonable, but we must remember that technology is not a new thing. It has routinely revolutionized and disrupted our society for thousands of years. From the advent of the printing press to the industrial revolution, technological progress has brought about changes that have often led to greater economic and job growth.

Think about jobs that have been mostly replaced like horse-drawn carriage drivers or elevator operators. These are examples of how we’ve adapted to our circumstances and moved forward, following the shift in our work and lives. When factories started employing machines in manufacturing, many believed that workers would be eliminated. Instead, a manufacturing surge took place that led to the creation of thousands of new jobs, with some so new that many had never dreamed of a person performing tasks like servicing machines or maintaining computer systems. Some people even moved out of manual labor into roles that highlighted their abilities as creative problem solvers and thought leaders.

I know that the future of work is uncertain for many of us as we look to a more automated workforce. We must not overlook legitimate concerns, but that doesn’t mean that we should try to stifle technological developments because of the fear of the unknown. While we cannot know what the future holds, we can be confident that as image bearers we will be able to honor God by adapting and growing with our circumstances, using the ingenuity of the minds and bodies that he has given us. We must and will march forward, eagerly embracing the future, even as it shows up in our driveways to pick us up for work.

Article originally appeared at ERLC.com

Emmett Till and empathy: Reflections on my visit to the African-American History Museum

“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” – Mamie Till-Mobley​

Wrapped in a bronze-colored metal lattice, with a structure fashioned after the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture covers 5 acres on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This Smithsonian museum opened to the public on September 24, 2016, 87 years after Congress approved the project.

I was able to visit the museum with some colleagues on a brisk Saturday afternoon last month. Our team had just wrapped up the Evangelicals for Life conference hosted in conjunction with the 2018 March for Life, which turned out to be appropriate timing for my museum visit. You see, the focus of this conference was the dignity of all people as God’s image bearers.

The visit to the museum left me speechless. From the intricate design and architectural features to the uplifting yet horrifying stories on display, the museum seeks to “tell the American story through the African-American lens.” And it does so in a powerful and thought-provoking way.

Through another’s eyes

The museum tour begins by taking an elevator deep underground as you descend back in time to the 15th century and the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. Each level of the three-floor main exhibit chronicles various historical periods in the Americas through the eyes of African-Americans. The bottom level tells the story of how slavery developed from a temporary status not based on skin color, to an industry that ravaged African kingdoms and fueled growth in the Americas at the expense of human dignity. The middle level focuses on the Jim Crow South up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lastly, the top level tells the story of the 1970s through the present.

Through the various exhibits and displays, I learned about the beautiful kingdoms that used to sprawl the African continent and saw their breathtaking contributions to art. I learned how these kingdoms were depleted of their people because an estimated 10–12 million Africans were exported like common goods on slave ships to the Americas.

Multiple displays told the personal stories of enslaved Africans aboard slave ships. As we journeyed through exhibits of old metal shackles and various wooden parts of slaves ships, I was able to better understand the horrors of travel conditions that these men and women were subjected to as they crossed the Atlantic ocean.

While the exhibits and stories gripped my heart, the most influential moment of the entire museum was watching an African-American father tell his two daughters that this was their history and that their ancestors lived through these horrors. He explained to his girls how the Emancipation Proclamation made by President Lincoln freed the slaves in the South. He told them that many slaves found out they were free as the Union army marched through the South, carrying with them tiny versions of proclamation that they would read aloud as they entered plantations and fields. So much of this history was unfamiliar to me.

The horrible truth revealed

On the second level, there is a small room tucked away in a corner; a quiet and quaint room. It is the only place in the entire museum that you are not allowed to take photos. There is a security guard posted just outside the room to gently but sternly remind you of this and encourage respectful silence. This room contains the original casket of a 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in 1955.

Newspaper clippings tell the story of Emmett Till, who was visiting relatives near Money, Mississippi. Till and his family were from Chicago but had been traveling to see family when Till stopped in at a local grocery store. While in the store, a 21-year-old married woman named Carolyn Bryant claimed that Till flirted with her. Upon hearing about this incident, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother abducted the boy from his great-uncle’s home and brutally murdered him. They beat, mutilated, and shot him. Then they proceeded to tie a 75-pound weight around his neck and throw his body into the Tallahatchie River. Mrs. Bryant recanted her story decades later.

More powerful than our common citizenship in America is our connection as human beings created equally in the image of God.

Mamie Till-Mobley, the boy’s mother, decided to hold his funeral in Chicago with an open casket. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said. Emmett Till posthumously became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement as numerous newspaper and magazine stories helped millions to see the crime that was committed against this boy; a crime based largely on the color of his skin.

The museum was given the original casket to put on display after Till-Mobley had her son’s remains unearthed for DNA analysis. Her desire was for the world to remember, through experiencing the exhibit, what was done to “her baby.” She wanted others to see what happened because, through seeing what really took place, she believed that it would move people to action. They would have no excuse if they allowed these horrors to continue.

A knowledge leading to empathy

As I reflect on my time touring this museum, I am struck by my own ignorance of the rich history of African-Americans and the stories of these brave Americans. These men and women are integral parts of the American story. Just as Mamie Till-Mobley hoped that her son would serve as a visible reminder of the horrors of Jim Crow laws, this museum serves as a visible reminder of all that African-Americans have suffered and achieved in their rich history. It is through knowledge and understanding that we are able to develop empathy for one another.

More powerful than our common citizenship in America is our connection as human beings created equally in the image of God. This common humanity is shared by all people from every nation, tribe, and tongue and gives us inherent worth and dignity. We were created equal by God, even if others sinfully deny this truth. And this equality is what drives our empathy.

The stories on display at this museum opened my eyes to the horrors that my brothers and sisters have endured and helped me grow in empathy as I learned about our American history through an African-American lens. If you are in Washington D.C., I highly encourage you to visit the museum so that you might learn and grow in love for one another.

Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 3-4, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. Key speakers include Russell Moore, Benjamin Watson, John Piper, Jackie Hill-Perry, Matt Chandler, Eric Mason and many others. Learn more here.

Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Article originally appeared at ERLC.com

What is Artificial Intelligence?

“I can’t help you with that right now. But I am always learning”

My family has a digital assistant working in our home that is incredibly smart, never takes a break, and never complains about its job. Recently, we purchased a Google Home mini to integrate with other smart products in our home, and my family has found some fun ways to use it, especially with our toddler.

My son is learning different animal sounds, and his favorite sound to make is “moo.” We discovered that our Google Home will make animal noises on command, and he loves to hear its sounds. A few weeks back, we asked our Google Home to make a number of different animal sounds, and it’s response to one that it couldn’t find struck me. “I can’t help you with that right now. But I am always learning.”

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an emerging field of technology defined as non-biological intelligence, where a machine is programmed to accomplish complex goals. Popularly known examples are Google Home, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa. But there are far more advanced AI systems than these being used in a variety of applications, such as business, medicine, and finance.

Recently, a set of videos went viral on the internet from Google’s DeepMind and Boston Dynamics. These AI based systems were doing things that astonished most viewers and even many in the AI field. From an AI teaching itself how to walk and jump without human intervention to a humanoid robot doing back flips and crossing rough terrain, AI systems have become so advanced that many are starting to wonder what these systems will be able to accomplish in the future as they become smarter and human intervention becomes less necessary. This is not a sci-fi fantasy. It’s reality.

Not just fun and games

The term “artificial intelligence” was coined in the 1956 by John McCarthy, who is considered the father of AI. That year he organized the “The Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence,” which was a gathering of experts for brainstorming about the reality of AI. In the last few years, the complexity of these systems have grown faster than most believed possible.

Google’s DeepMind created an AI system called AlphaGo that recently dethroned the reigning Go champion. Go is an ancient abstract strategy board game that is played on 19×19 inch board with black and white stones. The game was created over 2,500 years ago in China and is still played by over 40 million people in 75 different countries. The game is extremely complex even though it has very simple rules. It is believed that there are at least 2 x 10170² possible moves on the game board which leads most players to use their intuition rather than rote memory to win the game.

Prior AI was developed using “expert systems” that had not been able to take on a challenge like the game of Go based on complexity. These systems dealt with facts rather than ideas. Examples are IBM’s Watson and Deep Blue that played chess. They became “experts” for a given problem but were not able to transcend the task they were designed to accomplish, meaning they could not be applied to other tasks.

The AlphaGo project was formed by Google’s DeepMind around 2014 to research the ability of AI systems to use “deep neural networks” for learning rather than expert systems. This type of machine learning was new to the AI field because it was programmed to function similar to a human brain. In March 2016, AlphaGo beat world champion Lee Sedol 4 to 1 in a 5-game match. AlphaGo surpassed all expectations for AI systems and helped show what the future of AI might hold. The possibilities are seemingly limitless for what AI is able to learn to do.

AI and work?

We might be tempted to think that AI systems are sci-fi fun and games, but AI is so much more. One example is how AI systems are revolutionizing our workforce through various types of automation and data processing that leads many AI researchers, government heads, and industry leaders to question how we have thought about the workforce and the role of computer systems. Many jobs previously thought untouchable by machines are now on the brink of being augmented by or replaced completely by AI in the near future.

AI systems are being used to supplement, and in many cases, take over entire factories. An AI system is able to do the jobs of thousands of factory workers while working 24/7 without breaks. These systems are often overseen by a single operator and a few human workers that clean up after the robots. These AI-based factories are producing higher quality products at rates that far exceed that of their human counterparts and are doing all of this cheaper, making the company more money. Many people have been put out of work because of these advanced systems, and the rate of job replacement is projected to continue exponentially as AI continues to learn and grow ever more complex.

Many researchers and developers now proclaim that we have entered the “second machine age” where machines can rival their human counterparts in many areas never thought possible.

The church must be proactive in learning about Artificial Intelligence, as well as participating in the larger discussion about the future of AI research and development.

Expendable humanity?

While a complete AI takeover of society is not imminent, it is very likely that within the next 20-50 years we will see society completely revolutionized by these systems. From the workforce to healthcare and art, the influence of AI is growing at an exponential rate. The church must be proactive in learning about Artificial Intelligence, as well as participating in the larger discussion about the future of AI research and development.

Large groups of AI researchers and technology giants are now gathering to discuss AI safety research and how we want to implement this technology in the future. Most of these discussions revolve around the concept of human dignity in light of the rise of stronger AI systems. Topics range from upgrading humanity with machine components allowing us to live longer or perform tasks outside of basic human ability and strength, to how an AI system is to be treated by society as these systems are beginning to function more autonomously. What role should AI systems have in government, military, and business applications? Do AI systems live under the same type of morality code that we as humans have as a society? Should these machines be treated similar to humans with basic rights if they are able to outperform humans in many tasks or surpass human knowledge?

The church has the ability to be a part of these discussions much earlier than most ethical issues that we have faced in the past, such as the horror of abortion. In the 1970s, many evangelicals did not speak out against abortion and its legalization, yet now are boldly advocating for pro-life legislation and caring for women in crisis pregnancy situations. Today, instead of being reactive to technological trends, we should seek to be proactive in these discussions, proclaiming that human dignity is not based on what we do but on who we are as created in the image of God. AI systems and machines might one day outperform us in every type of task and maybe even replace us in the workplace, but they will never have a soul and will never be able overtake their creators in terms of dignity and worth.

AI is always learning, the question is, how will we respond?

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Article originally appeared at ERLC.com

Dealing with my family’s history of racism in light of Charlottesville

My great-great-grandfather is buried on the campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Private Hiram A. Thacker fought in the Alabama Infantry for the Confederate States of America. He died in 1864 at a field hospital in Charlottesville from wounds suffered in a battle outside of the city. A couple years ago, my wife’s family and I were traveling home from visiting family in Delaware when we decided to make a pit stop in Charlottesville in order to see where my great-great-grandfather was buried. Visiting that confederate cemetery and his grave was a surreal experience for me.

My family has always been proud of being from the South. We love the culture, food, and southern hospitality. But standing before my great-great-grandfather’s grave, I felt extremely conflicted. I felt a deep sense of family connection to a man that I never met, but also felt a deep sense of guilt and shame because of the racism and bigotry for which this man fought for and died to protect. The stains on my family’s history are undeniable, but the gospel reminds me that my family doesn’t define who I am, nor does the place that I call home.

Reconciling family heritage with the stains that cover it

In Matthew 12:46-50, Jesus shocks those around him. Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have arrived to see him, yet he proclaims to all that those who do the will of his Father in heaven are his true mother and brothers. This message runs counter to the narrative that many in our society believe. We often hold our family up as the central part of our identity.

When my family in Christ is attacked, berated, and oppressed, I will not stand silent or remain passive.

Jesus isn’t denying his biological family. Christ honors his biological family (John 19:25-27) but reminds us that our truest identity isn’t in our earthly family. He is showing us that our truest family are those who trust in Christ, no matter the color of their skin nor the families from which they descend. The gospel message transcends all allegiances and heritages, making clean that which was stained through the power of the blood of Christ. My true family are those brothers and sisters that have trusted in Christ. That includes those that my great-great-grandfather fought to keep oppressed and enslaved.

This gospel is revolutionizing the way that I think about my family’s heritage and the things for which they have stood. Being a new creation in Christ, I can see that my connections to my African-American brothers and sisters are deeper and wider than a biological connection could ever be. Thus, when my family in Christ is attacked, berated, and oppressed, I will not stand silent or remain passive. I must speak and stand up for the rights that my brothers and sisters inherently have because each and every person is created in the image of God. It is from that image that we derive our infinite dignity and worth, not the color of our skin.

White supremacy and racial arrogance have no place in the Christian faith because they run contrary to the core of the gospel message that all people are made in the image of God and thus, no one race is superior to any other.

New hope in Christ

Recently, I finished a book by Isabella Wilkerson called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. It is the retelling of four different people and their move from the South into other parts of the country during the early part of the 20th century until around the 1970s. Wilkerson interviewed many African-Americans as they retold the horrors of Jim Crow and the racism in the United States. I read of murders, beatings, false imprisonments, and countless cases of discrimination that occurred throughout the country during this era. These stories helped shine a light on our nation’s scars and stains for me in a new way and helped me see the deep pain that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced.

Growing up in the South, I grew accustomed to seeing statues, flags, and battlefields that seek to remember these stains on our nation, and in some cases, honor the cause for which the soldiers of the CSA fought. My home state of Tennessee has battlefields and cemeteries scattered throughout her land. These places should serve as a visible reminder of the horrors of what took place at that time and the division that America continues to experience. My family has been a part of many of these sins, but the gospel reminds me that my hope and identity is not found in my family’s history or the place I call home. My hope is only found in the blood of Christ that reconciles sinners and brings about a new family of people that might not have anything in common outside of Christ.

The gospel of Jesus Christ that breaks down the dividing wall of hostility and brings about one new man through the blood that Christ shed on the cross (Eph. 2:14-16). This gospel creates a new family history for me, one that is summed up in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In light of the events that took place in Charlottesville, we need to be reminded where our true allegiance lies and let these things drive us to stand together as the body of Christ made up of people from all nations, colors, and creeds. We are one family in Christ, and we are called to lay down our lives for our brothers.

Our truest identity is not found in a confederate statue, flag, or even the color our skin, but in the person and work of Jesus Christ who unites all people around the cross, announcing to the world that we are one people and that nothing can divide us if we truly follow after him.

 

Article originally appeared at ERLC.com

10 observations on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the release of the Apple iPhone, a device that has helped shape our culture in many different ways. On January 9, 2007, then-CEO Steve Jobs introduced publically the Apple iPhone at Macworld in San Francisco, California. It was officially released on June 29th, 2007 for sale to the public.

I remember the first time I saw the iPhone in person like it was yesterday. I was a part of a member meeting for our small church plant in New York City. A fellow church member stood in line for hours to get the first iPhone at the iconic glass cube Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan. My friends and I were captivated by it, yet had no idea the impact that it would have on our lives over the course of a decade. Here are 10 observations about the powerful influence of Apple iPhone and smartphone technology.

1. Access to (seemingly) unlimited knowledge

With the rise of the iPhone and smartphone technology, we now have access to more knowledge and information at our fingertips that anyone in the history of the world. We can research any given topic and, within seconds, have more information available to us than we can comprehend in our lifetime. We can explore historical archives and access more works than the Library of Congress is able to house. Using mapping and GPS apps, we are able to plan down to the minute when we will arrive at work or school with real time updates on accidents and hazards. We can listen to or watch incredible conversations between some of the most gifted men and women in the world with the emergence of podcasts and live video. We can learn about news and current events as they happen in real time through social media as we scroll on our phones and devices. This level of data and knowledge can allow us to tackle larger problems with more skill and precision than was possible in the past.

2. Increase in human connectedness

From FaceTime calls with family while traveling to Twitter notifications about current events, we are now more connected as a society than ever before. We receive alerts when our friends interact with us online and can follow along with those same family and friends from across the globe. Even here at the ERLC, we are able to connect with our remote staff via video conferencing and workplace apps like Zoom, Slack, and Voxer in ways that never would have been possible prior to the advent of the smartphone. We live in an age where human connections have never been as simple to establish. We are created by God to be connected. When used wisely, smartphone technology can aid us in our goal to love and care for others as we build community with them.

3. Exposure to the world

We can now “see” the ends of the earth in ways that prior generations only dreamt. We can “walk” among the wonders of the world using cardboard goggles and a phone through augmented reality apps. We can learn about other cultures through ever expanding mediums. We can have access to photos and videos from a host of sources that can help expand our perspective on the world. We are able to share our own experiences and travels with our family and friends through mobile photography and social media using our smartphones. The iPhone helped usher in major shifts in photography, videography, and audio recording. God created us to be a curious people who explore and mature. These advances can help us to accomplish our goals if used wisely and with caution.

4. Exercise and health tracking

Smartphones now allow us to track our health by logging our intake of nourishment and exercise in simple ways. This data is then connected via other devices to give health care professionals and ourselves insights into our health and vitality that has never been possible before. Through the iPhone and other smartphones, we can map runs or bike routes. In fact, years ago, I was able to alert my wife that I tore something in my knee while out on a run so that she could come take me to the doctor. With the rise of this level of tracking and care, we are able to care for our bodies in more specific and beneficial ways by treating problems before they become too serious.

5. Technology is more integrated

Technology has become exponentially more integrated and more compact since the introduction of the iPhone. One of the main selling points of the iPhone when it debuted was the ability to have multiple devices in one. Gone are the days when we carried around our old brick phone, a digital or film camera, computer, watch, notepad, and iPod. We are able to have all of those devices in one. Our phones have functionally replaced television sets and other entertainment devices for personal use. Using smartphones, we can now control other devices through smart home technologies, and developers are finding more and more uses for the smartphone to replace other devices in our lives. These types of integrations can aid us in living simpler lives and being more effective in the work we are called to do.

Even with all of the benefits and good things that the iPhone has helped usher into our lives, Christians must think critically about technology and its impact on our lives. Not all changes or advancements are good for our souls or our society. Here are a few of those dangers:

6. Increased apathy from overexposure

With the rise of seemingly unlimited information, we have a tendency to become de-sensitized to the needs of those around us. We become increasingly desensitized and apathetic to suffering around us. Through our devices, we are able to see the brokenness of our world in clearer and clearer ways. We are exposed to more bloodshed, death, sickness, and sin going on in the world around us. From the Planned Parenthood videos to terrorist attacks and shootings, we are exposed to more carnage and destruction than ever before. It is easy for us to see something so often that we stop engaging and gloss over what is really taking place.

7. Decrease in human connectedness

While smartphone technology has allowed us to be more connected as a society, this technology can also have the opposite effect on us as we start to develop online only relationships with others where we are able to curate our lives for them. We are able to show others only what we want them to see, thus sacrificing authentic community, often with plenty of blemishes and rough spots. This technology also allows us to create our own bubbles and become increasingly self-focused through bolstering our own social media presence and brand. We can easily allow our narcissistic tendencies to take over instead of fighting against our sin alongside people who really know us.

8. Hidden sins and vices

As we have become more inward focused and curated as a people, we also have seen a rise in hidden sins and vices. Online pornography has grown at an exponential rate since the introduction of the smartphone and is now easier to indulge in since you don’t have to have a real interaction with people to engage with it. Fear of missing out (FOMO) and covetousness have grown as we can “see” into our friends lives and desire what they have in sinfully secret ways. The inward focus of our technology has allowed us to separate from authentic community where we share and deal with our sins with public accountability.

9. Loss of privacy

At the risk of sounding like Ron Swanson from NBC’s Parks and Rec, the connectedness and tracking that we enjoy using our smartphones also has drawbacks in terms of our privacy. Online marketers are able to using tracking mechanisms to see where you’ve been online, then place ads for products they think you’d like right into your social media feed. Our online presence is a part of a massive data mine that people are using to “know” us better. This data is even collected through geofencing and GPS mapping technologies. Though we shouldn’t run for the hills or bury gold bars in our yard, we need to know what we’re sacrificing for the societal connectedness we enjoy.

10. Inability to disconnect

In my opinion, the most profound change that iPhone and smartphones have ushered in is the inability for us to disconnect from our technology. Our devices are so connected to us that we find it difficult to put our phones down and focus on what and who is right in front of us. Through constant notifications and real-time updates, we are a very distracted people. In times past, we could turn off our computers and e-mail when we left the office, but now the office comes home with us. It’s even difficult for some to go to sleep because of screen time. We are tempted to stay glued to our devices for work and pleasure in ways that are damaging to our souls, families, and friends.

Ten years has gone by so fast. It feels just like yesterday that I was holding the original iPhone on Christmas morning back in 2007. For such a small device, the iPhone has had an outsized influence in our lives and culture. Technology is a good gift from God that every generation has used in one way or another, but as Christians we know that even good gifts can be misused and abused by our sinful souls. Our goal as believers is to think critically about technology and its influence on our lives. We should celebrate and embrace the benefits, all the while recognizing and fighting the temptations that are before us. There isn’t an app for that.

Article originally appeared at ERLC.com

A hymn that teaches us about human dignity

Most nights, my wife or I sing a short hymn to our son as we put him down to sleep. A couple gave my wife the idea, and we have loved implementing it. Lately, we’ve been singing “Jesus Loves Me.” This memorable little hymn was taught to many of us as little children well before we became believers. It’s a hymn that can easily get stuck in your head because of it simple repetition and lines.

One night after singing to him, I decided to look up the history of the hymn and discovered an interesting backstory. It was written by Anna Bartlett Warner and published as a poem in an 1860 novel called Say and Seal, written by her older sister Susan Warner. In the novel, the poem was sung to a child as they lay dying. The familiar tune was added to the poem in 1862 by William Batchelder Bradbury, who added his own chorus to the song “Yes, Jesus Loves Me!”

As I thought about this simple hymn, I was struck at how beautifully it illustrates two biblical truths about humanity and propels me to value all people, regardless of perceived worth in the eyes of our society.

1. Our concepts of being pro-life and pro-human dignity must be rooted in the scriptures.

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

As Christians, our understanding of God and the gospel comes to us through the Scriptures. God chose to reveal himself to us through the scriptures. They tell us that God created all things (Gen. 1) and that he sent his own son to die on our behalf so that we could live again, even though we rebelled against him (John 3:16, Rom. 3:23-24). The scriptures also tell us that God not only created the entire world, but that he specifically created each human being in his image. (Gen. 1:26-27). We’re set apart from the rest of creation because of this fact.

Humans’ worth and dignity is rooted in the fact that God created us. We were made distinctly different from everything else that God made. This is the basis for the pro-life stance that we take as Christians. We believe that all people are valuable and deserving of our love and protection because each are given the imprint of our Creator God. Warner illustrates this truth in the hymn as she writes, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” She rightly ties the love that Jesus has for all people to the biblical revelation that we have in the Bible.

To root our pro-life convictions anywhere but the scriptures misses the foundation of those positions. Without a scriptural basis for our pro-life ethic, our stance can easily devolve into an arbitrary worth that can shift throughout the generations based on our feelings at the time.

2. Our strength and abilities don’t determine the value or dignity of our life.

“Little ones to him belong—they are weak, but he is strong.”

One of the great tragedies in society is that our value and dignity is often based on our strength, abilities or what we can contribute to society. This shows us in a popular argument for abortion, which reasons that if a child in the womb can’t survive on his own outside the mother, then it’s okay to discard the child, because he really isn’t a human life at that stage of development. The child’s worth and dignity is somehow dependent on his strengths and abilities. The heartbreaking end of this type of logic is now being applied to those outside the womb in cases of infanticide, assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The fault in this logic is that it ties our dignity as humans to our strength, abilities and/or what we can contribute to society. But the biblical understanding of worth and dignity is not dependent on our abilities or strength. The scriptures tell us that every human is completely dependent on God for our life. He is the one who created us, gave us life and sustains our every moment. Simply stated, we are nothing outside of God’s sustaining power, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Bartlett illustrates this truth by writing, “Little ones to him belong—they are weak, but he is strong.”

Whether the person is my 94-year-old grandmother who could barely move a muscle as she laid dying, a 26-year-old tech giant that “contributes” so much to our culture or a preterm baby who hasn’t even taken a breath on his own, scripture teaches that our dignity and worth as human beings is not dependent on our past, present or future value to others or on our ability to sustain ourselves. Our worth and dignity is solely dependent on our worth in the eyes of our Creator God who created us in his image, for his own glory.

Anna Bartlett Warner understood these truths and sought to remind us that the scriptures are the basis for our beliefs in human dignity. Her song lives on proclaiming that “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.” Let this be a rally cry for us as we seek to honor the least of these in a society that so easily devalues human life.

Article originally appeared at ERLC.com

Losing our humanity: Technology’s increasing authority in our lives

As February came to a close, there was a far-reaching event that few noticed. It wasn’t the Oscars, or even the President’s first address to Congress. Amazon S3 web servers went down, which is a much bigger deal than might be expected. These server outages primarily affected the East Coast, but the implications reached farther.

Amazon S3 web servers host many websites and services including ERLC.com, Wix, Apple’s iCloud.com, Netflix and Hulu. These same servers also run many popular and increasingly critical apps like IFTTT, Slack and YNAB. They also help control Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, Google’s Nest thermostat and other home automation functions. While the servers were only down for a few hours, it caused lingering headaches.

As we increasingly become tied to the internet by utilizing tools like social media, cloud-based storage and control, the Internet of Things (IoT) and online entertainment, this outage is a needed reminder of our increasing dependency on technology. As a result, it’s important that we think critically about how to engage with technology. Here are a few thoughts to get us started:

1. Technology is a good gift from God

Modern advancements in technology have contributed great things to our culture and society. For example, countless lives have been saved through the use of medical technologies, such as the ability of an ultrasound to show us life within the womb and light bulbs that can disinfect and kill bacteria in hospital rooms. These advances are just the beginning. In just 50 years, we are able to do things and connect with people across the world in ways that our grandparents never would have dreamed.

The development of technology is a good gift from God and is one of the many hallmarks of being created in the image of God. Human beings alone are given the ability to reflect our Creator by using the things around us to cultivate and create technologies for the good of society. We are able to take dominion over creation and cultivate it for the advancement of society. For example, humans have learned how to harness the power of water to create electrical energy, channel that electricity through power grids that light up our homes and businesses, then use that electricity to automate our homes using the Internet of Things (IoT) through devices like smart thermostats. Moreover, we use technology to monitor our homes on our smartphones from almost any location.

These advances should remind us how richly blessed we are as a people. We should try to take a step back, remember how amazing it is to be part of the technological revolution and worship God for his creativity and provision. After all, he’s the one who has given us the intellectual faculties that are able to create for the benefit of society.

2. Our dependency on technology comes with dangers

While technological advances are a great gift from God, they can and will be abused because we are broken and sinful. We have the innate ability to take the good that God gives us and manipulate it in an attempt to glorify and set ourselves as gods over our lives.

As a society, we are increasingly becoming dependent on these technologies to the extent that we aren’t able to live without them. Our addiction to social media and our smart phones isn’t the only area of temptation. With the rise of the IoT and smart devices, we now have the option to set things and forget about them. We can automate simple things like turning on/off lights at certain times of the day or have our news curated for us by our digital assistants. When some of the Amazon S3 servers went down, some people complained about not being able to get into their houses or workplaces. While some of the situations are comical, I think, in many ways, we have become so dependent on technology that we don’t even see the dangers.

Yuval Harari sheds light on the implications of technology and our dependence on it in his new work, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He was recently interviewed in Wired magazine about this new book and gave the example of someone using Google Maps or Waze for directions. He states, “On the one hand they amplify human ability—you are able to reach your destination faster and more easily. But at the same time you are shifting the authority to the algorithm and losing your ability to find your own way.”

For the first time in human history, we have created things that have the ability to usurp the authority and dominion given to us by our Creator. Whether it’s big data or technology with human characteristics like the ability to learn, we are facing the temptation to give over our authority to our creation and lose part of what it means to be human. Technology, while a great gift from God, can easily devalue and dehumanize us.

Not only are we becoming so dependent on technology that we lose the ability to do things for ourselves, but we are also becoming so connected to our technology that a server glitch can wreak havoc on our lives to a great extent.

So, what should be our response when faced with these truths about the goodness and dangers of technology?

Recognize limitations: We need to acknowledge the limitations of technology and guard ourselves from making them our own demi-gods that control various aspects of our lives and take away part of our human identity. We must keep our minds set on the fact that God is our Creator and Sustainer. Technology should not control us or take away our ability to do things for ourselves, unless it’s something vital to our protection or health. One practical way of remembering this is to take a technology break every once and awhile—totally disconnecting from our phones, IoT and watches. Take an afternoon to go for an extended walk with friends or family, making it a point to remember who you are in light of who God is as you enjoy the display of his majesty in nature. These breaks can help reset our hearts and minds and help us to keep things in perspective.

Seek accountability: Talk with friends or your spouse about how you engage with technology and ways that you can live a more balanced God-honoring lifestyle in regards to technology. These simple conversations can open up areas that you might have been blind to and allows you to have real human interaction undeterred by technology.

As one who loves technology, I’m keenly aware of the need to be wise and think through the pitfalls and dangers that we’ll increasingly face in this age of technology. Internet outages and downed servers are not common, but they provides us with an opportunity to think about how to prepare ourselves—ethically and relationally—to navigate the increasingly complex technological days ahead. Our technology will fail us. It’s not infallible or permanent. We must seek to maintain a proper relationship with it, lest it take over areas of our lives and take away, little by little, what it means for us to be human.

Article originally appeared at ERLC.com

Glory in the everyday: What coffee teaches us about creativity and enjoyment

I remember being at my grandmother’s house when I was eight or nine years old. I was sitting on a bar stool next to my grandfather and eating breakfast—our morning routine after I stayed the night. My grandmother typically went a little overboard on the menu, and that day was no exception. We had bacon, eggs, biscuits and her famous white gravy. We always had our yellow-tinted juice glasses filled to the brim with orange juice.

But my grandparents always had another cup near their breakfast plates. I didn’t know much about that drink other than they had it every morning, just like my parents did. That particular morning, I decided to ask for some. My grandmother told me I wouldn’t like it, and she had never been more right. I thought it was so bad that I added a ton of strawberry milk syrup.

Many of us have some type of memory from when we first had this drink—coffee. For me, it was a fond memory with my grandparents, both of whom I will never again get to enjoy breakfast with on this earth. I wouldn’t really drink coffee again until my sophomore year of high school at Starbucks when I needed to write papers and prep for a test the next day. Over the next several years, I would drink more coffee than I ever thought possible.

A work of art

It wasn’t until I moved to Louisville, Ky., that I learned there was an art to coffee. “The land where the coffee flows,” read the bag of one high-end, third-wave coffee roaster. In Louisville, I was exposed to a slow-brewed pour over coffee using tools like the Chemex or V60. I was introduced to burr grinders and different roasting levels between beans. I learned about fair trade coffee and competitions where people attempt to brew the perfect cup of joe. For these people, coffee was much more than just a pick-me-up drink.

I think one thing is often overlooked when it comes to mundane pleasures like a fine cup of coffee. Often, we forget the artistry that goes into the coffee itself—from the farmer who knows just when and how to plant for the perfect harvest, to the barista that shows off their latte art or their favorite brewing method. Coffee isn’t just a commodity to be enjoyed. It’s a work of art and creativity. And for the Christian, we see that it’s another good gift coming down from the Father.

Our God created the soil and the beans. He created the people who picked and roasted them. He gave the creative talents needed for roasting and gifted the person who created each of the tools that I use to brew my own coffee. He created the owners of the small shops down the street with a passion to start small businesses and love their neighborhoods.

This creativity and art isn’t limited to coffee. Food, art, music, photography and design all have inherent value because it is through these that many people live out the image of God through creating art for the enjoyment of others. God created each of them with gifts and talents that were designed to be used in glorifying him.

Our creative faculties and art reflect our God. He is the ultimate creative and artist. As we appreciate a fine cup of coffee, a grand painting, a perfectly cooked steak or listen to a beautiful melody, we can see the glory of God’s creation and bask in that glory as we worship him, since it’s through him that all of these things are even possible.

Enjoying coffee to God’s glory

For me, coffee is much more than just a cup. Coffee brings back many fond memories. It’s over that cup of coffee that I have had many hard, gospel-centered conversations. It’s over a cup of coffee that I often looked lovingly at my now wife as we studied and talked about the future together. It was with a cup of coffee in hand that I read some of the richest theology I had ever been exposed to while in school. It was next to that cup of coffee that I made life-long friends. And it’s also through that cup of coffee that I’m reminded of the glory of our God as I reflect on how he created us to make things to reflect his glory.

We are often tempted to think that luxuries in life are superfluous. There’s an element of truth in that statement. Do I need to have a slow brewed cup of coffee? Of course not, but I still enjoy it and can worship God as I drink it. The luxuries in life are just that—they are luxuries. They’re good gifts from our infinitely creative God who is glorified when we enjoy the things that he has created.

Our God is a God that reminds us that we are to take the earth and subdue it. We are to have dominion over it as creatures made in his image. And something as simple as a cup of coffee reminds me of the lavish grace from God that I’ve received through Jesus and of the many good gifts I’ve been given freely—like my marriage, friendships and the coffee-stained Bible I carry that teaches me about my creative God.

 


Article originally appeared at ERLC.com

The ministry of being present during the holidays

Some of us can’t wait until the holiday season gets here. Others, if we’re honest, can’t wait until it’s over. These days will be filled with food, sports, and for many of us, lots and lots of friends and family. The different types of people—and various dysfunctions—can be overwhelming. Gathering together can cause a mix of emotions to arise, and all of this often converges at our holiday gatherings around a dinner table.

In these moments, it’s easy to become distracted, detached or even fake in the way that we interact with the people around us. We chalk up these reactions to “just getting through the day” or even justify them as “keeping the peace.” But underneath all of this is usually a false belief about those around us. It’s easy to forget that our identity is in Christ and, as a result, we resort to treating others as commodities during the holiday season.

In Matthew 22:37-40, Christ speaks of the first and second greatest commandments. He tells the Pharisees, Sadducees and all those who would hear,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

All of scripture can be summed up in these two commandments, and they are to drive everything we do as Christ’s followers. But what does it mean for God’s people to love him with all that they are and to love others as ourselves during the holidays? Instead of getting lost in a game on TV, isolating ourselves with the same group of people year after year, or even putting up a facade of niceness in order to get through the day, we should allow the scriptures to reorient our minds and hearts as we prepare for our holiday gatherings.

I have four suggestions, flowing from these commandments, as we think through our time with family and friends this week:

1. Remember that everyone around you is created in the image of God.

When we gather with a group of people, we’ll often gravitate toward those like us. We might avoid some people based on their lifestyles, political views or even religious views. This natural tendency of all humans is rooted in a prideful arrogance that, without realizing it, denies the fact that all people are created in the image of God, thus having dignity and worth.

It’s easy for us to categorize people based on politics, religion, sexuality, parenting styles or a number of other factors. This categorizing of people is not something that Christians should embrace. Rather, we should seek to remember the fact that we have more in common with everyone around us than we realize.

If believe Christ’s words, then we’ll love our neighbors—regardless of how difficult it is—and seek to be present with them during the time the Lord has ordained for us to be together. As Christians, we need to work to be present with those around us, loving those who many might see as our enemies, rather than broken people created in God’s image, who are worthy of our respect and attention.

2. Remember that some are suffering around you.

How many times this season will you ask or be asked, “How are you doing?” These simple, rote greetings are not harmful in themselves, but they often serve as a way to avoid being present with people and engaging them in conversation. It’s wise to remember that many people that you’ll greet this week aren’t doing well. Many are suffering through various trials. Some are secretly struggling with sin. Others are suffering with illness or infertility. Many are going through marital or familial trials. And some are dealing with extreme loneliness.

Your presence can be a means of God’s grace in their lives. It can be one of the many ways that God reaffirms his love for them during this season. Loving your neighbor this week might be as simple as asking good questions, engaging them in conversation, being careful with your words and affirming your love for them in a tough season.

3. Remember that some are rejoicing around you.

Holiday seasons bring out many joys in our friends and family. Many people around you this week will be rejoicing at God’s provision and grace in their lives. Many will be rejoicing about without even being aware of the grace of God. They might be excited about something you don’t know anything about. Loving your neighbor means taking the time to find out what’s going and rejoicing alongside of them.

Simply asking questions about what excites them and seeking to learn more about their lives can be a simple way of loving your neighbor and being present with them. You might even get an opportunity to speak of where true joy and everlasting peace comes from as you interact.

4. Remember that you are called to be present with those around you.

The ministry of presence is not an easy task, but it’s a worthy task for the people of God. This holiday season, we’re each given a gift of being around those who are made in the image of God. We should take advantage of every moment we have together. We need to remember that our presence will look different with all people because each person we’ll encounter is a person made in God’s image, and many will have a mix of emotions and circumstances. By being there, you can point them to the One who gives hope, comfort for the weary and lasting joy. This might be the first—or one–hundredth—step to developing a deeper relationship with whoever God has put in your life.

Regardless of where you find yourself today and throughout this season, remember the first and second greatest commandments from our Lord. You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. And you are to love your neighbors as yourself by being present with them, despite the desire to avoid conflict, difficulty or sheer discomfort. This task is great, but the Lord has give you his Spirit and will provide the means for you to be his ambassador as you love those around you.

Article originally appeared at ERLC.com