Computers, Networks and the Christian

by John Young
formerly a sysadmin at NASA Langley

I. Introduction

Our world is today undergoing a revolution that is as far-reaching and profound in its effect as the original Industrial Revolution or the harnessing of electricity. It began quietly enough some years ago with a few scientists in a few far flung research laboratories studying physics and some fairly obscure branches of mathematics. They sought for a way to automatically do mathematical calculations with great speed and accuracy.

However, what began as an esoteric exercise for scientists has invaded millions of homes, schools, and businesses around the world. It is even beginning to be seen in some Amish Mennonite homes.

I do not pretend to know everything about computers, or even most of it. But having earned my living for more than ten years working with and managing computers and networks, I have some familiarity with the subject. I have also witnessed almost unbelievable growth in the speed, power, and number of machines in the past few years. Some of these advances are being used for good, but I also see what I believe are great dangers in them, and I feel an obligation to lay my concerns before the brotherhood.

II. Positive Aspects of Computers and Networks

Speed and accuracy are good reasons for using computers. Computer speed is measured in megaflops (mega--million, FLOPS--floating point operations per second). Analyzing large volumes of data per second allows incredible advances in understanding many things, from weather and ocean currents to defects in the human body and brain. By linking them together into networks, pages of information can be sent around the world in seconds.

Computers have revolutionized the printing industry. Rod and Staff uses them in producing books with a Christian perspective. Their writers and reviewers are scattered all across the country, and they use computers and modems to transmit ideas and draft copies of their books to and from the office in Crockett, Kentucky. Corrections and alterations can be made quickly without molesting or retyping other parts of the page. And the cost of electronically transmitting printed material in minutes is much less than sending it by mail, which would take several days.

Wycliffe Bible Translators uses "Computer Assisted Related Language Adaptation" (CARLA). Many languages are multiple related but not mutually intelligible. If the relationship is predictable enough that a set of rules describing the differences can be fed into a CARLA programmed computer which already has a completed translation of a similar language, the computer will put out a very rough draft of the new translation. While it still requires much work to complete the translation, one Wycliffe member told me the CARLA program can cut off as much as five years of time required to produce a new translation for a new tribe. They have missionaries in areas where it used to take five weeks to reach them by mail; now, by electronic mail, they can be reached in hours or minutes instead of weeks. So much for the positive aspects. Every coin has two sides.

III. Dangers of Computers and Networks

For all the benefits that computers and networks provide, there are also serious problems. In fact almost every benefit has an associated problem. Some are worse than others.

While it is true that computers are, in general, fast and accurate, we should not conclude that whatever comes out of a computer must be right. There may be errors in the program that is processing the data. A computer only does what the programmer tells it to do, with the material fed into it.

One area of concern is computer games, which can be very addicting, and a great waste of time. I am disturbed by a number of themes that appear over and over. Violence is very prominent! The player is on some kind of quest or mission, and meets all kinds of adversaries whom he must kill or incapacitate in order to proceed. That, indeed, is contrary to the mind of Christ!

The goal of many of these quests seems to be the attainment of some secret or hidden knowledge or power. Wasn't that Eve's temptation in the Garden--special knowledge? I am troubled by what seems to be references to occult knowledge or practice in many of these games. It isn't always obvious, but it is there much too often.

Another danger zone is the concept of interactive entertainment. The computer tells you a story on the screen with sound and pictures, even video-like images. You can affect the flow of the story, or interact with the characters. Too many of these are pornographic in nature and encourage the player to pursue evil imaginations which he would not think of actually pursuing in real life. The excuse is that it is not really sin, since it is only imaginary. However, the Bible says, "As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he," and "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her HATH COMMITTED ADULTERY with her already in his heart."

The last problem I want to address may actually be the most serious danger: the problem of communications and networking. Just as a computer can be used to send e-mail to missionaries and drafts of Christian textbooks, it can also be used to communicate with people intent on transmitting information that is not edifying.

The now world-wide internet was born in the early seventies as the brainchild of ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency). The goal was to design a communications network for the Department of Defense, with multiple paths and redundant routes, so that it could sustain battle damage and still function effectively. Originally it only connected a few large defense contractors and government laboratories. Today it connects colleges, universities, homes and agencies by the thousands!

Much of the information on the net is good and useful, and at least morally neutral. Unfortunately, the fallen nature of man being what it is, there is much evil information on the net as well. Just as easy as you can access the Library of Congress you can access pornographic text, pictures, and videos.

One fairly recent phenomenon is the explosive growth of the World Wide Web (WWW). People all over the world put up pages displaying their particular interests. These range from fine and edifying to filthy and polluted. And please do not think that laws passed in the United States outlawing certain types of pornography have any real effect. The network is world-wide, and there are things on the network that could not be shown even on cable TV in the U.S.

People have a bad habit of deliberately placing offensive material where you don't expect it. On a computer bulletin board discussing woodworking, you may find a solicitation for phone sex. You are not sure what a selected feature is going to say until you read it. You could click on a WWW link thinking you are going to see a weather map, and see a pornographic picture instead. That is some people's idea of a joke! You did not intend to look at a bad picture when the link said "weather map," but that's what you got, and you cannot "unsee" it.

IV. Conclusion

What is the proper Christian response to computers and computer communications? Should we accept them all with open arms because they can and are being used to further the kingdom of heaven? Should we ban them all because they can and are being used for evil? Should every man do what is right in his own eyes? I believe it is time for the church to study these issues, and prayerfully seek the mind of the Lord about the matter.

The purpose of this article is not to tell the church what position to take, but I suggest three principles to be kept in mind as the subject is being considered.

First, technology is not evil in and of itself, but the natural bent of fallen man is to use it for evil. The evil is not in the instrument but in the man. The instrument, however, gives man's evil greater scope.

Second, God's people need to honor the Scriptural principle of separation (both from the world and unto God) in the area of technology as well as in all other areas. "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, . . . and touch not the unclean thing" is God's command to us.

Third, God's people need to be accountable to the church for how they use all technology, including computers and networks. It may well be that the church may decide that such things may be used for certain circumstances.

IF this is the case, I would strongly suggest doing something similar to what the Hopewell Mennonite brethren did, at Hubbard, Oregon. The brethren who use computers and modems wrote out and signed a covenant as follows:

"I purpose before God and my Brothers to never use my modem to intentionally download or view any file (text or graphic) that is sexual, pornographic, obscene, immoral and/or lustful in nature. I also purpose to avoid newsgroups and mailing lists which disseminate similar material. By signing this covenant of brotherhood accountability, I give my co-signing brothers the privilege and responsibility of checking up on my faithfulness in this area."

While this covenant focuses primarily on one of the problems with computers and their networks, the principle of being accountable to our Christian brethren is always of utmost importance. I have no desire to remove from the church's hand any tool that God would have them use to further His kingdom. On the other hand, I believe that the church needs to recognize the problems with this particular tool, and be sure to keep herself "unspotted from the world."

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