Virtually Human: Flourishing in a Digital World
Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas
IVP: Nottingham, 2015
First I want to say that this book is fine. If you’re looking for a way to start thinking about how you interact with different kinds of technology, especially online, as a Christian, you’ll find some very helpful things here. As I read through it, I agreed with pretty much everything the authors said, though in a few places I wanted a little bit more nuance. I also think it’s a difficult sort of book to write, given the constantly changing nature of technology, and on the whole I think they did a good job of being specific enough to be useful, but general enough to continue to be useful for years to come.
BUT, I didn’t enjoy reading the book, and I want to talk a bit about why, because I don’t think these issues are limited to this particular book.
I’ve read a lot of Christian books over the years. In particular, I’ve read a lot of this sort of book, aimed at the ordinary Christian in the pew, addressing a specific issue of doctrine, life or Bible study. I’ve never read one about Christians and digital media before, and given that my job is online, I was looking forward to this.
I was bored. Especially in the first part of the book, I was very bored. As the authors gave their version of a biblical theology I’ve read in practically every book of this kind, I couldn’t help but wonder why they’d chosen to focus only on the creation and fall in Genesis 1-3 and then leapt forward to the cross, as they explained their ‘yes and no’ to technology.
There’s an amazing thing about the Bible, which is that it is deep and rich and multi-layered and complex and glorious. Yet, so often, we reduce it to the same short summary. It’s not that the summary is wrong, just that it is limited. I think there would be a fascinating biblical theology to be told about technology. From Adam and Eve’s first ‘clothes’, through the construction of the tower of Babel and idols like the golden calf, as well as the proper use of technology in building the tabernacle. You’d still get the sense of human creativity and ingenuity, flowing from their creator. And you’d certainly understand the sinful ways in which humanity perverts the use of technology.
So that’s the first thing. I wanted a deeper, richer, fuller, more thoughtful and nuanced engagement with the Bible and technology. Every so often the book hints at more but doesn’t take the time to explore those questions.
The second thing I want to say about why I didn’t much enjoy reading this, is that the writing is (mostly) functional but far from beautiful. The prose is sometimes awkward, as if it has been transcribed from speech. There are far too many questions interrupting the flow for the reader. I don’t know whether some of these issues stem from the difficulty of co-authoring, or the admission in the acknowledgements that the first draft was written over the course of several late nights.
I do think that editors have a very important role to play here. Good books don’t just need good ideas, they also need good writers. And writers need the help of good editors to become good writers.
It’s as true now as it was when Ecclesiastes was written that ‘Of the making of many books there is no end.’ But please could we work a bit harder at making better books, even if that means making slightly fewer books?