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Andy Crouch on technology and formation


WORLD Radio - Andy Crouch on technology and formation

What’s the difference between a device and a tool? How can families steward the power of technology for good? We’re joined by Andy Crouch to talk about technology, culture making, family, and more.

KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: the News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. At Concurrently, we approach the news through a discipleship perspective. We tackle the challenging topics in culture and current events as learners and fellow laborers with parents, educators, and mentors of kids and teens. We consider the whole person, promoting growth in knowledge, attitudes, and action in the world. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes and Amy Auten today.


KELSEY: We welcome you to the conversation. In fact, we’d love to hear from you. Please send in your questions or comments by way of voice recording or email to newscoach@wng.org.

JONATHAN: Yes, we love receiving those questions. And today, we almost didn’t have Kelsey with us because literally this morning she was called to jury duty, was in jury selection, but it ended up not going to trial. And so, she was able to get here in the nick of time. And we are very thankful for that. So, over the course of our podcast, we have a handful of themes that have come up time and again. We talk about technology and the ever-evolving challenge of discipling our kids through social media, video games, and now artificial intelligence. We also talk about culture-making, that we want to be people who steward culture well rather than destructive culture warriors. And, of course, we always talk about family and community. And in each of these realms, Andy Crouch has helped form our thinking here at Concurrently. And so today, we’re excited to have him on the podcast, so we can pick his brain directly on these topics. So, Andy Crouch, welcome to Concurrently.

ANDY CROUCH: Wow, thank you. Thank you. Thank you, very happy to be with you all.

KELSEY: We’re so glad to have you.

AMY AUTEN: So, some background on Andy Crouch is: He’s a partner for theology and culture at Praxis, which is an organization that works as a creative engine for redemptive entrepreneurship. His writing explores faith, culture and the image of God, and the areas of technology, power, leadership, and the arts. He’s the author of five books plus another with his daughter, Amy Crouch. Crouch served for more than 10 years as an editor and producer at Christianity Today. He studied classics at Cornell University and has an MDiv from Boston University School of Theology. He and his wife, Katherine, raised two children and live in Pennsylvania—and he’s a classically trained musician!

ANDY: All basically true.

KELSEY: One of my first experiences of you, Andy, was actually—and I don’t expect you to remember it—but was when you came and led a wonderful chapel at Covenant Theological Seminary, when my husband and I were there. You led it from the piano; you were so at ease. And you really set all of our hearts and minds at ease as we were in preparation for ministry. And just your reminder that the Father makes Himself known. And you did it through your music, and through your words. And so, we’re just so thankful for the way that you have shaped us, and we hope will be such a huge blessing to our listeners today. So thank you.

ANDY: Well, super encouraging.

KELSEY: Well, we want to start off with some questions about technology, as Jonathan kind of introduced, and we want to ask this question about how—or really what—should change in how families engage technology? What changes can they make that make the most difference in having a healthy relationship with technology in the home? So, we’re diving right in.

ANDY: Well, indeed. Well, let me at least set a little bit of context for how I think about this, which is that the home, like what is home for? It’s for a lot of things. But I think the deepest way that I know to account what home is for is the forming of persons. It’s the place where we are, I mean, made into the people we are going to be both as children—because children obviously are at tremendously formative stages of life, just you know, very wet cement stages, barely cement at all at the beginning—but also, the grown-ups also are being formed as much and as deeply in our relationships in our home, as anywhere we are. And so I think of the home as above all a formative environment. And when I think about technology, I do think about formation, but not the right kind because I think that the thing that technology is predicated on—the thing that’s actually designed to give us—is “easy.” One of my ways of describing how the Western dream of technology is “easy everywhere,” that we would love to have a world where all the things we want are the press of a button of away. And you know, when you press a button, it asks very little of you, and it changes very little in you, or about you. So, you know, your question was, what are the biggest changes we can make? And to be totally honest, the more we care about formation in our home, the less technology we will access, I think, in the course of a given day—especially when there is a formative alternative. So, we have a refrigerator in our house, like most homes do, I suppose. And there’s actually basically no way for me to keep things cold, except for the refrigerator, like there’s no, like, I don’t know exercises I can do that if I did them, I’d be better at keeping things cold. I mean, I guess I could go harvest ice from some distant lake in the winter. That was what people used to have to do, right, and haul it back. But I really don’t mind using the refrigerator because it doesn’t substitute for a formative activity. But I will tell you, just two days ago, I was out in our backyard—we have a small, not a large, lot in a small town, but a couple of trees had to come down recently, and the professionals did that part. But that left a lot of wood. And I was out there splitting wood that we will then burn in our wood stove, that we installed at some expense—and it is optional, because we also have a furnace. But honestly, if I can choose the formative activity of splitting wood, and for that matter, teaching my 19-year-old to split wood, which I did a couple years ago—taught my daughter to split wood—she never imagined she could hold an axe and have it actually work—and it did. And it was such a like amazing thing to see my daughter discover the joy of when that piece of wood just falls apart when you hit it the right way. I would rather substitute over and over the formative activities, which are, you know: chopping the wood, hauling the wood, building the fire, sitting by the fire—I’d rather substitute that whenever I can for turning up the thermostat. So, the very broad answer I’ve given—you all can help, you know, help, maybe make this more concrete or take it whatever direction you want—but it is to look at kind of every moment of your day, to be totally honest, as a family, as parents, as children, or by the way in a classroom, because the three great formative environments are home, school, and church or religious community. And in each of these, we should be looking at every moment and saying how could we make this more formative? And that’s going to mean how do we make it more communal? How do we make it more skill-developing? How do we make it more rewarding rather than just kind of easy? And how do we substitute kind of “formative everywhere” for “easy everywhere”? So that would be the very broad way I’d think about that question. Does that make sense? Does that sound crazy?

KELSEY: I hear some presuppositions in there that I think are going to be helpful to unpack—that there is that presupposition in those environments that you have listed, that there is a relational context going on. So that—so church, home, and school, all presuppose relation relationship; it’s relational contexts. I also hear in this idea of formation, that there is an experiential quality to what you’re talking about regarding formation, and that it is something that has an impact on our very wiring, that we are not merely talking about other electronic impulses having an effect on the electronic portion of our being because we do have that—we have neurons, they obviously are going to be fired or chemicals will be produced depending on what kind of stimulation we have. But we’re talking about things that get down to very basic experiential wiring that lay a foundation for greater formation that is in those relational contexts. And then I’d love for you to unpack—maybe there’s a presupposition about technology that’s in there—but I’d like for you to unpack the presupposition about what type of technology we’re talking about when we say technology, because obviously an axe is technology.

ANDY: Well, yes, that’s a very good point. So yes: It is and it isn’t. It’s certainly a tool and in fact, the axe that I have is quite an advanced tool—it’s advanced metallurgy. It’s not a like expensive axe to make; it’s just a Fiskars axe, but it’s actually a very modern thing. Like, it’s way better than any axe my grandparents had access to, I’m quite sure. So, in that sense of high tech has gone into the tool I use. But here’s what I would distinguish: I like to distinguish between tools and devices, and also between what I call devices and instruments. And the device is the heart of the technological paradigm, or the technological imagination. And a device is something that replaces and often displaces human effort, skill, and activity. So, the thermostat that turns up the heat in my house is a pure device. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to become anything to use it. I just have to turn it to whatever temperature I want, and a whole set of systems are set in, entrained by that, that warm or cool my house. Whereas the axe, even though it is, it’s certainly a tool, it’s certainly, you know, a lot of art and skill went into making it. But it requires me. It’s not an electric log splitter. Now, I have thought about getting one of those, believe me, but we don’t quite have the need for it. And frankly, I mean, you know, I understand if you heat all the time with wood, with a log-splitter you’ll get along better, you’ll have plenty of other ways to develop, you know, have formative activities. But the real problem for formation is devices, the things that work by themselves. So, if you turn to another part of the house, the kitchen, you know, almost all of our kitchens now have a microwave oven, and a three-year-old or four-year-old probably can learn to operate it, can find the “add 30 seconds” button, and warm things up. And that’s just a very different experience from learning how to handle knives, how to handle heat, how to handle ingredients, how to break an egg, you know, in such a way that you actually get the part of the egg you want into the bowl. And cooking is a formative experience; heating in a microwave is a device experience. So, my real concern is with the devices. It’s the stuff that does stuff for us. And we love that feeling of “Oh, all I have to do is put this thing in the microwave”; it’s a lot less work. This actually gets around, Kelsey, to the relational thing you mentioned, which is that: Without relational support, formation is difficult. It’s like if I just sent my daughter out with an axe to the backyard—she’s 19, so, she wouldn’t have done anything stupid, necessarily—but it would have probably been a very frustrating experience for her. It was doing it together, it was getting some instruction, it was getting some preparation as well, some tips about safety and so forth, that made it a kind of growth experience for her rather than just a frustrating, and possibly just a dead end, “I can’t do this; I don’t know how to do this.” And in so many things, whether it’s cooking, the dishes, washing the dishes, whether it’s sitting at a meal, if I don’t have relational support to stay in that formative environment, I’m going to choose easy every time. And I actually—it’s embarrassing what I regress to when my wife happens to be, say, traveling for work, or my wife and kids are away, and I’m all by myself in the house. It’s so easy for me to end up choosing the microwave burrito, the tablet that I sit with at dinner to read something or scroll something—like, I regress to the state of consumerism when I don’t have people. But when I have people who are kind of choosing formation together, I can actually stick with it. And so the relational context is absolutely crucial for us to actually grow. And the problem is devices don’t, by and large, they don’t help you grow.

JONATHAN: I love that you’re expanding our idea of devices. Because just speaking for myself, when I think of a device, my mind goes right to the phone, the computer screen with apps, yeah, but even a microwave, even a thermostat. That’s, a great expansion of that definition.

ANDY: It’s and it’s very important because I mean, the screens are a big deal. And the screens, we can talk about that more if you want. But the screens bring a whole new set of challenges, I would say, that we haven’t always had. But this is a much deeper thing. And in the really the history of our society, the history of Western culture—and ultimately, I trace it back to the dream of magic, the dream of being able to do magic in the world, which is largely a misplaced dream, that if I could find the right techniques and secret codes and so forth, that I could just get things done without having to change myself. That’s a pretty profound dream that drove the direction of science and technological development. Because one of the ways I think about this is: Technology is science plus a dream, you know. Science just tells us how the world works. But technology is the application of science to something we wish were true—and sometimes those are very good things, like medical technology that helps to relieve suffering and restore health. But very often, it’s the quest for magic. And that’s never been, especially if you have a kind of biblical worldview, that’s never been a direction that we are encouraged to go as biblical people.

KELSEY: I think that what you’re saying about the application of science to technology, I think it can help pull out a question, or it’s pointing to a question for me about helping us to determine what is a good application of technology versus a poor, an inferior application, or what makes technology beneficial versus not beneficial, if, that is, if it’s better to reframe it in beneficial versus not beneficial, instead of good versus bad.

ANDY: Yeah, or passive versus formative, you could say, or consumeristic versus creative. And this is where—I mentioned this a moment ago—but I find it really helpful to talk about the difference between devices and instruments. So, instrument is a word—if you think about scientific instruments, I happen to be married to a scientist, my wife is an experimental scientist—so she uses a lot of instruments, scientific instruments, very, very complex, a lot of computers, a lot of lasers, in her case. It’s a little scary to go into her lab, because I’m afraid I’m going to lose an eye or something. But you know, the difference between device and instrument is the instrument keeps a human being involved, often with kind of maximal exertion of mind and heart and soul and strength. That is, an instrument, a scientific instrument is used by a scientist, someone who’s really been trained to take all this technology and use it at the frontiers of what we know about the world, to press forward and discover something new about the world. If you think about medical instruments, those are also very high tech, but they’re used by physicians and clinicians. And even, you know, we talked about robotic surgery, there are these amazing laparoscopic surgical techniques, now, that do us a lot of augmentation. But there is always a surgeon, a very highly trained person who started out doing stitches on volleyballs and who has developed this incredible level of skill. And yes, they do now use the robot kind of to augment their abilities, but they’re still making the judgment and their skill is very much still involved. And musical instruments, I would say. So, if you think about instruments as potentially very complex things, maybe very recently invented, but that keep human beings involved and that actually develop us, as my wife does science. She grows in her knowledge of the world and her love for God and God’s world. As I play a musical instrument, like the modern grand piano, which is very much a technological thing—like we couldn’t make those until about 150 years ago. I’m totally involved. It’s not a player piano. So that’s a crucial difference. And, let me just give you one other very interesting example from the world of screens, which is: Which camera is open when you open up an app? So, Instagram, from the beginning was designed that when you open it up on your phone, the selfie-camera is active, the front facing camera, or the “you facing” camera. And so, what does Instagram kind of train you to do? Take pictures of yourself, which is what a lot of people do. And there’s another app that became somewhat popular, it hasn’t reached Instagram’s level, but it’s done just fine. It’s called “visco”—VSCO—and it was designed by artists and photographers, for artists. And VSCO, when you open it, the camera that’s active is the outward facing camera. It’s not facing you. It’s not inviting you to show the world yourself. It’s inviting you to show the world what you’re seeing, and to act like an artist. And the really interesting thing about our phones, what we call our phones or smartphones, is they can actually either be total devices that totally just do everything for us and entertain us, or they can be incredible instruments. They can be incredible cameras; they can be incredible for music-making. And a lot of it is down to what do I choose to use it—like: Which way am I facing as I use it? So more instruments, fewer devices, more tools, fewer devices—mostly fewer devices, in the sense of things that operate by themselves. That would be the kind of goal for our lives at home and school and church, I would say.

AMY: You’ve been really intentional. And you mentioned in a recent talk that your daughter, she said something like she couldn’t be around anything with algorithms. And then you took the bold plunge and got off Facebook. And you also said in a recent talk that algorithms kind of lie to us. They don’t tell us the truth about ourselves. So, I’d love to hear you unpack how you’ve responded to algorithms—how you’ve processed.

ANDY: Yeah, I do. I do give my daughter, Amy, a lot of credit for helping me see that—she’s 23 it now and is so deeply thoughtful about this stuff. It’s amazing. And she got off all the algorithmically driven forms of media. So, by algorithms we mean, a lot of people know, of course, that the real revolution in these little screens we carry around, the glowing rectangles that we carry around, is that we used to watch them, but now they’re watching us. So, with the TV—this is actually not true of new TVs—but the TV I grew up with in the ’70s, and ’80s, let’s say, we watched the TV, but the TV didn’t watch us. Well, now your device is watching you. And it’s measuring and assessing your reactions, mediated for now through your swipes, eventually through eye contact, and you know, it’ll start to pick up on emotion, it will start to be able to measure emotion registered in the muscle groups of your face and so forth. But for now, it’s mostly you know, what do you swipe? What do you touch? What do you click on? And all that’s fed into these incredibly fast-responding systems to reinforce what keeps you engaged, whatever it is. And it, you know, it’s amazing. It’s kind of “general purpose temptation” in the sense that these apps, by and large, are not designed to lure you into a specific thing. They’re just designed to lure you into whatever lures you. So, if it’s Candy Crush, they’ll lure you into that. If it’s porn, they’ll lure you into that. If it’s real estate—like, they don’t care. But what they are doing, it’s interesting, you said they don’t tell us the truth. It’s sort of complicated. They actually see us very accurately. It is scary to me, when I do wander onto one of these algorithmic sites, I still use YouTube sometimes for usually good purposes. But then, you know, YouTube serves up all these things on the, in a sidebar that you could watch next, and sometimes I click on one of those. And the moment you click like, sort of unintentionally, or the moment you take that next step, you’re feeding the algorithm information. It starts to build a list of the things you want to see. And when I look at that compendium, it’s not me at my best, it’s me—and this is a phrase my daughter uses, it catches your most impulsive, your most reactive, your least intentional, your least thoughtful. So, it tells you a kind of truth, but what it doesn’t do is respond to the truth about who you could be if you were, like, pursuing the way of health and flourishing. And, instead, it locks you in this loop of reinforcement—again, whatever it is—and it can be things that are even reasonably benign, that you wouldn’t be ashamed necessarily to be found looking at. But the reinforcing of the instinctual behavior, rather than what actually makes us human, which is our ability to not just be trapped in stimulus and response. The algorithms don’t care about that, they’re designed to never have you think about that, to never have you pause and reflect about that. And it’s in those pauses that the real formation happens. And the real choice to become a kind of person happens. And the algorithms don’t care. And by the way, every generation of social media gets more algorithmic. So, I’m still on the platform that used to be called Twitter. Because there’s a way to circumvent the algorithms of Twitter entirely. I can see only things that I’ve chosen using this feature called “Twitter Lists.” But TikTok, which is the dominant medium now—there’s no way to circumvent the algorithm. It is the algorithm. And it’s, by the way, by far the most absorbing. If people spend, like, I don’t know, 30 minutes a day on Instagram, they’re spending over an hour on TikTok—TikTok users—in an average day. Because it’s so compelling, but not truthful, in the deepest sense.

KELSEY: I’m just thinking about the formation that is intentional versus unintentional, that there is still formation going on, you know, just obviously, not the “becoming” that you are talking about. I am linking those words in my mind, what it means for us to truly become who we are, versus just being formed by something to the place where we’re really bearing its image more than we are bearing our image into it and shaping it. So, I think, so much of your work—and we’ll ask more questions about this in a minute—but so much of your work is about what it means for us intentionally, to be those who shape the things that we are moving into. I hear the difference between “the moving out and shaping” versus “the receiving and being shaped by.” You know, how can we raise culture makers, you know, people who grow up to create culture rather than just consume it or be formed by these algorithms, for example? And also, you know, there’s this other part of it, that we can grow in our cynicism towards what we’re experiencing and become culture-critiquers even, rather than these hopeful shapers of what is before us. Help us think about those things.

ANDY: Well, the wonderful thing to keep in mind, especially about children is they’re not cynical yet. They’re not critics yet. And they are creators. They have a drive to make, and to make for others, and with others. The child brings you the drawing, and it’s not probably a technically very good drawing yet. But it’s the delight of making something; it’s the delight of sharing it; it’s the delight of responding to the world where they draw things they’ve seen in the world that were compelling to them, meaningful to them, often relationships and the created world. So, the good news is, you don’t really have to raise them like, like convince them to be this. You have to not squelch it, or let it be, kind of eroded unduly by living in a consumer society. So, it’s not hard, except that it involves such a different way than we have learned to spend our lives at home, because the home has become a site of consumption, frankly. And this was part of the byproduct of what we think of as industrialization, and then kind of the post-industrial economy. The home which used to be a place where, kind of by necessity, you had to make something of the world. You had to know how to cook. You had to know how to care for animals. You had to know how to garden. You had to know how to make and repair many things around your home. And all those require you to then apprentice yourself to a cultural tradition, because we can’t—we, any individual human being can’t figure out how to do all this stuff, like how do you raise chickens? I don’t. If you just put me with a bunch of chickens, the chickens will all die. Except if I have culture, that means I’ve got a tradition and go to my neighbor or my grandmother or somebody, you know, the chicken store and say, “How do you do this?” And so, culture is this like tradition of how you make something of the world. And we used to have to embed ourselves in that and apprentice to that in order just to make a home. What happened in the industrial and post-industrial economy is we started making so much money, frankly, because there is this hockey stick of just dollar/economy kind of change that happens over the last 150 years because of technology, that we start to be able to just purchase all this stuff. And the home now is a place where the parents go out and work—and by the way, the children never see the parents working. And this now takes two forms. One is either the parent goes off to work and the child doesn’t see them, or you work from home. But if you work from home, it means you have a digital job on the screen. So, a friend of mine, her seven-year-old said to her mom, “I figured out what your job is. You frown at a screen.”

“Oh my gosh, this is what my seven-year-old thinks I do. And it’s kind of accurate.” And I remember my own son saying, “Dad, I know what you do. You type on the computer, and you talk on the phone,” and he did not sound very impressed. So, children used to see their parents—mother and father, by the way—in the domestic sphere, exercising great skill, doing things that children could imagine themselves learning to do and apprenticing to do. But now what happens is: Mom and dad often both work outside the home because you have to make a lot of money to survive in this economy. They bring the money home, or you know, they bring the credit card back with some credit on it, they purchase a bunch of experiences, they’re really tired at the end of the day, everybody turns on the TV, whether it’s a TV in each person’s room—or maybe the TV’s still in the living room—and it’s just a site of leisure rather than creation. So, if you want to raise kids who are going to be culture makers, you’re going to have to reintroduce into their environment, it doesn’t just have to be their own home, skills worth having, excellence worth pursuing. So, there is a role for consumption by the way. And this or that is, there’s a role for let’s say, music that we don’t make ourselves because there are people out there who can make music at an extraordinary level. And so: one of the things we did: We’re very fortunate to live near a major city and there’s an amazing orchestra in our city, the Philadelphia Orchestra. And starting when our kids were six years old, we started taking them to the children’s concerts on Saturdays. And it was a pretty cheap ticket, because it’s kind of subsidized I’m glad to say by the orchestra, and our kids were barely old enough to sit through it. But we wanted them to know what music can sound like, right, even as they were taking their first piano lessons or whatever, or hearing me play even—I am a trained musician, but I’m not at the level that plays, you know, at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. We wanted them to be able to imagine what it can be and see what it can be. So you raise culture makers by exposing them to a cultural tradition, especially at its very best. Giving them steps to acquire those abilities. And this can be food, it can be literature, it can be art, it can be music, it can be sports, like, whatever your family loves to do, and whatever you yourself are good enough to do to get them started. Do that thing, and then talk about it, because another part of culture is not just—because I’ve been around classical music a lot, there is this problem in classical music today of parents who sort of think this is their kids’ ticket, and they train their kids to be very technically good. So, the young people, now, are going into places like the Juilliard School, and the Curtis Institute of Music, which are the top places in the world. They’re technically better than they’ve ever been. But what we’ve lost is that it’s not just about technique. It’s about using all these things we do—the food we make, the gardens we plant, the buildings we build—as a way to think together about what the world means. What’s the meaning of being human in the world? And our buildings are answers to that, our cuisine is answer to that, the literature we read and write, the movies we watch and make. So, conversation is another big part of it—just talking about what was it like to hear that concert? What was it like to take that walk? There’s just—has to be a lot of time for kids to realize they can interpret their own world. And with the help of people a little further along, they can do that together.

JONATHAN: Man, I’m so glad you brought up music again. Because that was something we actually wanted to bring up, as well. So, all of us around this table are lovers of music, play music in some capacity. We were wondering if you could just dig a little bit deeper into the role that music plays in culture making, especially as that relates to our kids or students?

ANDY: Well, I have to say, so I’m very passionate about this and glad you brought it up, and it is actually maybe the one of the most discouraging maybe deltas that has changed over the course of the technological story, which is how little music is now made by ordinary people. When I say let’s play some music, what do I mean? Well, it actually these days can mean one of two things: It can mean let’s pick up some instruments and make music together. But I would say 99% of the time when someone says I think I’ll play some music, it means to press “play,” which is—means to use a device to have music kind of magically appear in my environment, or in my headphones, or my air pods, or whatever. Such that, music which is the original human communal activity—and in fact, there is very good reason to believe we sang before we spoke, that in other words, human language is downstream of human singing—there is, there’s legitimate, not so much archaeological, but neurological and other evidences from the long story of humanity that suggests that the first thing we did vocally was what we would call singing: pitch and rhythm and so forth. And then it—then what we’d now do and we’re talking is unpitched sound. But it started as song. This most elemental thing—and I want to say a little more about why I think it’s so elemental in a moment—has become one of the most consumeristic things. And now many people for, I think, for the median American family, the idea that we would make music together, that we would just gather around, say, a piano or a guitar and sing together, I think for the median American family, that is an unbelievably cringe-inducing and embarrassing idea. Like we just wouldn’t do it. And I get it because it’s vulnerable. And you’re not going to do it in the way that we’re professionals do it ever. Our family: We did train our kids in music, and they started stringed instruments, and I picked up the cello in midlife as my midlife crisis. There’s a whole story there. And I really realized we could have a family string quartet, right? ’Cause my wife played the violin and my son was playing viola; my daughter was playing violin; I was playing cello. So, I’m like, “Oh, this will be so great, kids. Let’s have a family string quartet.” Well, it turns out being a string quartet is like one of the hardest things human beings can attempt to do. And it doesn’t sound that good, especially when you have like an eight-year-old on the second violin, and it gets even worse when her 11-year-old brother is glaring at her across the music stand because she’s not playing it the way he would. And she burst into tears. And then one of the parents burst into tears. So, I can literally say almost every time we tried to have a family string quartet, it ended up with someone running out of the room in tears, and it was not always one of the kids. It’s hard. It doesn’t sound great if you go back now, but let me say this was normal. This was typical America, if you want to stick with American middle-class families, this was a typical evening in a middle-class home in the late 19th century. And now it’s anything but typical. And when you go back and read people’s accounts that they do say, you know, “Cousin Jane wasn’t that good on the piano.” Everybody realized it wasn’t at the highest level. But for one thing, they had no other alternative. But it also created these communal experiences. Why? Because if you think about the, what Jesus called—and Jesus was not very original in this, all rabbis would say this, then and now—the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” What I do think is unique about music is that it almost uniquely uses those four fundamental faculties of the human person, heart, soul, mind strength, to the utmost, when done to its utmost. So, it accesses emotion in an extraordinary way. It actually engages the mind. If you have lyrics, the lyrics can engage the mind. But even the structure of the music itself, if it’s sufficiently rich, can do this. It requires soul, which I had to apprentice in the black church as a black gospel musician to really learn, I, myself being from the white European tradition, but I had the amazing gift of apprenticing in the black church and the black church, you learn when you really do music, it goes all the way down to the depth of your self, and has to, and that’s soul. And then it requires strength. It requires your body to be involved. And there are other things we do that use two or three of these. And I do think sports are close, like I think athletics often has almost all four. I think music has it more than any other thing human beings literally can do. And it’s why it’s sort of a lynchpin cultural activity. And I think that’s why it’s so telling and distressing, that the very lynchpin, human activity of music has been so displaced by technology. Even though you know, there’s more music being played now than ever in human history, if you just mean like sound waves moving through the air, in tuned and rhythmic ways, but it’s almost all done by devices and so little of it done by ordinary people. It doesn’t have to be that way. It could be different.

JONATHAN: That reminds me of reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. And there’s a bit in there about how people are listening to synthetic music. And I remember listening to that. I was listening to the audiobook, I remember hearing that and being like, “Oh, that’s a weird sci-fi concept.” And then I thought about it for a few seconds. It’s like, “Oh, we’re there.”

ANDY: And by the way, Spotify, which is in a race to make enough profit to survive as a company, is introducing algorithmic music. You can find jazz playlists that are computer generated, and it’s just kind of generic jazz and pop electronica it—for the moment just instrumental music; I think the computer AI isn’t good enough at simulating voices yet—and they’ll serve that up to you all day long. And that Brave New World Vision, like it isn’t even that you’re listening to you know, Felonious Monk or something. You’re listening to a sort of amalgamated AI, derivative of this fundamental human thing. And it’s sort of the background music to your life if you let it be. It’s, literally brave new world is happening. It’s happening. That’s the good news.

KELSEY: But I do hear good news. I hear it in the beautiful optimism of trying and failing and increasing human agency. And that idea of human agency connects with me to your wonderful book, Playing God and redeeming power. To me, human agency and power—they always go hand in hand. So, I just want to ask you about maybe that idea of using power, of taking it back maybe in some ways, or I think we might have a couple of questions about power that we might want to ask you, so to talk to us about. Power, human agency, our ability to, to leverage what has been given to us in the world.

ANDY: Yeah, as you were asking, I was actually thinking, I think the great good news kind of is reflected in in the primary audience of this podcast, which is people who are involved really developmentally in the lives of children, whether as parents or educators or pastors or in other roles. And, you know, inevitably, those roles have power that come with them, we’re often bigger and stronger and slightly, maybe faster on our quicker mentally, not always, than the children we’re with. But we’ve got certain advantages, let’s say, as grownups, you know, and of course, we all know—and I think the beautiful thing about parenting in particular is it’s almost just ineradicable. It’s instinctual; you just instinctively sense, “I’ve been given this power for the good of this other human being; it’s not for my good; it’s not to serve me. They’re not here to serve me; I’m here to serve them, even though to them, I look very large and powerful. Like, I know that if I’m going to dwell with this power, well, it’ll be as a servant in a way.” And, which doesn’t mean giving them everything they want all the time, but it means like, “I’m here for your good; I’m here for your growth.” And I actually think all power, the power of a CEO, the power of the president of the university, the power of a pastor, the power, I mean, pick any position that we sort of think of as powerful: The purpose is to unlock others’ capacity to bear the image of God. And obviously, this goes wrong. It goes wrong in families and other contexts, and it goes very wrong in large-scale bureaucracies and institutions, but nonetheless, at the core, what they’re for is to unlock human capacity. And the beautiful thing about doing this with children, you know—there’s this word from neurology, the “plasticity of childhood,” which is to say, the neural pathways aren’t all locked in. We’re not in grooves yet. And we get to set for our kids their imagination of what can be, and we also get to kind of provide that relational support to help them grow towards what can be. And this is why, you know, people can get very discouraged, because a lot of families, especially the last 10 years, kind of just lapsed into the screen thing, like the kid kind of needed a phone to get home from soccer practice. So, we got them a phone, and then you realize, like three years later, “Oh, my gosh, this has gone horribly wrong. And if I take it away, there’s going to be so much resistance,” and there will be outcries and screams of anguish and so forth. But I just always want to remind you: neuroplasticity. They can change more than you can imagine, definitely more than they can imagine. And of course, it’s better if we set from day one kind of, you know, one of the things we said to our kids over and over when, “Why don’t we have video games in our house? Why don’t we have a television in our house? Why don’t I know what shows are on?” And we would say over and over, “Our family is different.” I feel like most kids would really benefit from just hearing over and over, “Our family is different.” But even if you weren’t as different as you wish you had been, you can still change. And by the way, neuroplasticity is not just for kids. It’s for grownups too. We can change too. And part of the right use of the power we have is when things are not going well, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve just ended up so tired that most nights we come home and we turn on Netflix as a family,” and gosh, I understand how we get into that situation. But to have the power to say, “We’re going to change. Let’s do something different. Let’s figure out how to get more rest so that we’re not as exhausted, so we don’t need as much leisure. Let’s pick up a couple things we all love to do—figure out what that is. And just let’s change our culture as a family.” And that’s the responsibility of the grownup, is to change the culture and set the culture. And the beautiful thing is I think kids want it. And for those who are parenting or working with adolescents, there’s a very widespread assumption among adults that kids really want access to this stuff. The only reason they really want access—I mean, there’s, I mean, everyone wants to kind of acquire a certain amount of autonomy, and the screen can be a pathway to that. But the main reason they want access is all the other kids have it, and they’ll be left out if they don’t have it. That’s by far the number one reason. Tristan Harris, who’s very important kind of figure in the world of digital ethics, used to give talks in high schools back when—I think it may still be a thing. But there was a while where this thing called “Snapchat Streaks” was really a thing where you had to send a message on Snapchat to your best friend every day. And the app told you if you were keeping up the streak. The algorithm tracked if you’re keeping up the streak. And he would say to a roomful of kids who are all keeping up streaks, “How many of you do this? How many of you have streaks on Snapchat with your friends?” and all the hands go up. Then he says “Okay, close your eyes. How many of you wish you could stop?” All the hands go up. They’re looking for a way out of this kind of addictive, algorithmic-driven trap. They don’t think it’s good for them. They don’t love it. It’s just what everybody’s doing. So if you just create something else, that a critical mass, even just your own family, ideally a few other families are doing, plasticity, it’ll change. It can be so much better.

AMY: Well, one thing I’m tracking is the repetition of the theme intentionality, just that no one has a standout life story, or legacy without intentionality. And, usually, you’ve mentioned too, that it often comes from suffering or some kind of grueling experience. So, this dovetails with the work you’re doing, where you’re trying to encourage and foster redemptive entrepreneurship, which also cannot happen without tremendous intentionality. And I got it, I got a snapshot, a little bit of your rule-of-life for entrepreneurs, and it’s so saturated with scripture and pre-planning with just tremendous, prayerful deliberation. So, I’d love for you to unpack what are some of the most redemptive entrepreneurship endeavors you’re seeing, and what’s undergirding it with this rule-of-life framework? These aren’t accidentally redemptive.

ANDY: No, indeed. I mean, one of the really beautiful things about working with entrepreneurs is, by definition, they’re intentional because they’re trying to start something that doesn’t exist. And that just does not happen accidentally, ever. And then, we are trying in our community at Praxis to gather people who are pursuing what we would call “redemptive entrepreneurship,” which is like doubly doesn’t exist naturally, because we define redemptive as creative restoration through sacrifice. That redemption, of course, we think of it as a theological term or something. And it does describe what was done for us on the cross. But it’s an ancient idea, and an economic idea that goes way before the cross. And that was picked up by the early church to explain the cross. Which is actually to step into a situation where there’s bondage, really the loss of freedom, the loss of land, debt, and to buy it back, purchase it back. That’s literally what redemption means is to purchase something back. And it always involves a kind of sacrificial stepping in where you wouldn’t have to. And so, we started to ask, “Well, what makes you the kind of person who can do that?” And we’re thinking about this, I should say also, not—well, we’re thinking about not just in one dimension, but three, in the sense that we want our entrepreneurs to be thinking about: “What’s the product or service I’m making?” So, I mentioned earlier, the app VSCO. The co-founder of VSCO, Greg Lutze, he is a really beloved member of our community. This deeply, amazingly creative artist-engineer, you might say—a photographer who had this vision to create a different kind of social media, essentially, that didn’t have the false incentives of social media—and instead had incentives toward genuine artistry and creativity and sustaining an artistic practice. And well, you know, so that’s like a different kind of product. So, it requires a certain kind of person to bring that into the world. But then there’s also: “How do you do it? What’s the operational philosophy? How do you treat people as you’re pursuing this quest?” Because you can have a very noble quest, but treat people really badly because you have a noble quest. This is one of the curses of nonprofits, often, is they have a very noble mission, but then they don’t treat people that well as they do the mission. And then underneath that is, “What’s the life of the founder?” Because if you look at many of our most celebrated entrepreneurial founders, they may have brought amazing things into the world. You know, electric cars or iPhones, if you count that as an amazing thing—it’s certainly amazing in some ways. But you look at the actual people, and you’re like, “This is not the kind of person who—this is not humanity at its best,” just, frankly, all too often. And so, in all of those, we thought, “Okay, we’re going to have to have a community that actually embraces a set of very countercultural practices if we’re going to have a chance of becoming these kinds of people.” And that’s where that rule of life came from. And it starts with Sabbath, actually, which if I could recommend one thing for families and churches and schools to work on, it’s a day a week of deep, complete rest, where we set aside all the things that give us status and significance and provision and gather for worship, and go apart just have a glorious day of not having to work. And I tell you when we first introduced this to entrepreneurs that they just can’t imagine. I mean, they’re trying, they’re working so hard to get these things off the ground. But then we introduce them to other entrepreneurs who are a little further along in the journey, who actually do Sabbath, who can testify like, “This actually unlocks creative capacity in your organization and in your own life.” And then the second thing is tithing, like just generously giving as a baseline 10%, but ultimately, much more of whatever wealth may come your way. And then we’ve got some others, actually much related to the technology stuff, we have a whole practice around imagination, because you’re not going to be able to see the redemptive possibilities unless you have a very different approach to your intake of imaginative material. So, this has led to us having hundreds of companies and nonprofits that we get to count as part of our community. Not all of them are equally successful in the world sense. Some of them have been quite so. And they range from like a supersonic plane company called Venus Aerospace that’s building a plane that will take you from LA to Tokyo in an hour, to new forms of housing for people in parts of the world where housing is very expensive and most people don’t have access to it, to new forms of media. Like it’s—I literally could like, name the sector; we’ve got someone trying to work redemptively in it.

JONATHAN: So, we’re talking about all these realms, where we can bring intention, a culture-making mindset rather than a consumeristic mindset. So here at Concurrently, one of the big things we do is help parents and teachers walk with their kids, students, teenagers, through the news, through current events, because so much is coming at us so fast nowadays. Do you have any thoughts, especially with your background—I know you worked for Christianity Today—do you have any thoughts about how we can apply this culture-making mindset to the way we engage news as a family?

ANDY: Well, my main thought, and I think it’s something that requires a lot of discipline to do, is to slow down your intake of information by like a quantum of time. So if you normally check, wherever you get your news from Facebook, or Twitter or whatever, like three times a day, cut back to a news source that’s only updated once a day. So, I read two newspapers every day, but only the print edition—these happen to be newspapers that still go into print. And that means that once a day, a bunch of editors decide this is the really significant stuff for that day. And the rest of the day, I do not check the news at all. I think I would probably be healthier if I read a weekly summary of the news. And I do read one. I read The Economist magazine every weekend when it arrives. And to be totally honest, I’m not sure I’m better off reading daily. So, like my next step would be daily. And then for those truly on the path to enlightenment, you’ll move to like, I don’t know, download Concurrently every six months and listen.

KELSEY: Well, the good news, in terms of Concurrently is that we’re not actually reporting on the news. So, you can listen to us more often, just, you know.

ANDY: But the other thing I would say, and this will sound very counterintuitive, is to do this well, especially with kids. I actually think read history. I mean, right now I’m reading The Iliad. Emily Wilson has an amazing—contemporary translators come up with a new translation of The Iliad—and honestly, it’s doing more to help me understand the current U.S. presidential election, the kind of dynamics of the culture my kids are living in. There [are] many ways in which the world of Homer is completely different from my world, but there are astonishing ways in which it illuminates our world. And the ways in which it’s different also illuminate my world, this is, you know. C.S. Lewis said you should read old books because it’s the only way we have of traveling to another place and seeing our world from a perspective that’s not our own. So, I’m, I got to see your reactions, people are listening…

KELSEY: I’m nudging Amy, because I think she made almost an exact quote of that recently in some of our work, and we absolutely would lend our amen to your thinking—I mean, are we lending our amen to you? You shaped so much of my thinking originally, maybe, you know, it’s, “What came first the chicken or the egg?” So, just thankful for the chorus of voices to lend to this song of the deep, slow work, the contextualized work, the reading of literature, the reading of history, the sinking deeply into scripture. You know, each of these things, we would say is the way we approach the news. So, we’re so glad that you’re saying the same thing.

ANDY: 100%. I think it’s all, it’s the only way.

KELSEY: Well, there is so much more that that is rich in your thinking than we’ve had the chance for exposure to. I really would love to do one more thing that’s going to threaten probably consuming another 10 minutes. Do you have it?

ANDY: I’m all yours.

KELSEY: You write about households as an important idea from New Testament thinking and from the ancient world. So, that it is a good segue from our talk about history. And so, I’d love to know: Help us understand the difference between households versus families. And I’ve heard you and a couple others mention the idea of oikos, and more oikonomia. So, help us with some of these thoughts, particularly pertaining to households versus family and what they are as an institution, within culture?

ANDY: Wow. Yeah, well, you know, in a way, this is a way that that stepping out of your own culture and stepping back in time, can illuminate things about your own world, because there is this Greek word oikos from—it may still be used in modern Greek, I don’t know—but certainly in classical Greek, you would normally translate it most easily as house for maybe your home. But in fact, what it meant, and when you kind of study that culture, this would be, we’d call it the Greco-Roman culture, the time of the New Testament, it meant something much more, certainly much more than a building. It really meant a whole set of relationships that kind of centered on a family’s home, but that went far beyond what we often in the modern West would call the family. When we talk about a family, we tend to default to two parents (at least, that’s considered the ideal or the typical) and then a few children of their own. But the ancient household was never that tight, that small. It often included, not just extended family, perhaps an older generation or other, kind of, cousins, uncles, you know, that kind of thing. But it actually included people who were not descended from anyone, who aren’t biologically related. And it was really—it did include slaves, because the, the actual fact is that 20 to 30% of the people in the Roman Empire were enslaved not because of race, in the way that we have a history of in the West in the United States. But basically, because people had lost a war. So it didn’t matter what color you were, it was just, you ended up on the losing side of battle, or sometimes debt. And there’s lots of things are very unjust about the system. But it wasn’t always, it wasn’t always so unjust in that there was there were real, long-lasting bonds of affection between household members, household servants, and it wasn’t always “enslaved” in the way we think of it was. It was a whole range of economic arrangements. All that is to say, when you lived in a home in the ancient world, you did not just live with a very small number of people who you were related to. You lived in this complex web that was actually making something of the world together economically and culturally. And the early Christians found themselves meeting in these kinds of homes, and we see them, we get glimpses of them meeting in these homes. And they started saying, you know, “We actually are kind of a household of God,” a household in which, by the way, there is no slave or free—so that this kind of economic subjugation is no longer happening—a household in which women are included in a way that they weren’t in the patriarchal Greco-Roman household, and given kind of degrees of authority and agency that they weren’t otherwise. And also a household that was interracial and intertribal: neither Jew nor Greek. So, normally, a household would just be a single ethnic group in the ancient world, but the Christians were like, “Actually, we’re part of households in God’s family that crossed these divisions and that bind us together like family across these divisions.” And I was spending time thinking about this and thinking, you know, if we could recover some of this, we would start to knit back. Such a fundamental need in our modern world for places where people can belong, because the reality is many people don’t have a family in the narrowest sense. And that can be because they’ve outlived other members of their family if they’re older. It can be many, many families fracture in our world, and not everyone has a family. I was just talking with someone a little while ago who just—whole parts of the family no longer talk to each other. And there are these terrible relational fractures that happen. Where do those alienated lost, sort of siblings go to be drawn back into something like family if their own family has given up on them? So many children grow up today without both parents in the home and often have to sort of way-find themselves. Lots of people don’t marry. So, it got me thinking, maybe there’s something for us in this ancient practice not to recreate the ancient Greco-Roman household because it was quite patriarchal and quite authoritarian, and lots of things that as Christians, we wouldn’t want to recreate. But what if we took this Christian idea from the ancient world, seriously: of building extended relationships that are actually proximate to each other? So, the key thing is the household is not just also, it’s not just an idea. It’s not just sort of, “Oh, you know, I’m so glad you’re my brother in Christ. But I’ve never had you over to dinner; you certainly don’t have a key to my house. I don’t share anything economically with you. But you know, hey, you’re my brother.” That’s a very thin idea compared to, “Who has a key to your house?” And I actually think this is one of the most, greatest diagnostic questions for your relational health is, “Aside from your own kin, who can pretty much, with appropriate respect for boundaries and so forth, let them[selves] into your house whenever it’s appropriate?” And if your answer is no one, I think you’re missing out on a kind of amazing thing about being human, which is we’re made for these, kind of, thick relationships with other people that actually let them into our dwellings. And we kind of dwell together. You did say 10 minutes. So, I know I’m going on with that. But I’ll tell my wife and I lived this way. For the first five or six years of our marriage, we lived with other people after we were married. Some—a couple married folks, a couple of single folks—very meaningful, some of those relationships are among our closest friends to this day. And then for many reasons, we moved into a typical kind of small-town, single-family home where we lived for 20 years, where we did just live with our children. And it’s not well set up even to have other people live with us. But last year, my wife had a sabbatical year, and we moved for a year to Boston, where we had met years ago and moved in with friends and rented the first floor of a three-story house from friends who lived on the second story with her very aged and infirm mother and their two teenage daughters. And we did have our own entry. But I will tell you, we saw Simon and Manuela and their two kids. And when we went upstairs, we would see her mom who was bedridden. And we were enfolded in the life of another family and they in our life, in the most life-giving way. It was, you initially feel kind of a twinge of loss of privacy, frankly. We’re renting this apartment, and it had, it didn’t really have like shades on the doors, the doors had glass panels. So, whenever Simon and Manuel and their kids would go in and out, they’d kind of see into our living room basically. And, and for the first few months, I was like, “Oh, we really need to put a shade up.” It felt like—they couldn’t see our bedroom or anything like that—but it still felt like, “They’re seeing us in our house!” And then I started to think, “Why is this really a problem? Like, we’re, we know when each other is home; we know when each other is traveling we; we just know things about each other’s lives that you would never be able to keep up on by text message or something like that.” And it just reactivated my desire to be back in an environment like that. Now, the reality of American architecture is most of our homes are not built to be good for this. And we would have to—you know, the ancient world built houses to be good for this kind of arrangement with the right kind of privacy for couples and for families and so forth. And we don’t have that, generally speaking. But you can find someone you trust to give a key. And I think if all of us had one more person with a key to our home, and the permission that comes with that to be part of our lives, it would be good for us, and it would be good for those other people, especially if they don’t have a family to call their own. And so many of our neighbors don’t have a family to call their own, like, why not invite them a little closer into ours?

KELSEY: Amen to that. I really appreciate the challenge of that, but the beauty of that picture—what it means for us to be a community of formation, where we are because of that close proximity and the necessary transparency that comes with that—that we are, you know, less of those outward obstacles, you know, more of that, you know, as with transparency, you know, that permeable nature, where what is happening across from us actually also goes into the deep regions of ourselves and shapes up. So, I’m thankful for the vision that you’re casting in so many ways, and it does require intentionality. It requires discipline. But there is not a law, you know, like the weighty, shame-filled a sense of law in that, there is more of the law of love that comes across in these disciplines in these practices. And so I’m just very thankful for what you shared with us today. And I wonder if you’d be willing to end our time together with a blessing for us and our listeners.

ANDY: I’d love to. I think I’ll put it this way: May you grow in loving the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. May you talk about that with your children, when you get up, when you lie down, when you go out, when you come home. May you live in a household that practices that kind of love, and may you learn to love your neighbor as yourself.

KELSEY: Amen and Amen. The Spirit indwells us. He equips us for that work.


Show Notes

What’s the difference between a device and a tool? How can families steward the power of technology for good? We’re joined by Andy Crouch to talk about technology, culture making, family, and more.

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week’s downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study. Sign up for the News Coach Newsletter at gwnews.com/newsletters.

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

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Today’s episode is sponsored by New College Franklin.

Through the college years, students go through an intense period of growth - intellectually, spiritually, socially, and emotionally. So as you are thinking about college options, consider not only what you want to do, but who you want to be. New College Franklin is dedicated to spiritually forming students by discipling them through the seven liberal arts for wisdom, virtue, and service. As a four-year classical, Christian, liberal arts college, nestled in downtown Franklin, Tennessee, New College Franklin focuses on the great ideas, the Trivium, and the Quadrivium; to contemplate the good, the true, and the beautiful, and to go out into the world for Christ's kingdom with humility and confidence. Applications are still open for the 2024-2025 school year. Find out more at newcollegefranklin.edu/world.

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