Heinrich Faust had sought to learn everything that can be known under heaven. He studied the great sciences, examined all aspects of human learning, and yet was constantly frustrated by the limits that kept repeating themselves no matter what avenue he ventured down. Vanity was ripe in them all. Even religious learning and humanitarian ideals came up short. So, Faust possessed by a desire for infinite knowledge turns toward magic in hopes that he might unlock the secrets of this age. Yet even here he grows frustrated by his progress. All that changes one day when a little stray dog follows him home. Perhaps using some unknown and ancient magic that dog turns into a man named Mephistopheles, and Faust’s life will never be the same.
Mephistopheles makes a pact with good old Faust, a contract signed with his own blood. He will do everything that Faust wants here on earth, and in exchange Faust will serve the Devil in Hell. At the promises of what this might mean, at the hope that this might finally brings him joy and contentment in this age he makes a bargain without really considering what he was giving up.
A Faustian bargain is an exchange where something wonderful is given and something wonderful is lost. It is often made by those who know the one that they bargain with is specious in some way, it is a deal with the devil that is made in desperation, when nothing else seems to be working. The cultural critic Neal Postman famously said, “All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is a corresponding disadvantage.” Technological change never fails to give, it offers advantages we previously only longed for. Yet, that same technological change will have its disadvantages, it will take something way from us.
The problem for us these days is that we’ve stopped asking any questions of our technological advancements. While we are eager to learn what new advancement it will bring, what it might give us to better our life or help us achieve our goals, we do not ask what it will take away, what will be its disadvantage?
Whether it is a business upgrading to some new software promising faster shipping speed and quicker turnover of product or a mother downloading the latest app promising specifically curated news feeds right to their phone throughout the day, we never ask what the downside is, what are we loosing in this deal? It may be worth it; we may lose something we won’t really miss. But quite often we haven’t really thought it through. Do we lose some money? Do we lose hearing opposing points of view? Do we lose freedom of movement or ideas or creative control? In our desire to have what is promised do we even care what we are giving up?
Now throw into all this a pandemic that attacks the very gathering of humanity. Schools go online, business is conducted on Zoom meetings, friendship is moved completely into the digital realm and the same goes for romance. And collectively we reach out and embrace the latest technological promises and don’t ever ask just what it is that we might be giving up in the process, what are we losing. It is safer this way, or so we’re told.
And just as romance and commerce and entertainment are fueled by technological change, so is the church. For the local congregation found itself caught up in the same fears, with the same reach for solutions to a crisis. Streaming services, Zoom meetings, virtual church, everything was up for grabs as we scrambled to care for the flock while staying home. And now we have these things, they are part of us, they are slowly becoming standardized even as churches begin to open again, and now we wonder what to do with these technological changes we’ve embraced.
To be sure, they offer us a lot, but what are we losing? When you can go to church without leaving your living room, when you can opt to stay at home in your PJ’s and virtually commune with the fellowship of the people of God then why go? And while you know it is not the same thing, you’ve been assured that it is close enough to the real deal, that you don’t need to risk coming back if you feel unsafe, then what? I fear we’ve made a bargain unaware of what it will cost us in the long run. The good news is that unlike Faust we only have one pact that is sealed with blood and it’s not our blood. No amount of technological advancement or luddite resistance will change the promises of Christ. Ask the big questions of the deals we’ve made and don’t be afraid to make changes, our hope doesn’t rest in these tools but in Christ alone.