A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers
Let’s start with my least favorite part of this book: its subtitle. To be fair, it is my least favorite part because this book serves as an excellent example of robust Christian reflection on technology and the specific challenges of particular professional fields. While people in those professional fields will find the book most immediately helpful, any thoughtful Christian seeking to understand how biblical faith transforms academic fields—and even the most practical elements of life—will benefit from this book. Don’t let the title fool you. If you read this journal, this book is definitely for you.
The book’s authors all serve or have served as professors of engineering, but also have significant experience in industry as well. This experience, combined with clear attention to and love for students, provides a helpful perspective for this sort of project.
The authors open in a way you might imagine them starting with students: with the yearning that many feel to design technology. After arguing that faith underlies all dreams that we have about technology—whether as designers or users—they move through a broad range of topics in the book’s ten chapters. They take up these topics in turn, identifying that chapter’s author at the beginning of each. The book covers technology and the biblical story, orienting students to the overarching narrative of Scripture and the relevant themes and pieces that relate to faithful technology design and use.
The third chapter explores questions of responsibility in design, highlighting various myths and providing tips for discerning design and thinking about responsibility. This chapter provides a clear and practical approach to dispelling myths, points a path toward discernment, and roots all of these in robust biblical, theological, and missional concerns. In the fourth chapter, the same author (VanderLeest) explores design norms in a similar fashion, drawing on Herman Dooyeweerd to explore clarity, stewardship, justice, caring, faithfulness, and other norms.
Schuurman steers the book into ethics in chapters 5 and 6, reaching back to the biblical story to develop norms and discuss ethical principles. He provides a helpful reminder to readers that represents well the tone of the entire book: “Even though we are living within the story of Scripture, we can still make use and benefit from codes like the NSPE code of ethics. But these ethical codes, when seen within the biblical narrative, have a limited scope. For the Christian engineer, professional ethics are necessary but not sufficient. Our call as Christian engineers is far more comprehensive!” (102). This acknowledgement of the good of a professional standard, while pointing beyond it, reminds scholars and practitioners in every discipline not to outsource their ethics to whatever “professional” means in a given year. In chapter 6, Schuurman confronts an issue that many don’t want to admit: technology can function like an idol, whether that is through our devotion to its design or its use. He explores technological worldviews, technicism, and how technology can (mis)shape us, even through nudges that we don’t notice (115). These are not matters only for some engineers or designers; rather, they are foundational issues for students in those fields as well as Christians in any field.
Chapters 7 and 8 look backward and forward. Brue turns to the history of electric vehicles to illustrate the complex webs that impact design choices and technological development. He argues that progress must be biblically guided, reflecting the intended wholeness of creation as well as the fullness of the promised renewed creation (138). In chapter 8, Schuurman shows the problems with technological optimism (such as transhumanism) and technological pessimism. As he explains, “Viewing technology as the primary pathway to a better world (or to a better human) will drive us to grasp for technological solutions that will ultimately fall short, like any other idol. However, a pessimistic view of technology misdiagnoses the problem, one that begins with the human heart” (157).
Chapter 9 features VanderLeest again, with one of the more creative chapter titles: “Must We Leave Our Neural Nets to Follow Him?” He argues that the desire to serve God in the mission field and the desire to pursue engineering and design are not mutually exclusive callings. Technological work is a legitimate Christian calling, one that can be used on the mission field, and one that is itself a mission field, as Christians in technology have unique opportunities to serve and bear witness to their coworkers. Technological fields are also excellent ways to serve neighbors through good work. Invention and engineering are cultural activities that are good ends themselves, for “We find joy and delight in the creation of the tool” (178). But VanderLeest also reminds readers that this sort of work is always connected to loving neighbors and loving God.
Finally, Schuurman concludes the book with a series of letters between a young engineer, Daniel, and his former teacher, Professor van Wijs. These letters provide a creative and engaging application of the content of the rest of the book, charting some of the practical ways the issues come into play in industry settings.
Three main strengths emerge from this book. First, the authors know the design and engineering industries well, and they know how to connect thought to practice and practice to thought. They are clearly excellent in their fields and very good at teaching. Second, the book doesn’t sacrifice biblical or theological depth to achieve the goal of being a handbook on technology. Readers can come with little background and get up to speed quickly with the main frameworks and concerns that animate their approach. Third, the authors incorporated several unique elements that help the book serve students well. For instance, they provide clear chapter summaries at the start of each chapter, and they identify the author of each chapter. Boxes in the text provide key definitions and points. The last chapter’s letters invite readers into practical challenges and demonstrate the careful thinking, conversation, and intellectual and spiritual companionship that is needed for disciples to remain faithful to Christ in “the real world.”
A few weaknesses stick out, as well. These relate primarily to the challenge of several authors writing a book that still reads like one book. For instance, some parts of the book did not flow smoothly together. The historical chapter fit the most awkwardly. The portion about electric vehicles at times seemed like a separate paper dropped in the middle of the book. At other points some differences between the authors came through in a way that was left unresolved. For example, VanderLeest’s chapter encouraging students to serve God faithfully in the midst of technical careers seemed to gloss over some of the challenges of technology in a way that was inconsistent with earlier arguments in the book. Setting side- by-side the chapters on ethics and idolatry with this chapter on technology as a calling leaves a tension at best, if not an inconsistency in emphasis. But that, in itself, can be a strength of the book, as Christians most certainly must rely on careful discernment in these areas.
Some of the concrete suggestions left me unconvinced as well. In one case, Brue argued that the notion of “play,” or the aesthetic life, might guide attentive design (141). While a broader approach to technology development and design is certainly needed, this suggestion left me wondering whether any particular corporation or society more broadly could agree enough on what this “good play” should look like for it to serve as an adequate guide.
I can imagine faculty utilizing this book at many stages in students’ programs on design and engineering. The early chapters provide a compelling vision for the field itself, and they ground students in the truth of Scripture in a compelling and understandable way. The middle and later chapters prepare students by demonstrating how engineers don’t leave their faith at home when confronting issues of professional ethics, design choices, or responsibility in their field. The conclusion of the book provides students with an example of what it might be like for them in their first few years working in industry. Departments covering these fields should make sure that their students are exposed to this helpful book.
This book provides an excellent example of the integration of faith and learning—or whatever terminology we’re using now—in ways that move far beyond the low-hanging fruit that we’re all too often satisfied with. It’s for you, and I certainly hope that we will see more examples of this kind of robust “Christian field guide” that introduces students to complex fields and professions in ways that are genuinely animated by, not just ornamented by, biblical Christian faith.