The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World
Andy Crouch first burst onto the Christian scene with his book Culture Making.1 This volume is his latest work, and it continues with his earlier focus on the impact of technology on our lives. With a title like The Life We’re Looking For, there is an immediate hook of interest, as so many people in our world do not seem to be finding the life they want.
Crouch begins his diagnosis by stating that “Recognition is the first human quest” (8), and that it is a “very human need to be recognized and known” (11). Technology tries to fulfill that need, but it is unable to do so, because it is based on a flawed understanding of what humans need (16). He describes how technology works to give us an increasingly more “personalized” experience: “the more advanced forms of personalization sometimes seem to know me better than I know myself, recommending entertainment, news, and music that perfectly tickle my own particular taste buds” (13). However, Crouch asserts that there is a large difference between personalized and personal and what we seek from technology will not be found there but will only be found in other persons. He notes the irony that loneliness has increased just as our media became “social,” “personal,” and has learned to recognize our faces (15).
To help us truly understand the nature of our personhood, Crouch highlights Jesus’s formulation of the Shema: love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (30). Humanity is designed for love and to be loved. We are “wired” and are most alive when we are in relationships of empathy, recognition, trust, and dependence (33). We intuitively know this to be true, but technology deceives us. Crouch states that technology promises us “superpowers” that will provide us “effortless power” (37). Instead, we find that we lose a significant part of our personhood when the “magic” of our devices removes the need for personal engagement in our daily lives (53).
The impact and reach of technology are not limited to our individual lives. Crouch quotes theologian Craig Gay and asserts that “technology does not exist primarily, and never existed primarily, to serve us or support ‘ordinary embodied human existence’” (66). Instead, its main goal has always been economic profit, whether or not it promoted human flourishing (66). In chapter 5 of the book, Crouch describes the negative impact of our economic system on our personhood. He asserts that money allows us to accomplish work by means of others but without the responsibilities of friendship. Our economic system offers “abundance without dependence” (63) and the more we engage with it, the more we become conformed to its image (64). Crouch uses the New Testament term Mammon to describe the nexus of technology and money as a “global system” (65) and a negative spiritual force. He believes that “Mammon wants to put all persons into the service of things and ultimately to bring about the exploitation of all of creation” (67).
So how do we respond to the spiritual battle where we find ourselves? Early in the book, as a contrast to the loneliness and the depersonalization that results from technology and Mammon, Crouch highlights the person of Gaius, the Apostle Paul’s host in the city of Corinth. Crouch suggests that our homes “like Gaius’s, can become creative centers far more consequential than the refuges of consumption and leisure we have let them become” (20). From there, Crouch expands on the notion of “households,” which he sees as a key solution to the problems engendered by Mammon.
He describes households as more than just families, but as places where people give up independence and move towards dependence. He depicts a household as a “community of recognition” through which we can begin to undermine the god of Mammon by reconfiguring what we value, measure, and reward and thereby, change our economic life as a whole (141). Households are places where we find our authentic personhood because in them, we recognize others and are recognized by them. In this re-configured household we can become fully ourselves as persons who are made for love (28). Households can also be places where those our society sees as “unuseful” can find their true identity as persons who are intrinsically valued (152).
As I reflect on the book, I do not doubt at all the dangers of Mammon as Crouch outlines them. Crouch describes the spiritual power of Mammon—it wants things, and we are reminded of the idea of principalities and powers that are mentioned in the Bible. We ignore his message about Mammon at our own peril. It is an important insight, but for some of the book’s readers, it might also suggest some degree of powerlessness or lack of agency on our own behalf.
While there is no doubt that technology and money are significant idols in our society, they are also tools that can be used to promote flourishing. The economic growth that the world has experienced in the last century has resulted in much of the world’s population being removed from poverty. Economic activity is part of God’s good creation. As just one example we read in Proverbs 31 the description of a wife of noble character who “considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy” (vv. 16–20). While Crouch talks about Mammon as promoting depersonalization and exploitation, in this passage we see an example of the power of finance used for interdependence and shalom. While Crouch believes that money “has not helped us to be persons” (63), this passage and many examples from everyday living suggest otherwise.
Economic growth is not the enemy, as long as we are growing what is good. There is no doubt that this is often easier said than done. I concur with Crouch when he asserts that “Money, for Jesus, was not a neutral tool but something that could master a person every bit as completely as the true God” (65), but it can be used to bring good to society. Crouch also concedes that technology can be repurposed and redesigned (20), but many who read the book might instead choose to retreat from it (which I concede is an understandable strategy in many cases).
Although I am not sure that Crouch would agree, I see some parallels between his prescription for society and that of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option.2 Dreher’s diagnosis is more concerned with “cultural” issues like abortion and sexual immorality, and he suggests that Christians form tight communities to be able to resist the advances of cultural depravity. Dreher has strongly objected to any notion that he is preaching isolation from the world. Crouch’s focus is on the impact of technology on our lives, and how the interlocking nexus of technology, money, and capitalism takes us away from the life we are looking for and into one of loneliness and anxiety. He also advocates the formation of tight communities to resist the impact of impersonal technology on our lives, and I am confident that he also would object to the idea that he is promoting any form of isolation from society. However, his prescription focuses substantially on the idea of households—this is the focus of the second half of the book.
When Crouch describes The Life We’re Looking For, I do not read much about the institutional church, education, or business. He also suggests that the kind of economic restoration we need “does not require us to change the practices of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank—or even to know, exactly, what ought to replace them” (141). I have two responses that may seem contradictory. First, this is God’s world, and we need to be working in it. God has provided us with gifts that can honor Him and love our neighbor as ourselves. Our work here is a significant way that we can serve others and promote overall flourishing while giving testimony to our Lord. Second, some isolation may not be a bad thing.
I first read this book when I was also thinking about the issue of working at home or remotely, and how that impacts people’s abilities to fulfill their callings and vocation. Crouch asks the question, “What kind of place do we require to thrive as persons” (127)? He says we need a place “where we can invest ourselves deeply in others, come to care about their flourishing, and give ourselves away in mutual service and sacrifice in ways that secure our own identities instead of erasing them” (127). He uses the term household to suggest where these characteristics can be found. Often the desire to work at home reflects our longing to build up our own household and a desire to be away from our co-workers. At home, we can get away from the messiness of other people and control our lives more easily. But cannot our place of work also fulfill some of the above characteristics, particularly for others? Our workplace is not the same as a household, although for some, it may be the only community they have. Our workplace may also be a location where we are quite able to serve colleagues, clients, and customers while providing our employers an honest day’s work and financially supporting our families. Although much of our work needs a significant redesign, for many, it still is a major part of our everyday calling.
I started reading this book at 8:00 a.m. and finished it by mid-afternoon; few books capture my attention in this way. Crouch provides a thoughtful explanation of how technology can leave us lonely and anxious; when we read this book, we will likely see a lot of ourselves in it. He argues passionately for a different type of life, one that thoroughly and completely resists Mammon. He makes a convincing case for its malign spiritual power and how it relates to the use of technology in our society. I read this book for the first time in a pain clinic waiting room (while accompanying a family member), where I saw many people who were obviously worn down by pain, as were their caregivers. These are people that Crouch says society believes are “unuseful” (152), but whom he believes we should place at the center of society. It was a poignant place to reflect on what Crouch had been writing. Although I believe that he underplays some of the positive results of technology and economic activity, he has provided an interesting and profound analysis of our society. This book would be useful in various college courses like first-year seminars or senior capstone seminars; it is also very appropriate for use in church settings.