Review of Swearengen, Beyond Paradise

Review of Jack Clayton Swearengen, Beyond Paradise: Technology and the Kingdom of God (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2007). Review published in Teaching Theology and Religion 11:4 (2008) p.236.

Jack Clayton Swearengen’s book Beyond Paradise: Technology and the Kingdom of God is intended as a primer on the ethics of technology and engineering from a Christian perspective. Apart from its final chapters, which offer a naively simplistic presentation of “the biblical response” (p.271) to the book’s subject, this volume succeeds in usefully presenting information about a range of issues in ethics and technology, highlighting specific cases in detail. As such, it could provide a useful textbook for a course on technology, religion and ethics, provided it is supplemented with a more serious theological treatment.

The book is weakest when the author steps outside his area of expertise (engineering and policy) and attempts to address matters of ethics and utilize the Bible for this purpose. For Swearengen, the meaning of the Bible (and to a large extent its relevance to technology) is self-evident. That there are other interpretations than young-earth creationism (on p.273, the author uncritically buys into the idea that, until the fall, all animals were vegetarians) and premillenial dispensationalism (pp.277-279) is not something the author seems to even be aware of, much less discuss. When affirming the relevance of the Bible to engineering and technology, the author will make sweeping affirmations about there being “many passages” (p.122) and “many specific scriptures” (p.293) that address an issue, without citing any of them. On the whole, Swearengen’s approach attempts to provide facile answers to what are, even for Christians who look to the Bible for wisdom and insight, nevertheless complex problems and issues (p.306).

The author’s treatment of specific technological subjects is, on the other hand, very informative and interesting – not surprisingly, perhaps, since this is in fact his area of genuine expertise. The book provides a lot of information about such subjects as the environment and sustainability, automotive transportation and the national infrastructure that supports it, assessment of the relative costs of subsidizing freight by truck (with its impact on roads) vs. rail, the use of statistics in discussions of road safety, the popularity of SUVs, and the evolution of the suburbs. Where the author provides commentary on or evaluation of modern technology, he is often remarkably insightful. All of this would provide an excellent basis for classroom discussion of these pressing contemporary issues.

Even here, however, there are moments where there is an ironic contrast between the author’s statements about technology and the realities of the process of the book’s production. For instance, the author confidently utilizes Wikipedia and other web sites as sources of reliable information, rather than using them as a way to identify primary sources. There are also a number of typos, missing quotation marks and other errors that show the author’s reliance (as so typical of our age) on spell-checking technology rather than human proofreaders. And right from the outset, Swearengen quotes an author who asserts that she could have learned Mandarin in the time she has spent mastering various gadgets whose usefulness is quickly obsolete (p.x). But anyone who has learned Mandarin in recent years will know that doing so is far easier today than ever before not only because of advances in educational technique, but also because of the use and availability of relevant technology such as compact disks and computer software. In another instance, when discussing how one locale’s ban of private use of fireworks prohibited events that forged communal relations, Swearengen never notes that this is an example of the regulation of the use of technology and that it seems that, counter to the overall emphasis of his book, such regulation can potentially have the same negative side effects as the failure to regulate technology. Such instances as these provide teaching moments that can be used to illustrate how even those who advocate taking an appropriately critical approach to technology can nevertheless have blind spots regarding it.

The author helpfully brings matters related to teaching and education into the foreground (see e.g. pp.235-236), and this is a particularly positive feature of the book. He notes the differences in perspectives on technology from the Liberal Arts and from those working in the technical and engineering realms, as well as emphasizing the necessity of lifelong learning in connection with the pace of technological advancement as relates to employment, something our students ought to be concerned with (pp.19-20).

Swearengen helpfully highlights how many Evangelicals simply adopt an uncritical technological optimism, assuming that the Bible has nothing to say that relates to technology or the environment. Yet in the end, Swearengen’s book illustrates rather than addresses the general conservative Evangelical tendency to be technologically savvy but theologically unsophisticated.

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    I am reading “Beyond Paradise,” but have only finished Chapter 6. From your comments, I can’t wait till I get to Chapter 10. But in the mean time some comments:My interpretation is that the book is not supposed to be a presentation on “the Biblical response,” rather a call to engagement in the issues.I was impressed that compared with other books, the references have been very useful. When I read page 122, my assumption was that, because there has been so much discussion of Christianity and the environment at the ASA and elsewhere, Jack Swearengen felt it was better to let the reader go to books on that subject (e.g. The Environment & the Christian edited by Calvin DeWitt) than provide a cursory discussion.As a fellow of the ASA, Jack Swearengen is very aware of a variety of interpretations of Genesis from those as represented by Francis Collins to Hugh Ross and more. I can’t recall any expositions on young-earth at the ASA.