Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools by David I. Smith, Kara Sevensma, Marjorie Terpstra, and Steven McMullen

T. David Gordon

Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools, by David I. Smith, Kara Sevensma, Marjorie Terpstra, and Steven McMullen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020, x + 377 pages, $29.99.


Titles and subtitles are tricky, but often follow a pattern: the title is designed to attract readers, and the subtitle to tell them what the book is about. The title of this book—Digital Life Together—might suggest that it is written for a large audience, since digital technologies are a ubiquitous aspect of life in the third millennium. The subtitle, however, suggests a much more targeted/restricted audience, limiting the scope of the book to the challenge of technology (mostly digital) for Christian Schools, which reduces the otherwise-potential readership by about 97%, and limits it further to those associated with Christian schools who have governance responsibility. This could include administrators and instructors, and also parents or other interested individuals. If the title suggests the kind of sweeping technological vision of Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, or Neil Postman, let the subtitle return you to earth. That its potential readership will be small is not a defect; I suspect the textbooks employed in most graduate schools have a small readership also, yet they serve the broader human society very well. To what subset of our society is this book aimed?

The legacy of President George W. Bush will include his No Child Left Behind initiative, in which educational institutions at all levels—kindergarten through graduate school—were required to expend time, resources, and energy not merely on teaching but also on assessing the results of that teaching to assure that they were achieving some demonstrable good. This well-intentioned proposal assumed four things that not everyone assumes:

  1. That a President, who admittedly partied his way through college, was competent to reform American education

  2. That all the goals of education are tangible and/or measurable (how do we assess whether a student has come to appreciate what is good, true, or beautiful?)

  3. That institutions required to satisfy the measurable goals in order to maintain their funding would not drop some of the good things they had previously done in order to “teach to the test”

  4. That institutions would not effectively lose funding as soon as the initiative began, because resources that had previously been devoted to education would now be devoted to assessing education (how many former classroom teachers are now assessors?)

I accepted none of the four assumptions. The simple fact of the matter now, however, is that Bush’s NCLB initiative will likely have as permanent a shelf-life as Roosevelt’s Social Security Act; federal beauracracies (unlike old soldiers) neither die nor fade away. All American educational institutions—private or public—are now required to maintain their accreditation (and funding) by demonstrating—to the satisfaction of some agency or another—that they are “doing their job.” Some readers of Ordained Servant are part of that current educational circumstance; and those who are may as well learn how to do what is required, and hopefully in a manner that some good will come of it. For such readers this book was written (although the authors do not state—or even hint—that satisfying President Bush’s initiative was/is part of their intention):

In this book we approach key questions about digital technology and Christian education.… We draw on extensive data from classroom observations, focus groups, surveys, and school documents. From this data, we will be tracing the ways in which Christian teachers, learners, administrators, and parents are seeking healthy connections between new technologies and the task of maintaining a discerning Christian learning community. (3, emphasis added)

The book is therefore about “Christian education,” informed by “classroom observations, focus groups, surveys, and school documents,” and is likely to be of primary interest to “Christian teachers, learners, administrators, and parents.” I taught at a Christian college, so I have an interest in Christian education, and, on my good days, I suppose I am a “Christian teacher.” I have little interest in classroom observations, focus groups, surveys, or other school documents, however, for reasons that need not detain anyone here. It is merely to indicate that the book addresses technology in Christian education, and it does not address those who have little interest in focus groups, surveys, or other school documents. But for those who are part of the now-necessary educational apparatus that requires institutional self-assessment, this volume will provide both a template and some very helpful and interesting information.

Some Specific Observations

There is nice and helpful nuancing about what “technology” includes, and the authors include “technique” (behaviors) along with particular “tools,” though they do not go so far as Ellul, either in rejecting the English ruining of the term (“geology” is the study of rocks; “technology” should be the study of tools and how we use them) or in his use of technique to refer (as Postman later did) to a worldview that expresses confidence (sometimes messianic) in Technology to save us from all our woes.

It was very good of the authors to divide the book into many (39!) brief chapters to permit readers to select the ones most pertinent to their circumstances. These chapters are located in six sections: Context, Mission, Teaching and Learning, Discernment, Formation, and Community.

The authors intend to avoid/evade the pro-tech/anti-tech polarity, while providing at least brief bibliographies reflecting that polarity. They also indicate good awareness of reciprocity: we shape tools and tools shape us.

This volume will likely have a fairly small but very grateful readership. Institutional self-assessment is now a regular feature of academic life, and the digital footprint is as ubiquitous in the academy as it is elsewhere. Nearly every Christian education institution either has a permanent technology committee (however they name it) or an occasional ad hoc committee of the same kind. All such groups will benefit greatly by observing how these authors have addressed these matters and will appreciate the clarity, organization, and documentation provided here. To such groups I sincerely commend it.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a retired professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, January 2022.

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Ordained Servant: January 2022

Ordained Servant at 30

Also in this issue

Grace in Winter: Reflections on Ordained Servant at Thirty

Reflections on Ordained Servant at Thirty

Ordained Servant at Thirty

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 7, “Har Magedon: The End of the Millennium” (1996)

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 23, part 2

Duplex Regnum Christi: Christ’s Twofold Kingdom in Reformed Theology by Jonathon D. Beeke

Ordained Servant Survey

The Calendar of Life

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