John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Upon This Rock,” GQ 2004.

This is a pretty famous essay, and rightly so. A good many Christians know of it, and know what he means in this passage I’ve quoted about excellence-proofing, but I’m just not sure it’s possible for us to meditate too much on what Sullivan says here.

In the last few days I’ve found myself in dialogue with some people who are trying to think in serious ways about what it might mean to engage as faithful Jews with a digital world. I wrote about my encounters in two pieces for the Technology channel of The Atlantic, here and here. The approaches are rather different, and while I think that there could be some fruitful collaboration among these people, I don’t know that it’s going to happen; but in any case, what struck me about both approaches is how grounded they are in distinctive practices of the Jewish faith. One might be on the Orthodox end of the spectrum, and the other closer to the Reformed end, but all the people involved seem to be thinking as Jews.

This is something that I often find to be missing from the technological practices of my fellow Christians. I’m sure there must be innovative stuff out there, truly and deeply grounded in distinctive Christian practices, but it’s hard for me to find. In many ways no point could be more familiar: Church buildings look just like ordinary civic auditoriums — indeed they are auditoriums; Christian books are designed to look like whatever books happen to be popular at the time, and follow the same titling practices; Christians dress like whomever they want to imitate socially; and so on. Christian colleges, like the one I teach at, have a curricular structure that exactly replicates that of secular institutions, just with slightly varying proportions of requirements.

We all know how this works, and we know that there are — or at least can be — good reasons for it. But this way of doing business has become our default, and that’s not healthy. And it’s especially discouraging to me when I see people who know the emerging tech world well, and have good education and some technical skills, and (most important) have the opportunity to innovate, instead choosing the same imitative patterns that lead, inevitably, to excellence-proofing themselves. Take, as just one example, the series of videos produced by the smart and committed people at Q: They’re imitation TED talks. Pure and simple, nothing but. Same staging, same camera angles, same length. They seem to be designed to make stray viewers think that they are watching TED talks.

Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we back up a step or two, and instead of asking “What currently cool technologies can we copy?” ask “What are our core convictions and core practices, and what existing technologies best support them?” And maybe even ask this more challenging question: “What if the existing technologies don’t serve our needs very well? How can we acquire the imagination, the technical chops, and the sheer courage to roll our own instead of choosing from a pre-existing menu of options?” It’s better — far better — to risk abject failure than to choose a safely imitative course that makes excellence impossible by design.