Church Repair: 1

Of all the peculiar traits of the church, perhaps the most peculiar is its double character as end-in-itself and instrument. In one sense it is koinonia, the community of fellowship of the faithful with one another and with their Risen Lord; it is, then, what we were made for; it is. In another sense church is an instrument for the making of disciples and for the transmission of the faith from generation to generation. No shame need fall upon us for reflecting on that instrumental character as long as we do not forget the other face, the koinonia.

A word nearly synonymous with “instrument” is “technology,” and I would hope that my readers shudder at the thought of designating the church as a technology. But that shudder, though natural and commendable in our circumstances, is to some degree the product of those circumstances, of a world in which the term “technology” is associated with a handful of systems that are dangerous if not wholly destructive: biotechnology, information technology, weapons technology. In a broader sense, though, and a sense more appropriate here, technologies are, as Marshall McLuhan often said, extensions of the human body and human faculties. The development of the hospital in the fourth-century Byzantine world — most famously in Caesarea under Basil the Great, whose hospital took in not only the ill but also the poor and homeless and the elderly — was in this sense a technology: a complex instrument meant to extend the gracious labor of compassion, to increase the power of the koinonia’s love.1 If in what follows I refer to the church as a technology, it is in this sense, not in the (understandably) debased sense in which we use the term in this age of social media and drone warfare.

My thesis here is simply this: If we come to understand the kind of technology, the kind of instrument, that the church is, we will better know how to heal its wounds — for indeed the Body of Christ is wounded, and the instruments meant to extend its reach are largely non-functional. We Christians are now not physicians but rather sufferers in need of care; we are not building hospitals but are collectively in need of hospital care. And if we are to find good treatment, we must begin with a sound diagnosis.

The church of Jesus Christ is, or should be,

  • a seasoned technology;
  • a convivial technology;
  • a technology in need of repair;
  • a technology that, after repair, requires maintenance.

Each of these concepts needs to be explained in its original context before we can make ecclesial use of it.

Seasoned. The Japanese game designer Gunpei Yokoi (1941-1997), the designer of the original Nintendo Game Boy, advocated what he called Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō: “Lateral Thinking with Seasoned Technology.” Perhaps the best illustration of this technology, though it appeared after Yokoi’s death, was the Nintendo Wii: at a time when other video game manufacturers were racing one another to employ more powerful processors and graphics cards, Nintendo in designing the Wii used older, less powerful, more seasoned technologies — but employed “lateral thinking” to use them in ways no one had ever thought of before. Despite many confident predictions that Nintendo had fallen lamentably behind in the CPU-speed race and was courting disaster, the Wii became an enormous hit and remains even today the most loved of game consoles. Perhaps not incidentally, much of its success was due to its popularity with audiences that the other console makers utterly ignored: the very young and the elderly.

Convivial. Ivan Illich, from Tools for Conviviality:

I choose the term ‘conviviality’ to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.

Following from this definition is another:

As an alternative to technocratic disaster, I propose the vision of a convivial society. A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favour of another member’s equal freedom.

And in the closing sentence of his book he makes this great affirmation: “Imperialist mercenaries can poison or maim but never conquer a people who have chosen to set boundaries to their tools for the sake of conviviality.”

Repair. In a seminal essay called “Rethinking Repair,” Steven Jackson notes that “the world is always breaking; it’s in its nature to break.” And so what is always required of us is “broken-world thinking.” But a necessary element of that thinking is “a deep wonder and appreciation for the ongoing activities by which stability (such as it is) is maintained, the subtle arts of repair by which rich and robust lives are sustained against the weight of centrifugal odds, and how sociotechnical forms and infrastructures, large and small, get not only broken but restored, one not-so-metaphoric brick at a time.” Brokenness and repair, in a never-ending cycle. Which leaves Jackson with a powerful question: “How might we begin to … reimagine or better recognize the forms of innovation, difference, and creativity embedded in repair?”2

Maintenance. In an equally seminal essay that follows and extends Jackson’s work, “Maintenance and Care,” Shannon Mattern demonstrates that “In many academic disciplines and professional practices — architecture, urban studies, labor history, development economics, and the information sciences, just to name a few — maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause.” She cites a group of historians of technology who, in ironic response to Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators, call themselves “The Maintainers”: they are “interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world.” Mattern further points out, in a particularly useful and provocative formulation, that “To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.”

A proper understanding and application of these concepts — lateral thinking with seasoned technology, tools that promote conviviality, the role of repair in a broken world, the acknowledgment of the necessity and creativity of the work of maintenance — will help us to renew the church and, in the spirit of Tikkun olam, repair the world.

More on this in future posts.

  1. For more information, see Timothy S. Miller, The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). However, many of the details of Miller’s argument — none relevant to my thesis here — have been convincingly questioned, indeed undermined, by Vivian Nutton in a long essay-review in Medical History 30(2), April 1986, pp. 218–221.
  2. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kirsten Foot, eds., Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2014), pp. 221-39.