The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The yawning divide between pencils and iPads

In preparing a commencement address recently, I decided to write it on my new Apple iPad, sitting on a sofa beside a window, using an app called Quickoffice.

Big deal, you say. But think about it.

A month ago, I didn't own an iPad. I had never heard of Quickoffice. I had never imagined that a touch-screen keyboard could be satisfying. I carried 20 pounds of gear, files and books onto an airplane. Now I tote around a 1.3-pound iPad.

In one month's time, everything has changed.

What's the point? The point is change — rapid change, change in even the most basic functions we perform, like stringing words into sentences. New gear, new media, new ways to express thoughts, to store and process images, share ideas, collaborate with others and manage time. Of all the current tools I use in my work, only one — a mechanical pencil — was in my toolkit a year ago.

Is it all about gadgets? Not in the least. I read about a family that sold their property in Arizona and are now just traveling around in a Winnebago, doing their jobs by Internet and laptops. Others live and work on boats or run businesses from coffee shops.

My list: no car, no checkbook, no landline telephone, no lawn mower. Much that I considered normal a few years ago isn't even part of my life now.

Churches are forming without buildings, pipe organs, stained-glass windows, pews or wood-paneled offices. Bricks-and-mortar universities are moving online. Even dating has moved online.

The point isn't to extol technology but to note that most of these changes will seem normal any day now. Former ways, it turns out, weren't essential. We want to fall in love, yes, but whether we do so at a church social, company picnic, group meet-up or Match.com is just a detail.

We need to eat, but whether we shop at a corner market, Costco or online grocery is just a detail.

We need to have faith, but whether we find it in a building with a steeple, a house church or walking with a friend is just a detail.

A divide is opening between those who still consider the details of yesterday's normal to be necessary and those who perceive the details as optional. When something is necessary, you fight to preserve it. When it becomes optional, letting go is no big deal.

Church buildings, for example, feel like sacred space and a solemn trust to some people who sacrifice much to preserve them. Others say, "So what? We can worship in a hotel ballroom, meet at Starbucks, study online and find the sacred anywhere." The point is faith, not facilities.

Sorting out these two perspectives is wrenching work, filled with misunderstanding, suspicion of motives, loss of employment, loss of certainty, loss of common ground for imagining basic things.

These deep divides aren't about age or maturity, education or income, or intangibles like respect. It's more disposition than anything. It's like the gulf between ranchers and farmers a century ago over the need for fences: there are elements of self-interest, but also different ways of seeing history, land, values and future.

The obvious answer is to co-exist: some using pencils, some iPads. But when so much is changing, and details are in constant dispute, the bonds of community can get strained. 


Douglas Bell

Douglas Bell

Posted at 10:28 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/14/2011

Yes, but there is still that basic human need for dedicated spaces.  Hard indeed is even the most techno of hearts that doesn't feel the awe that a great cathedral stirs and has done so since the twelfth or thirteenth century, as technology comes and goes.


Doug Bell

Holy Trinity

Berlin, Pennsylvania

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