WSJ: How technology affects religion

hutteritesMy first real working newspaper experience involved a small-town weekly in small-town Indiana. Two memories stand out from this experience more than seven years ago: The first was the work (participating in just about everything in putting the newspaper together) and the second was where I stayed. My lodgings were with an Old German Baptist Brethren family who owned a farm just outside the town. There are many different splinterings of this pietist movement, but the general lesson I learned was that technology that wasn't used for productive purposes just provided temptations for the soul. For example, airplanes were apparently acceptable forms of technology. I had the pleasure of riding in the farmer's two-seater to help take photographs after a tornado went through the area.

I inquired about how this ban on unnecessary technology was enforced among young people. The general answer was that it was to a certain age, and then that person had to make a decision on whether they wanted to remain in the group. The fact that there was occasionally a radio/boom box in the kitchen made me wonder whether the family's children were planning on sticking around in the community.

This whole episode came to mind when I read a front page Wall Street Journal feature on the effect cell phones are having on the Anabaptist Christian group called the Hutterites. The Hutterites, similar to the family I stayed with, believed that if technology can be used for productive purposes, it is acceptable. But cell phones raised some interesting questions that WSJ reporter Elizabeth Holmes tried to explore:

Now that cheap cellphones have come to rural areas, the question is being asked throughout the roughly 470 Hutterite colonies: Are cellphones useful? Answers differ. A colony outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, allows just five cellphones, and they are shared by 126 people. The Warden Colony in Washington bought its combine drivers Bluetooth wireless headsets to talk while tilling the colony's 25,000 acres.

In Martinsdale, cellphones are dividing families. [Elsie] Wipf says that she sent more than 150 text messages in the first two days after she got her phone -- much to the consternation of her father. His opinion matters greatly: He is the head preacher of the colony. "It's against our rules," Ms. Wipf explains.

Hutterites, named after Jacob Hutter, who was burned as a heretic in 1536, had for years banned conventional telephones. Many homes didn't even have indoor plumbing. But although Hutterites still speak in their own German dialect, their colonies have changed with the introduction of advances like tractors and automobiles.

Cellphones have had a different effect: The array of available devices with different accessories goes against the communal colony dynamic. Features such as cameras and Internet access -- which are banned or severely restricted in nearly all colonies -- open up a tantalizing window to the outside world.

A faithful reader of ours, John L. Hoh Jr., gave us the heads up on this article and felt that it could have used a sidebar to document major beliefs within these types of communities (Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, etc.) on the use of various technologies. I couldn't agree more, but I'd like to add that it would have been good to know if there are theological foundations to these beliefs. Or is it more about tradition?

I know from personal experience that people, particularly my wife, hate it when my cell phone distracts me from real-life experiences, be it a text message, the urge to check the news or e-mail. I tend to agree that this is a bad habit, but it's not really for religious reasons. It has more to do with politeness and common decency than with my religious beliefs.

But cell phones and other technologies also change a society and the way people relate to each other, as Holmes shows us so well:

For teenage boys, cellphones can be a pathway to life outside the colony. Carnie Wipf, Elsie's 18-year-old nephew, watched many of his friends take off for the oil fields and, thanks to his cellphone, got blow-by-blow accounts of their adventures going to movies, watching TV and buying clothes. He knew he could have a job waiting for him and that he could make $22.50 an hour -- more than five times his monthly allowance in the colony.

So, last April, Carnie Wipf hitched a ride into Billings with other colony members. In town, he split from the group and said he would find his way back. That night, he used his cellphone to call his mother and tell her he had left the colony, with no immediate plans to return. Would he have left without a cellphone? "The honest truth, I'm not sure," Carnie said.

Carnie, whose late father was a blacksmith at the colony, cuts steel at a local manufacturer and delivers pizza at night. He misses calving and harvesting but finds comfort in his friends, all of whom are ex-Hutterites with cellphones. He uses his cellphone to call his mom every day. "She wants to know, 'How is life on the outside?' and I tell her, 'Going real well.'"

But he adds: "The grass is not as green as I figured it would be."

It would be interesting to ask a recent adopter of a latest technology, oh say, Apple's iPhone (I do not have one), and find out if they are happier now that they have the device. For the Hutterites it seems that getting a device as common to most people as a cell phone can have life-changing and even, it seems, faith-changing affects. But has their faith changed, or is it just how they practice their faith? It would be nice to know.

Photo taken from Wikipedia's article on the Hutterites.

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