Rekindling Old Fires

We can resist technology’s chilling effects.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, August 5, 2002 (Vol. 46, No. 9), p. 56.

Early this past February some friends and I spent a weekend at a resort in the Pacific Northwest—at a February price, I’m happy to say—overlooking the islands of Puget Sound and dwarfed by the splendor of Mount Baker and the Cascades. In the lobby, inviting couches surrounded a massive stone fireplace. I came in from a walk along the beach early one morning ready to warm myself by the fire. Flames were flickering behind the screen.

I stood by the fire and waited for the warmth to soak in. And waited.

Eventually I realized that I was trying to warm myself at a gas-powered fireplace that was putting out less heat than a kitchen stove set to simmer. The logs burned but were not consumed. If I had been a Hebrew shepherd, I probably would have taken off my sandals and waited for a divine message.

But instead I remembered Albert Borgmann—probably the only philosopher in the world who has made a career of writing about fireplaces. Borgmann is one of those brilliant people whom almost no one has ever heard of, for some fairly good reasons. He teaches at the University of Montana, far from the chattering classes, and he writes, well, like a professor. His best-known book has a forgettable title—Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry—and between its covers is a dauntingly rigorous attempt, studded with terms like “deictic discourse,” to understand the nature of technology. But Borgmann may be the most important unknown Christian philosopher of our day, because he understands what has happened to the hearth.

The fireplace, Borgmann reminds us, used to be the hearth—the center of a home both literally and figuratively. The Latin word for hearth is focus, and the activities of premodern homes in both Europe and America were indeed focused on the place that provided warmth, light, and sustenance all at once. The hearth demanded skills of many sorts, and almost every member of the household contributed to it in one way or another—chopping and stacking wood, carrying the wood to the fire, building and tending the fire, covering it at night so there would still be fire in the morning. It also posed dangers, especially to children, with its heat and sparks. The hearth was a powerful presence—so much so that the Romans had a goddess devoted to it.

All that changed with the introduction of modern technology, and Borgmann draws our attention to the differences between the hearth and the furnace. Unlike the hearth, my furnace sits in the basement, far from the center of our family’s life. I have no idea how it works, and I don’t really want to know. Thanks to thermostats, I never have to think about its setting or operation. It simply sits there, unnoticed, undemanding, providing heat whenever we need it.

Technology has given us such devices in abundance, inconspicuous black boxes that replace things that demanded skills and shaped relationships. These devices quietly, deliver one simple commodity—heat, transportation, a hot meal—without fuss or muss. Often this is a blessing. It’s no wonder the resort built an imitation fireplace instead of a hearth, saving the trouble of carting in wood, fending off liability for accidents, and ensuring a pleasing fire-like flicker day and night.

But this disengagement comes at a price, not least in family life. Families that once gathered around the hearth now gather, if they gather at all, around the hearth’s dubious replacements, which glow and flicker in shades of blue on living room walls. Parents and children used to need each other—the parents had invaluable skills, from tending the fire to fixing a meal, and the children could carry wood and help stir the soup. But the parents’ skills are now deployed far from home in jobs that provide the paychecks that buy the devices that displace focal things from our lives. Not that parents are missed. No one over age 5 needs a parent to operate a microwave.

Happily, Borgmann’s diagnosis is also a prescription. Real life is still available even in a device-saturated world. On the baseball diamond or on the hiking trail, in the kitchen or in the workshop, we still encounter creation’s humbling resistance to quick fixes. We cultivate the disciplines—concentration, patience, practice—that focal things require. When we swing the bat, clamber up the rocks, mix the batter just enough, plane the wood, we join the community of those who have done these things before us and those who will do them after us—those who taught us and those whom we will teach. We learn new stories and a new language. We encounter something that is not merely made to serve us, something older and bigger than ourselves.

Which is why I went back outside, that February morning, to pray.