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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 219–220 

Book Review

Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology

Albert Borgmann. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2003. 144 pages.

Reviewed by Matthew J. Klaassen

In Power Failure, Albert Borgmann (professor of philosophy at the University of Montana) brings his formidable analytical skills and clear writing to bear on the relation of technological society to Christian faith, and suggests some Christian responses to the “culture of technol-ogy.” The result moves in a direction one might call a philosophical theology of technology.

Power Failure consists of a series of previously published essays that have been slightly reworked into book form. The book is divided into two parts. The first part consists of three essays dealing with general issues of the philosophy of technology. The first essay outlines what Borgmann takes to be the fundamental nature of the culture of technology. His discussion of “Cool Whip” is particularly illuminating in this connection. While Cool Whip seems relatively innocuous, further investigation of its character reveals the key to understanding the culture of technology: the “device paradigm” (15-18). Products of technology have their “origin and substructure . . . concealed by a vague and implicit understanding” (16) built up from various methods of development, appropriation, distribution, and commodification, all of which are concealed due to the easy availability of such products.

The following essay contrasts traditional “things,” around which communities historically found their focal practices of intimacy and virtue, with technological “devices” that supplant such things. Since traditional morality and communal solidarity are founded on such practices, they become more difficult to sustain. The next essay illuminates the way in which massive spectacles of celebration run by corporations and government agencies lack the necessary communal involvement and focus to sustain a vibrant public life. Borgmann’s call for public support for religious communities of celebration is particularly intriguing.

The second part of the book deals more directly with the place of {220} Christian theology and practice in relation to technological culture. Technology, in Borgmann’s analysis, tends to detract from a properly Christian conception of contingency and grace. Technological thinking encourages a kind of “regardless power” that fails to be properly disposed towards God’s creation. Thus Borgmann calls for a rethinking of the notion of power in order to revise aspects of traditional Christian metaphysics. Also of interest are a thoughtful critique of Harvey Cox, as well as Borgmann’s thoughts on affluence, the middle class, and a Christian culture of “word and table.”

Power Failure’s essays never really come together as a book; but while it does not add up to more than the sum of its parts, those parts are still worth reading. Borgmann covers such a wide variety of topics that one sometimes feels that what he is describing is not so much the “culture of technology,” but the broader culture of modernity. In this connection, one might prefer the broader historical perspective of George Grant, although he lacks Borgmann’s philosophical sophistication. Still, this book should be required reading for social theorists of technology, and is highly recommended for academics and literate laypeople interested in philosophical theology, philosophy of technology, and their intersection.

Matthew J. Klaassen
Master of Philosophy Student
Institute of Christian Studies, Toronto, Ontario

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