Monthly Archives: May 2020

Live Images Are Not Living Persons

Our technologies have come a long way from when John wrote, likely using a reed-pen on a papyrus sheet, “I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face.” (3 Jn. 1:13-14)

In the centuries since then, we developed better forms of paper, codexes, and the printing press. Still, the delay between writing a message and receiving it was still significant. The electric telegraph of 1837 produced the first nearly instantaneous communication, followed by the telephone in 1876, radio communications in 1907. By the year 2000, the Internet had brought myriads of new forms of instant communication. Increasing Internet speeds have driven the web from being mostly text to becoming the next form of television. In the last 10 years or so we finally have what we’d watched on Star Trek all those years ago: a live, full-colour image of another person we’re talking to.

Skype, Zoom, Connect, Facetime, WhatsApp and many more have added “living” colour to our communications. It has enabled cheap international conference calls, distance education, cheaper broadcasts of live events, and a host of depraved uses, too.

The Covid-19 crisis has forced most churches to use some form of these technologies in some context: whether it was actual services, or video calls with members or leadership meetings. And it has also forced us to ask, how close are these forms of communication to the “real thing”?

Of course, the vast majority of people would agree that in-person worship is superior to “virtual” forms. Even if their reasoning is inchoate, most people still sense that, given a choice, being together in person is superior to watching screens.

The real disagreement has arisen over whether instant digital communications are a substitute (even if a temporary one) for in-person worship, or whether the very nature of worship and the nature of digital communication excludes such a possibility.

In favour of the first idea are all the similarities between in-person worship and a live image. We can see and hear one another immediately, as we would in a corporate gathering. We can listen and respond to prayer, Scripture, and preaching. We can even sing to music played through the screen. Furthermore, we experience a kind of corporateness, in that we are able to see the many faces participating in that moment. In this thinking, the presence of the simultaneous communication, and the presence of visual image captures the bulk of what worship is.

In favour of the second idea are all the differences between a live image and in-person worship. The live, colour images belie the fact that they are just that: pixels digitally reconstructed and sounds. They are two-dimensional images and electromagnetic sounds that reproduce those of the actual person. In reality, we are not “with” anyone. We are alone, or with a few at home, looking at a screen. Several others, we know, are also looking at a screen, seeing images of us. It is a seemingly magical simulation of being together, but it remains a simulation. Any act of ministry that requires more than the transfer of verbal and non-verbal information cannot be done with an image of another person: greeting one another physically, showing hospitality to one another, meeting each other’s financial or physical needs, eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper together. Many of the other ‘one another’ commands such as “exhort”, “comfort”, or “admonish” seem incomplete without the many forms of non-verbal communication that take places in one another’s presence – the arm on the shoulder, the posture, even fragrances, or sounds inaudible over a computer. For a proponent of this theory, the bulk of worship is not communication, but communion: the communion of persons with God. And yes, there is an a priori here: communion of persons requires the actual presence of those persons together.

Very likely, it is our a prioris about worship that colour our view of what live digital communications are really accomplishing. Our presuppositions are often invisible to us, but they are probably what drives a lot of this debate.

In my opinion, a Christianity that is still reeling from Enlightenment rationalism and from contemporary technopoly tends to see the faith in informational terms. Christianity becomes a set of ideas to be transmitted, and if one can see and hear what is being communicated, then worship is thought to be largely occurring. Everything can be reduced to sights and sounds: audio-visual information.

A Christianity that is trying to shake off its modernistic and post-modernistic influences sees the faith in incarnational terms. Even loving God takes place when it is embodied in loving one another (1 John 4:12, 20). The truth is embodied in persons, whom we must be with and share our lives with. Worship is not what happens “up front” where the pulpit and musicians sit. If that were the case, then we could point a camera at it, and replay that image to whomever, wherever.

Instead, worship is what we do when we gather. When the believer is no longer solitary, but assembled together with other believers in the name of Jesus, there Christ is in a particular way (Matt 18:20). The context of Matthew 18 is church discipline, and Christ’s presence there speaks of His authority behind the action of discipline, but this application does not alter the overall truth: the assembled people of God can expect the working of Christ through His Spirit in ways not available to a believer on his own.

In short, the images and sounds might be “live” (i.e. their sending and receiving is roughly simultaneous). But they are not living. Humans are living, not their letters, phones, radios, or screens, nor the sounds and sights they produce. And worship is more than communication: it is the communion of living persons with one another.

Disembodied Christianity

During the week, I read one man rage at ‘conservative Christians’ for their desire to re-open churches. He then proceeded to point out that Hebrews 10:25 does not really prove that churches need to gather in physical buildings, and that all Christians who call for re-opened churches based upon Hebrews 10:25 are abusing the text.

The irony here is rich. It’s very true that were we to build the case for the church’s physical gathering merely upon a text like Hebrews 10:25 that our case would be, at best, incomplete. (And the presence or absence of church buildings is completely beside the point).  But it is bewildering to the point of being speechless to read someone lecturing others on how to use the Bible who can read the whole Bible and not come away with the utter necessity of the physical, embodied gathering of God’s people. This is missing the forest for the trees in 4HD colour.

First, Scripture exalts the human body as good (1 Tim 4:4). God united Himself permanently with human nature (which includes the body), so that we can dwell in His presence forever and see His face. Jesus died not only to save your soul, but your body also. The Christian hope goes beyond the disembodied state to ultimate resurrection. A despising, or even denigrating, of physical life with all that goes with it is a Gnostic idea, not a Christian one. The body, which includes all our physical interactions, is not incidental to our spirituality.

To read the book of Hebrews as a kind of Platonic polemic against physicality is to miss the whole point of the book. Hebrews teaches not a dichotomy between “spiritual” and “physical” or between “visible” and “Invisible” but between partial and ultimate, shadow and fulfilmenttemporary and permanent. The furthest thing from a Hebrew’s mind would have been some kind of disparagement of the earthly, physical or embodied. If any people ever rejoiced in the goodness of creation, it was the Hebrews.

Second, one of the points of embodied living is to do what only embodied persons can do: meet in each other’s presence. This is so manifestly the case, that Scripture repeats it incessantly.

Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full. The children of your elect sister greet you. Amen. (2 Jn. 1:12-13)

 Whenever I journey to Spain, I shall come to you. For I hope to see you on my journey, and to be helped on my way there by you, if first I may enjoy your company for a while. (Rom 15:24)

that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you. (Rom. 15:32)

 But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured more eagerly to see your face with great desire. (1Th 2:17-20)

Be diligent to come to me quickly (2Ti 4:9)

Third, many Scriptures require physical gathering. For example, “Greet one another with a holy kiss”. We don’t have to carry out the first-century cultural particulars of this command to obey it. It is easily applied in our setting as a handshake, hug, kiss or bow, depending on the culture. We can argue about exactly what this means to our culture, but it obviously means something, because all has been written for our learning. The best explanation is that we are to sincerely love one another, and greet each other affectionately when we can. This almost always requires physical presence. Many of the multiple “one another” commands are severely limited or impossible if only conducted or transmitted by some media, however live and realistic they may be. The Lord’s Supper and baptism are among the most physical and human of acts: eating, and washing (or burying). These necessitate physical gathering, and no technology could function as a permanent, or even subsidiary substitute.

What is really going in those who scorn the essential nature of physical gathering for corporate worship is likely a transhumanist revisioning of human life, combined with a longstanding mind-body dualism in evangelical circles. The secular culture is happy to abolish human nature, and Christians have for some time been unsure of whether Christianity is fully human. Yes, Christians can debate over the wisdom or propriety of churches opening and gathering sooner or later. But to debate over whether physical gathering is essential is to identify yourself as a purveyor of a different Christianity altogether.

When Christianity is reduced to mere information (which is what technology transmits) it becomes another ghostly, disembodied religion of mere abstractions. And the more Christianity becomes simply informational, the more it becomes simply unbelievable. People are not primarily converted by facts and concepts, but by truth that is taught, incarnated and embodied by example, imagination, and exposure to others and their lives.

Gladly, true Christianity is far from disembodied. The Word became flesh. We are saved not only in our souls, but in body too (1 Thes 5:23), and will one day see our Redeemer in the flesh on the earth (Job 19:25). Scripture anticipates the final and ultimate gathering with God in His presence.

The great irony then, is that those who deny the essentiality of physical gathering and accuse Christians of misreading their fundamentalist presuppositions into Hebrews 10:25 are manifestly reading their quasi-Gnostic and transhumanist views into the very same text.

No, we can’t build a case for the importance of physically gathering for corporate worship merely from Hebrews 10:25. But we don’t need to. A plain reading of all of Scripture will do.

 

Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Screens

“John, we’d love it if you and Susan would join us for a meal on Thursday evening.”

“Uh…well, Mike, thanks but…isn’t that illegal? I mean, doesn’t the lockdown prohibit that kind of social gathering?”

“Oh, no, I don’t mean that you and Susan come to our home. We’ll host you online.”

“I’m still not following. How will we have a meal online?”

“Well, we’ll prepare a meal for ourselves. You’ll prepare a meal for yourselves. We’ll then do a Zoom call and eat in front of each other!”

“We’ll…eat in front of each other…on a screen?”

“Yup. It’ll be a great time over great food!”

“Are you serious?”

***

Before the coronavirus crisis, few could have imagined this conversation. Now, a version of this dialogue is taking place, and being taken seriously by Christians. The difference is that the meal in question is the Lord’s Supper, and some believe that eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper on our own, while filming ourselves and transmitting that image to others (who are doing the same thing), constitutes a shared meal.

One of fault lines in contemporary Christianity that the coronavirus lockdown has revealed is real disagreement over what is meant by the ideas of assemble, gather, corporate worship, fellowship, and presence. Does a live, two-dimensional image of a person not function as a form of presence, assembly, or gathering?

Media ecologists have been telling us for years that media shape us not only by their content, but by their form. For decades, we’ve been consuming media on screens: laptops, cellphones, flatscreens, tablets. They have become our primary form of information, education, communication, and entertainment. Screens have colonised us. And it appears that Christianity, at least in some parts of the world, has likewise been screenified.

A knee-jerk and superficial reaction would be to say that such assertions are the age-old argument that Luddites have against technology, or fear of the new. On the contrary: our technologies are always downstream of our views of the good life. We make tools (technologies) to serve those ends we are pursuing (and often our technologies end up becoming ends in themselves). But it is our view of the good life – what we think humans are here for and what constitutes our purpose – that drives us to make technologies, and works of art, and everything else. Put simply, the debate over the use or non-use of livestreaming, Zoom, online communion, and so on, is only secondarily a discussion of technology. It is primarily a debate over what a fully human Christianity is. It is the Christian view of the body that is behind these debates: do we need to be physically present to gather, do we need to be physically present to eat together, do we need to be physically in one another’s presence to worship corporately or to be said to be assembling? And does “virtual” presence still constitute a true, human presence?

The word virtual, used to describe nearly all online interactions, illustrates the ambiguity here. On the one hand, virtual suggests something nearly approximating the real thing, or coming extremely close, as in “We’re virtually on their doorstep”, or “Scarlet is virtually the same as vermillion”. On the other hand, virtual suggests something that has not reached the end in mind, as in “You’re virtually there, but it still needs work” or “I could virtually hear them, but there was too much noise in the street.” One connotation says Almost, but not quite. Another connotation says, Already there, but imperfectly so. 

Our theology of the body shapes whether we see a word like virtual as having one connotation or the other. The same could be said for our view of words or ideas like online, digital, live, and the like. And I suggest, with fingers pointed at myself while saying it, that our use of media may well be informing our theology of the body. That is, pragmatism and praxis may be shaping our understanding more than we care to admit.

Yes, we cannot meet, but that does not alter the meaning of meet. The issue of constraint is only secondarily a concern. The primary concern is the meaning of a human meeting. A groom-to-be is under no illusions that his marriage requires his wife’s physical presence. If coronavirus has prevented the ceremony, no online exchange of vows will convince him that they have indeed become one flesh. He will be quite certain that there is no such thing as a virtual consummation of the marriage, if you will indulge the illustration. The practical constraints of the coronavirus won’t change the meaning of marriage, union or one flesh.

So, how do we proceed? While no one can read the Bible without our cultural lenses, we can read the Bible while being honest about our prejudices (our pre-judgements). This makes us more honest interpreters, and less likely to to be disingenuous about finding answers in the Bible that we were looking for all along. But the Bible is what must settle this debate.

For the present crisis, Christians need to return to a rigorously biblical anthropology (doctrine of man). That means asking and answering at least the following questions with Scriptural principles:

  • Of what importance is the body during corporate worship?
  • Does the Bible ever favour personal bodily presence over mediated communication, and why?
  • Since Scripture was written to pre-modern people, what would the biblical authors think of instant and live mediated communication? Does it fall into the category of 2 John 12 or not?
  • Does instantly mediated communication constitute what the Bible means by meet, gather, assemble, commune, fellowship? If not, why not?
  • What would be the symptoms of a disembodied Christianity?
  • What actions or technologies would contribute to a disembodied Christianity?

Answering these questions is not only helpful for the practical crisis confronting us, but for determining whether we think Christianity is fundamentally incarnational and embodied, or only accidentally so. I hope we can do so together.