Thursday, June 15, 2006


I often wonder if technology has become a substitute for fleshly human community. I don't know the motives or desires behind the countless numbers of people who blog, but could quasi-community be one of them? Churches struggle with this too. More and more people get their weekly or even daily fix of Christianity through the internet, television, and radio, rather than physically attending the visible church. This observation is hardly news. But what might be new is to consider this question not from the angle of figuring out what this says about the institutional church, but instead in thinking about what this says about people, and especially people in our peculiar culture of individualism. See, to start analyzing the question by putting the focus on the church is itself symptomatic of our general reluctance to put the spotlight on ourselves in any way that might be unflattering. It's easy to say that people get their spirituality through the medium of technology because the institutional church is screwed up for whatever reason. People say this as if this is a revolutionary idea that cuts to the heart of the matter. But the truth is that this news is as old as the church itself, and the church (with some notable and regretable exceptions) is not all that shy about disclosing them. A simple walk through the Pauline and Catholic epistles will show a church plagued with problems and having those problems brought out into the open. So again, this is hardly groundbreaking stuff.

What's more telling is the fact that spirituality through technology seems to be a very American phenomenon. Why is this? Is it because we're a wealthy nation with broad access to technologies that few other countries enjoy? Probably. But it's more than that. Technology, as Neil Postman and others have pointed out, helps shape our cultural norms. Technology reinforces the values of capitalism, commodification, and individualism. In a country that loves to have the best and newest stuff, technology only reinforces this national urge. In a country filled with people who are scared and wary of community and vulnerable relationships with other people, technology provides a tailor-made way to experience what I call 'detached community'. As is often said in Christian circles, the Trinity itself reveals a God of eternal community. And because humans are made in God's image, we were made for community too. This desire cannot be eradicated, but it can be distorted and even perverted. Folks who embrace a Christianity that is reduced to Christian radio and a weekly TV sermon miss a vital part of the Christian (and human) experience that Scripture presupposes - community with other believers. Postman argues that TV Christianity fundamentally distorts the Christian religion so that it becomes something different entirely. To Postman, part of what makes Christianity what it is is its communal aspect and all that it entails. While Christians who shun the community of the church may be protecting themselves from being let down, disappointed, or ticked off, they are also depriving themselves of something essential about their faith - ministry through community, and mutual accountability, love, and discipleship through community. In a culture often predisposed to spurn authentic community in favor of superficial individualism that is much safer but far less satisfying, technology provides perhaps THE instrument for such a sentiment to prosper. We want community because that's how we were made, but we don't want too much of it. We want intimacy, but not vulnerability. We want authenticity in our relationships, but not so authentic that we have to actually deal with our stuff. We want to be friends with our neighbors, but we still want to drive our car into the garage and close the door behind us without having to interact with anyone. We want to love Jesus, but not if it means loving other people radically in community that requires work to forge harmony and spiritual fruit.

I'm not saying that God can't work through technology, and that genuine spiritual experiences can only be obtained by being physically present in church. To say this, as Postman seems to, is to deny the doctrine of general revelation. We generally don't tell people who are sick not to go to the hospital because we recognize that God is at work in modern medicine and can heal people on a surgical table just as much as he can anywhere else. The same can approximately be said of technological Christianity. People can get saved through the hearing of the Word through a TV screen. But contrary to popular evangelical belief, getting saved is not where the Christian life starts and stops. The NT is repeatedly emphatic on the importance of community. This is why church membership is rarely if ever mentioned in the Bible - it was the presumed reality of the audience that they would be faithful members of a body of believers. This is what has been lost in too much of America, and I struggle with the way in which the technology I use and appreciate contributes to something that I think is so destructive and disjointed.


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