Disclaimer: I acknowledge the silly irony of writing something like this on a blog. So be it.
(Preface: This post is a continuation of the question, first introduced here, “If we are disciples of Jesus, witnesses to the love of God and aspiring saints, in what ways should we contradict our generation and, in doing so, point to something greater?”)
It used to be the case that practically the only way you could communicate with someone was by talking, shouting, squealing, laughing, whispering, hand-gesturing or otherwise bodily interacting with them – face-to-face. If you were really privileged and in a league of your own, then you could partake in the baffling project of physically ossifying your thoughts and drinking in those of others: the mystery of writing and reading (a practice that was mind boggling for most everyone). One near-universal prerequisite upon which all of human ‘inter-facing’ was contingent was exactly that: a face.
Because it is so intrinsic to our humanity, it might be the case that most communication still happens this way. But, from merely cursory observation, it seems to be somewhat disconcertingly evanescing (at least as the clear-cut majority). Other than the perennial modes of communication, we can now (take a deep breath) skype, call, text, tweet, message, DM, instagram, ping, face-time, email, ‘chat’ or facebook someone. We have a whole new stable of horses that were once-upon-a-time intended to be simply back-up ways to communicate. But these animals demand a lot of feeding, grooming and space, don’t they? What were meant to be convenient little enhancements have become something like main players. What was meant to be icing on the cake seems like it’s becoming the cake – and it’s giving us a stomachache.
More and more, we don’t talk to people, we communicate through mediums. We don’t live exposed in the open daylight of other people’s presence; instead, we sit in our cells tugging on strings that are mysteriously tugged on by ‘something/someone,’ ‘out there.’ Moreover, we can tend to think that this suffices, calling it a communication ‘revolution!’
This is hitting our generation particularly hard. When was the last time you were at a restaurant, bar or similar social gathering space where, within twenty feet of you, two young adults sat together, ambivalent of each other, but totally mesmerized by their phones? Or how many people in their 20s or 30s do you know who spend nearly all their waking hours beholden to screens? Or, perhaps most telling of all, when was the last time you looked a stranger right in the eyes when you talked to them and it made them visibly uncomfortable? What’s the result? Unprecedented loneliness.
Now, a thought experiment: what if Jesus had never come 2,000 years ago, but came instead – incarnated as a human being and born from of the line of David – 30 years ago. As His public ministry would be beginning right about now in 2014, how do you think He would communicate with people? Would He have called the Apostles over Facebook? Would He have sent them out two-by-two into Twitter or the blogosphere?
If our society is moving towards a culture in which communication happens mainly through technological mediums, it might be the case that this is a way in which we must contradict our generation. A culture without faces is a culture of estrangement. Such a culture will really have a dire need for disciples of Jesus to crash through the interpersonal electronic barriers and testify to the beauty of each person, who is not reducible to a faceless, material piece of datum, but a son or daughter of God made for glory.
Please don’t misunderstand – the Internet is not evil and we shouldn’t fear it. The Church has already encouraged us to use it for building God’s Kingdom. However, electronic means of communicating ought never to become the predominant way in which we engage with the world. Going back to the cake analogy, it ought not to be the cake or even the icing, but the sprinkles – a take-it-or-leave-it condiment. Or perhaps digital communication is like a sweet scent that brings people closer to eventually enjoy what they are really hungry for: a meal (i.e. real, face-to-face communication)
Why is face-to-face communication so important? (Note: what a weird question!) We are not pure spirits. Nor are we just minds trapped in machines. We are embodied souls. Our bodies are really us! Only when we look at someone face-to-face do we behold the full, mysterious, inexhaustible person. When we read someone’s tweet, we do not. Martin Heidegger said, “Being comes crashing in.” When we behold a person’s face, doesn’t this happen? Don’t they crash in on us in a way that is humbling, freeing, refreshing and beautiful? For this reason, we are trapped when we do not live in a thick context of the physical presence of others. We are left alone and blind without the surging light of the pinnacle of God’s Creation – man as revealed through his body.
Understanding all of this, disciples of Jesus ought to be radically different in how they talk to people face-to-face and seek out bodily human contact. Don’t let the “digital continent” dominate or seduce you into indentured servitude! We ought to be constantly seeking out moments with others: looking people in the eyes, loving people face-to-face, making ourselves vulnerable, letting ourselves be seen and allowing our being to “crash in” on others.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27). He didn’t say, “My sheep are friends with me on Facebook” and that bit about His sheep “following” Him had nothing to do with Twitter. Jesus also said “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). What is the pre-condition for loving one another? Bodies. How can you love someone apart from their body?
Though technology has its proper place, let’s resist the timid retreat into the digital world! Remember that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity,” but by an interpersonal, incarnated, bodily act of laying on of hands, He gave us “a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:6-7). Let’s live fully embodied lives as a community of disciples on mission with Jesus, witnessing to the Father’s love, preaching the Gospel of salvation and welcoming people into friendship with Jesus with our words and deeds – face-to-face.