Another border to transgress is the border erected by emerging technologies between life and our online, disembodied lives. That Christianity could have anything to say about our approach to technology may seem legalistic at first, but an essential dimension of following Christ is participating in His body, and this is a flesh-and-blood existence.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Christianity is that the incredible truth that Christ saves us in His body of flesh by the Spirit is not something we apprehend only spiritually. We meditate on it, we receive it, we build our lives on it, yes, but we can also have dinner with it. I’m talking here about the church.
The church is the body of Christ. Local assemblies are designed to bear witness to Him—to be His hands and feet. As Christ is love and lives His life in the Spirit, so the church is love and lives its life in the Spirit. “Such a community is the primary hermeneutic of the gospel,” declares Newbigin, for “all the statistical evidence goes to show that those within our secularized societies who are being drawn out of unbelief to faith in Christ say that they were drawn through the friend- ship of a local congregation.” Just as the temple was the magnet people were drawn to, the life of the Spirit lived in the temple “of a collective body” becomes magnetic itself. Faithfully proclaiming Christ and patterning our lives after Him—imitating His love, embodying His teachings, inviting outsiders to the table—this is how the world sees Christ.
The very lived nature of Christian communal life increasingly becomes rare in the twenty-first-century world, for livedness is downplayed in our culture. The organs of power increasingly communicate to us through the digital world. We rarely meet politicians; rather, we see their digitalized forms daily. We do not experience the influence of celebrities, sports stars, and the titans of business in an enfleshed form. Rather, to experience their impact we must consume images and information about them via the Internet or television. Less and less do we get to know our local bank teller, find out how their kids are, or chat with the cashier in our favorite store. Such interactions now hover in digital form on our screens, ensconced in a part of our consciousness.
One day, after entering this online consciousness to consume the news, I was confronted with a social landscape stretched to the breaking point. Divisions between left and right, angry tweets, indignant punditry, terrorism, tensions over the place of Islam in the West. Putting down my iPad and heading out the door to pick up my daughter from school, I reenter the lived world.
There I feel awareness of my body moving, my legs stretching as I walk down the hill. The sun warms the back of my neck. Entering the school, before me runs the gamut of Western multiculturalism. A myriad of different ethnicities and religions, all acting in a wonderfully mundane ballet of wiping kids’ noses, dragging along toddlers, holding basketballs and footballs under their arms, lugging scooters and schoolbags. Instead of a fractious, fragmented, fiery online reality, there is calm, peace, a pleasant parallel universe. Friendly nods, waves of recognition, the hum of small talk.
I watch a young mum arrive, holding in her arms a newborn baby. Smiles break out. Quickly she is surrounded by a handful of other mothers, all beaming at the new arrival, kisses and hugs of congratulations are exchanged. Women in tank tops and yoga pants, some in jeans and tattoos, others in multicolored Islamic scarves. There is no tension, no arguments, no flaming tweets, just a group of humans, interacting face-to-face as we have always interacted. United in the small bandwidth of mundane activities humans have always engaged in. This is the real world. This is the enfleshed world.
Despite all of the adulation given to the digital landscape, despite its increasing incursion into our lives, we still live in the enfleshed, ordinary world. Just look how we crane our necks, uncomfortably walk with our gaze set on our screens, commune with sofa and at screen. It is not our home, but a temporary place of residence for our attentions, a distraction, an echo chamber of opinions and vain words.
At risk of seeming to tell a sentimental story in which a newborn baby unites humanity and undoes all of the problems I have outlined in this book, I wish to clarify my point. We live most of our lives in the real world. We live part of our lives in the feverish, hovering space of the digital world. Such a world can overwhelm us with its immersive power, leaving us ill-equipped for the reality of livedness. The influence of the online world, with all of its divisions and distractions, can lead us even as believers to take it as normative. Fretting and fearing at our cultural turn. However, there is a hope that many have missed. Christians, formed by the church, shaped by its relational rhythms, abiding with Christ, fighting flesh and living in the Spirit, are built for the real world. It is the realm in which the church flourishes and creates community with a heavenly destination.
The church provides good news. Re-centering life around the worship of God, it is the perfect environment for human flourishing. It gives needed, but also tough, medicine for those formed and shaped by the contours of our digitized, consumer-driven world. For the change we are living through wrought by social media and the digital world is a technological one, yet it is shaped by an ideology, a dogma of techno utopianism.
The initial designer of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, states that the web is not so much a technological invention but a social one. It was a platform to create social change, one whose supporting pillars were radical individualism, mystical faith in the power of technology and innovation, and the Californian counterculture’s resistance to authority, which is soaked deep in the soil beneath the industrial parks of Silicon Valley.
The original visionaries of our online worlds, observes tech commentator Andrew Keen, “imported the sixties’ disruptive libertarianism, its rejection of hierarchy and authority, its infatuation with openness, transparency and personal authenticity, and its global communitarianism into the culture of what has become known as ‘cyberspace.’ Their vision was to unite all human beings in a global network linked by computers.” This vision is a digital non-place. It believes that digital networks and online worlds can offer us community and connection while preserving our individual autonomy and freedom. It is this ideology, not the technology itself, which does the damage to our psychological, social, and spiritual selves.
The anxiety that hums like a computer in the background of our contemporary lives alerts us—not to the inherent danger in technology—but rather the inability of digital networks to deliver human flourishing and the deep connection for which the human soul desires. Yes, the new digital landscape has delivered handy ways to connect, as well as unparalleled access to information. Yet its technological utopianism, now monetized and designed to elicit consumer desires at a neurological level, has profoundly formed us. To move from the pure “livedness” of this digital, consumeristic, constantly connected state of being, into the pure “livedness” of the church, can be a jarring one. The gospel invitation into the community of discipleship, which is the church, can seem far from good news. It can feel like a cold shower.
Mark Sayers is the Senior Leader of Red Church, and the co-founder of Über Ministries. He is particularly interested in the intersection between Christianity and the culture of the West. Mark lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Trudi, daughter Grace, and twin boys Hudson and Billy.