Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote to the church at Ephesus:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. - Ephesians 2:13
I am in my home office in Austin as I write this. If these words reach you online, it will only be through a separation of space, time, culture—maybe even language. I feel compelled to ask what do what do Paul's letters have to do with our emails? How does our understanding of these epistles impact the way we email, tweet, and correspond online?
One parallel is the technological context. Rome had built roads and a hospitality culture—new traditions and rules protecting travellers. Without these new technologies and protocols, Paul couldn’t have reached Ephesus as a church planter. He couldn’t have even written a letter to the church at Ephesus.
The same is true of the Internet. It has opened up communication possibilities that are absolutely revolutionary. At this point, to say that the potential for the spread of the gospel online is unprecedented sounds simply cliché. No brainer. In a matter of months after the launch of GCD, we were reaching people in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Uganda, Nigeria, and Australia.
In fact, you are no doubt far, far away from me as you read this—on the opposite side of the globe. When you walk out to your day what could possibly tie us together? Paul was in prison—on the opposite side of the Roman Empire. What nearness could he know of a community in Ephesus? And if there is such a potential for the spread of the gospel online, why isn’t it sparking revival?
The answers lie in our various degrees of separation. More than the physical distance, our spiritual brokenness crackles beneath the surface of every human relationship, scrambling signals and preventing clear communication with both my neighbor next-door and my Facebook friends thousands of miles away. If these separations exist in any human relationship, what spiritual obstacles stymie the full communication of the gospel online? What sins creep into our email and status updates? How does the gospel change the way we use the Internet?
According to iCrazy, a recent Newsweek cover story by Tony Dokoupil the average teen processes 3,700 texts a month. 80% of us bring our laptops on vacation so we can work. (Yes, I’m a statistic, too.)
Technology has crept unquestioned into our homes. After interviewing more than 450 people, MIT psychologist and author, Sherry Turkle reported to the American Psychological Association, “A mother made tense by text messages is going to be experienced as tense by the child. And that child is vulnerable to interpreting that tension as coming from within the relationship with the mother.” Honestly, this breaks my heart because I too am guilty of passing on my online anxiety to my son.
Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine says, “I’ve seen plenty of patients who have no history of addictive behavior—or substance abuse of any kind—become addicted via the Internet and these other technologies.”
In fact when the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is released next year, “Internet Addiction Disorder” will be included in the appendix for further study.
I’m something of a psychology agnostic. I’m suspicious of any science that has historically electrocuted the mentally ill for treatment. I prefer phenomenology. Consciousness is a phenomenon much like gravity or the photoelectric effect—irreducible in the face of scientific method. Understand, I’m not denying that humans have an emotional “inner life.” I’m denying our emotional/psychological singularity. Being created in God’s image means we are made for, by, and in community, but these connections are severed and distorted by the Fall.
By extension, when it comes to questions of our iSanity, I’d say the problem is a sin problem. It isn’t a broken relationship with our individual “psyche.” It’s a breakdown between us and God.
Author and cartoonist, Tim Kreider, recently posted about the Busy Trap for the New York Times blog, writing: “If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are… Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
Underneath this business—and this is something I am incredibly guilty of—is the sin of pride and self-importance. Who needs God when they’ve got 900,000 Twitter followers? Look at my inbox. I’m corresponding with the big players. So how can I possibly schedule time for prayer? Better put it in the day planner or its forgotten. Same with my family and friends.
<ERROR: Identity Switch>
A few weeks ago my laptop froze while I was switching between my personal Facebook page and the GCD page. The limbo address read: Identity Switch. Heaven forbid a hiccup in the barrier between my two universes: Ben Roberts Austin hipster and Ben Roberts weird Christian website editor.
The problem with all our virtual identities is the risk of buying the lie of the virtual self and in turn perpetuating the falsehood. I am none of my online identities. There is a foundational fiction that underscores any interaction online, but we are becoming increasingly adept at suspending our disbelief of this falsehood.
The risk of allowing any virtual identity to override our true identity in Christ is enormous. Especially when most Americans spend at least eight hours a day staring at a screen—more time than we spend on any other activity including sleeping.
Ease of Access
Sometimes as I struggle to interact authentically online, the questions just won’t stop coming: How do we keep status updates, emails, and social networks from eroding our real identity? Is it reasonable to ask that we maintain a sense of our true self in an artificial information-based environment? How does this effect the way we interact with each other as believers in spiritual community? Ack! When, the questions become to much, I just have to thank the Lord for the internet’s free and easy selection of far out 1960’s Jesus music.
But I’m learning we need to question everything if only for the inconvenience of it! The problem is convenience quickly becomes a virtue online. How easy is it for me to reply to this email? Does it need a star? How many starred emails can sit in my inbox needing attention before I lose my head? More importantly is firstname.lastname@example.org a human being worthy of my respect?
I suspect part of the appeal of our online friendships is the ease with which we can write someone off. Unfriend. Unfollow. No problem. Forget loving-kindness. Forget patience. That simply doesn’t increase my Twitter following.
I could go on and on, listing the increased ease of sin that attends on our increased ease of information exchange, but it all trends toward one terrible abyss. Last month one of my coworkers made the news. His daughter had an argument with her friend online. The differences flared-up and quickly spiraled out of control. So his daughter’s former friend submitted a plea to have his daughter killed in exchange for elicit photos. She posted their address and phone number and personal info on a blog, and within minutes they were receiving threatening phone calls from other states. The police were called in to investigate, and now the girl faces up to thirty years in prison for numerous criminal charges.
When we are too busy to care, when our identities and the identities of others are founded on virtuality not reality, when it's easy to mute any sense of mutual respect, then anger tears loose of its cage, and suddenly we’re on an online rampage, deathmatch-style. The consequences can be devastating to our lives and souls, but according to Christ's teaching, there's no difference in God's eyes between this criminal behavior and writing an angry email.
How can we hope to rebalance this slippery slope of online existence? What truth or righteousness can be found in an environment constructed from deceit and brokenness?
It ain’t too pretty a picture. If we try to rectify these fractures ourselves, we will fail. If we look for honesty and moral guidance from a machine, we move deeper into the web of delusion, depression, and outrage. For all it’s false hope of “global village,” the Internet is just as fallen and messed-up as anything else in this world. Perhaps, even more so because all our awesome devices and apps make the only solution appear primitive and unimaginably hairball. I’m talking about the blood of Christ.
It is only by the blood of Christ that those who are far off can become near and immediate to us. It is only by a loving Son of the Living God killed for our sins that we can seek to renew our online relationships. There’s nothing cool, convenient, or slick about it. For this reason, I take Sundays offline. I need a day to rest in what God is doing in folks' lives through GCD. I keep a journal and write thank you notes. I spend time with my family and spiritual community. Time offline reorients us toward what's ultimate and reunites us with real fellowship.
I’m learning to pray over every email I write. I’m learning to let Christ pound my heart back into shape to find the real person on the other end of the information vortex. They’re there, and they need to know Christ just as badly I as do.
I urge followers of Christ to re-evaluate the way they email and tweet. Paul took great pains to pursue Christ in every letter he wrote. He wrestled with sin in his correspondence. In his letters, we find deep mysteries, powerful admonitions, and graceful words of healing to scattered people, people broken and badly in need of real community—in need of Christ.
Can you imagine the healing that could spread through the Internet if we purposed to pursue Christ more intentionally in our social media contacts and emails? I’ll be the first to admit it was initially so weird, but the leaders of GCD are learning to pray with each other on Google Hangout. Yes, there are barriers, but the Holy Spirit can overcome them.
Paul had these same spiritual divisions in mind when he continued his letter to Ephesus:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility... - Ephesians 2:14
I don’t always get my online correspondence right (just the other day, I got into a hurry and called Seth McBee “Josh” in an email for some stupid reason), but with Christ I have been given a powerful connection to believers everywhere—a connection that brings those people once far off right into my living room. It’s not the Internet. It’s the forgiveness and unbreakable bonds of spiritual adoption found only in Christ. In Christ, we’re not just friends, we’re one.
Ben Roberts is the Managing Editor of Gospel Centered Discipleship, a member of Austin City Life, and a follower of Christ. He lives in an amazingly ugly house with his wife (Jessica), son (Solomon), dog (Charles Bronson II), and two very angry chickens. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, he is currently working on a novel. Twitter @GCDiscipleship
For more on sharing the gospel authentically, check out Jonathan Dodson's Unbelievable Gospel.