Gregory E. Reynolds
Last month I lamented the contribution of electronic media to the decline of worthwhile reading with the comment: "Being 'connected' is so often actually being disconnected from the things, and most importantly the people, that really matter." Much of what the modern world considers "being connected" is a fairly superficial exchange of basic information. While I think that even information exchange-in my opinion one of the best uses of electronic communication devices-is overwhelming our lives, something more profound is happening to our world. First hand experience-especially face to face-is being diminished in every arena of life. Like fish in water, what surrounds us is difficult to see. But we must work hard at observing if we are to be the wise leaders our Lord has called us to be.
It is not only the electronic "communications" media that are disconnecting us, but all of our technologies in combination. For example, we tend to think that the automobile has always existed-as if it had been created on the sixth day. However, everything created by fallen people in the extended seventh day should be the subject of our critical inquiry as Christians. As the Canadian scholar Harold Innis insisted: transportation and communication technologies change everything about the way we live and the way we view the world. Like the railroad, the automobile altered the cultural, social, and intellectual landscape of America. The very automobiles that separated and dispersed us have now become necessary to maintain face to face relationships.
One of the most remarkable quotes I have ever read on this subject comes from Booth Tarkington's novel The Magnificent Ambersons, published in 1918 just as the automobile was emerging as a major force in American culture. When tactless George Amberson summarily dismisses automobiles as "a useless nuisance," his would-be father-in-law, Eugene Morgan, a manufacturer of the new-fangled automobile, answers perceptively:
I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization-that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us expect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; Just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles "had no business to be invented."
While we cannot stop what is happening technologically we must be aware of what is happening in order to be good stewards of that little corner of God's world where he has placed us. We might call it technology ecology. From my vantage point, I am not aware of much critical analysis going on among Christians-or anyone else for that matter. Our unvarnished optimism about all of our inventions is really aping the culture around us. Part of the mind renewal enjoined in Romans 12 involves assessing technology in terms of the ways it either enhances or diminishes our relationships with God and other human beings.
Put boldly, cars and computers may be robbing us, as officers in the body of Christ, of the kind of face to face, incarnational ministry of which our world is in such desperate need. The intangible mystery of being human, image-bearers of the living triune God, must not be misinterpreted to give us the false impression that there is no difference between primary, firsthand experience, and electronically mediated experience. The inability to precisely describe or define something profound and complex does not mitigate its reality.
Last February, after descending from a winter climb in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I drove south through dramatic Franconia Notch. As I entered the notch, with Cannon Mountain on my right and snowcapped Mount Lafayette on my left, I was listening to the 1943, electronically remastered, recording of the great Wilhelm Furtwngler conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker playing Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. As I passed the base of Lafayette the second movement-one of the profoundest pieces of orchestral music ever written-was playing. On a Bose system in such a setting, this would appear to be the pinnacle of concert listening experience.
But it wasn't. This February I heard the same piece of music live, conducted by James Levine, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Symphony Hall. Some bright audiophile will ask "What's the difference?" or perhaps even prefer the Franconia Notch performance. While not denying my intense enjoyment of both, the difference is overpowering, but profoundly difficult to define. Perhaps that is just the problem.
Consider, for example, the difference in hearing this performance during World War II in Berlin, not knowing if you would live to hear Beethoven again. It is the same as asking, Why can't I get a good theological education on the web instead of the difficulty and expense of doing it "in person"? Pastors may ask, Why won't an email or a phone call do? Why is house to house visitation so important?
For the same reason, live pastoral preaching can never be replaced by an Internet connection, a video conference session, or for that matter enhanced by PowerPoint in a sanctuary. Human presence and experience in God's world is a matter of body and soul. Its profundity is not quantifiable, or easily definable, precisely because we image our majestic Creator.
Here is a practical challenge-a communications IQ (incarnational quotient) test. How much of your daily experience is mediated through a computer on theological discussion lists, "distance learning," sending and answering emails, occupational or recreational web surfing? Then there is the TV, the cell phone, and the list goes on. How many people are being visited? How much real communion is going on among the saints in your congregation? How many of our young people are learning basic social skills, or even experiencing a loving, giving, intelligent community? The problem is not merely a matter of time, but even more importantly the ways in which we understand and relate to God, his world, and his people. From automobile to personal computer our real connectedness is being undermined and that in the name of a communication revolution. True communication involves the body and soul communion of persons.
Listen to the way Paul describes his ministry in Ephesus in Acts 20:17-21. "From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them: 'You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.' "
John closed two of his letters with a profound sense of the importance of personal presence, which even an inspired letter could not replace. "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" (2 John 1:12-13). "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. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name" (3 John 1:13-14). Even the ancient technology of pen and ink is no substitute for face to face communion.
"Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. And we have such trust through Christ toward God" (2 Corinthains 2:2-3).
The church is in a unique position to act as a counter environment against the dehumanizing tendency of fallen culture. In our growing congregation, along with working on being more consistent in visiting each member at least annually, several young mothers use the church building during the midweek to get together for play and conversation. We are exploring new ways to be involved in one anothers' lives. Sessional visits help to stimulate appreciation for the importance of personal relationships. Such visits should be seen as visits from our Savior, who has called ministers, elders, and deacons to represent him with their personal presence to his people.
Ordained Servant, March 2006.