Ordained Servant Online

The HTML of Cruciform Love by John Frederick and Eric Lewellen

T. David Gordon

The HTML of Cruciform Love: Toward a Theology of the Internet, by John Frederick and Eric Lewellen. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2019, xx + 187 pages, $26.00, paper.

I sometimes exhibit a facial tic whenever I see the words “Toward” and “Theology” in the title of a book; this time I did not (or, if I did, I should not have). This collection consists of a thoughtful introduction and twelve insightful chapters by fourteen scholars from three continents (three Australians, a Scot, one Canadian, five Californians, and one each from Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, and my native Virginia—no partridge, no pear tree). It is only merely “toward” a theology of the Internet in the sense of being a collection of papers by individuals with different competences and different estimates of the Internet; but the thinking in each of the papers is very well-developed and exhibits reflection that is both informed and seasoned. Many of the papers were originally delivered five years ago during a webinar hosted at the University of St. Andrews; several others were solicited for this publication.

The authors write from a consistently orthodox Christian perspective; all are trained in theology or philosophy (or both), and their competences cover the range of the theological and philosophical disciplines. Notably, the contributors are not only well-versed in the literature regarding the Internet, but they exhibit also a solid acquaintance with Media Ecology; McLuhan and Ellul are a regular part of the conversation, and I was delighted that four different chapters exhibited familiarity with MIT’s Sherry Turkle.

After a helpful introduction by John Frederick, Ben Myers and Scott Stephens take us way back to the early church (Chrysostom, Tertullian, et al.) and its characteristic non-attendance at the Roman spectacles, due to their rigorous beliefs about “the morality of the eyes,” and “fasting with the eyes,” ancient warnings to the shallow ease with which third millennium believers will watch almost anything. Subsequent chapters address such things as the unavoidable nature of interfaces of some sort, anonymity, how databases shape our biblical hermeneutics, narcissism, a “Theology of Work for a Virtual Age” (Scott B. Rae), that would be as valuable for its theology of work as for its application to the web, Jesus’s community (according to Mark) and the Internet community, the relation of technology and theology (with special reference to the Solomonic temple, Walter Kim), an exposé of both the quotidian nature and the surveilling nature of Internet usage, a fascinating introduction to rabbi Emmanuel Levinas’s 1964 idea of “The Temptation of Temptation,” and its prescient anticipation of the web world, the tension between efficiency and incarnation, warnings about the myth of perceiving our tools as neutral, and much more.

This book should probably be read differently than most books; ordinarily I promote the practice of reading a book at a single sitting (if not literally, at least without the intervention of reading anything else). These chapters, however, each have peculiar insights about particular aspects of digital life; to be appreciated, I believe each chapter should be considered on its own, and perhaps the ideal way would be to read and discuss one a week with several other people until the book is finished. There is too much to savor, critique, and ponder in each of the chapters to rush to the next one. In God’s providence, I ended up reading some chapters in London, some in Nantes, some in Paris, and some in the Cradle of Civilization, Grove City, Pennsylvania, and this afforded a decent amount of pondering time.

Some other Christian books have wrestled with the digital world in primarily a practical way, answering people’s frequently-expressed requests for some practical guidance. The authors in this volume provide a slightly different service; they wrestle with a “Theology of the Internet,” how to begin to think about it in theological terms, armed with serious reflection informed by creation/fall/redemption, the two natures of Christ, Incarnation, love for God and his image, and the cross. Such a contribution provides practical help indirectly, but probably more lastingly, because the particular devices and technologies may change a little, but a theology of human communication and human technology will flex with such merely technical changes. For this reason, I might recommend this as the first place to start for people who wish to think seriously and Christianly about our tangled digital web.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, June 2020.

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