It started with AIM
They say that remembering and using dial-up modem is one of the markers between a young and an old millennial, so I guess I’m an old millennial because I still remember my parents yelling at me to get off of AOL Instant Messenger so they could make a call (I’m not even sure young millennials know what a land line is anymore). Full disclosure though, my AOL screenname was thejplay, and my info was Taking Back Sunday lyrics from their song “You’re So Last Summer,” in perfect emo style: “the truth / is you could slit my throat / and with my one last gasping breath I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt.”
Nevertheless, I remember the Internet’s birth into my life and it has affected me in many ways. In fact, I’ve been blogging since its inception, basically. In high school, I had a Xanga blog, then it was MySpace, WordPress, and now you’re here (also check me out on Yelp and goodreads too, my friends). So even though I remember life before dial-up modems, it definitely wasn’t as fun before then.
I’m at peace with the role that information technology has played in my life. I’ve had bad and worse habits with it, but I try to use it as a tool, for fun and for Jesus, without it making me its tool. I’ve written before about social media campaigns that I’ve tried to help spread the good news, I’ve also written about the dangers of social media, and also about that time I got a little carried away with Instagram. I think it’s useful and I have a good time using it.
Boundaries not fundamentalism
I’m much less suspicious, though, than some of my friends. Many of them have resolved to minimally use it, logged off for a period of time, or even rage quit after the dialogue just got too hot and too infuriating. I think setting boundaries and creating discipline is crucial, and I think acknowledging that social media isn’t some benevolent good is also important (see the pastors’ videocast on that here). In fact, when I logged onto YouTube to find those videos I just linked, I clicked on a fifteen-minute video of Noam Chomsky talking about Cambodia. The Internet can do that to you, it can pull your attention from even what you wanted to do, into something else and it takes some discipline to stay focused. I admit my own attention span means that I need lots of discipline, and I have a lot of growth and development to do in that area.
You might be nodding your head in agreement with me or relating in some way. And I think that’s because in this day-in-age social media and smartphones are a fact of life. We need to do some theology about that, for sure, because they bring about a new context for the Gospel, for starters; but they also bring about new possibilities for sin.
A New Testament solution
The freedom we have in Christ can make this kind of thing complicated. Following Jesus is about entering a new path of life and allowing him to remake you, and by the way, so is following the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Penteteuch). God’s character remains the same; it isn’t the rules that save you in the Old or New Testament, but rather, God’s faithfulness. But Paul makes it clear that many of those rules are cultural and surround the particularist covenant God made with Israel, and don’t need to apply to Gentiles, or Greek people. This nuance teaches us two things.
The first thing is that fundamentals and holiness won’t save you. Following the right rules, avoiding technology at all costs, is not what makes you holy. Your actions are not what make you holy; what makes you holy is Who you are related to. You can’t save yourself by keeping yourself from the world’s harm. In fact, you rub shoulders with the world’s harmful ways and harmed people because you are acting for redemption with Jesus.
Christians, especially fundamentalists, have resisted this kind of thinking because they are afraid they’ll be polluted. They might avoid the TV because it’ll fry their brains, or they might think responding to Email might make them unable to pray. Like I said before, some discipline is in order if you expect to connect with God in silence and solitude. Watching Netflix on your personal prayer retreat probably isn’t the best idea. Condemning yourself for binging the new season of Queer Eye isn’t that great either. Jesus isn’t found in our moral actions, but rather, our moral actions from a life of following him. They are an outflow of a fountain that he makes in us.
But that doesn’t mean that pious rule-following is the result of Christian faith. The second thing that the inclusion of Gentiles or Greeks into the promise of God in the New Testament teaches us is that Paul de-emphasized the cultural codes and ritual laws to Gentiles, because he knew that making Gentiles follow what would seem like arbitrary measures to them would do damage to the Gospel.
I understand the instinct to not be tainted by the culture, as so many so-called radical Christians think living in America will do to them. It’s true that our prophetic imaginations can be robbed by the state and the market, as I have said before. So we need to guard against being colonized. However, we need to note that our own cultural imposition—whether its ritual purity laws from the Old Testament or some evasion of technology and social media—can be equally colonialistic and result in the detriment of the Gospel.
And that leads me to why I am on social media in the first place. If I weren’t committed to sharing the Gospel, it’s true that I might be on there for the memes still, but I am primarily on there as a way to connect and relate. I want to share the Good News of Jesus with people who are on social media. And if I am to be an effective good news-sharer today, I am moved to use the means that people use now.
The New Testament is full of examples of this sort of accommodation. Each of the Gospels is written and shaped with a particular group of people in mind, as is the entire corpus of Paul’s work. The New Testament is fundamentally contextualized. And it teaches us to keep doing that. We aren’t imposing Ancient Palestinian cultural standards on people today because that would be missing the point of the text. We are bringing the Gospel to the present with great flexibility.
Does this undo the incarnation?
A major proverb in Circle of Hope and an ethic that informs our commitment to sharing the Gospel and revealing Jesus surrounds this idea that Jesus is best revealed incarnationally. That means that Jesus is best known in the flesh. God came to us in the flesh, in the Incarnation, to meet us. The Incarnation of Christ is one of the biggest moments in Christianity. God became like us to show us that God loved us. It’s a beautiful picture of intimacy. Much like God particularly selected the Israelites, Jesus particularly selected humanity to redeem by becoming one of them.
Circle of Hope has ran with this idea and extended it to the whole body of Christ and to our own bodies too. We meet each other face-to-face on Sundays for worship and during the week in our cells’ meetings. We are a relational group of people. But not because it is superior, but because it is effective. I think God is that results-oriented too. A good idea is as effective as its results. Even intrinsic holiness results in honoring God.
We do violence then to the Incarnation when we refuse to incarnate the Gospel in a new way, even through social media, because we think it would taint our idea of incarnation. No, Jesus is still best revealed incarnationally, and he can be revealed to folks on Twitter and Facebook too. Those are tools that can be used to advance the Gospel, and most movement-makers in 2018 know that. And if we are committed to helping share the Gospel with the region around us, perhaps this is not a forgone conclusion for you (but that’s a post for another day), I think using the means at hand is crucial. I think we’ll be left in history if we don’t move with the Spirit into the next era. If all we are is afraid of being adulterated by technology, we might kill the church. Personally, I think that’s a greater risk than being killed by using information technology to advance the Gospel.