“John, we’d love it if you and Susan would join us for a meal on Thursday evening.”
“Uh…well, Mike, thanks but…isn’t that illegal? I mean, doesn’t the lockdown prohibit that kind of social gathering?”
“Oh, no, I don’t mean that you and Susan come to our home. We’ll host you online.”
“I’m still not following. How will we have a meal online?”
“Well, we’ll prepare a meal for ourselves. You’ll prepare a meal for yourselves. We’ll then do a Zoom call and eat in front of each other!”
“We…eat in front of each other…on a screen?”
“Yup. It’ll be a great time over great food!”
“Are you serious?”
Before the coronavirus crisis, few could have imagined this conversation. Now, a version of this dialogue is taking place, and being taken seriously by Christians. The difference is that the meal in question is the Lord’s Supper, and some believe that eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper on our own, while filming ourselves and transmitting that image to others (who are doing the same thing), constitutes a shared meal.
One of fault lines in contemporary Christianity that the coronavirus lockdown has revealed is real disagreement over what is meant by the ideas of assemble, gather, corporate worship, fellowship, and presence. Does a live, two-dimensional image of a person not function as a form of presence, assembly, or gathering?
Media ecologists have been telling us for years that media shape us not only by their content, but by their form. For decades, we’ve been consuming media on screens: laptops, cellphones, flatscreens, tablets. They have become our primary form of information, education, communication, and entertainment. Screens have colonized us. And it appears that Christianity, at least in some parts of the world, has likewise been screenified.
A knee-jerk and superficial reaction would be to say that such assertions are the age-old argument that Luddites have against technology, or fear of the new. On the contrary: our technologies are always downstream of our views of the good life. We make tools (technologies) to serve those ends we are pursuing (and often our technologies end up becoming ends in themselves). But it is our view of the good life – what we think humans are here for and what constitutes our purpose – that drives us to make technologies, and works of art, and everything else. Put simply, the debate over the use or non-use of livestreaming, Zoom, online communion, and so on, is only secondarily a discussion of technology. It is primarily a debate over what a fully human Christianity is. It is the Christian view of the body that is behind these debates: do we need to be physically present to gather, do we need to be physically present to eat together, do we need to be physically in one another’s presence to worship corporately or to be said to be assembling? And does “virtual” presence still constitute a true, human presence?
The word virtual, used to describe nearly all online interactions, illustrates the ambiguity here. On the one hand, virtual suggests something nearly approximating the real thing, or coming extremely close, as in “We’re virtually on their doorstep”, or “Scarlet is virtually the same as vermillion”. On the other hand, virtual suggests something that has not reached the end in mind, as in “You’re virtually there, but it still needs work” or “I could virtually hear them, but there was too much noise in the street.” One connotation says Almost, but not quite. Another connotation says, Already there, but imperfectly so.
Our theology of the body shapes whether we see a word like virtual as having one connotation or the other. The same could be said for our view of words or ideas like online, digital, live, and the like. And I suggest, with fingers pointed at myself while saying it, that our use of media may well be informing our theology of the body. That is, pragmatism and praxis may be shaping our understanding more than we care to admit.
Yes, we cannot meet, but that does not alter the meaning of meet. The issue of constraint is only secondarily a concern. The primary concern is the meaning of a human meeting. A groom-to-be is under no illusions that his marriage requires his bride’s physical presence. If coronavirus has prevented the ceremony, no online exchange of vows will convince him that they have indeed become one flesh. He will be quite certain that there is no such thing as a virtual consummation of the marriage, if you will indulge the illustration. The practical constraints of the coronavirus won’t change the meaning of marriage, union or one flesh.
So, how do we proceed? While no one can read the Bible without our cultural lenses, we can read the Bible while being honest about our prejudices (our pre-judgements). This makes us more honest interpreters, and less likely to to be disingenuous about finding answers in the Bible that we were looking for all along. But the Bible is what must settle this debate.
For the present crisis, Christians need to return to a rigorously biblical anthropology (doctrine of man). That means asking and answering at least the following questions with Scriptural principles:
- Of what importance is the body during corporate worship?
- Does the Bible ever favour personal bodily presence over mediated communication, and why?
- Since Scripture was written to pre-modern people, what would the biblical authors think of instant and live mediated communication? Does it fall into the category of 2 John 12 or not?
- Does instantly mediated communication constitute what the Bible means by meet, gather, assemble, commune, fellowship? If not, why not?
- What would be the symptoms of a disembodied Christianity?
- What actions or technologies would contribute to a disembodied Christianity?
Answering these questions is not only helpful for the practical crisis confronting us, but for determining whether we think Christianity is fundamentally incarnational and embodied, or only accidentally so. I hope we can do so together.