WWJD? Christians on Social Media

WWJD? is a cultural phenomenon mostly spent. The bracelets have disappeared from the check-out aisle at Wal-Mart, and so have youth group talks that thought WWJD could cure hook-up culture. But WWJD hasn’t disappeared entirely. There’s that great moment in “Lars and the Real Girl” when the parish council is gathered in the church basement to decide what to do about Lars bringing his life-size sex doll to worship. After some initial griping, the pastor says “but what would Jesus do?” And you can still riff on the question for a good book title, as tech critic Jeff Jarvis did with What Would Google Do?

The question roots in Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, an attempt to use turn of the 20th century media (a serialized novel) to reach disaffected youth. Not much has changed with calls to use social media to reach “nones.” In what follows, I’ll suggest that the shortcomings of a WWJD? approach to Christianity are mirrored by key structural features of social media. In other words, what WWJD? wants, social media promises to deliver.

First, Sheldon’s WWJD? Christians don’t think that they need sacraments and corporate worship to follow Jesus. That comports rather well with the “excarnating” (Charles Taylor) trends of technology and computer-based entertainments. Excarnation pretends we can transcend every physical limit while remaining human, and it offers “reality” without materiality. Certainly Facebook elicits its own rituals that often resemble devotional practices. Certainly it requires bodies and pictures our material world. But social media and virtual reality more generally cannot host sacraments, which of their very nature require material elements and bodily action. You can’t send your avatar to the Lord’s Supper, no matter how much you might wish you could.

Second, Sheldon’s WWJD?-ers want a discipleship formula that delivers them from ecclesial authority, putting them autonomously in charge of their own spiritual lives. They sound like the first round of “spiritual but not religious” Christianity. That comports well with a key feature of the “third wave” of media change, flying under the banner of “digital democratization.” Most simply, the first wave of media change — movable type printing — contested church authority but eventually helped to centralize it; second wave settled media authority in the corporate programmers who chose what we would read in our magazines, listen to on the radio, and watch on television. Now the third wave of media change — Web2.0 especially — has relocated authority once again. Media theorists refer to this as “curation,” as in who is the curator of the museum of your mind? Who decides what you pay attention to? In the deluge of Web2.0, curation is essential. There are two dimensions of third wave curation — one obvious, the other hidden. Obviously, we choose. Never has there been greater control over the sources, formats, and contents of the communications (and entertainments) that flow in our direction. The relatively hidden dimension of curation is the algorithmic logic of platforms and portals like Google, YouTube, and Facebook, which continually sorts and selects from the plethora of digitalia to offer specific communications for us to connect with.

Finally, Sheldon’s WWJD?-ers wanted to achieve sanctity without submission, surrender, or sacrifice. Facebook doesn’t exactly have the architecture for mutual submission, or what early Methodist class meetings called “watching over one another in love.” Consider one of the primary “advantages” of Facebook — how its 24/7 availability and durability allows for interaction that is asynchronous. This means that whether I choose to engage social media according to a rigid routine or a haphazard pattern, my behavior is more autonomous than accountable. It may be genuinely interactive communication, but it remains elective because (1) when I participate is entirely mine to decide, an autonomous privilege rather than a communal obligation; (2) who reads my posts remains invisible unless and until they respond, making the communicative act more self-reflection than self-communication; (3) whether I respond to others is always a choice that I make with relative anonymity (unlike the moral imperative of face-to-face communications), and perhaps most importantly, (4) what I share is entirely elective rather than obligatory. Succinctly, if you’ve got good Facebook friends, then a good support group is possible, but an accountability group is not.

There is a sacrifice that we make to participate in Facebook, but not one with a cruciform shape. Because Facebook exists to data-mine our IPs, that is, to sell information about us to marketers, it requires that we sacrifice a degree of privacy, perhaps even of dignity, to participate. The bargain, and it hardly seems costly, is that we agree to a kind of self-instrumentalization, in order to get free access to the candy store. Sometimes that self-instrumentalization moves from invisible to in your face, as when a pastor friend that I love from a church I admire emailed me and all his other friends asking us to go to his church’s Facebook page, follow a link to the State Farm Insurance page, where we could vote ten times daily for his church’s urban garden initiative. If they got the most clicks, State Farm would give them a $25,000 grant. Of course, State Farm was interested in capturing the metadata associated with my IP, and was willing to feed the hungry to get it. But I, given the architecture of social media, was inexorably shaped toward a sense that making meaningful sacrifice is as easy as following links and clicking to vote or “like” the right cause.

So it turns out that Jesus, who simply cannot be Jesus without his sacraments, his authority, and his sacrifice, doesn’t really fit very well into Sheldon’s book or a Facebook world. Or to put it another way, if only Jesus had been on Facebook, its excarnating, democratizing, and diminishing trajectories might have saved him from the cross. Which means that WWJD? is precisely the kind of discipleship that belongs on Facebook. But not in your church and not in your life!

Exodus and the Call to Worship

Seeing movie trailers of Christian Bale playing Moses as action hero is a reminder that cinematic special effects will always distort the real heart of the story — worship. In the first twenty chapters of Exodus, first Moses and then all Israel are called, commissioned, and commanded to worship.

The story begins with calling Israel to worship. All the way back at the burning bush, God told Moses that Israel would worship Yahweh on this holy mountain (3:12). Seven times amidst the ten plagues, God tells Moses to say to pharaoh: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” This reiterated refrain should be an indication to us of just how serious God is about summoning the people of God to worship. God will allow no one — not even a mighty pharaoh — to keep God’s people from their appointment with him. So pharaoh negotiates for worship that serves his own interests — worship here and now in Egypt rather than a three-days’ journey to God’s mountain. “No,” God says, “worship will be on my timetable and terms, not yours.” Then pharaoh suggests that the men go to worship while the women and children stay behind. “No,” God says, “worship is the work of the whole congregation.” So finally pharaoh says the people can go, but commands that their animals remain in Egypt. “No,” God says, “worship is a total commitment; you shall love me with all your heart, soul and strength.” Hold nothing back, leave nothing behind. In the end, nothing in all creation can prevent these people from answering God’s call to worship. Israel’s calling is ours, too. As Christians we are baptized into the eternal sonship and vocation of him about whom the Lord said, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15)

The story continues with a commissioning for worship. In Exod 19, God prepares Israel for worship. For two days the people prepared so that they would be consecrated for worship on the third day (19:10-15). Yet the most important preparation for this event is not how carefully they washed themselves and their clothes. Not the people’s consecration, but God’s commissioning is the most important preparation. God commissioned Israel with a new identity: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom” (19:6). That is, Israel’s very identity is to be a community of worship. This is ours, too, for 1 Peter applies this same identity to the church when it says “But you are … a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9, NRSV). Israel and the church have been commissioned — call this an ordination, if you want — to a priestly ministry.

Finally, the story arrives at commanding Israel to worship. I believe that all the commandments are oriented toward worship. Luther suggested this in his Small Catechism, where the meaning of each commandment begins “we should fear and love God….” But let us concentrate on the first of these Ten Words. Note how it begins: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:1-2, NRSV). For Jews, this is the first word or first commandment. Here God speaks directly to Israel. Israel stands here because of what God has already done. Those are the two fundamental presuppositions of Israel’s worship and of ours. Worship only happens because (1) God is here speaking revealingly, and (2) God has already won the victory that brought us here.

Notice, finally, how the first command then frees us to worship God. The first commandment, “you shall have no other gods,” frees us from the worship and service of other deities, and frees us for worship of God alone. The commanding word enables what it requires. The first task of the church is to be a people whose worship is sufficient to the God of this first commandment. But this task is enabled by the gift of being church. And it is this word of God spoken here and later sent in the flesh that forms us as God’s people. We can see that in the singular “you” of the “you shall have no other gods.” The singular you is not each individual listener any more than it is the United States of America. The you is this one people of God — Israel (or for us, this one body of Christ, the church). God says “you shall” and the church is born. You shall have no other gods, you shall worship no idols, you shall hallow God’s name, and you shall sanctify time. You shall be a people who have no other gods, because I, the living God, have you, and hold you, and set you apart to be a priestly kingdom, a people of praise.

That’s where the real action is, despite what Hollywood thinks.

Exodus and the Call to Worship

Seeing movie trailers of Christian Bale playing Moses as action hero is a reminder that cinematic special effects will always distort the real heart of the story — worship. In the first twenty chapters of Exodus, first Moses and then all Israel are called, commissioned, and commanded to worship.

The story begins with calling Israel to worship. All the way back at the burning bush, God told Moses that Israel would worship Yahweh on this holy mountain (3:12). Seven times amidst the ten plagues, God tells Moses to say to pharaoh: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” This reiterated refrain should be an indication to us of just how serious God is about summoning the people of God to worship. God will allow no one — not even a mighty pharaoh — to keep God’s people from their appointment with him. So pharaoh negotiates for worship that serves his own interests — worship here and now in Egypt rather than a three-days’ journey to God’s mountain. “No,” God says, “worship will be on my timetable and terms, not yours.” Then pharaoh suggests that the men go to worship while the women and children stay behind. “No,” God says, “worship is the work of the whole congregation.” So finally pharaoh says the people can go, but commands that their animals remain in Egypt. “No,” God says, “worship is a total commitment; you shall love me with all your heart, soul and strength.” Hold nothing back, leave nothing behind. In the end, nothing in all creation can prevent these people from answering God’s call to worship. Israel’s calling is ours, too. As Christians we are baptized into the eternal sonship and vocation of him about whom the Lord said, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15)

The story continues with a commissioning for worship. In Exod 19, God prepares Israel for worship. For two days the people prepared so that they would be consecrated for worship on the third day (19:10-15). Yet the most important preparation for this event is not how carefully they washed themselves and their clothes. Not the people’s consecration, but God’s commissioning is the most important preparation. God commissioned Israel with a new identity: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom” (19:6). That is, Israel’s very identity is to be a community of worship. This is ours, too, for 1 Peter applies this same identity to the church when it says “But you are … a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9, NRSV). Israel and the church have been commissioned — call this an ordination, if you want — to a priestly ministry.

Finally, the story arrives at commanding Israel to worship. I believe that all the commandments are oriented toward worship. Luther suggested this in his Small Catechism, where the meaning of each commandment begins “we should fear and love God….” But let us concentrate on the first of these Ten Words. Note how it begins: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:1-2, NRSV). For Jews, this is the first word or first commandment. Here God speaks directly to Israel. Israel stands here because of what God has already done. Those are the two fundamental presuppositions of Israel’s worship and of ours. Worship only happens because (1) God is here speaking revealingly, and (2) God has already won the victory that brought us here.

Notice, finally, how the first command then frees us to worship God. The first commandment, “you shall have no other gods,” frees us from the worship and service of other deities, and frees us for worship of God alone. The commanding word enables what it requires. The first task of the church is to be a people whose worship is sufficient to the God of this first commandment. But this task is enabled by the gift of being church. And it is this word of God spoken here and later sent in the flesh that forms us as God’s people. We can see that in the singular “you” of the “you shall have no other gods.” The singular you is not each individual listener any more than it is the United States of America. The you is this one people of God — Israel (or for us, this one body of Christ, the church). God says “you shall” and the church is born. You shall have no other gods, you shall worship no idols, you shall hallow God’s name, and you shall sanctify time. You shall be a people who have no other gods, because I, the living God, have you, and hold you, and set you apart to be a priestly kingdom, a people of praise.

That’s where the real action is, despite what Hollywood thinks.

Worship Rightly Done

If God is who we say God is, then (1) there is nothing more important than telling (and singing and blessing) God’s story, and (2) God’s story will never be God’s alone — given God’s election to bring forth and bring home a blessed creation.

Worship is that key moment, week in and week out, when God’s story is told. But worship never tells God’s story alone. For if worship only told God’s story, then it certainly would be God’s story wrongly told, since the truth of God’s story is precisely that God chooses to include us in his story. So in worship, two stories are to be brought into truthful, saving relation — God’s story and our story. The proper relation of these two stories is crucial if our worship is to be faithful and our lives are to be true. Our story must find its place in God’s story, not the other way around.

Lester Ruth has suggested that there may be a growing tendency to reverse this priority. He uses this key question to analyze congregational worship: “Whose story is told: the personal story of the believer or the cosmic story of God?” (“A Rose by Any Other Name: Attempts at Classifying North American Protestant Worship,” in The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the 21st Century [ed. Todd E. Johnson; Brazos, 2002], 47.) Ruth elaborates the distinction between these two approaches:

There are churches whose worship over time is most focused on the personal stories of the worshipers and how God interacts with their stories. In contrast, there are churches whose worship over time unfolds a more cosmic remembrance of the grand sweep of God’s saving activity.

Obviously, worship could never be exclusively only one of these stories, for if it were only the personal story of the believer it would be the idolatrous worship of the self, and if it were only the cosmic story of God we would have no idea how that story related to us. Vital worship — that is, worship that is alive and enlivening — must attend to both stories. Nonetheless, week in and week out most congregations tend to emphasize one of these stories and subordinate the other to it. So, according to Ruth, we have “personal-story churches” and “cosmic-story churches.” Discerning where a particular church falls on this spectrum will require attention to “how a church selects the Scripture it will read, the normal purpose of the sermon, the regular content of prayers and music, the nature of any dramatic presentations, and the special holidays that are observed” (47), as well as to how the church explains and performs baptisms, the Eucharist, and its mission in the world.

Much is at stake here. Indeed, I would suggest that the “personal-story” approach, though sincere, is a pious form of idolatry. Only a “cosmic-story” approach clearly names the truth that our salvation is found in Christ, found by dwelling in God’s story. The story of Simeon in Luke 2 enacts the saving relation of personal story to cosmic story. The aged Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and praises God, praying his personal story within God’s saving story (Luke 2:29-32):

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; my eyes have seen your salvation [Simeon is praying his personal story but already hinting at the cosmic story in "servant," "word," and "salvation"], which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel [the remainder of the prayer names the cosmic scope of salvation, stretching from past preparation to future consummation].

In this brief prayer, Simeon sets his present moment (“now you are dismissing” [2:29a]) in the context of a larger story in which God has been at work preparing a light which is now seen by Simeon to be Jesus, who will be revelation to Gentile and Jew alike. The meaning of Simeon’s entire life story is given in that moment as it is set within Jesus’s story as God’s story.

In a subtle way, this story is a paradigm for our own worship. “Guided by the Spirit” (2:27) we gather with God’s people (“come into the temple” [2:27]) to praise God in the presence of Jesus. Opening our mouths, we don’t tell God our story and how Jesus fits into it, but rather we recite God’s own story to God, we sing and say again the “wonderful words of life,” the story of salvation, and in the process naming ourselves as included within that story. It is God’s story we proclaim, but because God is this kind of God (loving) and because God’s story is this particular story (saving), we cannot tell God’s story without naming our own place within it. Worship rightly done will celebrate the primacy of God’s story, while articulating the subordinate place of our story in God’s.

Imperial and Eschatological Politics

The concluding stanza in Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” hymns the reality that empire parodies.

Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Here we sing the eschatological reality, not of an empire established and triumphant, but of the nations gathering into Zion to worship the Lion of Judah. This eschatological community is rehearsed in three dimensions: the affective: they wonder; the praxiological: they love; and the discursive: they praise. To be “lost in wonder, love, and praise” is to dwell in an eschatological politics that is perfected in three dimensions: orthopathy, orthopraxy, orthodoxy. (These three dimensions are used by Theodore Runyon to assess and appropriate John Wesley’s thought in The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today [Abingdon, 1998].)

Empire has always parodied God’s consummating community, whether it be Babel, Rome, or more modern versions. (Joseph Mangina makes this point in his theological commentary on Revelation [Brazos, 2010], 81.) The capacity to wonder is usurped by pride, or fear, or greed. The praxis of love distorts into coercive violence, or extractive economy, or homogenizing colonization in the name of some finite good. The vocation to praise is disordered into false speaking — propaganda, hyperbole, salesmanship.

These distortions of the affective, praxiological, and discursive are not just effects of empire, but causes that create and sustain it. Each one is premised on a finitude masquerading as ultimate value, infinite horizon, encompassing community. Fear idolizes the threat of dispossession, as pride idolizes the empire itself, and greed is the idolatry of infinite desire for finite goods. Thus, empire is created out of, and perpetuates, a heteropathy of idolatrous desire oriented to various finitudes, impervious to the wonder of Yahweh’s infinite beauty and Christ’s cruciform glory.

In the same way, where an infinite goodness is attributed to finite creatures (whether home and hearth, family and fatherland, or nation, market, or governmental system), love will coerce, colonize, and extract in blissful ignorance of its idolatrous distortion. So empire promises to protect us from violence — by doing violence (or demonstrating its credible threat); to provide us the goods of the good life — by depriving and dispossessing other places and peoples; and so it goes. Empire is created out of, and perpetuates, a heteropraxy of idolatrous loves that are disordered precisely because they lack focus in the infinite goodness of the Suffering Servant.

Likewise, heterodox discourses — patterns of speech which ascribe glory falsely — are both source and symptom of empire’s refusal of a politics ordered to and by truth.

So empire is at one and the same time an idolatrous distortion of the transcendental predicates of being (beauty, goodness, and truth) and an eschatological parody of the wonder, love, and praise toward which we and all creation goes. Ontologically, it locates ultimacy in various finitudes. Eschatologically, it directs affections, actions, and imaginations toward finite hopes. Worst of all, politically it obscures the one in whom the transcendental predicates take flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews, lord of creation. What empire parodies, he incarnates: a regal beauty, kingly goodness, lordly truth. Wesley’s hymn reminds us in its penultimate line that the politics of empire is a parody of the reign of Christ the king: “Till we cast our crowns before him.”

This line does more, however, than invoke the reigning Christ as eschatological politics. It also invokes our participation in his rule. The phrase “our crowns” suggests that we have found a share in Christ’s regency. Thus, the same eschatological vision that reveals empire’s parody of divine politics hints at our participation in it. In other words, Christ’s sovereignty is not exclusive but inclusive, a rule in which we share. The church is not just ruled by Christ, but reigns with him. Thus, as we sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we not only expose empire’s parody because we anticipate our heaven below; we also oppose empire as we participate in Christ’s rule in heaven above.

Technological Messiah? Revisiting the Promised Revolution

There’s an eschatology of sorts in the hubbub — indeed, in the hubris — that attends so-called technological revolutions. Apocalyptic always makes epochs determined by “before” and “after,” whether it’s the apocalyptic imagination undergirding the New Testament (e.g., “but in these last days…”; Heb 1:2, NRSV) or the one animating digital utopians like Edward Castronova (Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality [Palgrave, 2007]). The core question is whether that which dramatically changes everything is a “what” or a “who.” For Christians, even those entranced by the bewitchments of technological change, the answer must finally be who — for we know that grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ (John 1:17), not the latest technological revolution, no matter how remarkable.

This theological claim comports well with some of the best analysis of the rhetoric of epochal change surrounding the parousia of digital technology. In his scathing rebuttal of “technological solutionism,” Evgeny Morozov asserts, “Technological amnesia and complete indifference to history (especially the history of technological amnesia) remain the defining features of contemporary Internet debate” (To Save Everything Click Here [Perseus, 2013], 35). So perhaps a bit of historical perspective can chasten our predilection toward overrating technological solutions at the expense of core gospel gifts.

For example, what hopes did technology engender 50 years ago? Two examples will suffice. Beginning in 1964, Joseph Weizenbaum developed a computer program that used grammatical logic to write out responses to typed input. Whatever the human user typed to the computer program, it would identify salient terms and reply with a question. The result was something along the lines of Rogerian therapy. The human user types, “I am very unhappy,” and the computer responds, “How long have you been unhappy?” Weizenbaum called the system ELIZA (after the character in Shaw’s Pygmalion), and the personal name had a profound fittingness, inasmuch as people responded to the program in highly personal, relational ways. (This is not unlike the way iPhone users develop a quasi-personal relation with Siri.) Carl Sagan predicted “a network of computer therapeutic terminals” that would allow us to have inexpensive conversations “with an attentive, tested, and largely non-directive psychotherapist” (see the summary in Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains [Norton, 2010], 201-8.) The telling point in this historical anecdote is our propensity to imagine a world that is “bettered” by machine substitutions for human relationships. As Wendell Berry has poignantly and powerfully argued in Life Is a Miracle (Counterpoint, 2000), “machine” is an impoverishing, disastrous metaphor for human being. Yet each new technological “revolution” tempts us to think and act as if machines are suitable analogs to, and thus appropriate substitutes for, human persons.

The second example comes from Isaac Asimov’s predictions based on the New York World’s Fair of 1964. That apotheosis of progress, promising “Peace through Understanding,” led Asimov to predict “that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better,” giving up windows and even the earth’s surface (“Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014,” New York Times [16 August 1964]). Like Sagan, Asimov appears to celebrate the technological turn away from given relations — in this case, our relation with creation itself — toward the synthetic. Although that hasn’t fully come to be, consider this: most advertisements for smart phones and tablets these days position the devices in the contexts of vibrant embodied relationships (e.g., groups of friends laughing together) or stunning natural vistas (scenes of exotic beauty outside the range of a typical human life). This form of associative advertising connects our positive feelings about healthy relationships and beautiful creation with devices that — in typical patterns of usage — increasingly rob us of both. The simulacra of good relation to neighbor and creation doesn’t just stand in for a preferred reality. It becomes our preference. That’s a change, to be sure, but for the worse rather than better, and hardly the epochal turning of the ages that many trumpet.

What both 1964 imaginings of technological revolution masked is the truth that we humans are clearly built for relationship with God, one another, and God’s very good creation, and that we have a powerful propensity to forfeit that blessing for the pottage of parasocial relations and the gleam of instrumentalized “nature.”

To come at the matter from the other side, one of the key bewitchments that technology reproduces, indeed mass produces, is the notion that limits and given interrelations are an impediment to our full and human flourishing. Of course technology doesn’t produce this fantasy, already propagating itself in Gen 3-4. But technology does (as with all of its uses) extend it dramatically, making it more universally and abundantly available. In other words, if technology regularly works to give us more of what we want, then it shouldn’t be surprising that our cryptic desire to transcend the very limits of our humanity will become part of the logic — the social imaginary — of technological culture. And because embodied relations to others and to creation are intrinsically limited by bodiliness itself, it should come as no surprise that a good deal of our rhetoric about epochal or generational change bespeaks hopes we must finally refuse, precisely because they desire a postbodily, and thus a posthuman, future. Even if Siri could give you directions to that future, why would you want to go?

Of Calendars and Clocks

Your dog doesn’t wear a watch and your cat doesn’t keep a calendar. Sure, they have a pretty clear idea about when it’s time for supper. But they don’t structure and arrange time in ways that then structure and arrange their lives; they don’t mark time in ways that give their lives meaning. We humans do, and doing so is part of our humanity. In his book Calendar (Abingdon, 1996), Laurence Stookey asks us if we could imagine negotiating life without a clock or a calendar. (Nowadays, for many of us, that doesn’t mean a watch or a paper calendar, but various programs synced to one another via the internet and multiple devices. The grunts and dings of my smartphone run my life as imperiously as a prison warden. But more on that in a moment.)

Calendars and clocks are unique manifestations of our humanity. Whereas other living creatures obviously live within the natural rhythms of the created order, we humans are capable of ordering our lives according to a variety of temporal sequences, both natural and constructed. Most of us have allowed non-natural formations to overwhelm the natural. For example, we’re far more likely to track a church or civic or personal holiday than we are to celebrate a solstice or equinox. We’re more likely to rise and rest by the clock (and usually at a time divisible by 5) than we are according to the rising and setting of the sun. So both calendar and clock can be invested with human meaning.

Obviously People of the Book are also people of the calendar. Israel’s identity is attached by God to the annual remembrance of a liberative night — forever after rehearsed as “this is the night” (Exod 12:42). The church, too, at its annual Easter Vigil, rejoices in the words of the Exsultet: “This is the night.” Even more fundamentally, People of the Book are people of the week. Israel’s Shabbat is a weekly pilgrimage in and out of Sabbath, a “temple in time” (A. J. Heschel). The church’s Lord’s Day worship is a weekly walk to Emmaus, hearing the risen Christ break open the Scriptures to the paschal mystery and knowing the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread. (For more on that, see my essay, “Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, no. 1 [2007]: 101-15.)

In short, there are patterns of time that speak our faith and shape our hearts, precisely because they remember our core story, the one that roots us in God’s temporal activity to create and redeem our lives, most centrally in the resurrection of Jesus “on the third day.” I am convinced that these patterns are means of grace precisely because they are modes of knowing and being known by God. Attending to them is yet another way to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the gospel story. Those five verbs were first deployed by Thomas Cranmer in a petition for the right reception of Holy Scripture. I use them here to suggest that internalizing scripture — “eating the book” in such a way that we embody it in Christ-like performance — is never a timeless literary act.

So calendars and clocks are symbolic of our existence as timeful creatures, whose schedules speak faith, or don’t, whose rhythms rhyme the gospel, or don’t. I think we increasingly find ourselves living “or don’t” lives as the calendar is scheduled by our entertainments, and the clock by the digital demands of 24/7 instantaneity. Finishing this column on the night of the Oscars, poised between a Winter Olympics just concluded and March Madness nigh to begin, I am extremely aware of how the seasons and festivals of “my entertainment” can so easily overshadow (if not eclipse) the season of Lent and the Festival of Easter (a thirteen-week cycle that begins in just three days). Working on a laptop in an airport, I am also mindful of how the ubiquitous availability of my digital technologies has all but erased the difference between work and leisure, all but flat-lined the rhythm of Lord’s Day followed by servant week. With a smartphone in my pocket, with the Oscars one streaming app away, the paschal shape of a Christian calendar and a Christ-shaped week are all but leveled into the simultaneity of the ceaseless clamor of the digital apotheosis of entertainment, into the inexorability of the unending tick-tock of constant digital contact.

Thank God I will soon be invited to enter and embrace restraint, remembrance, repentance. Thank God that we are being given another Lent.

Sacraments: A Call to Passion

A few years ago, there was a “Call to Action” in United Methodism. It urged the following: “A number of practices that foster congregational vitality are known to the church and we can and must choose to dedicate attention, leadership, and resources to cultivating them in every congregation” (p. 15). Strangely, however, the sacraments — baptism and communion — did not appear in the list of practices that foster congregational vitality. It’s a telling oversight, one that surely falls into the category of taking for granted what is faithful and familiar.

So let’s attempt to de-familiarize the familiar in such a way that we might again trust (trust is belief at work!) that sacraments are vital practices, means that mediate true life. We can do that with a quick trip forward to heaven, and then back to Jabbok.

In Rev 5, a question is broached: Who is worthy to open the scroll, who is able to unveil the mystery of God? John weeps, because there is “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” who can do it – until an angel announces “see, the Lion of Judah” (Rev 5: 5, NRSV). And then John sees between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a…Lamb! John hears “lion,” but he sees “lamb.” Not just any lamb, either but “a lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev 5:6): slaughtered, yet standing; crucified but risen, Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world acknowledged as the Lion of Judah.

In his commentary on this passage, Joseph L. Mangina cites Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote, “The Lamb is God’s mode of involvement in, and commitment to, the world; the Lamb is both ‘worthy’ and ‘able’ not only to symbolize God’s involvement but to be it” (Revelation [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010], 84). Surely sacraments are exactly like that. Surely what Balthasar says of about the Lamb could be said about the sacraments of the Lamb. Sacraments, too, are both worthy and able not only to symbolize God’s involvement but to be it.

Just as we hear lion but only see lamb, we hear “be born again” yet we see a few drops of water. We hear “become to us the living bread”; we see croutons or crackers or a bit of bread. We hear “the cup of salvation”; we see…grape juice. And yet, like the unveiled mystery in the heavenly throne room, the lion is the lamb, the slaughtered one stands alive; drowned to sin we rise in Christ, breaking bread we see the risen Lord.

In Gen 32, Jacob is attacked, questioned, wounded, and blessed, or we could say he is grasped, judged, marked, and reborn. The mysterious, spectral nature of Jacob’s nocturnal wrestle with a man/angel/God suggests that here we again face a duality like the lamb who is lion, the crucified who is risen. Indeed, early Christians found in Jacob’s wound a prefigurement of the wounds of the crucified and risen one, found in this struggle a prefigurement of Golgotha, and thus of the paschal mystery that sacraments re-member and re-present. David F. Ford rings the changes on these parallels: “On the cross too there is wrestling, there is wounding to the point of death, the identity of a people and of God is at stake, and there is eventual blessing” (Self and Salvation: Being Transformed [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 195).

What both passages suggest, when connected to sacraments, is that before a “call to action” we need a “call to passion,” both in the sense of recovering the paschal mystery at the heart of baptism and communion, and in the sense of recognizing that sacraments are not first something we do, but a divine doing that we suffer. Sacraments are our most vital practices, both in the sense of being essential and being life-giving. They are this precisely because in them God does what needs doing, in them the worthy lamb unrolls the scroll, in them the mighty God wins us from sin and death, in them Christ takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us to the world. To this holy mystery we can and must choose to respond in kind — dedicating our attention, leadership, and resources just as God has: entirely and irrevocably.

Culturing Adoration in an Entertainment Age

We live and move and have our being in a world filled with entertainments, and with the culture industries that produce them, and the structures, networks and devices that mediate them. That we are capable of being entertained, and that our world contains raw reality capable of entertaining us, are both good gifts of a good God who means to draw us into divine goodness.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the United States of Entertainment is a fast ride into the kingdom of God. Our capacity to be entertained and the world’s capacity to entertain us have both been distorted by a loss of orientation to God as their source and goal. The perennial manifestation of this distortion is idolatry. Its contemporary form is an entertainment industry that has become the most powerful formational process in human history, an entertainment culture that has normalized the complete permeation of life by entertainment, and entertainment consumers (us) who have developed a powerful “will to be entertained.”

Now even if you are already nodding your head in agreement, I hope that you are nonetheless eager for evidence and argumentation that supports my sweeping claim. (Sorry, but there won’t be much in a short blog post.) If you are shaking your head skeptically, I hope that you are nonetheless open to careful analysis and nuanced conclusions. (Sorry again.)

Vatican II called for “full, conscious and active participation” in the liturgy. Without parroting that language, United Methodists have a similar goal for our worship. Given contemporary entertainment practices of continuous partial attention, are we capable of participating fully, consciously, and actively in anything anymore? Of course, from the perspective of the enabling power of the Holy Spirit the answer has to be “yes.” But from the perspective of the dissipating habits of the entertainment-Geist, a “no” seems far more likely.

How do our entertainment devices and practices habituate us to continuous partial attention? Let’s consider how musical entertainment has journeyed from full, conscious, and active participation to partial, passive attention. Prior to the development of recording and transmission technologies, musical entertainments were necessarily live events. In some cases, the entertained were also the entertainers, playing or singing their own fun into existence. In other cases, musical performers entertained an audience that had gathered for precisely that purpose. Both cases inherently involved a great deal of intentionality and sociality, and both involved musical communication between embodied persons who were physically present to one another. Although all of that is still possible, nowadays our typical practice of being entertained by music is not pickin’ in the Jamboree, singing in the chorus, or going to a concert but turning on the radio (or an internet or iPod equivalent). Even that may overstate intentionality, as our alarm wakes us to music, or we leave the stereo on in the car and Pandora open on the computer, and as we regularly move through a world in which the music is there before we are—in stores, gyms, elevators, restaurants, even restrooms. Technology has kept its promise to make what we want available everywhere, all the time, but at considerable cost. As I’ve described at greater length elsewhere (“iPod: Our Song Gone Wrong?” in Brent Laytham, iPod, YouTube, Wii Play: Theological Engagements with Entertainment [Wipf & Stock, 2012], 33-49), the ubiquitous and incessant practice of musical envelopment costs us the capacity for silence, the capacity to enjoy life without a soundtrack, and most of all the capacity to attend actively to music itself as aesthetic intonation of beauty and truth, and as authentic communication between persons. In other words, the Sunday worshiper encountering the music of the liturgy is also the Monday worker whose encounter with music will be continuous rather than conscious, and so will be partial rather than full, and largely passive rather than active.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not planning to throw away my iPod. But neither do I want to let it have the formative power that it currently has. Working in, and working out, that tension is the hard work of ministry in our present age.

Online Eucharist? No Parodies Allowed!

The Word became flesh to share table with us. The Lord rose from death to rejoin us at his table. Eating and drinking with Jesus has been, is, and will be constitutive of our belonging to him and to one another. In Holy Communion, we find ourselves sitting together — here and now — at a family feasting table that stretches from the hillsides of Galilee and an upper room in Jerusalem through this present moment into a heavenly banquet. Jesus Christ presents his past and future in our now. And Jesus Christ re-members his body in our here.

Jesus has chosen to do all this by taking common cultural objects — the bread of life and love, the wine of joyful celebration — blessing and breaking them open to the very mystery of God. Throughout its history, the church has had to negotiate how to “do this” same thing in new cultural contexts. For this generation of seminarians, the most interesting cultural question is not Can the youth group commune with pizza and Sprite? but Is virtual church, including virtual communion, possible? Technological change raises questions about the possibility and desirability of doing church online.

When I recently gave a talk on “What would Jesus do on Facebook?” a Jewish friend quipped, “Tell them Jesus would ‘friend’ all the sinners.” Adam is funny, but he has a point. Most of us are vulnerable in these kinds of discernments precisely because our sentimentality is stronger than our theology. Worse, we Methodists have a strand of pragmatism a mile wide. Not the respectable philosophical tradition of pragmatism, but pragmatism as an approach to change confected of equal parts can-do-bravado, evangelistic zeal, and whatever-works-utilitarianism. These ingredients of our pragmatism parallel the logic of digital technology, which bravely promises that it can do whatever we want or need, which evangelistically pleads that we should prefer it over whatever preceded, and which functionally suggests that bigger, better, and faster results are all that matter.

So, does the Web 2.0 revolution make online communion possible? Can we celebrate “this holy mystery” without gathering bodily into an assembly that together sees, hears, speaks, sings, moves, touches, and tastes? Can communion migrate online or does it require a bodily shared here and now? Answers to my question range from “Online communion is Christ’s next good gift to the church!” to “Online communion is a sterile oxymoron!” Too often, these answers are more vehement than they are reasoned, because increasingly we are culturally formed to feel for, but not to think about, our technologies.

Nothing illustrates my point like the Facebook Home commercial, “Dinner.” It shows an extended family meal in which a supremely boring aunt drones on about her elderly cats and buying chicken in the store and…you get the picture. Her young adult niece pulls out a smartphone with the Facebook Home app: instantly, technology connects her to the excitement of a friend drumming; effortlessly, technology presents her a beautiful ballet; reliably, technology draws her into the joy of a snowball fight. We’re meant to “see” how technology mediates (makes present) a better world of community, transcendence, and joy, saving us from boring relatives, mundane situations, and tedious activities.

I see this ad as a parody of the Eucharist. Don’t get me wrong. I think the ad is hilarious, and I get that it’s ironic. But the irony isn’t intended to evoke a horror that personal digital technologies are becoming “the architect of our intimacies” (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together [Basic, 2012], 1). Rather, the irony comforts us that a digitally rewired world is nothing to be scared of; in fact, it’s a whole lot better than the old one. And there’s the rub. Better-than-nothing becomes better-than-something; compensatory technologies meant to connect us when we are temporarily and unwillingly separated become normalized. Texting goes from the better-than-nothing way that teens communicate when they are apart to the better-than-talking to each other way that they sit together in the same room. Digital mediation is now preferred to the immediacy of embodied conversation.

Something similar is at work in movements toward online communion. Online community is certainly better than no community at all. (And yes, online community is real and is probably a “prudential means of grace.”) But it isn’t better than, nor even equal to, gathering bodily at Table with Jesus and his motley band of disciples, supremely boring aunts included. To say otherwise would be like saying that the grandparents who use Skype to spend time with their grandchildren should just as well never go visit them. It would be like saying that the couple who attest their love by cell phone when apart should just as well never lie in each other’s arms again. Online community? Yes! Online communion? Not possible! Like a hug or a kiss, like incarnation and resurrection, communion requires bodies that touch.

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