I’m continuing to work my way through Tony Reinke’s book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, and it really does have a number of helpful things going for it. Chapter 2 is entitled “Ignoring Our Flesh and Blood,” and here Tony points out our proclivity to write things electronically that we would never dream of saying to someone’s face (often harsh or angry things), and our simultaneous tendency to pull away from flesh and blood community, prioritizing what Buzz456 is saying in the comments section over the fact that your wife has been asking you for help with your two year old progeny for the last hour.
There are good reminders here that really do need to be heard and applied. At the same time, in the interest of trying to encourage a broader discussion of all of these topics, I’d like to push in somewhat different directions than Tony has, not because I disagree with what he’s written, but because I think there is more to be said (not less, but more).
And my questions center on the notions of proximity, community, and face to face versus the community dynamics of various media. Centrally, I want to make sure that as we process these new and various technologies we do not back ourselves into biblical or theological corners. In other words, whenever we’re reasoning about words, communication, community, etc. out there in the world, we should always circle back around and run our hypotheses through Scripture to make sure we’re not setting ourselves up for some kind of snarl. This is Tony’s whole purpose in writing, and so we’re interested in the same project. He helpfully points out that the apostles at various points describe the great joy of being face to face with their churches. Writing was useful and important, but it really wasn’t as great as being there face to face (e.g. 2 Jn. 1:12). And we could multiply scriptural examples of this principle: the friendship of God and Moses is explicitly described this way: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). And of course, the greatest Christian hope is to stand before the throne of God and the Lamb and see His face (Rev. 22:4). In the meantime, Jesus has established local communities of saints who are marked with water in baptism (Mt. 28:19), who eat bread and drink wine together (1 Cor. 11), and where members are accountable to elders and elders accountable for their members (Heb. 13:17). All of this clearly prioritizes physical proximity, and the significance and goodness of physical community. You can’t do Christian discipleship virtually.
At the same time, as we look at Scripture, there are some curious additional dynamics to take into consideration. First, the centrality of the written word. Since at least the time of Moses, God has determined to reveal himself through written words, and the Bible is the standing testimony to this reality. Skimming forward, I see that Tony touches on this, and maybe he will answer all my questions when I get there, but I rarely see the supremacy of Scripture playing a significant roll in our theologizing about social media. Insert here all the jokes and memes about Moses downloading the first tweet from the cloud, but the point really is important. God wrote down the Ten Commandments with his own finger (Ex 31:18), and for all we know God could have used His thumbs. And from at least that point on, God insisted that His people honor His written word and (to our point) put all the most important things down in writing.
When the land of Canaan was surveyed, three men from every tribe went out and wrote down the exact dimensions of the inheritance of the tribes (Josh. 18). When a man wanted to divorce his wife, that legal act had to be written down (Dt. 24). And the law itself was to be written down on the doorposts of Israel’s houses and on their city gates (Dt. 6). While it is popular for cultural anthropologists to assume oral tradition as the backbone of ancient societies, this was most certainly not the case in ancient Jewish society — or at the very least, it is clear that the written word was supposed to be the backbone of their oral tradition and not the other way around. All of this is crucial for our doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I’m afraid that there is a certain kind of theorizing about oral/face to face communication that is a fine setup for succumbing to Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theories of inscripturation and the authority of the Church.
Related to this is the fact that while it is popular to point out that people will often write things online that they would never dream of saying to someone in person, I’m really not convinced that this is any more true than the fact that people will often say things to someone’s face that they would never dream of saying if they wrote it down. I think we are currently more aware of one side of this equation, but I am not at all convinced that people are less likely to sin with their words face to face. I think people sin in both contexts equally, and there are somewhat differing temptations in either situation and perhaps varying levels of temptation for different people. For example, the Bible requires that justice be dealt out without respect to faces (Dt. 1:17, 16:19). The Bible teaches that men are apt to say the wrong things when they give too much credence to the faces of the people they are speaking to (cf. Lev. 19:15). Jesus had become (in)famous for His refusal to be swayed by the faces of men (Mt. 22:16). He didn’t care about anyone’s opinion (Mt. 22:16). The fear of man is a terrible snare, and many a man knowing what he should say has melted for fear in the presence of the rich and powerful of the earth, including his mother-in-law.
In other words, I think we need to give a whole lot more thought to the biblical emphasis on the goodness, power, usefulness, and wisdom of written words. This isn’t to say that written words cannot be angry or sniping or deceitful — of course they can, but God tells us to write all the most important things down. Why? So we don’t forget. So we remember to tell the truth, the whole truth, to stand with conviction and courage, in order to give careful thought to our words. This is not opposed to face to face conversations and community, but there is a sort of accountability to written words that is sometimes lost in the purely verbal. Tony rightly points out the helpfulness of visual and verbal cues (e.g. facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, etc.), but I think we would be naive to think that those cues are silver bullets for communication. How many snarls have we gotten into by misunderstanding those social cues? How often have we misremembered what was said or how it was said? How many pastors have had to untangle marital squabbles that were entirely face to face and because of years of unconfessed sin and bitterness made all the worse? When he does that thing with his chin, that means he hates me! When she does that thing with her eyebrows, I know it means I’m in trouble! Sometimes, the only way to untangle things is to write out simple letters of confession and forgiveness, with nothing but words on a page. And just to run back around the other side of this: not a few pastors in recent years have experienced jaw-dropping moments of being introduced to a family quarrel wherein said participants have primarily launched insults and accusations from their phones from their respective bedrooms in the same house, and when the pastor raises the question of whether they have ever sat down to talk about any of it, all the faces glaze over like you were speaking in tongues. So yeah, I’m aware of that problem too.
Lastly (for now), I’ll just note briefly that we need to take into account the Ascension of Jesus into heaven and the gift of His Spirit in our discussions of social media. And in particular, without taking anything away from our great and final hope of seeing Jesus face to face at the resurrection, Jesus clearly tells His disciples that it is better for Him to go away and send the Spirit. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, but that same enfleshed Word is now at the right hand of the Father and He has given us His Spirit. At one point, Tony says that electronic media is more like ghost-to-ghost communication than face-to-face, and I get what he’s saying. There really is a sinful sort of escapism that infects the sons of Adam. But I just want to point out that there is *some* sense in which Jesus has insisted that the Christian Church learn to commune with God and one another in the Spirit, in the Holy Ghost. And while that certainly includes physical congregations of people washed in water, sharing bread and wine, in geographical proximity to one another, building one another up in face to face community, there is also something better about Jesus not being here in the flesh, communicating with all of us face to face. There is a ghostly presence and communion that is better for now, and while I’m not at all saying that social media is the pinnacle of that, I am saying that our theorizing about social media needs to take these truths into account.