The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

"Too Great For Words," part 3

(part 1, part 2) Note: This concludes the story of how Job's three friends tried to communicate their empathy using modern communication tools like cell phones, letters, text messages, and, here, finally, Skype.

Elihu isn’t just across the country. He is, in fact, across the globe. He’s living abroad but has high-speed Internet access. Because of this, he’s become very familiar with Skype and its great benefits for staying connected with people back home. So when he hears about what’s befallen his deeply religious friend, his first instinct is to Skype Job.

When Job’s wife answers, Elihu can see her tired eyes and haggard face. He can see the grief that has aged her so suddenly. The laugh lines in her face have deepened like crevices. The lifetime of grief she has experienced in just a few short days. She speaks with Elihu for a few moments, then she says, “Let me get Job.”

The screen image is jarring, but Elihu has grown accustomed to it. As she picks up the laptop and carries it to her husband, her head remains relatively centered in the monitor with the background suddenly shifting and jolting. He watches her face, looking away from the camera. He watches her eyes, knows the moment they lock on Job, sees the clues that tell him she is approaching Job. Then a blur and Job is there. He looks briefly at Elihu, a faint acknowledgement. The he looks off screen, talking briefly to his wife. The sun is bright in the room behind him, leaving Job’s face in slight shade. Elihu tips his monitor forward a bit for a better picture.

Job is focused on the monitor now, but his eyes are downcast slightly. His eyelids hang low, almost imperceptible, yet still perceived. Elihu is used to this unreality too. He know Job is looking at his image onscreen, instead of at the dead eye of the camera lens. Thus Elihu and Job don’t quite make eye contact. Elihu remembers this, he is practiced, and makes sure to look straight at the lens when he wants to communicate with emphasis and meaning—so that as Job watches the screen, he feels that Elihu is making eye contact. Of course, in doing this, Elihu can’t watch Job’s face at the same time.

Job, on the other hand, is less experienced with Skype, so he rarely looks directly into the camera, and only incidentally. So Elihu perceives the faintest disconnect. They can’t ever make eye contact, not really. They sit in silence for some time, watching each other across the globe. There is silence, and almost presence. But there is an expectation to be facing each other—in a manner of speaking.

Elihu is aware that he has no sense of what’s going on behind Job’s computer screen. Every once in a while Job looks up. Elihu waits. The voice of Job’s wife crackles in and out. Occasionally he catches sight of her. He realizes the door is behind the monitor, where Job’s wife is walking in, back out. One time he sees just her hands as she places a cup of tea in front of Job. She is a passionate, loving wife. He sets the cup down beside the computer, just off camera. Elihu watches Job’s hand drop in a tea bag, raising and lowering the string like an oil derrick, stirring the hot water with a spoon. But Elihu can’t see the tea cup. He can’t focus on what Job is focused on. They can’t experience it together.

Elihu realizes, he’s never watched grief like this before. He’s never watched it. In all the time he’s been abroad until now, there hasn’t been too much sorrow among those close to him. He hasn’t sought to connect with them at this level, at this depth. And it occurs to him, then, that there is a human reality that he hasn’t descended into in a long time. There, inside his computer, he feels very far away from home. He realizes that he hasn’t connected with them at this present, spatial level—not in many months. That level where something else, something specific flares up, something unnamable. It is an evasive loneliness. If he could look directly at it, he knows he could not see it. And now that the detachment has come near, he knows he has been lonely longer than he realized. It unravels backward through the past months and he understands them better. But he doesn’t not feel better for realizing it.

There is a numbness as he watches Job stir an unseen cup. He realizes it’s a numbness to Job’s surroundings. An atmosphere—that is the nearest word. Elihu cannot hear the rustle of Job’s wife coming up the stairs or feel the chair across from Job’s couch. He cannot feel the warm sun coming into the room, or hear the sounds of the garbage truck on the street or the kids shouting down the block. He did not walk up the driveway into Job’s house and feel the meaning of the empty house. He is watching, but there is a numbness, dead nerve endings that no amount of stimulation can reanimate. Elihu feels cut off.

Conclusion

So even Skype, with its real-time sights and sounds, destroys context and restricts communication. It expects that Job will go on facing Elihu, even if nothing is said. There is still an obligation upon Job if he is to receive any comfort from Elihu. Otherwise, any turn of the head for the one becomes an activity to watch for the other—is there something happening in the room? some distraction, that is drawing his attention? The friend becomes the viewer, looking for clues to what’s happening. Any shared experience is only sight and sound but not taste or touch or smell. It is not communion.

Just as, for Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, presence was transformed into sound and word, so for Elihu presence is transubstantiated into sound and image. For Eliphaz on the phone, silence becomes suspicion of a lost call. For Bildad writing and Zophar texting, sentences and paragraphs and text messages obliterate silence. It cannot exist for them. For Elihu on Skype, silence can exist only as image. Never as presence.

In all these ways, technology dissects presence. And like most dissected things, presence dies in the process. For presence must live in a way that no communications technology can transport or transcend. Communication technologies can only kill it in order to process it—like meat.

Finally, we must recognize the inversion that takes place with technologies like these. They turn presence into words. But Jesus, when he came, did the opposite. He turned word into presence. The Word became God with us. God’s law was superseded by God’s presence; Christ fulfilled the purpose of the Law. Jesus did not simply communicate, he communed. Technology does the opposite—communion becomes communication. This reversal is not insignificant. It is an antithesis to Christ.

For believers, who are Christ’s body, technology’s posture must be a warning sign. The church cannot embody the presence of Christ through technology. Where it uses technology to connect with people, it has already failed in its calling. “Go.” This was the failure of Job’s friends. They chose to stay, when they needed to go. They extended their reach through technology and failed to touch Job with their presence.