The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Incarnate Gospel in the Internet Age

You don’t do philosophy with smoke signals, Neil Postman once said. Sometimes the medium just doesn’t accommodate the message. In a recent Facebook exchange, I was conversing with a friend of a friend, someone I’d never met. We actually were talking philosophy, when she apologized, “Typing on this iPad doesn't lend to quick thought flow.” And I’ll admit, I was having trouble following her what she was saying. Apparently iPads may have something in common with smoke signals.

So when I heard about Internet Evangelism Day (IED), I started asking the same questions. Is the Internet a good medium for evangelism? Asking the question is worthwhile, just like philosophy and smoke signals. Does the Internet really help in the evangelistic efforts of motivated believers?

IED’s website confronts this question head-on. “In New Testament times, the Roman Road system was strategic in God’s plan. It enabled the spread of the Gospel throughout the then-known world. In the same way, the Internet today is a worldwide network which can facilitate effective Gospel communication.”

I can definitely see an analogy there. So they are both mediums, but how far does the analogy stretch? For example, what “content” did the Roman road transport? Literally speaking, it was people and goods. What “content” does the Internet transport? Well, again, literally, it’s electricity, or, if it’s fiber optics, light. This, of course, is not the point of analogy.

Proponents of IED are instead connecting the messages carried by people to the messages carried by electricity. In their minds, the message is the centerpiece of both the Roman road system and the Internet. This message is the essence of “evangelism” for IED. The message matters above all. The message carriers, though, whether made of flesh and blood or ones and zeros, are really moot.

Now, for these evangelistic crusaders, the message is always communicated in words. In today’s world, words are discrete—they are easily distinguished. A word like “animal” is not the word “enemy.” They are discrete. And “animal” has a limited number of things it can refer to. Perhaps an animal could be your enemy, but a tree is not an animal.

Yet, we can say that a bird is an animal as much as a dog is an animal as much as your friend is a party animal. In that case, “animal” fails to distinguish between these three. It obliterates meaning so that bird, dog, and your friend are all in the same category. Not only that, they are the same thing—“animal.” Of course, we know this mashup isn’t the case—but the distinction is a logical leap that your own mind makes. Nothing about the word “animal” would tell you that. And just like “animal,” all words—to one degree or another—flatten human experience and eliminate distinctions. Every word on this blog is less-than-3D. But human experience is not discrete; it’s continuous.

So what happens when the Christian gospel is filtered through the sieve of language into discrete, finite words? Of course, meaning is lost.

But here’s the bigger issue: What words do to human experience, the Internet does to human relationships. As technologies, both words and the Internet flatten reality to one degree or another. This flattening is what IED fails to account for in its gospel: The Roman road transported people. Real live messengers walked the roads of the Roman Empire. And oftentimes, instead of sending messages, people themselves went as the message. They went and lived among the people they wanted to evangelize. You can’t do this via the Internet.

The real question is, do bodies matter? Does the gospel need to have bodies who carry it?

IED makes a pretty convincing case on their website. But they do hedge their claims about the Internet’s possibilities. They talk about “a sense of community,” instead of just community. They’re making distinctions to reflect reality. Yet, in the same way that words have trained our minds to do the mental gymnastics necessary to distinguish birds from dogs from your friends as animals, the Internet will train us to do the same for varieties of community: online, real-life, social networks. The Internet is mashing up these varieties until we make no distinctions. All is community. Any distinction is implicit. Animals. Community.

When God created the world, he used words. When he communicated the law to Moses, he used “The Ten Words” set in stone. But when he wanted to communicate himself, he became a man. The Word made flesh. Why? Because, as powerful as words are, God knew they couldn’t capture his essence. But “in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body.” In Christ, the message and medium were fused together. The man, Jesus, in a body, became the message of God—and the messenger. Jesus embodied human experience and lived here, not discretely but continuously. Not partially, but fully. Not in flattened words or electricity, but in flesh and blood. And it was that very flesh and blood that became the gospel.

I don’t doubt that Internet Evangelism Day can encourage people to share their beliefs about God. Nor do I doubt that real human connections can be made via the Internet. But the Internet changes our thinking about what evangelism is—unencumbered by flesh and blood and sacrifice—and that is a problem. It lulls us into believing we can have human connections free from the risks of real intimacy. IED’s website says as much, calling the Web’s relative anonymity a “disinhibitor” so that people are willing share their “inner thoughts, worries, and fears.” In other words, we can share our stories without the actually being known.

Yet because the Internet is the “information superhighway,” it’s information that is primary, not relationships. IED must acquiesce to these priorities and do the same—providing information, resulting in knowledge. Messages in the form of doctrines and beliefs. But the gospel is not primarily a matter of information, nor of knowledge. Remember, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. And the Internet cannot transport love. And the gospel is all about love. Love happens when people are vulnerable, known, and then accepted. Evangelism is all about love, not information. IED can’t advocate for this.

God, for his part, refused to remain anonymous. He refused to evade the risk of human relationships. He chose to empty himself and become a servant to all. He served to the point of death. Real live death. The church is called to come and die with Christ, in part by serving the world. The church is called to live with Christ, in part by loving the world. Loving others isn’t preceded by disinhibiting ourselves by mitigating risk through Internet anonymity. It’s loving sacrificially, and dying, to whatever degree God calls us. Why use words or electricity when you can use your life? Why settle for Facebook—where image and word fuse together—when you can be the face and embody the message?