In a world that cherishes life without touching or interacting with other bodies, how do we convey the power of the Body of Christ? Or do we actually need to?
The Incarnation and Biblical Technology
One of my friends is Rev. Rick McKinley, a pastor and evangelism expert in the New England area of the United Methodist Church. He recently attended Exponential, a church planting conference in Florida. He wrote about his experience on his blog, and I want to riff off of one of his reflections.
Excarnation is the opposite of incarnation. You won’t find the word in most dictionaries, but it is a real word – referring to a real ritual. Excarnation was a practice of removing flesh from bones – often done when someone was killed far from their home country. This allowed the body to be transported back to the home country in days when that would have been more difficult if flesh was stilled involved. Cheery stuff, huh?
Anyway, referring to a book called “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor, Frost talked about how knowledge in today’s culture has been “defleshed” in many places, particularly the middle class, suburban experience. Knowledge used to be embedded in the bodies of people. For example, that great recipe for homemade bread – it wasn’t in a recipe book. People didn’t look it up on an app, worrying about whether or not they added exactly 1/2 tspn. of baking powder, or an ounce of vanilla. The knowledge was in the finger tips and on the tongue. It was enfleshed – incarnated – and shared with others in the same way.
To me, the early Christians practiced incarnation even with the most advanced form of technology: letters. When Paul’s letters were read, they were read out-loud to a gathered group that reflected on them. When the Gospels and John’s Evangel were written, they were to be shared person-to-person, not inherited in the mail or by courier and passed down the generations. While we are thankful for the archiving of these letters so we can enjoy them today, we cannot dissasociate them from the communities from whence they came. In fact, some of our letters attributed to Paul were not written by him–they were written by his incarnate community.
These communities practiced communion, service, living alongside one another, and even though there was some writing, most transmission came through touch. It’s always struck me that Jesus only wrote something down once: when he wrote on the sand when the authorities wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery in John 8. That’s the only time, implying that rigid and impersonal application of the law was not becoming of an incarnate people of bodies and justice.
So the early Christians kept a proper balance between the most advanced technology of their day and the call to be incarnate people in their communities and with their Christ.
The Excarnation and Today’s Technology
However, the world has changed and technology now allows us to live bodiless existences–indeed, an entire generation has grown up with this possibility. Rick continues his summary:
Frost challenged those at the workshop to relate this to the church – to the knowledge once embedded in the community of faith on how to live the ways of Jesus that now is knowledge that exists outside the community. This is my application to his ideas – it’s now contained on our bible app, our prayer app, our small group app, etc. Our knowledge of scripture, prayer, other practices of faith (in many places, this includes service – we write the check but don’t build relationship) has been defleshed. Our experience of community is often mediated rather than direct.
The horse is out of the barn, or in today’s vernacular, the email has left the server. Like our discussion about Libraries and the Church, the gatekeepers are dead and the secret knowledge hidden in the Church is out in the world. It is excarnate, with the bones showing, but without a community to show what it looks like when it is lived out. There is no going back to the land before the Internet had knowledge at our fingertips.
- We readily see the negative effects of this excarnation. It’s easier to troll people when their flesh isn’t in front of you. It’s easier to criticize faceless people when you don’t know the depth of their heart for Christ (which I’ve done on occasion). The shame culture around twitter and women online is toxic on many levels. Even though everyone online has access to more biblical knowledge than any previous generation, it seems our technology has outpaced our ability to swim together in it, and that’s a serious difficulty for Christianity to overcome.
- But I also see the joys. People connecting beyond the limitations of their towns or contexts. LGBT Christians finding community and support in their closeted existence in unsupportive towns or families. People are coming to know the Incarnate Christ eventually even if they are, at this point in their journey, essentially disconnected. I think trusting the slow work of God leads to a slowing down of expectation that God will work as quickly as our Comcast XFinity connection. Perhaps it is not the human psyche that cannot handle the speed of today’s culture so much as that we’ve applied our sense of chronos time to God’s kairos time, which is always, always slower.
So I’m stuck between being frustrated by the excarnating culture, and yet being drawn into the best parts of it. As a pastor, I’m stuck in the tension of being an advocate for an incarnational spirituality (including incarnational atonement) and an unafraid tinkerer with online communion (how could this work?), yet being perfectly-at-home with disembodied community (I ran an interfaith forum for years before this blog).
So I hear the concerns about excarnation, but I truly think that they are not obstacles to overcome, but understandings of community that will take us time to truly “get.” I agree with Rick who, in another blog post, ends on this type of note:
There is hope. God of the resurrection can do all things through people willing to keep focused on the things of God.
Thoughts? Thanks to Rick for stoking my imagination. Y’all should read his blog here.