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Biting The Hand That Feeds Us?

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Comedic web blog, Cracked.com, posted an interesting piece on the limitations of web for religion.
It's safe to say that God doesn't live on the Internet. Where cathedrals, temples, and houses of worship succeed in providing the sensation that God might feasibly hang out there, websites fail miserably. The translation from stone and stained glass to ones and zeros is clumsy at best, partially because so many of the websites are built by volunteer designers and partially because those designers insist on building websites as though no website has ever existed in the history of the Internet. To their credit, most of them seem to grasp importance of holding on to the short attention spans of accidental visitors, but they don't have a really solid plan for applying that information.

At a time when some evangelical leaders are talking about ditching the local church altogether in favor of on-line spirituality, it’s refreshing.  Ironically, it’s people like Sherry Turkle, a professor at no less than MIT, who warn about how the Internet is changing the way we exist as human beings—even throwing out the term “Gnostic.”  By contrast, in The New Christians, Emergent leader Tony Jones relates how his best friend is an “uber-blogger” he’s never actually met in person.

Some Christians surf the net not only for vitamin supplements but for their meals.  All of this makes sense in an evangelicalism that is already disposed toward treating the physical aspects of reality as merely “external” (like a coat you can put on or take off) in contrast to the inner realm of the Spirit.  But as Christians we believe that the Word became flesh.  We aren’t looking for out-of-body experiences, but for the God who still descends to us, binding us to his Son through such mundane matter as preaching, water, bread and wine. And like these means of grace, the communion of saints is also a tangible, earthly, embodied reality.  They are my brothers and sisters: not ideas, resources, or bloggers. It’s a family dinner, not a drive-thru meal.

But does that mean that there’s no place for the web?  Not at all, as long as we know its limits.  I’m glad there are highways when I want to get downtown, but I don’t take Sunday strolls along it.

Imagine concentric circles.  At the widest, you have the rapid exchange of ideas and information.  Of course, there’s nothing better than the Internet for that one.  I often go to Wikipedia for quick data on a person or date in history, but I’d never allow my students to cite Wikipedia as a source in their research papers.  That’s because a research paper is more than information.  The next ring in on my concentric circles is for informal get-togethers with brothers and sisters in Christ, including conferences.  But the bulls-eye is the Lord’s Day gathering of the covenant family, beneath the pulpit, at the font, and at the table.

All of this reminds me of that stanza in T. S. Eliot’s “The Rock”: “Where is all the wisdom we have lost in knowledge and all the knowledge we have lost in information?”  Information is good.  Resources can set us on a wonderfully new track.  But what we’ll always need most—in spiritual as well as domestic terms—is a good bath, a good meal, and a good word from our Father, in his Son, by his Spirit.  Nothing beats that.

[Correction: the title of Tony Jones' book in this post was corrected at 11:30 a.m. on March 9th]
Tagged in: Church emergent internet

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  • Guest - Mike Horton

    Fair enough, Tony. But whether Bob Carlton is a “best friend” or “one of my closest friends,” it’s part of a broader argument about the emergent church being more like Wiki-Church (analogous to Wikipedia) and closely aligned with the advent of the Internet. I guess readers will have to decide whether your arguments in that chapter are pro-embodiment.

    Yes, I’ve seen a lot of talk about the importance of embodiment and “hi-touch” relationality in emergent circles. However, the community you describe in The New Christians sounds a lot like a Quaker or Plymouth Brethren type of meeting. The focus seems to be on each person sharing his or her inner light or inner experiences in a conversation, rather than being faced with the disorienting prospect of being addressed by an external Word from the Triune God. The public means of grace—preaching and sacrament—appear to me to be treated as subordinate to the “messy” atmosphere (your adjective) of “conversation.” It sounds one-sidedly horizontal and determined more by personal choice and expressiveness than by a humble hearing and receiving of God’s judgment and gracious gifts. You relate the view of some (including your pastor) who treat not only the pastor but the Bible itself as one of the conversation partners. Where does God get a word in edge-wise, not just as a conversation partner or even facilitator but as the judge and justifier of the ungodly? Is there any point in an emergent service where a sinner—even a Christian one—can be assured that every week the Triune God will objectively deliver Christ and all of his benefits?

    From your description, it sounds like the community is doing all the work: more “Martha” than “Mary.” We’re busy “doing the gospel,” “being the gospel,” and participating in Jesus’ work of redeeming the world. But is this right? Isn’t Christ the gospel? And didn’t he redeem the world once and for all at the cross? My deepest concern with this very popular language about our redeeming and reconciling activity is that we’re preaching ourselves rather than Christ. I don’t believe the gospel is something we can do, much less be. It’s something we can only hear, believe, and announce. That’s what makes it “Good News.”

    Would love to get your take on this.

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  • [...] Horton asks some important questions about how we find community [...]

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  • Thank you for this, Mike. I've been wanting something like this for awhile, thinking about the place of technology in our Christian lives...

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  • Guest - Douglas

    ...It’s safe to say that God doesn’t live on the Internet...

    God is omnipresent isn't He? He speaks crystal clearly through His word doesn't He. His Word is on the Internet too, true? His Word is living, active and sharper than any two-edged sword not matter where His Word is in His Universes even if it is on the dark side of the moon? God lives everywhere doesn't He but not in the in the birds and the bees and the flowers and trees but only in you and me? Not on the Internet?

    What about say the underground church or those in some prisons and the sick & shut-ins through no fault of their own and such like whose only form of fellowship nowadays is through the seemingly unseen mysterious workings of the Internet even if it is not in the form of actual human to human contact?

    Twice in my life as a Christian I’ve been to fellowship where I have been refused entry because they were having a prayer at the beginning of the service until that prayer ended. What a legalistic trip that has been. That has nearly put me off going ever again in this life.

    A man I consider to be my best and closest friend that I trust the most in the Christian life is a man I have never meet in person who is the servant of what I consider to be the greatest resource of sound theological doctrine on this planet which just happens to be an Internet site, pleasant enough to the eyes in design I reckon. I trust him more than anyone else even though him and I have had the odd disagreements which have been few and far between, that’s what friends are for eh? Ideas are formed in the fire of debate and as longs as those fires produce more heat than light something is accomplished we’d hope. True? I leave you to guess which website and fellow I talk about, but it isn’t Lutheran though I love much of what Lutheran’s teach. Where are all those places where the Church is for those who have been broken by the church? We are all over the planet in our various stages. Some of us, like me for one instance are uneducated wombats.

    Another bloke I consider a friend and brother is R. C. Sproul yet I aint meet him though I got a real nice personal letter from him him way back in ‘81 in response to a question or two I asked of him . Since then I have read more than a few of his books but I disagree with some of his stuff two being the issues infant baptism and tithing. Tithing is a real legalistic guilt trip I reckon which the New Testament doesn’t teach (sorry about the side-track). Do I need to meet ol R. C.? Should I chuck all his books away? I don’t think so. Should I stop checking out Ligonier's website and stop watching the videos etc. on the Web?

    I am more than grateful for the Web, it sure has let me know of the agony of deceit that’s out there, both in the real world and on the Internet. It emerges from the mind of man and Satan doesn’t it?

    Another fella I consider a close and best friend is an-ex bike gang member and ex occult martial artists like me and we are both Christians now and we can encourage each other in the flesh from time to time. Even going into the mountains deer hunting though I’m not so fit these days to go leaping and bounding all over the mountains like him. It was because of the Internet I was able to point my friend to Reformed Theology while I was living in Aussie at the time because both of us were founded in the many errors of diverse sorts of Pentecostalism in the early years of our Christian life. The Net helped me tremendously (along with R. C.’s books) to see the truth-truth of Reformed Theology and I have been able to point others to that and they have been blessed heaps in that regard. Even some teachers and pastors, all glory to God alone. I have been in a cage stage and jerk stage since 1981 and man I find it difficult at times. Blokes writing stuff like that about blokes like me discourage me with their cage stage reformed jerk stuff. Many Christians can be stuck in a cage stage? For ages and ages? Where is the loving kindness gentleness grace to wards people like me? Many times I find that more from the Internet through unseen untouchable human beings.

    BTW, emergent/emerging teachings give me the real creeps. I can't stand their stuff...give me the 'R-tribe' any day...

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  • I know many who have "heard" and are still hearing the gospel because of the internet, but I don't know how they can receive the Lord's Supper through that thing (net).

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  • Steve,

    It is entirely feasible to celebrate the Lord's supper via a webcam in a conference call or even between two believers. The arrival of online religion is a consequential as when the printing presses brought the written word to medieval Europe. While cyberspace is no equal substitute for in-person relationships, it does avail us to meaningful, worldwide Christian fellowship.

    With religious literacy dramatically on the upswing, cyber-Christians find new appreciation for personal freedom in Christ. Moreover, cyberspace affords us the priesthood of all believers--an equal playing field. The Internet was a valuable tool in my search for biblical truth as a former legalist and sect member.

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  • You might be right.

    I just think there is no substitute for an actual gathering of the faithful.

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  • [...] Biting The Hand That Feeds Us?  The internet is a poor replacement for Christian fellowship. Professor Michael Horton explains. &as Christians we believe that the Word became flesh. We aren’t looking for out-of-body experiences, but for the God who still descends to us, binding us to his Son through such mundane matter as preaching, water, bread and wine. And like these means of grace, the communion of saints is also a tangible, earthly, embodied reality. (Michael Horton) [...]

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  • [...] works with Doug at Solomons Porch, an emergent church. Mike had referenced a book by Tony in a March WHI blog post on the internet and the church. That sparked a few blog comments and offline conversation between [...]

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  • [...] Horton recently wrote a short article on trying to get everyone to realize that the internet is limited, in an attempt to stop all of the [...]

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