June 9, 2006 / David Fitch

Cyber community, e-mail-prayer lists and the Revealings of False Community and our own Self-Deceptions

In Emmanuel Katongole’s Beyond Universal Reason he talks about (actually how Hauerwas talks about) how novels, good fiction, biographies and auto-biographies provide ways to experience concretely the sort of lives formed by different stories without experimenting with one’s own life as well (p. 136). We benefit, in other words, by seeing how other narratives and accounts of reality bear fruit in the character of other people’s lives. We are able to test or prove the power of another one’s story without entering into its potential destruction for our own. I view this to be a telling and brilliant analysis of the way we sort out truth within the narrative worlds of a post-modern society. Having said this however, there is the danger of living only in fictional, semi fictional or, dare I say, cyber worlds given the fractured world of simulacra we live in today.

In an admittedly obscure footnote Katongole offers this thick bit of caution,

“Significant as it is, fictional contact can never be a surrogate for the hermeneutical necessity of actual contact with real people. This particularly needs to be stressed in the context of the technology- controlled world of cyberspace. In cyberspace, a lonely soul, the product of the modern market and liberal individualism, seeks engagement with the other, but without, however, the epistemological and moral challenge such a contact would normally have. No doubt, cyberspace may create certain feelings and thoughts, but only in a way which significantly detaches them from their ‘normal’ context in life. This means that one is neither able to be seriously challenged by, nor himself/herself able to help or hinder, benefit or harm, comfort or dismay, the other … “ (p.286)

Brilliant I say. Especially for a time such as this when church seems to be hyper-individualizing to the point of removing all serious contact between persons. I recently saw where entire churches are being founded on the web here and here among many examples. There is no space, time, flesh and blood meeting of people for worship or sending out. All of this happens in cyberspace. We might be quick to laugh this off as an extreme example. But there are some similar dangerous drifts possible in the swell of various means of cyber communication used to organize churches today in N. America. I contend we need to be aware of the dangers of hyper individualizing as the chat-rooms, blogs, instant e-mail technology, the onslaught of cell phone pod casts, wi-fi communication, proliferate as organizing forces in our churches. Indeed, we may be creating a copy of the church which is really not the church, i.e. a simulacrum of the church.

Once again, as always, I am not suggesting we dump the use of these tools altogether. I have admired the way certain churches and para church organizations have used “yahoo-group” conversations and chat rooms to facilitate communication. Our own church has greatly benefited from using these tools. But I believe we must ask these questions. For instance, we must ask, at what point do the ways we use e-mails to create communities for prayer request-sharing, and conversation-sharing create false community, a simulacrum of the church?

And so, this is the threat posed to the church by the endless parade of new communication technology. We risk setting up false simulacra of community, prayer, and even worship by centering it around the Internet which enables convenience but also enables us to never having to actually meet together. We set up false worlds where little or no prayer is actually going on, it just looks like it is going on. Worse, cyber engagements protect us in our own delusions. We rarely are challenged out of our own self-deception because we never are challenged morally or epistemologically by close contact with the other, as Katongole says.

In the end, there are reasons why we must physically gather, to physically lay hands on the sick in community (James 5.16). There are reasons why the most powerful moments happen when we engage one another’s physical presense sometimes in silence, sometimes only in listening, yet being present enough to speak genuine words of truth in love that build up, transform and heal another person by the Spirit (Eph 4:15,25-32; 5:8-13). There are reasons why Jesus is present when two or three are gathered in His name (Matt 18:18-20). There are physical social reasons why His special presense comes to us as we gather around the meal at the Lord’s Table. And so it almost goes without saying that all of this takes us beyond cyberworld and cyber-dispersed prayers? All of this is probably obvious. Yet I believe this level of community is growing ever more extinct among the worlds of cyberspace. I believe the small emerging house churches are one way of fighting this drift. At our church, we are continually fighting to make time for triads (places where three or more gather for these simple practices), house gatherings (times of sharing a meal and conversation together cross generationally), and social engagements with the poor. For these are the spaces out of where real life gives birth to real mission, real change in character gives birth to witness, real transformation of the soul gives birth to real engagement of the poor and the sick and the lonely.

How are others discerning the use of cyber-tools in your churches? How are others finding spaces for the physical contact with the other?