THE VIRTUAL BODY OF CHRIST IN A SUFFERING WORLD. By Deanna A. Thompson. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016. x + 131 pages.
We live in a digital age where smart phones, tablets, and computers seem omnipresent. I heard that on average we check our phones 19,000 times each year. There is this need, perhaps addiction, to know what is happening on Facebook and Twitter (among other sites). We don’t want to miss anything. There are benefits to the digital age, but there are also challenges. Both benefits and challenges have been the subject of numerous conversations within religious circles. Some reject and some jump in with both feet, while others of us are more cautious in our engagement. There is great concern in some quarters, that the digital revolution can do irreparable harm to our social fabric. There may be dangers here, but it doesn’t look as if we can retreat to a predigital age.
There are numerous books and resources that help religious leaders navigate the digital world, but what we may need is a theological approach to the question. What we need is what theologian Deanna A. Thompson brings to the table. Deanna is professor of religion at Hamline University. She is by training and scholarly interest a feminist theologian with interest in the cross and Luther. Before she was diagnosed with incurable metastatic breast cancer she had been a skeptic with regard to social media. After she was diagnosed, and while in treatment, her brother set up a Caring Bridge account for her. From this she discovered a whole new way of being connected to people around the world who were praying for her. She found tremendous support that helped her move through difficult times. This led to a conversion moving her from skeptic to advocate. While she is currently in remission, she has become an evangelist for the good news of the virtual body of Christ.
I became acquainted with Deanna through her wonderful commentary—Deuteronomy: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Since I read her commentary, reviewed, and began conversation with her, I’ve had two opportunities to be with her in face-to-face experiences through the Academy of Parish Clergy. The digital world, however, has served us well to keep in touch. I’m excited about this new venture. I believe that Deanna has written an important book for the church. She brings her gifts as a theologian to this most pressing question—how do we live as church in a digital world? Pushing this further, how do we as a virtual body of Christ attend to a suffering world?
Deanna is not unaware of the challenges of the digital revolution to the church and to society. She acknowledges that it can lead to disruption of relationships and that it can be addictive. But, at the same time she recognizes that the digital world offers tremendous potential for bring people together and touching lives with healing grace. Indeed, we have the opportunity as the church, as the body of Christ, to incarnate God’s grace in a transformative way in this realm. Her understanding of this potential is rooted in her own experience. For example, while she needed and desired face-to-face encounters, she found that as she dealt with her cancer there were times when she simply was not up to such encounters. Knowing that people wanted to know what was going on, she found that by providing updates on her Caring Bridge site she could communicate her thoughts more effectively and in a less taxing way for herself. She also found strength in the comments and prayers that were shared in return on the same site.
While this is a very personal boo, rooted in Deanna’s story, it is also a book of theology written with a broad audience in mind, from lay people to theologians. She wants us to reflect theologically and practically on how "our ever-expanding virtual networks are also going to push us to rethink the boundaries of the church local and universal" (p. 7). She has come to believe, based on living with cancer, that "it is possible to intentionally incarnate the body of Christ virtually in a way that permits and holds my own vulnerability as well as the vulnerabilities of those caring for me" (p. 8). What she wants us to know is that this digital revolution and accompanying virtual world can enhance the church's ability to minister to those who suffer. Again, she understands the challenges and dangers, but the benefits outweigh the dangers, if we keep sight of our calling to be supportive of one another.
A relatively small book, but packed with insights, it breaks down into three parts with a study guide at the end of the book, making this a most useful study guide for congregational use.
In Part One, titled "The Virtual World is Our World," Deanna tells her conversion story regarding virtual reality (Introduction), and then in chapter one, "Our World Is the Virtual World," she lays out the opportunities and challenges of the digital revolution. She speaks here of weak and strong ties, showing how even in the virtual world, weak ties can turn to strong ones. As one who is engaged in the virtual/digital world, I have my concerns about the depth of ties, and yet I've observed in my own life the opportunity to build or expand relationships virtually. So, this was a very helpful discussion.
Having laid out the basic issues in chapter one, we move to Part Two— “The Body of Christ as a Virtual Body”—where she brings theology into the conversation. The first of two chapters in this section is provocatively titled: "The Body of Christ has always been and will always be a virtual body." She reminds us that Christ is virtually present with the world through his followers. As Christ's virtual body, the church ministers to the suffering and the broken. Paul developed the idea of the body of Christ in his letters, letters written to congregations from which he was separated by time and space. She helps us take note of the two dimensions of the body, one that is local and physical, but another that is virtual, and that Paul expresses both in his theology and his ministry. The virtual side is seen in the letters, which Deanna suggests is "virtual communication," and that this "helps make more visible the ways in which communication was also mediated during predigital periods of history" (p. 41). While the local body plays a vital role in this, Deanna wants us to keep in mind the church universal. She wants us to remember that the church is more than local, and therefore it is always virtual. From this reflection, Deanna moves in chapter three to "Incarnational Living in the Digital Age." She spends considerable time in this chapter reflecting on the possibility that virtual reality will be disembodied, and that's not her vision of the virtual body. Her point is that the virtual connections don't have to be discontinuous with face-to-face connections. The question is how are we present to each other, both face-to-face and virtually? What is needed then is "an incarnational theology that not only approaches proliferating technologies with a healthy skepticism but also encompasses a willingness to imagine how they might up new pathways for walking those dusty roads into the crowds of hurting people" (p. 69). The point of all of this is not to encourage withdrawal from a hurting world, but finding new ways to engage this world as the body of Christ. What we need to remember is that the digital world is here to stay. The question is, how will the church engage it with a positive vision? Thus, Deanna writes: "Only when such tools are utilized in service of life-giving attention toward those who are weakest among us can they contribute to visions of incarnational living called for in the gospels" (p. 73).
If Part Two offers a theological exploration of the virtual Body of Christ, in Part Three Deanna introduces to what the "The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World" looks like in practice. Chapter four is titled "Attending to the Weakest Members of the Body in the Digital Age." Remember her conversion emerged out of her own experience of cancer, so how does ministry take place in a digital world so that the weakest are tended to? Then in the final chapter she speaks of moving beyond digital strategies: "Becoming More Fully the Body of Christ in and through Virtual Reality." Regarding the first point, she addresses the danger of distraction, so that our attentiveness is at risk. To be the virtual body of Christ, we will need to practice "sustained attention." She writes about ways in which we can practice attentiveness, including regular worship, including attention to word and sacrament as spiritual practices. What she invites us to is a practice of "bounded openness." By this she means the opportunity that the digital reality offers for extending the body beyond the boundaries of the local church. She mentions "online worship." While there is some danger here of people abandoning face-to-face community, she notes that for many who are hurting this can be a means of connecting. There is much here that I wish to further explore. I'm a believer in the value of the local body, but I also know that if we want to truly minister to our world, we'll need to find ways of connecting that go beyond the physical community. The important thing about Deanna's book is that it is deeply theological. Deanna is an advocate, but she's also a theologian and that is reflected in her reflections.
In the final chapter, Deanna invites to move beyond digital strategies, to envision what is already forming. It's an invitation to be aware of what is going in the lives around us. There is the danger of oversharing, and I observe a lot of oversharing on Facebook. We need to be more self-aware of what is shared. On the other hand, as a pastor I’m able to observe what is going in the lives in parishioners in ways I’m not able otherwise. I’m snooping, just catching glimpses. I'm also in contact with people who are not of my immediate flock, but with whom I can share ministry (I do this on FB and through my blog). Regarding the virtual world, we need to be aware of the capacity to move from weak ties to strong ones. At the same time, we need to be aware that not everyone is online. There are many who, for whatever reason, are not connected. We need to be aware so that they are not forgotten or neglected.
While some lament the digital age, we can’t go back to a predigital age. The church will continue to be impacted by it in the years to come, so where will the church be in all of this. How can we incarnate the body of Christ in a virtual world in such a way that the hurting and suffering members of our world will be tended to? We are, after all, part of a communion of saints that goes beyond the local body, and may even include those who don’t consider themselves part of the body of Christ!
The book is brief, but powerful. As a cautious user of social media, I may have my concerns but also know that ministry cannot be effectively carried out if we don’t engage with the virtual world. What we need as the church are thoughtful guides who can bring theology to bear on the question. As Deanna closes her book, we can recognize that the "through the church's embrace of the emerging benefits of digital connectivity, Christian communities can continue to live into the call to be the body of Christ with and for one another and the world with our deepest attention reserved for those who need it most. Thanks be to God for this new tool of ministry." Indeed, thanks be to God!