Cell Phones and the Incarnation
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
January 24, 2008 - Certain aspects of our culture form such a seamless part of the daily fabric of our lives that we often overlook the very possibility of theological critique. Consider cell phones. To be sure, the ubiquity of wireless forms of communication is an initial obstacle to the envisioned critique. Nevertheless, mere widespread use is not always sufficient to account for failure in theological evaluation. After all, one can point to many aspects of culture where the fact that “Everybody’s doing it” leaves the theologically astute Christian absolutely unmoved.
What seems different in the case of cell phones is an implicit cultural assumption – one that Christians often unknowingly endorse – that various forms of media and technology are, in themselves, morally neutral. In other words, things such as cell phone, iPods, computers, and so on are only good or bad when they are put to good or bad use. But the forms of technology themselves are not morally significant one way or another.
Someone who has noted this trend with great theological acumen is Ken Myers, President and Executive Producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. In an essay entitled “How Would Jesus Call?” Myers expresses concern over the fact that “church leaders and theologians give far too little attention to the subtle ways in which technologies reshape our lives and thereby re-configure our moral understanding of the world.” He goes on to reflect on the relationship between cell phone technology and the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Perhaps anticipating the obvious rejoinder, Myer writes, “What could cell phones possibly have to do with the Incarnation?” “Both,” he suggests, “involve the significance of physical, embodied presence before others. The presence of another person before us is a kind of moral claim, asking for the recognition appropriate to a fellow human being. Likewise, when we make ourselves present to others, we are showing respect.”
At least part of the significance of the Incarnation is signaled in one of the names given to Jesus. Matthew’s gospel records that Jesus shall be called “Immanuel” – and adds the helpful explanation – “which means, ‘God with us’.” The picture of the Savior that emerges in the gospel narratives is not one who relates to his people in mediated ways. Rather, God is, as the name suggests, quite literally with us – God’s unmediated presence, as it were.
In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God was not merely “connected” to those among whom he lived and served. Rather, he walked, healed, touched, and taught in a physically embodied way indicative of his climactic sacrifice on the cross and subsequent bodily resurrection. “This is my body . . .” he said; not – “This is a high resolution digital reproduction of my body . . .” The sacrifice was as real as the earthy, unleavened loaf absorbed in the digestive process.
Inasmuch as that the church is the body of Christ, it manifests the genuine presence of God in a world that is as much broken and hurting as the world of first century Palestine in which Jesus Christ himself ministered. The doctrine of the Incarnation should cause us to reflect on the extent to which we, as Christians, embody the presence of Christ to others. Moreover, the Incarnation should be an occasion for thinking about the ways in which various cultural forms (e.g., cell phones) may work against the task of being a body that the world (and so many people in it) so desperately needs.
Related Web Resource: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/6/rosen.htm