The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World
When students in my media courses start in on the usual litany about the evils of digital media and how they are threatening our “real” relationships and communication skills, I am always a little surprised, first that they would spend so much time with technology they believe to be ruining their individual characters and society. I also wonder if these alleged “digital natives” are either less enchanted with the digital than we believe, or if they are parroting what they have been told and presume that is what I want to hear from them. Given this conversation that seems to repeat with every new batch of college students, I was refreshed to see a different perspective from Deanna A. Thompson in The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, which aligns more closely with my personal experience.
The book weaves together scholarly exposition with personal narrative and anecdote. Thompson introduces herself as a convert: a former believer that digital media destroy our ability to maintain superior face-to-face relationships. The experience that shifted her perspective, she writes, was a serious health diagnosis that led to Christians near and far joining together to show her support and love. This support was sometimes organized online, and other times performed online, complicating Thompson’s view. It is refreshing to see Thompson write explicitly about her personal experience and how it shaped her perspective, when the academic temptation is to obscure the personal. This book is not a memoir, however. Thompson’s experience serves as example and illustration for an argument that she builds with reference to scripture and scholarly thought in a more traditional way, and it often appears toward the end of chapters after a principle has been developed.
Thompson draws on these resources to make a complex argument about the role of digitally mediated communication in the contemporary church. First, she engages briefly with media theory to consider what “virtual” life might mean and how it differs from and overlaps with face-to-face communication. She warns against technological determinism and also against a tendency to see virtual communication as opposite and opposed to “real” or in-person communication. She both points out the “realness” of digital interactions and asserts that “having an in-person conversation, we all know, is no guarantee of having a real conversation” (25). As a communication scholar, I was disappointed the medium theory engagement here was so brief and limited in scope. However, given that this is a book by a theologian, it is appropriate she spends more time with biblical interpretation and ecclesiology than media theorists.
Next, Thompson builds the argument that the biblical vision of Christian community has always been at least partly virtual. Focusing on Paul’s metaphor of the Body of Christ, she demonstrates that “Paul introduced a new model of community into the Greco-Roman world” (33) and created a way of relating that often included physical distance. She argues that Paul’s connection with many churches was mediated through letters and that his relationship with Jesus was also “a virtual one, mediated primarily through his followers” (41). Having developed a notion of Christian living that has always been virtual, she moves on to consider what this might mean for incarnational living. Here Thompson draws on other scholars to emphasize the continuity between the embodied and the virtual, but also the complexity of her experience with a body that is constrained by illness and the value of virtual community in these cases. She uses her own story and others’ to assert that “the often-intimate interrelatedness between virtual and actual worlds can together lead to better support and care not just for the soul and the spirit but also for the body” (67).
Thompson’s third and final section addresses more practical and specific concerns about how to enact incarnational love in a world that is inseparable from virtual life. She notes that while digital media allow us to attend to more people and things than we otherwise might, they create a new problem: “If as members of the body of Christ we are called to give our most focused attention to the weakest among us, how can we cultivate ways to prioritize the information and communication we take in each day?” (79). She ultimately recommends both communal worship and other physical and virtual practices that cultivate attentiveness. She continues discussing the ways social networks enable churches to act as the virtual body of Christ, but also cautions about their limitations.
On the whole, Thompson’s approach is moderate and pragmatic. She is careful to avoid extremist positions that either unquestioningly embrace or dismiss digital technology in the life of the church. Given the nature of her personal anecdotes, Thompson is especially attentive to the role of healing in the life of the church, and the needs of the sick and disabled as especially embodied needs that have the potential to benefit especially from virtual community when physical community is not medically possible. Her movement between personal narrative and engagement with the Bible and other scholars helps her maintain this moderation while still engaging a complex topic with expertise and generosity. Technology is a topic that can be especially prone to voices of extremes, convinced technology will either save us or damn us, and the voice of a “convert” to moderate enthusiasm is refreshing.
Thompson’s attention to those with diminished physical capacity due to illness does mean less attention to other ways people might be cast as the weakest among us. For instance, economic inequality creates a digital divide in a variety of ways: not everyone can afford the devices or services necessary to enter into digital life regularly, and geography sometimes inhibits the availability of those services. Literacy, both facility with reading and writing and familiarity with digital tools and formats, limits or enables the amount and type of engagement different individuals and communities are capable of. Also, academic life especially lends itself to digital availability, while other types of vocations and lifestyles inhibit that availability. These questions about justice and access are relatively unexplored in Thompson’s discussion, which focuses more on individual practices and choices and less on structural or systemic questions. Nonetheless, Thompson’s solutions focus on churches and communities, who should not only be agents of individual formation but also attentive to pursuing justice. Alert readers can themselves extend Thompson’s general approach to accounting for these issues, since she has already modeled methods of thinking through questions of relationship and focus raised by technology which might be similarly applied to thinking about and navigating economic divides or other kinds of inequality.
Stylistically, this book is pitched in between conversational and academic. It is intellectual, but accessible to a non-expert audience. It would be appropriate for an interested lay audience or undergraduate students and is likely to spur good discussion. Thompson’s engagement with other scholars and also her complex life experience help steer discussion away from typical binaries and complaints and toward more interesting questions about how best to live in a world that has become irreversibly shaped by digital technology as a body of Christ that has always been (at least partly) virtual.