The widespread use of twitter, tumblr, Facebook, etc, and the past success of the movie “Social Media” and the accolades it received across various Hollywood awards shows should have gained the attention of the church and thoughtful followers of Jesus. Yet, this is not the case. Normally, us self-professed Christian folk can dismiss the latest entertainment and internet phenomenon as a fad, but not this time. Indeed, this time, we are co-opting it for our “biblical” purposes and our sense of “evangelism”…too bad we are not thinking critically about co-opting these mediums and the theological statements being made in doing so. Moving right along, if the success of social media in the movies hasn’t gotten our attention, the explosion of social media as a way of relating and communicating most certainly should, yet when was the last sermon you heard on the relationship between the Gospel and Social media or the Gospel Facebook style? In a connected world, it seems that thoughtful Christian thinking is disconnected from the purposes and the impact social media is making on millions of people around the globe. What is occurring before our eyes is a new way of creating community and belonging. Hollywood and internet media has successfully tapped into the desire that people have to be a part of something greater than themselves…and if atonement is about anything, it is about connecting people something greater than themselves.
The church, however, is not failing to take advantage of social media or even having a Facebook or Twitter presence. In fact, more and more churches are connected to the abyss of social media. Yet, the reality is that few churches are asking the hard theological questions that Facebook and social media creates. For millions of people that use Facebook, and other social media, these mediums are their community. These mediums are the ways in which a generation of people are learning the skills of communication, and ironically losing their ability to communicate in truly human ways at the same time. The connections people are finding are taking the place of the real communal connections. In our attempt to be a part of an online community we are sacrificing real community; we seeking at-one-ment, yet the very means by which we are seeking is creating the very opposite desire that drives us to embrace artificial connectivity.
So are Christians really thinking about what makes Facebook work? What is it about Facebook that keeps users returning daily, coming back for more, again and again, only to find the same website exactly where they left it? In other words, what essential human need does Facebook fill that makes it “work” for thousands of people across cultural and international boundaries? What need is the church neglecting? What does a social media community have, promise and do that draws people unto itself? Might I suggest that Facebook works not because of what it is, but what it does. Let me repeat, Facebook works not because of what it is, BUT WHAT IT DOES. If any of my past posts on atonement have said anything thus far, I trust that the function of the idea of atonement, and our subsequent theology thereof, is pivotal to its importance, development and continual hermeneutical applications in the present context of human need.
What Facebook does is connect people. Facebook works for so many people because it taps into the primordial need all humans have to be in community with others. It fills a vacuum of emptiness and loneliness, making people feel part of something larger than their daily mundane existence. Facebook, and other forms of social media, has the power to orient lives and wrap them into a larger narrative with an agreed upon location, agreed upon communicational norms and agreed upon taboos that can get one kicked off a friends “friend list.”
For thousands of years human community has been created around sacred objects and the creation of boundaries to identify participation in a particular community. These agreed upon and understood objects and boundaries gave the participants a sense of belonging and a connection, in many cases, to a God from which the community had been gifted. In the past, meaning was often found as people learn to commune around the center known as God, the ultimate object of our attention, our “ultimate concern.” God was the supreme sacred object around which community was created…whether a specific commitment to the Christian idea of God was sustained is immaterial to this observation.
In our contemporary situation, we no longer need to connect to one another through sacred norms in the name of God or scripture. God and text, due to a multitude of factors, have been usurped as the most reliable means that teaches folks how to relate to themselves and that which transcends themselves. Blame it on liberalism, the scientific revolution, the failure of Christians to actually act like Jesus, or whatever, our generation no longer perceives at-one-ment as something solely experienced within a religious context…we now have social media to connect to others in mysterious ways, this satisfying our human need for belonging and hope amidst a community of others.
Now, its Facebook that makes these rules of community and takes the initiative of establishing how we connect with others, the world and ultimately fills a sense of void that generally only happened within the context of religious communities. When we need to connect, need to talk, or need to cry, we do so on cyberspace with our Facebook “friends,” all the while keeping real physical community at the distance of the keyboard. We no longer sink into contemplation, prayer or questions about the nature of what it means to be human. These questions are obsolete because of we have new communities that give us a sense of purpose (even if purpose is now defined as staying connected ALL THE TIME to everything that doesn’t matter…it’s the connection and perception of belonging through that information that now makes us –at-one with our disperate selves.) We are so serious about our Facebook connections that those on our “Friends List” that may not connect with us as often as we like could be excommunicated from our circle of friends.
If millions of people are now looking for community via Facebook, what is driving this phenomenon? Why do so many people find real connection here and not in real authentic community, such as the Church (please suspend all criticisms that the church is often not the church…just work with me that the church IS the beachhead of the Kingdom of God)? Why do so many people neglect family, and the coherence of Church family, for the facsimile relationship of Facebook? Could it be that the church and our families have ostracized many individuals through judgment or prejudice? Have we kept people away by our rules, laws and doctrines, building a hedge around our sacred communities rather than opening doors for those looking to belong somewhere? What happens when the primary means of connection is no longer God in Christ, but a Facebook icon on our smartphones?
Ultimately, is the success of Facebook partially due to the inability of the church, and many Christians, to be an open community who embraces the outcast rather than subdue them through doctrinal obligation, dry moral commitments or even extreme religious laws?
Just as Jesus accepted the marginal, the poor and the wayward of society, so too is there a place for these people at the table of Facebook. Facebook is the new community wherein anyone can belong, be loved and find friends. Mark Zuckerberg has offered a new narrative wherein our faces and books can be read by others. In the at-one-ment of Facebook, there is no judgment, there is no demonization and there is no prejudice. All are welcome to participate and be at-one…atoned of their separation and lostness through social media. Can we eerily hear Facebook echo John 8.10 to the outcasts, “where are your accusers?”
The connection that Facebook provides, however, is artificial. We do not interact with people on Facebook, we interact with images, pictures and statements. We learn how to relate to symbolic stimulus as a means of identifying with others, rather than learning the simple need we have to speak and hear one another. The result is a world that is “plugged in” and addicted to a form of hyper-connectivity, yet very disconnected.
How might Christianity speak to this reality? What central Christian event is the connecting event of history and the event that acts as the glue of Christians everywhere around the world? In what way does religion, specifically Christianity, connect us to one another? An answer may be found in the story of the Gospel and a renewed understanding of the atonement of Jesus and it offers a far deeper connection than facebook can imagine or re-narrate. Fortunately, the problem of connecting people is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus has always been about. The Gospel is about connecting others to Christ, to God, to one another and to the world.
A primary means of connection in Christianity is through the atonement action of the Christ. The atonement is generally wrapped into the gory details of the death of Jesus and how his death bestowed forgiveness into creation.
There is, however, another often neglected aspect.
While the atonement may be the vehicle of how God redeems humanity, it is primarily, at its basest function, a means of connecting people to God, each other, themselves and the world. The atonement, or at-one-ment of Jesus, does not happen in a vacuum. Disciples are gathered around the cross, the world beholds it, and community is created after this event. In other words, the atonement of Jesus is as much a vehicle of connection and the genesis of community as it is an event wherein we debate the love theory of Abelard or the substitutionary theory of Anselm.
The Gospel of John beautifully demonstrates, through the words of Jesus, the events of the atonement through the “lifted up” sayings that occur in 3.14-16, 8:28 and 12.32. In 12.32 Jesus says, “And if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people unto myself.” As the Christ is lifted up before us, he draws all people to himself and connects that which was never together. He creates a community out of chaos and a sense of belonging out of despair. In the act of at-one-ment, Jesus makes us one, connecting us with himself, his God, one another, ourselves and the world. The result is a connected community we call the Church.
The second function of the atonement is forgiveness, but even this acts as a connecting, community making reality.
The first “lifted up” saying in John 3.14-16 indicates that forgiveness is primarily accomplished in the lifting up of Christ in the passion narrative. Jesus says, “even so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes may in him have eternal life.” The atonement of Jesus is the act wherein we are made at-one with one another and God, but this is chiefly accomplished because we share the identity of forgiven people. Our forgiveness and acceptance by God in Christ connects us. Forgiveness is important due to the sense of belonging it fosters in the forgiven, creating a new family and new relationships.
Forgiveness creates identity in the community of Jesus. We share the bond of having encountered God incarnate in Jesus, demonstrating to us what forgiveness looks like and how to extend love and grace to others. The incarnation of God in Christ, and the atoning work of this Christ for humanity, is a physical means of connection that could not have been accomplished by an aloof God. Real connection happens when God is incarnated in Jesus for us and we are then the incarnate atoning Christ to one another and the world.
There is no grander connection than the one created wherein a true friend has laid down his life. After this event, we gather together as a group not sure of what happened, only to find the Christ come into our presence and breathe upon us the spirit that binds us. We are a community that was created by the Christ and, subsequently, are called to bring this community into the brokenness from which we came.
For generations, people have shared real life and found real meaning because this one was lifted up for us, creating a community that can never be torn asunder. Surely, the community wherein the Holy Spirit resides should be a community committed to sharing what real connection looks and feels like in the presence of a social media that narrates a very different form of community and connection. The Gospel event of atonement is the place wherein we can really see one another’s faces and wrap ourselves into a book full of stories that teaches us how to live in community and create a better creation as God takes it to the place that is Christ shaped…a place that begins as we stare one another in the eyes, kneeling at no other place, than the foot of the cross.