Will you be my Facebook friend? Part 5

Facebook offers us the ability to redefine ourselves and construct our own world without being constrained by others. But our bodies remind us that this is not our world. We literally bump into people. We collide. You cannot look round this room and say, “This is my world and I’m at the centre.” Our bodies remind us that we live in a world created by the words of someone else, the words of God. And we live in a world created for someone else, for the glory of God.

It is the same with porn and online role play games by the way. They offer liberation from the body. You compensate for your real world inadequacies, fears, struggles with a fantasy world in which you are potent and successful with endless beautiful people offer themselves to you.

Cyberspace offers an escape from the limitations of the body. And this version of “salvation by Facebook” is the latest embodiment (pun intended) of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Gnosticism saw the spiritual or mental as good and the body as evil and limiting. So salvation was an escape from the constraints of the body.

Tim Challies talks about “digital disincarnation”.[1] The incarnation is the word we use to describe the event of God becoming man, of God taking on human flesh. But now in cyberspace we are trying to “disincarnate”, to throw off the limitations of human flesh. Challies says: “Here is the cyberworld I can be popular. I can be powerful. I can be somebody. And yet I do it all at the expense of who I really am.”[2]

In contrast, the gospel affirms the body. The gospel says that human beings were made by God with a body and God declared that to be good. We were made with bodies in his image to reflect his image in the world. More than that, God himself takes on human flesh when Jesus becomes a man. Christ “appeared in a body [and] was vindicated by the Spirit.” (1 Timothy 3:16) And more than that, the body of Jesus was physically raised from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus was not an escape from the body, but the redemption of the body. So the gospel encourages us to engage in embodied life and embodied relationships.

So Paul says to the Christian community in Thessalonica: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” (2:8)  “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.” (2:17 ESV) Not just words, but a shared life. Not just words, but face to face.

Professor Barry Wellman of Toronto University talks of “networked individualism”.[3] We can move from one online community to another. We can drop, forget, invite or ignore Facebook “friends” at will without consequences. We build our own worlds.

God has placed you together with the people in your congregation. You did not chose them; God chose them. And that diversity of personalities, backgrounds, social class, ethnicities is used by God to make you grow in Christ and to display the unifying power of the cross.

But in cyberspace you are god. You chose who will be in community with you. You create your own communities of convenience that mean you are never challenged. Or if you are challenged or relationships become costly you can just scuttle off to new relationships. As a result we never grow. We are permanently immature.

In cyberspace no relationship is meaningful and every relationship is expendable. The result is loneliness in the midst of many Facebook “friends”. I know people for whom Facebook is a place to hide. You can think of yourself surrounded by friends without ever having to engage with the challenges of real world relationships. You have a lot of friends, a “loose electronic Diaspora”,[4] without ever really being known. Your idolatries, your selfishness, your struggles are never seen. Instead a lot of people get the sanitised version of you. Moreover most of us praise in public and rebuke in private. So, because Facebook is a public medium, people are going to positive comments. Challenges to our behaviour are left unsaid. Facebook is a safe place to hide from real relationships.

[1][2] Tim Challies, The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion, Zondervan, Available here from amazon.co.uk.

[3] Cited in Tim Challies, The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion, Zondervan, forthcoming.

[4] James Harkin, “Living in Cyburbia,” The Daily Telegraph, 29 January 2011, telegraph.co.uk.

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