The other day, a friend and I were talking about the use of a call-in service for Bible searching, reading, and evangelism. In a sense, looking at the market of those folks who might be still tied to a paradigm of looking towards a voice for information (rather than having content on a screen, sent passively, or directly searched). One of the things that was striking in the midst of this conversation is how he stated that at his church, that the age and culture of the population poses some resistance towards those who use electronic devices for Bible reading in the community (a trait that John Dyer once spoke towards very well). In that, I wondered a lot about this idea about the identity of the Christian in this changing society and if there is something to be said towards these devices, services, and experiences that are gathered about these days.
You see, for those of us who pay attention to these things, there’s a clear sense that the identity of the Christian is being challenged on several fronts. Emotionally, there’s a drawing towards more expressive (some would call this transparent, others would call it performance) means of showing one’s views/feelings. Socially, there’s a bent towards urban centers in some metropolitan areas with pockets of intentional communities. While in more rural areas, there’s a bent towards a (romantic) preservation of the community and faith that was remembered by those who haven’t moved to urban centers. Theologically, it seems that just about every branch of the Church has not only gone through revisions of the text into a common language, but seen a shift from the leanings of the West towards something more charismatic and dynamic – moving south and east while doing so. All of this is happening in different shades across at least three existent generations of people groups. That’s a lot of shift to account for.
And yet, here is that nearly always present mobile. I like how Jan Chipcase squares this topic of identity alongside this totem we carry:
Much like the paradox of the toga in ancient Rome, some objects can connote high status in one culture and low status in another. A suntan on someone who lives in London or New York is a sign to others that that person can afford a tropical vacation, or at least a trip to the tanning salon. On the other hand, a tan in China or Thailand is a mark of peasants who toil in the fields. Thus on the shelves of pharmacies in Bangkok you’ll find dozens of skin products with whitening ingredients; in the United States, expensive moisturisers are tinted. Does this mean that the people who use these products are all that different from one another?
What are we saying if we are affirming or denying the use of mobile devices in community gatherings? What if part of the impact of what we are saying is that your identity has to have more depth than what you carry? We could stand to have a faith that does that. It would mean though that those making such a declaration have to be able to been seen without their totems as well.
Or, what if we said that you can carry it, but that it has to have an influence beyond just being your own screen? What does it mean when we cultivate the personal content and activity of a mobile device, but in some social situations mandate that it has an open or community-accessible aspect to it? Not just “you can see the photos I just uploaded to Facebook either,” but a more sincere – “here, let me help you understand why I took that kind of note” kind of feature.
What I thought about my friend’s declaration about his church’s specific culture is that they asked for folks to affirm the church’s identity, but gave nothing in return to those who needed a bridge to become that manifested character. If you will, “live the way I tell you, but I won’t give you my eyes to do it.” For many today, their identity is tied very tightly to what’s in their palms. The style of phone, the case on it, the ringtone, and even the applications preferred are a part of who they are. When we ask them to remove the device from the presence, we are asking them to set aside themselves for something they are not. In a sense, ignoring the traditional declaration of “come as you are.”
If I am also what happens on this little screen, then to engage the depth of who I am means that you have to be as willing to dive into me, as you want for me to unplug into you.