In a recent article on Faith & Leadership, Verity Jones points out how many Christian leaders talk about how to use social media, but few if any offer a theology of it.
Well, I’ll give it a try. Here’s a brief theological sketch for social media using four biblical-theological concepts: people of the Book, the ascension, perichoresis and the parousia.
People of the Book
Christians are people of the Book. None of us were around when the events upon which our faith hinge actually happened. We read them through the faithful witness of those who were Present (capital “P” presence means face-to-face) and God-inspired to write about them. The epistles of the New Testament speak to the power of staying connected through some form other than face-to-face (lower case “p” presence). Paul provides significant and ongoing direction to those he mentored through the act of writing letters, and does so even today in all those who look to his letters for theological and practical guidance. He was and is not physically Present to provide this kind of influence on individuals and whole communities, and yet he was and is present to them through the act of writing.
The ascension and perichoresis
Christians are a people who have always lived with the tension of Jesus being present but not Present. He ascended to the right hand of the Father, and yet he is present especially in the sacrament of communion. The mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity, the perichoretic dance, leads us to confess that where one person of the Trinity is present, all three are present. Thus, when the Spirit is present, so too is the Son (and the Father). Thus, Christ is present with us even to the end of the age, not in his bodily form (except in some sacramental theologies), but through his Spirit’s Presence with the church. While there was not a time when the Son was not, there is a time when the Son no longer walks on the earth, but…
...There will be a time when he will be Present to us just as he was Present to those of the first century. Christ will come again. The ascension and the Son’s perichoretic presence through the Spirit point to a time when we, like the beloved disciple, will no longer believe through eyes of faith, but like Thomas, will touch his scars and believe because we see him Present. That parousia may be delayed, but it will come nonetheless. Christ’s presence in the Spirit leads us to long for his Presence.
Social media gives us more opportunities than ever before (some deeper and more significant than others) to be present but not Present. We -- like all the writers of the Book -- mentor, influence, encourage, rebuke, train and simply tell stories through social media. Social media puts us, like Jesus, in a cloud where we are present to our friends and family but not Present to them. Social media, like Jesus’ second coming, points to a time when we will be Present together. Social media often is used to prepare and coordinate and enhance times when we are Present together. It even builds within us a deeper longing to be Present. You need only ask my parents whether video chatting with my fourteen-month-old son makes them long more or less to be with him.
That time may be delayed. It may never happen in this life, but Christians confess that it will happen some day. Maybe even today.
In the mean time, I need to upload some videos and pictures of my son so his grandparents will stop bugging me about it.
Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.