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Does Twitter Do Us Any Good?

How the movement of the Trinity can help us decide.

The culture continues to be atwitter about Twitter and other electron-based social media. It's easy to find both scathing critiques and passionate defenses of the Internet. But as we approach what many churches celebrate as Trinity Sunday this weekend, there is another angle to ponder.

When we think of the Trinity we tend to think of doctrine—that Jesus' relation to the father is homoousios (Greek: of the same essence) and not homoiousios (Greek: of similar essence); that, as the Nicene Creed puts it, Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God … ."—and so forth.

But the heart of the Trinity is not fine theological distinctions but a relation of love, a fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit, a super-community that is so unified in love that it counts as one being.

The nature of this love overflows—love begets love and even more beings to love. And for some reason, God—who is spirit—nonetheless wishes to make this love a tangible reality in the things he creates. This starts from "the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" to "and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," to

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev. 21:2-3)

The movement of God is toward deeper and deeper incarnation, enfleshment. It appears that the glory of our existence as beings created, redeemed, and blessed by God is a tangible, physical existence, in which we live together and love one another in an embodied way.

One can even define sin as anything that undermines shared embodied love. Murder is the most obvious example. But so does gossip or lust or theft or unrighteous anger, and so forth. The many catalogues of vices in the Old and New Testaments have this in common: they undermine in one way or another a shared embodied life of love.

And so we come to the age of the Internet. For all its obvious flaws, it does seem to bring people together to communicate, collaborate, and create community. As Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine, waxed eloquent recently, "Communal aspects of digital culture run deep and wide." He noted Wikipedia as "just one remarkable example of an emerging collectivism," and also pointed to collaborative sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, the Hype Machine, Twine, Wesabe, and of course Twitter.  "Nearly every day," Kelly concludes, "another startup proudly heralds a new way to harness community action."

In this essay, Kelly compares the "collectivism" of the internet with classic socialism. Along the way he says things like this:

Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs.

It's at this point that we spot the great weakness of this technology. The type of community that can quickly and easily be fostered on the Internet is a disembodied one, one in which only minds meet, and that works at cross purposes to the movement of God in history.

This need not alarm us or prompt us to shut down our computers. Every technology has the ability to enhance embodied life or to subvert it. Take transportation. Planes, trains, and automobiles allow us to enjoy embodied fellowship with people who live far away from us. This is a great good. But speedy, cheap transportation also makes possible the transient culture we live in, where people struggle to put down roots in one place and ground themselves in their neighborhood.

The Internet has this wonderful ability to connect people over long distances, and with technologies like Skype, to help us visualize the embodied life of another. When my daughter was in England for 5 months, it was a much richer experience talking with her on Skype than by phone.

But of course Skype was a poor substitute for being able to visit her—and no one would argue otherwise. But the Internet is so good at creating virtual realities, that we sometimes mistake them for the real thing. I have to remind myself that what I'm seeing on the screen is not my daughter but a bunch of pixels that are replicating my daughter. It is a mirage. A useful and handy mirage, one I would not abandon. But a mirage nonetheless.

And this suggests that the test of whether any technology is "godly" (that is, tending toward the fullness of God's intention for us) is whether it encourages shared bodily life or undermines it.

Not a few of us find ourselves addicted to email. It is a wonderful thing to be able to connect with so many people so quickly and efficiently. But like many, I often find myself so drawn to my Blackberry and laptop that I fail to be present with the flesh and blood person who is standing before me. I look at them and pretend like I'm listening, but my mind strains to get back to my email. The technology is obviously undermining my ability to be present in an embodied way to the real person in front of me.

We see the same sort of problem with angry emails that are sent because we're afraid of actually talking the issues through face to face. Or viewing pornography rather than engaging in a deeper relationship with one's wife.

On the other hand, email or Skype or Facebook can sustain a relationship so that, when we meet with a loved one face to face, we are able to ground that relationship at even deeper levels. Or we collaborate with others to create software that helps us more easily schedule face-to-face meetings, or to organize fun runs or bike outings, or to make plane reservations to go visit a daughter on another continent.

These are very simple observations, which is why sometimes they are so difficult to attend to. And why we need to be reminded time and again of God's intention for us, and then measure everything we do or say against that intent.

The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan put it well in responding to Kelly's piece, when he wrote on his blog: "It has long occurred to me that the web is indeed a Marxist paradise. Pity we are not really full human beings with bodies when we are on it."

It is a pity, but it is not something we have to wallow in. Despite Kelly's apparent Internet boosterism, the Internet is not the key to human fulfillment, but neither is it of the devil. We can work with this technology, as we can with any, so that it fosters engagement with "real, full human beings with bodies."

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.

Other Christianity Today articles on technology include:

From the Printing Press to the iPhone | Shane Hipps urges Christians to discern the technology spirits. (May 6, 2009)
Technology and the Gospel | Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, and others weigh in on worship and evangelism in a plugged-in age. (January 9, 2008)
Always in Parables: Rekindling Old Fires | We can resist technology's chilling effects on how we spend time together. (August 5, 2002)
The Wireless Gospel | Sixty-two years ago, Back to the Bible joined the radio revolution; now it is finding new media for its old message. A case study in evangelicals' love affair with communications technology. (February 19, 2001)

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