Myodicy, Issue 3, April 1997

Virtual Christianity:
Some Reflections
on Being a Christian
in Cyberspace

by David Van Minnen

Introduction. My effort in this essay will be to examine some aspects of Christianity with respect to the Internet. The objective is not to utter dark prophecies, nor to hail the advent of the "Information Superhighway" with nearsighted obeisance. Rather, I will examine what I foresee as positive and negative effects of the Internet upon North American Christianity. I do not argue a specific thesis in this essay. The underlying thesis is "proceed, indeed, but with caution." It is my hope that this essay may be of some help in shaping a Christian's approach to the Internet, highlighting some sound goals and also warning of pitfalls.

The Internet is supposed to be the chief subject of this paper, as opposed to technology per se. However, since it is very difficult to keep the two distinct, I will apologize in advance for colouring outside the lines.

A new language, a new culture. Robert Logan gives homage to the computer and the Internet as "The Fifth Language" in his book which bears the same title (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd., 1995). Logan's initial thesis is that the world has seen five languages: First, oral speech; second, written language; third, mathematics; fourth, science; and most recently, the language of electronic communication.

Logan has very positive things to say about the Internet, and computer use in general. He also offers some timely directives and motives for getting on the "onramp" of the information Highway. If Logan's "Fifth Language" theory is right, then we have entered an era where a new language needs to be learned, and it is incumbent upon Christians to become fluent.

When you enter a place where a different language is spoken, you also encounter a different way of thinking. Most often, language implies culture; in fact, it is often very difficult (perhaps even reductionistic) to sharply delineate the two.

If Christians needed to carefully approach the scientific language or culture (the fourth language), then certainly the same caution is warranted in approaching the "Information Age" (or fifth language). As it happens, a philosophy of Christianity and culture is necessarily lurking in the background of this discussion.

In this essay, I would like to discuss the pros and cons of present and projected developments with respect to the Internet. The topics are difficult to harmonize, and so the format will resemble a series of distinct pensées rather than a flowing argument.

What is the Internet? Interesting terms are bandied about when referring to this system of communication, like "World Wide Web," "Information Superhighway," and "Cyberspace." Granted, these names sound better than "a bunch of computers and phones" but they can also be a bit misleading.

"Information Superhighway," for example, is a term often used in conjunction with the purported educational value of the Net, but, as Howard Besser argues, the same boasts were made of Cable TV in the seventies. [1] Besser predicts the same kind of future for the Internet: mostly pre-packaged entertainment and a deluge of advertising, even though, according to Besser, the majority of users do not want this to occur. [2]

The Myth of Neutrality. We are quick to say of any appliance or device that, in and of itself, it is neutral with respect to morality. "There is bad stuff on TV, but that does not make the invention itself evil." We have all heard this and probably even said it at one time; but unfortunately, things are never so simple. There are peripheral or covert effects which are brought about by our inventions. Take, for example, our modern reliance on the pocket calculator. In one generation it is a windfall of convenience; in the next, it can become a crutch -- even a hindrance to mental development.

As you consider various points below, think along as you read that even if every website on the Internet offered only Christian material, there could still be serious detrimental effects upon the Church. If she embraces these advantages without due foresight, she may be trading off vital components of the Faith for the sake of convenience.

Nevertheless, the "Information Age" is upon us, and a Luddite spirit is simply a stubborn worship of bygone days. Christians need to learn to walk -- or "surf" -- circumspectly in the present. As we move forward and examine the many pitfalls and blessings of this new language, or culture, it is with the knowledge that there is no turning back.

Historical Consciousness. Christians strive to understand all of reality in terms of the big picture. We are living out history. Our own stories take place within the great Narrative that began in Genesis and continues through the present until the Last Day. It is very important that we understand ourselves in relation to our historical roots.

The attitude of the modern age toward history, however, is much different. It seems as though history does not exist. If so, it is regarded as a shameful bunch of mistakes and inequalities that we have thankfully begun to transcend.

Such a line of thought is typical of postmodernist thinking. Howard Besser supplies a pithy insight on postmodernism as it relates to the Internet and a Christian view of history: "In a way, the on-line environment of the future is the logical extension of postmodernism. As in previous incarnations (like MTV), most of our images come from the media. The images are reprocessed and recycled. In the postmodern tradition, all images (and viewpoints) have equal value; in an on-line world they're all ultimately bits and bytes. Everything is ahistorical and has no context." [3] This problem is already widespread in our culture. I believe there is something to Besser's insight. Christians need to enter into such an (influential) environment with their eyes wide open.

Memory. Memory is definitely a buzz-word in our day. Memory is a prime commodity in a time when software is increasingly demanding. If your computer does not have enough memory, your programs will chug along at a faltering pace. Sometimes a program will not even start. A message appears on the screen "insufficient memory." May this error message never become applicable to the Christian community!

We have already looked at one aspect of this, namely, our modern tendency to forget our roots. Yet, there is a more immediate aspect to the problem of memory that I would like to explore. I am thinking of simple memory of scripture.

The coming era will astound us with the availability of information. Soon every Christian will have instant access to powerful Bible search tools and study aids. This is a blessing never dreamed of by our forefathers. We must be thankful for it indeed. However, as one who balks at long division and runs for his calculator, I fear that the same crippling effect may be felt due to the widespread use of search tools.

A seminary student asks, "Who needs to learn Greek anymore?" The question is valid. The available software almost makes learning Greek a waste of time. In the same vein, how far are we from asking the same question about scripture? Why should we go through the work of memorizing when we will have instant access to powerful search tools?

Such a question is dangerous. It is not available information that guides our thoughts and deeds; it is truth that is memorized, internalized, woven into the fabric of our conscience. If we believe that the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to conform our minds, then ought we not to fill our minds with scripture?

As we conclude with this topic, consider this quote from the (mythical) New Virtual Version of the Bible: "Thy word have I hid in my harddrive that I might not sin against thee" -- Psalm 119:11. The absurdity is obvious. The warning should be as well.

The whole truth? Even if we leave concerns of scripture internalization aside, there is another issue at stake. Earlier, we touched on the concept of Christians understanding history as taking place within a larger narrative. This understanding comes largely from a holistic understanding of scripture. We read the Bible as God's self-revelation. He reveals himself in and through the telling of a specific history. First creation is revealed, then the history of Israel, then the life of Christ and his apostles, and finally, the history of the church and announcement of the final judgement. We find ourselves living within this narrative.

Our understanding of scripture depends on recognition of this context. Not only that, but scripture passages are to be understood in the context of the whole Bible. At the very least, a text is to be understood in the context of the passage in which it is found.

Artificial intelligence is not conducive to such understanding. Search tools have a tendency to be very specific, locating exactly the "proof-texts" we have asked for them to find. The greater Christian community already has plenty of trouble with treating the Bible as primarily a collection of moral instructions. This is atomizing the text. The proliferation of search tools might only heighten this problem.

In the following citation, Howard Besser writes of information in general, and the insight is valuable as it stands. However, it is even more thought-provoking when applied to Bible study: "One of the identifying characteristics of the information age is to get people directly to the information they need without exposing them to tangentially interesting or relevant material. Information science research in the 1980's and 1990's has focused on tailoring information ... in order to avoid subjecting the user to information overload. But this approach devalues serendipitous discovery." [4] How much of our learning has been by stumbling upon something, rather than making direct inquiries? Perhaps the answer is different for everyone. Certainly it is worth pondering. With respect to study of scripture, I think it's safe to say that the more exposure we have to "tangentially interesting or relevant material" within the canon, the better off we will be.

Discipleship. This is not a modern buzz-word. Surely every Christian must agree that the Christian faith, though it is the gift of free grace, is lived out as a discipline.

Discipleship happens in a community. It is not possible for one autonomous individual to disciple another. The necessary components of accountability and submission cannot survive where individualism is embraced.

The Christian faith must not be reduced to theoretical information or data that can simply be downloaded by a user. The scriptures speak of godly living as something learned, or better yet, a training or apprenticeship.

This description does not seem to be in harmony with the "cyber-Christian" who can "log on" at any hour, take in what he wants and delete the rest. Also, he can take part in the collection and dissemination of doctrine all around the world, but answers only to himself.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. The activities which I allude to are ones which I partake of and enjoy. The Internet environment, however, seems to encourage an already present impulse to presume human autonomy. Christians are already infected with a sense of being "free agents." I believe that the online environment will give greater force to this erroneous presupposition.

Virtuous Christianity. There are a trio of Christian virtues that I would like to comment upon with respect to the Internet. They are Patience, Contentment, and Purity.

Patience. It is a virtue, is it not? Actually, the virtue that is extolled in our day is "instant access." In my view, the more time spent in computer-related activities, the less patient folks become. We actually get angry or frustrated when things get slowed down a bit.

When someone sends e-mail (especially in the corporate environment), they find it annoying if there is no response that afternoon -- or even that hour. The common reference to regular postal service as "snail mail" is in a way quite telling.

Information and answers are wanted "right now." We can become like young children, who demand that mom does not say "let me talk to your father" or "let me think about it." We want to know immediately.

Truth, however, is not that easy. Neither is it that cheap. The careful answer may give way to the quick answer, and this is not a wise attitude for a Christian to assume. Can you speed-load godliness?

Will we begin to evaluate God in terms of rate of data output? When the computer says "Wait ...." we drum our fingers, less and less patiently. Does this rub off on us so that it affects our response to God making us wait?

Contentment. When Jeremiah Burroughs wrote his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment in 1648 (reprinted by Banner of Truth Trust in 1964), he already thought of the Christian community of his day as very discontented. Imagine if he could survey the modern landscape!

We are deluged with a continuous stream of advertisements, telling us how incomplete life is without product X. Notice how this is supercharged in the cyber-realm. The need for hardware upgrades is becoming more frequent as the technology advances. It is almost impossible to be "content with what you have" when it so quickly becomes irrelevant and incompatible with the rest of the technological world. This has always been true of technology, but the intensity is increasing exponentially in information technologies.

There are few users (even Christians) who say, "I'm satisfied with my system and software." If they do, it is usually not for a long period of time. More often than not, the average user feels one step behind the rest, and a league behind the computer industry.

The climate of our day is increasingly hostile to the growth and nurture of contentment. The struggle we face is to keep pace while rising above impatience and discontent.

Purity. Cyberspace is a realm of extremes. The only thing more prolific than religious solicitation on the Net is smut peddling.

Pornography was always a presentation of "virtual" reality, a projection of what is not really "real." Now such images are simply more available. Easy access, from the privacy of home, simply makes the temptations more acute and the risk to our children more severe.

The Upside. Are there any redeeming qualities to salvage after such a treatment of the Internet environment? Indeed there are. Interestingly, most of the same things that I have dealt with above as problematic are also the advantages to be celebrated. They are "mixed blessings."

Access. It is a great thing that we have access to an abundance of material and also study and search tools. They are great aids to research. Search tools will revolutionize the way we teach and learn, and much of the change will be positive.

Accountability. It would be interesting to look up a professor's or pastor's references even as he is speaking. Whole libraries can be accessed in our laps, at our fingertips. Our teachers will have a renewed sense of accountability and fiduciary integrity.

There is a second aspect of accountability in this regard. We often hear complaints about loss of privacy, and we may even wonder, "How much of my life is on someone's file?" However, if we are walking with integrity before God, this should not concern us (see Matthew 5:16 and Luke 12:3).

Global Village. The fact that we are beginning to see ourselves as a diverse but related race of humans, all on one planet together, is good. It is a step toward the way God sees us. The "Global Village" notion may bring with it an increased sense of our responsibilities toward each other and as custodians of this earth.

Conclusion. It appears as though the snakes outnumber the ladders in this look at the pros and cons of the Internet age. This drives me to search harder for positive developments and to capitalize on them. However, even if there was nothing good to be said about the Information Age, it is imminent.

A Luddite spirit is simply a refusal to accept reality. A reckless exuberance may lead to the embracing of virtual reality, which is not reality at all. The way to go is forward, with full alertness and care, holding tightly to God's Word, (hidden in our hearts). May this essay serve to contribute to such a stance. [END]


Editor's note: To respond to this essay via e-mail, send a message to me, and I will forward it to the author:
[email protected]

Click here to go to the Myodicy home page.