The Embodiment of God and the Disembodied Age: How the Incarnation Informs Our Twenty-First-Century Media Practices
Embodied life can seem terribly inconvenient.1 Our organic mix of blood, hair, skin, gland tissue, and marrow can strike us as a distasteful burden. Throughout the ages, our bodies have often been understood as prisons from which to escape rather than as sanctuaries in which to dwell. Lofty narratives have been proposed in which our disembodied souls migrate to celestial heights more suitable for human existence than the baseness of corporeal life.
But the Hebrew creation accounts offer a more terrestrial narrative. There is no embarrassment over the breath of God commingling with grit and dust to make the first human being. And God does not appear squeamish about placing his holy hands into Adam’s body cavity, plucking out a rib, and closing up the flesh for the purpose of making a new fleshy companion. Contrary to Greek philosophical ideas about materiality and the embodied life, biblical writers permit no tidy compartmentalization of our bodies, minds, and souls—these dimensions of our identity as persons are indivisibly integrated.2
In the New Testament, the Fourth Evangelist seems unapologetic in making the stark claim that the Word became flesh (John 1:14).3 Indeed, the incarnation of Christ is perhaps the strongest affirmation of bodily life. God did not rescue us by vaporizing our troublesome corporeality so that our souls might enter the ethereal paradise of a disembodied existence. The salvation he brings, rather, is a bodily salvation through bodily means; the Word assumed flesh because God had determined that who we are in the flesh must be redeemed. Our embodied life is bedeviled by the corruption of sin, but the incarnation has made redemption possible for life in the body. Though our bodies will one day mortally fail, our dust returning to dust, the ascent of our spirits to the enthroned Christ is merely a temporary situation. The ultimate hope of the Christian faith is not an eschatological flight of disembodied spirits into an ethereal cloud realm, but the resurrection of our bodies into the material realm of new creation. Bodily life is not just tolerated in the Christian theological tradition; it is celebrated.
The Embodiment of God and a Disembodied Age
There seems to be a celebration of bodily life in certain ecclesial and theological circles today, yet this resurgence of interest in corporeality is taking place in a time when our interaction with one another is becoming increasingly marked by disembodiment. The communications technology of the digital age affords us vast opportunities to engage an unprecedented range of dialogue partners. Our tweets, status updates, blog posts, and online chats, however, are rendered as bodiless voices in the immaterial realm of cyberspace. Many are welcoming this new communicative era, waving such banners as the democratization of media and the utopia of connectedness.4 For others, our rapid embrace of new media is a leap off a sociological cliff. These critics worry that our online interactions merely leave us “alone together” and wonder whether our texting, smartphone-wielding tweens will ever learn to communicate face-to-face.5
The embodiment of God must have anything to say about the disembodied communications of the digital age.6 So how can the incarnation of Christ inform Christian media practices in a day when bodily presence is increasingly minimized and our interactions are often mediated by screens?
Before we can suss out the role of Christ in the digital age, we must first address a more fundamental issue concerning the media savviness of Christian theology and the Bible—we must determine what Christology as a whole brings to bear on twenty-first-century social media. In other words, we have to wonder whether digital technology has birthed a new way of life beyond the scope of our sacred texts and extrinsic to the church’s theological heritage.
Theomedia: Reading an Old Script in a New Age
It is hard to see how a collection of documents from the grit and dust of the Greco-Roman world and the ancient Near East can serve as an authoritative script in a cutting-edge digital era.7 The authors of our sacred texts and the bygone leaders of the church’s theological thinking did not foresee the luminous powers and capabilities of twenty-first-century media technology. A major theological enterprise incumbent on the church today is discerning how our doctrinal heritage and those age-old creeds can guide how we read this governing script in our current mediascape.
Our sacred texts are so old, and we live in a day when everything at our fingertips seems to require updates or upgrades. Our gadgets and apps are so acutely self-aware of the perpetual threat of antiquation that they tell us periodically when we need to check for the latest downloads or uploads to stave off their irrelevance. None of us want the burden of outdated devices or media formats. And yet the Bible is an antique media artifact with a canonical firewall that has resisted any updates or new configurations for almost two millennia.
The high-speed velocity of technological innovation reinforces our suspicion that we are a civilization developed so far beyond the ancient contexts out of which Scripture grew that words once etched into stone or penned on papyrus are surely outmoded and out of touch. Western society is ever poised on the cusp of the celebrated next and the anticipated new. While Christian Scripture has remained a fixed, stable corpus of really old poems, songs, tales, laws, and letters, the civilized world has impressively gone on to invent gunpowder, discover a heliocentric solar system, harness electricity, and create that impalpable matrix of the Internet.
Of all the advanced sophistication we regularly observe and experience, few areas of technological prowess are more all encompassing in the daily lives of Westerners than that of media technology. So again: Is the Bible media savvy, and is Christian theology media competent?
In considering how the ancient medium of Scripture might offer fresh words for new media, it is first important to recognize that the Bible should be considered a medium about media. The God of Christian Scripture is a communicative God who employs a vast array of media for the purpose of speaking and revealing.8 The media of God—or theomedia, as I am calling it—are means by which God addresses humanity or expresses his character.
These theomedia include the tangible, aural, and visual dimensions of our physical world. The sky is a medium: “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1 ESV), and similarly, the Apostle Paul acknowledged all of creation as a means of divine self-revelation: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom. 1:20).
Theomedia also include human beings. Because Adam and Eve were fashioned in God’s image, the most fundamental vocation of humanity is a media vocation, that of imaging God in the world. But then there was this serpent.
Satan offered himself as an uninvited mediator between two parties for whom mediation was unnecessary. When his retransmission of the media of holy speech was received, a gash was ripped into the fabric of the cosmos through which death, disease, and sin seeped into humankind and the rest of creation. The first effects of sin are described as a communication breech. Adam and Eve quickly fashioned clothing, thereby terminating the days of unhindered intimacy and unconscious vulnerability.9 And then there was this haunting question echoing amidst the trees: “Where are you?”
That dark query “Where are you?” is the sound of a communication loss that is of cosmic proportions. Sin rendered humanity and God in constant need of mediation, and a new range of theomedia developed. God commissioned the aesthetic media project of the tabernacle and addressed his people through the medium of prophetic speech. Even so, the disruption of God’s former face-to-face interaction with humanity was marked by a strained communicative distance. Such a communications disaster required a media eucatastrophe, to borrow a term from Tolkien.10 Such a eucatastrophe—an unexpected event of catastrophically good proportions—finally took place in the incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God answered his own question “Where are you?” with “Here am I.”
Christ Incarnate as the Ultimate Theomedium
The Apostle Paul writes about the work of Christ as unprecedented and beyond all imagination: “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived” (1 Cor. 2:9; see also Isa. 64:4). Perhaps most inconceivable of all is that our God entered the human realm assuming the vulnerability of human flesh so that eyes could see and ears indeed hear:
what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard. . . . (1 John 1:1–3a; emphases added)
Jesus appeared on the material, earthy scene as the ultimate self-revelation of God. In his flesh and blood, in his reality of speaking, touching, imaging, and embodying, Jesus is the most multisensory theomedium of all; that is, he is the most comprehensive medium by which the Creator is revealed: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). The embodiment of God the Son is a communicative move of epic proportions. By taking on flesh, God went the furthest extent possible to reach out and communicate with us. While calling out “Where are you?” God sent Christ deep into the forest of humanity’s hiding to reveal his love and glory.
There is another dimension to note here about the incarnation. In taking on flesh, God became seeable and touchable but also killable. The embodiment that made God touchable to little kids who needed a divine hug also made him touchable to men whose hands could grip like a vise. As Tertullian wrote, “Christ . . . having been sent to die, had necessarily to be also born, that he might be capable of death.”11 Yet the cross became the means of our redemption, and the resurrection began the evisceration of death’s power over bodily life. It is important to note that Jesus was not raised a disembodied ghost: “Touch me and see,” he told his thunderstruck disciples, “For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Divine pleasure in our corporeal life is confirmed in that Jesus came out of his tomb not ghost-like but with his body, nail-scarred and pierced.
So the incarnation is a communicative move on behalf of God by which Jesus becomes the ultimate medium of divine revelation. It is also God’s reaching out to the furthest relational extent, into the furthest spatial realm, in order to engage us and beckon us back into his fellowship. And because Christ was bodily slain and bodily raised, this embodiment of the Word is also the means of our salvation. These Christological realities actually have much to say about our media practices in the digital age.
The Incarnation and Twenty-First-Century Media Practices
Though it is a unique and unrepeatable christological event, the incarnation is paradigmatic for Christians.12 Obviously, none of us can perform incarnational ministry by graciously taking on flesh, as gods reaching out to our hapless subjects. It is not the function of the incarnation that is paradigmatic for Christians but its disposition.13 The phrase incarnational ministry has become common parlance for an embrace of hardship and suffering for the sake of identifying with the poor. Ethics that are incarnational adopt the paradigm of moving from communicative distance into relational nearness, a movement that often requires a change of location from one social and geographical realm to another.
In terms of our digital communication practices, the incarnation is paradigmatic in at least four ways. For one, the embodiment of God places communicative emphasis on the multisensory experience of physical presence and local space. If God himself puts such stock in face-to-face physicality, then surely this emphasis is to be reflected in how we interrelate with one another. The proximity of bodily presence is preferable over the disembodied communication via social media. And because of his corporeality, Jesus occupied space in specific locations—his feet were caked with the grit and dust of Galilee and Judea. Engaging people bodily in the local sphere is prioritized by God’s drastic communicative act of becoming flesh.
This prioritization of face-to-face interaction, however, requires nuance and clarification. Undeniably, there are times when human communication partners cannot speak in person. This was no less true in the New Testament world than it is today—hence the ancient form of social media we know as the epistle.14 Generally speaking, we find that bodily presence is regarded as superior to other media forms—“Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12)—but even so, face-to-face interaction is not always depicted as relationally helpful. The Apostle Paul, for example, once avoided a face-to-face meeting with the Corinthians because he knew it would threaten rather than help their mutual fellowship (see 2 Cor. 1:15–2:4). Likewise, some social media interactions can become dangerous or scandalous when they shift from disembodied dialogue into face-to-face engagement (like when online flirtation leads to abuse or to an affair when conducted offline). In the big picture of the church’s media practices, however, the incarnation suggests that embodied presence is better than physical distance when it comes to our communication with one another.16
That said, the incarnation also encourages the church’s presence in the disembodied realm of the Internet. This may come as a surprise, but the second way in which the incarnation is paradigmatic for our twenty-first-century media practices is that it promotes online interaction. This is because the Incarnation is about God reaching to the furthest extent possible, reaching into unsuspecting places by surprising means to establish and sustain relationships. It follows, then, that the church should infiltrate the highly relational social sphere of the Internet.17
I am not saying that all Christians should go online. Collectively, however, if the church is to embrace incarnational ministry, that means we will relationally extend ourselves into any and all realms for the sake of the gospel. I am not suggesting that as God the Son took on flesh in the first century he would have taken on a Twitter handle in the twenty-first century. Nor am I concurring with those social media enthusiasts who seem to feel that Jesus’s incarnation prior to the digital age was a miscalculation of providence, since surely he would have had far greater impact with a WordPress account and Instagram on his smartphone.
My point is that if God is willing to become flesh, if Jesus is willing to descend to Hades, and if their Spirit is pleased to indwell our own bodies as the church, then there is no sphere—physical, social, cosmic, or virtual—safe from the relational intrusion of the Triune God. If the church is now the body of Christ, then we will find ourselves not only penetrating spatial realms but also the virtual realm of cyberspace.
The incarnation also provides some ethical guidance on how we conduct ourselves online. A third lesson for our digital media practices directly related to the Word becoming flesh is that who we are online must be consistent with who we are offline. We must not mask our true identities in digital contexts. We all recognize that it is easy to customize our cyberselves, to hide behind the anonymity of avatars in online chat rooms, to provide selective status updates and digitally filtered photos that paint our lives as joyful and fulfilled. One of the chief temptations of disembodied communication is to obscure ourselves and tweak our identities.
When God took on flesh, he was not masking his identity. Jesus was not an avatar of God. He did not conceal who God is behind the veil of a body. When God the Son entered our world, he did not compromise, tweak, or obscure his divine character. As fully God and fully man, Jesus was not cloaking himself deceptively with flesh. The authenticity of his self-portrayal as he entered our world is something we must emulate as we enter the online world of digital media.
And here is a final reflection concerning the incarnation and digital environments: when we enter the disembodied realm of the Internet, we must do so not as conquering crusaders or as cynical pundits but as sacrificial servants. Unfortunately, Christians have become quite adept at online mudslinging and harsh invective via social media. We have probably all witnessed theological discourses turn sour and bitter on Facebook. We know from experience that Christians fire thoughtless tweets as salvos against others. Some Christian bloggers are quite comfortable publishing posts that trash the church with more enmity than non-Christian bloggers.
By taking on a physical body, Jesus entered our world in vulnerability. He did not enter our realm to destroy us but to redeem us. When we engage others online we can give voice to truth and bear witness to our faith tradition. If the church is now collectively Christ’s body, then perhaps the strongest witness we can bear in this disembodied realm is an incarnational disposition of humility and service. In such a disembodied realm of pixelated images and text, virulent polemics and unreflective criticism come easy. But the digital environment of the Internet is not as disembodied as it may seem. Behind the world’s countless screens there are people out there, people who are made of grit, dust, and the breath of God.
And all of us need a Word that breaks into our mediascape to heal and redeem.
1. This essay has been adapted from my latest project, TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013).
2. See Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John Marks, Old Testament Library (London, UK: SCM, 1972), 56. J. Richard Middleton’s qualifications are also helpful in The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005), 25, n. 32. Also, it should be noted that Hans Boersma would caution against oversimplifying and dismissively vilifying platonic conceptions of materiality. See his Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 33–39.
3. From Karl Barth: “He, the Creator, does not scorn to become a creature, a man like us, in order that as such He may bear and do what must be borne and done for our salvation. On the contrary, He finds and defends and vindicates His glory in doing it” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G. W. Bromiley et al. [London, UK: T & T Clark, (1936) 2009], 13.
4. For a positive but careful overview that celebrates and evaluates this connectedness, see Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together (London, UK: Penguin, 2008).
5. See Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011).
6. As in all language pertaining to the doctrine of the Trinity, words and phrases are imprecise and subject to misinterpretation. The phrase “the embodiment of God” is a case in point. Hans-Georg Gadamer states quite bluntly that the “Incarnation is obviously not embodiment.” His point is to clarify that the Word becoming flesh cannot be conceived within the Greek classifications of embodiment available when the Fourth Evangelist wrote the prologue to his gospel. For instance, when a Greek deity appeared in bodily form, he or she was not becoming a mortal but merely being displayed in mortal form. In the incarnation, however, God actually became man without compromising his identity as God and without separating his disembodied self from his embodied state. See Gadamer, Truth and Method, rev. trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London, UK: Continuum, 2004 [repr 2006]), 418.
7. In using the word script, I am relying on Kevin Vanhoozer’s media-related imagery of Christian theology as a dramatic performance. See Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 115–185. Also helpful, with different nuances, are Walter Brueggeman, the Bible, and Postmodern Imagination: Texts Under Negotiation (London, UK: SCM, 1993), 64–69; and Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (London, UK: SPCK, 2004), 59–70.
8. Philosophical theologian Nicolas Wolterstorff is careful to make the distinction between revelation and discourse/speaking—hence my description here of media as means of communication and revelation. See his chapter, “Speaking Is Not Revealing,” in Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim That God Speaks (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 19–36.
9. From Thomas F. Torrance: “. . . the symbol of wearing clothes is interpreted in terms of the hiddenness of man from woman and of woman from man” (Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 38.
10. J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, UK: HarperCollins, 2006), 109–61; 153.
11. Tertullian, De Carne Christi, vi. 177. Compare to Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ,” in The Writings of Quintus Sept. Flor. Terullianus, ed. Peter Holmes (Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 1870), 177. See also my theological reflection on this dynamic of the incarnation at my blog: “Incarnation: God as Tangible, Visible . . . and Killable,” at Hopeful Realism, http://hopefulrealism.com/2012/07/incarnation-god-as-tangible-visible-kill-able/.
12. See the essays in the section “The Incarnation Practised and Proclaimed,” in Stephen T. Davis et al., eds., The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002).
13. Even though I am arguing that the christological function of the incarnation is unique and singular, I certainly affirm the patristic teaching that the incarnation is fundamentally participatory—Jesus participates in our flesh that we might participate in his divine life. In this sense, there is indeed a “reverse paradigm” at work, one can say, in that Jesus enters our life and we enter his.
14. “The biblical material is surprisingly unselfconscious about the tying together of a church by something so fragile as letter writing. . . . Christianity is an epistolary faith, based on writings to and from friends who know each other in the flesh and others who do not—yet are not for that reason any less part of the body of Christ.” (Jason Byassee, “Practicing Virtue with Social Media: An ‘Underdetermined’ Response,” New Media Project, May 10, 2012, http://www.newmediaprojectatunion.org/pages/practicing-virtue-with-social-media/#_ednref14.
15. See also 3 John 14 and 1 Thessalonians 2:17 and 3:10.
16. The concepts of embodiment and space are to some degree culture-specific and thus demand careful nuances in our theological assessments. Digital technology may even be prompting a reconfiguration of these concepts with the advancements in “locative media” and “pervasive computing.” For theories on these developments see Jason Farman, Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012).
17. “The greater miracle of language lies not in the fact that the Word becomes flesh and emerges in external being, but that that which emerges and externalizes itself in utterance is always already a word” (Gadamar, Truth and Method, 419). As Gadamer points out, the incarnation is not just about bodily existence; it is an expression of divine communication. What became incarnate is precisely the media-related concept of God’s so-called Word, and as such, the incarnation is about divine communication.
Andrew Byers is a PhD candidate at Durham University where he serves as the chaplain at St. Mary’s College and as a theological consultant for CODEC, a research institute focusing on Christian communication in the digital age. His first book is Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (2011). Byers blogs at www.hopefulrealism.com.