Monday, December 10, 2007

Ken Myers on Incarnational Living and Cell Phone Usage

I can't think of any ministry fund-raising letters I enjoy reading more than those from Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. The reason why is because unlike so many communications soliciting financial support, Ken's correspondence does not consist of glowing reports of ministry successes, manipulative emotional ploys, and dire pleas for large sums of money. Honest communication of ministry expenses is accompanied by appeals to those who appreciate the value of what the folks at Mars Hill Audio are doing but this is done tastefully and with respect. Each letter also contains thought-provoking reflections from Ken that invariably lead me to further ponder the beauty, profundity, and integrity of God's creative and redeeming activity in Christ.

I received one of those letters yesterday in which Ken made the following observations about the implications of God, the Son, assuming human nature:

More than just a logical precondition for the Atonement, the Incarnation also establishes the trajectory for our new life as a truly human life. There is a theological link between confidence in the full humanity of Jesus and a recognition of the ramifications of our salvation across the full range of our own humanity, across all of the ways in which we engage God's creation.

Much of modern culture, with its Gnostic undertones, alienates us from creation and its givenness. Theologian Colin Gunton sees the affirmation of the Incarnation as essential to our enthusiastic participation in creation and therefore in cultural life. "A world that owes its origin to a God who makes it with direct reference to one who was to become incarnate -- part of the world -- is a world that is a proper place for human beings to use their senses, minds and imaginations, and to expect that they will not be wholly deceived in doing so."

Christians have the only account of human and natural origins that can give cultural life meaning. But even after 2,000 years of opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation, many contemporary Christians persist in believing in a Gnostic salvation, a salvation that has no cultural consequences. In such a dualistic understanding, our souls are saved, the essential immaterial aspect of our being is made right with God, but the actions of our bodies -- what we actually do in space and time -- are a matter of indifference if not futility. Salvation is an inward matter only. It affects our attitudes and some of our ideas. But insofar as our cultural activities have any Christian significance it is as mere marketing efforts -- things we do to attract others to our essentially Gnostic salvation.

Believing in a gospel that has few earthly consequences is, ironically, just the sort of state our secularist neighbors would wish us to sustain. They, too, are dualists, believing that religion may be a fine thing for people, so long as they keep it private. Their secularism isn't threatened by Christians as long as they aren't too "Incarnational." As long as the cultural lives of Christians aren't significantly different from those of materialists and pagans, secularism is safe. Christians may pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," but as long as they don't actually do anything that demonstrates how such a petition should affect their political, economic, and cultural activities, the Enlightenment legacy is safe.
Of course, calls for the lifestyles of Christ's followers to be markedly different from those of their unbelieving peers are not uncommon. Unfortunately, what is all too uncommon is the kind of theological reasoning to which Myers appeals. How frequently do we consider, let alone discuss, the implications of our confession that the Word became flesh for the routines, practices, and relations that we consider mundane and of little consequence? Of the three areas Ken mentions - politics, economics, and cultural activity - I think many believers have given at least some thought to how our faith should affect our decisions in the first two perhaps because the ethical dimensions of politics and economics are more apparent. However, when it comes to cultural activity in general, I think our efforts are largely limited to figuring out what is OK or not for us as Christians to participate in. Certainly, there is need to give thought to such things for we are commanded to "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them" (Eph. 5:11) which requires being able to identify such deeds. But what of the countless seemingly innocuous activities that occupy so much of our time? Is there a particularly Christian or "incarnational" way to engage in them?

I searched on Mars Hill Audio's printable files in hope that they had posted the letter from which I quoted above. Unfortunately, they haven't. However, while there, I did come across an article Ken Myers wrote for the Dallas Morning News titled "How Would Jesus Call?" in which he makes the following claim with which I fully agree:

With few exceptions, religious people have not given enough thoughtful attention to the social and cultural consequences of emerging technologies. When technical devices are used for obviously immoral purposes (e.g., pornography on the Internet), Christians express concern. But church leaders and theologians give far too little attention to the subtle ways in which technologies reshape our lives and thereby re-configure our moral understanding of the world.

Technologies are usually developed to make a particular task more convenient, and convenience is valuable. But it is not the only valuable thing, and it is up to individuals and communities to determine when an increased level of convenience is actually a hindrance to other human values.
Myers goes on to make a plea for incarnational cell phone usage:

Cell phones, for example, make it easier for us to have immediate access to others and to remain perpetually accessible. But certainly there are times when cell phones should be turned off or left at home. Some restaurants now require guests to disable their cell phones while dining. This shows respect for the ambience of their dining rooms and honors the desire of other diners not to be forced into the role of eavesdropper.
I'd like to suggest that Christian people in particular give some attention to cell phone etiquette. A thoughtful set of manners regarding cell phones could be a small but significant way of reducing the sum total of dehumanizing behavior in American culture. Such manners could demonstrate the high value Christians place on embodiment, expressed in our doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection.
What could cell phones possibly have to do with the Incarnation? Both involve the significance of physical, embodied presence before others. The presence of another person before us is a kind of moral claim, asking for the recognition appropriate to a fellow human being. Likewise, when we make ourselves present to others, we are showing respect. Thus when we visit someone in the hospital or in prison (a situation Jesus alludes to in Matthew 25) instead of just phoning or sending flowers, we demonstrate by our presence a higher level of regard for their well-being.
The idea of presence is an important one in Biblical religion. In his second letter, the Apostle John writes, "I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face." The Church is called the ekklesia, the assembly, the place where believers are present to one another to encourage one another to love and good works.
By contrast, holding a telephone conversation while walking down the street or up an aisle at the supermarket pointedly ignores the presence of others. The importance of physical presence is thus de-valued. It also poses a kind of challenge to passers-by.
I wouldn't be surprised if some believers initially reacted to this line of thought negatively, considering it too theological, theoretical, and/or picayune. But I suspect that if that is our reaction, it is because we are not accustomed to being challenged to think and live in a manner that is thoroughly and consistently Christ-centered.

By the way, the latest volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal arrived in today's mail. I'm a happy man!


Milton Stanley said...

Good word. Thanks for sharing it, Keith.

Patrick said...

I too appreciate Ken's annual letters. I was looking for this one so that I could incorporate some of the ideas into a sermon I'm working on. Thanks for posting it.