Gregory E. Reynolds
When we moved into Chestnut Cottage in 1992, we kept the heavy black plastic and metal rotary telephone, with its sonorous bell ring, as a reminder of the historical and the material—the analog. Don’t get me wrong, the digital has made me delirious with delight in its efficiencies. How many things I could not have written without those ephemeral letters and words, which even now I see, as I type, promise to be printed in hard copy. But I always feel that they are not my words, real words, until I print them out on paper and hold them in hand, fully incarnated. When they occupy space, when the slow swirl of the clock hands tell me time, I know that I am located in my embodied life. But with every screen I feel absorbed into a disembodied world, so unlike the world of resurrection in which I live and hope. I know what you’re thinking, “He hates technology.” No, I only fear its unintended consequences—its powerful allure to unreality and even idolatry. And it’s not just a digital temptation; it is a technological one—the work of men’s hands.
This is why I think cremation tells the wrong story, one of ephemeral efficiency, like the digital letters I hammer out on keys. Not that I would condemn those who prefer ashes that the wind floats away to flesh lowered into earth. This is a wisdom decision. I am just reflecting on the possible perils of efficiency, which is one of the main goals and benefits of electricity; we assume that efficiency is always good. It often turns out to be an autonomous ploy—worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.
Escape into virtual images that lack analog substance is borne out of fear of the realities of space and time, time that robs us of all sense of permanence and personal presence. The virtual inebriates us into the illusion of endless and perfect life—controllable—without need of redemption. In real life there is no such escape—so I understand the allure of that insubstantial dream. In this world, this rock-hard world, I must face my mortality, and the mess that Adam’s disobedience has wreaked. The imagery of screens ill prepares me to be buried. And where will this leave me if I am not ready to breathe that last breath? In a dark shadow from which there is no exit. No wonder sociologist of technology Sherry Turkle laments the preference of so many for virtual reality (VR) instead of real life (RL). Her latest book’s title says this well: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic, 2011).
The analog, as the lexicon reminds me, is itself an analogy of something else, something greater than the present world. God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). If I am seduced to ignore this analogy, how will I be moved to seek my Creator and Redeemer? The analog world is hard-edged since Adam’s fall, and so, because of our native sinfulness, it invites us to seek a digital escape. But it also invites us, with its combination of beauty and distress, to long for a better world, with memories of Eden embedded in it. The blossoming promises of spring make us long in the shroud of fall leaves for a flower that will not fade. A gravestone on Horse Corner Road in Chichester, New Hampshire, says it well:
Hope looks beyond the bounds of time
When what we now deplore
Will rise in full immortal prime
And bloom to fade no more.
So I cherish my analog world, not in itself, but for its prodding realism. “That at least, if goodness lead him not, yet weariness may toss him to my breast” (George Herbert, “The Pulley”). This is why God has withheld ultimate rest, his greatest treasure, from us all in this present existence. Weariness is built into God’s world so that we will not adore his gifts instead of him. We must not rest in the nature that he has given, but must love him above all and find our happiness in his glory. The analog world beckons us to this glorious end. We mustn’t let virtual reality rob us of this hope.
So in this new year rub shoulders with the members of your church, email a distant friend, or better yet, write a letter that incarnates your care, and maybe take up skiing or racket ball. Don’t seek some imaginary safe space, but rather seek the only true safe place in the universe: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’ ” (Ps. 91:1–2). He will enable you to face the challenges of the new year.
Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, January 2017.