J. V. Fesko
New Horizons: December 2020
Also in this issue
by Danny E. Olinger
by James T. Lim
When God made the heavens and earth, he reached into the dust to form, mold, and create a body, and then breathed life into its nostrils through his Spirit (Gen. 2:7; compare with John 20:22). When he created man, male and female, he declared a judicial verdict over them: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
The fact that God pronounced his creation very good means that man, in both body and soul, is a good thing. But ever since the Fall, sinful human beings have sought to disassociate, disconnect, and divide the holistic connection between body and soul. Plato, the philosopher, claimed that the body was the prison house of the soul. A common Greek philosophical idea was that it was unthinkable for the gods to assume flesh because the body was evil and the spirit was good and the only way to overcome the limitations of the body was to free the soul.
This is why the incarnation was so shocking to many people in the first century—in Paul’s words, it was “folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). Nevertheless, John reveals the deity of the Word, the Logos, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The disciples were equally insistent upon the importance of the incarnation and resurrection. Jesus wasn’t a ghost; he didn’t merely have the appearance of a human being. Rather, the apostles testified,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us. (1 John 1:1–2)
John repeatedly mentions the disciples’ use of their physical senses, their bodies, to highlight the reality of the incarnation. Paul makes a similar appeal to the senses when he repeatedly mentions that the resurrected Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people (see, for example, 1 Cor. 15:6). The creation of man, the incarnation, and the bodily resurrection of Christ highlight the unity of body and soul and the goodness of our embodied existence.
Yet the denigration of the body did not disappear with the Greeks. Despite the influence of the Christian faith, again and again throughout history false teachers from either within the church or outside the church have sought to sever the body and soul. In the early church, the Gnostics denied the incarnation of Christ—they argued he only appeared to be physically present. In the Middle Ages, the Cathars, a heretical sect, denied the goodness of the body and believed that married couples should never engage in sexual relations because it contributed to the corruption of the soul.
In the early modern period, René Descartes created his famous philosophical dictum, Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore, I am”). At first glance this statement might not seem all that problematic, but at its heart lies a denial of the goodness of the body. Descartes believed that he couldn’t trust his senses (taste, touch, and smell) and that, therefore, the only way he could truly believe that he existed was through being capable of thought. He denied the holistic creation of body and soul, material and immaterial, and he isolated the mind from the bodily senses. Today’s condition of gender dysphoria, in which a person is uncomfortable being the sex that their body dictates, is arguably the heritage of Descartes—our minds have been set in antithesis to our bodies.
All these errors seem far afield for anyone in the church who seeks to remain faithful to the teaching of God’s Word. Yet, in what way is the world conforming us, the church, to its patterns and way of thinking? In what ways might we be imbibing from the sinful spirit of the age a spirit that sets our minds against our bodies?
One prominent way is through technology. Prolonged exposure to the internet, specifically, has the ability to drive a wedge between our bodies and minds, and, more broadly, between our minds and our embodied existence in the good but nevertheless fallen physical world that God has created.
A few examples can illustrate the acidic effects of modern technologies upon our embodied existence. Many people participate in online communities, maybe for gaming or for discussions about politics, philosophy, and even theology. Sometimes these communities are attached to traditional social media platforms, sometimes not. Often, these groups are perfectly innocuous—people gather virtually around a common interest or common purpose to exchange ideas, have discussions, and try to learn from one another. On the other hand, these groups can devolve into digital dens of iniquity. It doesn’t take long to discover how many people have been politically, theologically, or ideologically radicalized through online communities. They stare into the bright screens of their computers and give their hearts and minds over to disembodied ideas and people they have never met. They ignore their flesh-and-blood friends, family, parents, and siblings.
In one instance, a minister I know participated in an online chat group and decided to embrace false teaching without ever consulting with the elders in his church or presbytery. He was unwilling to repent and thus was willing to be defrocked for his views, for this aberrant teaching that he learned from voices without bodies and names without faces. In other cases, online communities circle the drain of morality as people cease to engage ideas and instead lather their hands in insult and invective.
The internet breeds such misconduct, I think, because it’s a disembodied environment. People do not communicate face to face, and ideas become divorced from reality, and, in a sense, lead us to create our own reality. We are willing to denigrate people because we don’t look them in the eyes but only stare at a screen. The digital environment is the perfect context to allow us to slip off our Dr. Jekyll persona and allow the evil Mr. Hyde to roam free.
Another way technology works against our embodied existence is that it gives us the impression that the online world is real, when it is really just a picture of our own wants and desires. The internet and social media outlets are largely driven by economic forces. Pay-per-click ads litter web pages and hope to draw our attention so that we’ll click, read, and buy. Social media supposedly gives us a window on the world so we can see what’s pressing and vital, but, in reality, it is simply providing us content it thinks we want to see based on the information we enter into our computers. The websites we visit, the ads we click on, and, in the case of cell phones, the words we say, find their way into corporations’ databases, which can then send us related content. If you have an Amazon Echo or Alexa-enabled device, for example, Amazon is listening to you so that it can better sell you things. When we look into the internet, we’re not really looking into the world but instead into a mirror. We might not say, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” when we login, but our computers are likely only reinforcing our sinful characteristics and pushing us into the arms of narcissism and selfishness.
Along with giving only the appearance of reality, the internet also provides us with only the appearance of accomplishment. As we regularly sit down in front of our computers and scroll through tweets, texts, and Facebook, we might give ourselves the impression that we’re engaging with the real world. Clicking, surfing, and tweeting fill us with the feeling that we’re doing something. But are we really? Today’s internet warriors believe that, if they can just create enough of an online stir, then they can change things in the world. Cancel culture has been big news in the past year. Online activists comb through articles, tweets, and pictures, looking for smoking guns on a host of new unpardonable sins. But, from a Christian perspective, just because you get someone canceled doesn’t mean that person changed much. Have hearts been swayed? Have people repented of sins? Have lives been changed by the gospel of Christ?
Similarly, recent tragedies cause many of us to post in sympathy or outrage, thinking that we’ve done something in response to the tragedy. But does putting up a picture or tweet amount to assisting people in the physical world? Or does it merely signal to our Instagram and Twitter followers that we’re truly concerned about the latest trending news?
These different examples bring us full circle to the goodness of our embodied existence, which finds its zenith in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s finding one’s community online, viewing the world through social media, or engaging in online activism, all drive a wedge between the user and the world. Online messaging doesn’t happen in the real flesh-and-blood world. Social media doesn’t give you a boots-on-the-ground view of the real and pressing needs of your physical church or community. Online activism may garner likes and retweets, but it doesn’t put a cup of cold water in your hand to give to someone who is thirsty. The aforementioned examples keep us firmly planted behind our keyboards, cell phones, and tablets. But if we take seriously the goodness of our embodied existence and the amazing fact of the incarnation—God in the flesh—then we should take a very different approach to these scenarios.
While online communities can be at times beneficial, how much more valuable is the physical body of Christ, the church? If being online dominates our time, then we should break away from the digital world and engage the church, at least as much as is possible during this age of COVID-19. Call a group of friends together and create a real-world community. Pick a book of the Bible or a classic theological text, sit down with friends and a good cup of coffee or milkshake, and look people in the face to discuss things. More than eighty percent of communication is non-verbal, or bodily. How much do we lose when we simply exchange words online? Moreover, reach out of your own demographic and talk with people who are different from you. Talk with people who are younger, who are older; talk with people who are less experienced and who are more experienced; talk with your elders and pastors. You might find that in-person conversation will keep you far from false teaching.
The author to the Hebrews reminded his readers to “stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together” (Heb. 10:24–25). As a flesh-and-blood community, we can discuss the things that we encounter on the internet. Others can provide feedback regarding whether these beliefs are godly or wicked. Older members of the church can teach us wisdom. Our pastors and elders can help us discern when certain concepts might have false doctrine or ideologies buried deep within. In other words, God created us for community—we are part of the body of Christ—and thus we need to ensure we are connected to it.
Rather than looking at the world through the window of social media, get up from your computer, put your cell phone down, go outside, and interact with your neighbors. As the author of Hebrews writes: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). Hospitality involves both your mind and body, as you share food, break bread, and consume physical things that God has given to you through the good but fallen creation. As we fellowship with our neighbors, we can minister to their needs, both body and soul.
Instead of tweeting the latest trending hashtag, walk outside and find out what the real-world needs of your church truly are. Before making a TikTok video, find out whether there are any widows or orphans in your church or community that you can help. According to James, tending to their needs is “religion that is pure and undefiled,” and, I might add, it’s also embodied (James 1:27).
The church community is often a vital but missing component in our use of the internet. Internet addiction actually erodes our connections to the real world. When we find ourselves staring for hours into the bright light of our computer screens and failing to connect to the flesh-and-blood people in our lives, we must realize the danger that we are in. God has created us as embodied creatures, which means that whenever we disengage from contact with others, we begin to erode our God-created, flesh-and-blood existence.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once made an astute observation regarding the necessity of the church:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. … Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. … Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.
In this case, Bonhoeffer’s warnings about solitude without community bear significant relevance for our use of the internet and of technology. We must pursue holiness and piety in order to reform and change our desires, but we can never do so apart from the body of Christ and the physical world God has created.
 See Christopher Mims, “Why Social Media Is So Good at Polarizing Us,” Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-social-media-is-so-good-at-polarizing-us-11603105204.
 See Louis Matsakis, “The WIRED Guide to Your Personal Data (and Who Is Using It),” WIRED, February 15, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/wired-guide-personal-data-collection/.
 See Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Alexa has been eavesdropping on you this whole time,” The Washington Post, May 6, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/05/06/alexa-has-been-eavesdropping-you-this-whole-time/.
The author is an OP minister, professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and author of The Christian and Technology (EP Books, 2020). New Horizons, December 2020.
New Horizons: December 2020
Also in this issue
by Danny E. Olinger
by James T. Lim
© 2023 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church