Part Two: Prophecy and Ministry
The humour of including this verse here leads to a serious reflection on digital Scripture resources. My Huawei tablet is not literally contemplated in the biblical text, but its function is: a small, portable device on which a runner can easily carry the revelation of God to a new destination and communicate it there. More important however is the call to “make it plain.” Scrolls in cabinets and hefty codices chained to pulpits and in libraries communicated the authority of place and the authority of the reader and interpreter, from the ancient world to the Reformation. The best use of that authority was indeed to make the text plain to the context of the listeners. Making Scripture present on smartphones, digital tablets and websites continues the Church’s mission to make the Word “plain” to those of us living in a world saturated by these devices. The hypertext ease of accessing different passages runs the risk of privatized interpretations and proof-texts, but also opens up the possibility that people will more readily accept the Church’s reception of a coherent canon. Bible apps indeed retrieve the scroll—the word used for continuous reading on a screen—and that miniature codex called the pocket Bible. But they have more kinship with the Erasmian Commonplace, itself an innovation strengthened by the printing press, that Reformers used to “make plain” the coherence and authority of the Scriptural vision.
There are two parts to Isaiah’s call narrative, which hinges on his commitment, “here am I; send me!” The first part paints the setting as a vibrant and active vision of the Heavenly Court, which will be expanded upon by Ezekiel and Daniel “among the exiles” (Ezekiel 1:1, Daniel 7) and John on Patmos (Revelation 4, explored below). Isaiah’s vision reveals that the Jerusalem Temple reflects this Heavenly Court, a connection made explicit with the hem of the royal garment, the angelic attendants and the Thronal mercy-seat on the Ark, atop which the Lord gave the Law to Moses. (Exodus 25:22) Like we saw with Revelation 21, even the old Jerusalem, built with human technology, could participate in God’s mission to Creation. If that Jerusalem could participate, with its rulers and priests destined to be carried off into Exile, so too can the internet and digital media, as distorting and corrupt as it can be.
This participation includes Isaiah himself, though he is “a man of unclean lips…among a people of unclean lips.” Unlike Ezekiel and John, Isaiah is not in exile and neither is Israel. Nevertheless, he is clearly being “sent,” from the Heavenly Court, from Israel’s ideal home, to take part in God’s mission to bring Israel back to themselves. Their use of human technology has not undergone the disciplined discernment I described with Genesis 4, but have instead fallen prey to fear-masking self-aggrandizement by building cities, armies and monarchies for their own name. And just like Lamech’s ego, their fragility cannot withstand the coming of invading armies.
I worry that digital technology has exacerbated a similar fragile self-aggrandizement among Christians today: unnuanced twitter hot-takes, social media platforms for charismatic leaders promising to violently defend the faith from the spectre of diversity, broadcasting their calls to prematurely reopen churches thereby spreading both misinformation and the coronavirus itself. All these have threatened the credibility of the Christian faith in the eyes of many in North American society, and the legitimacy of faith claims in the public square, because we have allowed our minds to be dulled into the “us verses them” dynamic that this technology often presses. We are capable of subtle arguments and reasoned dialogue, but the Lord may need to send us far away from some of society’s technologies and levers of power for us to relearn how to elevate the conversation.
How then do we regain the trust of people in contemporary society? This is a necessary goal, because mission is not about a disembodied assent to truth but the encounter of real people with the real person that is God in Christ. The Second Temple period and its destruction added a wrinkle to the category of “exile”: the dispersion, the flourishing of synagogue communities within Gentile cities throughout the Empire. St. Paul turns this new situation into an opportunity to make good on his Damascus-road vocation to draw Gentile people toward an encounter with the God of Israel. In Acts 17 he visits the synagogue community that is part of Athenian civic life (with some limits), and springboards from there onto the Areopagus, a technology designed and used for the consideration of new ideas.
Paul in Athens continues to provide the inspiration for our mission today. Digital media is not simply a set of tools, it is a culture—the culture—that contemporary Western Christianity finds itself in. It is a culture of people who “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new”: the blogroll, the newsfeed, the latest instant message, the candid photo that disappears in a matter of seconds. It has a vestige of an “unknown god,” the residue of Christian community and society, be it the affirmation of universal human dignity or the requisite visit to grandma’s church at Christmas and Easter. For many, Christianity is overladen with the weight of fear and defensiveness I described with Isaiah 6. But if we communicate with the language—the visual, auditory and written language of our digital era, the possibility remains that what is old can seem new again. God can speak through this language to offer people a new hope, the hope of Eternal life and dignity found in Jesus Christ, the promise of a restored humanity and a healed Creation, in a time when an old, broken world is plain to see on devices in the palms of our hands.
One would think to remember St. Paul’s admonitions to charity in 1 Corinthians 13 when Christians and ministries embrace a public digital presence, to remember to show patience, kindness, humility, integrity and generosity in our online interactions. However, the media we use shapes us, in ways that we cannot always anticipate. Along with the lack of nuance, the anonymity of the internet presses a game of “scoring points,” of “being right.” All we encounter are words on a screen, rather than the people who wrote them: we become the only person that matters, and the only one who is seeing clearly. But St. Paul calls us to be better, and build better online communities, in two vital ways:
1. Even if we are technically correct, or our argument is sound, we must still engage online in ways that are sensitive to the lived experiences of people on the other side of the screen. The power of the internet is that these may be neighbours down the street or neighbours across the globe. Love compels us to use this technology to connect with people we might not otherwise be able to. Blogging, videos and other longer media are capable of presenting nuanced, sound arguments, clear facts and information, and upliftingly beautiful experiences. There is a place for dispassionate debate, but people remain people.
2. Our argument is not always sound, we are not always technically correct. We see in a “mirror, dimly.” In this hypertext plethora of ideas, blind arrogance has been our downfall, but a humble willingness to learn can be compelling, can invite people to experience friendship with God through friendship with God’s people. The mirror of the internet and its increased ease of interaction also provides a powerful opportunity for us to see where we have gone wrong, for us to embrace the impulse to change and growth that we already contain within our DNA: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. “As for knowledge [cold facts], it will come to an end,” but our trust in God, our hope in His eternal victory, and the love He shows to us and through us in Christ, will abide forever.