At the end of Leah Payne’s contribution in CT to the now months long discussion about authority in the blogosphere she provides a hint of a remedy for our celebrity addled times. Do more theology face to face, she admonishes, preferably over a good meal and a beer. It’s a sane thought, and one that should come to our minds more often. If you don’t relate to people face to face, having the totality of your relationships mediated through the vacuous unhappiness of social media, you may have perfect theology, but you probably don’t have love, not in the classically biblical sense. It’s very possible you have turned into a resounding gong.
Still, there is a peculiarity about historical Christianity, and that’s that it does depend upon the written word. Copying down words so that other people, long after the moment of their writing, can still read them, learn them, know them, and consider them is the medium of scripture itself. God spoke to some audibly, but for most of us, the only way we know what he said is by reading the page. We carry on, century after century, reading the same words over and over, and then writing our own commentaries and thoughts, piling tome upon tome in a vast, ages long conversation with ourselves about what it says and how we feel about it.
But there did come a critical moment in history when the Word, known for so long only through the darkened glassy eye of reading, stepped off the page and did what we in this modern time aren’t very good at. He walked up and down and talked to people face to face. His theology was most perfectly embodied. There wasn’t any dissonance between the writing and the reality. Every word that came from his mouth was true and in keeping with who he was as a person– and God.
Even so, from a human standpoint, he was kind of a failure in his own lifetime. Speaking the truth face to face didn’t end any better for him than it does for you in all your difficult conversations. Being the Truth in a world that prefers lying, being Integrated in a world that manages to fracture everything, casting Light through the long, dark shadows isn’t a crowd pleaser. It was a triumph for our perverse nature that we got him killed. It was our attempt to shut the book, to close off that chapter and go back to our own preferred ways of thinking and being.
Fortunately, the Word of Life was stronger and more fascinating than the shadow of death. The miracle of the resurrection is traced out in the illuminating miracle of the text. Jesus destroyed death, trampling it down under his feet, but he didn’t stop there. The embodied Word embedded itself ever more perfectly on the page. His light and truth are there for the reading, for the transforming still of all our human darkness. The only way we know about him is by opening the cover, reading the words, or maybe even clicking open the app.
And now, honestly, there are people I can’t do without who I only know because of the vast sea internet writing. I type onto my screen, and they type onto theirs, and the order of a thousand years is thrown into chaos, akin only to that moment when Gutenberg started filling wooden boxes with sorts that could be arranged close set, rubbed heavily with ink, and then pressed out onto a page. A page that could be read and then read again and then again and then left for someone else to come along and read later.
It is a great mystery, this connecting of people back and forth across time through the word that you read so plainly on the page. It is imperceptible, unseen by the passerby. You there, reading this on your screen, will go on away into your tactile and material life, trying to marry what you know with your mind to what you live with your body, hopefully meeting with and talking face to face with others who have read all kinds of different words and pages and books. If you go to the right kind of church hopefully you will sit near and next to some of those people. You’ll hear the Word read out together. You’ll try to catch in your mind’s eye the peculiar glory of God becoming a man, of that glory reaching over the centuries to transform you by the strength and power of the Word itself.
If anything it should make you rub at the glassy eye through which you gaze, should make you wish you could have a better glimpse, should strike you as unsatisfying that knowing someone in person so often doesn’t translate into perfect communion any more than reading your very soul in someone else’s book let’s you grab hold of that friend. We cling onto the type, and to each other, and wait and wait and wait for the moment when we will finally be face to face–with ourselves, perhaps, but really with God. Because that’s the promise. Someday you won’t need the book, the person Himself will appear.