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The Questions that Remain

By Ephraim Radner

I’m glad some folks took time to read my little piece, raising the question of whether live-streaming worship is a good. It doesn’t bother me at all that many would object to things I said about the topic. Some of what I said was probably ill-advised in its imagery; and some of it was probably appropriately felt to be insensitive to the actual motives and practices of clergy in a difficult time.

So why did I say what I said at all? Many of us are familiar with Flannery O’Connor’s words, explaining her own somewhat flamboyant rhetoric: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

I assume that few people share my views on the internet in general. I think the internet is demonic. It has inundated us with words, tasks, and images, none of which are capable of being sorted out in their profusion, and, in their unrelenting assault, invasion, and occupation of our social spaces and inner consciousness — like the locusts of the Bible — they have captured our thinking and reduced everything to desultory and hollow opinion. I know that most people don’t share my beliefs here. And yet, I think that it is a terrible shame that our Christian churches have succumbed to this evil, and did so long before this pandemic.

Of course, most of us can’t really escape the internet. I know that. It’s the kind of demonic reality that is simply woven into the fabric of our daily existence — like the credit card, and its usurious framework of operation. I use the internet and credit cards. (I am not Wendell Berry.) I am using the devil’s beguiling tools throughout the course of my current ivory tower existence, teaching and writing. I use them even now as I post my own nebulous opinions and participate in a virtual panel of opinions.

Thus, I am really “shouting” at myself. Let those who have overheard me and taken offense forgive me. But I do have to shout, for I am hard of hearing.

When not shouting, however, I would also have to say that everyone — Stewart, Will, Abigail, and John (and more besides) — in their responses here is right: people are doing their best; pastors and church members need encouraging, not berating; church people may not be proficient at initiating their own prayers, but that means they need help, not scolding dereliction; mothers are good (necessary, wonderful!) and should not be made into metaphors of manipulation; getting people to stay connected somehow is a good, not an evil. These responses are by people whose ministries and witness I respect, and do so genuinely and deeply. Yes, everyone here is right.

But now what? The fact remains that the Time of the Virus has reduced the church to a varied version of a religious Facebook. We’re trying to do good and be helpful and responsible like everyone else. And so we should: just as neighborhood associations are looking after folks on the block; and local business associations are cooking food for the needy; and friend groups are staying in touch and doing things together virtually, like singing and encouraging, so Christians are active in similar ways. As Christian churches, we are helping to organize food deliveries, financial aid, prayer chains, discussion groups, and study activities. We are looking in on our less-connected neighbors. We try to keep spirits up and instill hopeful attitudes. It’s all good. And, of course, the gospel has no qualms about taking what is good in the wider world, and using it for the glory of God. Despoiling the Egyptians, one used to call it.

But what is the great divine glory that we are lifting up in this moment of cultural appropriation?  What is our special calling, if indeed we have one, that points to Jesus the Christ in his particular, cosmically incisive and transfiguring person? Whatever it is, it seems to have been muffled by the ongoing hum of the social machine. Live-streamed worship and prayer, and the shift to virtual communication at every turn makes all kinds of theoretical sense in a context of physical confinement. But what exactly are we communicating, and what should we be communicating at just this time? What is the message that even the medium cannot massage?

No doubt, there is no single answer that we might give.

  • Perhaps the gospel, unbound by any medium, might well be one of penance, tears, and fasting. Certainly, that was a common vocation for Christians in past times of disease and social disruption, when the church seemed convinced that, if divine judgment was given, it must “begin with the house of God,” that is, “with us” (1 Pet. 4:17). “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness” (James 4:9).
  • Too harsh, maybe. So perhaps this is a time when God cries out for our quiet and accepted solitude, within which some mysterious and transcendent vision might arise: “Be still and know that I am God! Exalted among the nations! Exalted above the earth!” (Ps. 40:10). How shall we give voice this vocation? How shall we teach our people to be silent before God?
  • Perhaps our calling is to let the Word “dwell richly” among us, as in a single body, singing thanks over and over (Col. 3:16), invigorating the very fibers of our common life and spirit. Through whatever means and media, this is an ever-present gift.
  • Perhaps this time has thrust us towards the human creature who stands closest to us, and whom for so long we have overlooked: just this woman in this house, just this man, or just this child; just this body which God has given me, I who dwell alone. Those members of the body we have always thought least worth our time, turn out to be the ones who command the most respect (1 Cor. 1:23). Finally! We can “wait for one another” just here (11:33), in the presence of one who is “wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14), and now with whom we are bound.
  • Perhaps — to end a list that might go on and on — this is the moment for some special “resistance.” Resistance to the devil and his afflictions (1 Pet. 5:9), resistance perhaps even to the point of shedding one’s own blood (Heb. 12:4). Might the church not be called to rise up in tears and protest against the blasphemous demand to let the dying die alone, as many civil authorities have demanded? Oh, the shame of these months of abandoning the dying! But one must discern the devil’s voracious works to stir such holy defiance.

I’m afraid that callings such as these must still be shouted out. We have not answered them clearly, or even raised them with eternal urgency they demand. And clergy — priests and bishops both — will never be exempt from such a duty. Moving far too quickly to the question of delivery, the pursuit of such callings in this time and among our people has been fitful and sporadic.

We will contest each other’s hearing in cases such as these. I realize that: we will dispute, and so we should, openly and passionately. Far too much hangs on such discernment! What has caused me — and I speak only for myself — to shudder as I look in the mirror, is how easy the slippage into the age of imagined community seems to have been. “Easy” in the sense of mechanism, though not perhaps of internal and unspoken anxiety.

Live-streaming and the rest, remember, was put into place with an immediacy that was astonishing. Within days! Everybody switched to online in an instant — with Zoom and Microsoft Teams ready to offer a helping hand (and bill). All the while, nobody had enough face masks, and the dying wards were closed to family and to clergy, and those who suggested some other means of physical presence, or urged a common appeal to authorities, or who talked about sensible and cautious gatherings of eucharistic praise, of true bodies given to bodies, were excoriated for their lack of moral integrity.

I’m shouting because, even though everybody is right, in some real sense, something is awfully wrong.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.


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