Are Friends Electric? And Is Grace Digital?

This one’s especially for Andy, Anna, Blake, Caleb, Chris, Jeff, Kristin, Nathan, Reed, and Trevor. […]

Ian Olson / 7.30.19

This one’s especially for Andy, Anna, Blake, Caleb, Chris, Jeff, Kristin, Nathan, Reed, and Trevor.

It seems like a hilariously ironic turn of Providence that I who have been so deeply suspicious of connectivity through electronic media and its pernicious (albeit often unintended) consequences should find the friends I am most in touch with, most built up by, kept most honest by, are folks I maintain that relationship with through digital mediation.

I’d like to think that years after the incident Paul could laugh at being captured by Christ as he was setting out to capture Christians for imprisonment, or that Peter could chuckle at the gentle irony of God which sent him to a Gentile named Cornelius to learn that the prohibitive food laws he had grown up with had been eschatologically done away with. It seems to me that God’s modus operandi is routinely on display in the ridiculous serving as midwife to new Spirit-wrought growth. Whoever complains God doesn’t have a sense of humor has been talking to the wrong people, obviously.

For too long I have been a digital dualist; that is, a person who understands the embodied lifeworld in which we go to work and swim and eat lunch and the digital lifeworlds of social media and gaming and other outlets as two radically discontinuous things. This dualist outlook doesn’t automatically align one as a critic or as a fan. It simply names the perspective which views digitally mediated activity and interaction and the world apart from computers and other devices as a dichotomy, i.e., that there is an online life which is completely bifurcated from our selves “in real life.”

The problem with digital dualism isn’t that there’s actually no danger to online interaction and virtuality. It’s that the ontology of creation isn’t split between two different domains with two different kinds of being parceled out between them. Whatever we do online is a part of our lives in the one real world of which we have been made a part. Our online activity augments our lives in that one world and either enriches or distorts who and what we are.

So it’s not that I’ve become an unprincipled digital enthusiast in abandoning that dualism. Because there’s no evidence that grace can be translated through iMessage’s I/O and reconstituted as discrete quanta on the recipient’s end. There’s no pre-existing point of contact between our devices’ operating systems which permits life and light and love to slot into them wholesale, and there is no programming language isomorphic with them, either. As with any true and adequate God-speech, it’s a matter of God commandeering our fallen language and concepts and making them fit sufficiently with who he is and what he is doing. This is always a miracle whenever it takes place.

And this is what occasioned the shift in my thinking. I used to think of “technology” as that which corrupted the natural or the organic. And it can, of course, do so. But that isn’t intrinsic to what technology is. It is always and everywhere a matter of:

  • Which technology are we examining right now?
  • What are we aiming to accomplish with this technology?
  • Who designed and manufactured this technology, and to what end?
  • Is this technology fit for the goal we hope to accomplish?
  • Is this technology actually furthering what we’ve set ourselves to do?

We humans have probably never been without technology, and it’s naively Romantic to imagine a golden age in which none existed and Everything Was As It Should Be. I’ve held that mindset in the past but it doesn’t describe anything real. And that mindset began to dismantle when I recognized that the New Testament itself is a technological artifact. The epistle is a form of technology by which information was conveyed from one party to another. But even more to the point, St. Paul believed his own presence could be communicated among his recipients via the transmission of his words (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:4).

Connectivity, of course, isn’t an undiluted good. If connection remains only virtual and doesn’t take shape in embodied forms, then it is more likely sentimentality than fellowship that is manifesting. Virtuality’s characteristic damage (that is, the damage that belongs to the form of and is characteristic of the thing under discussion) is its voracity: as it satisfies certain of our needs, it tends to displace the physical social world in which we have our primary existence. Paul’s textual conveyance of his presence was always provisional and proleptic; it was a down-payment on the fullness of future embodied connection. For social media, on the other hand, between its dopamine-reinforcement regime, the validation feedback loops it fosters, and the code-architecture which facilitates simplistic signaling, there is serious friction between the motivation for any posting and the medium through which it is conveyed.

The ease with which we can find readily assembled affirmation in the form of likes and retweets renders unattractive the task of being the difficult persons you and I are, to put it mildly. This fosters the need to curate one’s online presentation (to satisfy the tacit demands of your followers) as well as exhibitionism rather than vulnerability (because, as Brené Brown demonstrates, apart from earned trust and mutuality, we turn to “boundaryless disclosure” to protect ourselves from real vulnerability). We are all, as David Foster Wallace put it, “incontinent of sentiment and need,” all full to bursting of oceanic need including the need to tell others of our tremendous need. But how to bring that to speech and to whom are the questions we haven’t sufficiently considered.

This cuts both ways, with both flesh and electronics. A relationship that is rooted in face-to-face interaction and shared space isn’t a priori a desirable or healthy one. I have been a part of many physically-situated relationships which fell drastically short of the ideal; several of them, moreover, were only able to prey upon my wounds and my needs due to our proximity. So it won’t do to pretend these interactions and relationships are intrinsically superior to ones mediated in large part by technological apparatus.

This is pungently manifest in a number of friendships I’ve become a part of through Mockingbird and other spiritual cousins online. In them, I have found a renewal of my sense of self, of my having something to offer, and with those things, an awakened agency. These are folks with whom I have developed relationships which (to borrow from Brené Brown again) can bear the weight of my story. They have breathed grace into my sorry self-enclosure, and, contra naysayers, it’s not because they tell me what I want to hear. They have helped pry me free from an addiction to deferral and abasement. Not accepting a steady diet of bad news is not seeking out flattery: it’s escaping an echo chamber of ruin and misery.

When the opportunity arose a couple months ago to meet a few of these brothers, I knew I had to act. The trouble was it meant two flights out to California and two back home. Big deal, you think. But I’m the guy who took a bus from Minnesota to New York for a Mockingbird conference because the prospect of flying incited such an eruption of terror within me, I might as well have gone mad from a Nazgul scream. Invariably the very thought of boarding a plane seals me in a death trip the likes of which would make Syd Barrett queasy.

While in the past I may have glanced at the shifting prices of plane tickets in an uncommitted fashion, arthritic with anxiety until I ran out of time and could collapse into a conflicted mélange of guilt and relief, this time I didn’t. Instead what happened was that for the first time in sixteen years, I set foot in an airport and wasn’t in a tailspin of raw animal panic every nanosecond leading up to it. Somehow, there I was, calmly making my pilgrimage through the security checkpoint, past the restaurants and newsstands, surging forward inexorably to my terminal. Not excited to fly, by any means — but nevertheless resolute: I’m doing this. Whatever it takes.

Christian Wiman has said, “Christ comes alive in communion between people,” and it’s one of those things I would’ve publicly confessed in the past but has taken on an entirely new valence of late. And I would say it’s the valence of reality rather than the code-architecture of an unhealthy community regulating what you’re supposed to say about the community no matter what. On that mountain in California, in that cabin, fellowship was as real as the ecstatic supernova that is God’s life and it confirmed what we already knew from witnessing the Spirit textually leap the gap between us, allowing us to laugh with abandon and give voice to our anxieties and our loves. And this love that is poured out and reciprocated again and again and again is casting out that which has dominated me for most of my life: fear.

I know that these friendships are conveying something to me, instilling something within me which propels me towards an honesty I’ve wanted to have citizenship within but simply haven’t felt safe to inhabit. I’m telling the truth more than I probably ever have. Yes, I’ve lied in the past, but more than that, I’m considering how much I have demurred from bringing the truth to speech for myself when the truth was too painful to concede. I have routinely censored reality when reality threatened my sense of self. He can’t be screwing me over — he’s family. He can’t be a racist fundamentalist — he’s my pastor. At the heart of this was the nauseated recognition that I already knew how dreadfully far beneath the threshold of ideal these relationships I had were. But I couldn’t admit it. So to translate these realizations into their proper idiom:

I can’t afford for him to be taking advantage of me — he’s the only father I have.

I can’t afford for him to be a provincial jerk — he’s the pastor I’ve oriented my life around.

I can’t afford for him to be oblivious to how sick our paradigm is — he’s the only person here who halfway entertains some of my ideas.

The constrictions of my location and the communities I’ve been a part of made the awareness of these things unbearable. Because what could I turn to? Reading Lewis and Tolkien and Wesley Hill on friendship sharpened my heart’s desire for such sturdy, life-giving relationships, but I routinely ran into the Tron light-cycle wall of the given. Moreover, between prior and ongoing conditioning and my own pathetic-ness, I got hooked on settling. Not principled compromises or graced, peaceful acceptance of short aims (Auden) — these are important manifestations of grace and not to be spurned — but guzzling down the demonic propaganda This is the best you can (and deserve to) get.

And I don’t buy that anymore.

I received a truly epic sunburn on a trip my family just took to Noah’s Ark, one made possible by my shocked realization that I felt free to swim without a shirt on for the first time since I was seven. Unfortunately, that epiphanic sense of liberation coincided with ninety-four-degree weather and a heat index that made standing in line for rides feel like waiting for gruel in a Dickensian orphanage on the sun. Sometimes taking hold of freedom looks like a farce but apart from grasping it and putting it on and swimming around in it, you simply do not wield it and remain enclosed within the sad skull imprisonment of servility and degradation.

Feeling that dead skin being shed in ugly flakes sparked another recognition: that these particles which had been me but were no longer were an analogue for the fragments of my self I have been not so much jettisoning than witnessing fall away. Prior to the burn they had composed a part of me, but now they were exfoliating into extraneity. This eschatologically-derived insight can be true even if it mustn’t be pressed so far as to collapse the eschaton into the present. I have seen a glimpse of the future soaking through all the intervening years into today. Is this mediated? Of course it is — through the flesh of Christ and the wireless communicative energies of the Spirit. So it is analogue and more than analogue, and, to use another of Wallace’s phrases, both flesh and not. The matter of the covenant between God and man of which I have been made a part always already consists of the coordination of organic and Other. The essential thing is that this Other is not the opposite of organic, but More Than Organic, the condition of possibility for the organic, its enhancer and guide to its fulfillment.

This characteristic denial and inability to live with what is real had been essential to who I was but not to who I was made to be and who I long to become. I have been living with a virtual, sentimental version of reality so as to avoid the painful implications of the world I’ve been a part of. And I’ve carried it out on the field of embodied action, not cloaked behind an avatar or Twitter handle.

I don’t pretend to have arrived, not by a long shot. But that’s what’s exciting about this, for I realize that there’s still so much accreted junk to pry apart and discard, which means there are yet new forms for my freedom to take and superfluous fears to be disencumbered by. I have no illusion it’s all just around the corner, but for the first time I know that they are possible — not, note, that the laws of physics allow for such an unlikely thing given laboratory-perfect conditions, but that God is invested in the accomplishment of such good for me and invites me to imagine the fulfillment of the promise he has made to make all things new; not by junking everything and starting over, but by defeating those forces which would subject us to slavery and death and carrying us to completion of what we were created to be.

“I didn’t know I was broken ’til I wanted to change,” Jack Antonoff sings in “I Wanna Get Better.” I’ve had episodic floods of morbid awareness that something was wrong with me my entire life, and far too many people have simply played census-taker and confirmed, “Yep, you sure are messed up” or studied its shape sufficiently to discern how they could utilize it to their advantage. But my wife and my friends — my honest-to-God friends — have fine-tuned the board’s settings and eliminated the sibilance and distortion and other noise-pollution such that God’s prognosis of that brokenness could properly find its home in me. And in hearing it properly, I found the desire to shed the painful encumbrances I’d grown painfully accustomed to, as well as the first vestiges of ability to do so. Thank you, Lord, for piercing through our absurdity to wrench us free; come alive again and again in our communion and the foolishness of our freedom. Amen.