Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Some thoughts against Carlos Whitaker (A Review of Up In the Air)

I recently sat down to watch a movie that I had been anticipating for some time, Up in the Air.
The movie, shot almost exclusively in hotels, airports and corporate offices is a tremendous effort to capture what defines a relationship. The movie is a parable on communication, relationships and humanity.

For those that haven't seen the film a brief synopsis.
Ryan Bingham, the film's protagonist, (George Clooney) travels over 300 days out the year to various offices as a contracted employment terminator. He fires people. While out on the road, he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga). Alex, like Ryan is out on the road, or up in the air, just as much, going from Herzt to Hilton to O'Hare and back again. The two strike a relationship that is matches their non-committed worlds. Then enters Natalie Keener, the over ambitious recent grad with a new plan to save the company a fortune by carrying out these firing through an internet video chat system.

The film gets interesting as we see these three characters in a dance of mistrust and misunderstandings. Natalie's new plan to fire people via iChat lacks the experience that veteran Ryan has. She shadows Ryan on these visits to ease the transition of face-to-face to online. Ultimately the switch fails. This lost in communication is highlighted by the fact that halfway through the film, Natalie is dumped by her fiance via text. Alex and Ryan's no trust relationship suddenly gets complicated and comes in nothing less than a crash landing...

This is a shotgun summary of the plot. What the film demonstrates is the irreducible complexity of human communication. I could have said human relationships, but the plot is more pointed than that. What is irreducibly complex about communication? Since, it seems to be increasing in every direction possible (social media, hot spots, 4G). This is the question that Up in the Air asks. Is all this technology really making things any easier? Is communication merely being able to transfer a verbal message? Video? Audio? All together? Up in the Air offers the proposal that there is no substitute for human interaction.

I want to now direct my argument against a practice that I fear is only going to increase. Doing ministry online. There are many examples of this, but one of the worst is Carlos Whitaker. I am almost tempted to refer to him by his Twitter account name LosWhit, since that it is all I really know. Whitaker is a self proclaimed "artist, pastor, thinker, experience architect, and Web 2.0 junkie". He has worked at some churches doing interesting things usually involving hyphenated titles with words like "creativity". If you go to his website, you will find he offers "coaching" services. This coaching consists of him following you on all and any social media sites and offering suggestions via a video chat conference an hour once month for $200 a month. (I'm not concerned about whether this is a fair rate.) I want to ask the same question as Up in the Air, is this really communication? Is this ministry? Is this the best medium for communicating?

The Medium is the MassageThere is more than I am aware of that gets lost in a mediated communication. McLuhan's basic thesis in The Medium is Massage is that the technological means that humans use to communicate alters, shapes, reduces, reforms that message.

LosWhit is an example of a dangerous trend. Paul did send letters to churches, but it was obvious that he valued being there in person over a letter. He even sent someone to deliver the letter. I don't think these are merely technological constraints. I think Paul knew the importance of a human being in the presence of another. When a Christian is before another, Christ himself is before that brother. What is lost in video chats and online sermons is the body of Christ. Unfortunately much of the ministry being done this way will remain up in the air.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Abusing Jesus' Divinity

Looking back at the concerns surrounding the person of Christ in the third and fourth centuries, one notices that the debates are oddly slanted in one direction. Most career heretics, such as Nestorius and Apollinaris seem to be fine with the divinity of Christ, but his full humanity was questionable. For some reason spirituality was tenable, but physicality put real a burr in their saddle. How could God– omnipotent, sovereign, and holy– mingle with the messy materiality of stuff?

I am of course, being very simplistic. It wasn't that they hated the idea of the Incarnation, but that the Incarnation is by definition a very hard thing to get one's second-order skull around. But there is still this curious trend. The divinity of Christ was taken for granted seemingly by the majority, orthodox and unorthodox alike, while His humanity was the main point of contention.

Zoom ahead to the enlightenment and one notices that the trend is reversed. Suddenly the humanity of Christ is found to be very palatable while His divinity is untenable. It became easier to conceive of Jesus as a good moral teacher than it was to believe he was God. Without going into the reasons for why Schleiermacher's offspring have such a problem with this, I will merely suggest that the locus of contemporary theology is centered on this problem, and perhaps increasingly in Evangelical circles.

How? Let's take ecology for example. The lack of Christology has been my only beef with Wendell Berry. Don't get me wrong, I love Berry and will recommend him and his organic tobacco til' the unclouded Tennessee sun goes down, but Christ is all but absent in his ecology. It is for this reason that, in spite of all of his wonderful insight that his view ultimately appears unrealistic and untenable (and his fiction a bit soapy). It can contrast a redeemed world with the fallen one, but it cannot tell us how to get from one to the other. It is in the bridge of Christ that the fallen and the redeemed are linked and the fallen is given any real hope. Douglas Moo, however, even in spite of the relatively small writing he has produced so far, finds the locus for ecology more or less in the Shema of love for God ad love for neighbor, both of which draw in a robust Christology and consequently a realistic means of caring for the earth.

Ecology is just one example, but I have begun to notice this in Feminist Theology as well and I am sure that it would be easy to find other examples. All of this goes to show that Karl Rahner was right when he said that most Christians today live as functional monotheists to whom the Trinity in all of its distinctive unity is of no consequence. So much is at stake when we neglect the daunting task of developing our theology within the framework of the persons of the Godhead, and since Christ is the most visible member, he is the easiest place to see this happen. It is imperative to insist on a robust Christology.