Deanna A. Thompson is a professor of religion at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She participated in the 2016 summer writing workshop Christian Spirituality and the Writing Life, with Lauren Winner at the Collegeville Institute. In this interview, Deanna discusses her book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, which was released in November 2016.
What has it been like to have your book out into the world?
I am someone who was very skeptical about digital culture, so I continue to be surprised that I wrote this book. But, in the conversations that I’ve had with people, I find that my initial skepticism gives me credibility when I talk about potential positive ways in which we can use digital technology. I had a conversion experience, which happened after I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, and received an incredible outpouring of support from a CaringBridge website. I now believe that virtual spaces can help us better care for one another and be there for one another during the worst times of our lives.
Your book is titled The Virtual Body of Christ. Has there been any push back to the ideas you present?
From a scholarly perspective, the issue of language has been an issue, especially the use of the term “virtual.” It doesn’t ring true for people who are theologically trained or trying to think theologically. It’s a secular term and also seems kind of weak. But that’s one reason why I want to use the term “virtual” in a theological context. I want to challenge people who assume that virtual connections are weak ways of being in relationship. In my experience virtual connections can be incredibly powerful. The term itself sparks questions about specific ways in which we are present digitally to each other.
In your book, you critique the phrase “in real life,” which people use to refer to their life offline. You contend that virtual life is real life. Why is it important for Christians to think about digital interactions as real?
It’s not that we’re either online in virtual space, or we’re physically present with somebody; that’s a false dichotomy. The real question is about presence. People assume that being physically with others is always superior, but we can be face to face with other people and not be present. All of us have experienced that.
I think we can be present with one another through a series of text messages or over email. When I was really sick, I had the experience of feeling the presence of people virtually. Their virtual presence was life giving and healing and affirming, holding me and my family up when we couldn’t hold ourselves up. It is not an inferior way of being present.
Part of what I want to argue in my book is that we have long had virtual forms of communication. Paul’s letters are one form of this. Pastor and writer Jason Byassee points out that Paul was almost never present physically with the people that he considered fellow members of the body of Christ, yet he felt very strong bonds to them. His presence is actually mediated by the letters he wrote, which were read out loud. Jason’s argument has a strong impact on me. Some people want to say that the virtual nature of digital technology is a very different kind of virtual presence than reading letters. How is it different? People tend to say it’s very different in a negative way. But I don’t think so.
In your book, you say there’s a role for the church to embody Jesus’ healing presence in digital spaces. How do you navigate both the immediacy of social media, and its sheer volume? It would seem to be a bottomless ocean of potential ministry opportunities.
Well, life is a constant flow of ministry opportunities, there’s no arguing with that. But, part of what I argue in the book is that Christian worship helps orient us to pay attention to those who are hurting. Worship can fine-tune that sensibility, taking the focus off of ourselves. As people lead increasingly busy lives, worship attendance is less and less a priority. Churches could make a stronger case for practices that can ground us in our digital interactions.
I was very taken by Meredith Gold’s rethinking of the prayer based on “Christ has no Body” by Saint Teresa of Ávila:
Christ has no online presence but yours,
No blog, no Facebook page but yours.
Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world,
Yours are the posts through which the Gospel is shared,
Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed.
Christ has no online presence but yours,
No blog, no Facebook page but yours.
—Adapted by Meredith Gould, author of The Social Media Gospel
The people I see on Facebook aren’t virtual; they’re real humans. If I want to practice being attentive in my life, that also includes what I’m doing in the social media world. We can use social media to be intentional, to let others know that our mind is on them and our prayers include them. Having said that, I would add that one area of social media that I find is hard to determine how best to respond, and to prioritize response, has to do with what is going on nationally and internationally. It can be overwhelming. That one I’m still working on.
I recently saw a tweet that said listening to a podcast isn’t a replacement for your local church. Do you agree?
For me it’s most important to think about how these virtual spaces might offer opportunities to serve our neighbor. If someone has a serious physical problem that makes it impossible for them to be physically part of a local church community, then that’s important to consider. Virtual connection can, in some ways, be a superior form of relationship. For example, when I couldn’t physically speak in full sentences about my condition, I could instead write in full sentences for people to read online. But, then, virtual engagement can also at times be inferior. The majority of people that we are connected to virtually are also people we have a relationship with outside of the virtual realm. I want to help people see these different ways of being present as a continuum, as different modes of relationship that work together.
At the Collegeville Institute, our work is rooted in ecumenical dialogue and understanding. How can digital spaces advance this idea of ecumenical conversation?
Digital connections and virtual spaces are pushing us to expand our understanding of church. Before I got sick, and even as a Protestant theologian, I didn’t really think, or frankly care, much about the church universal. But when sickness came, I experienced an outpouring of support from people outside of my tradition. People from different denominations and faiths were praying for me, which I found powerful and meaningful.
Our digital connectedness across religious lines should be pushing us to think about ecumenical relations in new ways. I spoke to an ecumenical group of pastors in Winnipeg a couple of years ago and asked: How many of you are connected to people outside of Christianity through your virtual networks? Every single one of them was. Increasingly we are crossing religious lines through digital communication. What difference does such communication mean for our thinking about the boundaries of the church? Such developments should stimulate our ecumenical, and even inter-religious, thinking.
Of course, if I listen to ten minutes of a worship service online, that’s not going to get me, or anyone else, deeply grounded in particular understandings of church, or a religious tradition, and the like. We need thoughtful reflection on how we go deep into these matters, even as we’re getting exposed to the breadth of information and possibilities for connecting that are out there.
You say that Christians should neither reject the digital world nor simply baptize it. You counsel walking a middle ground. What would you say to the pastor or to the concerned lay person who wants to start communicating more on virtual platforms?
I hope my book is one resource for the people you mention. A remark that helped push me to write the book was when a friend told me that “the body of Christ is happening virtually whether or not the physical, local church acknowledges it.” Being present online is a way to be the hands of Christ, and it’s happening.
I talk to a lot of pastors of churches where budgets are tight and they don’t have all the staff they might need, and they’re feeling pressure to be digitally savvy—they feel like they have to come up with a digital strategy and platform. The digital world can easily feel overwhelming and being adept in it can seem like just another thing they weren’t trained to do. But the realization that the body of Christ is already happening virtually is potentially a way to take some of the pressure off pastors. It’s already happening. So, the questions then become, how can the church a) acknowledge that, and b) frame it for their community? Pastors can let their church know that caring for one another can include Facebook, or whatever mode people are using to connect digitally. Being physically with each other isn’t the only option.
For example: there are digital platforms exclusively used by churches. One congregation used a platform like this to develop a prayer log where people start posting prayer requests. A couple posted that they were having problems with infertility, then other couples reached out, and soon they started an in-person support group. That didn’t involve any staff. It’s not that staff are not important, but interaction online can encourage some rethinking about how everything that happens in a church not all up to a pastor.
Digital communication is new enough that there’s room for the church to develop guidelines and exemplars for practices that work. The church can be, and should be, a witness in the new virtual world of digital communication.