The things that connect us

In our last blog we said that for the narrator within us we live in incredibly exciting times. The Internet presents us with a flashing cursor, a dialogue box, and a waiting public.

Start to write, however, and we will eventually also have to reflect: how should we tell our story? And, what is so important about the message we have to share? 

Of course the Internet also has a story. The backbone of the Internet is provided by 550 thousand miles of fibre-optic cabling that runs along the bottom of the world’s oceans. Wires first laid in 1858 to carry telegraph messages between Britain and America. The first message was a conversation between President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria. (It took 17 hours to arrive so be careful next time you moan at slow buffering!)

Queen Victoria: "Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.”

President Buchanan: “May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.”

There is much to learn from this short exchange. Notice how technology is explicitly framed within a world under God. Queen Victoria’s impulse is thanksgiving and Buchanan phrases his response as a prayer for God’s blessing and a hope that new possibilities in communication will lead to the extension of religion.

It is possible, of course, to critique the establishment Christianity of the nineteenth-century. But isn’t there also a proper challenge for Christians reading this today? Is our understanding of the digital age held within a divine story? Is our impulse to give thanks to God for the wonder of digital communication? Do we share the hope that new forms of communication will bring with them the extension of God’s kingdom?     

Part of the challenge for twenty-first century Christians is that the network that has emerged since the nineteenth century has brought with it its own story, a story that is embedded in the structure of the Internet and coded into the software of the Worldwide Web. Facebook narrated this story in 2012 when it celebrated reaching 1 billion users with a three minute film entitled ‘The Things that Connect Us’.

In the film there is no computer, smartphone or Internet connection anywhere in sight. The essence of Facebook, we are meant to realize, is nothing technological. It is a social network. It is about people and how we are connected in relationship. In this way Facebook is like chairs, bridges, doorbells, a great nation… structures that make it possible for us to share our ideas, our time, our love.

As the film ends, the screen goes blank before ‘Facebook’ appears, shining brightly in the darkness. A voice speaks: “The universe is vast and dark and makes us wonder if we are alone, so maybe the reason that we make all of these things is to remind us that we are not.” The social network is presented as the answer to the deep problem of human isolation.

This is a compelling story but is it the true story? Why do people feel so isolated? Why do we long for connection? This is where Christians need to remember the great and true story of the Gospel.

Feelings of isolation, of being lost and alone in the darkness of the universe, come not because we are alone but because we close our eyes to the presence of God and the needs of others. In this disorientating world the digital network is offered up to us as a place where we can always be together but we know that the promise will never fully deliver. The social network gives us much to be thankful for but it is not the light in a dark universe.

The call of Christ is to view the world through new eyes. To turn from a misplaced trust in the half-light of digital connectivity, to see his glory and receive his grace. As he calls us to follow, he calls us into a renewed relationship with him that flows outwards in love to others. In Jesus Christ light has shone into darkness and not been defeated by it (John 1:5). In Jesus Christ we see definitively that we are not alone, God is with us and God unites us to one another.

The Gospel is not so much about connection as it is communion, a word that speaks not just of sharing carefully chosen information but a true sharing of ourselves. Christ calls us to belong to his family, worshipping as part of a gospel community, giving and receiving his love. It is as part of this community of life and light, serving others and reaching out in love, that the sense of isolation loses its grip. This is the wonder of life together in relationship with God.

The challenge for Christ's followers today is to redeem the social network within this true story and to exhibit lives of deep communion to a digital world that yearns for deeper connection.