In my last post, I posed two ending questions based on the epistemological reflection of individual experiences with the focus being in the context of worship. Is there a place in the structure of Christian faith for technology and performance to mediate the reality of King Jesus as Lord over creation? And, how should communities of faith define non-reality in relation to technology-based experiences, especially if it is being used to convince (manipulate?) people toward the gospel?
Last week also included a quick sketch of the philosophical trek from premodern to modern to postmodern, both structuralist and post-structuralist, developments. In my bias I follow in the understanding of the structuralists about human development. I accept that the individual is located in a particular place of relationships, which continually constructs them through language, both act and speech. I believe this social construction begins even before the birth of the individual in a foundational act. The most foundational act, the one that defines all relationships and language between the individual and the social, is the sex act.
This may sound like an overgeneralization, which would not be unheard of coming from an academic, but I think the sex act is fundamental to all human identity. Do not think of the sex act as simply the desire of a certain type of sexual pleasure or even the drive to have sex itself. The sex act is the event in every person’s life that brings existence and meaning, not as the time the individual simply has intercourse but the event that defines the beginning of the individual’s life and the parameters of all relationships with and to others. The sex act provides the two things necessary for human identity at the moment of existence: the biological body that other biological bodies interact with, and the social location of that particular body in relation to those other bodies.
The social location of the body is what structuralists have shown is the driving factor in development, and cultures produce similar people in these locations. A body’s position in the line-up of siblings (firstborn, middle child, baby of the family), a body’s relation to their parents (long awaited child, adopted child, foster kid, abused child, or accident), socio-economic factors, etc., all produce similar psychological and behavioral tendencies and perspectives on life. Another example is that a husband’s relationships are defined by the sex act with his wife and the lack of the sex act with other women (and in some cases the illegitimacy of it with others). The examples are as numerous as the relationships in a human life.
The biological variation of genes in the body nuances these social locations. A firstborn with disabilities will be treated differently than expected if they were considered “normal” by the culture’s standards. This biological situation will create a unique experience for the next child born who might find the firstborn expectations affecting them. A child with extraordinary physical or mental abilities will often be given different attention than a child in the same social location. The unique individual is constructed in the merging of the random genetic biology of the body, and culturally based expectations placed on that particular body on account of its social location.
While there is a lot more that should be said, this is not the place to write up a treatise on the subject. But if I am to answer these questions concerning technology and performance mediating reality I had to reveal my foundational understanding of human nature. My understanding of identity formation of individuals is that the sex act structures human identity by means of relationships and language toward a biological body on account of a particular social location.
Now the reality of human experience can be gauged, at least in the most basic of ways. First, performance assumes human interaction with other humans so the biological and social aspects are present. If someone is performing on stage it assumes they are doing it for an audience. It also assumes the audience is there to receive the interaction. Even if the audience is just a silent observer, the one on the stage feeds on the relationship between audience and performer through basic biological and social presence. So yes, there is space in the Christian faith for performance to mediate the reality King Jesus has created and rules over. This has always been practiced by Christians, as seen most easily in preaching, teaching, and liturgy together. Performance is an essential element to worship in communities of faith.
I am sure someone reading the above paragraph immediately disagreed that the idea of performance assumes that an audience must be biologically present for it to be a performance. What if it is recorded? What if it is broadcast? What if it is live on the internet? These are legitimate questions, ones I had to work through myself, but I ended on this answer. It is not the same. The use of technology to extend the performance is simply attempting to extend the nature of the performance, but technology is not a part of the performance as it naturally is. The existence of certain technologies hasn’t changed the nature of performance (by a human as an interaction for humans) but has simply tried to extend the reach of the performance. This is where technology naturally enters into the conversation about performances, especially in the context of the local church.
The second question addresses if technology could possibly be a place which mediates reality. This is where the sex act and structuralism become vital guides to understanding reality. Since technology’s usage is so pervasive and varied it is good to remember we are focusing on this mediation of reality based on experience in the context of worship in a Sunday morning service. The baptism video is a good example here.
The most glaring issue with technology as an experience with reality is that it lacks biology. The person on the screen is not a real person in the interaction. The controlled presentation of a video presents an unreal person with curated expressions. The lack of biology means there is not a real place for this individual in a subjective reality. I cannot know them because there is no substantive interaction between our bodies. There can be no place for the person in my reality because they literally take up no physical space with a body so that my body may interact with them. While still being an experience of an event, the technology denies me a real experience defined by relationship and language in a biological (human) reality.
What is more, I have information about this person in the same form of technology as any fictional character in a movie. A person on a screen does not mean they are a person in reality, just a represented person like a character. This becomes more and more relevant with the ability of computer generated graphics and virtual reality to convince human eyes in these technologically mediated experiences. The only way I am able to believe there may be a real person behind this curated, professional work is based on its genre. Since genre is a culturally and socially based understanding of a thing, when I believe I am trusting the baptism video about the person’s life and transformation I am actually trusting my community that is presenting the video to me.
How else could it be since I do not actually know the person in the video, nor am I having a real interaction with the individual on the screen? I must give into the implicit trust of those in the A/V booth, the leader introducing the video or talking after it, and the congregation around me (surely some here will know the life of this person on the screen). I am not interacting with the technology, but naturally I am trusting in those things structuring my reality, the people around me in the community of faith, to interpret this experience with an unreal thing, even when the content is about something of real importance like baptismal faith.
While technology lacks a biology, surely the baptism video, by its intent to be a person speaking to other people, is at least social. This one is even trickier in my view. Unlike a performance, the baptism video does not assume an interaction with an audience. Its creation was meant for repetition and imitation for presentation, as understood by its professional quality production. There is no actual interaction between the unreal person in the technology and those witnessing the event in the audience. The technology, especially videos, are near exact replications of humans, yet lack the two essential qualities of human being: a biological body and a social location. Technology can only represent (at least) and imitate (at best) humans, and therefore cannot mediate reality by means of relationship and language.
This is rather hard to accept in our world of technology. We see other humans continually through computers, TVs, hear them on the radio, read their work in books, and seem to interact with them through social media. But if I am right by allowing the sex act to define human reality by means of structural development, then none of these are really experiences with other humans. They are figments, fragments of imitation knit together to present some form of information, but not able to offer to our human need that which we desire most—a substantive experience with reality.
To believe technology offers real human experience with other humans is to locate reality in projected information. It would be to say that by reading these words I have written in a virtual world is the same as coming to know me as the person that I am. These words, written into the code of the internet, are a near non-existent representation of my existence and are a failing imitation of a real relationship with me. Human being, with all the dignity endowed in it by the Creator and King through our relationships, cannot be deluded to simple projection of information.
So should technology be rejected in worship? Absolutely not! The place of technology is important precisely for the reasons mentioned above. Once technology is no longer seen as a substantive location of human relationships we can use it as the tool that it is. While technology cannot help me know a famous academic as a person I do come to know their thoughts and understandings about subjects in way that affects the relationships and language of my context. While not being a real interaction, I am still affected by the information projected through the technology.
Technology also allows for the projection of imitative interactions. For the last two years, I have lived 600 miles away from my friends and family. Through technology those relationships, though not existing because of or in the technology that connects us, can be projected across the distance. The relationships are rooted in the reality of being together, but technology allows us to imitate that being together in a way that sustains us until the next time we are actually together again.
In this understanding technology is always the manipulation of human experience by means of non-reality. Sometimes this non-reality projects information and sometimes it seeks to create an experience for the individual. But technology cannot present reality to the individual. Only relationships and language in biological and social moments of interaction allow humans to exist in, understand, and participate in reality. In these interactions of reality, through other believers in the community, the Christian faith teaches us that we meet the Creator himself.
God, through King Jesus, has taught us how to live in the created reality by loving one another. He did so through the structural reality of relationships and language in a biological body with a social location, which we call the incarnation of King Jesus. And today, it is still by bodies in social locations called the communities of faith that King Jesus’ rule and reign is mediated as reality. So how does the individual know if their worship experience is real or unreal? It depends on if the individual is participating in the body of Christ, full of all its biological and social aspects.
“Brothers and sisters who I love, we love one another because love is from God. Every person who loves has been born of God and knows God. The person who does not love has not known God because God is love. The love of God became known to us in this way; God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as a sacrificial means of forgiveness concerning our sins. Brothers and sisters who I love, if God has loved us in this way we are expected to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another God lives in us and his love fully develops in us.” – 1st John 4:7-12