Last month Wesley Taylor wrote enthusiastically about the role of WeChat in Chinese Christian relationships. Indeed, there is no doubt that WeChat, statistically speaking, is an international sensation. And yet, I think there is more to consider, and I would like to offer an alternative perspective. I would like to thoughtfully and critically, and I hope humbly and gently—yet forcefully—present a different interpretation of the situation.
Taylor’s chosen subtitle and concluding sentence reveal his exuberance for the many benefits he perceives WeChat brings to Chinese Christian lives, and the glory it brings to God. He has an overall positive impression of the gospel-directed usefulness of WeChat. And I know he is not alone in that. While the tenor of his essay is positive, he is not ignorant of some of the negative impacts that WeChat has. He forthrightly mentions:
- burn-out among ministry leaders
- major security and privacy concerns
- lack of filter and stymying of critical analysis in regard to Christian teaching
Without adding any other issues that could be mentioned, this list is astonishing.
What if I told you that I had a sure-fire means of gospel penetration in a culture with few or no Christians? It would come with only a few “side-effects,” those effects being the list above. Addiction. Burn-out. Major security and privacy concerns. And, in fact, a dilution and distortion of the very message you wish to see embraced. But! The message will be read and heard throughout the whole country! Millions of people will . . . click a “salvation prayer” link? Download salvation from the Cloud above? Demonstrate their faithfulness by reposting three Christian articles a week (despite their pronounced lack of biblical literacy)?
Yes, I am being cheeky here, and I hope it brought a smile to your face. But in reality, I believe the issue is very grave.
Chinese Christians, and Christians around the world, are not immune to the digital media panacea. And why should they be? The devices and media that we now surround ourselves with (and on which you are undoubtedly reading this post.) are designed to draw us in. Research has demonstrated both psychological and even physiological changes that a person goes through when using, and when they stop using, social media in particular, but also various digital devices. Hormones are activated with every *ping!*
But even these facts are nearly worn out, aren’t they? We are tired of hearing how our digital devices and media stupefy us; how Silicon Valley inventors do not even let their own children play with their clever inventions that they gladly sell to us; how Chinese low-wage laborers slave away in factories so that we can enjoy another cat video (I am partial to cockatoo videos like this or maybe this.); how algorithms ensnare us in our own worst echo-chambers; how Mr. Hyde easily overcomes our Dr. Jekyll as soon as we log on. Even our best efforts at communicating with other human beings is somehow subverted through digital technologies.
Consider just one example, silence. This was recently pointed out by a Christian thinker, Michael Sacasas.1 In a recent post 2 he talks about the impossibility of silence online, and the impact that this mode of communication has on human interaction. He distinguishes between the “absence of speech and what might properly be called silence.” Silence in digital contexts, says Sacasas, is simply impossible, because silence presupposes bodily presence.
One of my great concerns with the panacea of social media among Christians, and WeChat in particular in a Chinese context, is that it trades on the assumption that the gospel and discipleship to Christ is merely information that needs to be transferred. Sacasas says this about communication:
I would say, too, that the temptation to be resisted, if I may put it that way, is that of reducing human interaction to a matter of information transfer, something that can be readily transacted without remainder through technological means. This is the message of the medium, in McLuhanist3 terms: that, becoming accustomed to electronic or digitized forms of communication, I forget all that is involved in being understood by another and which cannot be encoded in symbolic form.
To rephrase that, digitized forms of communication have certain boundaries of what can and cannot be communicated through them. By relying on these digital means of communication we forget how to interact with people in other ways, like through silence. A great deal of personal understanding is lost simply by enshrouding our communication in a digital medium (whether letters, idiographic characters, emoticons, or gifs). Why? Sacasas says,
[Because] the medium best suited for [the most profound human experiences] is the body, and it is the body that is, of necessity, abstracted from so much of our digital interaction with the world. With our bodies we may communicate without speaking. It is a communication by being and perhaps also doing, rather than by speaking.
Is there any experience more profound than encountering the God of the universe? We must divest ourselves of the Platonic assumption that the “spiritual” is higher than and in conflict with the “physical.” The Incarnation is the ultimate refutation of that view. Is it not incredible that God’s “final” word was the Word?
Lastly, from a missiological perspective, I am also greatly bothered by the cavalier way in which God’s glory is invoked to support the largely uncritical use of WeChat (and other social media and digital devices), despite the mountain of wisdom (and research) on digital devices and media that the last decade has produced which ought to at least give us pause for reflection and very cautious, almost reluctant acceptance of these technological conditions. True, there are a great many “believers” who herald the coming of a new digi-topian age that will release us from the spatial and temporal chains that bind us. But there are also a great many “doubters” who are at best skeptical that these new techniques for manipulating our environment will produce on their promises. We would do well to listen to their concerns.
I cannot help but be reminded of the 19th century, “The Great Century of Christian Mission.” How many newspapers and Christian ministry gazettes celebrated the (violent) opening of China through various international treaties. Now missionaries can penetrate to the very heart of China! The gospel will be preached to the whole world, in this generation! God be praised! And yet, key issues that continue to hamper mission efforts today are colonialism and imperialism, explicitly in the last century, and more implicitly in this century. It is like children eating too much candy. It is sweet going down, but a stomachache is sure to follow.
Can God be glorified through less-than-ideal circumstances? Yes, of course, God works out all things for his glory. Even through the most heinous of crimes? Absolutely—our reconciliation to God comes through the blood of Jesus the Messiah’s cross. But we seek to imitate Christ in his bodily life and crucifixion—not the ones who did the crucifying or stood at a distance and jeered.
So, now what? Do we toss our devices in the trash, go back to bartering and trade, and talking with two paper cups connected with a string?
No. But I hope that we can more critically and thoughtfully engage the world, and Chinese Christians in particular, incarnationally. Sure, during a pandemic shut down we can be grateful for even the mediocre ability to contact another human being. But in the task of making disciples, contact is merely the first step. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Yes, we can use WeChat and many other ways to speak Life to our personal networks of image-bearers. But we speak best, truest, and fullest in the flesh.
Editor’s note: This item was updated for consistency on April 20, 2021.
- Sacasas discusses the philosophy and sociology of technology through weekly newsletters and online (yes, online; and the irony is not lost on him) reading groups and discussions. He does in-person events as well.
- L.M. Sacasas, “Impossible Silences,” The Convivial Society. https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/impossible-silences.
- Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of media theory.
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