I Love Shane Hipps But I Disagree a Little
Shane Hipps is a Mennonite pastor in Arizona and the author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture and the recently released Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. His first book had a profound impact on me, and I’m excited that he’s expanded on some of the thoughts in that book in applying them to a broader, more general audience (beyond “church ministry professionals”) with his latest book.
Hipps appeared at the National Pastors Convention in San Diego this week to promote his new book, and I was keenly interested in what he had to share there. My friend (and compatriot in Digital@LeadNet blogging) DJ Chuang uploaded a clip of Hipps speaking about “The Electronic Gospel,” but I was especially excited to see this short interview clip from Christianity Today‘s Out of Ur blog editor Skye Jethani:
Reverse Engineering the Gospel for Virtual Reality
Hipps is clearly big on the Incarnation (as am I), and he readily admits, “For me, it’s really really hard to understand how you incarnate the Gospel in a discarnate setting.”
This comment reminded me of a term coined back in the early ’00s by Andrew Careaga, author of E-Vangelism, eMinistry, and Hooked on the Net—the term is “reverse incarnational.” It’s like reverse engineering the Gospel for disembodied/discarnate/virtual space.
I wrote about (well, essentially, quoted excessively) this “reverse incarnational” approach to online interaction by followers of Jesus in a 2002 article entitled “Cyber-Ministry.” This article was published as part of a large e-book compiled by Trevor Macpherson of the Underground Railroad network entitled the Underground Ministries Handbook*.
Here’s what I quoted Careaga in 2002 as having written (probably from his book E-Vangelism):
“Effective evangelism on the Internet requires believers to do a bit of ‘reverse incarnation.’ We must enter the culture of cyberspace and dwell among its inhabitants, in essence becoming ‘incarnational’ in cyberspace (even though we are leaving our bodies — our ‘carnals’ — behind). We need to take John 1:14 — ‘the word became flesh and dwelled among us’ — and turn it inside out, so that we flesh-and-blood Christians become words in cyberspace and dwell among others in the cyber environment.
“For this to happen, the church on the Internet must be about more than just slapping up a static web page. The church — and by this I mean believers of all stripes — must actively engage in the cyberculture through the more interactive avenues of instant messaging, chat, blogs, online communities … At the same time, the church must always be incarnational. Cyberspace does not replace physical space. Cyberpresence does not replace physical presence.”
Real or “Just” Perceived?
I guess my gentle pushback on what Shane Hipps’ is saying about the importance of “incarnation” is that it doesn’t negate the significance that people feel (whether real or only perceived) from online interactions and electronically mediated relationships. I think Hipps would agree, perception is often reality, and I don’t think he, in his comments in this interview, is discounting this. In fact, he’s probably trying to counter this truth by presenting what he feels is a better way to live and connect with people and form “community.”
My struggle with this is the same as when I hear arguments against homosexuality based on “God’s original design” for male-female relationships as laid out in Genesis chapter one. My reaction is basically this: That’s a great ideal to have, but we’re living thousands of years after the Garden of Eden (or, in this case, the Incarnation of Christ), so I’d prefer to deal with reality and not theory. In this case, the reality is that millions of people are finding significant connection with other people and even finding spiritual/religious “community” through Internet-mediated experiences. The ideal might be to always have face-to-face, skin-to-skin contact, but the reality is we are moving faster and faster in the opposite direction.
I think Hipps has much to teach and challenge us on regarding “unplugging” from the discarnate technology and systems we find ourselves in. But I also think we need wisdom for engaging and participating in a redemptive way, because “social media” is about people, real people, who exist in flesh and blood on the other end of the fiber. The only connection we may have right now (or ever) is on-line.
*As a sidenote, other contributors to this 2003 “manual” for underground ministry were Andrew Jones (writing on “Understanding Different Sub-cultures,” “Post Modern Church: Are we there Yet?”, and “Alternative Worship”); Mark Humphries, former editor of Semaphore ‘zine; Peter Wohler of Source Ministries; Bruce Wright from The Refuge in Florida; Brad Culver; Dan Cleberg; Glen Galloway from Soul-Junk; and others. Sadly, Steve Malakowski’s zine art is no longer intact in the document, but fortunately it lives on at OutcastPress.org.
UPDATE 2/15/2009: I’m still planning to respond to Zach Lind who kindly offered a clarifying question in the comments (see below), but I had to post this update directing your attention to John La Grou’s response to Hipps, entitled “Fearing the Virtual Ecclesia.” (Note: John was one of the main organizers of the first Wikiklesia book, which I was a contributor to.) John is much smarter than I am—he was, after all, invited to give a 3-minute presentation at the recent TED conference in California!
John gives a much better response to Hipps than I’ve given: “Contrary to Hipps’ position, I think virtual community establishes an authentic shared identity, a sense of belonging, a shared history, and a sense of permanence. That virtual community cannot offer physical gathering simply restates the obvious. … It is ALL community. Physical and virtual community works together as one continuous idea. In the same way that Gutenberg’s press added a profound new dimension to our shared experience, so are virtual tools are opening up profound new opportunities for shared social access – rich resources that augment and enhance our ability to connect and share the human experience. And I think this holds especially true in ecclesiastical communities.” Read the whole thing!