We Need to Talk About Dirt: Technology and the Need for Real Presence

Often it seems like technology is moving at a breakneck pace. This feeling is nothing new. A quote regularly attributed to U.S. patent clerk Charles H. Duell in 1899 claiming that “everything that can be invented had been invented,” so we should just close the patent office reveals that technological acceleration is nothing new. That statement is most likely apocryphal, but the sentiment was definitely in society since it most likely came from an 1899 edition of “Punch Magazine,” a comedy magazine looking at the then coming new century. Then or now, technology can be hard to keep up with.  

Since technology can move so quickly, sometimes it can be used without much forethought regarding the moral and/or theological implications. One of the ways that we have seen the moral/theological implications underemphasized most clearly is in technology’s ability to minimize the fullness of personhood and presence. We saw this in COVID season. We saw efforts to portray ZOOM® meetings and online church worship services as “just as good as being there,” as if a digital presence was equal to real presence. After the first couple of weeks of novelty, I think most were sick of the screens and wanted more. Now, COVID was a unique time, and we should be grateful for the technology that allowed us to connect imperfectly, but let us not kid ourselves. We need the real presence of others in our lives. We need the real presence of our families and friends or our brothers and sisters in Christ, and our pastors called to shepherd us. 

One of the primary avenues in which pastors shepherd their flocks is through the preaching of the word of God. Since the “sacred moment” of preaching is so integral to the believer’s and the church’s life, we should be very judicious in how we use new technology in that moment. The method of preaching says something about the message being delivered. 

So, what does it say about the message if the preaching of the sermon is done holographically? You read that right. At least one church is using holographic technology as a way for its pastor to be “present” on multiple campuses. In the article from churchleader.com entitled, “‘Beam Me Up’…Pastor? Holographic Technology Allows Pastor To Be in Nine Locations at Once,” the author, Jesse T. Jackson, describes how Pastor Randy Bezet of Bayside Community Church in Bradenton, Florida, is using this holographic technology. According to the article: 

Bazet uses a new holographic technology called PROTO, a device that, according to its developer, “lets people beam themselves to a location thousands of miles away and interact with people there.” The holographic technology allows Bezet to interact with those in the congregation, even though he’s not there. (emphasis added)

Notice the language being used to describe this technology. The pastor can “interact with people. . . even though he’s not actually there.” Sadly, what the people and the pastor are “interacting” with is not a person. Therefore they are all, pastors and people, missing out on a significant component of humanity, the physical, and the church’s incarnational nature. 

Human beings are more than holograms, more than avatars, more than an image on a screen. Humans are, by nature, physical creatures, but not just physical creatures. For example, notice how God forms man in the Garden of Eden, “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). 

Notice the two components with which God forms man: 1) “the dust from the ground,” and 2) “the breath of life.” Man by nature is both a physical and spiritual being, dirt and breath. He may be described as an “ensouled body.” He is both body and soul, material and immaterial. Both are necessary components of his humanity. Therefore, if you are going to minister to people, there truly must be physical presence. Genuine interaction requires both the physical and spiritual, both being significant. In other words, holograms fall woefully short. 

As stated above, the risk in breakneck technology is in its implementation without consideration of its implications. So, let us consider its moral and theological implications briefly. 

First, using a hologram is a rejection of the way humans were created and meant to interact. As noted above, a hologram minimizes the physical nature of the individual. This minimization will lead to neglect. When the physical is minimized, there will be a tendency to see it as irrelevant or unimportant. This shift led to a new form of Gnosticism, so many New Testament authors warned against it as an unbiblical approach to the human person and an unbiblical understanding of the relationship between the material/physical world and the spiritual one. 

Notice how New Testament writers speak of meeting the whole person’s needs, both spiritual and physical. James notes, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16). You see Paul’s and John’s joy lacking apart from the physical presence of other believers (1 Thessalonians 3:2; 2 John 12). 

Perhaps most notably, recall how the Lord Jesus spoke of the need to avoid minimizing the physical:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:34-40).

In other words, ministering means ministering to the whole person. That cannot be done holographically or through any other technology that negates a physical presence. 

Second, to negate the need for physical presence in ministering to others is to reject the significance of the incarnation. Christ met the spiritual problem with physical presence. He took on flesh and dwelt among needy humanity. He was not simply spiritually present. He entered into the physical world, interacted as a physical being, laid hands on the hurting and unclean, wept real tears, died a real death; his physical body was buried in a real tomb and was resurrected bodily. Christ’s physical presence through his drawing near to a hurting needy people is how he answered that people’s greatest spiritual need. In doing so, Jesus made clear that burden-bearing cannot be done holographically. The very thing that Christ modeled and believers are to do for one another necessitates physical interaction. 

Last, this incarnational aspect also applies to preaching. Gospel proclamation is physical proclamation. Everyone knows this to be true. If not, why don’t missionaries simply stay home and then invite people of other tribes, nations, and tongues to join them on Zoom? It’s because the gospel message rightly understands humanity, and why the Apostle Paul wrote,

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)

The gospel message and the missionary endeavor both grasps the idea that to the reach people you have to get into their world, into the nitty-gritty with them. A holographic presence allows you to keep people at an arm’s length. You minimize the risk of being hurt by them, rejected by them, and, in the end, of truly knowing them. If you fail to truly know your hearers your preaching cannot speak fully to them. As Richard Bernard notes in his 1621 book, The Faithful Shepherd

Here then we see that a Preacher must have knowledge of his auditory, to fit his Text unto them, considering where they bee, and what manner of persons, private or public, Ecclesiastical or of the body politic; superstitious or religious; of holy conversation or prophane, peaceable or persecutors; zealous or lukewarm; constant or back-sliders; of sound judgment, or erring from the truth, ignorantly, or of obstinacy, &c.

One of the primary reasons is because that is how people were created. By its nature preaching presupposes an incarnation preacher and a present people. Preaching is bidirectional, from a person to a people, both crafted as ensouled bodies. In other words, to rightly meet the needs of his hearers the preacher/shepherd must model the incarnational Good Shepherd. Pastors are called to speak into the spiritual lives of their hears, but they are called to do it physically. 

While there are many goods with technology the tendency is to begin to accept its use as sufficient to meet the need or “just as good.” In reality, that can never be. Created as ensouled bodies demands physical presence in ministry, in mission, in marriage, in life. To believe otherwise is a denial of the reality into which God created us. Holograms, and other technology, may be exciting, but to use and champion them as a replacement for a real physical presence is a denial of our humanity and the significance of our incarnate Savior. We are of dirt and life-giving breath. Let us use technology and minister accordingly. 

By |June 13th, 2022|Categories: Blog, Featured|

About the Author:

Dr. Adam York (Ph.D. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), is facilities manager and media and technology director at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, in Lexington, Kentucky