Back at the end of March, as Our Current Moment was getting underway in full, Ephraim Radner posted a piece calling into question the quick move many churches made to online services only. A few days ago, the same site that posted the original piece posted a response by four different ministers (a little late, I thought) and then a quick but honest response by Radner. He quickly admitted the difficulty of not embracing the internet, as ubiquitous as it has become. But then, rightly so, he poses some “Questions that Remain.” A good excerpt:
But now what? The fact remains that the Time of the Virus has reduced the church to a varied version of a religious Facebook. We’re trying to do good and be helpful and responsible like everyone else. And so we should: just as neighborhood associations are looking after folks on the block; and local business associations are cooking food for the needy; and friend groups are staying in touch and doing things together virtually, like singing and encouraging, so Christians are active in similar ways. As Christian churches, we are helping to organize food deliveries, financial aid, prayer chains, discussion groups, and study activities. We are looking in on our less-connected neighbors. We try to keep spirits up and instill hopeful attitudes. It’s all good. And, of course, the gospel has no qualms about taking what is good in the wider world, and using it for the glory of God. Despoiling the Egyptians, one used to call it.
But what is the great divine glory that we are lifting up in this moment of cultural appropriation? What is our special calling, if indeed we have one, that points to Jesus the Christ in his particular, cosmically incisive and transfiguring person? Whatever it is, it seems to have been muffled by the ongoing hum of the social machine. Live-streamed worship and prayer, and the shift to virtual communication at every turn makes all kinds of theoretical sense in a context of physical confinement. But what exactly are we communicating, and what should we be communicating at just this time? What is the message that even the medium cannot massage?
He gives a number of options, of course, all thoughtful and challenging. He ends with this:
Live-streaming and the rest, remember, was put into place with an immediacy that was astonishing. Within days! Everybody switched to online in an instant — with Zoom and Microsoft Teams ready to offer a helping hand (and bill). All the while, nobody had enough face masks, and the dying wards were closed to family and to clergy, and those who suggested some other means of physical presence, or urged a common appeal to authorities, or who talked about sensible and cautious gatherings of eucharistic praise, of true bodies given to bodies, were excoriated for their lack of moral integrity.
I’m shouting because, even though everybody is right, in some real sense, something is awfully wrong.
I have friends on both sides of the discussion. And it’s been interesting to sense a real parting of the ways with it, with little or nothing for those of us who might live in some kind of middle ground (a no-man’s land, for sure, it seems).
I do think we need to ask ourselves some hard questions sooner rather than later. As with the whole “flatten the curve” charge, the idea has been to buy ourselves some time to prepare for a longer haul, a longer wait. But it seems we’ve found little time for such a disposition in the maelstrom of the moment. Maybe the time is now, and the time is worth carving out.
You can read the rest of Radner’s post here.