Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Have We Shifted From Incarnational to Excarnational Living?

Airports can be bland, liminal places where travelers move quickly through. I went to India last week via Dubai, which is becoming the world’s main traffic hub. The airport is impressive with its marble and chrome and state of the art engineering (though it will soon be replaced with an even more impressive airport. It seems like they are always looking for audacious ways to spend their money). But no matter how nice, it is all rather impersonal.

Every time I pass through, I feel like I am witnessing a slice of the whole world. People from all parts of the world pass through. But like PDX, there is little interaction. Most people are on their cell phones or iPads. Quickly, passengers are deplaning, checking flights, waiting to get onboard, and then boarding. Once on the plane, commuters can take a fourteen hour flight to Seattle and never acknowledge the existence of the passengers next to them. I know. I am one of them. Everyone appears to be absorbed by screens that promise 24/7 information and entertainment.

We have entered into what Michael Frost refers to as “an excarnate culture.” In his newest book Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, he warns that we are embracing a personal, conceptual, interior, private, and neighborless existence. There was an ancient practice where the flesh and organs were removed from deceased monarchs and military commanders so that the bones could be transported hygienically. Frost identifies another kind of defleshing at work today, where people interact with life on a hygienic screen. There is little face to face, flesh to flesh. People are plugged in, tuned out, and lost in a mystery zone between reality and imagery.

I see this in the seminary world where I teach. Increasingly, people are seeking “excarnational” degrees. Another word for this is online. This last semester, most of my students were people I had never seen, never met, and never talked to. Classroom and flesh to flesh interaction have been exchanged for video and text. The church world is also becoming more excarnational. We download podcasts of our favorite celebrity pastors or go to a nearby movie theatre where a designated room allows for “congregants” to watch church on a screen. I discovered a church nearby that announces on its website how much time remains until its next “online church experience.” Are we losing something here?

I watch a number of young people seek for jobs, with no encouragement to engage in face to face interaction. “Fill out an application online and we will call you.”  You can’t help but ask—are we losing our ability to relate? Are we creating a generation of shy, socially awkward, emotionally removed and risk-averse young people, who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school, and employment? This is the question Frost asks. I ask, “Are we graduating future students who will not be able to read faces, discern tone of voices, read the nuances and subtleties that come with personal encounter?”

In 2012, an article in The Atlantic asked, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” There is this huge irony that we have never been more connected—yet never more detached. We may have a ton of Facebook friends, but have no one to hang out with on Friday night. Another article warns of online dating, that is creating a culture unable to commit. One never knows when there will be an even more attractive hit.

The greater question is this—are we distorting the very essence of our faith? The pivotal truth of Christianity is that God took on flesh. Our very faith is rooted in these words, “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:14). God could have saved by a simple, impersonal, and sovereign act. He could have sent a text rather than the Holy Spirit. Instead He left the security of heaven and took a tedious, winding, tortuous route, submitting to bodily nature, and going deep into our neighborhood. He drank from the water at the well and looked into the heart of woman; He touched the eyes of the blind man; He sensed the power going out as the woman with the issue of blood touched His robe. He spoke into the future of men like Peter. Twitter would never do.

It is time to recover incarnational living. Say to technology—“You will serve me, but I will not serve you.” Call instead of text. Visit instead of call. Perhaps such radical behavior might become one of our greatest witnesses—declare to the world that God took on flesh. It’s time we do the same.


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