There was a time we devoted ourselves to what one writer refers to as “thick, embodied communities.” They were forged by birth, place, and commitment. Members committed to a love that was unconditional; a love that affirmed as well as, if necessary, called out; and a love that remained, even if the rest of the world walked out. These were communities—e.g., family, church—that engaged in something deeper than contracts. They were established through the kind of covenant that said we will stay together, care together, and journey together.
In our present culture, with its pandemic and polarities, and its obsession with the latest news, much of this has eroded.
To a large extent, recent media technologies and institutions have reconfigured social belonging. This is the argument of Jeffrey Bilbro in his book, Reading the Times, a book I referred to in my previous post. More and more communities are formed by present events, and, for the most part, they are partisan and superficial. I might add, occasionally condescending and abusive. As Bilbro puts it, “We affiliate with others in the thin stratum of the present rather than belong to them across a patterned, kairos whole.” The real tragedy is that, for an increasing number of people, these associations are surpassing and replacing previous attachments—true forms of belonging—that one had with family members, church congregants, and long-term friendships.
In a digitized age, full and sustaining communities have been replaced with secular, topic of the moment, market-driven communities. Together and embodied have given way to disbursed and disembodied modes of societies. Today we witness “online mobs” that swarm in response to some social issue or political news, scatter, and then come back. If people are not purchasing and consuming the same news, they tend to be opposed and marginalized. Brother no longer speaks to sister. Congregants polarize. Commonalities of traditional faith are substituted with commonalities of contemporary politics.
The same applies to the purchase and consumption of technology. Consider this article in the weekend Wall Street Journal, entitled, “Apple’s Blue Bubble Empire.” It reports that IMessage has not only become the IPhone’s must-have texting tool; it has been engineered to ostracize those who are not part of it. Unless you use an Apple product, you can’t be part of the blue text group. If you switch to, say, Android, your bubble will turn up green, identifying you as someone other, someone outside of the unit. No longer will your chats work seamlessly with other peers. You are no longer part of the community.
The result of all of this is a culture that is becoming shallow, individualistic, and isolated. Groups that share in little more than the events of the moment, who place an “outsized importance” in the news of the day, leave one lonely and detached. Where are these swarmers when you face a crisis, a deep loss, or a necessary correction?
Bilbro concludes, “What we need is to be shaped by embodied communities that are rooted outside the public sphere and its unhealthy dynamics.” In the family, we need to return to the bonds of familial loyalty. In the church, we need a return to incarnational gatherings that go further than congregating. We need to get over our hesitancy to call people to sign on. We need to challenge people to make a commitment to covenant, pledging faithfulness and a clear intention to live out the biblical one-anothers (loving, encouraging, and provoking one another; bearing one another’s burdens; admonishing and forgiving one another; and submitting to one another).
The pandemic has negatively impacted this kind of community. It’s time we prepare to return in full force. Becoming a thick, embodied community makes possible redemptive influence. Bilbro places the choice squarely in front of us: ”Instead of looking to the news to create better communities, we should be looking to strengthen communities so that they can create better news. The good news.