To read the Bible is to engage in translation. This is not simply the linguistic translation from ancient Hebrew or Greek. Translation is also cultural and historical. We read the Bible and remember that village wells have become office water coolers, holy feasts have become fast food, and some things, like the oils and spices used to prepare a body for burial, have no correspondence to our lives at all, so sequestered from death have we become.
When the writer of Hebrews urges us not to forsake “our own assembling together,” I ask myself whether listening to a sermon podcast on my headphones counts as church attendance (Heb. 10:25). I worry that I know more about some Facebook friends than I do about the friend who lives only a few streets away. My concerns are not unfounded, but technology itself has never been our enemy. The early church grew, in part, because missionaries and their handwritten gospel letters could fly across the marvel of those extraordinary Roman roads. Are hand-carried letters so very different from blog posts and status updates?
For years, I shunned the online communities of social media. While my husband opened a Facebook profile and my friends, one by one, bought smart phones and joined Instagram and Twitter, I prided myself on resisting the allure of technology and what I insisted on calling “virtual” community. But I was humbled when a career change required me to take up full citizenship in the land of social media.
I worry that I know more about some Facebook friends than I do about the friend who lives only a few streets away.
This dislocation caused by a new career and two cross-country moves in quick succession left my world drained of personal encounters. I had the constancy of my husband and my young children, but extended family and old friends were now names in my inbox rather than faces at my table. When I traded teaching for writing, I traded office hours with students and conversations with colleagues for a community of editors and writers with whom I interacted only online. But those relationships, which were personal as well as professional, became a lifeline during a lonely season. I might no longer bump into a friend between classes, but when I sat at my computer, I knew I had not been left friendless.
These days my relationships are dispersed more equally across the landscapes of the internet and the Pennsylvania county I call home. And yet, the dividing lines I once saw between “real” and “virtual” have all but disappeared. As it is for so many, my online and real-life communities are more integrated than ever before. I treasure the conferences where internet writing groups blossom into flesh-and-blood gatherings. I am grateful to keep in touch with fellow members of my local church on Facebook. And I have been pleased and surprised to be introduced to several nearby friends with the unlikely help of Instagram. “‘You are My witnesses,’ declares the Lord,” and I am a daily witness to the ways God can use technology to expand and enrich our communal lives (Isa. 43:12).
With this blessing comes responsibility. Those words in Hebrews reach farther than I knew. The admonition to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24) applies not only to my fellow Sunday morning congregants but to my Facebook friends, my Instagram followers, and even those with whom I interact in a blog post comment thread. The most important thing is not where we gather. What matters most is the name by which we gather. Whether online or off, when we gather in His name, Jesus Christ is in our midst.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory