This was originally written for OutofUr.com in response to Scott McKnight’s critique of the video interview I did at the National Pastor’s Convention. Anne Jackson also offered her insights on the issue here
Scott et. al, thanks for all your comments and push back. Always appreciated. Clearly we’re playing with semantics here. I don’t say that dismissively. Semantics matter—some times more than other times. I’ll let others judge whether it matters here. It may be that we agree after all.
First, my language in the video was less nuanced than it might have been in written form. That is my tendency in a spontaneous oral interview. I will try to be more precise here.
When I say that “virtual community” is not “community,” that does not mean it has no value. As I indicated in the interview, I know that all kinds of deeply meaningful connections and interactions happen online all the time. I have experienced them myself. Some may want to call this “community.” Fair enough. I just don’t call it “community.” That is not intended to dismiss or demean any one’s experience online.
I play with semantics in an effort to help us see that “virtual community” and “unmediated community” are not interchangeable things. In my opinion, one is actually better than the other. The reason is that “virtual community” occurs primarily on one frequency of the human experience. It is mostly a disembodied, and largely cognitive, connection. This is not a bad thing, it’s just not as valuable as unmediated community, which involves the entire range of the human experience—physical, non-verbal, intuitive sense, subtle energies, visual cues, acoustic tones, etc. These are extremely powerful things that should not be quickly dismissed as “nice but not necessary.”
Most of us see these ingredients as essential for healthy marriage and parenting. It’s the reason no one extols the virtues of online parenting or the value of sex with your spouse in a chat room rather than a bedroom. The same is true of community. For me, community is a sacred and powerful institution, and I prefer to treat it in the same spirit as marriage or parenting.
Another way of saying this is that virtual community is like playing the guitar with one string. You can make music; it’s just not as interesting or as good as music on a guitar with six strings.
To observe that “real” community is worth more than “virtual” community may seem rather obvious to some and thus not worth stating. However, there is a growing legion of young people who can scarcely tell the difference. A subsequent rift is emerging between parents and teens because of this very issue. It will only become more complex in the years to come. We gloss over this distinction at our own risk. I hope that putting words to these things is actually freeing for us.
Finally, I’m not against virtual community anymore than I’m against the wind and the tides; I’m just concerned that too many of us grant it virtues it does not possess. This undo esteem can undermine the profound and lasting impact of an incarnated and embodied Gospel.