Analog Jesus in a Digital World: A Reflection on the Incarnation

My friend and colleague, Rev. Gray Norsworthy, recently recommended to me David Sax’ book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. I’m glad he did. It’s a fascinating narrative chronicling recent market and broader societal movements that are bucking the trends of the digital age. Sax shows convincingly that technologies which most have dismissed as obsolete, including vinyl, paper, film, and board games, have in fact showed surprising staying power and growing appeal in recent years. People are increasingly willing to spend more money on these older technologies that epitomize the culture of 20 to 40 years ago. Likewise, he takes the reader into the worlds of print, retail, work, and school, demonstrating how not all the promises of digitization in these spheres have come true. In some cases, the opposite has happened, and digitization has had an adverse effect. A pioneer of computer game design, Bernie De Koven, explains, “Individually, then collectively, we realized the virtual world could never provide us with enough bandwidth to associate with each other the way we want” (Sax, 81).

Throughout the book, Sax draws on market analysis, social psychology, media theory, interviews with the pioneers of the “revenge,” and his own personal experience in order to provide a comprehensive view of the phenomenon. In an effort to make sense of this surprising narrative, he explains,

“Analog gives us the joy of creating and processing real, tangible things in realms where physical objects and experiences are fading. These pleasures range from the serendipity of getting a roll of film back from the developer, to the fun in playing a new board game with old friends, to the luxurious sound of unfolding the Sunday newspaper, and to the instant reward that comes from seeing your thoughts scratched onto a sheet of paper with the push of a pen. These are priceless experiences for those who enjoy them” (Ibid. 238).

It’s hard for me to read The Revenge of Analog without picking up on the profound theological and anthropological implications. Before his passing in 2007, Robert E Webber penned several books which described how Generation X and Millennial Christians were beginning a trek back to “high church” traditions, meaning those traditions characterized by a more sacramental or liturgical sensibility – “smells and bells,” one might say. (Webber wasn’t the only one, of course. The Emergent church movement, for example, was one of the more well-known expressions of this phenomenon). I saw this phenomenon first hand. Attending a very diverse multi-denominational and international seminary, countless peers of mine made a shift from their low-church non-denominational upbringing to the Episcopal, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and “high-church” Reformed traditions. Simply put, my peers, like so many of their generation, desire a tangible faith, something to literally hold on to and connect with. As Webber once put it, “God works through life, through people, and through physical, tangible, and material reality to communicate his healing presence in our lives” (Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail).

There is much to be said about Sax’s narrative and how it correlates with trends in the American church, but if nothing else, Sax provides a timely and crucial reminder that we as human beings have a deep longing for real, tangible connection – to see, taste, smell, and touch the world around us, to physically connect with other human beings, to look into people’s eyes, to put our arms around a loved one or even a stranger, to feel the warmth of a fire, to hear the fall leaves crunch under our feet, to splash cold water on our faces, to enjoy a bite of our favorite entre. None of this can happen – at least in the same way – in the virtual world. As soon as this virtual world or any digital technology becomes an end itself and not a means to deeper human connection, a vital part of our humanity is compromised or lost.
The Incarnation, God in flesh in the person of Jesus, is our true humanity. To grasp the mystery of our own humanity is to grasp the person of Jesus. This means we are called to an “analog” faith, a faith that sees, tastes, smells, hears, and touches. By virtue of God-in-flesh, we know that God does not hover in space over us. God is not an abstract theory. God is not merely living in the recesses of our mind or the sentiment of our hearts. God has shown up in our midst to touch lepers, feast with sinners, embrace his neighbors, and even write in the dirt. Immanuel. God is with us, dwelling among us.

The Incarnation is the “revenge” of the “analog” God against all our versions of God that render God as nothing more than “somewhere out there.” Jesus Christ demonstrates the Triune God’s desire for us to connect to God and to one another through our shared, common humanity. Many find this tangible connection through the act of moving one’s body through the space of a traditional Christian liturgy – one sits, kneels, sings, processes to the table, receives bread, tastes from the cup, bows the head, closes eyes, listens to the word of God. Some may even smell incense and make a sign of the cross. But even if this traditional liturgical avenue isn’t how you experience the tangible nature of God’s presence, God provides “analog” connection through a variety of worship expressions, Christian fellowship, ministry to people in need, and by displaying his power in creation. The world is full of his glory, and the world is full of ways for us to behold his power, observe the work of his hands, and tangibly participate in God’s mission to the world.

As we remember our “analog” God in a digital world this Christmas, I invite you to unplug from the digital world and enjoy the blessings of connection. Turn off your smartphone, unplug the tablet, and instead add a couple of moments to that warm embrace of a loved one, close your eyes and enjoy more deeply that bite of your favorite meal or drink, laugh a little more loudly than usual, listen more carefully to the words of your favorite Christmas carol or hymn, and in the word of the psalmist, “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh the Joys of those who take refuge in him!”

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