Review: Digital Disciple

April 18th, 2011

Episcopal priest, writer, and blogger Rev. Adam Thomas has written a wonderful and evocative reflection on the Christian life in Digital Disciple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World (Abingdon, 2011). Thomas is exploring new territory here. While others have written about various opportunities and challenges to the church presented by social media, Thomas moves from function to faith itself. From the premise that God’s people are not only physical, emotional, and spiritual but now also virtual people, he asks and explores what difference this makes to the life of faith, the life of ministry and the life of the church.

Taking a hard, faithful, and prayerful look at technology’s effects on our lives, Thomas poses questions that elicit pondering and further discernment. What happens to prayer, for example, for people who have grown to expect instantaneous answers to everything? Can community hold up to the centrifugal forces of isolation in virtual worlds and games? How is the Body of Christ maintained when the community expands to include the virtual relationships experienced on-line? Where is God to be found and experienced in a world where the storing of information has shifted to the exterior?

Thomas speaks as one who knows. He writes as a Millennial, one who has never known a world without the Internet. And he writes as a priest, as one deeply connected to the church and the Christian faith. He describes himself not as an expert, but as a fellow disciple, a digital disciple, seeking to shape a life of faith and spiritual practice with, as it were, one foot in the “real” world and one foot in the virtual world. The observations he offers are neither superficial nor simple.

His is something of a cautionary tale. In a manner reminiscent of Jesus’ Temptation, Thomas offers some very frank and confessional accounts of times in his own life when things got out of balance and he became increasingly isolated from others due to his near total immersion in virtual worlds. The temptation to replace real life with virtual life is seductive and Thomas clearly sees the downside and well as the upside of what he calls “the Tech” offers.

For Thomas, the corrective for the life of faith comes from the ancient words of Scripture and from tried-and-true spiritual disciplines. He quotes Paul’s warning to not “brush off Spirit-inspired messages” as a reminder to remain grounded in the words of the prophets and the ancestors in faith. He encourages time of silent reflection, breath prayer, and tech-sabbaths. And he turns to such spiritual disciplines as examen and lectio divina for sources of true communion with God and growth in faith.

But perhaps most importantly, Thomas resists the bifurcation of the virtual world from the “real.” That would be too simple. He demonstrates how community can be both actual and virtual. He shows how communion can happen online. He insists that God can use the Internet to create better disciples of Jesus Christ. He testifies that Christ can be found in the new house-churches called blogs, forums, and feeds across virtual space. Thomas is a true “digital disciple.” And while his affirmation of the virtual world comes with a clear warning, it also comes with a loud “yes” that will challenge his readers of both his own and older generations to reflect, to repent, to be renewed and to offer a loud “Hallelujah.”

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