Practicing attention in the digital age

November 1st, 2022

How do we negotiate the constant barrage of information and messages that infiltrate our lives? Many of us likely have developed some self-imposed guidelines for keeping at least some of the distractions at bay. Whether we pledge to look up from our devices and into the eyes of our children and our spouse when they talk to us, or to attend a weekly yoga class, or to commit to keeping our phones out of sight while driving, we are aware of our growing distractedness and growing need to resist all the opportunities for distraction.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that real attention requires much more than simply resisting the lure of our digital devices. “Day by day we cope by selective inattention and forgetting,” observes writer and spiritual director Marshall Jenkins.[1] Jenkins takes our lack of attention and moves it beyond simply a condition brought on by the technological revolution. He exposes inattention as a deep-seated practice that keeps us from having to deal with aspects of life that we might wish were not there (a broken relationship, a nagging health condition, an unfinished task), or dimensions of ourselves that we wish we could change. While attentiveness is a learned practice, it is also important to acknowledge that inattentiveness is, too.[2]

How, then, are we to work against the temptation to foster inattentiveness and toward practices of attention on what matters? According to The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains author Nicholas Carr, in order to address the lack of attentiveness in society today, we also have to address technology’s contribution to the problem. Carr writes,

A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper. The reason . . . is that when people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax.[3]

Carr is by no means the only one advocating for more time spent outside, in nature, to counteract changes brought on by recent technological developments. Studies report that US children spend 50 percent less time outdoors today than they did twenty years ago,[4] resulting in a condition journalist Richard Louv has termed nature-deficit disorder.[5] Louv’s most recent book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, addresses the challenge of technology even more directly when he asks, “What could our lives . . . be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?”[6] Louv’s work is full of wise ways to get children and adults back out into the natural world, re-connecting with the rhythms of nature and cultivating the capacity for sustained attention for our surroundings and for one another.

Encouraging time outside in nature, free from the distractions of digital technology is an important and worthwhile proposal. Vacations with my own family have revolved around trips to US national parks; at the time of this writing, we have spent time in over twenty of them. After each trip we return home recharged with senses heightened to the beauty that surrounds us. In addition, both my daughters have been long-time attendees at a summer camp that prohibits electronic devices except on off-weekends. In this environment, all the campers have been able to practice living full days with one another in the woods without digital connections. My daughters attest that this does what Carr proposes time away from electronics will do: allows our brains to relax and offer significant opportunity to practice interacting without the aid of digital technology. Our girls have both expressed deep appreciation for being able to be in an environment where phones and Internet are not allowed. It has helped reassure them that being away from digital technology can and does nourish the soul. And they have been given weeks-long opportunities to practice being attentive to their peers, their counselors, and their natural surroundings, and they have come to see that as a gift.

Yet one of my daughters has also pointed out that choosing to be away from technology is a much different situation outside of the camp experience. At camp, no one communicates digitally. Outside of camp, everyone she knows communicates digitally. So while we can and should encourage time away from technology in order to cultivate attentiveness to others and their pain, we also must face the reality that not everyone is able to get away, and that an individual commitment to unplug from technology in a culture where all our networks rely on digital communication can feel like an unrealistic goal.

Once again, however, it is vital that we resist seeing recent technological innovations as simply existing in opposition to how we experience life in the material world. While taking our digital devices with us on a hike or to the park can encourage distraction from all the natural wonders we might attend to, it is increasingly possible for our devices to augment our experience of the natural world in ways that have the potential to cultivate attentiveness. Ben Klasky, head of IslandWood, a nonprofit organization that provides programs that immerse low-income children in outdoor settings, argues for just this both/and approach. “Designating the outdoors as a ‘technology-free zone’ detracts from our move- ment to get kids outside,” he writes.[7] Apps for identifying trees, birds, and other wildlife or apps for a naturalist’s notebook that encourage careful recordings of one’s natural surroundings are just a few of the emerging tools that can be utilized to appreciate the natural world.[8] In addition, apps to guide us through yoga, meditation, centering prayer, and daily devotional readings from scripture are making their way into more people’s lives every day. These centuries-old practices for cultivating attention are now accessible (for free or for a small cost) through digital media, offering even more evidence that our latest technological tools can and already are assisting people focus the mind and nourish the spirit. Therefore, even as many of us envision sustained attention being cultivated by those who remove themselves from mainstream daily life, writer Kathleen Norris, who has spent significant time around monastic communities, suggests that most contemplatives are not those who “contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a world filled with noise, the demands of other people and making a living.”[9] Norris’s vision for contemplation amid a world of persistent distractions helps illumine a vital point for cultivating attention in the digital age: that those distractions also are potential avenues to encountering not just divine presence but the presence of those who are hurting and in need of comfort.

Incarnational Attentiveness: Healing Presence in and through the Distractions

Available from Cokesbury

If Christian communities are to be the hands and feet of Christ in the actual and virtual world today, cultivating ways of attending closely to the stories and the needs of those who suffer is a major task before us. If the church’s self-understanding is as the body of Christ, then it makes sense to study how Jesus paid attention to those who suffered.

While the Gospels overflow with examples of Jesus paying close attention to those in pain—and of that attentiveness having life-giving consequences—we are going to take a look at the final healing story in the Gospel of Mark, one of the stories where Jesus chooses interruption over accomplishing more quickly the task before him, and how this gift of attentiveness results in healing and a new future for the man who asks it of him. Paying close attention to one such story will give more specific shape to the kind of attentiveness Christian communities are called to embody in our participation in the virtual body of Christ.

In chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, mak- ing his way through the noisy, chaotic streets of Jericho. A man who is blind calls out to him saying, “Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy!” (Mark 10:47) Those surrounding Jesus try and fend off the distraction, but Jesus “[stands] still” (Mark 10:49 NRSV) and pays attention to the man’s cries. The ensuing encounter be- tween Jesus and Bartimaeus, especially Jesus’s attentiveness to the needs of this man at the margins of the story, leads to a rebuke of the disciples’ and the crowds’ attempted protection of Jesus from unnecessary distractions as well as healing for Bartimaeus.

This final healing story in the Gospel of Mark offers a number of powerful insights as we consider the healing potential of attentiveness toward those who suffer. The story is set in Jericho just as Jesus embarks on the last leg of his journey toward Jerusalem. He has already (three times, in fact) told his disciples that he is on the way to Jerusalem where “the Son of David” will be tortured and killed. Biblical scholars stress the clarity and importance of Jesus’s understanding of his mission at this point in the Mark’s Gospel. And yet, even as the crowd rebukes Bartimaeus—Why are you bothering him? Jesus has a mission to accomplish!—Jesus allows himself to be interrupted by someone not just outside his circle of friends and followers, but someone whose disability sets him apart from the crowd and excludes him from the temple (cf. Lev 21:16-24).[10] Jesus, focused intently on the most significant mission of his life, finds time to be interrupted by a cry from one who is hurting, from one who yearns to be healed.

It is worth reflecting on how to interpret Jesus’s response to interruption as we look for ways to pay better attention to what matters most in our lives. C. S. Lewis speaks about how imitation of the incarnate God involves following him into the different places he ventured, including into the interruptions. In the digital age, with our smart phones carrying the potential to interrupt us incessantly, how do we discern which interruptions are ones that [should] matter and which ones are merely distractions?

In Jesus’s case, it is important to note that he does not follow the advice of the crowd on whether or not Bartimaeus is worthy of attention. The crowd quickly determines that the blind man’s need is not important enough to garner the attention of Jesus. Many in the crowd also take it upon themselves to try and silence his cries. But Jesus refuses to abide by the prevailing sentiment about what and who is attention-worthy and instead responds to Bartimaeus, and his response changes the man’s life. So what is it about the interruption from Bartimaeus that causes Jesus to stand still and pay attention?

Biblical scholars point out that the vast majority of the healing stories in the Gospels depict those who are ill, or those who are friends of the ones who are ill, getting Jesus’s attention.[11] In other words, Bartimaeus initiates the interaction with Jesus by crying out in pain. Only then does Jesus hear him and respond. This could lead to the conclusion that this narrative pattern of the Gospels indicates that it is up to those in pain to let their suffering be known to others. But biblical scholar Frederick Gaiser offers a different reading of that pattern. According to Gaiser, Bartimaeus’s cry is—as the cries of so many who suffer are—at base an expression of his pain, his sorrow, his anguish. To further this point, Gaiser suggests that the cries of people like Bartimaeus throughout the biblical text correspond to the structure of lament psalms—“How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart?” (Ps 13:2)—as well as to the structure of human experience. It simply is the case that people in pain “need to cry out for help.”[12] But in order for those in pain to receive the help they need, someone first must hear their cry and respond. Jesus, the Gospels tell us, makes a habit of heeding those cries, even when they interrupt what many see as more pressing commitments.

In this story Jesus understands that interruptions are very often worthy of our attention, especially when they come from those who are hurting. Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen tells a story about a teacher who experienced years of frustration over feeling constantly interrupted by her young students, which left her feeling upset that she got so little done during her time in the classroom. Only after many years of teaching, the teacher admitted, did she discover that her interruptions “were her work.”[13] Thinking about Jesus’s relationship to the interruption of Bartimaeus in light of this story from Nouwen can help us recognize that paying attention to what matters most may initially come in the form of a distraction but that, with practice, we can learn to hear the laments that rise up from Facebook, Twitter, CaringBridge, or from face-to-face conversations, all crucial first steps in being able to care for those in need.

While it is important to notice both that Bartimaeus’s cry initiates his en- counter with Jesus and that Jesus pays close attention to the interruption that the crowd views as distracting him from his real work, it is also worth noting that some of the bystanders are converted to playing critical roles in bringing Bartimaeus to the place where healing becomes possible for him. After Jesus stops to listen to Bartimaeus’s cry, he instructs others to call the man closer. Jesus’s instructions affect the mood of the crowd, for some people in the crowd tell Bartimaeus, “Be encouraged! Get up! He’s calling you” (Mark 10:49). Even though Bartimaeus’s cry sets the rest of the scene in motion, Jesus’s attention to his la- ment makes his suffering something of which the whole community becomes aware and prompts members of the crowd to step up and help. It is possible to imagine some in the crowd offering a hand to assist Bartimaeus in standing up, while others step back and quiet down to make room for him to move closer to the one who hears his cry. Jesus’s public act of compassion ignites a change in the sentiment of the crowd, and they come to regard Bartimaeus as a person worthy of assistance and attention, not just from Jesus but from them all.

While the previous paragraphs have focused more on the actions than the specific words of the characters in the scene, the words spoken are significant as well. When Bartimaeus calls out, hoping to get Jesus’s attention, his first address to Jesus is, “Son of David, show me mercy!” (Mark 10:46). To interpret his call more fully, biblical scholars point out that the Gospel of Mark operates on a symbolic as well as a literal level. In this call to Jesus, then, Bartimaeus’s words suggest that the one who is blind sees Jesus for who he really is in a story where those closest to him fail to understand his identity.[14] Bartimaeus knows Jesus is a healer and calls him to attend to his needs. And as mentioned above, Jesus’s recognition of Bartimaeus’s suffering allows others to see his suffering as well.

It is also interesting to note that while in many healing stories in the Gospels, healing comes through touch—either Jesus’s touching the one who is ill, dying, or dead, or those who are ill (like the hemorrhaging woman in Mark chapter 5) touching Jesus; in this story, Bartimaeus is healed without either word or touch.[15] As Gaiser explains, touch “is about not only physical contact but also, and perhaps more profoundly, personal interaction, emotional sharing, and mutual understanding.... That deeper sense of ‘touch’ involving words, communication, sharing, and insight” is an important element in Mark’s other healing stories as well.[16] This is not to discount the ways healing comes through physical touch. At the same time, this discussion of bodily healing that comes through nonphysical means and with—or even without—words resonates with claims that we unnecessarily narrow and limit the scope of healing when we limit it to being dependent solely on physical presence or physical touch. Healing presence can—and often does—manifest itself in more-than-material form.

While Bartimaeus’s sight is restored without words from Jesus declaring it to be so, we should not neglect the words Jesus does use when he meets Bartimaeus face to face. Rather than springing immediately to action, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51), opening up space for Bartimaeus to say what it is he really needs. Even though Jesus is an experienced healer, he does not approach Bartimaeus from the standpoint of already knowing what he needs. Instead, Jesus hears his cry and stops. He pauses what he’s doing and then asks Bartimaeus to put in his own words what he needs most. The fact that his disability led to his alienation from the community was likely traumatic for Bartimaeus, and as trauma theorist Cathy Caruth helps us understand, those who experience trauma are in desperate need of others who understand the nature of their suffering “without eliminating the force and truth of the reality.”[17] Therefore, sustained attention to the needs (spoken and unspoken) of those who live with trauma is a necessary precondition to healing.

In response to Jesus’s question, Bartimaeus responds, “Teacher, I want to see” (Mark 10:51). Amid the din of the crowd, Jesus halts his entourage and gives Bartimaeus his undivided attention. Once Jesus hears that it is sight that Bartimaeus desires (v. 51), Jesus responds with, “Go, your faith has healed you” (v. 52). The story concludes with Bartimaeus regaining his sight and following Jesus on the way.

Jesus’s claim, “your faith has healed you” (a formula present in a number of other stories of healing in the Gospels[18]), begs for further interpretation, as it can suggest that healing comes only if we have enough faith, and of course, many of us undoubtedly know of very devout people who have needed healing that has not seemed to come. Scholars point out that by this time in Mark’s Gospel, Peter has identified Jesus as the Messiah (8:29), and Jesus has foretold his death and resurrection three times in two chapters. In other words, Mark wants hearers to understand that the reality of God’s reign has begun.[19] God’s reign is another way of talking about “salvation,” and in the Gospel stories, health and salvation are very closely connected. In this new age of God’s reign, Mark wants us to see that God is doing a new thing, ushering in wholeness and health and salvation.

But here is where the very last part of the passage becomes relevant as well: Bartimaeus, with his vision restored, gets up and follows Jesus. And where is Jesus headed? To Jerusalem, and soon thereafter, to the cross. In Mark, the first time Jesus foretells his death and resurrection (8:31), he follows it up with the proclamation that those who want to be his followers “must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow [him]” (8:34). When we read the story of the blind Bartimaeus in this context, we come to understand that healing is not isolated from the cross.[20] Set in the wider context of the Bible, the healing of blind Bartimaeus demonstrates that healing in scripture is understood more broadly than physical healing alone; Bartimaeus regains his sight and becomes part of the crowd following Jesus, which suggests his restoration as a member of the community. Even as he is restored as part of the wider community, the symbolism of his joining the walk toward Jerusalem and toward Jesus’s crucifixion suggests that participation in the community that follows Jesus opens up those who have been healed to the suffering of others, namely, at this point, to the suffering of Jesus. Healing as depicted in this story and many other places in scripture, then, takes on a cruciform shape.[21]

This story of healing in Mark chapter 10 has much to offer as we consider what attentiveness looks like in an age of perpetual distraction. From the cry of Bartimaeus to Jesus’s willingness to pause and be interrupted to the crowd’s reappraisal of Bartimaeus after taking their cues from Jesus, the healing of Bartimaeus’s blindness and his restoration of community makes it possible for him to journey with Jesus and the others toward Jerusalem. Even as we take counsel from its many layers of meaning, questions remain about how stories of Jesus’s healing of those who are ill relate to all who are ill today. In his work on healing and the Bible, Gaiser distinguishes between diseases that may be cured (or not) through medical means and illnesses that may be healed in emotional and spiritual ways.[22] This distinction, Gaiser is clear, should not lead to any nostalgic view of healing that downplays the value of modern medicine and the importance of increases in medical cures for illness. Instead, he proposes that Christ’s healing presence with those who suffer should be interpreted within a holistic view of health that involves not just physical but emotional and spiritual dimensions as well. Gaiser proposes that, for Christians, the understanding of being well that comes from stories like the healing of Bartimaeus are “quite profoundly at odds with the world’s penchant for an idolatrous understanding of health and of self.” The cruciform logic at the heart of the gospel lies at the heart of these healing stories as well: it is in giving that we receive, in losing our life that we find it. “For this is not one message of Jesus among many, a hint for troubled times, a counsel of good advice,” Gaiser writes, “this is the gospel itself: to lose your life is to find it.... It is promise, not command.... No bargain here, simply truth: in the giving is the finding. Not in order to, but just because it is.”[23]

The story of Bartimaeus’s healing also demonstrates another vital truth that must shape how we understand the Christian life as always also being a communal life:

We are well, not just I. Not just the observations that one’s own religious faith and positive attitude are the greatest of all placebos: “Make use of this, and you will feel better.” But what of the other? What of the world? What of creation itself? Are they better? If those are my concerns, then the character of God and the content of faith will make all the difference.[24]

Patterns found within biblical stories of healing help make clear the corporate nature of both illness and health. Those of us who make up the body of Christ are called to embody Jesus’s healing presence, as Gaiser proclaims, not just for others’ well-being but also for our own. In a world where many find themselves succumbing to distractions that take them away from caring for the well-being of the whole, the church is poised to play a significant role in cultivating patterns of attentiveness to those who suffer, whether they be among our intimate relations or our weakest ties.

The Church as Countercultural Community: Cultivating Attentiveness to Those Who Need It Most 

In turning specifically to the church’s role in cultivating attentiveness to the needs of those among us who are in pain, I want to turn to Jason Byassee’s proposal about possible Christian approaches to our current multifaceted technological revolution. Byassee suggests Christians neither baptize the digital revolution nor reject it. Instead, he counsels that just as with other aspects of culture, Christians need to carefully discern where and how digital communication and virtual spaces might enhance our ability to be the body of Christ in the world. It is well known that North American churches are experiencing precipitous declines in the number of people who participate regularly in communal religious practices or affiliate with institutions called “church.”[25] This continuing decline makes the defense of certain aspects of weekly worship by popular atheist writer Alain de Botton all the more intriguing. In his recent book Religion for Atheists, de Botton makes the [secular] case for why—even if one is disinclined to believe in God—practices like weekly worship still have value in cultures like the United States and Northern Europe, where lack of religious affiliation continues to rise. Even though he sees no need to gather in worship of God, de Botton nevertheless worries about excessive preoccupation with the individualized self in twenty-first-century societies and points to religious practices like confession—where we admit out loud our self-absorption—and weekly gathering for worship—where everyone is strongly encouraged to be introspective while also becoming more aware of others in one’s own community—to be worthwhile countercultural endeavors.[26] In other words, de Botton proposes that regardless of one’s theology (or lack thereof), taking stock of our inattentiveness to the world around us is a good human practice. Even more recently, de Botton has announced plans for building churches for atheists in the UK, aiming to offer opportunities for those outside religious organizations to participate in some of these countercultural rituals religions have long been practicing.[27] 

For those of us who believe in God, de Botton’s assessment of the value of weekly worship rituals is at best half right. For Christians, the central act of worship is praise and thanks to God, who creates, redeems, and sustains us. At the same time, de Botton’s analysis of the value of religious rituals offers us some potentially important insight into the distinctiveness of religion in offering prac- tices that cultivate attentiveness beyond one’s self, especially in cultures where attentiveness to the self takes center stage.[28] This is an insight that can help support a robust case for churches playing a distinctive and vital role in guiding people toward being the body of Christ in a distracted world. 

Before we get caught up in enthusiasm over the church’s distinctive role in guiding people to cultivating attention, however, we must not ignore the proliferation of organizations and centers offering practices that center, calm, and focus the mind, body, and spirit. Such practices are increasingly popular not just for those who consider themselves nonreligious but also for people who understand themselves to be spiritual or even actively religious. In her award-winning book Encountering God, written in the 1990s, religion scholar Diana Eck writes about the growing interest (magnified significantly today) in practices that cultivate attentiveness, especially ones that originate in the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Eck notes that informal “Dharma talks” about how to walk in the path of the Buddha offered at meditation centers near her home “are packed,” while on any given Tuesday evening, “there is no church among the dozen in Harvard Square [near where Eck resides] that is packed with seekers who want to deepen their life of prayer; no church even opens its door for such an offering. Those who are serious about spiritual practice go to the Buddhists.”[28] Eck suggests that most people frequenting the meditation centers in Boston in the early 1990s were not seeking the religion of Buddhism as much as a disciplined practice to calm and focus the mind. In contemporary North American communities, weekday practices of yoga are even more popular than the meditation practices. While Eck points out that the Christian tradition is home to many different kinds of con- templative practices—from the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius to the practice of lectio divina (reciting passages from scripture in a meditative way)—the reality [still] is that “on a Tuesday night... there are no introductory courses for these matters for all those [who] don’t know where to begin but who are yearning for stillness of mind and heart before God.”[30] What Eck observed over two decades ago is even more visible today: yoga studios and meditation centers offering hands-on guidance every day of the week on how to cultivate these spiritual practices that help increasing numbers of people—Christians among them—increase their ability to be attentive. Eck expresses concern over churches’ lack of offerings to help contemporary people cultivate such spiritual disciplines. Indeed, one need only to review the growing list of books about the burnout of pastors to surmise that not enough Christian communities are cultivating spiritual practices that attend to self and others, and it affects our collective health and well being.[31] 

I suggest two ways of responding to Eck’s critique of North American churches: first, churches should be unapologetically clear about how weekly practices of communal worship nurture precisely the countercultural practice of sustained attention toward the weakest among us that is called for in the gospel and desperately needed in the world; and second, churches need to become more creative about presenting themselves as part of the virtual body of Christ that encourages and cultivates attentiveness through actual events throughout the week (including Tuesdays) as well as through their virtual online presence. 

First, why is weekly communal worship a vital practice for Christians? While a comprehensive defense of worship is a project for another day, I want to highlight several ways in which weekly worship helps cultivate just the kind of attention that is desperately needed in our distracted culture: communal participation in the liturgy, the cruciform shape of word and sacrament, and the potential for boundary-crossing relationships forged through participation in the body of Christ. 

Even though Christian worship is not unique among religious practices in its emphasis on attentiveness, it is nevertheless distinctive in its cultivation of attention not just for its own sake, not just for the practitioner’s individual well being but, as Frederick Gaiser points out in the quote above, also for the well being of the entire community, especially those in need of extra care, attention, love, and support. The term liturgy is often translated as “the work of the people” and, as Michael Frost suggests, translates as the collective practices and rituals undertaken by the people of God that unite the community to God and one another.[32] Weekly rituals of confession of sin help us attend to our individual and collective brokenness. At the same time, the practice of weekly liturgy ushers the community through the offering of forgiveness, both in the pastor’s offering of absolution for our confession as well as the movement from judgment to forgiveness in the communion meal. Through the liturgy, the congregation receives not only the promise of new life but also a new community in which to begin living out those promises.[33] 

Even more, gathering together for worship offers guidance in and regular opportunities for deepening spiritual practices of prayer, meditation on scripture, and increased awareness of the needs of others. There is a rhythm to the liturgical year, beginning in the hopeful stillness of Advent, moving into the penitential period of Lent and then to the celebration of the season of Easter, and finally an entrance into Ordinary Time until we begin again with Advent. Pastor and writer Wayne Muller observes that we often think of practice—even spiritual practice— as something we should strive to perfect. But participation in the liturgical year serves a different purpose. According to Muller, 

Liturgical ritual is meant to be repeated. We are not supposed to do it right the first time and then be done with it.... This is not about progress, it is about circles, cycles, and the way times moves, and the things we must remember, because with ever-faster turnings of the wheel it can become easier to forget.[34] 

Being shaped by these liturgical practices is a life-long process. And cultivating a spiritual attentiveness takes time. Simone Weil, a French intellectual moved by the gospel to radical action during World War II, insisted on praying the Lord’s Prayer with what she called “complete attention.” This prayer that Jesus taught calls forth the reign of God in the world, petitions the Lord for enough bread for all as well as for deliverance from temptation and evil. It provides a radical vision for life abundant, of life as God intends. Indeed, Weil proposes that “it is impossible to say [the prayer] once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal but real, taking place in the soul.”[35] Weil’s insight shines light on the ways in which prayers, creeds, and confessions often are recited with very little attention. Cultivating full attention toward each word of this prayer that envisions a new way of being in the world is a radical act, one that takes the encouragement and accountability of the whole community. 

At the center of the liturgy is word and sacrament. Christians are encouraged to immerse themselves in scripture as a personal practice, but hearing biblical passages read aloud and interpreted within the community through the practice of preaching is a vital way in which Christians are shaped by those scriptural stories, such as the one discussed above from Mark chapter 10. A community shaped by the patterns of the gospel stories like the one of Bartimaeus’s healing attempts to form a community “re-socialized into a way of life that posits the gospel as an alternative narrative to late modernity.”[36] But such resocialization is not simply a tidy process of progress in coming to fully embody this new community. Reformer Martin Luther’s view of scripture as law and gospel can be helpful in clarifying why: while Christians often mistakenly characterize the Old Testament as law and the New Testament as gospel, Luther argued for Christians to understand their relationship to scripture as a dynamic one in which the same passage will address us one day as law and another day as gospel.[37] Law, according to Luther, is that which judges and convicts, while gospel is the good news that saves. When we hear the story of the healing of Bartimaeus from a position of being sick or cast out, for instance, this story will likely address us as gospel. On the other hand, there may be times when we hear the story from Mark chapter 10 and find ourselves among the crowd who tries to silence Bartimaeus’s cries for help and healing. In that case, scripture will address us as law, as judgment on our inattention to the cries of one who suffers and who is in need of attention, support, and healing. 

The sacrament of communion is the place in the liturgy where the cruciform shape of Christian life is seen most clearly and vividly. The eucharistic ritual re-enacts the movement in Jesus’s life from death to resurrection and links it not just to our individual and collective participation in those aspects of life that bring death but also to the vision of life in the reign of God inaugurated in Jesus. In my own Lutheran tradition, the confession of Christ’s real presence in the bread and wine enacts the movement from judgment of our sinfulness to justification despite our sinfulness. The presence of Christ in the wine and bread unites us with Christ’s suffering and death. At the same time, this memory of Jesus is “dangerous and subversive,” as theologian Johannes Baptist Metz has argued.[38] Our union with Jesus’s subversive story through communion is not just gospel for us; it is also law. Union with Christ is also judgment for the ways we participate in the suffering of others each and every day. The Eucharist—indeed the full scope of the liturgy—makes it possible for the community of sinners to be remade by a grace that permits us to forever start anew. Participation in the eucharistic meal offers the gift of starting again with the practice of being attentive to the needs within our community and to those beyond its bounds. 

The practice of worship, where Christians are shaped by the liturgical rhythms as well as by the cruciform dimensions of word and sacrament, is a thoroughly communal endeavor.From the time of ancient Christianity, the Apostle Paul’s invocation of the image of the followers of Jesus as the body of Christ has provided Christian communities with the framework for what it means to live incarnationally as followers of Jesus. Being part of the body of Christ means that we are called to attend to the weakest members of the body, but that call is always understood as a corporate call. Each member has a distinctive role to play in the body, and the practice of communal worship helps engender ways of thinking, feeling, and living that focus not primarily on our own needs but on those who need our attention the most. 

Invoking the image of the body of Christ also helps us acknowledge not just the local church community but also the community that extends far beyond its boundaries. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous line that Sunday mornings are the most segregated time of the week in the United States still rings uncomfortably true; even though there has been movement toward more diverse communities of faith in recent decades, local churches too often tend to be comprised of people with similar racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This is another dimension of being the body of Christ where the church is called to a counter-cultural identity that does not simply mirror the boundaries often observed in the broader society. How do we go about challenging those boundaries that often constrict local churches from more fully embodying Christ’s diverse body? Theologian Serene Jones proposes envisioning the church as a place of “bounded openness,” where the physical and theological boundaries of particular ecclesial communities are continually 

undone by the word of God that breaks in upon it. This community, therefore, does not possess itself but always receives itself from God. This community does not own the terms by which it is collected, named, and defined; these too it receives. This community’s core identity cannot therefore be defined by kinship ties, geographic region, and ethnicity.... Thus, at the most fundamental level, this church knows itself to be constituted by its intrinsic openness to God.”[39] 

Just as it was for the Apostle Paul, so it is for Christian communities of the twenty-first century: the local church continues to be a vital incarnation of what it means to be the body of Christ. And yet, the body of Christ is also called to be attentive to God’s wider sense of boundedness and offer up its physical and spiritual spaces for more collective exploration of what it means to live incarna- tionally in the world today. 

Discussing ways in which Christians are called to move beyond their own particular communities of faith leads back to the creedal confession of the church catholic discussed in chapter 2. From the time of Paul, talk of the church as the body of Christ has pushed far beyond the boundaries of the local to a claim of universality. To think more concretely about what the church catholic might look like today, theologian Cheryl Peterson suggests we think of the attribute catholic in a qualitative as well as quantitative way. Peterson proposes that we think of the church catholic as a community that allows itself to be “blown by the Spirit beyond the limits of particularity in order to embrace the world in all its rich diversity.”[40] Our understanding of the body, then, is not simply defined by local parameters, but also by global ones, an understanding that calls us to be attentive to the suffering of those who are half a globe away. Similarly, theologian Daniel Migliore challenges Christian communities to see the call to be Christ’s body as seeking a heterogeneous and inclusive community, which requires cultivation of our attention toward “strangers, people commonly considered undesirables, and even those labeled enemies.”[41] This catholic sensibility can be embodied within particular local communities, whether through partnerships between congregations with divergent demographics or through work with advocacy organizations that bring faith communities together to work on issues of common concern, such as immigration rights or better resources for those struggling with mental illness. This kind of cooperation among the church catholic helps embody the call to attend to those who need it most. 

Finally, it is vital that this vision of worship as cultivating the capacity for attentiveness that reaches beyond just local incarnations of the body of Christ also moves us to consider the potential of the virtual body of Christ accessible through digital communication to enhance all of the above. Even with evidence of decreased attendance at weekly worship—and therefore often decreased opportunities for the body of Christ to be formed to cultivate deep attention toward one another and the world—there is simultaneously rapid growth of churches reaching beyond their own physical boundaries through virtual spaces, particularly through live-streaming their worship services. While it is the case that most church staffs are insistent that online worship can augment—but not replace—in-person communal worship as people’s means of spiritual growth or religious experience,[42] increasing numbers of church leaders are realizing the potential of online worship for helping churches embody “bounded openness” in ways that were not possible before digital technology. With online worship, communities of faith reach not just their own members but also those well beyond conventional boundaries of church. 

Even as virtual worship opportunities continue to proliferate, the practice of live streaming worship definitely has its detractors. Evergreen Community Church Pastor Bob Hyatt says, “Online church is close enough to the real thing to be dangerous.”[43] One of Hyatt’s major worries is that people will stay home and watch a worship service on their computer and mistakenly conclude that the hour in front of a screen is what it means to participate fully in the body of Christ.[44] This is a potential consequence of having the option of online worship—that people will view in-person worship as just another distraction on an otherwise relaxing Sunday morning, thus threatening the vital communal nature not just of worship but also of the understanding that being a Christian is participation in and deep attention to the needs of the body of Christ. 

But to focus narrowly on the potential liabilities ignores many other possible benefits of online worship. Stating unequivocally that online worship is an inadequate form of worship can add insult to injury for those who worship virtually because they are unable to get to church, even though they might really want to be there physically. For those who are seriously ill, or unable to get around easily due to age or disability, or weighed down too heavily by grief or depression to get to church, having the ability to participate virtually with their own church community can provide a vital link to that community in the midst of so much other loss. Reports about online worship reference young adults who stay connected to their home congregations while they are away at college, as well as church members who travel often for work being able to remain connected even when they have to be out of town.[45] And some churches that live-stream their services address the issue of potential disconnection from the wider community gathered for worship through making it possible to submit prayer requests online during worship and exchange sermon notes with others connected online. As one young man from Norway who worships virtually with a congregation from Oklahoma attests, “Technology allows us to have fellowship across borders and cultures.”[46] Once again, digital connectivity has the potential to help us better be the body of Christ, both in its local and catholic incarnations. 

This discussion of live-streaming worship begs the question of whether or not fully online church is a worthwhile endeavor. While I am committed to virtual practices of church augmenting rather than replacing in-person practices, compelling cases for fully virtual incarnations of church are emerging. Take the example of Extravagance, an online church community of the United Church of Christ that began and continues with a fully online format.[47] Pastor Jo Hudson testifies to the strong-tie environment that has been created with Extravagance. She “sees surprising honesty on social media. In the midst of the give-and-take of needing, caring, lamenting and hearing one another, bonds begin to form. People recognize names and hear each other’s stories.”[48] As mentioned earlier, fully online church goes too far for many church leaders, but if we are willing to think beyond an either/or to a both/and framework, there are certainly times and spaces where fully online churches may in fact be a vital option. 

While the technological revolution is bringing with it real potential advantages to caring for those who really need help, the revolution also heightens the possibility for increased inattention to those same needs. Incarnational living calls for the cultivation of attentiveness that is attuned to the distractions that matter. In a world with increasing opportunities for interruptions, churches are primed to play a vital role in forming cruciform sensibilities of how to live with technology in ways that deepen our participation in the body of Christ. And as the church plays this role, it helps form communities that offer glimpses of that new community where all are welcome, nourished, and cared for, especially those whose lives bear the marks of deep suffering.


Excerpted from The Virtual Body of Christ: In a Suffering World by Deanna A. Thompson. Copyright © 2016 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] J. Marshall Jenkins, A Wakeful Faith: Spiritual Practice in the Real World (Nashville: Upper Room Publications, 2000), 1.

[2] Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 67.

[3] Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2011), 219.

[4] Heather White, esq., “Connecting Today’s Kids with Nature: A Policy Ac- tion Plan,” Be Out There: National Wildlife Federation, May 2008, 1,

[5] This term was coined by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (New York: Algonquin Books, 2008).

[6] Richard Louv, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (New York: Algonquin Books, 2012).

[7] Ben Klasky, “Connecting with Nature: There’s an App for That,” Huffpost Green, December 4, 2014, /connecting-with-nature-th_b_6266890.html.

[8] Emily Schiola, “Top 5 Best Free Nature Apps for iPhone and Android,” Heavy, September 1, 2015,, accessed January 26, 2016, http://heavy .com/tech/2015/09/top-5-best-free-nature-wildlife-outdoor-apps-for-iphone -android/.

[9] Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries (New York: Paulist, 1998), 70.

[10] Frederick J. Gaiser, Healing in the Bible: Theological Insight for Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 170.

[11] Ibid., 157.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image Books, 1986), 36.

[14] William Placher, Mark, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 154.

[15] Lamar Williamson, Mark, Interpretation Commentary Series, ed. James Luther Mays (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 198.

[16] Gaiser, Healing in the Bible, 168.

[17] Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), vii.

[18] Cf. Luke 17:19, see Gaiser, Healing in the Bible, 177.

[19] Joanna Dewey, “Mark,” Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature, ed. Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 31.

[20] Gaiser, Healing in the Bible, 223.

[21] Ibid., 249.

[22] Ibid., 178.

[23] Ibid., 237–38.

[24] Ibid., 238.

[25] Many studies exist about attendance at religious worship services, and much of it is contradictory. This article by Kelly Shattuck interrogates recent survey data to conclude that attendance is dropping, and fairly significantly. See “7 Startling Facts: An Up-Close Look at Church Attendance in America,”, accessed January 27, 2016, /pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church -attendance-in-america.html.

[26] Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (New York: Vintage, 2013), 83.

[27] Sameer Rahim, “Alain de Botton Puts Faith in Temples for Atheists,” The Telegraph, January 30, 2012, accessed January 27, 2016, -temples-for-atheists.html.

[28] It is worth mentioning that some fellow atheists have taken issue with de Botton’s proposal that religions are distinctive in their encouragement to be other-focused. See James Croft’s review of the book at “A Review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists,” The Humanist, May/June 2012, via Patheos, accessed May 23, 2016, -review-of-alain-de-bottons-religion-for-atheists/.

[39] Diana Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 153.

[30] Ibid., 154.

[31] See Fred Lehr, Clergy Burnout: Recovering from the 70 Hour Work Week...And Other Self-Defeating Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005); Jimmy Dodd, Survive or Thrive: 6 Relationships Every Pastor Needs (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015); Anne Jackson, Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), to name just a few.

[32] Michael Frost, Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 208.

[33] Cheryl M. Peterson, Who Is The Church? An Ecclesiology for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 126.

[34] Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam Books, 1999), 89–90.

[35] Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 227, as quoted in Ford, The Attentive Life, 49.

[36] Frost, Incarnate, 168.

[37] See my discussion of Luther’s approach to scripture as law and gospel in Crossing the Divide, 114–15.

[38] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theologytrans. David Smith (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 185, quoted in Shannon Craigo-Snell, The Empty Church: Theater, Theology, and Bodily Hope (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 108.

[39] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 172.

[40] Peterson, Who Is The Church?, 134.

[41] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 244.

[42] “Should Our Worship Go Digital?” Ken Chitwood, Lutheran Church Extension Fund Leader to Leader Blog, March 23, 2015,

[43] Bob Hyatt as quoted in Anne Hammock, “Online Churches Draw Believers, Critics,” CNN, November 15, 2009, accessed February 3, 2016, _us.

[44] See Bob Hyatt, “Virtual Church Is STILL a Bad Idea,” Christianity Today Blog, October 27, 2009, -online-only/virtual-church-is-still-bad-idea.html.

[45] Hammock, “Online Churches Draw Believers, Critics.”

[46] Ibid.

[47] “Extravagence United Church of Christ,”

[48] Jo Hudson, quoted by Carol Howard Merritt, “Virtual Real Presence,” Christian Century (May 28, 2014), 43.

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