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Digitizing Christianity: Considerations for Christian Life and Ministry

The continued growth and rapid advancement of digital technologies in recent years has created an urgent need for thoughtful examination of these mediums by Christians. While such new technologies present for many people and disciplines exciting new opportunities, previously untapped (and in some instances previously nonexistent) frontiers, and innovative methods for learning, study, and exploration, Christianity fundamentally differs from all other disciplines in that it is particularly and centrally concerned with those things that are absolutely real, personal, and tangible. Indeed, God Himself took real flesh and became truly human for the sake of our salvation. The experience of Christianity is inherently meant to be lived and “tasted” by each individual in an intimately personal way. For this reason, the Scriptures call each believer to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), and the Lord Jesus Christ invites His disciples to “take, eat; this is My Body,” and “drink this, all of you; this is My Blood…” (Matthew 26:26-29). It is in tasting, eating, and drinking — through primary physical means of encounter and perception — that the believer most effectively experiences the Christian message, being transformed by it so that through the physical — sight, smell, taste, hearing, and the rest — the spirit may begin to enter into the spiritual realm and there encounter the living God. In the same vein, the work of Christian ministry also entails a faithful transmission of the deposit of Faith — spirit and life (see John 6:63) — from person to person. For this reason, the Apostles often sought to refrain even from writing to the early Church communities in order to resolve or address any problems or questions that arose in them, preferring to handle any such issues in person, “face to face” (see e.g., 2 John 12; 3 John 13-14). In contrast to this fundamentally personal milieu of Christianity, digital technologies have increasingly adopted an impersonal mode of expression, communication, and interaction with reality itself, thereby posing, in their prevalence and through their indiscriminate consumption by Christians, a significant threat to the very essence of Christianity as it is intended to be experienced.


The Medium of Television

In 1977, renowned journalist and television personality Malcolm Muggeridge published a series of lectures titled Christ and the Media wherein he offered a critique of an emerging media-oriented culture. The medium of television, for Muggeridge, carried the potential for the realization of either benefit or detriment to its consumers, being able to “enrich as well as debase a life.”[1] As it was at Muggeridge’s time and continues to be true today, the possibilities for television extend far beyond its ability to instantaneously provide communication and entertainment. Through television, evangelization is capable of reaching the eyes and ears (and thereby also the minds and hearts) of even the most passive consumers of this medium, inspiring them to begin their journey to Christianity. In illustrating this point, Muggeridge shares his experience of filming a television program of Mother Teresa, commenting: “…the fact that she does truly live in Christ, and he in her, shines triumphantly through the camera’s fraudulence.”[2] He recalls that he encountered many who enacted positive changes in their lives through viewing the program in which Mother Teresa was featured, and concludes: “the moral would seem to be that what is required to make a successful Christian television programme is merely to find a true Christian, and put him or her on the screen. This, rather than any televisual skills or devices, would seem to be the key.”[3] Here, however, lie the dangers of endeavoring into television evangelization: the operation of mass media by a select few and the anti-Christian ideologies they often embrace and proclaim, combined with the influential and formative power of television as a media outlet, poses a great danger not only for viewers, but also for those intending to utilize it to undertake the noble task of evangelization. It would be, according to Muggeridge’s powerful imagery, as if the Lord Jesus Christ produced a television program sponsored by the “very reputable” Lucifer Inc.[4] By developing a significant presence on the medium of television, which widely operates upon non-Christian principles and goals, Christian media developers may unintentionally sponsor or encourage the depiction and influence of unchristian ideals.


Undoubtedly, television is a tremendously powerful visual tool. The Church, moreover, combines many audiovisual and literary components in her liturgical experience: for instance, the celebrant and altar deacon(s) dress in white, fixed prayers are used, and the Scriptures are read aloud melodiously. Incorporating the television in liturgical worship, however, introduces many detriments to worshippers, including what is perhaps among the greatest misdeeds of twenty-first century churches — liturgical “live-streaming.” Televising and providing worshippers — and virtually anyone — with the ability to live-stream liturgical services from their homes or mobile devices amounts to a total destruction of the sacramentality of liturgy. Liturgy is no longer the gathering of the community of believers in prayer if the believers are able to participate remotely through television. If one is unable to attend the liturgy in person — due to physical ailment or other restriction — the Church traditionally goes to them, not through television or computer screens, but in liturgical and sacramental prayers such as the Sacrament of the Unction of the Sick. Besides this point, televising or streaming liturgy also offends the sanctity of the worship itself, as cameras and sometimes even production lights are utilized to film the service, a person or team is tasked with overseeing the live-streamed production, thereby being deprived of attending the prayer, and elaborate cut scenes and multiple angles are sometimes captured in order to afford the viewer a high quality video product.


Another detrimental emerging trend amongst Christian Churches is the use of television screens in worship rather than books to present the words of the prayers, which poses both spiritual and practical dangers that undermine rather than enhance the practice and intended benefit of the liturgical experience for the faithful. Liturgy is meant to be practiced with reverence, representing a multi-sensory formative encounter intended to unite the believers with God, lead them to recognize and abide in His presence, and inspire in them the desire and purpose of bringing this spirituality to the world beyond the walls of their church. In liturgy, incense is burned in the censer, icons are present all around the worshipers, with the icon of Christ the Pantocrator centrally placed in the front and center beyond the altar, the prayers — with their words being hymnically attuned in a reverent and stilling manner — are chanted with solemnity, and the rites are carried out in order. In all these and many other ways, the liturgical experience is meant to look, sound, and feel entirely different than anything else in the world — an “otherness” that is both practically instructive and spiritually inspiring. Thus, the believer is invited to “let [his or her] senses enjoy the beauty of Orthodox worship in all its aspects[,] including hymnology, iconography[,] and the richness of all our liturgical practice and teachings.”[5]


With the incorporation of television screens in the liturgical experience, however, a pervasive[6] technology that is in many ways emblematic of the world is injected into what is built to be an otherworldly experience. Rather than gazing upon the face of Christ, believers are physically reoriented to the glaring screen; instead of being learned and recited, or read from physical books, the Scriptures and prayers are read from a television screen, tablet, or even a phone — devices that are often even affixed or placed upon the Holy Altar itself. These not only undermine the reverence and intended sanctity of the liturgical experience, but also represent an unwelcome invasion of the world and its hallmarks into the liturgical and sacramental encounter with God.


In utilizing television screens in liturgical settings, churches also promote the spectatorship of their congregants in much the same way as recreational television, thereby rendering the liturgical experience a passive process of consumption rather than an active process of transformative struggle. The personal active involvement and struggle that books require — in turning the pages, spatially associating the words on the page, feeling the book in the hand, and being required to know the general structure of the prayer such that the prayer or hymn being chanted may be located, for instance — is replaced by a standardized, impersonal, and consumptive method of engagement.[7] What is more, the attention that is due to God is instead offered to the television screen which, by virtue of the prevalence of screens in our daily experiences and our habitual conditioning, coaxes the eyes towards it, numbs the congregants’ minds and hearts (as the shows and movies they recreationally watch on such screens are made to do), and nullifies within them any semblance of activity or requirement of mindful presence, attentiveness, or participation.


This sort of exterior reliance on visual aids also diminishes one’s ability to memorize, retain, and internalize[8] the prayers themselves, because “intelligence is relentlessly reflexive, so that even the external tools that it uses to implement its workings become ‘internalized,’ that is, part of its own reflexive process.”[9] In utilizing the impersonal medium of television screens, it becomes all the more difficult to retain any of the words of the prayers so that they might become ours, leading to a wholly “external” encounter with liturgical prayer. Such prayers are rather meant to be internalized, so that worshippers, through the internalization process, come to embody in their own daily lives the doctrine, spirit, and life of the Church that are expressed in and through the words of those prayers. While learning and memorizing the Scriptures, prayers, and doctrines of the Church are not themselves the goal of the Christian life, they are nevertheless essential steps for properly and effectively living out the Christian message: “the mere memorization or knowledge of the church’s doctrine, her creedal statements, her liturgical regulations and moral wisdom is not adequate for evangelization. The knowledge of such doctrine…should become incarnate in family life, in human work, in politics and society, in art and leisure.”[10]

The Medium of Social Media

The continued development of audiovisual entertainment, with the introduction and popularity of social media platforms such as TikTok and its seconds-long “reels” concept, further complicates the landscape for Christian ministry. While such content was previously consumed at a much slower pace, thus allowing for the development of an idea or message in a fuller, more meaningful way, new social media platforms instead facilitate for their users a fast-paced bombardment of content disabling such thought development to any meaningful degree while de-conditioning their users from being able to tolerate slower, more deliberate, and intricate modes of experience, including communication, formation, and education. The Christian message, being one of personal intimacy with Christ, cannot be fully communicated in such a fast-paced or superficial way. The Apostles, when establishing churches, spent years and toiled night and day to establish the Faith and guide individuals to proper growth in Christ (see e.g., 2 Corinthians 11:16-28). The delivery of the Faith for them, as it was also for Christ, was formational before it was informational; it required personal relation and consecration of life.

Social media, being a fully digital realm, falls short of creating personal, “incarnate” experiences. As such, this technology can quite easily transmit a message and spirit that is not only foreign, but also contrary, to the Christian message, thereby constituting a disservice to those whom Christian ministers may seek to serve using such platforms. The work of Christian ministry is to inspire a personal desire within individuals to delve deeper into the Faith; this growth, while it can be certainly aided by media technologies, cannot occur solely through virtual communication. The message of Christianity, requiring a complete transformation of one’s life (see 1 Corinthians 6:11) and being irreconcilable with the world (see John 17:14-16), stands in stark opposition to viral trends and popular movements; its proclamation must be guided by the ethos of Christianity rather than any worldly philosophy of administration or standard of success. St. Paul writes: “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law” (1 Corinthians 9:21). In venturing to minister on digital platforms, the same approach, of having primary regard for the integrity of the proper Christian spirit and message, must be observed.

The Mediums of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are quickly being embraced and adopted not only by educational institutions across disciplines and at all levels — institutions at which Christians also learn, interact, and grow — but also by Church parishes, ministries, and ministers. These technologies eliminate the physical boundaries of a classroom, enabling users to explore the world from their personal computers and handheld devices. In an article for Forbes, author Bernard Marr writes:

“VR also enables teachers and students to explore different worlds without having to leave the classroom; this could include visiting historical sites, exploring outer space, or touring foreign countries virtually…With AR, we can also overlay digital elements on top of real-world classroom objects…[Froggipedia] walks students through the process of studying the internal organs of a frog without requiring any real-life dissection.”[11]

The positives identified by Marr, however, are tempered by their practical implications, both generally and with particular consideration of Christian ideals. Indeed, while, as Marr describes, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality can walk students through the dissection process, for instance, in a detailed and visually engaging manner, these technologies simply cannot mimic the experience of dissecting a real frog — an activity that is vastly more intimidating and daunting in person, and formatively so. There are certainly many things that any (religious) classroom might be unable to do, due to geographical or financial constraints, in which case Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality might serve as similarly positive resources. Rather than simply speaking about the architecture of a particular cathedral, or even showing images or videos of it, for example, it would be a more engaging experience for students of a Christian institution or church class to take a virtual tour of that same building. However, in light of the necessities of social interrelation and tangible firsthand experience in Christian formation and communal experience, those students would be all the more benefitted by simply visiting a local church building — an even more immersive undertaking that furthers, rather than undermines, the goals of Christian education and Christian identity formation. The benefits of adopting a hybrid format may therefore not be in the best interests of the Christian person, or of Christian education more generally.


The primary objective of Christian education and life in the Church is invariably to develop within the believers a personal, immersive, real, and living experience of the Lord Jesus Christ, and through Him, with one another. Being comprised of both soul and body, the human is called to “glorify God in [his or her] body and [his or her] spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:20). Truly, “we do nothing without the body…Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past.”[12] Such truths are unrealizable in the experience of Virtual Reality technologies, which facilitate intangible experiences in the realm of cyber-reality. Through Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, a dissociation of body from space and time occurs, as experiences can be formed without one’s complete involvement, away from true reality. In such mediums, sin[13] can be practiced almost entirely metaphysically, encouraging the misconception that sinful practice in the virtual realm, being that it may not directly involve bodily activity and can be hidden by privacy settings, is in fact not sinful at all. The division and compartmentalization in experience made possible through Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are therefore discernibly detrimental to the sort of holistic Christian experience of total immersion and permeation into every aspect of one’s life that is meant for the Christian believer. Such technologies, carrying far-reaching anthropological, ethical, and spiritual implications, require further study and attention, and therefore ought not be eagerly introduced into Christian ministries.

The Medium of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence technologies, in a more direct and abrupt way, divest the human experience of humanity. Facilitating creation apart from human involvement, Artificial Intelligence renders human experience obsolete, replacing personal experience and knowledge with algorithms and computation. The submission to and reliance on such technologies, illustrated by the recent astronomical growth of the Artificial Intelligence platform ChatGPT,[14] is emblematic of the very central “gospel” of digital culture, placing technology at the apex of human existence and rendering the human a spectator rather than a creator. In doing so, Artificial Intelligence severely debilitates one’s ability to establish an intimate relationship with God, for the path to goodness is not in submitting to Artificial Intelligence — or any technology, for that matter — but rather in discovering and personally abiding with God Himself and submitting to His will. In affirming this very principle, Origen of Alexandria profoundly writes: “What each man worships in preference to the rest, what he admires and loves above all other things, this is God to him.”[15] It follows, then, that all Christians must examine whether they put their trust in God or in “human beings, who cannot save” (Psalm 146:3), or what is now further, in man-made technologies.

Substituting the human for an algorithm or some other technological tool, most especially in the realm of the spiritual life — whether in preparation of exhortatory sermons and lessons,[16] Scriptural commentary and translation,[17] or similar endeavors — represents an unnatural, spiritually counterintuitive, and detrimental effort which perpetuates a sacrilege of the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church, which are inherently meant for personal experience and life. In the Church, teaching begins with receiving the deposit of Faith, which is meant to form and transform the teacher such that they can likewise transmit that Faith to others: “When we continue to keep Him in our inner being, He will make us rich so that we can give to others.”[18] The Apostles therefore spoke extensively about the need for preparation, the importance of discipleship, and sound Christian formation and education, yet after all of this, they advise that not many become teachers (see James 3:1).

The matters and spirit of the Faith are meant to be received and delivered from living person to living person; utilizing Artificial Intelligence in the work of Christian education is therefore to outsource this important responsibility, of preserving and delivering the deposit of Faith, to digital tools, representing unfaithfulness at worst and misunderstanding at best on the part of Christian educators, who are entrusted by God through the Church to be discipled and to teach, having received and continuing to possess sound doctrine and exhibiting an exemplary Christian manner of life (see 2 Timothy 2:2). Out of one’s own learning and discipleship, one’s teaching should spring forth; in fact, a proper and full discipleship will transmit to each individual the teaching of the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and more generally the Tradition of the Church, enabling them to deliver that which they had received to those whom they teach and serve. When Artificial Intelligence technologies become themselves the sources and teachers, being relied upon by those who teach to provide them with the content of their teaching, the necessary struggle of growth and advancement in understanding and knowledge that is required and expected of all believers — and most especially those entrusted to teach in the Church — is circumvented, to the detriment of both the teacher and the disciple. Artificial Intelligence must, for these and several other reasons beyond the scope of this paper, be carefully examined and understood before it can be considered for use in any capacity in the service of the Church.


Conclusion

The psychodynamics of today’s media landscape is malleable due to the speed by which technologies are introducing new mediums of communication and interrelation. With a simple update, often being pushed instantaneously “over the air,” the technologies we use on a daily basis can rather easily introduce novel ways by which we may experience reality and interact with others and information. With this unprecedented technological proliferation, we find ourselves at a crossroads. For each person and culture, and for every Christian ministry, a conscious and deliberate approach to the available technologies is essential: “Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it…The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life.”[19] The technologies we possess and utilize today, and those yet to come, are what we make of them; they can either divest the human of himself or, if used properly and in appropriate settings, become powerful tools that enable the human to express and understand himself in deeper ways. As renowned Catholic theologian Romano Guardini suggests in his Letters from Lake Como, we might benefit today in our personal Christian lives, and in administering the services of our churches, from slowing down and carefully considering the technologies we use and their far-reaching implications (both good and bad), while submitting ourselves to God who “is at work.”[20]


[1] Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, 68

[2] Muggeridge, 70

[3] Ibid.

[4] Muggeridge, 41

[5] His Grace Bishop Suriel, Rethinking the use of Technology in Liturgical Services, (Facebook, accessed on August 9, 2023)

[6] "The control screens have over our daily life is staggering. We spend countless hours at the office staring at a computer screen then come home to watch another big, flat screen for our evening’s entertainment. Between tablets, laptops, smartphones, and e-readers, there’s no getting away from the bits and bytes, the ones and zeros” (Tom Raabe, Why Churches Should Ditch the Projector Screens and Bring Back Hymnals, The Federalist, accessed on August 9, 2023).

[7] "Screens represent a move away from permanence to the transitory. The words contained in a hymnal were printed in a book that was published with care. Inked on the paper accompanied by notes and staffs, hymnals were real. The words on a screen may look like the words in the book, but they lack substance. They’ll disappear the moment the switch is flipped off” (Ibid.).

[8] See W.J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 79; Plato, Phaedrus 274-277

[9] Ong, 81

[10] Timothy P. O’Malley, Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love, 13

[11] Bernard Marr, The Future of Learning Reshaped by VR, AR, and Blockchain (Forbes, accessed on July 1, 2023)

[12] See Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 18.19

[13] Indeed, the very concept and notion of sin has become extinct in the narratives promulgated by mass media and when technological advancement is considered, and in turn, in the societies and cultures in which we live, think, and interact.

[14] Within two months of its launch, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million monthly active users, according to a study published for Time (Andrew R. Chow, How ChatGPT Managed to Grow Faster Than TikTok or Instagram, Time, accessed on August 7, 2023).

[15] Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Judges 2 (Elizabeth Ann Dively Lauro, The Fathers of the Church Vol. 119: Origen: Homilies on Judges, 55)

[16] See Kirsten Grieshaber, Can a chatbot preach a good sermon? Hundreds attend church service generated by ChatGPT to find out (Associated Press, accessed on July 18, 2023)

[17] See Fiona Andre, USC researchers use AI to help translate Bible into very rare languages (The Washington Post, accessed on July 17, 2023)

[18] Wednesday Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ, 13

[19] Ong, 83

[20] Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, 96

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