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Deanna A. Thompson on the Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World

In this episode, Deanna Thompson of St. Olaf College talks about her 2016 book "The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World," which was written from her experience of living with cancer and now takes on additional meaning in our COVID-shaped world.

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Episode transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.

In this episode, John Witvliet of Calvin University joins in conversation with Deanna Thompson of St. Olaf College around her 2016 book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, which was written from her experience of living with cancer and now takes on additional meaning in our COVID-shaped world.

John Witvliet: 

It is a delight today for me to be in conversation with Deanna Thompson of St. Olaf College. Here we are in Grand Rapids talking to Northfield, Minnesota, to Deanna. It's a joy.

Deanna Thompson: 

Thanks so much for having me.

John Witvliet: 

And we're here to discuss what has turned out to be a very timely book, The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, written before the pandemic. I can't imagine a better and more timely topic to have your wisdom shared with us now, Deanna. What a remarkable thing. What's the experience been like for you to have written such a book that has now become so timely?

Deanna Thompson: 

I'm still trying to figure that out, but yes, I wrote this book out of my experience of living with cancer and my world becoming really small and not being able to have much physical contact with people in my life who I loved and worked with, and realizing that virtual communication, virtual connections could be really life-giving and in a theological context could be the hands and feet of Christ or bear that witness. And I realized that for me, that was so important. And so now to see the church has moved virtual and so much of our work has moved virtual--you know, I think there's a lot to lament and I don't want to ignore those things. At the same time I'm really interested, and I feel like part of my role is to encourage people to think about what we're learning, and what are some advantages, what are some surprises about virtual connectedness that we never would have anticipated that we can incorporate going forward?

John Witvliet: 

One of the things that struck me as I read your material is your description of your own change of mind about these connections. And I'm thinking about how for so many of us during the pandemic, we've had a change, we haven't had an option, so we haven't engaged virtually before and now we're all in the middle of it, but you anticipated this by some years, right?

Deanna Thompson: 

Yes. I write about in the book how I called myself a digital skeptic. I was skeptical that our digital tools were creating any opportunity for strengthening our connections or enhancing our connections. Back in 2008, I didn't own a cell phone. I was very self-righteous about that fact. My kids didn't have devices. I was also self-righteous about that, that we were not going down that path because it was all very negative and had negative effects. And then I got really sick, and I was confined largely to my house and to a car taking me to and from endless oncology appointments. And I was shocked to realize that virtual connectedness offers an ability to be connected, to stay connected, to make new connections, to be really supported, and that there's sometimes in some cases advantages to virtual connection that in-person connection doesn't have.

And there's the flip side: there's ways in which virtual connectedness is inferior. But what I started to realize is some of the ways in which it was as good as, if not in certain cases better than, in-person interaction, especially for me when my body was so depleted by cancer, it became such a lifeline. So I talk about how I had a conversion experience to the potential power of virtual connectedness. And I feel like I got the zeal of a convert. I'm pretty zealous about trying to talk about some of these advantages and really wanting faith communities in particular to start thinking about some potential advantages. That's been the new angle on the gospel that I've been talking about for the last number of years.

John Witvliet: 

It's powerful. Many books or articles or blogs that have been written about technology in ministry that are quite . . . kind of rah-rah about the cutting-edge technology. One of the things that strikes me about your writing is words like "poignancy" or "depth" or "virtue." I was struck by the word "attentiveness" as it appeared toward the end of the book, that you're very optimistic and grateful about what technology can offer, but what is it like to try to write about that in this very different vein? It's music in a little different key than some books about technology.

Deanna Thompson: 

It certainly is. And I feel like it might be also a divine sense of humor that has me writing about the virtues of technology when I was such a skeptic for so many years. So now I've written for journals that have "technology" in the name; I've been in conferences that are about science and theology. These are areas that I have not been well-versed in or interested in. And now that's part of what I'm having conversations about a lot.

But what I'll tell people is I'm not that interested in all the technical aspects, right? I'm more interested in--one of the things I talk about in the book is our different perspectives on technology and that there are people who have a deterministic viewpoint [of] technology determines our interaction. So, for example, some people will say online learning is always going to be inferior to in-person learning. And so the technology determines the kind of interaction we have. At the same time, I think we can all think of being in classrooms where we've had really bad learning experiences, right? And it could be that there was a chalkboard and some chalk and the teacher. So in other words, I think it's more that the technology is a tool or a means to communicate. And so I've come to realize I have more of an instrumentalist view of technology, that technology is a tool.

So we're called to be members of the body of Christ, which I talk about as being called to serve especially those who are suffering. What can this technology help us do in terms of living out that call to serve especially the least among us. And I think that there's some surprising ways in which this tool can be used. Again, there's all sorts of issues. There's ways it can be abused. There's people who don't have access to this technology. So there's a lot of factors that we have to weigh.

I feel like a lot of people that I spend time with, which would be academics and church folks, church leaders in particular, I think those groups tend to be more skeptical of the value of these tools than maybe the average person, certainly not a lot of rah-rah people traditionally that I've hung out with. Definitely there's megachurches; there's people who are very interested in using technology in the academic world; but for the most part, most of the people I've spent time with are pretty uncertain about that. And now that we're in a situation where academics and church leaders are all using the technology, I think we have an opportunity to assess where are the losses--register those. We should lament those. I think we should create rituals that lament what we've lost. At the same time, what are some of the new connections, the new ways in which this technology is involving people who maybe were never involved in person. And I think there's a lot of church communities, a lot of classrooms are finding ways in which people who are very quiet or weren't physically there are now able to plug in in some really important ways.

John Witvliet: 

Absolutely. I wonder if we could reflect about liturgical participation and things that you may have experienced in your cancer journey, and then how similar are those to things you've experienced during the pandemic? What are some of the particular experiences that really have encouraged you there?

Deanna Thompson: 

Yes. I think before I got sick, I would have been one of these people who said being present with people in the worst moments of their life is always a superior way to be, that we're called to be the hands and feet of Christ to one another. And that means being physically present at a bedside at the time where people are mourning the loss of loved ones, as people walk different paths of grief, of sorrow. And then when I got sick, one of the things I experienced right away was, first of all, for a while I couldn't go to church physically. I wasn't well enough. I couldn't. The cancer that I had broke my back into different places and I could barely walk on my own. I couldn't get out of a chair by myself. I couldn't drive myself. I couldn't do most anything that I had been used to be doing. And so physically I couldn't go to church. So with my church at that point, it meant I wasn't going to church. I didn't have a virtual option. So that was cut out of my life, which was a deep loss.

But one of the things that also was a reality, and you hear this from a lot of people who are theologians or pastors or work with or are people of faith and they get really sick or have someone die suddenly in their family, a lot of times there's a feeling that you're too emotionally fragile to actually be a part of worship, that you're already undone by the disease or by the divorce or by the loss of a child or whatever it is that you're facing, that sitting in a public space in a pew going through--one of the things about liturgy and about worship is it touches us in the deepest places: our deepest longing, our deepest joys, our deepest sadnesses. And when you're undone, it's more than you can bear a lot of times to be in that public space. You can't be completely broken where everyone can watch you be completely broken. And so that was a real struggle for me, and one, as somebody who's like an every-week church attender--enthusiastically--I was really not familiar with that experience and struggled with that experience. [I was] like, no, I should try to go, but I can't make myself. And again, I think now I've heard some people say who've had really hard times going to church that they go to church now, that they feel that being undone or broken, or not even healthy enough to get yourself to church, that that's not a barrier anymore, which I think is a really powerful experience.

At the same time there's certainly losses that when you can't--some churches are doing Zoom so you can see people, who else is there, but a lot of churches are taping their services and people are watching them. And maybe you'll see in the chats that someone else is there, but we can't be physically seen or heard from the community of faith. And I think that leads us to be less aware of how people are doing, which doesn't mean we can't figure out a way to deal with that, but that there's just that lack of familiarity or immediacy of seeing people on a regular basis. So I think that that's a piece of concern. I know how some people in my faith community are doing, but I don't know how others are doing. I don't know if they're part of the worshiping community, if they've decided not to be, so it takes us reaching out more individually. And I find that to be one of the challenges.

John Witvliet: 

What reflections, suggestions would you have for pastors, musicians, other liturgical leaders, as they think about shaping events that someone will experience at a distance--and that might be a few years from now after the pandemic is over, there's some sensibilities we hope to carry with us. What advice would you have, especially, along the pastoral care line there? Again, not just the technical ways of organizing it, but what kinds of thoughtfulness and openness . . . are there other particular suggestions you'd have for how to go about it?

Deanna Thompson: 

I'd love for us to be having robust conversations about these very issues. I know at our church this last week, we were on the cusp of a building campaign and we had to suspend it with the pandemic. And now we're coming back to say, should we go forward? Should we wait longer? And the first question I had everybody ask--we had a hundred-some people on Zoom and we broke into small groups. And the first question was, what are you learning or what are you taking away from this time of worshiping virtually? That was the first question. And we had a Google Doc that everybody who was leading a group typed in their responses, what everybody was saying. And in my small group, there was a person in his eighties, and he's like, "I love pajama church!" And then he goes, "I actually don't mean that in a bad way. Like, I mean, it in a really good way, like we love getting up and being in our pajamas and worshiping. We love when we go to our cabin in the summer that we can still worship with Gloria Dei [Lutheran Church]."

And so it was interesting to hear the different perspectives. I would hope that pastors and church staff would ask people what they're experiencing and what's been a joy. I heard someone else say, I feel like I listen a lot better to the sermon because I feel like my pastor's speaking directly to me on the screen. I found that to be a really interesting piece.

I heard someone lamenting a couple of weeks ago that a lot of pastors are missing the interaction about the sermon and about worship with no longer greeting people as they leave the sanctuary. And I know at our church, we're doing Zoom coffee hours, and I wondered, could there be a breakout room in the Zoom coffee hour where it's with the pastor and you give feedback to what you just heard. I think we want to think about what are some losses that people are experiencing. I know there's all sorts of different needs out there. And what I hope churches will do is start to ask in real time.

One of the big, surprising things--we did a small group for our church this summer, out in our backyard, ten people once a week for ten weeks. We went through the stories of Genesis. And a new member who joined in May was part of this summer small group. And we asked how she found Gloria Dei and everything. . . . She's 29 years old, and she started to attend our church during the pandemic in March and joined in May and has never set foot in the physical building. And when I asked her more about that, she said, "I'm a single person. I felt too intimidated to walk into a big church building by myself. But once the pandemic hit, I thought, I might be able to start going to church on Zoom. It's going to be less intimidating." And so she came to a Wednesday night discussion with our church and then started attending worship on Sunday mornings and then felt called to join. And I thought that is such a powerful story. How many more people are there like that who felt too intimidated to come, especially if they're on their own, they don't know anybody else. You know, we can be as welcoming as we want to be inside the building, but how do we get people in the building?

So I think there's so much we can learn from right now in real time about how people are engaging or feeling disengaged. And then how can we try to incorporate new practices going forward.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

John Witvliet: 

I'm also thinking about people who give shape to liturgy, prepare a sermon, music, the other art forms that are part of it. You know, there's certainly the work involved in shaping the event itself. I'm also wondering what new forms of engagement this invites us into . . . not just preparing a worship service for the people, but preparing the people to engage in worship. Any thoughts about that side of the ministry? I think one of the things we keep thinking about is it's so easy to put the focus on the event, but then it can be weak in how we complement that with other forms of engagement.

Deanna Thompson: 

I think that's a really great point. I've seen a lot more evidence that pastors and church staff are spending more time explaining what's going to be happening and why things are being done. Like, in two weeks, this is what we're going to be doing at worship. I see people asking for--when our new members joined, for example, they asked our new members to submit photos and to submit little bios. We knew more about our new members joining in May than I ever have. And so that's been really lovely. So I think that we're seeing more narrating for people--what can people do at home to be prepared for worship? What can people do in terms of engaging with the different offerings of the church? 

One thing I've started to see, too, is ways of gathering virtually on Zoom or something, and then giving people a document or something and asking people to turn off their cameras and turn off their microphones and have some individual devotion time. So you're together, but you're not just staring at the screen all in the same way. I think we're learning new ways to use this technology. One of the things we keep hearing in an academic setting is you can't just do what you were doing before online. Timing-wise, people can't listen to something for as long on Zoom or are not going to be as productive. And so I think we need to think about what are the limitations and possibilities of the new technology, and what does that open up for us?

One of the big, challenging questions is how to strategically use being together in person. And that is an issue of course, that different congregations are looking at differently, whether it's driving by, driving through, whether it's having people gather in their cars, whether it's different groups from the congregation going to different people's homes and being outside and giving them something, or singing. I keep thinking about, especially for the pandemic, how do we do some of the in-person while we're also doing the virtual? And that's where small groups and other things can come into being. But one of the things that you find when you see the studies of people who are connected virtually and find virtual connectedness enhancing to their life is that most of those connections have an in-person component. They're not completely virtual. And so that's one of the things, too, that the church, I hope, will become more savvy about is that all of us, I think, want the in-person. And so how do we connect these two together in meaningful ways?

John Witvliet: 

That's good. One of the things that's been fascinating to us in our work have been the very different conversations that have happened about Lord's Supper / Holy Communion practices: some traditions fully embracing, engaging in the sacrament with online community; other traditions, avoiding that--Eucharistic fast being the way to go; and often people in the middle not realizing why it may be controversial on one side or the other. So it's amazing how different the discussions go about sacramental practices, Lord's Supper, communion practices. Could you say a bit about your experience of that conversation within a Lutheran context and things you're discovering about that?

Deanna Thompson: 

Sure. That's been fascinating for me as well. Since I wrote the book in 2015 into 2016 and started to speak about it in different places, ever since those days, I've always been asked about communion. Like, how far are we going to go? Are we going to go to the sacraments? And I was always, "Oh, that's a really interesting question. Yeah. We should talk more about that." And then move on, because it wasn't as pressing. There weren't a lot--there were people asking it, but from a more academic perspective, right? What should we, how should we think about this? A theoretical perspective.

So when the pandemic hit, I started getting a lot of people asking me, "Are you going to weigh in on this? You should weigh in on this. Please weigh in on this!" And what pushed me over the edge was a Lutheran bishop who got in touch with me, and he said, "You know, the presiding bishop of the Lutheran Church has said we should fast from the Eucharist." And this was during Lent. And he said, "Another bishop told me, 'Well, that's fine for Lent. What about Easter?'" And then he said also, "What's happening is . . . we haven't told our congregations they absolutely can't do this. This was like, you know, a piece of guidance from the church." And he said, "Half the congregations in my synod are doing communion virtually. And really nobody's giving them any guidance on what that means or what they should be thinking about." And it was at that point that I was, you know what, OK, I'm gonna jump in. So I weighed in and talked about why I think it's theologically possible, and that I think it's an enhancement and a gift that we can give people during this time when there's so much loss.

And it's been, as you know, a hugely debated issue. The center I run at St. Olaf, it was the first blog post that I wrote, which has now over 20,000 views on that post . . . about why we should move forward with this, or proposing that we can. Not "You have to," but you can. And I think . . . there's many things to say about this, and this would be a whole podcast conversation. But one of the things to me that I would love for people to think more about is people who've been strongly opposed really see virtual connectedness as completely a different form of communication and connection than in-person. And that's also then weighted with "The in-person is always superior and the virtual is always inferior." And again, as we've been talking . . . I don't think that's true, and I have experienced some really powerful ways in which that's not true. We can think of really bad in-person experiences that we've had, and we can think of really good virtual interactions that we've had. So I'm not sure that the ways in which we interact are completely in a different universe. They're rather on a sliding scale.

And so I think one of the things we're seeing is that there hasn't been much theological reflection on virtual space, virtual reality, virtual connectedness. And part of this is that, if we're going to say Christ is really present, . . . if we're going to talk about the incarnational presence of Christ, virtual space denies that, right? That's been a common way in which people who are opposed to it will go. And what I tried to talk about in my book on the virtual body of Christ is that there's much more of a complicated, nuanced way of the body of Christ working and that physical, incarnational presence can come through virtual means. This is something that Christians have affirmed: "Where two or three are gathered, I am there with you" (Matt. 18:20). And I think there's more thinking that Christians need to do about what virtual reality is and how it relates.

So all of us, when we interact virtually are embodied, right? We're sitting in two different places, but we're embodied. And so one of the things I've been seeing with virtual worship, and I think a lot of people have been realizing, is that they're having very embodied experiences of worship that are being done virtually, right? I've heard of people on their knees in their living rooms praying in the middle of their worship service. I've experienced tears streaming down my face in the middle of a worship service that I'm a part of. In other words, the virtual experience of worship isn't a disembodied experience. And so, yes, there are issues of the elements, . . . but I think the issue of the elements is that there's a way in which we are able to talk about the presence of Christ being with us and the elements in a time where we're missing so much concrete presence of those things that matter most in our lives, that this is a gift.

The last thing I think I would say is that as this pandemic goes on, if the church is called to minister to the least among us, a lot of those people are people who maybe will never go to church in person again. They're headed toward the end of their lives, and are we going to provide them the sacraments as they approach the end of their life? And this is real for a lot of people in their 80s and 90s, are they going to be able to go back to church before their life is ending or they're at a point where they can't make it back physically anymore? So I think there are a lot of issues. I see that there are real strong disagreements, but I think this is an opportunity for us too, which I think a lot of people have been taking, to really start to reflect theologically and take more seriously the virtual connectedness and what does that mean for us as the body of Christ.

John Witvliet: 

Thank you for all the ways you've entered into that. And I know sometimes when topics are difficult some of us would shy from that, but what a gift, I think. And there are many traditions. I think it's been fascinating to listen to the Lutheran conversation, the Methodist conversation, the Reformed conversation, three traditions, at least, that sit in some ways in the middle with a lot of congregations practicing very different things.

Deanna Thompson: 

It's been fascinating, and it's been good. I've had to sharpen my theological thinking about sacramental theology. . . . I think there's been a lot of good conversation that's been coming out of it.

John Witvliet: 

Before our time ends today, I would ask one additional question if I might, and that is advice you'd have about pastors in social media. I see beautiful expressions of pastoral care, and yet obviously there are such tremendous challenges. We're recording this in the middle of this election cycle. And so what reflections out of your book and experience would you offer--and for not just pastors, but for all of us?

Deanna Thompson: 

I think it's such a great question, and it is a hard question and I know that there are clergy and other people who will say, I'm not on social media with my parishioners, I don't want to . . . have that component of the relationship because it can be very dicey. I've talked to pastors who've left parishes, then are they still friends with all the people from there on Facebook or other places? There's all these questions.

In terms of how we interact on social media, I think that one of the things about the virtual world is that we're still fairly new to this new way of being with each other, right? And that creates a fair amount of anxiety, but it also means that the rules aren't fully set yet. You wouldn't be asking this question if we had that all set. And so what I would love to see is congregations, communities of faith, saying, "Let's talk about forming a covenant of how we're going to be with one another in virtual spaces. How do we interact?" Because one of the huge things you hear all the time is, you know, people say things on social media they would never say in person, right? And there's cyberbullying in a way that can get really out of hand. Absolutely those things are there, but we have some agency over how we deal with this.

So what if we came up collectively with some ways in which we agreed to be together virtually, and we said, this isn't just for the pastors to follow, . . . and that all of us pledged to follow this. That we wouldn't call people certain names. We wouldn't do that. What does it mean to--Meredith Gould is a theologian [who] has translated the prayer of Saint Teresa [of Avila] about "Christ has no hands, no feet but yours." And she says, "Christ has no Facebook page, no Twitter but yours." Yours are the posts through which Christ's love comes into the world. So if we think about "they will know we are Christians by our love," . . . how do we commit to living that out in virtual spaces?

And I think that academic institutions and communities of faith are two of the places where we could be having robust conversations about ethics, about how we behave and live together virtually. We could be leaders in saying, "You know, our community has said we don't do that. We don't interact that way. Our young people need this too. Who's leading these conversations? I think part of confirmation should be talking about these issues. So, I think that pastors have some specific considerations for how much they use social media, do you ever feel like you're away from it? Do you ever feel like you're not on call? If you're a pastor doing pastoral care via social media, that can consume all of your time--and that could be part of the covenant, right? Like we don't expect our pastors to be on our social media sites 24/7. So I think there's ways in which we as communities of faith could model a way to--rather than just lament some of the negative aspects of social media, could we be proactively creating new frameworks for how we should live with one another?

John Witvliet: 

Beautiful. Deanna Thompson, the book is The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World. What a joy to speak with you. Thank you for your wisdom, your voice, in conversations over this past year. I think we're going to be learning and building on this for many months and years to come. So thank you.

Deanna Thompson: 

Thanks so much, John. It's been a pleasure.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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