Our New Abnormal: Why We (Should) Want Realness Back

In the late 1990s, I lived through a major event in my home state of Maine. We had an “ice storm” that completely shut us down in wintertime.

For a time, we had no electricity or power of any kind. I distinctly recall sitting in the family dining room beside our black wood stove. It provided the only heat we had. The chill was everywhere, it seemed.

Our recent experience in the Coronavirus—an experience shared across the world, truly—reminds me of the fabled Maine ice storm. We’re all living a new abnormal now. Our routines are disrupted, our patterns broken, and many of us continue to live in a somewhat dazed state. Yet in the midst of this, I’ve also seen many people speaking enthusiastically about their virtual connections, saying things like, “What a great Zoom call!” and “My experience on these online platforms has been a total game-changer!”

Perhaps my virtual experiences are running differently than those of other people. I for one am glad that we are presently able to maintain connection with family members, friends, coworkers, and church communities. I don’t think we should feel bad or bashful about virtual linkage. While we can charitably disagree here, I would argue (I did argue!) that we should use technology to preach Christ, promote the gospel, oppose the wolves, and love our neighbor.

However, I am personally having a different takeaway than the Zoom enthusiasts. While not wishing social media and the Internet to go away in this age, I am personally very excited to get realness back. I want the old ways. I like teaching students face to face. I love going to church on Sunday and gathering with the localized form of the body of Christ. Conversely, when I log on to various online platforms, I encounter buffering and delays and strange hiccups. The person I’m talking to suddenly morphs into a character out of the Matrix, talking in weird electro-distortion soundwaves. We trip over each others’ sentences. The call convener can’t figure out how to mute everyone, so auditory chaos reigns. The whole experience is supposed to be seamless and next-level, but it ends up being hackneyed and a little dystopian if you spend enough time online.

My sense is that many are seeing that we have the capability  for much more online engagement. That’s true, I suppose. But following on the heels of that finding, I also see many folks presently yearning for the real world, the embodied interaction, the totally human experience. We’re not forced into an either-or here; it’s not that technology is bad, and in-person dealings are perfect (far from it!). It is true, though, that God has made us for reality. He has not made us to live electronic simulations of real life; he has made us to face one another, to know one another, to minister to one another, to gather as one body. Beyond us, not for nothing do we remember that the Trinity, the Godhead, dwells in unbroken communion between persons.

Theology matters, and drives many of us to this conclusion: life online is not the good stuff. Real life is the good stuff. We knew this already, but my guess is that the Coronavirus pandemic will teach us this truth afresh. If so, that’s a vital anthropological lesson. We all have a major stake in reality, much as we’ve been told that you can take reality or leave it. With all due respect: no, you can’t. Reality matters. God set it up this way. As I have argued in Reenchanting Humanity, he made us embodied souls, enfleshed beings, corporeal persons. His ways are best, and our ways are not.

This season, then, is unusual. As long as it lasts, we do well to reap what lessons the Lord has for us. Some of us are going to need to persevere day by day, and that will be enough; that will be success. God’s grace will be sufficient, and he is glorified when we grip his hand tightly in the valley of the shadow of death. Others will find themselves reorienting their life, restructuring things, and even growing in new ways. They’ll tackle a sin, weakness, or growth area that they’ve known about for a long time but have not sufficiently engaged. By God’s power, they’ll build a new routine, dive into the Word, pray more, spend quality time with family, get in good physical shape, read a book they’ve let languish on the shelf, and more.

This is a great time for such endeavors. While academic life is paused, this is also a great time to begin forming a plan for days ahead. When we can gather together, what will your life look like? I can say, as one example, that our residential Ph.D. program at MBTS—literally called the Residency!—will be meeting with gusto. This is a terrific time to pray and think about getting a strong education, a deep grounding in the truth, when that possibility opens up. Now is a great time, with all the hours we have on our hands, to dream great things for God in order that in the season we trust will come we would attempt great things for God.

In sum, we are all on pause to some degree. We’re all in a new abnormal now; we are not wrong to want life to come back to normal. This is difficult and taxing and simultaneously warlike yet peaceful. It’s the strangest thing: many are bounding with pent-up energy while others, just miles away, are fighting for their lives. How odd, and how tragic. In unusual circumstances like these, I do not believe that this pandemic will ultimately lead many of us away  from personal connection; I believe that this pandemic is actually showing us how gloriously good personal connection is.

I’m reminded on this point that this was exactly what the Father planned before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 1:3-14). In the fullness of time, he sent his Son for our salvation. Into our world of sin, evil, sickness, and death the Son of God came. He entered a war-zone and did not live twenty miles back of the front lines, safely tucked away from enemy fire. He plunged into the chaos, the mess, the desperation, and he died in our place so that we could live forever with him in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21-22). In doing so, he rebuked the corruption of the earth by Satan, and affirmed the goodness of the Creator’s design.

Right now, we want our lives back. That is understandable and right. But we Christians want something far more than mere normalcy: we want this world to be made right. We want all diseases to be destroyed, all tears to be wiped away, all sins to pass out of this world, never to return. Right now, we are hunkered down in a storm. The chill is everywhere, it seems. But the end of the age has come upon us, and very soon, this earthly order will pass away (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Take heart, friends, and remember this: all things fell apart in Adam, but all things resolve in Jesus Christ.