I’m struck by the fact that, at death, we in the church know what to do. Other times we’re often clueless: How do we reach out to a generation suspicious of institutions? How do we teach the faith in depth to people with the attention span of a gerbil on crack? But in death we know what to do. Bring food. Tell stories. Hug. Go to the funeral home. Go to the funeral. Check back in with people after. There’s very little thinking involved really. It’s as though our bones get up and get to work before our brains even consider whether or not to.
This is not to say we get everything right. People offer the worst platitudes amidst death. People offer things meant to comfort the bereaved that actually wind up making the bereaved comfort them. Life together is hard; other people are a headache, but at least we’re together. And over against a society plagued by profound, death-dealing loneliness, that’s profoundly good.
We recently had a death in our church. All deaths are awful in their own way, and, as ever, God’s Spirit was among us despite it, reminding us all of Jesus’ conquest over death. One friend wrote me of how much she hates the cancer that took him—and that may take her. I almost replied, “that’s not big enough.” She hates death. All of us should. It hovers over all of us and will get us one day. But just as sure is our knowledge that Jesus will overcome death, in the end. In the meantime we grieve: casseroles, visits, awkward conversations, funerals. This one struck me differently though.
When we went to the family’s house to plan the funeral, my fellow pastor pulled out his Bible. It’s a piece of work, quite literally. It’s patched together, held in one piece by duct tape, decorated with stickers. It marks his long tenure as a youth pastor before his responsibilities grew with age. It’s a datable Bible: a Student Bible, NIV, the same one I read as a teenager. He could tell the grieving family and I were staring at it, so he told its story: “My parents knew I wanted a car for my sixteenth birthday. They got me a Bible instead.” The wry observation preaches. All the clichés come back about Bibles being ill-treated: ‘If your Bible is in good shape, you’re not.’ I immediately think of my grandparents’ Bibles: my fundamentalist Baptist grandpa’s, marked in the margins with details about the Rapture, but also with dates of Sunday School classes, friends he read with, notes on sources of comfort. It’s a road map of faithfulness stretching across the twentieth century. My daily-mass Catholic grandmother on the other side of my family also gave me her Bible. It’s filled with cards with images of saints, prayers of Popes, prayers from funerals for then-recently dead friends. These Bibles were loved, used, patched up, a record of fidelity, a reminder of prayer, like an old friend, only more reliable.
Here’s the thing—what do we do with such Bibles when we read scripture on our iPad or mobile phones? I get that these devices can record our observations with increasing ease. Someday these too may be passed down to grandchildren. But the book itself matters. Somehow the pages, the repair jobs, the stickers from the youth, handwriting of particular people in the margins, the religious tchochkes, these are pilgrimage markers, not just page markers. They announce someone has been here before. You should walk this way too. It’s the way to a good and faithful life.
The gentleman in my church who died still has a Facebook page up. Friends and loved ones are recording reminiscences, farewells, and almost audible sobs. Other friends have changed their profile pics to show his face. I look around the Web at others who have died in the Facebook era and see their old pages, now turned memorials also. The comments read like prayers. What about this technology feels like you can communicate with the dead, or at least about them, into a kind of perpetuity?
So the point is not necessarily to defend the piety that is being replaced as leather-bound gold-paginated books are replaced by Apple-manufactured devices. It may indeed be more permanent and lasting than the physical book (as long as the Facebook gods smile on us). But it certainly will be different.
As to how different, or what we should do amidst these differences, I have no clue.
Please excuse me now for slipping away. I have a funeral to preside over. We still know what to do there: love, speak scripture, declare the gospel, cry, hug, and go home to more food. I pray that some parts of our material goodness will never become digitalized. Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.