The latest Harry Potter, classic C.S. Lewis and a new French film have taught me a lot about community—and why Facebook isn’t for me.
The sand on Coronado Island beach in San Diego is by far the softest and finest—almost sugar-like—sand I’ve ever felt. I was there several weekends ago, at sunset, having just had dinner at a beachside hotel with friends. As we walked in the surf—splashing and talking and laughing at the various wedding ceremonies being performed all around us—it seemed to me that life couldn’t get much better than this. But later that night (or early the next morning), sitting around a backyard fire pit at 2 a.m., looking at stars I didn’t know could be seen in Southern California, smoking a pipe and chatting about predestination, I realized that this was as good as it gets. It’s amazing how meditative a fire can be when you’re sitting around one with friends—how it draws you in, makes you more aware of the urgency of now, the presence of the present.
My weekend in San Diego was for the C.S. Lewis Foundation Summer Conference. It was utterly fantastic—a spiritual “high” of the purest kind—and when it was over, and I returned to the daily grind, I was painfully aware of the “everyday” malaise that rears its head most in these post-whatever comedowns. I remember two summers ago when I was in Oxford and Cambridge for the two-week “Oxbridge” conference—a triennial event I highly recommend (the next one is the summer of 2008). I remember the glorious closing service at the beautiful Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, with the mid-afternoon sun filtering in through the wall-to-wall, towering stained glass; the echoes of the majestic pipe organ playing timeless hymns; the temporal fellowship of so many beloved “mere Christians” from all over the world … and to cap it all off, the sanctifying mystery of the Eucharist.
Have you ever sat in a pew on a hot summer’s night and felt the haunting of the Holy Ghost? That’s what it was like.
From there I’m taken to my memories of Oxford, two weeks earlier, when at the Kilns I partook of another sort of spiritual supper—lounging in the cool, clear summer dusk in the lush garden terrace of C.S. Lewis’ backyard. Here there was port wine, with plenty of sweet cigar and pipe smoke wafting in the air. About a dozen of us sat in a circle there, fellowshipping in the shadow of Lewis and under the banner of the blood and body of Christ.
When I think about these “Holy Moments” and what they all have in common, the first thing I come up with is that they are all communal experiences: things shared by more than just one person. Transcendence can, I think, be solitary; but it is much more available to us in our connections, bonds and communion with fellow man. When Jesus said (Matthew 18:20, TNIV) that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them,” I think He was clueing us into this notion of “holiness in numbers,” even if it’s just two or three sitting around a campfire.
Protestantism—in its me-centric emphasis on personal devotion and “alone time with God”—has lost some of this vital sense of the Church as a community. The Incarnation of Christ—when God assumed flesh—made man the conduit of holiness. And even though fallen humans can’t embody that perfection or even approach it, we are still made in that likeness. It’s how we are meant to be, and sometimes the unapproachably perfect is best seen in our imperfect striving for it. God is present to us in our relationships—as we work through our flaws and brokenness together.
There is a wonderful new film out called My Best Friend. It’s a French-language comedy from director Patrice Leconte (Man on the Train), and it is all about the preciousness of human connection and friendship. Francois (Daniel Auteuil) is a rich art dealer who comes to the realization that his packed planner and contact-full Rolodex does not mean he necessarily has any friends. Bruno (Dany Boon) is a happy-go-lucky (if a little insecure) cab driver who is probably the friendliest guy in Paris, but, like Francois, still lacks a best friend.
The film (you can read my review of it here) follows this pair as they discover—together—what true friendship is all about. It’s not about what you can get out of it, or what each person can offer the other … it’s about being with another human, experiencing the beauty of that kind of connection that makes life all the more livable. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis describes it as philia: the type of “friendship” love that is different than—through just as meaningful and important as—the love between a husband and wife. In romantic love (Eros), Lewis writes, two humans look face to face, absorbed in one another. Friends, on the other hand, stand side by side—looking out together, absorbed by some shared interest, or at some beauty or wonder that is best experienced with another person.
My Best Friend is that rare film that elevates friendship and human connection as something more than just a means to an end or a plot device (used in all the various “buddy” genres) to highlight comedic banter. It reminds us, ever so joyfully, that the experiences of this life—all the grand and elusive wonders we pursue—are only made better when we experience them with others.
People look at me strangely when I tell them I’m not on MySpace (nor have I ever been), and that I have no desire to join Facebook or anything like it. As much as I hear how great Facebook is—for reconnecting with old friends, checking up on acquaintances from elementary school (or just stalking)—I can’t find any real reason to get on the bandwagon.
Sure, it might be interesting to reconnect with those childhood buddies with whom I sat around campfires, explored creeks and woods or traded baseball cards. It might even be interesting to track down some of the people I sat with in Oxford pubs till all hours of the night two summers ago, and resume a digital conversation with them. But a lot of the sacred joy of human connection comes from how rare it is. It’s not everyday that you look in the face of some fellow human—on the beach at dusk, on a summer night around a campfire, across the table at a pub—and see something of God’s grace. As C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, no human is a mere mortal … “next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” Even so, it’s hard to think that way, and our human mechanisms against viewing each other as holy only rarely breakdown.
I remember as a kid, after a week of camp, I would write letters (no email back then) to friends I’d made there. The letter correspondence would sometimes last about a month before it would trail off and we’d both be thoroughly returned to our busy, normal existences. And it was better this way. Sometimes you can know a person for one week one summer, and know them better than you’ve every known anyone.
I just finished reading the new and final Harry Potter book (The Deathly Hallows), and I feel both sad—but ultimately enriched—that these characters I’ve come to know and love are at the end of their fictional journey. I love how central friendship and love are to the themes of the book, from the beautiful opening quote by William Penn (“This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal”) to Dumbledore’s final advice to Harry (“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love”). Friendship is immortal because it is temporal and unconditional. We diminish it when we turn it into something we use—a commodity we can collect and (in the case of Facebook/Myspace) showcase online.
The problem with the Facebook/Myspace community is that it lives in cheap abundance, not invaluable scarcity. It provides the illusion that by being constantly in touch with a person, you can know them more; that by accepting a “friend request,” you have made a real life, human connection. You haven’t. Facebook allows us to have a broad network of “contacts,” but contacts are not humans (as Francois in My Best Friend comes to understand; as Voldemort in Harry Potter understands but scoffs at). Digital “friends” feel more useful than they do holy. Avatars can never compare to the real, precious physicality of a human being, just as the connections on “Face” book cannot compare to what is possible in actual face-to-face, soul-to-soul communication.
But I don’t expect this will dissuade any of you from happily going about your online social-networking business, and nor should it. I only mention it because I feel myself ever less connected when I use these “communication-enabling” technologies, and ever more connected when I experience those rare and heavenly moments of oneness, mutuality, and communion that words, photos, or html language can never effectively convey.