Online objects of spiritual significance

Tomorrow I am heading down to London to take part in the (so far excellent – tomorrow might pull the average down) Westminster Faith Debates series. One of the organisers contacted me and the other speakers to introduce us to an artist, a photographer, who is working on a series of portraits of people holding an object that is of spiritual significance to them. Would we like to take part? Yes, I said, and then today thought about what to take…

What objects matter to me, spiritually? My initial thoughts could not get very far beyond a Bible. This seemed rather cliched, and I wondered whether just to pull out. I did what every good digital native would do, and crowd-sourced the question on Twitter. A rapid and fascinating exchange ensued with – as is common in at least that corner of Twitter I inhabit – much humour (WWJD bracelet; plain chocolate digestives); much wisdom (‘take one of your daughters’ – YES! but impractical…; ‘the Bible doesn’t matter as an object, it is the teaching it transmits’…); and some surprising realisations (‘take a cross’ // ‘you know what – I don’t actually own a cross, and I’d never consciously noticed that before …’)

Helped by friends, I began to think more deeply. A book that has influenced me? Yes – but my good copies of Brother Lawrence and Mother Julian are in the wrong office for me to take either tomorrow now, and actually today I’d pick Phoebe Palmer’s Promise of the Father over either, which I’ve only ever read online – I have no physical copy to take.

There is music – Matt Redman’s You Never Let Go was the track Heather and I both had on repeat the weekend she was hospitalised by blood loss following the birth of our third daughter, and I was hearing of the death of my father. But I don’t think I own the CD – I listen to it on iPlayer.

Alongside that there are places – I think of several, but one in particular, a place where I have only ever prayed with deep seriousness, on the seashore, always at dawn or dusk. There, echoing Jacob’s own liminal encounter, I have from time to time wrestled with God – and never yet found my prayers unanswered. But I cannot take chunks of Fife coastline with me to a photoshoot in London!

I reflected. I threw an idea out, with an explicit hesitation: what about my iPhone? On that screen I read Scripture, more often than not; follow the daily office that structures my prayers; listen to the music that means most to me; and connect to the very friends who were encouraging, entertaining, and challenging me right then. But the phone itself is not a spiritual object for me – it is, in my eyes, beautifully designed, but to lose it would be a financial issue, but not a spiritual one.

And so I realised, with the help of friends: the things I value most spiritually are actually virtual objects. They are texts, or even meanings of texts, regardless of the format they come in – I have a beautiful leather-bound Bible, delightful to stroke, but the words are not more – or less – powerful there than read off a screen. They are recorded tunes, but the physical medium of the recording means nothing to me – I can play You Never Let Go from a dozen different devices, or hear/sing it ‘live’ in a congregation, and the personal impact does not change. And they are relationships: does the screen I skype my family on when away from home matter? No – it is replaceable; but the fact of being able to skype my family matters enormously.

I value the Bible, not any particular Bible. And ‘the Bible’ is a virtual object: it is a set of data and meta-data, that can be expressed in various physical forms. My smartphone is profoundly important to me spiritually, because by carrying that one object I have access to the virtual objects necessary or helpful for my own practices of devotion; I have contact with friends who I can pray for, or who will pray for me; and I have access to a wealth of resources, audio, video, text, many of which are profoundly meaningful for stages in my journey so far.

I am not sure I can explain all that in a one-line caption, and so I am not sure whether a smart phone is the right object. The Bible still says something clearly and powerfully, something that does matter to me profoundly. I will probably take several things with me tomorrow, and perhaps not decide which to exhibit till I walk on to the photographer’s set.

But the discussion on Twitter was genuinely enlightening, as well as affirming and entertaining, and I am grateful to friends and counsellors, some of whom I have never met, for that.


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