The New Messengers

By Robert B. Stuart

In religious texts, messengers appear as angels. Raphael, Michael, Gabriel, the unnamed angels who visited Abraham and Sarah. These spirits in human form appear in the stories to share information or to stand in for God. To be a divine messenger. The messages are good news, except when they’re not. Or it depends on the audience. In apocalyptic literature in sacred texts, the angels augur dire events that, depending where you see yourself in divine history, can be understood as good news or bad. 

But then who needs divine history? We have Messenger in Facebook. I find myself in something of a quandary here. Facebook can feel like some latter-day secular religious system, Zuckerberg the — no, I won’t say it. He’s not a god, though he seems to act like one. I’m not picking on him. Other superior beings fly through the ether of our computers and devices demanding obeisance. There are consequences if we don’t go along, don’t join the throng of devotees. If not ostracized, we’re at least separated out by our own choice into a wilderness of vague religious remembrance.

I was recently traveling on Amtrak. A train, earthbound. I was reading a book. I do have a phone for texting, which is helpful as a messenger, to connect with others while in transit. I noticed, however, on that trip that I was the only one around me who was not connected through Wi-Fi to some page on a screen. Is Wi-Fi another angel? I don’t understand these things. That I read a book suggests I am antediluvian in modern time.

Back to Facebook. The purpose of my recent train trip was to visit an ailing sister who lives in Blacksburg, Va. That’s an actual geographic place with a discernible topography. I stayed with a nephew and his wife. They are religious conservatives, though not wackos. In the bonds of real family, I respect them as they do me, with my more liberal persuasions. 

I went with them to a Wednesday evening “house fellowship” from their church. It was a good experience, meaning there was pleasant social exchange along with honest engagement with a biblical text. They were into the Book of Daniel where, behold, we meet the angel Michael. Michael has an apocalyptic message for Daniel, which in theme with variations is also written in the Book of Revelation. Messengers all over the place, to and fro in time.

In my immediate time as a religious fellowship guest in Blacksburg, the leader for the evening, who referred to Daniel and by sidestep to Revelation, asked, “And who might the Antichrist be today?” It’s a favorite question for those engaged in apocalyptic speculations. There was a pause after the question, then I rushed in where angels fear to tread and said, “How about Facebook?” My nephew laughed, I think with a degree of appreciation for my thought.

I’ve said I’m in a quandary about Facebook. That’s because I’d just as soon delete myself from it, considering its darker spiritual empyreans. But then Facebook Messenger is how I communicate with friends in Cuba. Especially younger friends who, like their counterparts here, eschew emailing in favor of Facebook or other social media. Messenger is like the appearance of an angel with an instant message, though not so scary as in religious texts. There is no mantra, “Do not be afraid.” No one seems to be afraid of Facebook, except maybe curmudgeons like me who peer onto the screen darkly but see not an emergent image of salvation but hidden behind the screen, oh no, Mark Zuckerberg.

Pay no attention to the man behind the screen! I wish I could. 

I’ve been going to Cuba for a number of years. Up until recently I’ve had to wait through an intervening year to pick up communication with friends, except for snail mail, which mysteriously through a third agency (an angel?) transmitted mailed letters. That took time, sometimes more than a month. The Cuban government (another arbiter of communication) has relaxed its restrictions to the extent that many Cubans now have smartphones or access to a computer, and by those windows get to Messenger. Or Instagram. Retire the old gods and the angels of our forebears, look what we have now! 

One day I was sitting in the home of a young friend of mine in Guines, Cuba. He’s 22, smart, gorgeous girlfriend, loving family, employed, and computer literate. He doesn’t speak English, and we haltingly converse in Spanish. I’m not fluent, and he and his mother and grandparents tolerate my constructions. I believe I was not given the angel of linguistics. I have to be my own angel, and I work at it. So, the young man was explaining to me that he and I could communicate when I’m back home if he sent a message by Facebook to my son, and my son could forward it to me. I then said, “I’m on Facebook.” He was dumbfounded. At my age, on Facebook? 

Ah, Messenger. Now this young man and I communicate as do others in Cuba who are friends of friends of . . . including me, and isn’t that just what Facebook loves? The system grows upon itself. Could its god be happier? 

You see my conundrum. I have dark suspicions about Facebook. At the same time its angel Messenger allows me to communicate with friends with whom I otherwise could not communicate, or not so easily. Plus, thank you, Cuban government, for allowing its citizens to do that now. Of course, that’s another subject, the Cuban government. They and our government are not exactly Facebook friends. Obama tried, but he’s been trumped. Tweet. 

Where does this leave me? I feel I could be self-exiled to a wilderness without Facebook, though I keep my finger on it. I don’t think the angels of our religious texts like that kind of both/and. Look, you’re either in or out. Which god will it be? What angels do you want to play with, anyway? 

I do like those old guys, Raphael or Michael, Gabriel. And what about the angels appearing to ragtag shepherds on a hillside, shouting, “Glory to God in the highest.” Oh, they’re singing. Right. I’m writing this essay in that holy season. I preach at the Springs Presbyterian Church. Angels abounding.

I’m not really a curmudgeon, and I’m not puzzled by the technology of communications. Oh, maybe a little, but I’m not opposed to it. I’m just raising questions at year’s end with a few ill-sorted associations. Odd-lot thoughts, you might say. I share them in good old print media, The Star, reliable messenger that it is. Slight obscene gesture to Zuckerberg’s Frankenstein.

A toast to what endures, technology or no, at year’s end, from a well-known source:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 

— A. Lincoln

The Rev. Robert B. Stuart lives in Springs.