Emoji Evangelism

By Cindy Koch

It’s how all the kids are talking these days. Short, quick pictures in a language of their own. Emoji characters, each displaying a carefully selected message through tiny, pixilated picture. Even I am getting the hang of communicating this way. In our modern world of texts and picture captions, sometimes you need a good smiley face or sarcastic wink to convey the sentiment of our condensed disconnected comment. In a real face-to-face conversation, you might be able to pick up on the inflections in my voice, or hear the subtle laugh, or recognize the serious tone to distinguish just what we are talking about. But in cyber-land, tiny typed shapes take on a life of their own, traveling instantly over time and space, leaving the receiver to interpret our quick shorthand exchange.

Truly, it is a wonderous evolution that we are watching take place. Brief words. Blunted discussion. Yet behind these abbreviated conversations on our phone screen, a real person is communicating a thought. In the absence of physical connection with this person that would give us the non-verbal clues about the meaning, we have tiny yellow faces (and icons) to color in the personality of the words. A simple word can convey drastically different things depending on the one single emoji you decide to put after it.

So, while this phenomenon is an exciting time in the history of our language and human communication, it also is a time to consider what we are losing. Our massive and comprehensive written and spoken language we make smaller with every text and tweet. Because abbreviated phrases and emoticons are not simply a tool for quick communication. Rather, they have begun to narrow the way that all of us encounter the complexity of our everyday world.

Do you remember the days on Facebook when you could only “like” a friend’s comment? So when your best friend’s dog died, you were instantly stuck in the conundrum. Do you click “like” to sympathize? But what if you don’t “like” that your friend is going through this hard time? Do you click nothing and lead her to believe that you are not thinking of her in her pain? Of course, you could always comment with a nice couple of words expressing your condolences. But I know, you scrolled to the next conversation unsatisfied with the way you could express yourself.

Back then, we were limited by the language, the available Facebook communication options. Yes, I know, now there are at least six emojis you can respond with these days. And now you are more satisfied. Really? You are satisfied that you can only respond a measly six ways in conversation? In this, we are looking right past the impending tragedy that our language will suffer.

The way we are learning to communicate with short and sweet emojis transfers over to our real physical life lived among others. Six simple ways to interpret a situation. And we just might have begun to order our world in tiny, abbreviated categories. Happy. Sad. Love it. Hate it. Whoa – surprised. And our conversation about the things greater than us will surely follow. Happy. Sad. Love it. Hate it. Whoa.

So when we meet one who suffers, just as our Lord did, yet is pressing on to an eternal hope of comfort, what emoji will we use to describe that? When one laughs and cries in the very same breath, what character will show up on the screen? When we read the Psalms and pray with David in deadly fear and complete trust of the Almighty God, could a tiny picture ever capture the paradox of our faith? Our reactions in life are dangerously becoming black and white text, happy or sad faces.

The undeserved mercy given by Jesus Christ, which is the Gospel, smashes our simplistic emoticon categories we are learning to love. There is good in suffering. There is life in death. There is strength in the weak. There is Wisdom in the shameful. Our lives are wildly dysfunctional is every unique way possible. The Gospel is a life-giving, dynamic conversation breathed by the Word of God. And our emojis just can’t handle it.

But don’t fret. Boldly post smileys and hearts and piles of poop whenever you want. They will not do you any harm. But continue to be challenged by the ever-living Word, who will not be reduced to the crude categories we have created. Listen to the language our world does not understand. Because this Word will remain forever.