In The Circle, a movie that considers the role of privacy and community in our technology-driven culture, Emma Watson plays a character given a great opportunity to work for an enviable, cutting-edge company. It is a dream job because working at this facility includes a huge amount of benefits, from amazing grounds and facilities to comprehensive healthcare on site. It’s not just a job, it’s an entire community. Emma’s character, Mae, learns this immediately when she is able to get free medical care for her sick father. In addition, after her first week at work, she goes home for the weekend only to find out on Monday that she is considered a mystery person because she didn’t share her plans over the weekend.
As the movie continues, it becomes increasingly clear that privacy is something that is discouraged and they literally mean “caring is sharing.” At first, she is resistant to this intrusion, but one fateful night changes her perspective.
The company’s founder Eamon played by Tom Hanks reveals a breakthrough camera device that, although exceedingly tiny, can give real-time, crystal clear footage. One night, in her frustration over personal issues in her life, she steals a kayak and goes out on the water. Rough waters cause her to capsize, and her life is in jeopardy. Fortunately, the coast guard is alerted and is able to come to her rescue. The reason for this though is only because Eamon’s cameras at the kayaking facility and atop buoys were able to transmit her distress.
This is a turning point for Mae who is then brought into the inner circle of this company. She makes a public confession of her wrongs by stating that it was because she thought no one knew what she was doing that she attempted the illegal action of taking the kayak and putting her life in danger. She agrees to go completely transparent wearing a camera all day every day.
A Dangerous Transparency
Initially, this goes well with her parents becoming accessible to her through multiple cameras in their home. That is until she logs in to find them in an intimate act, after which they shut down all the cameras and request their privacy. The storyline quickly deteriorates with Mae beginning to see the danger of full disclosure reaching a horrifying climax with the death of her friend. This moment, however, helps her to see the dangers behind this philosophy. Her revenge is fittingly ironic–with the help of a friend, she brings full disclosure to the head leaders of the company. The revelation of their hypocrisy and dishonesty essentially means the end of their careers.
In the movie, the concept of community revolves around a clear sin and redemption scenario. Sin is hiding things or desiring privacy. Redemption is found by sharing as much of their lives as possible. When Mae takes the step of full disclosure, she becomes a hero and celebrity. Their goal is to create accountability to the group with the sharing of information to keep people from making bad choices. However, this full disclosure does not include the leadership.
An Inward Work
The Gospel speaks a different message, although with some familiar tunes of community, sin, and redemption. In our faith, sin is the result of pride and redemption lies in a humble acceptance of God’s work and truth. In contrast to the goal of community that outwardly thwarts sinful actions, God works inwardly. He transforms people from the inside bringing inward obedience, instead of an emphasis on outward conformity. It is this inside-out work that actually allows true community. Because we have been transformed, we are able to do the hard work of loving and forgiving our neighbor which is the cornerstone of true community.
Furthermore, where full disclosure of The Circle’s leadership brings the community crashing down, full disclosure of our true leader, Jesus, brings us to our knees and is the glue of our faith. It is his absolute righteousness that even makes my righteousness possible.
In fact, we learn in the New Testament of the concept of koinonia. The Greek lexicon reports that this word is used 17 times and can be translated as fellowship, participation, and sharing. It is the intimate living together in community that believers are meant to imitate. In the passages where it is being used, we see a desire to meet together for encouragement, an emphasis on God’s word, a provision of needs, a commitment to purity, gospel proclamation, sharing resources, and a focus on performing God’s will. However, these things are birthed out of a healthy understanding of what God is doing in each person’s heart. They are byproducts of a right relationship with God.
True Community Starts with Love
Though this is the true picture of community, more often than not, churches attempt the backwards approach seen in the movie, emphasizing an outward model rather than God’s inward out. There is a selfishness in this approach–a demand for conformity before love is given. In addition, we observe a similar hypocrisy to the leaders of the Circle when instances of abuse are brought to light in the church while these same leaders are teaching about morality.
The desire for community is rampant in our culture. The church must first model what true koinonia looks like by first remembering how God works. He does the slow, often hidden, work in each person’s heart, but He invites us first into His love and into community. If we can imitate God’s patient, inside-out approach with people, our churches will become the model of community that our world needs to see.