The role of the church is to take up space in the world. But in our brave new social media world, governed more by virtual reality than physical presence, it’s becoming harder to do so. In a culture when nearly everyone is living an alternative reality on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is it possible for the church to offer a divergent reality? Simply, does the Gospel have an answer for the social media trends disfiguring our humanity? If Jesus doesn’t, Don Draper sure does…
The day he quit tobacco was quintessential Don Draper: impetuous, brash and utterly brilliant. His advertising agency on the hit show MadMen was teetering near bankruptcy after the loss of their largest client, Lucky Strike cigarettes. Hoping to change both the conversation and the trajectory of the company, Don’s ‘I broke up with her, she didn’t break up with me’ full-page New York Times editorial condemning the cigarette industry saved SCDP’s soul, and her bottom line.
His agency was peddling a product that never improved, caused illness and made people unhappy. Everyone knew it wasn’t good for them, but they couldn’t stop. Don could have written the exact same thing about another addictive product: social media.
The average American spends over 11 hours a day online, three of those hours spent on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In fact, if Facebook was a country it would check in as the third largest nation in the world, with over 1.3 billion users. It rarely improves, makes people psychologically unhealthy and is creating a culture of lonely narcissists. And akin to tobacco, it is killing us. Much like Draper’s chain smoking customers, we are addicted.
A 2012 Harvard University research study revealed that sharing personal information about ourselves is an intrinsically rewarding activity targeting the ‘nucleas accumbens’ area of the brain. This is the very same region of the brain that lights up when cocaine or other illicit drugs are digested. In a separate report, The University of Chicago determined that social media cravings rank higher, and are harder to resist than nicotine cravings. “If you look at people in a restaurant, nobody is having conversations anymore. They’re sitting at dinner looking at their phones because their brains are so addicted to it.” And why? Because we are both bent toward narcissism and bored with reality. ‘Like’ me, notice me, help me escape the here and now. The constant contact from status updates, ‘favorites’, re-tweets, and ‘likes’ attempts to fill the vacuum in our soul. But in reality, we are more isolated, alone and distracted than ever before. “This media we call social is anything but.”
Social media advertises real relationships and personal significance by making three bold promises: you will never be alone, you are not bound by place or time, and you are perfectible. Online, you are no longer tethered by human limitations. Yet our physical nature begs for concrete existence. Being human necessitates we inhabit real, geographic place: this town, this neighborhood, this house with these people. Second, we are anchored in time. We have a fixed past, we inhabit the present, and we anticipate a real future. And finally, we are broken and incomplete, not ideal.
Yet social media sells a surrogate personal phenomenon, one that may not be very human after all. On Facebook, you can be anywhere and everywhere all at once, yet present nowhere. You can chat with Sam in Vancouver, while ‘liking’ Brandon’s pictures in New York, all the while neglecting your kids in the next room. Secondarily, you can manipulate your past, control your present and project your perfect self. The virtual you isn’t fixed, it isn’t fallen, it is editable and perfectible. You can take the perfect picture, from the perfect angle, to pimp your perfect self. But, is the virtual you the real you or a distorted version of reality? And, how is the endless amount of time spent on ourselves impacting our witness in the world?
We’ve added Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to our lives but haven’t added any hours to our day. “The decision to be on online on Facebook is simultaneously a decision not to be doing something else.” We are trading connection for intimacy, self-promotion for presence, and the virtual for the real. Social media isn’t making us more human, in many ways it is creating ‘post-humans’, disembodied creatures disconnected and disengaged with the physical world. And while virtual existence is expanding our world, it is also shrinking reality down to the three inch screen in front of our face. It seems being informed is more important than being present.
The totality of our technological enculturation is causing the church to lose her identity. We are abandoning both the tradition and praxis of living as the physical manifestation of Christ in the world. Christianity is more and more inward, private, individualistic, and neighborless. Instead of enduring as parish people rooted in a geographic community, we are tempted to exist primarily in pseudo-reality, tending to our own needs instead of the needs of the other. In fact, the virtual world has no use for the outsider. The sick, the vulnerable, and the handicapped don’t even exist in cyberspace. But the Body of Christ abides in the present to call into question this provisional reality.
“We need to learn to be where we are.” The Gospel isn’t an abstract theory, it is a lived reality. Yet our addiction to the virtual is hindering the ability to be the fully enfleshed Body of Christ in and for the world. In a culture of social media addicts, the church functions to challenge the dominant ordering of relationships. The prophetic call of God is for his people to live as an alternative social reality, to nurture and nourish a subversive narrative. As the world runs headlong into the virtual abyss, we stand fixed in the physical, advertising the one corporeal thing we have to give, our full humanity. “It is hard for us to admit that our flawed humanity is the nearest thing to God on earth and that what gives humanity its special character is precisely its possibility and desire to become ever more like God.”
The Incarnation reminds us that God is very interested in the physical. “Matter matters to God.” Bread, wine, water, hands, and feet divulge the divine. The material is sacramental. It’s what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘the scandal of the particular.’ Simply, the physical world is a doorway to the universal. God has chosen to reveal eternity in the concrete, making our very humanity the sacramental expression of the living Christ. Maybe that is why we should be so cautious when abandoning the physical for the virtual.
Christianity will not survive without the body. An embodied, present God desires an embodied, present people as His witness to the world. Our existence with others is the physical mediation of spiritual reality. Being mindful of, and living in the daily may well be the path out of our virtual, self addiction. What could you do if you took back those three hours a day you spend on social media? Your full presence in the life of the world may not only change your community or neighborhood, it may well transform your own physical and psychological well being.
That’s why I’m breaking up with social media. It’s not you Facebook, it’s me.
— [Image by Robert Couse-Baker, CC via Flickr]  Gregoire, Carolyn. The Huffington Post. “Research Links Addictive Social Media Behavior With Substance Abuse.” December 13, 2014.  Meikle, James. TheGuardian.com. “Twitter is Harder To Resist Than Cigarettes and Alcohol, Study Finds.” February 3, 2012.  Brewer, Judson. “60 Minutes Explores the Rise of Mindfullness.” An Interview With Anderson Cooper.  Turk, Gary. “Look Up.”  Jones, Steve. Sociology Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago.  Williams, Rowan.  Casey, Michael. Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology. Liguori/Triumph Press, 2004.  Taylor, Barbara Brown.”Matter Matters”. TheWorkOfThePeople.Com