Gary Taylor recently posted his full-page ad Don Draper style: this is the year he’s quitting Facebook. I want to persuade him to stay. Don’t go Gary!
Gary worries that social media is putting us in a virtual world that marginalizes the real and physical church. Social media is “disfiguring our humanity” he argues, and for the church, “Christianity will not survive without the body.”
I get it. There’s an understandable reaction to realizing the family is digesting post-Christmas dinner with faces lit by tiny screens (well, except Grandma) or finding ourselves idling through our Facebook feed while new year’s projects sit undone. That dishwasher isn’t going to unload itself.
To be fair, Gary has a higher concern in mind: the nature and mission of the Church. Trouble is, I don’t think the cultural story is right here. I think it’s lopsided and may be missing the point in an unintentional but significant way. Could we reconsider?
Is social media a place where we fake perfection?
It certainly could be. Although have you ever been to a cocktail party? Or a job interview? Truth is, humans have been trying to put our best foot forward for a real long time. (Hair care products are predicted to be an 82 billion dollar industry by 2017—that slicked back look matches my skinny jeans). To the extent that we strive to hide our sin and brokenness from others, we’re likely to do so in our social media interactions too.
But while early iterations of the Cyber-Universe might have given us some real chances at faking it until we made it, culture and technology are changing. The emerging social reality is the exact opposite: you don’t have as much control as you think you do.
I don’t mean this as creepily as it sounds—although with Target and North Korea, our information is serious stuff these days. But less maliciously: in a world where anyone in your church or family or work can snap a quick iPhone shot of you and post it online, it’s increasingly true that what’s online about us is not from us. Loss of image control is the real digital story.
This presents its own challenge for Christians—but it’s such a good one. This inability to untag our way to fakeness is a remarkable invitation to live congruently in all areas of our lives and ministry. Deep integrity like God and others are watching.
Is social media inhuman or false relationship?
This is the bedrock assumption of Gary’s whole proposal, isn’t it? Social media interactions—comments and likes—are disembodied parodies of real relationship. To leave Facebook is to leave a fake place and trade it for a real one.
As I write this, a journalism student at the Citrus Bowl just tweeted:
Hi all, I’m stuck on the third floor press elevator at the @BWWCitrusBowl. Can someone please come get me? Thanks – Mike
Ha! Hard not to laugh at first. But Mike seemed genuinely stuck! Fortunately, the fake people replied quickly and the fake fire department rescued him using escape door on the top of the elevator car.
Just kidding, the firefighters were 100% real and Mike is doing great.
Okay, I’m being snarky, but just like e-mail, voicemail, or (gasp) letters, our interactive communications represent real problems, real ideas, and real people. Language is so human it’s part of many definitions of the same. To communicate is to reflect the imago dei.
Social media is massively human not only because it was created by humans but because the content of the medium (there’s a whole lot stuffed in that phrase I’m gonna just skip) is human thought. And human emotion. And human drama and ineptitude and complaint and encouragement.
My friend as a mom sometimes has some rough days. She often posts her frustrations. (“Help! I’m not sure I can be patient with my 3-year-old much longer…”) and receives instant and quick encouragement. These encouragements matter to her because of this key point: social media doesn’t replace relationships—it extends the ones we have.
Sure, there may be a Sandra Bullock-like nerd sitting in the dark recesses of internet-land and subsisting only on machine-ordered pizza and code, but for most of us our interactions in social media are with the people from our community: church family, work. It’s the stuff of baby announcements and checkout line complaints and even deep pain. We continue the conversation from a Sunday morning hug into the entire week. Is that really less engaged? Increasingly, to miss life expressed in social media is to miss something important.
New technologies can mean a stretch. A disorientation. Time and space do feel different in a digital culture. This was also true of the cell phone and the (nerd alert) 1846 electric telegraph—the first time communications moved faster than a human body (poor Pony Express). Yet new communications modes haven’t ever successfully removed the people behind them.
Is social media an addiction?
Sometimes we feel these urges to check our phones. A lot. Maybe there’s something to this addiction idea. This isn’t even the first cigarette metaphor, Skye Jethani did a real clever version of this a couple years back.
Gary cites a couple university studies. If he’ll forgive me for being a little nitpicky, I’d worry that some might think his top citation study (Albany) says that anyone using social media could lead to addiction. It doesn’t. It says for a group of less than 10% of people studied, they had “disordered use” of online social networking. The group was the same group more likely to have emotional impulse control and alcohol addictions as well. Something for us to watch for as we give pastoral care in our churches: this may be a real problem for a few.
The Harvard study Gary cites does talk about how fulfilling it feels for us to self-disclose to others: even affects our brain! Trouble with that study it that it wasn’t about social media, but about any self-disclosure. This is essential to intimacy and community, I’d hope, regardless of late night Facebook chat about our doubts about God or in-person at our local indie coffee shop.
Yet I’m not dismissive of this “do I use my phone too much?” thought. The phone is ever-present in my life (as the daytimer was before). I don’t want to make the phone evil, but I do want to live a life of discernment. Did I just reach for my phone to avoid listening to persistent voice of Holy Spirit? Did I let that red number become my excuse to avoid the awkward person at church? I repent!
What’s the incarnation about anyway?
The incarnation is the the perfect place to bring this together. God enfleshed as one of us—this is critical and central Christian theology. Gary rightly reminds us this an affirmation of Creation and, I’d add further: the mode and template of redemption (inside out!).
Yet here’s the next word: we relate to the incarnated Jesus in what way? It’s not hugs and eye contact. I hope I don’t sound flippant—I don’t mean to—it’s just the real observation that our relationship to the real Jesus is not “IRL” as the kids say. Instead, his real presence is mediated through the church: the People and the Table. To say the presence of Christ is mediated is not to reduce but to describe and challenge how Presence works.
An invitation to mission
I couldn’t agree with Gary’s theology more: a lived, active church on God’s mission for the sake of the world is exactly where I want to be. I just don’t think social media is a barrier to that—in fact, I think it’s part of the new increasingly relational and fast-moving culture that we want to naturally integrate and adapt to as we seek to make disciples of all nations.
I’m not rosy-cheeked about all technology or culture—these embody both sin and grace as much as their human creators. Yet transitions to new communications paradigms have always felt to Christians like we’re sucumbing to entertainment or slipping from basics—you should read the sermons about the evils of the paperback novel. (More sermons about tech thoughts here)
I suggest our route forward is less about wholesale discard than new discernments of what it means to be the body of Christ in new spaces. A new way of relating is not the absence of relationship.
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— [Image by Master OSM 2011, CC via Flickr]