A Very Quick Look at Social Media

In the ancient lore of our culture, from a time so long ago the children of the race of Men have all but forgotten, we read of a book. This book, legend says, contained the names of individual people — and not just names, but copies of their likenesses as well. In fact, the myth goes so far as to state this book of likenesses — a book of faces — was simply known as a face book, and it served to help people put names to faces, faces which they would actually encounter in real life — face to face.

How absurd.

Yet similar legends exist. One maintains the existence of personal territories, areas rightly called (by their owners) “My Space.” Still another decisively refers to such diverse things as birdsong and heart palpitations as “twitter.”

Ludicrous.

It’s easy to laugh at how the world changes and drags language along with it. The simplest of words mutates and gains a new referent even as the objects and concepts themselves gain new linguistic signifiers. Such is the way of the evolution of language. But as fascinating as that is to geeks like me, that’s another topic for another day. Today I want to deal with the contemporary iterations of those things I mentioned above: Facebook, MySpace (such as it is), Twitter, and their ilk. Today’s topic is the theology of social media. And, yes, there is a theological way to discuss social media, just as there are ways to theologically consider every other aspect and artifact of our culture (and the others, too). So let’s begin at the beginning.

Social media encompasses the sphere of digital platforms used primarily to communicate with other people and stay abreast of their lives. It’s those things we use to publicly share personal information about ourselves and receive information in kind with which we may then interact. The biggest social media platform is, of course, Facebook, but social media also include things like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what’s going on behind the scenes.

At first blush, they’re pretty handy things. I’ve sworn multiple times that I would delete my Facebook profile if it weren’t so useful. I can communicate with people rapidly and unintrusively. I can keep up with news on all levels as well as the goings-on of individual lives. I can share images and articles I want people to see without having to plan a time to get together for a group discussion. And I can re-evaluate all of my life choices when someone I haven’t spoken to in a decade wants to reconnect and I’m forced to wonder why we were ever friends in the first place. Plus there’s a darker side, the side of online bullying, harassment, stalking, and similar evils. Of course, all of these things are possible on any social network, not just Facebook. They’re simply inherent in the social media system.

In our current day and age, participation in social media is practically mandatory. Employers ask for your Facebook profile, church members read your blog (hi, guys!), and family follow you on Twitter, reading your profundities 140 characters at a time. It’s incredibly difficult to fully extricate yourself from the digital age; how, then, should a Christian think about it all?

The first thing is to recognize digital presence is but a travesty of personal presence. Yes, you have 3,126 friends online, but how many do you ever take out to lunch? Do you have friends over for tea, or do you only talk to them whilst at home through a computer or cell phone? Electronic messages can’t convey tone or vocal inflection and are thus easily misunderstood. What messages are better said face-to-face? I realize I grew up in the South (by the grace of God), but I believe so much conflict could be avoided if we’d simply sit together on the porch drinking sweet tea and talking together instead of typing out our grievances and leaving our passive-aggressive words on the Internet for their intended target to trip over.

It only gets worse when we allow our online presence to overshadow our personal, physical presence. How many times have you gone out to eat and witnessed an entire family seated at the same table but not speaking to each other, all because they’re all glued to their phones? They would rather be online than at the same table with each other. Many have lost the ability to listen to someone else for an extended period of time without consulting Facebook or a Twitter feed. (And let’s be honest: that’s not really listening, now, is it?) Our attention spans are suffering, our ability to interact with others is deteriorating, all because we’ve traded in physical presence for social media.

Second, social media can be (and often are) the perfect tools of deception. I’m not even talking about all those posts no one ever bothers to fact-check. I’m talking about us, ourselves. It’s easy to be brave over the Internet and talk to your “crush.” But if you haven’t the courage to do it in person, why waste his/her time acting like someone you’re not? We can fully edit everything about our personalities simply by sitting at a keyboard in a different location than our interlocutor. (And don’t get me started on PhotoShop.)

It should be obvious to the Christian that these two concerns alone merit caution. We are a people of authentic community. We’re called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), to be a family, a single body of brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 12). These are hard to to do if you’re never in the same room together. While it’s certainly a boon to us to have easy communication with each other, under no circumstances can we let that be our sole presence. We must be physically present so we can laugh together and hold each other when we cry. We should strive (if we are medically able) to be bodily present during times of worship. No form of online “community” can ever replace that. Likewise, we are a people of truth who follow the one who is Truth (John 14:6). If we masquerade about on the Internet, disguising ourselves, pretending to be someone we’re not, then we’re not of God but of Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

While social media can be a great tool to connect us (at surface level) with another human being, and while it can even enable to share our faith (when done properly), it can also be a place for both explicit deception and counterfeit community (among other things). But since it’s all but inevitable we participate in this digital age, all I can say is this:

Log on with caution.

Decade Three: Complete

Two days hence, on Thursday, I shall turn thirty years of age. Since I will finally be a white male aged 30+, the world will start taking me seriously and listening to what I have to say.

. . . That was extremely difficult to type with a straight face.

Everyone says a switch flips when you turn thirty. You see life differently. Values and priorities change. You lay aside the wild child years of your twenties (did I even have any of those?) and settle down. The onus of adulthood finally crystallizes, becomes real, and presses against your shoulders as if to say, “Welcome to the real world. I’m here to stay.” Or so they say, at any rate. I honestly can’t imagine much of a shift in things aside from the slightly-wider eyes of small children who ask me how old I am and receive the response, “I’m thirty.” All I have to say to that is, “Those kids don’t get any birthday cake.”

Yup. That’s the mature, adult response, all right.

I suppose there’s an element of truth to those sorts of caveats, though. After all, I’m in the final throes of my twenties, and I didn’t accomplish half the things I had set out to do during the last decade.

  1. Graduate college — CHECK
  2. Get master’s degree — CHECK
  3. Get doctorate — Do I even still want this? Maybe?
  4. Get married — I don’t even have a girlfriend now. Zero points.
  5. Have at least one child by 30 — Since #4 didn’t happen, this would have been a pretty bad idea.
  6. Get job — CHECK
  7. Get own place (so long, parental units, and thanks for all the fish) — CHECK
  8. Become a superhero (no capes!) — Despite a number of spider bites and an affinity for bats, this one didn’t pan out, either. But hey, at least I didn’t become a supervillain, thus defying everyone’s expectations!

Alright, so I guess I managed four out of eight, which is exactly half. And to be fair, some weren’t realistic anyway. (And I wanted to be a superhero, too.)

All told — and in all seriousness — the last decade was pretty solid. Despite some genuinely rough patches, my twenties were good years. I found my passion in life. I found my calling. I made the best friendships of my life — I even managed to make friends out of my parents, which is something Teenage Chris never saw coming. I discovered I can be at home halfway across the country, and I affirmed the simple life is the best one. I learned I’m stronger than I look, both physically and emotionally. I grew in faith, wisdom, knowledge, and love. I grew closer to God than ever before, and that’s all you can really hope for in the end.

But I also learned about the faithfulness of God in times of adversity. My grandmother died the night before I graduated college, and so I learned how to celebrate even in the hard times. I was faced with the task of disposing of an engagement ring after my then-fiancee decided she didn’t want it anymore. I grew to know how to handle anxiety attacks when faced with a job that paid the bills but made my soul shrink inside me. I learned humility by going through extended periods of unemployment, moving back in with my parents, and having to ask for money no employer would give me in exchange for a day’s work. I discovered firsthand how differently grief can affect people, as the love for a grandfather which drove me to conduct his funeral also forced my uncle to demolish my grandparents’ house. There was sadness and pain and anger and despair. But every step of the way, God was there to see me through.

All of that to say: my twenties were great years, even if they were horrible at times, too.

But that’s life, isn’t it? Ups and downs, valleys and mountaintops. My thirties will be no different, I suspect. I don’t expect to feel ancient and withered by the end of them (or when I awake Thursday morning), nor do I expect a bed of roses for the next ten years. I expect reality. I expect work to be done. I anticipate joy and sorrow, hope and regret — sometimes at the same time. I’m looking for a challenge, and I’m looking to God to make me equal to the task.

So bring it on, thirty. Break out the black balloons and the “you’re so old” jokes. Because the way I see it, I’ve only finished around a third of my life, and the best is yet to come.

F.A.Q.: Called To . . . What?

It’s no secret among my friends that I have an irrational hatred of telephones. To be completely transparent, this animosity frequently devolves into an outright phobia. Part of it is a generational thing, it would seem, as the Internet is rife with jokes (many self-deprecating) at the expense of the up-and-comings’ disdain for Bell’s claim to fame. But I can’t pin all of the blame on groupthink. After all, it’s my personal psych profile which reads “intense dislike of using the telephone for interpersonal communication” (or at least it would be if I had an actual psych profile). And why, do you ask? Because I don’t care for surprises. I am not a man given to randomness, and my phone always rings unexpectedly. That interruption was not a pre-programmed part of my day, and yet it demands my immediate attention nonetheless. To make a call is to force that same disruption into the live of someone else. Truly, it’s nigh unforgivable. This is why I sometimes simply let my cell go to voicemail and why I must mentally brace myself before making a call of my own.

Ghastly things, telephones. Beastly.

Luckily for me (and for people like me), when God places a calling on our lives, He doesn’t use a telephone. He does, however, use a variety of other means of communication. Prayer is one oft-used medium, particularly listening prayers geared specifically toward discernment. Reading Scripture is also helpful to discern a calling — just don’t treat it like a Magic 8 Ball. (For those who opt to neglect this warning and pursue the first vocation visible upon randomly opening their Bibles, I offer the additional caveat of the sheer number of slaves and prostitutes present in our holy book.) Fasting can aid discernment, as can any of the unmentioned spiritual disciplines. Most commonly, it seems to me, God uses other people to show us our calling.

How, you ask? Think about your time in school. (Try not to shudder. Still upper lip and all that.) If you had a truly good teacher at some point along the way, which I hope you did, they encouraged you to pursue a certain path. “Have you ever thought about studying _______?” “You’re really good at ________; maybe you should look into that more in the future.” “I think you’d make a great _______!” Other people besides teachers may have done this as well. Parents, friends, spouses, church members, pastors. This external affirmation of one’s internal gifting is quite possibly God’s way of nudging you along the path to your calling. Of course, those people can be wrong at times, too. I remember one teacher I had in high school who was positive I should go into radio (it would seem I had the voice for broadcast journalism, just not the face). But even the misapplication of a gift still points to a talent to be used. And where the voice of God unites in our hearts and the hearts of others (hopefully), there our calling lies. Occasionally God may call us to a task in defiance of others, yes, but rarely will He have us reject so many other Christian voices.

Perhaps I need to back up a step. We’ve talked about how God may issue a calling, but what is a calling, anyway? It’s what we consider a vocation (from the Latin vocare, “to call). Your calling is the work God created you to do. Now, don’t get me wrong: you can have a calling outside of your career (consider bi-vocational pastors, for example). On the flip side, a calling doesn’t have to be religious in nature. Perhaps you’re called to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a stay-at-home mom (or dad). But you could also be called to be an elder, a deacon, a pastor, a song leader . . . you get the idea. Frederick Buechner phrased it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Unadulterated bliss may not be a required component of calling, but bitterness and cynicism are right out, too. Put another way, as a common saying has it, your calling is to fix the problems you see in the world. Sick of pollution? You could be called to fix it. Have a passion for bringing lost souls to salvation? You could be called to do it vocationally. Illiteracy deeply troubles you? You could be called to teach. Your calling is your calling because your very soul won’t let you rest at night until you pursue it. Find your calling by finding where your passions meet a need in the service of the King.

And once you have your calling, do exactly that: work to use it for the kingdom of God. That’s why He called you in the first place: to use the gifts and graces you were given in His service. Whether you’re called to be a shepherd of souls or a sweeper of chimneys, your life can bring glory to God, and your calling can help bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

So when God calls, answer.

Let’s Hug Dating Hello

I come from the generation that kissed dating goodbye, as one rather popular book chose to phrase it. Christian teens and young adults everywhere opted to forgo traditional dating and just wait for “The One.” This meant dating would only be permissible among those who had intent to marry, as it were. As some still say, dating without the intention of getting married simply robs someone of their spouse for an indeterminate amount of time. And so casual dating was out; “I’m having my first date tonight with my future husband” was in.

Few relationships could withstand that sort of initial pressure. To place that kind of expectation in a relationship at the outset before you even truly know if you’d enjoy marriage to the other person . . . well, it has caused many a relationship to fail. I mean, dating is a way to get to know someone for who they are, not a way to immediately size up one’s marriage potential. I should be married to you to know you as my spouse; dating is the pathway, the vehicle to get that far. It’s the time for getting to know you, getting to know all about you — not a time for naming the kids or picking the color of the kitchen curtains.

All of that — the waiting, the learning — was deliberately kicked to the curb by my generation — by the Christians of my generation, specifically. The others aided the rise of our contemporary hookup culture, thereby also abandoning dating qua dating. If the only options were “God told me to marry you” and “Wanna come back to my place?” it’s little wonder things evolved into our current mess.

And a fine mess it is, too. Real dates, real romance seem to be non-existent. You’re on a date? Because it looks surprisingly like “let’s stare at our phones while in close proximity to each other.” No interaction with each other, no learning about the other and falling in love with the cute freckles on her nose (because you’re not even looking at each other). Just a passive co-existence near one another facilitated by technology. Of course, I have to be fair: there’s the opposite extreme of one’s level of interaction, the notorious (and infamous) “Netflix and chill.” Which, oddly enough, seems to involve a minimum of Netflix and practically zero “chill.”

What more can we expect of a culture where people meet by swiping right (left? up?) on a smartphone app or after a cursory glance at an online profile? We’ve lost our intentionality in even looking for someone to date; why should we expect any higher degree of purpose or deliberate action during the pursuit itself? It’s a bit sickening to watch the average guy treat the average girl (and vice versa) like a product in a shop window, someone who is so much more than a thumbnail image on the Internet. And there’s no desire to date an online construct, especially when so many of them are available.

You may think I’m just jaded since the traditional dating methods have failed me. I am, after all, a single male without a girlfriend who is weeks away from turning thirty. You can point to my failed relationships, including a failed engagement, and say, “This guy is just bitter. He’s stuck in the past because that’s the only game he knows how to play.”

Well, no. I just believe that to see another human is to look upon someone bearing the image of God. I think it means to see Christ in them. It’s not some sort of utilitarian pleasure calculus. It’s about recognizing the other for who they are, caring enough about them to want to get to know them sans agenda, and to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

So maybe we should hug dating hello again.