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.
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.”
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.