A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Explore, published by SCU’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education. Visit their website to read more articles examining Catholic identity and Ignatian character in Jesuit higher education.
A couple of years ago, the Washington Post asked a panel of religious leaders and scholars to address a question that had come to the fore as it became clear that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had established much more than a foothold on popular culture across the globe: “Does God Tweet?”
A few months later, in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s encouragement to priests to enter the digital domain, James A. Martin, S.J., culture editor of America magazine, took up a similar question in the paper’s “On Faith” blog: “What Would Jesus Blog?” Both the panel discussion and Martin’s reflection followed what is by now a reasonably predictable, balanced line of thinking about the use of social media in the context of religious practice—a context that extends easily, I think, to educational practice. With Martin, commentators such as theologian Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, Rabbi Adin Balmer, and Christian Scientist Phil Davis variously argued that, in any particular era, the media at the center of communication and connection are appropriate tools for the enrichment of spiritual life provided they do not become idols in themselves, distracting us from the real presence of the divine and embodied relationship with one another.
Yes, new digital social media can encourage certain modes of superficiality and narcissistic behavior. Used unwisely or designed poorly, as illustrated in the sacramental confusion and controversy over the recently released Confession app for the iPhone, social media can create an illusion of the spiritual that draws people away from the active, face-to-face participation in religious rites and communities of faith. But, in these early days of the Digital Reformation, most religious leaders and thinkers agree that helping people to develop a balanced approach to the use of new technologies, while engaging those same technologies in order to be meaningfully present to one another in our daily lives, is very much at the center of what Jesuits have long referred to as “learned ministry”—a ministry that is as much social as spiritual and intellectual.
Jesus, the Buddha, and Muhammad didn’t have tricked-out smartphones to connect them to premodern seekers and believers, but they were profoundly social within the confines of their time, rattling established religious authorities by going to where people lived their everyday lives, rather than roosting at the local house of worship and expecting folks to come to them.
Jesus, the Buddha, and Muhammad didn’t have tricked-out smartphones to connect them to premodern seekers and believers, but they were profoundly social within the confines of their time, rattling established religious authorities by going to where people lived everyday lives, rather than roosting at the house of worship and expecting folks to come to them. It certainly seems, then, that the roaming spiritual teacher of the Gospels, the happening dude who could distill the whole of the Ten Commandments into one reasonably tweetable Great Commandment, would make himself accessible via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a personal blog or website.
From this point, the conversation among religious thought leaders tends to move to the imagined content of Jesus’ social media presence. Google “What would Jesus tweet?” and you’ll find close to a million reflections on how adaptable the sayings of Jesus, verses of the Psalms, lines from traditional prayers, and the like are to the 140-character Twitter format. It takes almost no effort from there to see how this line of thinking extends into the millions upon millions of sermon blogs that float through the digital cosmos and the uncountable numbers of Facebook pages for churches, religious organizations, and—as with the Vatican’s launch of a Facebook page honoring the late Pope John Paul II—revered spiritual figures. Educational institutions have hardly shied away from this sort of participation. (Santa Clara, for instance, has dozens of formal and informal Twitter profiles and several Facebook pages.)
Okay, okay, we get it: digital social media sites are the reigning centers for communication and connection today, not just in the West, but across the globe. They have important limitations of which we all must be mindful. But the bottom line consensus is that those who refuse to participate in social media communities are refusing to be with most of the people in the world exactly where they are much of the time. This is probably not WJWD (what Jesus would do). As a spirituality scholar, an educator, a writer on contemporary spiritual practice, and a wobbly sort of believer myself, I’m squarely on board with all that.
PUTTING THE “SOCIAL” BACK IN MEDIA
Here’s what we’re not getting, however: Jesus probably wouldn’t participate in social media communities the way many of us do, attempting to adapt our message to new media without much consideration of how these media in themselves have changed—not “are changing,” note, but “havealready changed”—our relationship to information and authority, and, with that, our sense of ourselves and our relationships to others, including God and the Church. Given this, the key question is not whether Jesus would tweet, or what he might tweet, but how.
Understanding the how of meaningful participation in the new social media landscape is critical because it engages many of the concerns raised by the Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, about the impact of new technologies and associated practices on education generally and the richly reflective practice that characterizes Jesuit approaches to education in particular (read the entirety of his speech in the Winter 2011 issue.) In an address at a conference convened by former Santa Clara President Paul Locatelli, S.J. ’60 in Mexico City in 2010, Fr. Nicolás argued that the substantial benefits offered by wide access to new technologies notwithstanding, they nonetheless contribute to what he sees as “the globalization of superficiality—superficiality of thought, vision, dreams, relationships, convictions.”
If we imagine the social media landscape in very narrow terms that highlight the products of technological hardware (computers, smartphones) and software (apps, social networks), Fr. Nicolás may be right. A study comparing blogs, tweets, status updates, text messages, and other bits and bytes of digital expression that characterize postmodern life to the meaty tomes produced before 2006, when wide access to Facebook changed everything, would surely show a world polluted by vast quantities of what looks like nothing much. But, of course, such a study would be flawed, comparing apple blossoms in the global orchard of ideas and relationships to oranges grown juicy and sweet through days of sunny, transformative exchange and nights of cool, solitary waiting. When we enter the digital social media landscape, that is, we come into ideas, collaborations, and contributions to the needs of the world at a very different stage than we do when we come upon the same in the mass media landscape defined by finished print and broadcast products. Evaluating the worth of a digital social media exchange based on a cursory scan of Twitter feeds and blogs would be like grading students based on their conversations in the hall outside the classroom or assessing faculty based on the quality of cocktail party conversation.
Still, we all know that much good comes from casual exchanges about what we did over the weekend or where we stand, quite off the cuff, on the Barry Bonds doping case. We learn a great deal from and about one another through even the most banal chitchat. You like to hike. You’re funny. You’re a not a fan of antinomian ethics. I try not to make the mistake of seeing such snippets as the whole of you or your thinking, but, in the context of our ongoing relationship, neither are they mere throwaway lines. They help me to know you, little bit, by little bit—a Facebook status update or a Flickr photo at a time.
Having access to a wider world of micro-knowledge of many, many others is at the core of the opportunity presented by social media. Those of us formed in the broadcast age—which, as Robert Putnam compellingly argues in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, thrived on communication practices that separated us from each other—often chafe at the personal exposure that so much digital transparency affords. Yet deeply interactive engagement was very much the norm of social life until the modern period. The individualistic and consumeristic character of contemporary life that we rightly decry has, in fact, much to do with the personal isolation at the center of modernist ideologies of distinction and separation. Indeed, cognitive scientist Stefana Broadbent argues that digital social media, especially as they are accessed through mobile computing devices like cell phones and laptops, restore a day-to-day intimacy among people in families and communities that was diminished as modern educational, work, and spiritual practices were physically separated from familial and communal spaces. Parents now keep tabs on their kids via cell phone. Working spouses check in with one another. Friends on opposite sides of a city or a country or a globe text bon mots across a relational void that would have been difficult to traverse on company or classroom time a mere decade ago.
While this new digitally integrated social reality presents all sorts of educational, moral, and spiritual challenges, a superficial dismissal of its significance in the relational lives of people across the globe today bodes ill for those committed to extending God’s love, justice, and hope more broadly throughout
a world in need.
It is this intimate possibility that I would imagine Jesus accessing were he traveling through the digitally integrated reality of social life today—stopping at the digital well to chat with an outcast woman; visiting the IRS Recruitment page on Facebook for a chat with would-be tax collectors; or following the #fibro Twitter trend to get a sense of how 7,000 or so people with fibromyalgia are doing. All of this, I would imagine, not by way of Jesus getting out his message, but of incarnating the reality of God’s abiding attentiveness to humanity in all its particularity in digital spaces that are very real in the lives of people today.
WE INTERRUPT THIS BROADCAST …
This radical inversion of broadcast communication practice is often overlooked as religious and educational leaders work harder and harder to craft glittering messages that they hope will reach more and more people through digital media. Not long ago, for instance, a clergy friend noted that he had spent half the morning trying to edit his most recent sermon down to a length appropriate for his blog. I was impressed that he understood that blogs are not, as too many ministers believe, digital pulpits. They are a very particular genre, with very different characteristics aimed at inviting comment and encouraging sharing that simply are not part of face-to-face preaching practice. In my experience, it’s rare when a clergyperson understands this, so I lauded my friend’s efforts.
Yet, I also wondered this: What if he had spent the same amount of time visiting the Facebook pages of members of his congregation just to say hello and to pay a bit of attention to what was going on in the day-to-day of their lives? What impact might that have on their relationship to him and to the Church? Sure, they might not get a second go at his deep reflections on Paul’s letter to the Philippians or Niebuhr’s understanding of hope. But I want to suggest that the visit to the Facebook page is less relationally shallow than is “reblogcasting” the latest sermon. Imagine, for instance, the impact of a headline like this: “Pope Pledges to “Friend” 10 Believers Every Month,” as compared to the more usual, “Vatican Launches New Facebook Group Page.”
[Students’] Facebook conversations with local friends allow them to deepen interpersonal intimacy in ways that enrich their sense of belonging. This sense of belonging is rich ground for the intellectual, moral, and spiritual flourishing. Students continue their education and develop as learners not because they “get something out of it,” but because they feel themselves as connected to others, as belonging to a community where even innocuous details like what they had for breakfast matter.
All of this is to say that the thing we often miss in the phrase “digital social media” is the “social” part. Absent the nurturing of relationships, the deeply meaningful work of intellectual reflection, imaginative inquiry, and social engagement cannot be sustained. Two recent studies bear out the significance of extending relational attentiveness to digital locales. The first, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, shows that people who use the Internet are far more likely to participate in volunteer activities (80 percent) than are people who do not use the Internet (56 percent). Involvement by younger adults is particularly amplified by digital connectivity, as young people use social media to invite friends to participate and to “advertise” their participation in volunteer activities by posting and tweeting on social media sites.
The second study, by experimental psychologist Richard Beck and colleagues at Abilene Christian University, showed that freshmen who had active engagement with their student cohort via Facebook were more likely to return for their sophomore year than those with less social media relationality. As Beck points out, the students’ digital cohorts are made up, for the most part, of people they regularly see in person, their digital interactivity reinforcing the lived reality of their connectedness to one another in a particular community. While students may also keep in touch with far-flung friends and family members, their Facebook conversations with local friends allow them to deepen interpersonal intimacy in ways that enrich their sense of belonging. This sense of belonging, I would suggest, is richest ground for the intellectual, moral, and spiritual flourishing. Students continue their education, develop as learners, not, that is, because they “get something out of it,” but because they feel themselves as connected to others, as belonging to a community where even innocuous details like what they had for breakfast matter. The rapid development and adoption of social media practices, understood apart from the use of social media technologies as mere tools, creates a general expectation of enhanced relationality at the root of any other engagement, whether it’s spiritual, educational, or, as we saw in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, political.
EXPANDING THE REAL
What’s more, the Pew study and the experience of students in Beck’s research gives the lie to the persistent idea that there is a hard boundary between “virtual” and “real” space, as though what happened on my Facebook wall with friends, family, colleagues, and total strangers to my physical world had no substance or meaning. Rather, we see again and again that digital and physical spaces are mutually reinforcing, dialogical realities, each participating in the other as meaningful parts of more widely distributed but nonetheless whole lives. Thus, just as Jesus saw that he could not minister to God’s people without leaving the temple (where religious authorities of his day would surely have assumed that “real” religion happened) to walk through the Galilee, I suspect he would be visiting the Spiritual But Not Religious group page on Facebook to get a better sense of what so vexes the religiously disaffected. He might spend some time watching the myriad videos posted on YouTube by people impacted by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, absorbing the needs of the world in a poignant, digital reality and, by his very presence and attentiveness, encouraging others to give, to serve, to pray.
While this new digitally integrated social reality presents all sorts of educational, moral, and spiritual challenges, a superficial dismissal of its significance in the relational lives of people across the globe today bodes ill for those committed to extending God’s love, justice, and hope more broadly throughout a world in need. Reimagining media as social invites us to situate the sharing of knowledge, the enactment of faith, and the healing of the world in the daily flow of ordinary life, in the sometimes slight, but nonetheless meaningful details that make us known to one another—filling in the networked picture of humanity a pixel at a time. Would Jesus tarry in this new digitally integrated social reality? Have you Googled Him lately? It seems He’s everywhere.
Elizabeth Drescher is a religion writer and scholar of Christian spiritualities who teaches in the Religious Studies and Pastoral Ministries programs at Santa Clara University. She is the author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011) and a regular contributor to the online magazine Religion Dispatches. Her website is elizabethdrescher.net.