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Beyond the Printing Press: Thinking Theologically About Social Media

printing pressAfter one of my recent workshops on social media, one of the participants confessed that she had money riding on my presentation.

She and a friend had wagered on how long it would take me, a Lutheran pastor, to mention the Printing Press.

She won. It was the third slide.

When Lutherans (and many others) talk about social media, we often take the printing press as our starting point. Its our way of describing the amazing revolution that is taking place in communications today - and our way of thinking about how we harness new forms of media to share God's grace.

However, As Elizabeth Drescher argues in Tweet If You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, the parallels between social media and the printing press may end there.

Yes, they both represent a dramatic shift in communications. However, while the printing press marked the dawn of broadcast (or mass) media - communicating your message to many people at one time with little opportunity for comment, today's social networking actually resembles the communal reading of the medieval period, which was more interactive, social, and crowdsourced.

I wonder: how do we get beyond the printing press? How can we engage social media theologically? After all, the printing press and social media are only tools. Where can Lutherans locate social media in our theological framework?

For me, the most compelling theological category is vocation.

Affirming the Ordinary

Prior to the Reformation "vocation," or holy calling, was reserved for priests, monks, and nuns. The highest calling in life was to pray, worship, study, to live apart from the world - to mortify the body through vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, spiritual practice, and transcend the physical world.

Martin Luther argued that vocation did not just belong to the spiritual elite, but to every person.  The holy life was found in amidst the stuff of life - in homes, workplaces, and communities.  In a 1534 sermon he writes,

“See to it first of all that you believe in Christ and are baptized.  Afterward, see to your vocation.  ...  If you are a father and mother, believe in Jesus Christ and so you will be a holy father and a holy mother. ....  Oversee the running of the household and the preparation of meals.  These things are none other than holy works to which you have been called.  That means that they are your holy life and are a part of God’s Word and your vocation.”

This all gets distilled into the Lutheran catchphrase, “the priesthood of all believers.”  We are each ministers in our daily life.  It is the best way Lutherans have of talking about of God in or a spirituality of daily life and the sanctity of our daily living - seeing our whole lives a spiritual and holy.

One of the common critiques of social networking is people are just sharing a bunch of mundane stuff.

Yes, exactly!·And this is holy!

This mundane stuff is their real life, their holy calling - and we need to celebrate, honor, hold and bless these - and not dismiss but·affirm the ordinary.

It turns out that one of the biggest critiques of social media is actually one of its greatest gifts.

A Zone of Spiritual Underdevelopment

In Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity Charles Taylor writes: “The repudiation of monasticism was a reaffirmation of lay life as a central locus for the fulfillment of God’s purpose.  ... While family life was once seen as a “zone of spiritual underdevelopment” now “the center of the good life is now something that everyone can take part in”

At ComputerToday in the church, computers, mobile devices, the internet and social media are often viewed as “zones of spiritual underdevelopment.” We tend to assume that someone using a computer or device as doing something mindless, unproductive, and unspiritual. We assume they are disengaged and disconnected - that nothing holy, sacred, profound, or transcendent could possibly happen there. (And so why would a pastor spend time on it?)

I’m not sure that people would actually make this distinction themselves. These platforms and devices have become integrated into the way people live their lives. People are living and sharing their lives in, with and through these technologies. They are an integral part of our lived experience.

Two Spheres Thinking

bonhoefferIn his Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that we must overcome this kind of two sphere thinking.  He writes, “So long as Christ and the world are conceived as two opposing and mutually repellent spheres, man will be left in the following dilemma...He seeks Christ without the world, or seeks the world without Christ.  In either case he is deceiving himself....  Sharing in Christ we stand at once in both the reality of God and the reality of the world.”

Social media are actually helpful here.  They collapse the multiple spheres in our lives that we tend to consider separate - family, friends, work, home, church, play - and bring them all together on our Facebook wall or our Twitter feed.  And so, these seemingly disparate parts of our lives are brought into conversation with one another.  When I post something on Facebook, my colleagues, friends, neighbors, fraternity brothers, family can engage with me - and not just with me, but with one another.

And isn't this what the church has longed for - to be part of what's happening in people's lives throughout the week? Social media provide a tremendous opportunity to do just that - to rub elbows with the people that populate their lives - and accompany them to the places that they live our their vocation, their faith.

Elizabeth Drescher writes, “Digital social media practices that highlight more extensive personal and institutional transparency ... bring together parts of our lives that have long been rendered separate by the modern affection for distinction and isolation of what, as the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution rolled on into the Atomic Age, were increasingly seen as inherently separate spheres of life.”

Social Media Ministry

One of the key roles of the church in social media, then, is to affirm the ordinary - to name it holy - to celebrate people's daily work, their vocation. We can do this so easily with likes, comments, mentions, tweets, chats- and it doesn’t have to be overtly religious.  Just being there, just bearing witness, and finding ways, in one way or another, of naming what they do as good, holy, and blessed is a profound grace.

Elizabeth Drescher again:“When we undertake leadership as a practice of Christian presence in social media landscapes ... we are contributing to the creation of a networked sacred space.  ...  We are allowing  ourselves to stroll or pedal along the various paths and avenues that connect the widely distributed outposts of the new digital global village. And we are developing spaces where people can come together to explore the meaning of their beliefs, values, and commitments together”

So remember - when you see me on my iPhone, I just might be praying or pastoring - or, then again, I just may be playing Angry Birds.

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