Social media revolution makes life messier, so what?

Posted Aug 09, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Verity A. Jones


In a recent post, Kathryn Reklis invited us into a conversation about “what we can say theologically about the human subjects we are becoming in the face of transformative social media.” As a Roman Catholic with a progressive bent, Kathryn said her preferred starting point would be theological anthropology: “Our creatureliness and our relatedness to the divine and all creation [as] we take seriously our context in this new media world.” Thanks, Kathryn.

As a Protestant with a progressive bent thinking about Christian anthropology, I find myself starting with what we know about God, for how can we truly know ourselves as human subjects without knowing who God is as creator, redeemer, and sustainer? So, like a good Protestant, I am inclined to begin with scripture, not to the exclusion of other ways of knowing, but as a place to begin.

Let’s start with God the creator. Beginning in Genesis, we are told that God created humanity in God’s image out of abundant love. We are distinct from other creatures but responsible for the well-being of creation, co-creators with God; finite and particular yet capable of relationship with the divine; embodied spirits interdependent with other persons and creation; meant for relationships of emotion and passion; good and valuable to God; intended to flourish in love for God and world.

Immediately arise questions about whether virtual relationships and practices might or might not challenge such a view of humanity: Can we express our full humanity, Christianly understood, without being in physical relationship with others? We’ve been doing so via telephones for decades; has that diminished our humanity? Do online relationships better enable our interdependence because we can connect instantly around the globe through social media, as Jim Rice aptly described in a recent post? Does our ability to drill down into online resources and ideas empower us to co-create with God, to become better stewards perhaps of our natural resources or our time?

Some anxiety in our new digital world is certainly created by the cacophony of ideas and voices crying out for attention 24/7. Without trusted editors and curators of information who used to sort through the mess for us, we are left on our own to decide what to watch, follow, like, view, and tweet. And so we must make better choices, muster increasing levels of initiative, and be more actualized in this new-found freedom than ever before. It’s understandable that we sometimes long for the security of well-vetted ideas and patterns of life.

The social media revolution has made human life messier than it used to be, yes. Flatter networks of information and ideas mean we work harder. They also require a higher level of trust in human expressions. Rather than clamp down, we would do well to be open to see what is emerging in this new media world.

For example, I am currently working on a case study about The Young Clergy Women Project. This network was created online five years ago to resource and support young clergy women who often feel isolated in small communities or in ministries overpopulated by men. Most of the women in the network have never meet each other in person, but they help each other flourish in ministry. From email bible study and Facebook prayer circles to a private blog and the public e-zine, Fidelia’s Sisters, the project has connected young women pastors in ways unimaginable even 10 years ago. If we have to be our own editors and curators of information and ideas, we should stay as open as possible so that we might recognize faithful and beautiful expressions of humanity when they emerge.

As a progressive leaning Protestant, I find a robust doctrine of sin and forgiveness to be helpful here. Human life has never been particularly ordered or safe. All kinds of human failing, both social and personal, are on full display now that the floodgates of global online communication have been thrown open. But it is precisely the gracious give and take of God’s mercy—seeing and naming sin, forgiving and turning from that which separates us from God—that can help us sort through the messiness of human life expressed online. For it is God’s mercy that leads us into new life.

Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Susan 31 Jan
    Nice article, and thanks for including TYCWP, Verity!

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