Life exposed

Posted Feb 03, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Verity A. Jones


Best practices: During February, March, and April, 2012 the New Media Project bloggers are looking intentionally at new media “best practices.” Join the conversation: What are the new media best practices in your church or organization? What are some other examples of how communities engage in new media well? Tell us in the comments below.

At dinner last night a friend asked what worries me about the increasing use of social media in the world today. I shared this conversation from The Young Clergy Women Project (TYCWP) case study I wrote for the New Media Project:
Susie Shaefer, a former co-chair of TYCWP, works with young people. She sees the value in the honesty teenagers exhibit online. She says, “They are just who they are online. They’re still learning bits and pieces about themselves.” The challenge for young people being so honest is that they may mature and change over the course of their lives, but their honest teenage selves will still exist online. They can’t create a new avatar for a new job or a new friend. “God’s grace does not extend to your future employers,” Susie says, “avatars aren’t as effective as baptism.” “If we could just baptize our computers,” I quip. Susie replies, “I tried that once. It broke."
I worry that we cannot yet fully understand the potential consequences of our “honest teenage selves” or our “experimental young adult selves” (or even our “self-discovering adult selves” for that matter) existing online forever because social media hasn’t been around that long yet. It will take a generation or two for us to appreciate the impact. Will our self-exploration be scrutinized as closely as our transcripts and resumes? Could a minor infraction on the road of life do irreparable damage? It’s already happening to some extent.  More and more employers routinely check the Facebook profiles of job candidates. What will it be like twenty years from now?

But I’m a believer in the God of second chances; we are never outside the realm of God’s grace. Through the gift of grace in Christ, God has declared us loved and blessed, forgiven and reconciled. Our slate is wiped clean before God. We are freed from a deterministic worldview that has us traveling paths from which we cannot veer. We are a new creation, and will continue to be so, over and over again.

What does it mean to tell this story of God’s grace in a time when nothing digital can be fully wiped clean? I don’t think it means we obsess about controlling the digital record of our lives. While caution in the face of unknown consequences is wise, we should not run in fear from living a life exposed.

Perhaps the fact that our humanity is more fully on display in the digital age is a gift to embrace. Perhaps we come to appreciate anew how circuitous and complicated most of our lives really are. Isn’t that what grace enables us to do, to assess a life not for its faults but for the grace of God that overwhelms those faults? This can engender humility for one thing, which helps us become more forgiving of ourselves and of others.

Computers and mobile devices may break when baptized, but a life fully exposed to the grace of God surely will not.

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.

4 Comments

  1. 1 Anonymous 31 Jan
    What I find fascinating is that our "honesty" is a function of the illusion of anonymity. Not only do we expose too much of ourselves, but we offer opinions that are ill-considered, unkind, and rash. Why? Because we think we're hidden behind our keyboards. No one will know it was us!

    I don't see a lot of evidence that this is making us more forgiving or producing a much needed sense of collective humility. On the contrary - pair the internet/social media with our ravenous taste for reality shows and I think you have a toxic mix that produces nothing but narcissism and hubris. You see it everywhere - especially in our politics.

    Pandora's box has been opened. What form does hope take?

    Shawnthea Monroe
  2. 2 Verity Jones 31 Jan
    Thanks, Shawnthea. The hope is what you preach every Sunday: That God's grace is more expansive than narcissism and hubris, and that this grace is what defines who we are, not the current politics of the day. I see it in the Facebook posts of friends who pray for friends, some they name, some they don't. I see in the youth pastors who recognize danger signs in their young charges' status updates and do something to help them. That's the hope. -- Verity
  3. 3 Rebecca Littlejohn 31 Jan
    I'm not sure the corners of the internet that indulge anonymity truly qualify as "social media". The point of "social" media is that it involves relationships. Things like facebook are not anonymous. My former local newspaper was just switching to a commenting system that was tied in with Facebook precisely to improve the nature of the conversations held in response to their material.
    I have a feeling that the reality of the vast majority of the population having a documented history online may, in fact, force the grace of allowing people to change upon us. We will have proof that it's happening; how can we deny it or pretend it's not normal? I have frequently thought that our society has unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of consistency from most people, eg. the political slur of "being a flip-flopper" when, in reality, it sometimes is good sense to change your mind.
    As our personal evolution and that of others is documented, perhaps it will take on a more legitimate reality in our culture than it has had. I think that's a good thing.
  4. 4 Thomas Healey 31 Jan
    Thanks Verity, and thanks to Susie for sharing her thoughts with you. There is another time in life when that honesty often returns. As clergy working in the world of hospice I see that honesty all the time as the need for a self that is carefully guarded against too much visibility drops away and that honesty Susie spoke of returns, or I should say, can no longer be suppressed. That's also when the God of second chances sometimes is breaking through most powerfully. I used to think that I would be working entirely with older adults when I felt the call to do this. I have since worked with teenagers, young adults, ten week old babies and 100 year old's who have rediscovered youth as the body ages. And, yes, the connections social media bring are powerful - even reconciliation and healing of long estranged ones. I have often wondered if the deeper spiritual realities I often encounter with my patients can be felts across distances as words and images move through space and bring us close.
    Peace
    Tom Healey

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