Is God in social media?

Posted Mar 16, 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.

In her March 8, 2012 post to The Washington Post On Faith blog, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of Chicago Theological Seminary writes, “I believe social media is inherently progressive…. It is decentralized and non-authoritarian. No one tells you to ‘share.’ You, as a person who cares about an issue, can take action, but it is a lateral action—you go sideways to your friends, your Twitter followers, your connections.”

Her point is that women’s use of social media is changing American politics, as seen in the backlash against Rush Limbaugh’s on air insults about a female Georgetown University law student protesting her school’s lack of health insurance coverage for birth control.

Thistlethwaite opens the blog post by quoting well-known feminist ethicist Beverly Harrison—“God is in the connection”—and links progressively focused social media use to God’s justice.

On the same day, Arianna Huffington published a column about “the media world’s fetishization of social media,” which she says has reached “idol-worshipping proportions,” for example when media outlets use Twitter trends as a reportable fact about a story. “We’re treating virality as a good, in and of itself, moving forward for the sake of moving,” she writes. “Not a very effective way to end up in a better place.” Indeed.

These observations by Thistlethwaite and Huffington suggest to me anew how important it is to keep the content of faith before us when evaluating social media practices theologically, when looking for best social media practices.

Are social media inherently progressive? Yes, if progressive is only defined as empowering people to act on their own, sharing their knowledge and experience laterally with others rather than depending upon a hierarchy for instruction. But social media can be also used this same way to advance an agenda that I suspect Thistlethwaite would not consider “progressive.” For example, Tea Party activists have used social media successfully to organize constituents, share ideas and strategies, and spread the word of the movement. “Progressive” for Thistlethwaite would also be defined by a body of content, like her own work in feminist theology and Harrison’s work in ethics. The knowledge and experience that is shared laterally matters as much as the tools to do so.

Thistlethwaite’s quote of Harrison, “God is in the connection,” also highlights the importance of keeping the body of content that Christians claim in front of us. Yes, God is in the connections between and among people of faith. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus says (Matt 18:20). But God cannot be reduced to the connection itself, the means of sharing information, or the bonds that connect people one to another. We need to know who this God is because knowing who God is helps us know that this is the God of liberation. For God is the one who covenanted with and liberated Israel, created the world, came to be human in the person of Jesus Christ, lived and died and rose from the dead that we might be liberated and freed from the powers that threaten to destroy, and continues to empower and enliven the world with loving grace through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today’s new social media patterns may be particularly well suited to sharing such a message of hope and freedom in Christ. In fact, I do believe they may help us visualize and practice this message in new and powerful ways. What are the best practices? Those that help create God’s vision of well-being in our communities. Those that help us “end up in a better place.”

I’m not so worried that pastors and congregations are going to “fetishize social media” and see it as a good, in and of itself, as Huffington warns. I don’t see many pastors looking for Twitter trending results to mark success! But it is important to recognize this potential disaster lest we lose sight of the message of hope that we can offer to a hurting world.

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 Randy 31 Jan
    The Harrison quote, "God is in the connection," brings to mind Sandy Eisenberg Sasso's book, God In Between. I'll have to re-read it when we have Sasso at our Disciples Youth Ministry Network retreat and kick all this around with her and the gathered DOC youth ministers and consider how we use social media with young people and with each other and where God is in the midst and the mix. Thanks.

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