Social media as alternative liturgy

Posted Mar 15, 2013 | New Media Project


By Robert C. Saler, guest blogger

In Greek mythology, the hero Theseus runs across a particularly nasty character named Procrustes, who invites those passing by his home to spend the night in his dwelling, promising them that they will fit comfortably in the bed that he will provide. Unbeknownst to those who accept, though, Procrustes ensures this perfect fit by attacking his guests and “fitting” them to his iron bed. If they were too short for the bed, he would stretch their bodies to fit it; if they were too tall for the bed, he would amputate any excess length.

From this myth, the adjective “Procrustean” has entered the contemporary lexicon to refer to our tendencies to “force-fit” that which is new to us into preexisting standards—a habit that may be well-intentioned but, in fact, commits violence (epistemological or otherwise) upon that which cannot easily be assimilated to our prefabricated conceptual “beds.”

History has demonstrated that theologians and church leaders are particularly prone to imposing Procrustean standards upon that which is new to us. Indeed, this is often done in a spirit of benevolence—we Christians have such a rich inheritance of theological concepts, practices, and aesthetics that we are understandably tempted to fit every new phenomenon which we encounter into the seemingly capacious borders of our existing standards. However, as is clear from the decidedly ambiguous history of how Christians have encountered novel “otherness,” be it populations of newly “discovered” peoples in the mission field or new concepts generated by the sciences, this temptation does indeed do violence—if not to people, at least to our own ability to understand what is at stake in the new phenomenon. And this lack of understanding cannot but hinder our ability to appreciate the opportunities that novel things offer for our ability to live as Christians today.

There is a specifically theological corollary to this temptation, and that is the temptation for theologians—the conceptual virtuosos of the church, as it were—to mistake expertise in matters theological with competence in other disciplines. A generation ago, Paul Tillich warned theologians that they could responsibly comment on other disciplines (science, art, philosophy, etc.) as interested citizens, but NOT as experts on par with their expertise in theology—unless these theologians undertook the same sort of rigorous disciplinary education in these disciplines that they had pursued in the field of theology itself. Unfortunately, it seems that recent (and laudable) interest in interdisciplinary work has occasionally tempted theologians to transfer their hard-earned erudition in the nuances of theology and philosophy of religion into areas where they have not mastered the material in similar depth. This tendency is particularly manifest in the still-influential “Radical Orthodox” school, where theologians who display rigorous mastery of the complexities of notoriously difficult theologians and philosophers (from Aquinas to Gilles Deleuze) will often proceed to cherry-pick texts, theorists, and concepts from other disciplines—urban studies, politics, economics, etc.—in order to buttress their interventions into political debates, as if expertise in, say, Aquinas’ ontological arguments translates unproblematically into competence in economics. These are Procrustean strategies.

A recent Christian Century article entitled “Alternative Liturgy: Social Media as Ritual” by a thinker associated with Radical Orthodoxy, James K.A. Smith, illustrates the dangers of this tendency when it comes to commentary upon social media. Throughout a still-burgeoning career of impressive philosophical and theological scholarship, Smith has certainly demonstrated his expertise in the nuances of liturgical theology and the philosophical issues that liturgical matters intersect. However, his article attacks the embodied practices associated with social media (e.g., checking Facebook on a smartphone) as constituting “alternative liturgies” that end up competing with Christian worship as a formative influence upon believers. In his account, “Twitter and Facebook are not just ‘media’ that are neutral, benign conduits of information and communication; they are world-making and identity-consuming. They invite and demand modes of interaction that function as liturgies.… Christian worship invites us into a very different social ontology through a different set of rituals—a counterliturgy.”

The revolution in communications wrought by social media is, needless to say, a genuinely new phenomenon in human history, one whose scope and importance increasingly exceeds even the sixteenth century paradigm shift in communication wrought by the invention of the printing press. The temptation to frame social media in existing categories that theologians know and understand is very real, but very dangerous. We theologians need to demonstrate the virtues of humility, caution, and deliberation before casting social media in such colonizing terms as “liturgy” or “counterliturgy.”

In the case of Smith’s arguments, the violence done to our understanding of the perils and possibilities of social media is, quite frankly, that of caricature. In his article, his two primary images of embodied interaction with social media is that of a teenage girl obsessively checking Facebook at home and the manipulability of the iPhone screen—both of which are then contrasted with the supposedly serene, decentering practice of traditional liturgical worship. Absent, of course, is any mention of the growing number of Christian churches that incorporate social media into worship itself. Indeed, the New Media Project has conducted a number of interesting case studies as to how social media has been integrated into congregations in ways that aid, rather than hinder, specifically Christian formation. Absent too is consideration of the multifaceted and global intricacies of how social media is shaping geopolitics. Can the categories of “liturgy” and “counterliturgy” really make sense of the bodily act of Tweeting updates from the Arab Spring uprisings? Can such flatfooted application of prefabricated theological notions tell us much about the virtuosity with which cultural entrepreneurs are using social media to convey art and information outside previously hegemonic cultural channels (record labels, mainstream media, etc.)

If theologians and church leaders are to interact responsibly with the social media phenomenon, then they will have to model the sort of behavior that they encourage in their students and congregations: patient analysis, respect for complexity, suspicion of the ability of past paradigms to make full sense of new phenomena, avoidance of hyperbole, and willingness to withhold judgment until novelty gives way to relationship. Such traits characterize not only responsible academic analysis, but also the gentle exercise of Christian virtue in a complex world.

The Rev. Dr. Robert C. Saler is a Research Fellow and administrator with the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

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