After a controversial final match at the US Open between tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, an Australian newspaper published a racist cartoon of Williams that is reminiscent of historical discriminatory images of people of color. The cartoon was shared and debated on social media. Cartoons of this nature demonstrate how social media spreads racism from old media forms (e.g., print newspapers) into the new media landscape. Likewise, the debates over the cartoon on Twitter exhibit the ways people’s lives (in this case, Williams) become fodder for hurtful critique during mediated communication and also extend discrimination, hate, and aggression from physical spaces into digital spaces.
The new media landscape has profound brokenness. “New media” is a large category that includes social media platforms like Facebook, devices like laptops, and practices like blogging. In my forthcoming book with Baker Academic, Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape, I argue that the chief challenge of new media is diminished humanness. Given that most forms of mediated communication do not engage all our senses, nor require that we actually see or hear the people we are interacting with, it is easier to minimize the humanness of other people. Social media use can flatten the way users see and relate to and, therefore, experience the presence of God’s love. I borrow the term flatten from Charles Taylor. In A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), Taylor defines flattening in terms of things being stripped of meaning, emptied, reduced, and impoverished. In a manner similar to Taylor’s usage, I employ the term flattening to describe the temptation, especially acute in our new media landscape, to diminish the humanness of others – a form of deficient seeing – and then also to treat other people as commodities – a form of deficient relating.
Deficient seeing and relating leads people to participate in wounding actions rather than in God’s love. The temptation to dehumanize others when interacting online and through our smart phones contributes to wounding actions like social comparison, hostile arguments, and racist remarks. One way to confront racism online is to invite members of your Christian community to theologically and critically reflect on new media occurrences like that of the cartoon and the debates that followed it. Then your community could take meaningful action toward addressing racist ideologies on social media like inviting members to have a plan for what they will do when they see racist posts online.
Another challenge is that new media is not neutral. New media is too often built with embedded aims and values that change what users think is meaningful as well as what users believe about and desire for themselves, other human beings, and the global common good. For example, social media encourages users to value likes, remarkable experiences, and followers, desires that can contribute to mental distress and distort users’ visions of the good life. Users can come to believe that the good life is one where individuals become excellent personal brands by constantly marketing themselves, standing out from the crowd, and posting how successful and happy they are. New media is designed so that people will be always on, developed to get, keep, and make money off of people’s attention. So using new media is not merely a matter of using it well. Christian communities need to choose well (what forms of technology and social media to use) and train people to be cognizant of new media’s aims and values that often negatively impact people as well as advocate that new media be developed for flourishing.
In Always On, I also discuss opportunities that new media use affords. A key possibility of new media is connection. The digital era has provided Christian communities that regularly meet in person with tools and techniques for planning together asynchronously, raising money for community members affected by illness and/or need other kinds of assistance, supporting members through encouragement, and praying for one another. For example, some Christian communities have a special hashtag for prayer requests or a phone number people can text to share prayer requests during the week. Additionally, there are websites and apps that Christian communities are using to set up meetings (e.g., https://doodle.com), plan worship services (e.g., https://worshipplanning.com), or organize bringing meals to community members (e.g., https://www.mealtrain.com).
Social media is also helping community members participate in mediated conversations (e.g., over theological matters) when they cannot be physically present at a meeting. By allowing leaders to arrange discussions between remote interlocutors, social media is particularly beneficial for parents with young children, those who lack access to transportation, and those who live with disabilities or a long-term illness. Some Christian communities have members who meet in online groups to study the Bible and other books. Communities are also using sites like Zoom for mentorship and spiritual direction meetings, as well as pastoral care visitations. One of my former students told me he usually meets with seniors in his church who are home-bound once a month. However, during class he was inspired to begin using Zoom to increase visits to once a week.
New media is also being used by members of Christian communities to gather meaningful information, obtain access to theological resources, and nurture faith. There is an abundance of online resources – sermons, resources for programming (e.g., children’s ministry materials), YouTube videos, reviews of books related to Christianity, and blogs that integrate theological reflection on real life issues. Facebook and Instagram posts and stories, Twitter tweets, and blogs can positively impact people’s faith formation. And some Christian communities are using YouTube to learn songs for worship services.
Christian communities are increasing their missional capacities by inviting new or different perspectives into ministry activities since social media posts and stories, videos, articles, and art shared online are valuable materials for sharing diverse viewpoints. New media is also used to create resources – videos, Bible studies, devotions, prayer guides, and multimedia presentations.
The challenges and possibilities discussed thus far point toward the need for Christian communities to practice discernment and seek God’s guidance for negotiating the practice of faith and ministry in this new media landscape. Practicing discernment requires a community that is open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance alongside of one another. While eventually swords will be turned into plowshares (Isa 2:4), and one day every tool will be redeemed and nurture flourishing life, in the meantime, some tools and social media sites nurture flourishing more than others. According to the Gospel narratives, Jesus did not treat all technology the same. For example, Jesus rejected the system of currency exchange set up at the temple in Jerusalem (Matt 21:12–16; Luke 19:45–47; John 2:13–16). But Jesus used some technologies exactly as they were meant to be used (e.g., the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4:17). Additionally, Jesus used tools for ministry purposes when such tools did not negate his aims. For instance, Jesus preached from a boat so a large crowd on the shore could hear him (Luke 5). Sometimes Jesus transformed a technology; he transformed the cross from a technology of violence to a technology of love.
Christian communities can help their members be discerning about what tools members use and what social media sites they use. They can teach their members to use some design features of social media platforms and not others. Members can be encouraged to think about what they are trying to accomplish (the ends they have in mind) and which devices or social media sites they will use to accomplish their goals.
It is also critical for Christian communities to be discerning about the types of technology the organization itself will use for its activities. This type of decision-making process could begin with trying to understand what kinds of new media are already being used. Leaders of various ministries or departments in your organization could be interviewed to find out what types of new media they are using, why, and to what effect in their areas of ministry. Next, your community could seek to understand the forms of new media, especially social media sites, that community members are using in their personal lives and what they use that media for, and why. Leaders and other community members can also be asked about what new media they think the Christian community as a whole should consider using.
In order to make informed decisions about which new media the organization will use, your community will then need to assess both new media that is being used and the mediums people desire to use. For example, Christian communities can think about the aim of the tech company that built a site, app, or tool, as well as the activities the new media encourages, and its embedded values. Explicit values can be determined by viewing the website for the platform, tool, or app (read its “about” page and its values and mission statements). Implicit values can be defined based on critical reflection of how the site, app, or tool works and how the new media gets and keeps people’s attention. Decision-making regarding what new media to use, how, and why will be contextual.
Christian communities also need to think about how to discern with community members what online resources are beneficial and theologically sound. Since many of your members get resources for faith formation online, your community could encourage individuals to bring resources they find valuable into in-person gatherings. The community can read or view such materials, discuss who they were created by, what organizations endorse them, why they are theologically sound (or not), and how they nurture (or do not nurture) faith formation. Assessing online resources together is a way of modeling and practicing discernment about new media’s resources.
An important aspect of faithful living in a media landscape is encouraging community members to reflect on their new media and hybrid living experiences. Inviting such a process of discernment requires facilitators who ask powerful questions – questions that are curious, compelling, and capacious. The questions I have in mind are ambiguous, personal, and evoke anxiety because they invite us to think about things that matter to us. Jesus himself often asked such powerful questions:
• “Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matt 6:27)
• “Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?” (Mark 8:36)?
• “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20)
• “What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” (Luke 10:36)
Jesus’s questions were curious in the sense that he was genuinely interested in what other people believed and how they perceived the world. His questions were also compelling because they did not have simple answers. And his questions were capacious so that people could relate and respond to him, his parables, and his sermons in light of their context, no matter what that context was.
The types of questions that are asked need to be open to the entire spectrum of experience with forms of new media. These sorts of questions aim to understand how people’s use of new media is creating and preventing possibilities, producing and navigating challenges, connecting and distancing people, nurturing and inhibiting learning, extending and preventing spiritual disciplines, and supporting and thwarting love, joy, and peace.
Ultimately, the various challenges and possibilities I have discussed point toward the need for Christian communities to invite members to discern, articulate, and live Christian visions of flourishing life in the new media landscape. Miroslav Volf, Founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture where I work, often reminds our team that human beings have largely become experts at means and amateurs at ends. In the case of new media, many Christian communities are strategizing about how to use new media to increase membership, but have never discerned what it means to lead life well or for life to go well from a Christian perspective, in a new media culture. We need Christian communities that are invested in communicating and embodying how a person formed in the image of God, which is Jesus Christ, would act and feel when using new media, and what kinds of new media circumstances Jesus would seek to create. The challenges and possibilities of new media require more from us than technological skills. This landscape needs discerned and articulated Christian visions of true life that Christian communities are committed to pursuing.
[Information in this article is based on Gorrell’s research for the Theology of Joy & the Good Life project and her upcoming book with Baker Academic, Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape. A word of thanks to Baker Academic to draw on material from Always On. Copyright (c) 2019 by Angela Gorrell. Used by permission of Baker Publishing Group, 6030 East Fulton Road, Ada, MI 49301. www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.]