WWJD? Christians on Social Media

D. Brent Laytham

WWJD? is a cultural phenomenon mostly spent. The bracelets have disappeared from the check-out aisle at Wal-Mart, and so have youth group talks that thought WWJD could cure hook-up culture. But WWJD hasn’t disappeared entirely. There’s that great moment in “Lars and the Real Girl” when the parish council is gathered in the church basement to decide what to do about Lars bringing his life-size sex doll to worship. After some initial griping, the pastor says “but what would Jesus do?” And you can still riff on the question for a good book title, as tech critic Jeff Jarvis did with What Would Google Do?

The question roots in Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, an attempt to use turn of the 20th century media (a serialized novel) to reach disaffected youth. Not much has changed with calls to use social media to reach “nones.” In what follows, I’ll suggest that the shortcomings of a WWJD? approach to Christianity are mirrored by key structural features of social media. In other words, what WWJD? wants, social media promises to deliver.

First, Sheldon’s WWJD? Christians don’t think that they need sacraments and corporate worship to follow Jesus. That comports rather well with the “excarnating” (Charles Taylor) trends of technology and computer-based entertainments. Excarnation pretends we can transcend every physical limit while remaining human, and it offers “reality” without materiality. Certainly Facebook elicits its own rituals that often resemble devotional practices. Certainly it requires bodies and pictures our material world. But social media and virtual reality more generally cannot host sacraments, which of their very nature require material elements and bodily action. You can’t send your avatar to the Lord’s Supper, no matter how much you might wish you could.

Second, Sheldon’s WWJD?-ers want a discipleship formula that delivers them from ecclesial authority, putting them autonomously in charge of their own spiritual lives. They sound like the first round of “spiritual but not religious” Christianity. That comports well with a key feature of the “third wave” of media change, flying under the banner of “digital democratization.” Most simply, the first wave of media change — movable type printing — contested church authority but eventually helped to centralize it; second wave settled media authority in the corporate programmers who chose what we would read in our magazines, listen to on the radio, and watch on television. Now the third wave of media change — Web2.0 especially — has relocated authority once again. Media theorists refer to this as “curation,” as in who is the curator of the museum of your mind? Who decides what you pay attention to? In the deluge of Web2.0, curation is essential. There are two dimensions of third wave curation — one obvious, the other hidden. Obviously, we choose. Never has there been greater control over the sources, formats, and contents of the communications (and entertainments) that flow in our direction. The relatively hidden dimension of curation is the algorithmic logic of platforms and portals like Google, YouTube, and Facebook, which continually sorts and selects from the plethora of digitalia to offer specific communications for us to connect with.

Finally, Sheldon’s WWJD?-ers wanted to achieve sanctity without submission, surrender, or sacrifice. Facebook doesn’t exactly have the architecture for mutual submission, or what early Methodist class meetings called “watching over one another in love.” Consider one of the primary “advantages” of Facebook — how its 24/7 availability and durability allows for interaction that is asynchronous. This means that whether I choose to engage social media according to a rigid routine or a haphazard pattern, my behavior is more autonomous than accountable. It may be genuinely interactive communication, but it remains elective because (1) when I participate is entirely mine to decide, an autonomous privilege rather than a communal obligation; (2) who reads my posts remains invisible unless and until they respond, making the communicative act more self-reflection than self-communication; (3) whether I respond to others is always a choice that I make with relative anonymity (unlike the moral imperative of face-to-face communications), and perhaps most importantly, (4) what I share is entirely elective rather than obligatory. Succinctly, if you’ve got good Facebook friends, then a good support group is possible, but an accountability group is not.

There is a sacrifice that we make to participate in Facebook, but not one with a cruciform shape. Because Facebook exists to data-mine our IPs, that is, to sell information about us to marketers, it requires that we sacrifice a degree of privacy, perhaps even of dignity, to participate. The bargain, and it hardly seems costly, is that we agree to a kind of self-instrumentalization, in order to get free access to the candy store. Sometimes that self-instrumentalization moves from invisible to in your face, as when a pastor friend that I love from a church I admire emailed me and all his other friends asking us to go to his church’s Facebook page, follow a link to the State Farm Insurance page, where we could vote ten times daily for his church’s urban garden initiative. If they got the most clicks, State Farm would give them a $25,000 grant. Of course, State Farm was interested in capturing the metadata associated with my IP, and was willing to feed the hungry to get it. But I, given the architecture of social media, was inexorably shaped toward a sense that making meaningful sacrifice is as easy as following links and clicking to vote or “like” the right cause.

So it turns out that Jesus, who simply cannot be Jesus without his sacraments, his authority, and his sacrifice, doesn’t really fit very well into Sheldon’s book or a Facebook world. Or to put it another way, if only Jesus had been on Facebook, its excarnating, democratizing, and diminishing trajectories might have saved him from the cross. Which means that WWJD? is precisely the kind of discipleship that belongs on Facebook. But not in your church and not in your life!

Posted Mar 09, 2015

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