Social Media & The Christian: An Introduction

Social MediaNote: This is the first post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the other five parts hereherehere, here, and here.

“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben to Peter Parker

One of my favorite things over the past few years about the arrival of spring and summer has been the plethora of superhero blockbusters that come with the warm weather and ending of the school year. I love the spectacle and hype that builds as final trailers are released a couple weeks before the premier. As someone with a bit of an obsessive personality, I love the interconnected universes and the way movies reference and call back to each other or forward to movies yet to come. But in a more general way, I also just love any movie that thoughtfully examines the question of what normal people would do if they were suddenly given access to incredible power.

In my mind, no superhero story does this better than Spider-man. If you’re not hip to his origin story (get with it people – we’ve had 3 different Spider-men over the past 15 years), a boy named Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, which gives him a handful of vaguely spider-related super-abilities. Like many superheroes, he spends the first few weeks using his newfound powers selfishly, only later realizing that his new gifts come with the responsibility of using them for the greater good. Spider-man’s story is uniquely tragic because it is in this small window that his own selfishness leads indirectly to the death of his Uncle Ben, the only father figure in his life, whose famous words challenge Peter at every turn: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

A few weeks back, some dear friends asked me to write a blog on Christians and social media engagement. Filled with flattery and intrigued by the concept, I began sketching out what I feel like I have learned over the past few years, mostly through making mistakes, about healthy and unhealthy usages of social media in the life of a follower of Jesus, particularly where it comes to our engagement with both power and responsibility on the Internet.

Those who know me won’t be surprised to find that though asked for one blog post, I here respond with six. What will follow weekly for the next five weeks will be posts covering four interconnected topics and how they intersect and intertwine with social media – self-education, integrity, conflict, and influence – culminating in a sort of application challenge in the six and final blog, putting these observations together into a hopefully helpful set of questions that can be used to gauge the level of health underlying our social media engagement.

By way of introduction, I want to briefly describe the lens through which I view social media, as well as my own credentials for writing such a clearly self-indulgent series of posts. One of the most disruptive results of the Internet age is that many forms of media that were once controlled by a handful of elite professionals in a few select cities on the planet are now in the hands of anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. From TV and music content creation to news and personal access, this vast democratization of information is an incredible power transfer the ramifications of which we will likely not fully understand for at least a generation. As Uncle Ben continues to teach us, with such great power comes great responsibility.

What does it mean to responsibly steward the power we are granted by the Internet? That fascinating question is well beyond the scope of this blog (and writer) but I do want to think about it within what I will call the two sides of social media engagement. Like all forms of communication, social media involves both inputs and outputs. Inputs are interfaces through which we absorb information. Outputs are interfaces through which we contribute information for others to absorb. For example, on Instagram, I can participate both through scrolling through my feed and absorbing the pictures/videos and the information they provide (inputs). I can also participate by posting my own pictures/videos and by liking and commenting either positively or negatively on the media of others (outputs).

This is the heart of what makes social media so unique. In other forms of media, any given person is either a content creator or a content absorber but the roles almost never overlap and the speed with which either can influence the other in their role is relatively slow. When a new movie comes out, its creation process has often ceased months before it is absorbed by viewers. In fact, in the age of blockbuster universe-building, many studios are already months into the production of sequels before the opinions of content absorbers can ever bring any bearing on future content creation.

However, thanks to Twitter, when a major public event happens anywhere on the planet, eyewitnesses can take on the role of both content absorbers and content creators, building a collective story around what happened and its implications. In Saint Louis, following the death of Mike Brown, many of us found that Twitter was a much more immediate and often more reliable source of news than any of our major news outlets regarding the protests and happenings in the grand jury’s consideration of evidence against Darren Wilson.

Social media confers a unique power into the hands of its users: the power to democratically participate in creating information for anyone to absorb combined with unheard of access into the minds of virtually anyone on the planet. So what is the responsibility that comes with such unprecedented power? Can such a tool be used by Christians in our mission to be “salt and light,” bringing the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus to bear on every corner of our broken world? Those are the two questions that these blog posts will humbly attempt to answer.

Lastly, let me say a word about why I personally feel compelled to write on this topic. I was born in the heart of the millennial generation and, as such, have been the target demographic for the transfer of this power. Facebook moved beyond Harvard the year before I went away to college and, at the time, still required a .edu email address to access. Like everyone else in their late 20s, I was part of the first group of people to become an adult in the age of mass access to the Internet while still remembering the time before its ubiquity. We children of the late 80s and early 90s will, by virtue of our birth, become living time capsules for future generations as those transitioning from pre-automobile and pre-television generations have been before us.

On a more personal note, I also desire to write on the tension of power and responsibility in social media because it is a constant struggle in my own life. I have said some incredibly silly things on the Internet that I have had to repent for both publicly and privately. I have also had a handful of people tell me that my pictures and words, as small and meaningless as they sometimes seem, have been a source of immense encouragement to them. As an agent in God’s redemptive plan to bring all of creation under the Lordship of his victorious Son, I long to see every redeemable avenue of power harnessed to shine the light of Jesus into every dark corner of our broken hearts and broken systems. For me, regardless of who does or does not read these posts, this will be a reflective exercise of working out my own issues and confessing my own sins before it is critical toward anyone else.

So I invite you to come with me on this layman’s journey to see where the mission of God and the power of social media intersect and overlap. If you have any specific topics or questions you would like to see discussed, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.

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On Dragons, Kendrick, Sufjan, and Jesus

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings…But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
– C.S. Lewis

Like lots of other late twenty-something white, male, evangelical Christian ministry professionals, I started 2016 thinking about how to declare my love for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as the best album of 2015 in a way that was inoffensive yet also suggested that I got it but also didn’t get it in all the ways I am supposed to get it and not get it.

I tried to remember why it was that this album felt so moving to me when it came out. I thought back to a specific morning from the first week of April 2015. I was sitting at our mechanic’s shop getting who knows what done to our car (2015 was not kind to the Uzzles’ vehicle incidentals budget). The TV in the waiting area was broadcasting network news that morning and the anchors were discussing the tension surrounding Indiana’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). I had not heard much about the act so I pulled out my phone, popped in my headphones, and began researching it, as Spotify shuffled between Kendrick and another brilliant March 2015 album, Sufjan Steven’s Carrie and Lowell.

The act essentially created a legal defense platform for Christian business owners in the event that a lawsuit was provoked by their desire to deny services for religious reasons. Everyone from celebrity theologians to local pastors to college students I work with had an opinion to post on social media, some in defense of Indiana’s need for the act and some in vehement opposition and fear regarding its implications, particularly for the already marginalized LGBT community in the state. I read lots of articles and posts about how people were feeling that day; but all I felt was sadness.

My wife will sometimes differentiate between faith leaders that she has sat under as either making Christianity seem big or small. While she was in grad school, she read the C.S. Lewis classic, Mere Christianity. We were in a difficult season in our marriage and faith community and Lewis made Christianity seem like something that could handle anything the world threw at it. It felt like a lighthouse standing tall, guiding us home as the then stormy waters of our lives ebbed and flowed.

As I sat in my mechanic’s shop that day, reading article after article, Christianity began to feel very, very small. Instead of the Jesus I had come to know and love as the all-powerful Reconciler of all things, the God-man who gave his life and triumphed over death in his resurrection to literally save the world, the Jesus of the internet felt more like a neurotic tabloid reporter, obsessing over where a wedding cake was made and the drama that ensued. This Jesus seemed determined to make sure that everyone knew exactly where he stood on the great moral issues of our day and he drew clear lines between himself and everyone else. He didn’t seem to care about civil rights or commercial obligation so much as he wanted you to know if he thought you were right or left wrong. As I closed Facebook and turned away from the TV in the shop, I became aware again of the music in my headphones.

“How Much a Dollar Cost” started up and I became curious about Kendrick’s faith – I remembered hearing that he had gotten baptized recently and I found a brilliant article on his story of growing up in Compton and his expression of Christianity. As Spotify shuffled back to Carrie & Lowell, I Googled Sufjan and read an article about his own journey with God. What was their Jesus like? Was it more like the big Jesus of Lewis or the small OCD jesus of the Christian blogosphere? Why did I find myself relating so much more to these men than to the writers of the articles I had spent the last half hour reading, many of whom share much more in common with me?

That’s when the Lewis quote from above came like a word from the Lord (perhaps it was) to set me free that morning. Lewis, writing on the power of stories to sneak past our intellectual guard and engage our capacity for faith on the level of the soul and passions, gave me a language to precisely describe what I was feeling. The story the internet wanted to tell me about Jesus had been eaten alive by my own watchful dragons.

Simply put, though we share much in common, I could not relate to most of what the celebrity pastors and theo-bloggers told me about cake-baking and personal freedom. I couldn’t summon the outrage they told me we were all supposed to feel toward our mysterious enemy, shrouded in obscurity as “The Secular Left,” like a lidless eye in the distance. A Jesus who cares so deeply about whether Hobby Lobby is a person with the capacity for faith or if our president is eroding our Second Amendment right to buy a surface-to-air missile launcher with a valid library card and a six hour waiting period, but not at all about the stories of those affected negatively by the desired legislation, has never resonated with the Jesus of the Bible to me.

However, when I hear Kendrick rap about resisting the temptation to believe he betrayed his hometown or Sufjan sing about the grief of losing a parent, I see my own story in their story. Mine is different, of course, but, like all good art, their music allows me to import my own perspective without losing touch with the author’s intended message. As Buechner said, “the story of each one of us is, in some measure, the story of us all.” Stories allow us to see through the eyes of another and, in so doing, remove the shards of petty prejudices and personal insecurities that everyday life and our own brokenness has embedded in our souls.

I still don’t know if a Christian photographer should be able to legally deny services for a wedding that offends her moral sensibilities. More importantly, I don’t know if the Jesus of the Bible would have her do that. But I do know that as our political and faith leaders endlessly polarize over these important questions, we must find a space in our culture to hear the stories of those who see the world differently than we do and not merely the commentary of those who do not. These stories sneak past our watchful dragons of doctrinal allegiance and preferred political philosophy and allow us to hear and walk alongside even those who may reject and scorn us. What could be more like Jesus than that?