Velveteen Rabbits and New Realities
In response to he 2012 Brehm Lectures: Worship In A Digital Age, we are proud to feature this article from Fuller student Samantha Curley.
Samantha (MAT, '13) loves baking bread, practicing yoga, and gathering around big dinner tables. Drawn to wonder, she loves playing with ideas, spaces, and the questions that move people. In her free time she's trying to learn the art of composting and read the 63 books on her Amazon Wishlist. You can follow her personal ponderings at samsstorybook.com.
Society has always been made up of social networks. Sure, the networks themselves change and that change gets reflected back into and onto society. The printing press did not merely change the way knowledge was delivered, consumed, and shared between people. It changed the way the world processed reality. Henry Ford’s assembly line was based on the linear, uniform process of printing words on a page. The rows of church pews we sit in on Sunday mornings mirror the image of the perfectly aligned, evenly spaced, printed word. Our means of accessing and distributing information via the printing press was a reflection of and on the changing way we negotiated relationships with our brains and our bodies, within our families and communities, and inside the four walls of the Church.
We are, and always have been, social beings living in a social world. This is a basic premise of how Ryan Bolger conceives faithfully living in a world mediated by technology. I am inclined to agree with him, but where Bolger and Hipps may both agree with the implicit sociability of our communities and societies, what they each do with this reality is not only different, but radically so as we think about how to live and be the Church in the 21st century - a time that is only beginning to burgeon into the technological upheaval of our social networks.
The interesting question, one of the many that emerged during the Brehm Lectures, is what does "social" actually mean? And how do you measure it? Personally, I try to avoid defining words. Rather than extract isolated meaning from language, we need to embed meaning into language by the way we use words in relation to each other.
Whatever social means then, Ryan Bolger clearly believes (and Hipps wants to push back here) that technology is making society more of it. Facebook, twitter, blogs, and Wikipedia are helping us to connect with more frequency, more depth, and more sociability. If we are social beings, always mediating our world and our relationships through a social lens, then Bolger wants to help churcches better position and leverage their communities within these new social networks.
Rather than facebook being a youth pastor’s worst nightmare, Bolger believes it can become a platform for teaching kids about identity and spiritual formation, a vehicle for them to practice evangelism, and a means for communicating and planning meetings, events, and small groups. Our churches will(?) must(?) need(?) to supposedly become the equivalent of Apple's iCloud in order to remain relevant and accessible to the world of today and of the future. I’m not saying these ideas are bad ones, or that facebook doesn’t, shouldn’t, or can’t have a place in the church. We need people to explore creative and effective ways of engaging and using technology in our churches.
To be honest, however, this isn’t why I came to seminary. Trial and error, asking good questions, and practicing good observation skills will help you navigate effective uses of technology in your church. Facebook and Twitter keep evolving to match and keep up with the ways people are using them regardless. No matter how well-intentioned, passionate, or committed, your church is not going to do it better than Mark Zuckerberg. Trust me.
What is far more interesting to me, and I think far more important theologically, is Marshall McLuhan’s notion that “the medium is the message.” Facebook hasn’t created a different way of communicating within our social networks, it has actually changed what it means to communicate and to be a social network. In short, we are different humans worshiping a different God because of Facebook. Unpacking what this means and how it’s happening is why I’m interested in what the Brehm Center has to offer.
As in the wake of the printing press, today’s influx of new technology and social networks means we are experiencing a renegotiation of what it means to be human - what it means to be creatures and creators. This renegotiation, the projection of selfhood into virtual images and symbols, is not intrinsically more or less real on its own. At face value, we can’t say it’s good or bad. Rather, the message of what it means to be human is changing as we project our humanity into the medium of virtual selves and networked relationships, of what Bolger calls “timeless time” and “the space of flows.”
Along with Hipps, however, I believe what necessitates our attention is not a best practices workshop, but a deepening awareness that we are worshipping God, making new theologies, and creating art through these new and distinct mediums. And that the medium (the visual and the virtual) is changing the message of what it means to be human and to believe in, worship, and communicate the reality of a wholly Other God.
The Church must become interested in technology and media beyond developing a better, more relevant “how to” manual of being Church and attracting members. Rather, I agree with Shane Hipps that what the Church needs is to hang in the tension, becoming more aware, more perceptive, and more conscious of these technological rituals (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia) and how they change the ways we think, interact, and create relationship. We must begin with the awareness that our practices of being human and "being Church" are experiencing change and upheaval, and just as importantly, what is being lost as a result.
To resist change of any sort is inevitably to fear death, and to fear death is to avoid it, keeping not only death, but also life, at bay. The call of the Church is to observe the changing medium and message without, as both Hipps and Bolger warn, deeming it good or bad, right or wrong. This begins by acknowledging that we live inside the reality of the medium itself. That it is inside this reality where we experience true worship, uncover better theology, and create transcendent art. The virtual world can hold reality as long as we come to terms with what reality we are living inside. Recall The Velveteen Rabbit.
Nothing will kill the worship, theology, and art of the Church more than misplaced nostalgia. To not live and communicate in the reality of an evolving, progressing, and forward moving world will mean extinction for the Church. As the Church, we participate in creating while also constantly inheriting new mediums. The Church must be willing to acknowledge and engage with this reality - not from a place of judgment or resistance, but with a posture of exploration, conversation, and wonder.