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Social media spirituality

Monday, 9 October 2017  | Megan Powell du Toit

A new spiritual practice has arisen in the social media age: the social media fast. It is especially prominent around Lent. The person will announce a social media fast on social media, and often change their profile picture to make this clear during the time of the fast. If they are a blogger, they might also blog about the practice. While not confined to Christians, this practice is particularly used by Christians to signal a spiritual intent behind a break from social media. Examples of calls for social media fasts are those by Kevin DeYoung and Sheridan Voysey. Others have expressed the need to detach from social media through spiritual disciplines in a broader way. Philip Yancey’s blog on this was shared widely (ironically) on social media.

I respect their thoughtful approaches to living in a social media age. It certainly appears to be one possible spiritual discipline to consider for certain people. However, I haven’t seen many interrogations of it as a practice. It also sits within a larger theme of distrust of social media that I think is often overplayed. Yet there are proven benefits of social media. Joanne Orlando, an academic researching in this field, lists among them: education, health support and awareness, stronger offline relationships, social support and social justice activism.

This retreat from social media sits within a particular stream of Christian spirituality: asceticism. It is a spirituality of detachment from this world, involving practices such as fasting of all kinds, abstinence, simplicity and retreat. While Jesus practised these things when he went aside to pray, it is probably more a spirituality we associate with John the Baptist. Jesus explained this difference between Himself and John when He noted that John fasted and abstained, and was viewed as having a demon, while, because He did neither, Jesus was seen as a glutton and drunkard (Luke 7:33-34).

Voysey uses words connected with the ascetic tradition: fast, simplicity, reduction of desire and contentment. Yancey uses words such as fortress, retreat, meditation and shelter. DeYoung mentions fasting, reflection and time for prayer. As we can see, they are all words of renunciation and retreat. This is an important part of the Christian tradition of spirituality.

But let’s not, therefore, assume that other approaches to social media are not spiritual. The counterpart to a spirituality of asceticism is one of engagement. It is the spirituality of the activist and the community builder. Graham Hill speaks about this type of spirituality when he says:

we need spiritual friendship and worship in community. We nurture Christian spirituality and theology through our engagement in social justice. We enlarge them through our involvement in mission. We earth Christian spirituality and theology through our care for creation.

Perhaps asceticism is more valued because it is seen as the path of less temptation. I would say two things about that. Firstly, the temptations of asceticism are subtler but still real. There is the temptation of spiritual pride in undertaking these practices. There is also the temptation to avoid the difficulties of relationship and the painful growth that occurs through them. Secondly, growth often happens from being within a place of temptation and grappling with the impulses to sin. Whether retreating or engaging, I always need to be actively examining my intentions.

You see, I’m not arguing that social media is a place of unalloyed blessing. After these weeks in Australia of vigorous debate over Same-Sex Marriage, few would find that convincing. Rather, I argue that, in engaging in the complex reality of relationships online, we are presented with opportunities for connection and transformation that we may otherwise miss. As Christians, we all know the truism that discipleship happens best in community. Social media can be one such community. It isn’t the same as other communities in which we are physically present, and it’s not a substitute for them. Nevertheless, social media has places of community. The distinction between online and offline communities, often erroneously called virtual and real, underlies some of the problems identified in our use of social media. Our use of social media needs to mature to the point of recognising the people we interact with on it, and the relationships we develop, as real.

Sometimes social media is viewed as merely a publication avenue. Yes, social media is a publication platform, one in which all people have become publishers. But it is a publication platform in which our audience can give us immediate feedback. Moreover, it rewards those who engage with the audience. More so than other publication avenues, it resists attempts to view others as mere consumers of whatever we output. So the various forms of social media aren’t just media.

Social media also isn’t merely social, in the sense of being merely a place of superficial connection and networking. At its best social media isn’t just a place of memes and chit-chat, but is relational, a place to love and be loved, to transform and be transformed. I would suggest that if we started calling it this – relational media – we will also transform our practice of it.

For if we are to regard it as a place of spirituality, there must also be intentionality. Just as few of those who recommend a social media fast would deem a mere deactivation of their social media accounts to be enough to make it spiritual, simply being on social media does not make it spiritual. In both cases, there are spiritual practices involved.

Social media is often accused of creating echo chambers. But let us take accountability for our own actions: it becomes so if we choose it to be so, just as in our physical communities we can have cliques and tribes. In fact, social media allows us an opportunity to remove the echo chamber, to be less bounded by geography and the tribalism that occurs through the institutions to which we belong.

We can choose to be friends with people who are different from ourselves. We can use the algorithms and settings to either insulate us or expand our horizons. One feature on Facebook is the ability to choose who you see first in your feed. I have prioritised people I see day-to-day off relational media, and people with whom I have an enriching relationship in some way. When I scroll through, I don’t just ‘like’ or engage with those people who are like me or who agree with me. I might see a person I disagreed with the other day, but now I see that they are out with their family celebrating a joyous occasion, and I will ‘like’ this or add my good wishes. I have in mind at all times the dictum for Christian community – rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). I constantly look for the person behind the online presence. Relational media gives me opportunity after opportunity to practice empathy. It is also a chance to grow in grace. Although at times unfollows and unfriends are justified, often they are a way of evading the hard work of relationship and self-examination. Instead of removing people from my feed, I find it a good discipline to retain them. It softens my heart for me to see that the person I am angry at is dealing with family illness, and it is humbling for me to congratulate or even promote the person I envy.

We tend to equate prayer with the retreat of an ascetic spirituality, but prayer can also be practiced within an engaged spirituality. Prayerfulness becomes the mode in which we transform engagement into spiritual practice. Relational media constantly moves me to prayer. If I comment that I’m praying, I pray straight away. Relational media produces for me a prayer that engages with the lives of those I know and with the news of the day. Indeed I find that, at its best, relational media helps me to fulfil the words of 1 Thess. 5:14-18:

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Relational media enables me to help the weak because I also practice an activist spirituality on relational media. Not clicktivism, but an attempt to engage in conversation with people about important justice issues, and to direct them towards thoughtful reading and meaningful action. To those who believe social media has little ability to change hearts and minds, I would respectfully tender my own experience. I have had many people tell me that my posts have both caused cognitive change and moved them to action. My theory is that, with an intentional relationality, you can have more impact than if you employ hit and run tactics. Moreover, if sometimes you are only preaching to the choir, you give the choir useful information and action they can take. Indeed, sometimes like-minded groups on relational media aren’t echo chambers, but communities in which we spur each other on to greater efforts for the missio Dei.

By all means, have an occasional social media fast. But when you come back, commit to walking its spaces as sacred ground.

Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister, Publications and Policies Administrator for the Australian College of Theology and editor of the academic journal Colloquium. She prefers to think of herself as an intentional user of relational media, rather than a social media addict. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Academia.edu.

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