A week and a half ago I permanently deleted both my Facebook and my Twitter, and it is clearly one of the best decisions that I have made.
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A couple of weekends ago I went on a retreat with the camp staff for ACU’s summer Leadership Camps as I will be working as Head Counselor for the camps this upcoming summer, the same position I held two summers ago. The retreat is a yearly deal, and is a place where a staff identity is formed. The speakers at the retreat were the two camp directors, Bob Strader and Casey McCollum. The retreat was not about how to do camp. It wasn’t a crash course in taking care of kids all summer. As both Bob and Casey affirmed over the weekend, we cannot be good counselors if we are not fully developing followers of Jesus Christ. So, the weekend was about three things, all drawn from an article by Henri Nouwen.
Solitude. Community. Ministry.
Essentially, Nouwen argues, if a person does not hear God tell her that she is his beloved daughter—if she will not wait for him in solitude to here her identity affirmed by the one who made her—then she is not able to participate effectively in community or ministry. The deepest truth is that we are dearly loved by God, quite apart from our ability to do things. When Jesus was baptized—before he had preached a sermon or healed a leper or resisted temptation in the desert for forty days—God affirmed that Jesus was his beloved son with whom he was well pleased. The pleasure we give God is quite apart from how we can serve him, and is far more akin to the pleasure a mother has for her son. And God wants to tell us this personally, which means we have to be able to listen. We have to be still. We have to be silent. The problem? We have no idea how.
The first evening at the retreat was focused on silence. On solitude. Solitude is being alone with God.
Casey had us give up our phones and place them in a box before an image of Steve Jobs as a tribute to ACU’s favorite idol (ACU gives every freshman an iThing of some kind, so 98% of the phones we laid on the altar to Steve Jobs were iPhones. Mine, actually, was not). He had us leave the phones on so that we could be aware, throughout the weekend, of the vibrations and sounds emanating from them. Casey then launched into a talk about texting and social media. Rather than repeat what Casey said, I am just going to provide a synthesis of what he said, what I said, what others said, and ultimately my reason for abandoning all social media except for this blog and my blog reader.
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We don’t like silence. We don’t like it because, as Nathan Chudd says, it both terrifies and bores us. It terrifies us because we are afraid of being honest with ourselves and with God about ourselves. It bores us because we suspect that activity—industry—is a sign of life. When something is silent or not moving, we tend to view that thing as dead. Busy-ness, as many, many people have pointed out, is a disease in our culture. We like feeling like we have a lot to do. It makes us feel important. Busy-ness is a place to hide from our true selves. If we are too concerned about living as human doings rather than as human beings, then we perceive ourselves according to what we do and not who we are.
This is patently obvious. We define people by their occupations (or in college, their majors). It is the primary distinguishing mark. “Hi. I’m Greg. I’m a senior English major from Sugar Land, TX.” If your answer to the question, “Who are you?” is a function or an action, then you don’t understand your identity. You are a son or daughter of the God who made you and loves you without any conditions on that love. Thinking of myself according to the actions I do, then, deprives me of the divine knowledge.
So, we’ve gotten rather good at being busy. In college, it’s pretty easy to do. Club. Church. Life Group. Bible study. Service hours. Extra academic projects. Work. Homework. Visiting home. Technology has just made this easier. When I’m not busy, I am not forced to sit in silence and reflect (or go read a book that might make me think). Instead, I can turn on the TV or, more likely, get on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, FourSquare, or any other social media site. I can get on Youtube, Netflix, or Hulu. When none of those work, I can settle for playing inane and useless games on my iThing. We can distract ourselves more easily today than ever before in the history of the world.
Oh, but it is more insidious than this.
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If we were dealing with mere distraction, then I would rejoice. No. We are dealing with the powers and principalities, the elemental spiritual forces of our world. Remember, our battle is not against flesh and blood. It is against the demonic. Of course, by demonic, I don’t necessarily mean individual evil spirits which possess people and make good horror movies. Though, those demons certainly are around. I mean demonic in the sense of the powers and principalities, those great structures, -isms, organizations, ideas, ways of thinking, systems, etc which hold people in bondage. These powers and principalities serve Satan, Death, and Sin. Their paradigms for life are inherently anti-human. They seek to oppress, dehumanize, subjugate, devalue, steal, kill, and destroy people. They offer destructive and harmful paradigms for life. Here are some examples:
War, which convinces us that violence against the other is good.
Nazi-ism, which convinces us that racial superiority is acceptable and that only those who are part of the in-crowd are acceptable or human.
Bureaucracy, which reduces humans to using other humans to accomplish certain ends.
Porn industry, which reduces women and men to objects of sexual fantasy and desire.
News Media, which reduces tragedy to a dollar amount and focuses coverage on those subjects which will get the biggest ratings, and in so doing ignoring major moral grievances in the world.
Big Business, which sees people according to profit margins.
Disease, which reduces people from experiencing the fullness of life and strips them of dignity.
Psychological disorder, same as disease.
Manifest Destiny, which convinced Americans to slaughter millions of Indians and steal their land.
Religion, which convinces people, in the name of God, to kill, oppress, or otherwise harm others.
Patriarchy (religious or otherwise), which convinces us that women matter less than men.
Ageism, which tells us that old people aren’t valuable members of society.
Pedophilia, which reduces children to sexual objects.
Barbie, which sets an impossible standard for beauty and body image for girls.
Abortion, which tells us that unborn babies aren’t actually human.
Natural Disaster, which reduces the lives of people to caprice.
Santa Claus, which reduces children to being valuable only according to their behavior.
(As a side note, Richard Beck has done a great work recently on his blog about the powers and principalities. Check out his blog here)
The list could go on and on, but perhaps you get my point. There are some I have listed (like Santa and Religion) which aren’t necessarily dehumanizing, but have been used in that way. This is because the principalities and powers, which serve Satan (who accuses, destroys, and oppresses others), Sin (which convinces us to do the same as Satan), and Death (who causes in us fear of mortality and thereby induces sin), are always bent on using anything they can to dehumanize, to mar God’s creation. When we become one with Christ in baptism, we are moved from the Kingdom of Darkness (where we are slaves to the powers and principalities) and placed in the Kingdom of Light (where we are slaves to Christ, embracing the Jesus life characterized primarily by loving God and loving others by way of the cross).
If the powers and principalities are mostly about harm, destruction, and dehumanization, then the Jesus Way, the Jesus life is mostly about healing, creation, and affirmation of the image of God in people.
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Our conversation that first night of retreat went that direction. You see, I think that Facebook, Twitter, and Texting all serve the principalities and powers in one way or another. Here’s what I mean:
Texting and Social Media give the user unprecedented levels of control over how she is perceived by others. Say I receive a text from a person I find annoying who invites me to dinner with him and a few friends at 6:00 p.m. I can safely ignore the text until 7:00 p.m. at which time I respond with regrets because “I didn’t realize you had texted me. Sorry bro.” I can also edit myself when having a conversation via text messaging. I can phrase and rephrase things in a way which makes me look optimal. That backspace key is crucial. I can create an image of myself that I wish others to have of me. This, actually, is the definition of Facebook. With Facebook, I create an image of myself that I want others to have of me. I list my favorite books, movies, music, and quotes. I pick a picture of me I like. I update my status with things I think others will “like.” Moreover, Social Media allows me to have a largely false perception of other people in that I assume that people are actually like their images on Facebook. It also allows me to forego doing the effort necessary to actually get to know another person, without having stalked her on Facebook first.
This is dehumanizing in that it is reductionist. I first reduce myself to something I think will impress other people and then I treat other people as their reduced selves rather than full-fledged people made in God’s image. Additionally, since Social Media consumes so much time and because it inherently draws people out of their present surroundings into other, virtual surroundings, then I can no longer value or affirm or celebrate or otherwise share communion with the people in front me. This is amply demonstrated by the circle of young people sitting around, each on her own laptop or iThing. They are not actually present with each other because they are present elsewhere.
Among other things, Social Media lies to people. Facebook promises that all 875 people with whom you are connected are your “friends.” They are, most emphatically, not. It is unprecedented in the history of the world for people to be so open about their lives with total strangers. Facebook creates a false community—one that does not share actual space or require actual sacrifice for the sake of others. The intimacy shared by true friends is replaced by Facebook with a platform from which one can compete with other users for attention. Now, of course, I know that a good many people use Facebook merely to keep up with actual friends or family, and I think that is a good use of it. Nevertheless, Facebook fosters an ethos of value based on virtual social acceptance. In short, Facebook operates under a basic principle opposed to the Kingdom of God.
Additionally, such instant access and social media influences people to be hyper-concerned about issues not within their immediate community. Being concerned about things happening around the world is not a bad thing, but doing what I did—investing significant amounts of time and energy into things which I can have no affect on and which do not affect me—is another way the principalities and powers raise their ugly heads. Twitter’s picture on the login page is of a large city. The assumption is that one will be able to “connect.” The problem we most experienced when we sacrificed our phones to Steve Jobs at the retreat was anxiousness that something was happening, and we didn’t know it. Whether friends or family expected to be able to reach us instantly or whether we weren’t getting real-time updates about the sports games, or whether the Republican Presidential candidates had said something else new, we worried. Never before have people expected to know everything instantly. It causes us to focus entirely too much on external stimuli rather than on what is right in front of us. This robs us of joy and prevents us from celebrating and listening to the people right in front of us—the people we can help.
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Well, it seems like this post has gone on long enough. There are a number of other issues with Social Media, but I think I have hit the big ones for me. I am most certainly not saying that people shouldn’t use social media. By no means! If you can use it properly, then go for it. But, as for me, I cannot. I cannot responsibly do the social media thing, and I suspect that a lot of other people out there can’t as well. In my next post I will talk about something I’ve learned from disengaging from Social Media.
P.S. For the record, I do still have my phone which can text and call, and I still use blogs. I feel like I can use those responsibly.