In recent years, it has become increasingly common for Christians to give up Facebook for Lent. The idea seems to be something like this: Lent is a season of penance, in which one seeks to grow closer to God by imitating the ascetical practices of figures such as Elijah and Jesus, renouncing ordinary comforts and pleasures; Facebook has become one such good; therefore one can well give up Facebook for Lent. Given the preponderance of social media in today’s culture, this rationale seems to make sense. Catholic author, Cheryl Dickow, who uses social media to promote books, even calls it “the ultimate sacrifice.” In her view, to give up Facebook or Twitter—unlike, say, Double Stuf Oreos or supersize Cokes—is to renounce what is otherwise beneficial to a person.
But is this true? That is to say, is it true that social media, not to mention the Internet in general, are good or at least “neutral” instruments, which stand in a long line of technologies promising to facilitate human progress? Recent research on information technology suggests the answer is “no.” Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011) argues that, even as social media connects persons online, it alienates persons from real-world relationships. We can communicate more readily, but what we communicate lacks meaning. It is the language of organizational details and hollow witticisms. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W.W. Norton & Co., 2011) is perhaps even more damning. Drawing on a host of neuroscientific and psychological studies, Carr maintains that the Internet is changing the way the human brain functions. The mind, he points out, conforms to the medium through which it receives information. The codex (our present book form) requires an attentive and, quite literally, deepening engagement with material. In contrast, the Internet’s hyperlinks and tabs sate the brain with data. We get more but understand less, rendering our reception of information (to borrow from Tolkien) thin, like butter scraped over too much bread.
Carr does not relate his findings to theology or to spirituality, but the implications are as plain as they are concerning. As any first-year theology student can tell you, to study God is to study that which requires profound concentration, for God is precisely the one who can’t be picked out from the world of everyday experience. Nicholas of Cusa puts this in terms of “learned ignorance”: spiritual praxis entails an ever-deepening awareness that we know God best when, pushed to our very limits of understanding, we know how little we actually know. The Internet might flood us with thousands of definitions of or cases for (or against) “God,” but these cannot help but confuse the situation: God is not a piece of data, nor even the conclusion of an argument. These insights have been developed by Christian thinkers as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and Søren Kierkegaard, but, of course, they are rooted in the Bible. And yet, Carr indicates why biblical literacy is at an all-time low: it is a lengthy text—indeed, in the Christian tradition, a codex—which requires patient, even prayerful attentiveness. “Clicking” through it is about as useful as watching a YouTube clip of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: one can only scratch the surface of what’s really going on there.
This point brings the discussion full circle. The practice of giving up social media for Lent may, in fact, disclose a powerful spiritual truth, however naively it plays out in practice (surely, the act of declaring that one is renouncing Facebook via a status update is almost painfully ironic). But the insights of persons such as Turkle and Carr open up a different dimension to this question—one that we are only beginning to grapple with. If the Internet is physiologically altering the human brain, fabricating a need for immediate stimulation, at what point will contemplative prayer become impossible for most persons? What about liturgical practice? Is that why so many young people today complain that Mass is “boring”? If Christianity is a religion of “the Book,” can it exist (or, at least, flourish) in a post-codex society, wherein so much reading takes place electronically? Such worries may prove unfounded. Certainly, most Christians (including the Bishop of Rome!) seem to be banking on the utility of social media, particularly as a means of interacting with digital culture. Time will tell if this is a sound investment or a Faustian bargain. Until then, the question must be confronted…slowly, thoughtfully, and with iPhones shut off.
Chris Barnett, Assistant Professor of Theology