Illustration of man seated at a computer with a cross on the screen. A lie of empty pews extends behind him.


Staying Human in a Media Age

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Jonathan L. Walton

Last year, a dear friend invited me to present my work at a conference that gathered together seminarians and church leaders from across the country to discuss how to think theologically in the post-Google era. The conference theme was timely and dovetailed in interesting ways with my own research at the intersections of religion, media, and culture. During my lecture, screens were hoisted along both sides of me in the theater. One displayed the live feed of my image being streamed on the campus website, and the other was the live Twitter feed. The majority of attendees either had a laptop open or a smart phone in hand, since many participants were blogging during the proceedings. My initial intellectual excitement turned increasingly to moral ambivalence. As I stood before the assembly, my physical image was circulating throughout cyberspace, and my words were being typed into the blogosphere nearly the instant they left my lips. I could not help but feel as if my message about media sobriety was being ignored and that my humanity, as an intellectual interlocutor and conversation partner in the room, was wholly invisible. The game that some attendees played with each other may also have contributed to that feeling: whenever a speaker made what was considered a poignant yet practical point, attendees would yell out, “Tweetable.” I guess they were both endorsing and celebrating my lecture, not unlike someone in my own faith tradition yelling “Amen” during the sermon—though I’ve never experienced congregational “call and response” being mediated by a laptop. Times are indeed changing.

My research has examined the ethical impact of media and social media and their effects on and for Christian ministry on an institutional level—i.e., televangelism, megachurches, mass-produced expressions of faith—but this experience and others have made me pay attention to the emerging paradox that all of us must begin to wrestle with: “What does it mean for us to be human, in a media age?” Within just a few years, due to the accessibility of the Internet and the emergence of Web 2.0, new media technologies and social networks have seemingly democratized the tools of mass connectivity. What once required access to studios, satellites, and/or publishing houses now can be achieved with a desktop computer and smart phone.

With every technological innovation, dating back to the phonograph and radio in the 1920s, preachers have used new media to build ministries, command authority, and both establish and market a particular brand of ministry. My message at the conference that day was that it is dangerous to employ new methods or technologies—as have all Christian ministries dating back to Paul’s epistles—while remaining coy at best, and willfully ignorant at worst, about ministerial goals. Be it radio, television, or the Internet, none of these mediums is a natural tool that we use simply to broaden the audience of our otherwise “divinely animated” ministries. Rather, these are tools that speak back to us, and, in the process, inform, determine, and even dictate the form, function, and scope of our ministries. And until we are brutally honest with ourselves about why and how we use varying media forms, we will not be equipped to be self-critical about how media are always amplifying, altering, and encoding our messages with unintended or open meanings, and thus we will not be able to assess whether media have actually assisted us in fulfilling, or have frustrated, our ministry goals.

To illustrate my concern, I want to provide three ways that I believe jumping on web technologies too quickly and uncritically might negatively impact ministries at the local level. First, social networks create a false sense of familiarity with individuals. Lee Siegel argues, in his book Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, that social networks and the oxymoronic genre of “reality television” have turned privacy into performance art and created a culture wherein we take ownership of each other, without even knowing each other. I have heard many pastors and faith leaders suggest that blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media help them to be in multiple places at one time and connect with the community. This makes sense, as the raison d’être for such tools is to increase “connectivity.” Yet, what does it mean to “connect”? Is this really about connecting with faith community members on an intimate level, or more about projecting a ubiquitous image via incessant status updates, tweets, and random musings? Moreover, what does this mean in the context of faith communities where there is already a cultural pull toward charismatic authority that is cultivated by hypervisibility? Media amplify personas. Media make people familiar with a particular person, lend authority to a voice, and thus cultivate heightened levels of allegiance. This allegiance, however, is often not predicated upon the success of a ministry on a community or an institutional level. Rather, it often can be reduced to the powers of a gifted personality and persuasion.

Consider the implications of such a lone-ranger, entrepreneurial model of ministry. When faith leaders offer themselves up as the focal point of ministry, can they point to something greater than themselves and contribute to a larger institution in a sustained and effective manner? Or might media exacerbate the narcissistic impulses that, whether we like to admit it or not, are often latent and even sometimes inform our vocational choices to enter the public service arena in the first place? What is more, should we encourage faith leaders to carry the associated professional burdens of personality-dependent ministries? As Paul Vitello reported in “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” in The New York Times in August 2010, being a member of the clergy in America has become an increasingly “unhealthy and unhappy” vocation. Clergy suffer from higher rates of obesity, hypertension, and depression than most Americans. So why would anyone want to establish a ministry that depends on the false feelings of comfort that come with charismatic appeal?

Second, but very much related to the previous point, intimacy without contact and familiarity without interpersonal exchange fosters false expectations of the other. As faith leaders become little more than living avatars, they are even more at the personal disposal of those who already have overblown expectations of their time. This, in part, is the by-product of living in a mass-networked world. Media foster an insatiable appetite for more. The first rule of social networking is active updating. To remain relevant on Facebook, on Twitter, or in the blogosphere is to remain active. To maintain this social authority, one must continuously feed the appetite of consumers (I mean “friends”). And if faith leaders offer themselves up as the transubstantiated bread and wine to be consumed by the networked public, they must keep giving for the ministry to thrive. What might this mean for the faith leader’s own soul? Spouse? Children? When we belong to everybody, we belong to nobody—including ourselves.

Hypermediated ministries leave little time for critical reflection, a bedrock of religious thought and theology.

To paraphrase MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle in her new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, whenever technology engineers intimacy, relationships are reduced to connections, and true friendships are replaced with fan bases. Media intimacy leads to cybersolitude. Media, then, can have the exact opposite effect. Rather than acting as tools of human connection, they become simulacra of human community. Technology, then, can further aid pastors in raising drawbridges around their identity and digging moats around their family. Phone numbers become private, addresses are hidden, and one’s public persona becomes a performance art. And in the process, the pulpit and the pews move further apart from one another, tragically often under the guise of connectivity.

Anyone familiar with the family life of a clergy member knows that the parsonage is a site of contestation and the physical space is of grave concern. There is often anxiety around parishioners feeling free to call or come by unannounced. And many of us know the heartfelt laments of “preacher’s kids” who often resented sharing their parents with the community. But what happens when the fear of one or two people coming by unannounced is replaced by email on the Blackberry or 3,000 Twitter followers and 1,000 Facebook friends eagerly anticipating your latest tweet or update? (As my spouse told me one night while I was accessing Facebook on my smart phone, “You need to tell your 800 friends that it’s time for you to talk to your one wife!”)

This last point concerning the negative implications of media addiction leads to my final concern. We must consider the ways hypermediated ministries leave little time for critical reflection, a bedrock of religious thought and theology. There is little room for nuance in 140 characters and not much time to respond in the cyberworld. Of course, this is also a by-product of living in a 24/7, infotainment-driven society. Sustained social analysis is supplanted by sexy soundbites. Deep critical thinking on matters most pressing to us is exchanged for pithy responses, quotidian quips, and cute catchphrases. And ongoing engagement with a particular issue evaporates just as quickly as our Internet-informed, collective attention deficit disorder. To quote Nicholas Carr, media “seizes our attention only to scatter it.” Thus, as the title of his book The Shallows suggests, due to our reliance on media, we have become adept at being skillful only on a superficial level.

To be sure, I am not offering a jeremiadic lament against the dangers of new media technologies and ministry. I hold no nostalgic hopes of returning to some pristine time when we had penpals rather than Facebook friends and preached thoughtful manuscript sermons to twenty-five people rather than live streaming to thousands. Rather, I affirm Sherry Turkle’s concluding thoughts in Alone Together, where she calls for a “realtechnik” approach: we must remain intellectually suspicious and skeptical of any narrative of linear progress through technology and humbly take a step back at each juncture to assess and reassess what it means to be human. Our ability to interpret, adapt, empathize, share personal narratives, cry, and care cannot be compromised by our desires for connection and convenience, lest our tools become our objects of worship, our technology our God.

Jonathan L. Walton is Assistant Professor of African American Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (2009) explores the interrelationship between the media used by American evangelists and the religious themes thereby conveyed. This piece stems from his remarks at a ministry colloquium at Harvard Divinity School in February 2011.

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