Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Ghost In The Machine - Finding God & The Other In Social Media (The 5th Annual St Anselm Lecture)

Last week I gave a lecture on social media and faith at St Anselm Hall, University of Manchester. Below is the complete transcript - though I admit I departed from the script in lots of places. It is *very* long - apologies! - and (for social media buffs) a bit basic in places. I hope you'll put up with the religion stuff too. Enjoy! 

My hands are sweaty. My mouth is dry and I am unaccountably thirsty. I cannot quite concentrate and am restless. I pace up and down. My skin is itchy and one thought keeps going through my head –‘Just one hit, it can’t do any harm, then I’ll stop.’
Any of you who – like me – have ever had what some professionals call ‘substance-based issues’ will know the ghastly mental tyranny of comedown and cold turkey.  However, much as I know the agitation of withdrawal, I’m not talking about the arsenal of illegal drugs or even nicotine. I’m talking about my recent Lenten fast from Twitter and Facebook. For there is no other way of putting it: as much as I can & do – through iron-willed discipline – give up social media for six weeks each year, I am utterly and shame-facedly addicted to the creation.

Well, like all addicts, I decided to try and make a virtue of my addiction. If the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Syd Barrett or even, heaven forfend, Eric Clapton could try to make sweet music off the back of their drugs, I thought, 'Let’s see if there’s any theology to be had in this. Let’s see where God is, if anywhere. Let’s see what people like me and you have become in this digital age. Let’s see where the church – that bewildering, irritating, sometimes outrageously unjust and unfair and yet magnificent thing – lies in this wild west of internet exploration.'
In The Tempest, Miranda famously says, ‘O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!’ As a statement of hope and innocence – foolish innocence perhaps – it is always relevant. In a world which – if it has always been shaped by imagination, myth and possibility – has taken extraordinary steps into the virtual and digital it is perhaps timely. Christians like me are called to be clear eyed about reality and also to seek to live a story which has both a sense of the immense blessing of creation and an honesty about its brokenness. The world-wide-web and its myriad possibilities – not least social media – can appear a brave new world, especially to the church, behind the curve as it often is. But we should not be naive, tempting as it is to become Miranda. Nor should we be like Prospero...breaking the staff... abandoning the book of magic. Social networking/social media can appear to be full of ghosts and ghouls, mere baseless fabric and insubstantial pageant. But in rejecting it we risk rejecting our very selves. We truly are such stuff as dreams are made on.
Love it or loathe it, Social Media will not be going away any time soon. Facebook has gone from being a resource for Harvard students to one of the central means people use to communicate and organise their lives. Equally, Twitter really is an extraordinary creation. We have perhaps all heard of the notion of an idea, a video, a meme, going viral – e.g. the famous video of Fenton the dog chasing deer in Windsor Great Park – spreading from contact to contact like a virus; Twitter seems almost the acme of the viral. Traditional news and print media have bought into Twitter in a massive way not least because it has had to come to terms with the speed with which news spreads on it, leaving traditional methods behind. This speed and lack of verification can be one of the negatives – the number of times that people announce that celebs have died and then had that spread around twitter has become tedious – but I also remember how extraordinary twitter was during the 2011 riots.
In a sign of the power and perceived influence of social media,  every band, every organization, every company seeks to have a Facebook page; partly because of the sheer reach of FB – about 1Bn and growing ; this interest in having a page is hardly based on mere altruism -1bn people represents a lot of marketing opportunities, but, because of the ‘like’ system on Facebook, organizations can use FB to measure interest in what they have to offer; and while FB remains free it is also saturated with advertising metrics which tailor ads to individuals’ interest and likes (e.g. for me – lesbian, metal, poetry books (!?!); & b), to underline a previous point, any news or media organization worth its salt, will have a twitter account; now twitter has not penetrated the market in the same way as FB – 140 m users, 10 m in UK – but it is seen as a dazzlingly quick way of flashing info, news and ideas (true and false, good and bad) around the world. That is of influencing info, news agendas, and ideas. If the WWW was seen as a revolution in information and communication, then twitter – for now – appears to be its ultimate concentration: one hundred and forty characters of info & ideas that spreads more quickly and successfully than a virus.
And to get down to it: social media is a fundamental place where we – especially as individuals, but sometimes as communities – tell & perhaps increasingly locate & discover our stories. For what are we, if we are not makers of stories? And those who live stories? And those who search for stories to live by? We are fleshlings who are enraptured by the imagination’s power. We are that creature/animal who is story making and story-living; we are myth-making and myth-loving. We search for stories to live by and understand themselves very readily in terms of stories. We have ideas about ourselves, as individuals and as communities, typically expressed in stories, which are foundational for identity. The kind of stories which are most deeply embedded and/or most substantially evidenced - and how we prioritize that distinction probably tells us a lot about what kind of stories we like - are the kinds of stories we see as true or forming our social and personal facticity. And part of our fascination with stories is, yes, the human love of entertainment, but it also reflects our need to shape and frame a world, and a way of communicating values, hopes and dreams.
Indeed stories are so powerful for us that rather than us using them to shape a world, we often feel that we unite ourselves to them; they shape us, form us, guide us, perhaps even write us; whether these be the myths and stories of a culture, of a faith, of a family or an interest group. To be human is to be a kind of writing; the only question is, which genre? Story telling is one of our fundamental cultural practices and we initiate the young into it from the moment a child is born. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Jesus used parabolic storytelling, not merely instruction, rule-telling or lecturing in order to help us embody & live the gospel. The most potent moments of the gospels often seem to me, at least, opportunities for us to locate ourselves in the story or situation; to imagine how we might take it on or react, to shape it and be shaped by it.
Part of our gift as storytellers is our ability to use things which are not facts to tell the truth. It is a fundamental indication of what conveniently might be called ‘imagination’; ‘x’ does not actually need to have happened in a physical, time-bound sense in order to capture something true and real. Indeed, sometimes the joy of storytelling is the impossibility (in terms of physics, biology etc) of the story; I am conscious that as a poet I am constantly playing with impossible things – the breaking of gravity, the transformation and transmutation of one thing to another – in order to open up a world. In our stories we are, like Prospero, alchemists & magicians.
And all this matters in any attempt to look seriously at social media and for any attempt to discern the rumour of God in its midst: For twitter and facebook are human artifacts, but like all human artifacts have the capacity to shape us and tell us more about who we are. And I happen to subscribe to that rather old fashioned formulation that how we see ourselves reveals much about how one might see God; and how one might see God says much about we see ourselves. However, if we are the kind of creatures who search for stories to live by, we are also living in an age of fragments, of individualism and scepticism. We are living in the time where the fashionable story is that there is no story...unless we admit to a narrative driven by scientism – i.e. the reductive belief that the only story which counts is the one we can provide particular, testable kinds of evidence for.
Stories are perhaps more important than ever – for in a disenchanted & fragmented age – human believability can be pulled in many directions. Some people have characterized this as the claim, ‘When folk stop believing in God they’ll believe in anything’. While I’ve encountered many people who believe in any number of things, I’m not sure this is quite nuanced enough. If we are story loving and story living animals, we will bring together any number of factors – our past, residual, culturally embedded faith narratives, cultural values, our family stories, aspirations and so on. One aspect of this ‘portmanteau’ approach to identity is the way in which ‘trust’ in stories can be both light-hearted, deliberately ironic and yet quite serious.
So here’s a picture for this new frontier, this wild west of the imagination. For I’ve always been a sucker for westerns – for their tales of frontier towns, of the lawless west, of the pioneer. The philosopher John Locke said, ‘Once all places were America’; writing as he was in the 17th century, I think he meant that once all the world help possibility and openness and the promise of the undiscovered country. Perhaps for us social media is still that place. And so I think of that Hebrew word, that picture of the divine imagination, ‘Yasha’. Christians typically connect the word ‘salvation’ with our faith in Jesus Christ. But if we go back to the Old Testament we discover that the Hebrew verb for ‘to save’ is yasha. It is from this word that the name Jesus (meaning ‘he who saves’) comes. Yasha means ‘to be wide, to be spacious’. Its opposite is sara, which means to be narrow, whether physically, intellectually or spiritually.
So, in Old Testament terms, ‘salvation’ has to do with having or getting space in which to move or breathe. This space gives the possibility of choice, of growth and development. On these terms, the question of our salvation becomes a focus upon how spacious and generous our souls are. A key question is: am I a person who is broad and open, who is open to growth and change? Are we a community which is closed or open? The extent to which we are on a journey to salvation is the extent to which we are becoming more open and more generous human beings. This is why the land matters in Jewish thought – as a metaphor for and as a real statement of promise – of a place where we can breathe and be and thus be saved. Being open is a kind of salvation.
I am conscious that, while I am a busy priest thoroughly engaged in all sorts of human pastoral and social relationships, I am single and in some respects fit the notion of the solitary person mediating her isolated world via an internet connection. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’m overstraining things when I say not only ‘my world’ but my sense of self has been expanded by participating in social media; I don’t mean in terms of an absurd delusion of grandeur, but of feeling like I am present in the world in a wider way; that I am part of something greater – partly a greater conversation, but perhaps even a wider story. I want to be careful here, because one aspect that might bear more careful teasing out is whether one is simply engaged in an act of association with other people’s stories (like a virtual venn diagram) or a uniting of one story with others, or a commitment to that. However, one plays it, I’m struck by how far how I see the world and myself and others has been changed by social networking. This is a dimension of yasha, of spaciousness and a hint of the divine.
There has been a profound change from physical to digital identity; the simple fact is that more and more people are seemingly storing more and more of ‘themselves’ – or at least many of the key markers of their identity – electronically; FB is simply littered with people’s photographs; increasingly photographs – a key modern way of representing a moment of physical reality – have no obvious physical reality; they exist as 1s & 0s on cameras, hard drives and increasingly on Cloud systems that take them beyond one physical location (servers); the markers of memory are laid down in digital space beyond one’s own computer.
In David Eagleton’s book Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives, in which an atheist neuroscientist imagines varieties of ‘afterlives’ or heavens, one version has the dead living on in the form of electronic data tended by self-supporting computers. Literature aside, I am conscious of how once info is up on the web there is a sense in which it is there forever. The FB profiles of the dead, unless taken down by family and friends, stay in virtual space like memorials; depending how much work the person put into them when alive, they are sites of memory and story – of their likes and loves, their commitments, their visual memories. The dead stare back at us through our LED screens.  
Part of the fascination of Social Media lies in its role in societies which are increasingly ‘post-religious’ in any conventional sense. However, what is clear is that social media gives people a sense of participating in something much greater than themselves, in a bigger story – one of the classic roles of traditional religion. Facebook enables folk to be friends with and communicate with people who they may never even have met. Twitter enables communication on another level: people are able to engage in conversation with not only like-minded others, but people they may traditionally have been very distant from – senior politicians, celebrities, musicians and so on. How deep this conversation goes is moot; however, many people are finding they have expanded rather than diminished senses of their identity – where their identity has cyber dimensions as well as conventional ones. I use Twitter as a key networking tool, whether to discuss my journalistic, poetic or theological writing, a process made more difficult without its immediacy. Being a vicar and a woman ordinarily means that people have expectations about how I act and what matters to me; social media enables others to respond to me without making judgments based on my appearance, accent and profession. Clearly this has dangers: social media presents opportunities for fraudsters and the malicious to present false personalities, but (accepting that one must not be naive about who people claim to be) the simple fact remains: social media reflects an expansion of many people’s worlds rather than their diminishment.
          And yes there are issues. One can sometimes get the impression from reading a twitter feed or a facebook profile that one is at the Narcissist’s Ball. Those ghastly circular letters folk send out at Christmas telling the poor unfortunates who happen to be our friends about how Ophelia has been offered a Fellowship at Corpus Christi at 12 and so on - they ain’t got nothing on twitter and facebook. Twitter – with its requirement to be punchy – invites short statements about what one is up to. While I try to be self-undermining, I often catch myself tweeting about ‘all the exciting stuff I get to do, blah’. Sometimes you  get the impression on twitter that everyone is a ‘writer’ or ‘artist’ or ‘someone a bit quirky’ as if one were in an online version of one of those chi-chi independent tea shops you get in South Manchester. And in an age where it has become fashionable and indeed expected to treat oneself as a product or asset to be sold or promoted (‘sell yourself’ the young are told) and in which folk take their own stories very seriously – actors at the centre of the stage – why should be not expect social media to reflect self-promotional trends? Twitter and FB remain human and therefore reflect our idiocy and vanity and sinfulness. I am struck by some of the extraordinary conversations I have got into via twitter and facebook – often with folk I’ve never met. Given that social media is a human creation, it cannot be considered either cultural and ethically neutral or logically good in and of itself: Human artifacts are always compromised by the simple fact that we make them. They reflect our limitations and interests.
None of us are immune to a retreat into comfortable networks and mutually affirming narratives which feed our identity. Indeed, many suggest that one of the key features of the internet age, is the priority of creating networks and associations over community; one selects the groups one wants to be part of; one chooses the storyline we commit to and, often being based on shared interests like what films or music or games or religion one likes, one isn’t challenged or troubled out of one’s comfort zone. Truth is, my hunch is that it is too soon to make too many grand pronouncements about the state of the electronic nation; I have friends and colleagues whose give the impression their whole lives are spent either gaming, on twitter and facebook and yet, the vast majority of us – as long as we’re not teenagers and students – have got all sorts of commitments, interests and responsibilities that pull us outside of comfortable fantasies, and cosy stories. But surely, it is lazy to blame people for treating their lives as networks of comfortable relationships rather than communities of commitment and challenge; people have always lived in villages of the mind – parochial, fearful, searching for security. The internet may simply have transferred this aspect of our being to global possibilities.
Social Media can be addictive and placing it in its proper perspective is
important. Even if many people have abandoned religiously endorsed senses of the Transcendent, it is evident that in social media people are experiencing a world which takes them beyond traditional expectations and possibilities. This isn’t simply about ‘ordinary’ folk being able to talk to so-called celebrities. Nor is it simply about the ill, disabled or house-bound being able to connect, although this is significant to many, including myself. There is another possibility: In a society which many have suggested is increasingly divided and privatized, social media offers one way of helping people to connect. Clearly, it cannot offer the deep solutions to social malaise many are searching for, but I, for one, have been struck by the way social media has pushed my social networks. It can be uncomfortable to engage in fierce and immediate conversation with people from very different theological, political and cultural expectations to oneself, but it is both stretching and often rewarding.
          I want to suggest that it is possible to embody our growing into Christ in a virtual way; once we get past the notion that it is a separate and false world, as if it were a new version of Calvinist picture of the world of the flesh, fallen and lost, one can begin to see how it becomes another place we can inhabit. And if it is co-terminus with the worlds – the stories – we have inhabited since we got down out of the trees, and simply offers new possibilities it becomes a place for us to live our simultaneously broken yet hopeful journey with God. How exactly we do that is complex. Aside from the high levels of throwaway nonsense – to which I, as a fun-loving human being, am an avid contributor – Social Media represents a remarkable Christian and human opportunity. The way in which this has been most explored is as an evangelistic or missionary tool. Given the almost global reach of Social Media, propagators of the faith have been quick to see the opportunities to place the Gospel message before new audiences. Intriguing as this effort may be it is not what most interests me. (Why? Much of it isn’t subtle enough – it’s the cyber equivalent of people shouting on streets about God.)
There is also, as I see it, something rather beautiful and striking about Social Media. This perception is drawn from the fact that social media is simultaneously ephemeral and permanent. Consider Twitter. Tweets are tiny parcels of words, thrown into cyberspace. Most get immediately lost and ignored. They are ephemera. And yet, because they are in cyberspace, they also have an odd permanence – they simply float in cyberspace for all time, like a tiny chip of an asteroid in space. And sometimes someone tweets something snappy, brilliant and clever. And, you see it for a moment. If you like it perhaps you ‘retweet’ it to your followers, and then it's gone into cyberspace. This odd combination of the permanent and the insubstantial mirrors key truths of our lives and of God. This very fragility and solidity lies at the heart of God: in the fragile existence God chose to embrace in Jesus and in the permanence that extends that love across all time. The beauty lies in the interaction of both.
It is possible that one way God’s story is present in things like Twitter is as a form of subversion. I hope it’s clear by now that everything online – like many things offline – is saturated with advertising, promotion of self and money and the capitalist dream and, well, with what might be called ‘propaganda’; that is, with information that is selling us stories that make us less free to think, explore, dream and ultimately be our true selves – creatures who see the world aright, as both a place of play, possibility and commitment. Propaganda wants us to be stirred within ourselves in order to commit to a particular position. Clearly, on this picture it is possible and perhaps necessary for the Christian message to be reduced to propaganda.
One way of exploring this Christian narrative is by suggesting that it is the story of how we, as human beings, are called to be and actually may be our true selves. Thomas Merton’s story of ‘the tree’ may be instructive here:
Merton[1] suggests that each of us can give no greater glory to God than being ourselves – our true selves. So it is for all creation: a tree gives glory to God by being a tree. But for the tree that’s not a difficult thing to do – it cannot be other than its essential ‘tree-ness’. But for humans, it’s terribly complicated. We have so many possibilities and paths before us. We carry the splinter of brokenness within us. And so the only way any of us can know and be truly ourselves, is to know ourselves in God. For only God sees the picture clearly. Only God holds me in my completeness. A journey into self, then, is a journey into God.
There is then a call for us to grow into authenticity and who we really are,
and this is arguably something which prioritizes community ahead of individualism or at least does not imagine that individualism is an end in itself. At another level it is about uniting our story – personal and corporate – to the story of God. It is then a willingness to be a creature who – if we search after stories to live by – understands there is one fundamental story which makes our own stand out and be whole: God’s story. Sam Wells once called the Christian story ‘a satire on the story that there is no story’[2]; Christians will not ultimately end the story in barrenness, failure and tragedy. We will want to say that even if the world is experienced as a human tragedy it is ultimately a Divine Comedy. But still we are called to be faithful to experience and reality; clear-eyed and honest. And though we may each experience many kinds of resurrection and love, there are dimensions of living which should be seen and lived for what they are. And the hope of God in those places is not about trying to find ways of ‘feeling better’ about them, but is about waiting. And that waiting may take till the end of time to be brought to fullness. And how we live in the midst of a world which seemingly lacks grace, does matter. For in the practices of Confession and Forgiveness, of Eucharist and so on – in participating in them – we hint at a story which exposes the emptiness of a story-less world.
However, it is also true that there are other kinds of human activities which seek to liberate our imagination, grant us space to think and resist our instinct to make them useful. Liturgy and poetry are perhaps two such examples. We can use liturgy to make us feel better or worse and so on, but at its heart is a story that is about setting us free to simply be ourselves. Equally poetry - though it can be made to serve political and practical ends – is most itself when it opens up imaginative worlds. Absurd as it may sound, I sometimes have glimpses of this God-centred reality on social networking sites. There is – as one of my followers put it recently – too much of the playground and the shop about twitter; but there are moments of quite useless but thought-provoking art. There is wit and delight and laughter. As another tweeting cleric (Wealands Bell) put it:
Tweeting is like any other art form: you can plug away, turning out decent tweets all day long, and get nowhere. But you keep on, chasing.

[1] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (London: Burns & Oates 1962), Chapter 2.
[2] Sam Wells, Transforming Fate into Destiny (Carlisle: Paternoster Press 1998), p.171


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