Saturday, March 09, 2013

on Facebook, Liturgy, and Theological Curmudgeons

I gave up Facebook for February. If the theological curmudgeons of our age are to be believed, this fast was a wise and virtuous decision, positioning my soul to be primed and ready for reception of God’s grace that my online presence had heretofore been the sole (or, at least, one great and mighty) hindrance toward.

Let’s take a moment to note that the theological curmudgeons of our age are widely of the Reformed persuasion, which makes sense to me given Calvin’s pursed-lip piety. (Dude. I appreciate Calvin as much as the next Anabaptist, recipient of a tradition of martyrdom caused by Calvinist theology. No, really, there is much to be appreciated in Reformed thought. It’s just that it so often comes across as…dour.)

This week, I’ve been reading James K.A. Smith’s “Imaginingthe Kingdom: How Worship Works.” This is the second in his “Cultural Liturgies” series, an attempt to construct a liturgical anthropology from a Reformed perspective. Smith spends a hefty first half of the book outlining arguments from Pierre Bordieu and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, philosophers bent on the importance of habit and practice in shaping our human identities. I read Bordieu in seminary and felt one of those immediate revelations of recognition. I even named one of my blogs with a concept from his Outline of a Theory of Practice. That is to say, I agree with Smith’s premises about our practices forming us into particular kinds of people. I even agree that the world serves up ritual and liturgy that is DESIGNED to co-opt our imagination and our desires. I’m right with him in his assertion that Christian worship ought to be an exercise in shaping our desires toward God, toward a world where God’s mercy and fullness are revealed and resurrected. YES, worship is liturgy is counter-formation is our way of seeing Another Way of Being in the world. That’s all right up my Brethren alley.

But, then, Smith turns to the “practical” aspects of his “practical” theology, and brings the full force of this liturgical anthropology shaped from decades of sociological thought and theological inquiry and aims it square in the face of…social media. Specifically, he targets Facebook – a platform he freely admits he DOES NOT USE.

“Social media,” he says, “despite the good uses to which it can be put – might be just this sort of disordering liturgy. Signing up for Twitter or Facebook is not a neutral decision to simply employ a ‘medium’: it is to insert oneself into an environment of practice that inculcates in us certain habits that then shape our orientation to the world – indeed, they make our worlds.” (144)

Well, fair enough. That’s why I gave up Facebook for February – the awareness of its impact on how I inhabited the world was beginning to wear on me. Fasting from disordering practices is surely a good thing. But, brother, come on! In this wide world of nationalism, militarism, unleashed capitalism, financial extortion, narratives of violence and retribution, unchecked individualism and rampant narcissism, etc., etc., disordered and disordering liturgies going on and on ad naseum, the best practice of cultural liturgy that you could come up with to critique was…Facebook? This massive theological project of liturgical anthropology, and the best example of what we ought to be shaping ourselves to resist is…social media? Weak. Dour.

At the same time, Craig Barnes, newly appointed President of Princeton Seminary and another Reformed cultural commentator writes in the most recent issue of The Christian Century about his reluctance to join Facebook. He finally conceded and apparently set up a profile after a PR fiasco (hello, Princeton, get ahead of that curve!) had his congregants distraught when they found out about his new job via status updates. Barnes joined Facebook out of desperation and fear: “social commentators warn,” he says, “that if you don’t manage your social media identity, someone else will.”


“Managing identity,” is, I think, the key phrase. It’s what Smith is worried about – the constant surveillance that social media forces upon us, the lack of implication-less space and the ways we are compelled to be “on,” “visible,” or “curated” in these spaces engenders narcissism and vainglory. It’s what Barnes is worried about, too, the idea that his public persona will be marred by the uncontrollable element of other people’s commentary upon it.

And they do have a point. No one wants the self-consciousness that emerges and takes over in adolescence to be any more painful than it already is. No one wants to walk into a situation where a friend thinks ill of us because of something out of our control. But that’s just it: these things ARE out of our control. Our identities are not maintained or managed by what we do. Our identity is given to us in Christ and in community. We receive the gift of who we are; we do not curate it. Aiming criticism at social media in this way fails because it participates in the cultural assumption that we are capable of creating ourselves – online or off.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. That’s bedrock, orthodox, reformed AND Anabaptist theology. It’s fundamental to doctrine of eschatology, soteriology, Christology and ecclesiology. This new thing that God is doing re-creates us all in ways that we are not only incapable of managing, but indeed in ways that we are even incapable of IMAGINING.

Yes, it is important to pay attention to our practices. The form of our habits shapes who we are and how we inhabit the world. We ought to take care that the forces shaping us are not co-opting us into disordered liturgies, shaping our desires and our imagination into evil or broken systems or insidious oblivion.

But in the end, we are not in charge of transforming ourselves. We are not Creators of ourselves, we are creatures, created by another. Maybe Facebook encourages us to think otherwise, and maybe it is good to be reminded of this. But if we are living as creatures transformed by the renewing of our minds, if we have submitted ourselves to the imagination of a God capable of more than we can ask or imagine, then any form can be transformed. Any practice can bear witness. God makes a way where there is no way, surprises us in the most unexpected of places, finds ways of humbling us even in those very arenas where we are busy puffing ourselves up and proclaiming our conquests.

So let’s stop worrying so much about how or whether we can control how other people see us. If that means giving up Facebook for a while, or for good, so be it. If it means refusing positions of power and prestige that will tempt us into more identity-maintenance, so be that. If it means praying for every person on your newsfeed, forgetting yourself in the process, do it. If it means sitting still in the presence of God, allowing yourself to be reminded that you are who you are because you have been lovingly created this way and for no other reason, do that. We humans are created and surprising beings, deeply and richly blessed. The mysterious spark of divine breath that animates each of us will shine through wherever we find ourselves – in the mall or in church, on the road or online.

We should not be afraid of the world.

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