Friday, December 10, 2010

Tweeting Tribalism

In an interesting crosspost over at Presbymergent and at his blog A Wee Blether, Adam Copeland pitches out a defense of social media as a means by which church can better be church.  By blogging and tweeting"facebooking," Copeland argues that we establish a profound and authentically spiritual connection to others and increase our awareness of others who share our faith.

There's real truth in that.  New media connects us to people we'd never have otherwise experienced.  There are folks I've known only online, and known for years, from whom I've been connected to writers and thinkers and music that have profoundly enriched my faith.  The ability to share and converse can be a serious blessing, and can enrich our ability to love God and neighbor.   It can be a powerful tool for grace.

As can a gesture.  As can the spoken word.  As can ink and paper.  The reach and immediacy of social media are different, though.  It has the immediacy of conversation, and the potential reach of mass media.

The spiritual challenge in social media is that it makes it easy for us to become tribal.  And we all want to be tribal.  It is our nature.   We like to be an "us."  We like to surround ourselves with sameness and the comfortable and the known.  In our global culture, there there are so many different voices.  Media can serve up the baffling and frightening reality that we don't necessarily hold Truth with a capital "T" quite as firmly as we might like.  We are not the center of things.  That shakes us.

So what social media offers us is a choice.  If we so choose, we can surround ourselves with sameness.  We can follow only those who interest us and agree with us.  We can fill our ears and lay our eyeballs only across those voices and words that reaffirm what we already know.   We can amass a vast array of witnesses who affirm our common knowledge, as our facebook friends, those we feed and those we follow all shout the same songs, and say the same things.  We can live our lives in the echo chamber din of the Daily Kos, or in Townhall.

In the relentlessly refreshing wave of tweets and status updates, we can become so lost in the ceaseless chorus of our own cyberclan that we lose the ability to see those different from us as anything other than our trollish enemy.  Yes, we yearn for the intimacy and comfort of the tribe.  But tribes, while great at being community, have a tendency to do a really for-crap job of being beloved community. 

There lies our other social media choice.  If we so choose, we can use social media to open ourselves up to the other.  Yes, we listen particularly to those who are called to openness, both to those called to be constantly reforming and to those called to hold on to what is good.   But we also listen to those with whom we disagree.  We follow those who are different.  We rss feed those who are supposed to be our enemies.   That doesn't mean we acquiesce.  We're allowed to still disagree.  But in listening, in understanding, we mindfully use social media to stir in ourselves both grace and compassion towards even our most implacable trolls.

When that becomes our habit of being in the strange virtual half-light, then and only then do we start moving towards a twitter theology, towards living through social media in a way that can be called authentically Christian.