One of the frequent apologies for new media is that it democratizes access to news. At least since John Milton, Westerners have had confidence that the more the information gets out, the more the truth will win out (Milton himself capitalized Truth in an explicit reference to God in Doug Underwood’s From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press). The Internet pumps more information out that anyone could have ever imagined in Milton’s time. So how’s truth doing?
The New York Times recently ran a brief article by Michael Cooper called “Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches.” Nothing new for politics, right? Except this: Cooper suggests that Paul Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s speeches “seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of presidential campaign, one in which concerns about fact-checking have largely been set aside.” If one party is right in its calculation that facts don’t matter, who can doubt that the other party won’t take advantage of the new Zeitgeist too?
But shouldn’t the public, armed with more information than ever, take to the web, check those purported facts, and punish the politicos who fib? We’ll see, but I’m betting not. A recent book by a philosopher with the impossible title On Bullshit makes the claim that truth is beside the point in BS’ing. The speaker, the listener, everybody knows the point being made is nonsense. Yet it’s still made. We’re beyond truth and falsehood somehow. The question is how best, in such a setting, to manipulate the key people’s feelings to get what one wants. The best BS’er wins.
I find this haunting as I use digital technology to reach out in pastoral care. I’m convinced of the truth of what Pastor Tony Lee says in Monica Coleman’s profile of him: that these sorts of technologies extend our pastoral reach, increase our pastoral “touches” (in his language), and point us to where we need to be bodily present in visiting, helping mourn, celebrating—in short, doing our work better. Just this morning I heard about and offered what solace I could to a parishioner mourning her father. I learned about the loss of a good man, a great father and grandfather, a nonagenarian welcomed into Jesus’ arms. My parishioner told me she was up half the night texting and Facebooking memories, mourning him online until family could reunite from across the globe to mourn bodily. I hate to spout corporate slogans, but we see an example here of what Facebook promises: “A more connected world.”
But no created thing is without the sighing that marks all of humanity after the fall. While I was trying to connect digitally to a parishioner recently about the loss of her husband, another cell phone call broke into ours. Everyone trying to use the phones in the mountains where I live has had this experience. Only this time, the intruding call was particularly vulgar, and then gone 2-3 seconds later. We’d gone from a tender moment of remembering a lost loved one to both saying “I don’t know what that was” and awkwardly hanging up. Had we been face to face, an unwanted intrusion of ugliness could also have taken place. My guess is that it would have brought us closer together as we shrugged off the vulgarity. On the phone, the intrusion seemed more frightening somehow—a graced moment spoiled. I felt derelict in my duty to be present to my church.
New technology has often been met with a combination of fear and eschatological expectation. Methodist missionaries greeted the arrival of the telegraph with predictions of the kingdom’s imminence. On the other hand, President U.S. Grant described the way a new high-speed passenger train “annihilates space” (both vignettes in Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848). My objection is to the hyperventilated rhetoric about social media’s cosmos-altering importance. It is a human invention that can be used for great good or great ill, like every human invention since firestarting, farming, the electric toaster, and Angry Birds. We’d be fools not to use it for churchly good and fools not to recognize its potential to harm and destroy.
It’s often said in the church (Perhaps after Carlyle Marney? Or was it Will Campbell?) that there’s a world of difference between being a fool for Christ and a damned fool. Here’s hoping for the former.
Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.
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