A great deal of attention has been paid in recent years to how churches can use social media to advance their mission—outreach, evangelism, connection, social justice work, etc. In my observation, these discussions generally center on how the use of such media affects the church. However, what about the reverse question: how does Christian use of new media affect the assumptions that govern such media? Can it do so at all?
As someone who researches in the area of historical theology, I am aware that the Christian church has, from its very inception, borrowed ideas and strategies from its diverse cultural surroundings. Patristic theologians, for instance, were very aware of the desirability of explicating the gospel using concepts borrowed from philosophy (particularly various strands of Neoplatonism). The scriptural figure to which these theologians liked to appeal was Exodus 3:22’s depiction of the departing Israelites plundering the treasures of their Egyptian captors as they escaped their slavery; just as God allowed the Israelites to take what they needed from foreigners in order to advance their cause, early Christians believed that theology could utilize the “spoils from Egypt”—such “foreign” discourses as philosophy, pagan literature, etc.—to advance its work.
However, the notion of the church appropriating these discursive “spoils” in order to better articulate its theology was coupled with another notion: the idea that concepts borrowed from non-Christian philosophy required “baptism,” so to speak, in order to be safe for Christian use. That is, adapting these philosophies for Christian use required transforming at least some of their content (for instance, Neoplatonism could only be useful for Christians once its most egregious anti-material presuppositions were tempered by the Christian assertion that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ).
Similarly, Christians have always employed various media to advance the interests and mission of the church. The sixteenth-century Reformation in the West would have been unthinkable without the concurrent invention of the printing press; likewise, contemporary evangelicalism derives much of its power from savvy use of television and the Internet. However, if these various media are the “spoils of Egypt” from which Christians are free to draw, then to what extent must they be baptized? That is, to what extent are Christians called to transform—or at least provide an alternative to—the governing assumptions behind these media?
Let me start that conversation with just one example: LinkedIn (a service for which I have a great deal of respect, by the way). One of the governing assumptions of sites like LinkedIn is that, in the modern workforce, it is advantageous to be a part of as many—and as prestigious—professional networks as possible. There is clearly a great deal of truth to this assumption
However, an inescapable component of the Christian gospel is Jesus’ command to associate oneself with those who are rejected and marginalized by society. In the last century, liberation theology in particular has called the church to remember the scriptural commands that disciples of Jesus be in solidarity with the poor—that is, those without social and professional capital.
So to me, an interesting line of questioning would be less about how using services like LinkedIn changes the church, but whether and how Christian presence in social media might transform—however subtly, slowly, and modestly—the contemporary drive to be connected to all the right people, to be a part of all the prestigious networks. Or, put provocatively: can social media be “baptized” to where it becomes a vehicle for linking the church inextricably with all of the marginal, “wrong” sorts of people—those who, to borrow a line from Barbara Brown Taylor, have no one but Jesus to call them blessed?
The Rev. Dr. Robert Saler is a Research Fellow and administrator with the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
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