Friday, November 19, 2010

A (Wimpy) Facebook Theology

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Virtual divine encounter?
In his post, "A Facebook Theology," practical theology professor, Bruce Epperly, encourages his readers and fellow believers to approach Facebook as "an altar on the Internet and a place of spiritual awakening." Advice is given on how to pray for friends both new and old while scrolling through status updates, as well as how to take the occasional Facebook page-loading delay as an opportunity for a quick prayer rather than being annoyed and frustrated that you're not getting your fix as quickly as you'd like.

Before I continue, I should say that I'm not categorically opposed to what Epperly is saying in his post. In fact, I approach Facebook in similar ways, as a ministry opportunity to some (I would say limited) degree. So read on after the break for where Epperly and I may like to mince theological words; lovingly, of course, for the edification of the body...

I started to get cautious when Epperly offered "a Facebook theology," which he believes is based on the following affirmations:
  • We are all connected with one another in an intricate web of relationships.
  • Each moment of our lives matters and is holy, whether I am blogging, commenting on what I ate for breakfast, sharing wisdom, or responding to a friend's status report.
  • We can be transformed personally and socially by our relationships and our awareness of the holiness of life.
To those three points I say: "Yes...but take it further!" What troubles me is that both Epperly's post and the CNN article which led me there are entirely oriented to the individual and their personal spirituality (yes, in relationship with others, but the locus is still the individual). He hints at social implications in the last point, but leaves it undeveloped. A deeper theology is needed, one that takes into account the economic and political dimensions of Facebook, not to mention the role of the church in all this. (Admittedly, I won't develop the latter point much in this post either.) What I'm especially thinking of is the role of advertising on Facebook and how they've inaugurated a new age of social media-based marketing. Facebook is now the gold standard for online marketing, a paradigm shift from which we can't turn back but we must be cognizant of. Epperly makes no mention of this dimension. (For more on Facebook/advertising see the "Beyond the 21st century rat race?" section of my post: A pastiche tribute to Art Gish.)

I appreciate what brother Epperly is doing in his post because it is a likely corrective; we should be present in the moment and prayerfully aware of our interconnectedness, no matter what we're doing, including Facebook. I'm just trying to take it deeper. Theology without political/economic/cultural awareness is pretty "wimpy" in my view (the obvious value statement slipped in the title of my post). Overly individualistic theology (often described as "spirituality") allows faith practices to "play nice" within some pretty potentially demonic systems, e.g. Facebook's commoditization of every "friend," ever app you install, every quiz you take, and every "like." All the better by which to bombard you with targeted, scary-relevant ads.

We shouldn't be scared away from things like Facebook, but neither should we be ignorant of how they can so easily mis-shape our relationship with God as the body of Christ and our witness to the world, virtual or otherwise. [Thx, Sam!]

[Update]: Mere minutes after posting this, I saw this story (on Facebook!) by Cathleen Falsani: Where two or more are gathered ...on Facebook. Falsani's is a touching personal narrative of many of the same things that Epperly describes above. And again, I say: "That's great!" In the midst of finding constructive ways to faithfully engage with technology, I'll continue to periodically say "be wise." [Thx, Elizabeth!]

[Update 2]: I e-mailed and quickly received a very gracious response from Dr. Epperly, who not only affirmed my critique and signaled his resonance with it, but rightly pointed to the inescapable limits of writing on such creation-encompassing matters. He and I both agree that theology touches on all aspects of life, personal and collective, and choices must inevitably be made by people who write on such things. So between the two of us (and Falsani), hopefully we offer a robust theological reflection on the cultural liturgy of Facebook.

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