Recently, Caitlin Flanagan argued in The Atlantic that we really need to quit Twitter. She joins a long line of people who’ve sworn off the medium (at least for a time). Andrew Sullivan, Chrissy Teigen, Alec Baldwin, and other celebrities have publicly quit social media. Ta-Nehisi Coates famously left Twitter (and his 1.25 million followers) after an online argument with Cornel West in 2017.
In her essay, Flanagan examines how Twitter destroyed her “ability for private thought” and enjoyment of reading. She even admits to being a Twitter addict.
I am too. I have committed a thousand times to take a break from social media, just to find myself sneaking a look, consumed by shame, as if I huffed some glue real quick between work and picking up the kids. There are nights when I’m up too late, reddened eyes locked onto a screen, finally shaking myself out of my stupor with a cry: “Why am I doing this?”
We’ve all heard the studies. Social media decreases our ability to think critically, increases rates of depression, and fuels anxiety and distraction. Facebook and Twitter often make our conversations more combative. And online advocacy often usurps the more enduring (and more boring) work of governance and institutional change.
Nevertheless, most public discourse is now online. So even if social media is a cesspool, we still have to ask the question: Do some Christians have a moral responsibility to wade into the mire to voice opposition to bad legislation, promote good work, or amplify the concerns of the marginalized?
To cite one particularly disheartening example, sexual abuse victims of a lay leader in my own denomination took to Twitter this summer to highlight the ways leaders and systems allegedly failed to handle their abuse. The only way many of us (even within our institution) heard about any of this was because some brave survivors spoke up online. These institutional concerns were brought to light through social media.
I have written about the spiritual and emotional danger of social media consumption, but always with a bit of internal conflict, because I know that people are most likely finding these very essays through platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
The pitfalls of social media are real, dangerous, and myriad. But the unavoidable fact is that people today find a public voice, in part, through social media. This goes for Christian writers, artists, and public leaders as well. These online spaces are where people—those whom Jesus loves—are talking about important things. This is where people share their work.
But this fact, though unavoidable, is also rather destructive. If all our up-and-coming leaders, artists, and thinkers are formed by social media, this very formation will inevitably shape and limit our cultural possibilities, imaginations, and thought.
Our implicit requirement of emerging leaders for copious social media engagement is like requiring all of America’s young cardiologists to take up smoking. The means necessary to have a public voice in our culture is precisely that which undoes the kind of deep thinking, nuance, creativity, humility, and compassion we desperately need from leaders of any sort.
This dynamic can also undermine our institutions. The last thing we need in the church is for each pastor to be a public brand. As I’ve written in CT, the authority that comes from being popular online can subvert institutional health and accountability. Yet, do our institutions themselves have some responsibility to deal with and equip people for the reality of a digital world?
I’ve had older church leaders praise the idea of opting out of social media altogether. They want to be “above the fray,” which is not a bad goal. But I wonder if Christians have some responsibility to enter the fray, even if it is fraught with all sorts of temptations, perils, and dangers.
How then do we—as individuals and as a church—resist the malformation of being always online without shirking our public responsibility? Is there any moral imperative to be part of the digital public square?
I’ve agonized over these questions and still don’t know the answer.
In their book, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass write that the practice of discernment teaches us our own finitude, our need for prayer, our dependence on the Spirit of God. It shows us how our theology resonates “with the beliefs and practices that guide the community of faith on its pilgrimage.”
We are certainly in new territory on this pilgrimage. The church has faced persecution, famine, and plague, but we’ve never yet had to decide when or if to tweet. Of course, Christians have always faced temptations to vanity, arrogance, distraction, addiction, and idolatry. But we’ve never had hundreds of engineers hired by megacorporations to pinpoint how to ensnare more and more of our attention in ways uniquely suited to our individual loves and desires.
Still, Christian discernment is not a new practice, and we need to be intentional about discerning the vices and virtues—the dangers but also the obligations and responsibilities—that this new medium brings. I don’t mean we need to simply decide this individually. Discernment is a communal activity, which means we must ask these questions as a church. This needs to be a constant topic of Christian discipleship and debate.
The church and some individuals within it are called to the public square and, whether we like it or not, social media is an increasingly important part of that. Those digital spaces will inevitably involve us in practices, systems, and formation that are harmful to our souls. But we have a moral obligation not simply to perfect purity and personal health but to a wider world—a misshapen world that will inevitably misshape us as well. We can and should take up practices that limits these harms. But we might not be able to avoid them altogether.
Flanagan may be right: I may really need to quit Twitter. I may be self-justifying a damaging addiction. I truly do wish that a Christian ethical engagement with media was as easy as just quitting all the bad things, but there’s a kind of fundamentalist reductionism in this desire. Instead, we are faced with a riskier path, a practice of ongoing discernment as we navigate these complicated questions about both the needs of our souls and our responsibility to others.
I still believe what I wrote previously, that “technological habituation begets our spiritual formation, which begets our devotion and doxology.” I do not think that social media shapes our souls, our thinking, or our conversations in excellent ways. But at the end of the day, the church is called both to proper devotion and to the sullied complexities of the public square.
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