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Digital Faithfulness

I have had the dubious distinction of being ‘de-friended’ on Facebook.  It is quite the experience.  A while back I got a message from a high school acquaintance, who informed me that I was being dropped from ‘friend’ status due to my religious posts and constant discussions of faith and church.  The message described how they personally chose not to have their feed filled with such topics, and how it was ‘self-righteous’ of me to constantly speak of such matters. Despite being a christian (and a priest for that matter), they felt that I should know that individuals with whom I was ‘Facebook Friends’ did not ascribe to my personal faith-convictions, and I should therefore limit my posts accordingly.  Thus, while they tolerated my comments for a while, the time finally had come for the individual to reject my friendship and drop me from their Facebook universe.

 It seems silly doesn’t it?  Part of me thinks it is.  Yet another part of me sees in this the inherent tensions found in social media usage, as it relates to people of faith.  By this I mean; what are the ethical and theological issues involved with how we present ourselves on-line? I am not here talking about the ministry related uses of social media.  Parish pages and Bible-study groups are another thing altogether.  What I am talking about is the manner in which we present ourselves within in the social media universe, and thereby naturally provide a sense of gospel-witness.  Simply, what does it mean to engage faithfully with social media?

 Now, some may see that faithful online presence necessitates the endless quoting of Bible verses and praise-songs.  Of course, this isn’t wrong.  I myself have done so.  But is that solely what it means to have a Christian presence online?  Is our Christian presence simply limited to the times where we post some religious shtick?  Frankly, that seems somewhat simplistic.  There are deeper issues that lie beneath all social media. 

 For one, how do Christians interact with a medium which is undoubtedly popularity driven?  The purpose of all social media is the gaining of followers, contacts, friends, and subscribers.   Arguably then, social media does not serve community, but self-aggrandizing popularity.  This coincides very strongly with LauraMarie’s post regarding the nature of community (If you haven’t read that particular post, I suggest you do so).  One of the strengths of social media engines like Facebook and Twitter is that it allows the user to connect with a seemingly endless number of people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.  One is able to digitally create a personalized group of contacts unhindered by things like language and country.  Now-a-days many people actually connect online before they ever connect in real life.  Yet that which is a strength in social media is also a weakness.   Social media not only offers the power to create ones’ personal community, it also gives the power to exclude those with whom you wish not to connect.   Being able to de-friend someone because they represent a divergent voice does not aid the community building process; It actually works against it.  How can true community exist when we can isolate ourselves away from people who disagree with us? Thus, what social media offers is not actual community but a mere fabrication based on a desire to become popular amidst a crowd of like-minded individuals.   

 What is more, because social media is based in popularity, it naturally defines the world into polar opposites.   These opposites are often taken to the extreme in the popular meme’s that run the social media circuit.  Often highlighting an individual or group’s negative attributes; people and situations are routinely ridiculed and mocked.  Deep theological reflection usually isn’t inherent in popular memes.  In promoting such extremes then, social media divide users into two camps ‘in/out, friend/not friend; like/unlike; share/not share.  Such polarization, and the active shaming of the opposite extreme, runs counter to a witness of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  The currently popular ‘Prancercise’ video may be funny, but where is Christian witness when we share the video in order to laugh at the individual?

 It seams that being a Christian online is not a straightforward thing.  Despite all the pleasant sounding slogans and images we may put, are these things undercut by the very nature of the medium that we are using?  Yet I am not one to argue that Christians should abandon the forum.  That is an error in the wrong direction, for social media does offer advantages to faithful witness.  Perhaps then, what is best is to acknowledge the inherent theological murkiness of social media, and to ask the question:

  How do you do you navigate the murky issues of social media, and live out your Christian identity online? 

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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10 Responses to Digital Faithfulness

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Kyle! I’ve definitely had some adventures as a Christian in social media. My own presence as a Christian online tends to be more about the sharing of stories that speak to me about faith and social issues and reflect on how they speak to my own beliefs. I do it because I love learning about what other people think about the same issues, and I like to share things that I find stimulating or interesting (that’s the latent Millennial in me: everything is worth sharing!) I’ve never had anyone tell me they have defriended me specifically because of my religious posts, but I have had one person passive-aggressively accuse me of spamming them. I let them know they could unfollow me if they liked! I feel bad that your friend felt the need to defriend you instead of just unfollowing your posts in their news feed or something like that. I’ve been lucky – even though I have many friends who are not religious, they don’t seem to mind the posts I do, although I don’t do the sort of “standard” Christian posts I see being mocked on sites like I think if I cluttered up my News Feed with silly platitudes and pictures of doves I would defriend me for sure…
    I absolutely agree about the intentionally selective community thing. For every eclectic interest that people have there’s a group that caters to it, often in the form of a message board, and you can block anyone who disagrees with you! Any worthwhile community is one that makes you grow and learn, and how can you learn if you’re able to control the amount of new encounters you have? Social media has been a really cool way for me to meet people and connect, but I would never mistake it for “true” community. Plus as Anglicans I think we have a commitment to the Incarnation, and incarnational community always has to be in the flesh. 🙂

    • Right on. Most of you have heard (or rather read) my views on this in the past: be who you are. Transparency is more or less required of those who call themselves disciples. I think when we behave one way online and another way offline, we do a disservice to ourselves and to the community. To be fair, while I’m not unfriendly to anyone, I invite only close friends into close online relationships, just as I would offline. So I can’t be offended that some people aren’t hanging off my every word–I’m open about who I am and what I believe.

      That being said, there are all sorts of tools and filters in the world of social media that help us to maintain different types of relationships, simultaneously. Should we be surprised that some simply don’t want to be connected, at any level? (Luke 21:17)

  2. Thanks Kyle, and Clarity! I too have had some folks get twitchy about my “churchy” posts on socmed. However, I too am a Christian – and a priest – and that comes out in many ways. My general practice in socmed is to consider who I’m ‘friends’ with and what the purpose of that friendship is. For the folks who knew me ‘back then’ and just want to keep connected, they can read my posts and choose to do with it what they will. For the folks with whom I have other stronger relationship, we touch base on socmed but are connected in so many other ways (not least of which is face to face when possible!) I figure that if I would not likely socialise with a person in real life, then I’m not overly concerned to have them virtually unfriend me. If we wouldn’t be friends face to face, why concern myself about whether or not we’re ‘friends’ online?
    I use my social media as a tool for keeping in touch with folks I already know and have a relationship with- in my article I mention how my community is geographically vast – my chosen family live in a different province, my best friend in a different country. Yet socmed is one way we’ve been able to stay close. Living in a rural place makes it much more difficult to build/nurture/strengthen relationships (we do roll up the sidewalks at 6pm!). So grabbing a coffee and Skyping with a close friend from my sofa is a great way to bridge between visits.

  3. Kyle Norman

    Part of what intruiged me as I thought about this event was not necessarily the ‘what should we post’ type question; but the ‘how do we interact’ one. How do we interact faithfully with a system that is somewhat inherently set up in a manner that can be non-conducive to faithfulness. It reminded me a bit of Provincial Synod, when a certain individaul gave a great lecture on the theology of technology. What I appreciated was that he steered away from ‘this is how we use Facebook – and more to the deep theological issues of what social media claims to be. For those of us plugged in, I think it behooves us to make sure we have a certain amount of criticallness toward this medium – as you all have expressed.

    I have greatly appreciated reading your comments – it has been great to read about your success and struggles with this as well. And, for what it’s worth, I am glad to have you a part of my online community.

  4. did my last comment get lost?

  5. Trying again. I have been immersed in the Psalms for the last 7 years – I am not kidding. They are for the building up of the community of the merciful. It is a magnificent sequence of poetry in one coherent story.

    In a few weeks I will be presenting on the topic of digital media and sacred texts at the Open University in London England – and my subject as requested by them is the content and technique behind my work on the psalms. I will be working with a number of people interested in the design of the presentation of sacred texts including those of other traditions than the Christian.

    I am struck by your phrase “Christian presence online”. I always do a double take at adjectives and especial religious adjectives like “Christian”. As a close reader of the Old Testament, I find that many people see ‘Christian’ – like Jewish as a closed rather than an open community. In the psalms – the community invited is often if not always qualified by ‘all who fear God’. In all my writing, I seek to undermine the perception of a closed community. Endless quoting of Bible verses and praise-songs usually does not achieve the intent to undermine the commonplace.

    Then what strikes me is the concatenation of ‘presence’ and ‘online’. True – it is called Facebook. This would be Presencebook in Hebrew. What is the presence that we celebrate in history? (Try Psalm 68:1-11 where presence/face occurs 8 times.)

    Earth quaked
    also the heavens dropped
    from the presence of God
    (that is Sinai)
    from the presence of God the God of Israel

    When was the last time earth quaked at a Facebook post? 🙂

    A movie of my presentation is online at utube ( – of course I won’t be talking to a computer there. This presentation has survived 6 different contexts so far.

    Bob MacDonald Victoria BC

  6. For me, the most important thing is to be authentic, whether on FB, Twitter, blogging or commenting other places online. My goal isn’t to convert people but to connect and share deeply with integrity. I rarely lose friends on FB – in fact I just accumulate more and more. People keep friending me and though I do choose carefully whom I friend, I have gone considerably over 400 at this point, though I rarely initiate a friendship request.

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  8. Afra Saskia Tucker

    Kyle, thanks for raising this question. My social media behaviour and presence has transformed a LOT over the past few years–then again, so has my real life behaviour and presence in the world. I hope it is not wishful thinking to believe it has matured a little, but I’m still learning…

    If I think about where I stand currently: I agree with Jesse that transparency (and non-duplicity) is a gold standard; moreover, my use of social media prioritizes its potential to be a type of virtual extension of myself. Ideally what I communicate will be received and welcomed by someone on the other end, so I consider my friends’ ability to decode and access my output.

    Not unlike your own defriending experience, I have encountered other people’s baggage standing in the way of what I am ultimately trying to say, and this can leave both them and myself quite frustrated and unfulfilled in the relationship. As a result, I’ve been trying to experiment with ways of expression that bypass the baggage (or allow us all to look at each other’s baggage more circuitously). I’ve come to value mutual bonds of trust over formal messages. If I have a ministry, it’s probably with the so-called ‘unchurched’. I come from that background myself and I don’t want to lose touch because they have a lot to teach me (and hopefully I can share a thing or to their way too)!

    Somehow, I am reminded of your earlier post on branding. Language can be so fickle. I have come to see using social media as nothing less than learning a new language that comes with a new set of variables.

    Also, undoubtedly we can look at the theology of technology (and if you have a link to share on what you mentioned, please do pass it on); but surely, theology itself is a kind of technology. I’m really interested in that question myself…

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