Jaron Lanier—computer programmer, leader in virtual reality research, proponent of odd musical instruments, and digital provocateur—is always a fascinating read. In his book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage, 2010), he worries about how our technologies are reshaping us. We are, he fears, increasingly shaped toward a “pack mentality” by our internet technologies and social networking systems. In the process, we’re reducing ourselves to cogs: mass-assembled, interchangeable, indistinct. And while few of us pack the sheer volume of personality into a single individual that Lanier does, a moment’s reflection (such moments themselves being all too rare in the immediacy of our internetted lives) leads me to worry that he is right.
Wikipedia is, I suppose, no less trustworthy than most decent encyclopedias. Yet having written a number of encyclopedia entries for various academic encyclopedias, I know firsthand just how much individual perspective goes into those entries and how valuable those individual perspectives can be. Twitter is a great way to efficiently crowd-source a question that needs a quick answer (I’ve used it for this myself) but we ought not confuse the answer with the most votes (or vehement advocates) with the truth. Tumblr or Pinterest (or just good old-fashioned blogs) are easy ways to make ideas and images available to the masses, but only if we recognize that “the masses” are a fairly restricted and homogenous group. And while Facebook is, perhaps, the most impressive edifice to self-absorption to come along since Donald Trump, the blurring sameness of our Facebook pages makes it awfully hard to discover the dizzyingly complex actual persons who reside behind those pages.
The church cannot help but be shaped by this new e-world. Yet how it is shaped, to what degree it is shaped, and what it will affirm and reject during that shaping are vital questions for its life. This edition of @ this point is fortunate to have four thoughtful and compelling thinkers writing on these questions. Lead essayist Wes Avram, the Senior Pastor at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, AZ, asks, I think, some of the exactly right questions and offers his own wise thoughts on them. Respondents David Forney (Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Charlottesville, VA, and former Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at CTS), Stacey Simpson Duke (co-pastor of First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, MI, and current D.Min. student at CTS), and Raj Nadella (Assistant Professor of New Testament at CTS) engage Wes ably and subtly. Their essays, I should warn, are not necessarily easy reading. Nor, though, should they be: their difficulties are a nice motif for the complexity of a topic like this one. Fortunately, Katie Owen (Campus Minister at Duke University Presbyterian Campus Ministry and CTS alum) has produced a set of curricula to go along with these essays that will provide both clarity and usefulness for small group study settings. I’m grateful to all of them for their work. And while expressing gratitude, I want to recognize Leigh Campbell-Taylor for her work as Associate Editor of @ this point this year. She fell into the job quickly and capably and has made my work much easier throughout the year.
There is, I suppose, small irony in the fact that “Faith and Facebook” is the theme of an edition of an online journal; there is probably more irony in the fact that it took us so long to get to this topic. Beyond irony, though, there is wisdom. Read it and Reap!