Faith Online: Pain, paradox and promise

We are a plugged-in society, and that’s not changing. Increasingly, our interaction is happening primarily through social media. In so many ways this is fantastic — our networks are bigger, we can stay in touch with so many people. But as communication and relationships shift to the digital sphere, how do integrate our real lives and online selves? How does faith inform our presence and interaction online? 

Malinda Elizabeth Berry lives in Elkhart, Indiana where she and her family are part of Fellowship of Hope Mennonite Church. She teaches theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and is a student of nonviolent communication. Malinda’s is the last post in our Faith Online series. Find all our Faith Online posts here.

As a Gen Xer, I like to think of myself as part of the culture in society that stands in the gap that is the digital native/digital immigrant divide.

I don’t claim this role because I think my peers and I are special — it’s more about recognizing the way the timeline of our technological past, present and future meets our chronology.

When I was in grade school (circa 1984), my older brother and I took computer programming classes called “The Creative Loop.” Our teachers were some of my mother’s friends who had about a dozen Commodore and Apple computers and  a vision provided by the Loop’s curriculum to give kids skills to embrace a computerized future. While I didn’t feel inspired to become a computer science major in college, I also didn’t feel intimidated by the machines. I comfortably, if not confidently, worked on the DOS machines populating the computer labs when I was in college. (Those were the days when email hadn’t yet eclipsed campus mail and a mistreated floppy disk was the equivalent of a homework-eating dog.)

While I didn’t have to suffer through typing a thesis on typewriter, carefully calculating how much space to leave for footnotes, I did get to experience the shift from linotype to desktop publishing software in the production of (school) newspapers. When I started my Ph.D. program in 2001, I had to use dial-up to check email in my on-campus apartment (wireless arrived about a year later) on an 11-inch iBook that weighed about five pounds. And now, I can carry a computer (in the form of a phone) around in my pocket.

It’s strange to think about the internet and world wide web coming into existence as I was coming of age, and my children don’t know a world without YouTube or photos you have to wait a week or more to see. At the same time, I’ve embraced most of this change and rely on the internet to communicate, make travel plans, do my job, pursue hobbies, increase my skills, take care of basic business (paying taxes, bills, etc.), get around in new places and buy stuff.

I have accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Disqus, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, LibraryThing, Academia.edu and Ravelry (not to mention my three email addresses plus two aliases). I feel pretty ambivalent about where all of this is going, because life in the internet age is not all utopian (see: cyberbullying, cybercrime, dark web, malware, spamming).

As a Gen Xer, I also like to think of myself as part of the More-with-Less generation of Mennonites.

My mom and dad’s parenting choices were influenced by Doris Janzen Longacre’s articulation of nonconformity as a choice against overconsumption. Going beyond frugality, Longacre cultivates a witness of more-with-less in places where more-with-more is the order of the day. In other words, what does it look like when a more-with-less lifestyle meets the internet’s information overload and all the hardware required to access it?

In the 30th anniversary edition of Living More with Less, editor Valerie Weaver-Zercher added a chapter on technology and media to Longacre’s original text. Contributor Isaac Villegas offers himself and his readers empathy guesses related to what is so attractive about the internet generally and social media specifically. “We are lonely people,” he writes, adding, “social media via the internet offers points of connection with a host of others around the globe.” These points of virtual contact magically provide us with ways to meet our needs for things like connection, companionship and meaning. But the watchwords from many a folktale are appropriate here: all magic comes with a price. In the case of technology, FaceTiming with my sister, joining a knitalong on Ravelry and reviewing my analytics on Academia.edu is possible because human beings half a world away work assembly lines or labor in mines to build my devices. They become a new kind of “ghost in the machine,” haunting us as we stare at screens and click at keyboards. Paraphrasing Genesis 4:10, Villegas urges us to “‘Listen [as] the blood and sweat of your sisters and brothers are crying out from your computers.’ They are our companions as well, whether we want them to be or not.”

This is why life in the gap between digitals natives and digital immigrants is one more place where I am learning to apply what I have learned as a student of nonviolent communication. NVC encourages us to pay attention to our habits and patterns.

More often than not, the things we digital natives automatically do when we sit down at our computers or pick up our smartphones (check email, check Facebook, check texts) are strategies we use to numb and avoid or connect and belong. I don’t have judgement for myself or you about our habits and patterns. But I do wonder, what happens if we give ourselves permission to identify our needs and acknowledge how difficult it can be to find life-giving ways to meet them. Would we depend so much on our social media posts being noticed if we knew we mattered to our friends and family? Would I lose myself in email if I believed in my competence to write the book I know is in me? Would we engage in cyberdisputes if, off-line, we felt heard and seen with ample space to grieve our losses or disappointments?

I edit my congregation’s weekly newsletter, and I sometimes feel frustration around how many people don’t seem to read it. My congregation is made of a lot of digital immigrants who don’t arrange their days around reading emails, opting for phone calls or in-person conversations because many of us live in the same neighborhood. My friends’ habits and patterns remind me that from my Christian worldview, digital must coexist with incarnational ways of being in the world. I start to wonder: What needs do incarnational ways of being help us meet that digital forms can’t accomplish? The hugs and kisses we share at bedtime or while passing the peace on Sundays remind me that touch matters. Handing a tearful friend a tissue gives me a chance to affirm their belonging in my life. Being confronted with another’s humanity reminds me that we all want to be seen and known and loved no matter how many tweets we post or likes we register.

So here I live, in a gap where I acknowledge the pain, paradox and promise of life in the digital age.

I think of Teresa of Avila’s words adapted by Joseph Helfrich, and offer it as my prayer for the corners of cyberspace I participate in.

Christ be in my mind, and in my thinking.
Christ be in my eyes, in everything I see.
Christ be in my ears and in my hearing,
Christ be in my mouth, in every word I speak.
Christ be in my heart, and in my loving.
Christ be in my life, each moment that I live.