Big Me and Little Jesus

An updated post from 2015.

Anyone remember LiveJournal?

Over the years, I’ve noticed a change on social media.  When I started writing on LiveJournal around 2001, friends were fairly open about their lives.  There was nothing exhibitionist about it- it was just everyday people sharing the struggles of everyday life. As Caitlin Cass showed in a recent comic, it was a window into someone’s thoughts and worldview.

Blogs were the same way.  People were willing to share their imperfections and questions.  The posts were filled with nuance and reason.

But over, decade or so, something happened.  Social media became less personal.  Social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter became more showrooms that presented a more cleaned up and perfect version of the self.  People tend to make more statements instead of  asking questions.  I used to think everyone online on Facebook was happy, but that’s not really the case.  People aren’t more happy, but they are more shallow. There is less ruminating about issues.  There is less room for doubt or nuance. People are known more for their political viewpoint or identity than as actually flesh and blood people.

Being a church communicator, I’ve been hawking the importance of social media for years.  I still think that is important for churches to be on social media, but we need to be more aware of what social media, at least the most current version of social media is doing to us as a culture and as a church. Because, like any bit of technology it is changing us.

Social Media has at times made the church less a place of sinners saved by grace than a place where people try to present themselves as correct.  Liberal and conservative Christians focus less on their frailty, their temptation to sin and more on presenting their viewpoint/ideology as the superior one to the other side.  I don’t hear people sharing their uncertainties and questions as much as making a case for their side.

While polemicists on the left, right and center tend to roll their eyes when they hear commentator David Brooks speak, more often than not, Brooks has his finger on what is going on in culture on what has changed for good or for ill.  In his 2015 book, the Road to Character, talks about how as a society we have become focused on resume virtues as opposed to eulogy virtues.  Resume virtues are the skills and experiences that fit on a resume.  Places like Facebook and Twitter are places you will find resume virtues.

Eulogy virtues are those things that people will say about you when you are gone.  More often than not, this is what you will still find in obituaries and on social media sites like Caring Bridge.

Resume virtues are part of what Brooks calls the culture of “Big Me” a resume or highlight reel of your life which shows just the good parts.  “Big Me” is looking at yourself as larger than life.  Brooks shares a set of statistics from the 1950s and from more recent times:

My favorite statistic about this is that in 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors: Are you a very important person? And in 1950, 12 percent said yes. They asked again in 2005 and it was 80 percent who said they were a very important person. So we live in a culture that encourages us to be big about ourselves, and I think the starting point of trying to build inner goodness is to be a little bit smaller about yourself.

This is what I’ve seen in the shift in social media.  When I was on LiveJournal circa 2001, it was basically about sharing the ordinariness of our lives.  Fifteen years later on Facebook we see Big Me in action, where we show all the successful parts of our lives and leave the darker aspects of living behind. Brooks expounds on this in a New York Times column:

We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

So where is God in all of this?

I think in the culture of Big Me, God become less the Savior or Father, than the God of Moral Therapeutic Deism, a God that wants us to be happy, but not one that challenges us to be better. We get churches where we are affirmed, but never to be better, more virtuous.  We get churches where we don’t talk about sin (or at least we don’t talk about our sin, the sin of that guy down the street, though…) but we talk about how to be successful.

Brooks believes we needs to recover and older moral frame-work one that uses religious words and concepts:

There are certain words that have been passed down through the generations that we’ve sort of left behind. And some of them have quasi-religious connotations, but I don’t think they need to. Those are words like grace — the idea that we’re loved more than we deserve — redemption and sin. We now use the word sin in the context of fattening desserts, but it used to be central in the vocabulary, whether you’re religious or not; an awareness that we all sin and we all have the same sins — selfishness, self-centeredness. And I think rediscovering that word is an important task because without that you’re just too egotistical. You don’t realize how broken we all are at some level.

Maybe as Christians we need to start engaging and changing the nature of social media instead of letting it change us.  We need to talk more about our own sin and brokeness; not in a tell-all kind of way, but in honesty.  We have to present ourselves as saved by God’s grace and not through merit.  We have to be willing to show the cracks in our armor, to show we aren’t all that and a bag of chips.  We have to be about proclaiming a culture of Big God instead of Big Me.

Social media today  has had the effect of alienating me from my friends.  I don’t care as much about knowing what you had for dinner or your last trip as much as what is your story.  I need to be more honest about who I am and to hell if it doesn’t look good on a resume.

Social media has its place in our society.  But let’s make it a place that is little less about how “correct” we are and more about telling our stories and vulnerablities because we all need to hear them.

Big Me and Little Jesus

roadtocharacterOver the years, I’ve noticed a change on social media.  When I started writing on LiveJournal about 15 years ago, the circles of friends were fairly open about their lives.  They wouldn’t share their deepest secrets with everybody, but they would with a certain group.  There was nothing exhibitionist about it- it was just everyday people sharing the struggles of everyday life.

Blogs were the same way.  People were willing to share their imperfections and questions.  The posts were filled with nuance and reason.

But over, say the last 5 to 7 years, something happened.  Social media became less personal.  Social platforms like Facebook and Twitter became more showrooms that presented a more cleaned up and perfect version of the self.  People tend to make more statements instead of  asking questions.  Every one seems happy online; on a few occasions someone isn’t so perfect and that is reflected in a post or tweet, but it is a longing to be the norm on social media the perfect self with the perfect family.

Being a church communicator, I’ve been hawking the importance of social media for years.  I still think that is important for churches to be on social media, but we need to be more aware of what social media, at least the most current version of social media is doing to us as a culture and as a church. Because, like any bit of technology it is changing us.

Social Media has at times made the church less a place of sinners saved by grace than a place where people try to present themselves as correct.  Liberal and conservative Christians focus less on their frailty, their temptation to sin and more on presenting their viewpoint/ideology as the superior one to the other side.  I don’t hear people sharing their uncertainties and questions as much as making a case for their side.

While polemicists on the left, right and center tend to roll their eyes when they hear commentator David Brooks speak, more often than not, Brooks has his finger on what is going on in culture on what has changed for good or for ill.  His latest book, the Road to Character, talks about how as a society we have become focused on resume virtues as opposed to eulogy virtues.  Resume virtues are the skills and experiences that fit on a resume.  Places like Facebook and Twitter are places you will find resume virtues.

Eulogy virtues are those things that people will say about you when you are gone.  More often than not, this is what you will still find in obituaries and on social media sites like Caring Bridge.

Resume virtues are part of what Brooks calls the culture of “Big Me” a resume or highlight reel of your life which shows just the good parts.  “Big Me” is looking at yourself as larger than life.  Brooks shares a set of statistics from the 1950s and from more recent times:

My favorite statistic about this is that in 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors: Are you a very important person? And in 1950, 12 percent said yes. They asked again in 2005 and it was 80 percent who said they were a very important person. So we live in a culture that encourages us to be big about ourselves, and I think the starting point of trying to build inner goodness is to be a little bit smaller about yourself.

This is what I’ve seen in the shift in social media.  When I was on LiveJournal circa 2001, it was basically about sharing the ordinariness of our lives.  Fifteen years later on Facebook we see Big Me in action, where we show all the successful parts of our lives and leave the darker aspects of living behind. Brooks expounds on this in a New York Times column:

We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

So where is God in all of this?

I think in the culture of Big Me, God become less the Savior or Father, than the God of Moral Therapeutic Deism, a God that wants us to be happy, but not one that challenges us to be better. We get churches where we are affirmed, but never to be better, more virtuous.  We get churches where we don’t talk about sin (or at least we don’t talk about our sin, the sin of that guy down the street, though…) but we talk about how to be successful.

Brooks believes we needs to recover and older moral frame-work one that uses religious words and concepts:

There are certain words that have been passed down through the generations that we’ve sort of left behind. And some of them have quasi-religious connotations, but I don’t think they need to. Those are words like grace — the idea that we’re loved more than we deserve — redemption and sin. We now use the word sin in the context of fattening desserts, but it used to be central in the vocabulary, whether you’re religious or not; an awareness that we all sin and we all have the same sins — selfishness, self-centeredness. And I think rediscovering that word is an important task because without that you’re just too egotistical. You don’t realize how broken we all are at some level.

Maybe as Christians we need to start engaging and changing the nature of social media instead of letting it change us.  We need to talk more about our own sin and brokeness; not in a tell-all kind of way, but in honesty.  We have to present ourselves as saved by God’s grace and not through merit.  We have to be willing to show the cracks in our armor, to show we aren’t all that and a bag of chips.  We have to be about proclaiming a culture of Big God instead of Big Me.

Social media today  has had the effect of alienating me from my friends.  I don’t care as much about knowing what you had for dinner or your last trip as much as what is your story.  I need to be more honest about who I am and to hell if it doesn’t look good on a resume.

Social media has its place in our society.  But let’s make it a place that is little less about celebrating ourselves and more about telling our stories because we need to hear them.

Marching for Sandwiches, Marcus Borg and Civility

Social media lit up yesterday after the Director of Civil and Human Rights in the  United Methodist Church decided to hold up a sign on Thursday during the March of Life.  Bill Mefford held up a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” with the marchers for the March for Life in the background.  A number of pro life folk were upset and wondered why Mefford wasn’t marching for real.  I’m not here to talk about abortion.  (I tend to be in the “mushy middle” on abortion, I tend to see it not as a “good,” but something that might have to be used in either tragic or desparate circumstances.)  I want to talk about the lack respect that is found at time from progressive Christians when they encounter people that they don’t agree with.

Mefford apologized for his stunt.  Via Rod Dreher, Mefford wrote:

It seems my picture of me holding a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” has been taken entirely out of context and has caused quite a stir among some in the Twitter and social media world. I tend to hate general apologies – when people say they are sorry for “whatever they may have done that offended people.” I don’t think those are very sincere.

I also want to say that when I was at the event holding my sign I received nothing but laughter and cheers. Making folks laugh was my sole intent – it really was! It was afterward when this started making the rounds on social media that the hurt and anger began to rise. I understand why people are angry.

So, I am deeply sorry for the hurt and anger that this has caused people since the event. I honestly love to make people laugh and think, and the hurt and anger that people are feeling is not something I enjoy. At all.

A reader on Mefford’s blog responded:

Bill, thanks for your apology. I’m all for humor, but next time you should remember the golden rule. Ask yourself this: how would you have responded if the marchers in Ferguson or New York this past fall had been met with mockery? I suspect you would not have appreciated it. Even if one disagreed with them, the seriousness of the situation demanded respect. Same with the March for Life.

It’s good that Mefford apologized, but his antics are not that unusual in progressive circles.  More and more I keep seeing some of my friends and colleagues show more conservative evangelicals nothing but mockery and disdain.  I never understood this lack of respect.  I grew up in evangelicalism.  There are things about it that I don’t feel comfortable doing anymore and viewpoints that I no longer agree with.  Some contemporary Christian music is not so good to listen to 25 years later.  I will disagree with many evangelicals over the role of openly gay people in the life of the church.  But I don’t want to disrespect them.  After all, I would not be the Christian that I am today if it were not for my evangelical upbrining.

Mefford might have been trying to make a joke, but that joke didn’t come accross to many folk who are pro-life as a joke they could laugh with.  In their eyes, a joke was being made at their expense.

I’ve been around enough to know the snickers that come up when talking about someone who might have a more conservative faith than ourselves.  In some ways it shows how progressive Christians aren’t as inclusive as they claim.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include that some of the people complaining about Mefford’s stunt weren’t anymore tolerant of other’s beliefs.  Reading Matthew Schmitz’s response to Mefford you can tell he has very little if any respect for Christians and other who might be pro-choice.  Respect is a two-way street, Matthew.

How do we encounter and deal with people who have different beliefs?  We all give lip service to being able to listen and welcoming opposing views, but in reality, we don’t have much patience in our modern society for those that don’t conform to whatever is the status quo in our world.

Which is why Mefford’s stunt is bothersome.  Maybe it was an attempt at humor, but really was that the place to do it?  If someone held up a similar card in Ferguson, MO or in any number of cities where folks gathered to protest police brutality, I don’t think a lot of people would be laughing and for good reason.

What the joke showed was that Mefford didn’t think what was going on before him was worth any thought.  He may have not meant it this way, but his actions said that the pro-life marchers weren’t worthy of respect.

In our social media age,  we can segregate ourselves into walled silos where we don’t have to engage people with different opinions as…well, people. We can treat them as abstractions, caritchures, gross exaggerations of who they are really.

This past week, many in the Christian community were stunned by the sudden death of theologian Marcus Borg.  What was so interesting to see in the hours following the news was the accolades coming not simply from those who agreed with him, but from those who disagreed with him.  This is what Methodist blogger David Watson had to say, revealing a little about Borg’s true character:

With Borg’s passing, we lose another of a great generation of liberals. I don’t mean liberal in the sense of his theology or ethics, though he fit quite well within the world of existentialist and process theology. (Just read his book, The God We Never Knew.) I mean that you could dialogue with him. He was liberal in an older sense of that term as applied to academics. You could have respectful disagreement with him. To my knowledge, he did not belittle his opponents or caricature their positions. His work with N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, is a model of respectful disagreement and discourse. Borg was truly a gentleman and a scholar.

I read his book with N.T. Wright a few years ago for a Sunday School class I was co-leading.  I tend to favor N.T. Wright’s more orthodox views over Borg’s but I was struck about how the book was really a conversation between friends, not enemies.  Maybe it was that friendly spirit that allowed me to see that Borg did have a few good points to make in the book.

As Watson notes, Borg was someone you could diaglogue with.  Christian conservatives have never been the best dialogue partners, but liberals were supposed to be the ones that craved it.  Sadly that’s becoming less the case these days.

In the wake of Borg’s passing, maybe we should be willing to share his large spirit.  Maybe we should be willing to sit down and converse with someone, not to prove them wrong, but to understand them. Pro-choice and pro-life Christians should be able to disagree and yet get to know and respect each other.  Pro-gay and traditionalist Christians should have a meal together.  Evangelicals and Progressives should do a mission project together.

I don’t know what would happen if we did that.  Maybe we would start to see the other as a person, a person that might frustrate us, but a person that God made nevertheless.

May the spirit of Marcus Borg live on in us as we encounter the other.

Why I’m Tired of Facebook

10553611_722040971164698_4428042271161215709_nFor someone that has touted all the good about social media, I have come to this startling conclusion:

I’m tired of Facebook.

Actually, I’m not totally tired of Facebook.  It’s allowed me to connect with friends that I haven’t had contact with in years.  No, what I’m tired of is the moralizing that goes on.  An example of this are those sharing of Twitter accounts where the writer chastises those who are screaming at the children making their way to the US Border.  “Jesus is ashamed of you,” it reads.  There are other moralizing posts shaming those who oppose same sex marriage or Republicans or Israel or whatever else.  Since most of my friends are on the liberal side of spectrum, I tend to see posts on issues that are important to them, but I suspect conservatives are doing it too.

I will agree that yelling at 8-year-olds is terrible and should be called out.  But the thing is, the point of these moralizing posts isn’t to correct bad behavior as much as it is to boast how we are on the side of the angels as opposed to the other poor sap.  Odds are the people that need correcting will never see it since the person posting probably doesn’t have friends who might engage in such behavior.

I’m not against calling for right behavior.  But these posts are simply full of self-righteous blather that are just plain mean.  I don’t care how much I agree with the writer’s sentiment; I still find these Facebook posts as wrong.

One of the dark sides of social media is that it can force us into little ideological and theological cul de sacs where we feel emboldened to say all sorts of bad things about “the other.”  Social media has become less of a platform for discussion than it has a place where we can show of fealty to a ideology. It’s a place where we can feel good being part of the right group and view the other with contempt.

I know that Jesus spoke out against the religious leaders of his day that had twisted the law.  We want to be like Jesus; calling out those fake Christians and showing them how wrong they really are.  I think too often we use what Jesus does as an excuse to be as mean as we want to.

Showing an image condemning poor behavior is not brave- for the most part it’s arrogant and mean.

Social Media and the Rise of Fake Outrage

cokeadIt seems to follow a predictable pattern:  there is some example of diversity that takes place; a commercial with an interracial family, another one features to the rich multiculturalism of America, an Indian American woman wins Miss America, a young boy of Mexican heritage sings the national anthem at an NBA game.  Shortly thereafter someone says something rather ignorant and racist about the event.  This then bring a counterattack on the trolls which is usually far louder than the original tweet.

This seems to be happening a lot lately.  It has me bugged.  But I’m not bugged about the bigots.  I’m bugged about all the fake outrage out there.

More often than not, a lot of people with good hearts take to  social media to denounce the racist tweet or Facebook post.  The news media then takes the racist tweets and post them up on an article or talk about them on television.  Everyone is very concerned about this behavior and very. very upset.  All the while, the original event, the example of diversity gets pushed aside while the idiot that decided to say something from the safety of his (or her) laptop gets an audience.

I just wish it would all stop.

Yes, it’s sad to see people say mean things on social media.  But folks, in the scheme of things, this is not that important.  We seem to be shocked, shocked that someone, somewhere would take to social media to say something really bad about someone.

Really?  Are we really that shocked?

Social media is full of people saying stupid, mean and abusive things.  The tenor of debate on social media can wait for another post.  Yes, someone saying something racist is bad.

But let’s put this into perspective.  There was no physical harm done.  It was someone saying something foolish.  Do we all really need to get so upset about this?  Do we really expect that no one will ever say a mean thing about someone, even when it says racist things?

There are times we need to stand up against meanness and abuse.  But we have to pick our battles and we have to look at the current situation.  The fact that major corporations and cultural institutions are becoming more diverse and willing to cater to that diverse populace is a wonderful thing.  I am happy to see an interrracial couple with their biracial child on TV.  I like seeing ads where we see two men in love parenting their child.  We would not have seen such things a generation or so ago.  This is a major step forward in the history of our country; where corporate America is wanting to focus on how we look now.  THAT is what we should be focusing on, not a few people who sent a mean tweet.

Of course there are times we need to challenge people.  But not every event is a Supreme Court case.  We don’t have to fight every fight.

Some of the outrage over such events are more about wanting to look good than it is about facing an issue.  Most people want to identify with the winners, not the losers.  Our outrage makes us feel good and makes us superior to the racists.  Thank God we aren’t like those bigots, we think.

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount talks about how we should not make a big noise when we do things. He says:

“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

I will be thankful for the day that something sparks some racist tweets and the response is…nothing.  That, and we will talk more about the accomplishment than about the response.