My sweet mother and I at Wolf Trap last Saturday night.
My mom and I went to see Sarah McLachlan at Wolf Trap on Saturday night. It was a great night to be on the lawn, and a lovely show. (By the way, just how much Wolf Trap picnic food is provided by Trader Joe’s? A LOT.)
I’ve got technology on the brain these days as I work on my book, so I was interested in how people were experiencing the concert with and through their smartphones. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to Wolf Trap, but I’ve seen the norms change dramatically even during that time. Whipping out one’s phone to send a text or check Facebook used to be rare and (I sensed) frowned upon. By now it’s the norm, at least on the lawn.
One of the great things about live music is the way it knits together audience and performer as a community, albeit for a limited time and in a particular place. Does the use of social media expand that community, or does it dilute the overall experience? Or are both possible? (I think you know I’m a Both kinda gal.)
Before I go further, let me say this: the vast majority of cell phone usage I saw was from people who were way older than I am. So those of you clearing your throats for your “kids today” lecture, save it. This is a seriously intergenerational phenomenon now.
Here are some ways I witnessed people using their phones during the concert… or did so myself.
Looking up Sarah’s Wikipedia page to see how old she is, because she looks amazing. (She’s 46)
Taking notes on her setlist, presumably to download tunes later, or create a playlist.
Googling the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, a free program for underserved kids in the Vancouver area that provides high-quality music programs and lessons at no charge, which Sarah mentioned during the show.
Random checking of social media during the slow moments.
Texting friends to say, “I’m here watching Sarah McLachlan and remembering so happily our Lilith Fair days.” (That was me. Shoutout to K and G)
Receiving a photo of one’s children proudly displaying the awards they received at the swim team picnic that evening. (Also me.)
Lifting up glowing screens during the slow songs, with or without the benefit of the Candle app.
Recording snippets of songs to share with friends.
My guess is that some of those activities seem legit to you, and others make you bristle. Which ones and why?
It should be said, I could’ve done without the gals in front of me taking repeated selfies after it got dark… with the flash.
I also could’ve done without the people next to me talking loudly during much of the first act. Oh yeah, that has nothing to do with smartphone use. But wait! I thought technology was the downfall of polite civilization! You mean people can be boorish and rude without benefit of their cell phones? Get outta here!
I’m back from Collegeville and a fruitful week of writing. I’ve now got a very (very) rough draft for book two, currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. It’s a shorter book than Sabbath in the Suburbs, and I’m still planning to publish it via e-book, though a print option will be available. I’ve been in touch with an editor and a friend who does e-book production for a living. This thing will happen.
In The Hour of Our Death (1987), Philippe Ariès argues that an “invisible death model” has dominated twentieth-century American life. In this model,
Death’s medicalization distanced the community from the dying and the deceased. Individualism ruled, nature was conquered, social solidarity waned, and not the afterworld but family ties mattered.Western society surrounded death with so much shame, discomfort, and revulsion that Gorer (1965) even spoke of a pornography of death. Death became concealed in hospitals, nursing homes, and trailer parks. Yet, the death of death remained, a fear corresponding more to people’s social than biological death.
Accompanying this dispossession of the dying person is a “denial of mourning” and the subsequent invention of new funerary rituals in the United States (Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death,” Death in America, ed. Stannard , 136). Excessive displays of emotion both by the person dying and those they leave behind are considered taboo and “embarrassments.” …
What interested my students, however, was the impact of the internet on the “invisible death model.” Have we entered a new era regarding death and loss? They noticed in particular three results of the internet.
And in case you missed it, Katherine Willis Pershey also sent this along–a beautiful expression of solidarity and care for bereaved parents. Their little one spent her entire life in the NICU and they wanted to see her pretty face without the tubes. Members of the Reddit community responded:
I like the middle one, but they are all haunting. And they are all an offering to total strangers, which makes them beautiful.
John Green is like Colbert to me: someone who’s extremely good at what he does and who brings a joie de vivre to his vocation. I can’t help but root for him.
The church is awash with concern these days about the so-called “nones”: people who are not affiliated with any religion, who may (or may not) consider themselves spiritual but not religious… many of whom are in the millenial generation—aka many of John Green’s fans.
How can we “get” more young people? churchy people ask. Is there a way we can “appeal” to them? The format of the questions reveals their purpose—to find more members so that our churches won’t decline and die.
Guess what? Young people don’t care to be our institutional life insurance.
(Neither do 42 year old mothers of three, actually.)
That said, being interested in young people isn’t necessarily opportunistic. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, and young people are our neighbors. (So are old people, married people, single people, LGBT people, poor people, Muslim people…)
Jesus also calls us to serve, and that’s something that motivates millenials a great deal. (As the saying goes, they love Jesus; they don’t love the church.)
So. In the spirit of connection rather than conversion, friendship rather than membership, partnership rather than fixing, here are some things we can learn from John Green and his tremendous appeal.
He isn’t trying to “reach” young people. Green reportedly hates being called the “teen whisperer,” which is to his credit. His crazy popular vlogbrother videos were not started as some calculated attempt to build his fan base. (Well, not primarily with that purpose, though you can’t argue with success.) Rather, he and his brother Hank started them in order to play with the online video format, which was pretty new back in 2006. They created something winsome and irresistible and the fans thronged to it.
Do we in the church see millenials as a means to an end? What are we doing that is winsome and irresistible?
He takes young people seriously and learns from them.The Fault in Our Stars is filled with wickedly good dialogue, pitch-perfect one-liners and deep wisdom. Some have criticized him for this because “Teenagers don’t really talk like that.” I read somewhere that Green doesn’t try to duplicate the speech patterns of teens. He tries to write the way teens sound to themselves and one another—clever, weird, and wise, assured sometimes and sharply insecure at others. It’s like teen-speak, boiled down to its essence. You have to love and admire and understand young people to pull that off.
Also, the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars was inspired by an actual teenager with thyroid cancer, Esther Grace Earl, whose experience helped shape the book. Four or five times a month, Green talks on the phone with kids who have cancer, sometimes through Make a Wish, sometimes not. He is also fluent in social media and engages folks on Twitter and Tumblr. And once every few months, he Skypes with teens who are struggling with serious illness.
Is your church present where young people are present, whether online or in person? Are you cultivating actual relationships with them, not so you can bestow your wisdom, but so we can all grow together?
He’s created a tribe. There are traditions and catch phrases and a shared history—not all of which were created by him. (This is important.)
Last year I checked out a John Green book from my local library and when I got it home, out fell a note that had been tucked into its pages: “Hey, nerdfighter! Don’t forget to be awesome!”
DFTBA is very big with this tribe.
And there’s a focus on giving to others. Esther Day is a holiday that Esther Earl asked people to observe on her birthday. According to the New Yorker, “Her idea was that it could become a celebration of non-romantic love—a day when you’d say ‘I love you’ to people who don’t often hear it from you.” And check out the Project for Awesome that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy causes.
How does Christianity help people (of all ages) become a part of something larger than themselves? (Hint: as the Project for Awesome demonstrates, they don’t need us in order to feel this. Still, what is our distinctive gift in the midst of the broader culture?) And are people encouraged to bring their own energy and ideas to the table, or are we the keepers of our traditions and norms?
He’s a learner. Check out his Crash Course videos. In these, he (and Hank) are teachers, but he comes at his topics with the posture of a student. And my kids love his Mental Floss videos in which he tests out various lifehacks:
Do we have all the answers, or are we willing to learn?
He employs humor with substance. From the New Yorker profile: “In a post advising boys on how to charm a girl, John jokingly said, ‘Become a puppy. A kitten would also be acceptable or, possibly, a sneezy panda’—an allusion to a popular clip on YouTube. But he also said, ‘If you can, see girls as, like, people, instead of pathways to kissing and/or salvation.’”
As communities of faith, do we offer meaning and substance… while taking ourselves lightly?
He loves the grand gesture. Again, the New Yorker: “Many authors do pre-publication publicity, but Green did extra credit: he signed the entire first printing—a hundred and fifty thousand copies—which took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder.”
Which leads to my final question for the church: When’s the last time you undertook an extravagant gesture for the sake of this world God loves?
I’m working slowly and steadily on a new book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. The scope of the book is still taking shape, but I’m currently ruminating on everything from selfie culture (it’s not as terrible as you think) to cultivating a sense of mystery at a time when everything can be Googled.
One of the joys of working on a new project is having people send pertinent articles and books my way. My friend Barbara has been one of the most faithful sharers of information with me. I can’t count the number of tidbits she’s sent my way over the past year or so. But she’s been sharing them not through emailed links, or texts, or even phone calls saying, “Be sure to catch the article in the Wall Street Journal about how historians are having a hard time doing their work in the age of email.”
She’s been sending me clippings. Actual, cut-from-the newspaper clippings.
Every week or two I’ll get a letter in the mail with Barbara’s efficient script on the envelope, and a folded-up geometric wonder of newsprint or glossy magazine paper inside, often paper-clipped to a short note containing a personal update.
Clipping, note, envelope, stamp, address.
I love it.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am a power user of Evernote. I scan much of the kids’ artwork to cut down on clutter. My iPhone is my personal assistant and more. But there’s something so fantastic about holding these physical pieces of paper in my hands. I feel cared for. Barbara’s clippings, now a good-sized pile, are a tangible reminder that this project matters to someone. An emailed link, while greatly appreciated, doesn’t convey that nearly as much.
Let me spoil the ending of my book for you. I will likely land somewhere in the vicinity of “Our digital/technological culture is neither good nor bad in itself. What we need is thoughtfulness about when, where, and how much,” and hopefully offer some wisdom and tips in that discernment.
But somewhere in there, I’ll be singing the praises of clippings.
Image is from one of Barbara’s clippings, referencing Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: “people are more likely to be moved by information that challenges their prejudices if they’re prevented from responding to it straightaway and it has time to sink in, to steep. Is there enough such time these days?”
“Mommy, can I have an Instagram account?” my daughter asked from the back seat of the van. We were on our way home from a retreat I’d led for a church in South Carolina. I’d decided to bring the family with me—the retreat was in Myrtle Beach; enough said—and they’d had a great time. The kids met all kinds of new friends and made plans to keep in touch. Apparently Instagram was the preferred method.
Unfortunately, my daughter is 11, and the Instagram terms of service specify a minimum age of 13.
What’s a rule-following mother to do? I don’t want to give her the impression that it’s OK to bend the rules, even in a trivial matter. And maybe this matter isn’t so trivial. Does an 11 year old need an Instagram account yet? I’d love to nurture these fledgling friendships, but can’t I keep her young and social-media sheltered for just a little while longer? Whom is she likely to encounter on these sites? Friends, of course, just like I happily do. But what about people who might do her harm?
I am confronted with these questions even as I work on my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age, which is an attempt to examine this digital culture we all swim in. As I write, I’m trying to discern some spiritually faithful patterns and practices for engaging with technology. How much is too much? What does it mean to be “authentic” online? How can we be mindful of personal boundaries? What does meaningful community look like?
One of the challenges in writing the book is defining what I mean by spirituality, as opposed to the psychology or sociology of digital culture. Other authors have explored quite thoroughly the ways the Internet has changed the way we work, play, and relate with one another. What I’m after is something simultaneously deeper and broader: a holistic approach that integrates body, mind, spirit, and community.
But the other challenge in writing the book is that I’m so very confused and ambivalent myself about our technological age and how it is changing us.