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.
As I work on my next book (working title Spirituality in the Smartphone Age), I’ve gotten curious about the online/social media habits of different Enneagram types, and put together a survey to that effect. (Survey is now closed.)
The Enneagram stuff won’t be in the book—I’m thinking a free PDF in advance of the book—but here are some preliminary findings.
(Today’s post is general and will not delve into the Enneagram at all, but if you want to learn more about what it and figure out your type, here is a place to begin.)
This was not a scientific study. I did not apply any statistical jiujitsu to this work, because I have none. For example, although Enneagram 6s supposedly make up half the world’s population, they comprised the smallest number of respondents. That’s going to skew things. Nothing to be done about that.
For this reason, although I will be making some guesses and drawing some conclusions, they should all be taken with a grain of salt. My guesses are based on the data I collected, nothing more. So if I report that Facebook is the most popular social media site, you should hear an unspoken “among respondents” after that claim. (Though that’s a bad example because Facebook IS the most popular social media site by most metrics.)
General Online Habits: 50% of respondents report spending 1-3 hours a day online, whether engaged in social media or reading and writing blogs or other sites. 28% spend 3-5 hours online. 15% spend more than 5 hours per day.
Reasons for Using Social Media:
People could check multiple options here. The top responses by far were “my friends and family are there” and “it’s entertaining/informative”; each commanding almost 70%.
“A sense of habit” was at the bottom of the list, but it was still chosen by more than a third of respondents. That seems significant to me. Habits aren’t necessarily bad—brushing one’s teeth twice a day would poll pretty high, eh? But I talk to more and more folks who find it hard to unplug from online activities, and who find that fact concerning.
Preferred/Favorite Social Media Sites: Upon reflection, I essentially threw these questions out as useless. Facebook and Twitter were the big winners, which seems plausible, but people were coming to the survey from those sites, so that’s going to skew the result. I did note that reading and writing blogs performed very favorably—better than Twitter, actually—and Pinterest was the most beloved site among what I’d call second-tier sites such as Goodreads, Google+ or Instagram. (I know that Instagram and Tumblr are big among millenials. That’s another caveat to my survey, which was advertised through my friends and friends-of-friends: I’m sure it skewed older.)
Engagement with Social Media:
These questions had to do with how people use social media and other sites.
Reading v. posting: A clear majority of people felt they read and posted in a more or less balanced way. The second most popular response, with 42%, was “I mainly read and only occasionally post or comment.” So the vast majority of us are actively engaging, as opposed to lurking, or posting without reading others’ posts (1% each). This is a question where we saw interesting variation among the different Enneagram types. That’ll be in my next post.
Content: As for what people post, a majority selected “I carefully consider what I post, thinking about how I portray myself on social media” (53%).
Only a third of respondents chose “I post what I’m thinking or feeling. I value authenticity and want my online and ‘real-life’ personas to be congruent.” This was followed closely by “I mainly post informational stuff, such as links to news articles or political content, and not as much stuff about me personally.” Only 14% of respondents reported using lists or filters to control who sees what. This is another question that had some interesting variations depending on Enneagram type.
Comments: More than half of respondents will occasionally read comments on news articles or other sites, depending on the site. But a third responded, “When/If I read the comments, I’m always sorry afterwards and feel like I need a shower.” (I feel ya!)
In the comment portion of this question, people clarified their answers. For example, some folks will always read comments if it’s an online community they feel a part of (e.g. RevGalBlogPals), as opposed to say, USA Today. Other comments were almost confessional in nature. One respondent said, “I often read articles, like about Michael Sam’s coming out, and think ‘I definitely don’t want to know what the commenters are saying about this’…and then I look, because I can’t stop the rubbernecking…and then I am immediately sorry.” Again: I feel ya.
What We Would Change:
The final question asked what we would like to change about our online/social media habits. This is really the heart of what I’m interested in, and were I to do this again, I’d focus more questions on it, but I have emails from numerous kind people who are willing to talk further.
A few people (mostly of a certain type—tune in next time) questioned why all of of the choices were phrased negatively: Social media is a positive in my life! I want more! one person commented. I had to laugh—I guess the choices reveal where I am, or where I was when I wrote the question! I get overwhelmed sometimes.
Anyway, here are the results. People could choose more than one:
51% I’m on these sites more than I should be or would like to be. I find it hard to disengage.
33% I feel like these new technologies have negatively affected my attention span.
24% I would like to do more on social media but lack time, expertise, etc.
13% Other people’s postings can leave me feeling down or dissatisfied with my own life. [I find it interesting that it’s so law. It’s become conventional wisdom that other people’s bragbooking and ‘perfectly curated’ personas lead to feelings of dissatisfaction. Thirteen percent isn’t nothing, but this result suggests the problem isn’t at all widespread.
11% I feel overwhelmed having to keep up with so many people’s lives.
9% I feel burdened by the desire to present a “persona” online that doesn’t always match me.
9% I get embroiled in conflict/comment wars online that I find it hard to extricate from (including emotionally).
What do you see in these results? What do you wonder about further?
In my next post, I’ll share a few tidbits about each of the nine Enneagram type.