This article is from PRAXIS Volume 18 Issue 1: Digital Media

Dr. Mary Hess received her doctorate in religious education from Boston College, a fellow student of Rev. Dr. Anton C. Vrame, and today they both serve with the Religious Education Association and participate in TheoComm, an Orthodox-Catholic discussion on communications and media sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Interview by Rev. Dr. Anton C. Vrame

Digital media and social media have evolved rapidly over the last ten years. How do churches need to respond to this fast-moving environment?

The first thing we need to do is learn where our communities are communicating and then be present there and listen. It might be Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or any number of places. Long before you try to speak in these media, you should be listening in them, which will also help you learn how they work. When you’re ready to use digital media to communicate more directly with your church, keep in mind that none of these media are fully private or confidential. A good basic primer for doing this well is Keith Anderson and Elizabeth Drescher’s excellent short book Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. That little book is full of good advice from pastoral leaders all over the country.

Most importantly, people of faith are people of stories. We make sense of who we are, and who we are in relation to Listening, Learning and Slowing Down God, by the stories we tell about ourselves, God and how our relationship with God and our religious community unfolds. These days, digital and social media are the primary ways in which we tell and hear stories, and they move at a pace far faster than anything we have had access to previously. That makes it difficult for churches to know how best to engage these media, but we do know a lot about how to shape and share our stories about God and our churches.

You’ve been watching these areas for a long time. What’s coming next in digital media?

I think the creators and architects of these platforms are paying a lot more attention to the impact they have on our relationships and how we construct our sense of reality. People are working fulltime to humanize these media. The current algorithms try to get you to spend more time on a given site, having “learned” that provoking outrage and anger is more effective than providing information or inviting complexity, but these platform architects are trying to privilege the sharing of more complex information and more mindful reflection. That’s a really hard task that we have never succeeded at in the legacy media of television and radio, but it’s a great goal to be working on.

We can go all the way back to Jesus, who came into the world to lead us toward an understanding that true power comes from kenosis, from pouring out love into the world, rather than hoarding it or provoking violence. I think there’s a lot more awareness now of how problematic, even dangerous, some of these media can be if used in ways that draw people into narrow enclaves where they don’t interact with anyone who disagrees with them or is different in some way. Again, remember Jesus: He was constantly meeting with and listening deeply to outcasts and outsiders—including women! One of my favorite stories in the Bible is that of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, who actually taught Jesus something. I think that that story remains in our canon as a reminder, among other things, of how important it is to always listen and learn what it means to love.

This is an effort in which religious communities really need to be involved by helping our members to grow into more complex ways of engaging the world. Within Christian community, we ought to be able to witness to the Christ whom we confess in ways that draw people ever more deeply into community, and thus enable them to be more open to the world rather than drawing lines around our communities and creating insiders and outsiders. I like how Michael Rosenak, a philosopher of religious education, writes of being loyal, but open.

I think that we will see many more tools to help us take a more active role in how our attention is being focused and shaped. That includes immersive tools like virtual reality and also tools that augment our reality by offering more information and context to what we choose to focus on. There are a bunch of examples at Apple’s site (apple.com/ios/augmentedreality), because they are working on how you can augment reality in constructive ways. But you can also see, even in small ways, how apps like Freedom (freedom.to) or Centering Prayer from Contemplative Outreach (contemplativeoutreach.org/centering-prayer-mobile-app) seek to help users regain and focus their attention. I also use a basic newsreader like Feedly (feedly.com) to sort through and subscribe to news in ways that are efficient, focused and diverse.

One disconcerting aspect of social media is the uncivil tone of discussions. In the Roman Catholic world, people call the Pope names that I won’t repeat here. In the Orthodox world, it’s no different.

This is an example of constructing fragile identities founded on divisive boundaries rather than a deep and pervasive commitment to all of creation. The people who attack Pope Francis do so in part to firm up the boundaries of their own identities— you are “with us” by being “against him.” Matthew 28:19 tells us to “make disciples,” but what many people fail to understand is that a disciple is a learner, and to learn is to first risk your current understanding.

Expand on what you mean by “fragile identities.” Are people afraid or insecure about who they are, unwilling to risk their identities being challenged, etc.?

Yes, I believe they are. We know, for instance, that bullies are usually deeply insecure. And today it is increasingly harder to discern truth in the midst of the fire hose of information. Social media invite people to represent themselves to the world in increasingly narrow and focused ways. If you find meaning in a community of like-minded individuals, it can be very tempting to conform more and more to that community rather than to contest its norms. I always try to remember what Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:

“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you expect Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)

I think Paul is reminding us that we can both trust in God and live with humility and awareness of our own fallible wisdom. Baptism into Christian community means aligning oneself not only with those who are like you, but with those who are outcast, vulnerable, the “anawim” of the Bible. That’s the hope of social media for me—we can listen to stories we would not otherwise encounter. I’m white, middle class and live in a very safe neighborhood in Minnesota. Social media have helped me listen to the stories of people very much not like me. But digital media also make it easy to share hatred, misunderstanding and false information. We must learn how to practice good and deep discernment. Religious communities used to know a lot about discernment.

In the social media milieu, what’s the role, place or challenge of traditional ecclesiastical authority?

How we understand authority, what we mean by authenticity and how we experience agency (the ability to do things and make a difference) are all shifting rapidly due to digital media. Authority no longer accrues automatically by someone’s position or role, so people will not necessarily find church authorities credible just by virtue of being church authorities. Indeed, we should not want our members to do so given all that we know about the scandals of child abuse, financial mismangement and so on. We must build credibility for ecclesiastical authority, and we can do that in part by encouraging more transparency and humility, by building credibility rather than assuming it. We can share authentic stories and support spaces and practices that encourage honest sharing with integrity. Those are practices that build credibility and authority.

Can a church be “relevant” or “authentic” and not be engaged digitally?

It’s dangerous to somehow see the digital world as apart from the “real” world. Scholars who study, empirically, how people engage media are very clear that the line between digital and “real” is very fuzzy, even nonexistent. As I said, if you care about your community and the people with whom you are in relationship, then you need to be present in the communities of discourse they inhabit. For example, if your college-age kids will only respond to you via text message, then you can’t not learn how to text. But you should never only communicate with them via text! By the same argument, if you care deeply about liturgical practice, then you must find ways to make those practices accessible to people who have never before found them meaningful.

I think that Pope Francis has so much credibility beyond the Roman Catholic Church in large measure because he does not assume authority but rather builds it through authentic practice. He embodies his confession, convictions, theology— and thereby invites deep authority.

Is there a way to effectively and compassionately engage with others on social media?

One of the practices we have to learn is how to listen carefully and respectfully represent someone else’s position. There is not a lot of that going on in social media these days. The speed at which things can spread means that people are forgetting, or never learning from the beginning, how to withhold immediate judgment. I often urge people not to watch television news, because that “information” is embedded in some very destructive forms of discourse. You can’t form thoughtful insight based on people arguing with each other in short sound bites. News builds slowly over time. Taking time to learn and come to a decision is not something that digital media promote, and I think people often feel pressured to have an opinion about something. This is why I try to help local congregations learn how to have “respectful conversations” or “civil conversations” (these are labels for specific practices that can be taught). I also urge people to intentionally seek out information from sources with whom they disagree. We all need practice living with the tension that comes from engaging each other around issues we care deeply about while still disagreeing. I read a wide variety of newspapers and every so often look at The Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed, Red Feed” feature (graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed). I rarely find the same information in both feeds, and I rarely agree with the “side” that is “not mine,” but at least I know something more about how people who believe different things than I do have come to do so. Try to maintain a diverse news diet—find a good newspaper, weekly and monthly news magazines, and a few podcasts to listen to (I like The Ezra Klein Show and Alter Guild, which is done by a group of young Lutheran clergy).

I also recommend only engaging in conversation with people when you are already in relationship with them. There’s not much point in trying to persuade those you don’t know to change their position. I like the notion of working not so much to change minds but to soften hearts. We are in this together, and what each one of us does has an impact on all others. We need to understand that God calls us to attend to the “least of these,” and to “become as little children” in our love for others.

What are your thoughts on Christians creating media?

I really am not a fan of “Christian” media, primarily because that term tends to push people into only accessing media labeled “Christian,” and often those media are even more ideologically driven than so-called secular media. Not to mention I believe that God works in all places and cannot be confined to media that humans label. Having said that, I subscribe to America Magazine (a weekly news magazine from the Jesuits) and the National Catholic Reporter.

More than anything else, helping people learn how to create in specific media teaches them how to be critically engaged with media. I love to teach people how to create digital stories, because the heart of that process is storytelling, and that doesn’t use any digital media at all! Only when you’ve figured out your story do you then share it with other people by embedding it in digital media.

You have to slow down to tell a story and to put it into digital formats. Slowing down is good! And listening carefully is part of learning how to discern.

Dr. Mary Hess is a professor of educational leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and holds degrees from Yale and Harvard.


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