First Churches is fully launching into the internet and social media revolution this week, and I feel both excitement and anxiety about this. As a pastor, should I be more wired, armed now with Twitter and Facebook? Or should I be, like Moses and Jesus, climbing a mountain and seeking the face of God away from the busy crowds?
I am struck by parallels between the Protestant Reformation and our era, where societies are going through enormous change at multiple levels at once. Luther was not only an early adopter of the new technology of the printing press, but he also translated the Bible from Latin into German and wrote hymns, catechisms and music. The Printing Press allowed him to almost single-handedly outmaneuver the vast power of the Vatican and build an alternative church. Of course, he also set off an unintended peasant revolt, and one of his lesser known publications was entitled “Against the Thieving Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” Arab Spring was not the only revolution that traveled through a new communications technology!
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is one of the great cheerleaders for the power of social media. Last Sunday he wrote about the impact global distance learning. MIT and Harvard have created a nonprofit called “Xed” which taught its first course this year, MIT’s Introduction to Circuits, to 155,000 students around the world. The founders note that this is larger than the total number of MIT graduates in its entire history. This creates access to higher education in Mongolia and rural Egyptian villages that could be transformative.
My first question is what about the impact of the personal experience of a classroom and getting to know teachers as mentors? What will we lose in this process? One thing I don’t like about the internet is how people hide behind anonymity, engaging in viscious attacks they wouldn’t have the courage to do in real life. Will we use the personal touch and the social skills of human interaction? We were at dinner one evening and saw an entire table of six people all looking at their cell phones at the same time. Why go out to dinner together?
On the other hand there is an empowering dimension to internet interactions. A Princeton sociology professor taught his first internet course last summer, an introduction to C. Wright Mills 1959 classic, “The Sociological Imagination.” He had 40,000 students in 113 countries. Normally he would get a penetrating question or comment here and there in the lecture hall, but within a day there were hundreds of questions posted online in the forums. Over three weeks he had more feedback and discussion in this class than he had over his entire teaching career.
Friedman had a follow up article this week which noted the impact of smart phones and internet access which are now available to people who are only slightly above substance poverty. One theory of how democracy and human rights takes root in a society is that when a substantial middle class, people making around $10,000 a year or more in the third world, starts to develop, they demand a voice and want accountability from their government. What the internet does is push that demand further down the income level, so that a society hits critical demand for change more quickly.
In December, a 23-year-old Indian woman — whose father worked double shifts as an airport baggage handler, making about $200 a month so his daughter could go to school to become a physiotherapist — was gang-raped on a bus after she and a male friend had gone to a movie. She later died from injuries sustained in the rape.
She was a high-aspiring member of this new virtual Indian middle class, and her brutal rape and subsequent death triggered nationwide protests for better governance. “It is one of those turning points in history when a citizenry, so far pleased with economic gain, wants more than material comfort,” said Chanda. “They want recognition of their rights; they want quality of life and, most importantly, the good governance they have come to expect by watching the world.”
On the one hand, it is inspiring to me the way that new technology can connect us to new ideas and new ways of seeing the world. Luther would have possibly been just another persecuted priest without the printing press. Perhaps Moses would have been unknown without the spread of writing on tablets to preserve and share knowledge. Technology allows us to have contact with each other over time and space. However, we must first have something worth communicating. Information does not transform us by itself.
My first interview with the church was over Skype, and it was interesting to try to work the room over the flat screen. It was an improvement over the telephone interviews I had in the past, being able to see reactions, body language and sense the live audience, but you can’t really make eye contact. Forbes magazine interviewed over 700 executives and found that 80 percent of them preferred face-to-face meetings over virtual meetings. They felt they could be more persuasive, more free in brainstorming and make better decisions in person. Real contact matters.
Performance artist Marina Abramovic illustrated the power of presence in her performance of “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma). To this end she sat motionless and silent on a wooden chair inside a circle of light in the huge atrium of Moma, seven hours a day, from mid-March until the end of May. Anyone who was prepared to queue could sit opposite her just as long as they agreed to remain silent and motionless and to stare back into her eyes. Her goal was to channel a “luminous state of being and transmit it.”
The results were surprising even to her. Every day several people broke down in tears, usually after just a few minutes of silent staring. On personal blogs and MySpace, people shared their experiences of sitting with Marina, often in quasi-religious or life-altering language. “I gazed into the eyes of many people who were carrying such pain inside that I could immediately see it and feel it,” she says, still sounding excited. “I become a mirror for them of their own emotions. One big Hell’s Angel with tattoos everywhere stared at me fiercely, but after 10 minutes was collapsing into tears and weeping like a baby.” She said there were moments when the museum became Lourdes, a place of healing.
Ironically, I never would have encountered this performance art without the internet. I found a Facebook page where the pictures of people crying with Marina Abromovic were posted, and seeing the faces moved me to tears. But it is the luminous being of the artist that matters. I so wish I could sit in her presence and feel and sense the present moment with her. If I am moved by the still warm coals of her idea, what is the full burning fire like?
The story of Moses and his illumined face, and the Transfiguration of Jesus, do the same thing for me. Sometimes reading the Bible is like having a small glowing ember left over from a big fire in my hand. If I blow on it and add some kindling, perhaps it can spark and grow to a flame again. Perhaps I can sense some of the original encounter with God in the story.
I want to learn from those who have had face time with God, those who still have the afterglow of being in the Light. Moses spoke with God on the mountain, he had a connection, a moment in the presence of divinity, the source of life and mystery of being. The voice from the burning bush came back to him and spoke again. When Moses came back down and his face was luminous. It was not merely having tablets with important ethical ideals that made Moses important. Skeptics might point out that his commands were remarkably similar to Hammurabi’s Code, and perhaps one of them had some influence on the other. Some might even think Moses made it all up It was being a voice for the deeper undergirding meaning and power of the living God that mattered.
How do we get face time with God? How do we encounter the luminous state of being that Maria Abramovic was trying to share without words in her performance art? Transfiguration reminds us that we have to go up the mountain, get away from the ordinary and the hustle of daily life. That is what I encourage you all to do during Lent. Fast from carbon and go out and see the earth that is worth protecting. We must withdraw for a time and get outside ourselves. That is what creation does for us. That is why people climb mountains. Because they are there! Some may climb mountains to accomplish something, but spiritual seekers climb to be conquered. We find that we are small and the universe is vast. We can see for miles, and while we ponder the great view, there may be an unexpected tap on the shoulder and we find that God is beside us. Then we see life as it is- luminous, radiant, glorious!