The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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Social Media as Liturgy

Every one of us participates in the liturgy of our culture – whether we know it or not. Thus, being aware of what it is that the minute practices of our culture are instilling in us, is of great importance.

James K.A. Smith warns us that the vast array of secular liturgies are “governed by self-love and the pursuit of domination.” The result of participating in these liturgies creates in us a tolerance to

“inequality and the exploitation of the (global) poor; or we take for granted a mobile, commuting way of life that exploits creation’s resources rather than stewards them. We might be passionately devoted to ending religious persecution, without for a moment considering how our “normal” way of life exploits children halfway around the globe; or we think it’s just “natural” to tum a blind eye to the suffering of Christians in countries that we bomb in the name of freedom” (Smith, “Social Media as Ritual: Alternative Liturgy”, 30).

The idea here is that the liturgies of our culture moves us. It is not neutral or stagnant. Even the seemingly small practices affect our worldview. What then are these liturgies? Where can they be found?

One place that Smith gives his attention to is technology and social media. Even the minute practices of how you handle your phone are important because it requires some form of bodily interface. When I touch my iPhone, I expect something of it. I treat it with the expectation that it will obey my commands and perform my wishes with the swipe of my fingers. To my iPhone (if it were a conscious thing) I am the center of attention and it is at my beckon and command. Smith postulates that even the way we think about our iphone can easily be transferred to the way we treat the world.

“[W]e perhaps . . . unconsciously begin to expect the world to conform to our wishes as our iPhone does. Or I implicitly begin to expect that I am the center of my own environments and that what surrounds me exists for me. In short, my relation to my iPhone—which seems insignificant—is writ large as an iPhone-ized relation to the world, an iPhone-ization of my world(view)” (Ibid., 31).

The same is true of social media. Take Facebook or Twitter, for instance. Both social networking sites while seemingly a harmless way of staying connected to friends and family is actually a liturgy that is furthering this “vice of vainglory” (Ibid., 31). Each day is updated with status’ or tweets about what I’m doing, where I’m at, and who I’m with. The reason? To stay connected? No, the reason I post is because of a desire to be seen and heard. I’m constantly checking for “likes,” “comments”, and “shares”. Self taken photos in the bathroom mirror clutter my Facebook page. We post images of our lives in hopes that the world will see us.

We’re on constant display. Every word we say can be posted. Every thing we do can become an instant youtube video. Every mistake we make and every race we win is a public affair.

Smith speaks about this social networking display in terms of teenagers. Teenagers are already very self-conscious. They are dealing with changing bodies and hormones that create in them an idea that “all eyes are upon them as they go to sharpen their pencil or climb the stairs at a football game. Such self-consciousness has always bred its own warped ontology in which the teenager is the center of the universe, praying both that no one will notice and that everyone will” (Ibid., 31). According to Smith, social media amplifies this exponentially. There is no longer a place away from public display. Previously the home was a place where a teen could be themselves without having to perform for anyone. It was a place you could forget yourself. Now, however, even the home has been intruded upon by social media. It’s become a part of “the competitive world of self-display and self-consciousness” (Ibid. 32).

Even at home, the teenager is:

“constantly aware of being on display—and she is regularly aware of the exhibitions of others. Her Twitter feed incessantly updates her about all of the exciting, hip things she is not doing with the “popular” girls; her Facebook pings nonstop with photos that highlight how boring her homebound existence is. And so she is compelled to constantly be ‘on,’ to be ‘updating’ and ‘checking in.’ The competition for coolness never stops. She is constantly aware of herself—and thus unable to lose herself in the pleasures of solitude: burrowing into a novel, pouring herself out in a journal, playing with fanciful forms on a sketch pad. More pointedly, she loses any orientation to a project. Self-consciousness is the end of teleology. With the expansion of social media, every space is a space of mutual self-display. As a result, every space is a kind of visual echo chamber. We are no longer seen doing something; we’re doing something to be seen” (Ibid. 32).

As a result of this, there is no room to be an amateur. You can’t learn to do something new because there’s a constant threat of being seen – and seen as a failure. You are paralyzed – no longer able to even make an attempt.

What Smith is getting at here is not that technology or social networking is evil in itself. But what he saying is that they are not just neutral space, having no effect on us. Facebook, Twitter, the iPad, laptop, iPhone, etc. actively change us and they often do so without our knowledge and consent. Plain and simple, the result is often narcissism. Whether I’m on display in a negative way – thinking about how I have nothing to post because my life is dull in comparison to the things my peers are doing – or whether I’m on display positively – posting my wedding, my pregnancy photos, my children, my adventures – this has an impact on how I see life. I become so me focused that I no longer know how to live life apart from my self-display.

It’s not just social media and technology that act as liturgies in our culture, but they are good place to start in beginning to understand how liturgy in culture affects us. And it is perhaps easier to see why liturgy in the Church is so important. We are bombarded throughout the week with secular liturgies that guide our loves and desires towards a me kingdom, rather than God’s kingdom. Our idea of what a flourishing kingdom looks like is a place where our desires are granted at a moments notice and with no effort on our part. It’s a self-focused kingdom: a kingdom that loves me and only me.

Church then, is meant to be the place away from it all. The home away from self-display. It’s meant to be the place where the liturgy guides us towards a desire for God’s kingdom.

Part one: Culture as Liturgy.

Part three: The Liturgy of our World

———————————

James K.A. Smith, “Social Media as Ritual: Alternative Liturgy.” Christian Century 130.5, (March 2013): 30-33. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-02/alternative-liturgy.

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11 thoughts on “Social Media as Liturgy

  1. Very true, I’m a ‘he’ and find relevance here: ‘The competition for coolness never stops. She is constantly aware of herself—and thus unable to lose herself in the pleasures of solitude’ — Smith’s book sounds good. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Rod. I’ve mainly been pulling from articles and conferences Smith has done, but I’m looking forward to his book as well. I think there is much to be gained from his concept of culture as liturgy. If you read either of his “Kingdom” books let me know what you think. It’ll probably be awhile before I have the chance to read them.

  2. I agree with this somewhat, but not completely. For me, social media is a way to connect with friends, especially since I can not spend much time being with friends. I like keeping up with what is happening in their lives, seeing pictures of their children, praying for their needs. I don’t think I am vain or wanting to show myself off to others when I post about events in my own life, but I don’t post things too often.
    What I don’t like with social media is that the cell phone often interferes with personal conversation. I attribute that to a lack of self-control, and perhaps it then becomes like a “god.”
    Certainly, overuse of the internet can become a type of liturgy (that is such an un-Baptist word, that I am not sure if I am thinking of it correctly). Perhaps “poor self-discipline when it comes to setting priorities” would be a better way of thinking of it for me.

    • Hello Mom,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I definitely see where you’re coming from – and there’s certainly room for critique in Smith’s ideas. I do feel your situation is unique in regards to Bethany and having far less opportunity for social interaction than most. As Smith says, he’s not claiming that social media is bad in and of itself (Smith has an iPhone, after all!). Rather, social media is just one example of the many liturgies in our culture that can create in us a desire for an end that is not God’s desire. There is definitely good in social media. I’m not denying the fact that there’s something to be gained from using Facebook as a platform to keep in touch with old friends and family that are far away. Being off Facebook has left me feeling out of the loop and far away at times – in that sense, I miss it. But even if there’s good in it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting people negatively.

      Perhaps the force of it is more strongly felt in the younger generations. I think of my friends in their 20’s and even more so, kids in their teens who can’t survive without their smartphones and their Facebook for more than an hour. The notion Smith mentions that “she” is “compelled to constantly be ‘on,’ to be ‘updating’ and ‘checking in’” is a very real thing. There’s a constant competition that we can’t seem to get free from. And that is something I’ve felt personally. There’s a vanity that results because we begin to think every one needs to look at us, pay attention to what we are doing, what we’ve accomplished, etc. If everyone used social media with the discipline you or Dad have, perhaps it wouldn’t be an issue. But there are few people my age who use it with that much discretion.

      I may touch on some things about liturgy in my next post – but basically, when Smith talks about liturgy he is talking about practices or habits: the things we do automatically. I’d say social media is definitely a habit for most people under 30. We’re constantly checking our phones for updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, and we do it subconsciously…unaware. I still type in “Facebook” on my internet browser almost every day and I’ve been off Facebook for over a month I think. Yikes! :/

      I realize that might not adequately answer your question. Perhaps as I read more of Smith’s works, I’ll have a better answer for you. For now, I’d recommend listening to his presentation here:

      , or if you don’t have time for the hour long talk, Baker Publishing has some good 2-3 minute videos where he explains his project. I’d recommend these two to start:

      ,

      I’d be interested to see what you think if you listen to his talk.

      • Actually, watch this one, if you have the time. It’s more directly talking about the series he’s currently working on: http://vimeo.com/9229782

        • Too long and my computer is too slow to handle it! I’d rather read the book.

          • Good idea! I think he has 2 out in a series of 3 books: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. I haven’t read either, well just little snippets of both, but I’m looking forward to reading them once I’m done with this other book I’m trudging through.

            Looking back, perhaps I shouldn’t have used social media as my topic of liturgy in culture. Smith’s main example is the mall as a religious site, but I know he also uses the university and the stadium in his books as examples. Perhaps any of those three would have been better suited as examples of liturgy in culture.

  3. Pingback: BA Books & Authors on the Web – April 19, 2013

  4. I think social media would be more tolerable if you weren’t locked into a particular service. That’s why I draw the line at blogging where I control of the service and content and style. Perhaps that’s narcissism… but I’m not paying for the internet for it to have it’s way.

    • Yes, thanks Ben, it does seem that having control of the service could be helpful in avoiding this. As I dig into Jamie’s work more, I’m realizing that I didn’t explain very well that Jamie is not asking that we isolate ourselves from secular liturgies. Rather, that we should be aware that secular liturgies (such as social media) do shape us and can grab a hold of our hearts and our desires and more importantly, that we need to begin to re-appreciate historical christian liturgies that are counter culture and help shape our desires in a way that just knowledge cannot do. More on this in the next post. Miss you! I hope to see you in June!

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