Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.


53 thoughts on “Religious Nerdism”

  1. I have been through the R.C.I.A. three times. In the early weeks the candidates and catechumens, educated and not, wealthy and not, were asked to draw a timeline of their lives and pinpoint experiences where they felt God had touched them, either having realized it at the time or in hindsight. These people, without catechesis, without theological instruction, many of whom had never read the bible, were able, to a person, enumerate those spiritual encounters. They came to the R.C.I.A. seeking membership with the church in order to worship with others and learn more of this God who had been calling them over a period of years, sometimes decades. Perhaps, rather than proclaiming Christ as a starting point, you might consider asking your readers about what or how God brought them to you, and work it from there? If your blog is God’s work entrusted to you, He will reveal soon enough what to do with it.

  2. Thank you, Jean, for your valuable reflection. If you are familiar with what we’ve done as a community over the past few years, you’ll know that we have done much of what you suggest. My question this morning was of wider application than just what we ourselves should do, for we are small and obscure: it is essentially how the Church responds to its vocation of mission and communion online. The proclamation of Christ must be in some sense the starting-point, because it presupposes experience and commitment. Or would you disagree?

    • No, I haven’t been following all that long, and yes, Jesus must be the starting point, but what I was attempting to say was that Jesus has already made the first move otherwise the reader would have bypassed your blog, disinterested. Commitment comes with the development of a relationship with Christ, your blog the facilitator. We’re looking forward to the outcome, whatever it looks like. The only other website we follow on Christianity is Fr. Robert Barron’s Word on Fire.

      • I’m sorry, we are slightly at cross purposes here! This blog is only one of a number of sites the community maintains and I really wanted to raise more general questions about online engagement. Websites wouldn’t exist were it not for the commitment of those who produce them, and it’s the producers of online content that I’m questioning. If I’ve made that sound even more confusing than my earlier comment, just ignore me.

  3. “I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. ”

    I have an accountability team in place, to ensure that I dont do that, and I would hope that if they missed something, others (including yourself) would tell me…

  4. Worry not, Dave, I wasn’t thinking of you! I think having an accountability team is an excellent idea. Here in the monastery it is called ‘fraternal correction’ and works the same way.

  5. No worries, Sis… As you know, my whole desire is to know Christ more and to make Him known more! Please send my blessings to the community there and especially to Brother Duncan πŸ™‚

  6. You have reminded me that many years ago, I was trundling towards yet another school, to teach yet another music lesson, when the thought flashed into my head “what difference does my faith in Christ make to my teaching”? I was appalled to realise that the my first response, in all honesty, had to be “none”.
    Since then I have made an affort to incorporate a spiritual dimension into my approach. I try and remember to pray for the staff, the children, and myself-as-teacher, and am more likely to reflect on situations in the company of the Holy Spirit, rather than by myself.

  7. I would say Twitter by it’s nature is used for self-advancement. In in one sense that’s OK. In fact you’d be a fool not to avail of such a far-reaching, free platform..

    That is, if you are a business, musician, writer, speaker, artist etc.

    Why should it be different for those of the above list just because they’re Christian. They have to sell their books and promote their tours so that their families can eat.

    The root cause, then, really goes back beyond the advent of social media to whatever time it was that being an evangelist became a career choice..

  8. Thank you, Kirsten, for that reminder.

    Graeme, isn’t there a difference between publicity for the task in hand and publicity which concentrates on the person so that the purpose is somewhat obscured? For example, everyone knows that we are a small community which struggles to make ends meet. There’s a big difference between adverting to that fact as we go about our online ministry (i.e. nuns must eat) and seeking to become media stars as an end in itself (i.e. vainglory). It’s the difference between a community or ecclesial approach and a highly individual one.

    • I am now talking that big step from “lurking” to “commenting”, and I hope that I do not offend.

      I see the difference between “marketing” a brand (the “Church” or Christ) and marketing a component part of that “brand”, the person. I think for the Church, the former is laudable (and maybe required), but the latter can be (as digitalnun stated) vainglorious. I think that there is a real danger that the “marketing” of the person will reflect (badly) upon the “brand”. This is something that in our industry we have to be very careful to avoid, and I think that the same care should be taken by the Church.

      Now what form that “care” should take is a very serious question – probably for another day!

      Again apologies for the use of the terms “brand” and “marketing”, I only use such terms as they relate to me, and not in any way to denigrate the institutions.

      Thank you for listening.


    • Yea, it’s a tightrope that must be walked I think. We wouldn’t really be able to discuss it further without mentioning specific names of who does it right and wrong, and such conversations are not edifying.

      I should say though- Might it be possible for people to become media stars without seeking that end?

    • It simply cannot be the case that you are struggling to make ends meet and have just purchased a barn conversion. That just does not make sense.

        • I do not know how big your mortgage is and do not know how you live. It is just that references to struggling to make ends meet imply financial struggle. And buying a large barn conversion implies the opposite.

        • When granting mortages to their customers banks in this country are usually careful to ensure that payments can be met without a financial struggle. They require evidence of this before granting the mortgage. There would have to be a considerable income to service the payments on a large barn conversion. I am glad that this is the case but it does not really square with comments about struggling to make ends meet. You must have assured the bank that there would be no such struggle.

          • Deborah, the subject of this post is not our finances (which are a matter of public knowledge) but Christian presence online. I am becoming a little concerned that you try to hijack this blog for concerns of your own. Where your comments refer to us, as above, I let them stand; where you have made remarks about others, I have sometimes had to delete them. I say this publicly because I would prefer to keep this blog a place where everyone feels safe to comment because they know they will be treated with respect, and I’m not sure that you realise what you are doing.

  9. Twitter = everybody speaks but who is listening? Listen to yourself & speak to everyone! Education is a key to unlock one’s soul, but is to read & write enough to teach one’s inner light?

  10. Being new to Twitter (now a couple of months in) and subscribing to a number of email newsletters from spiritual and religious people I am interested in, I soon reached overload. While much of what I received is good and has challenged me to think I have just felt that the quiet moments within myself have been neglected. I was getting too caught up in soundbites.

    I am now much more careful to allow for quiet moments, and not to worry if I miss a day or too. I am finding in my normal day to day connections with people and nature, a source of contemplation and reflection which is far more human.

    To end I must compliment you (if I am allowed) on an inspiring blog which consistently speaks to me.

  11. Thank you, Roger. That first, heady dip is very like what we call ‘fervor novitius’: it gets us started, but it cannot be sustained, as you have yourself experienced. Then we learn to be more disciplined (and a bit less trustful of our own strength). Thank you for the compliment, but it is the community which should take the bow.

  12. Great post. Yes, I’m exercised by the ‘display’ culture of Twitter (and elsewhere in our contemporary culture). Love your receptivity/hospitality alternative. I do think that you and the community are offering something very distinctive and helpful. Prayers for you all.

  13. There may be vast numbers of people posting about religious subjects, but as with anything else, quality counts and soon we stop listening to those which do not appeal to some need in us. Nobody forces us to follow your daily offerings, Sister, just our need.

    • Agreed! Need is the key. Twitter is overwhelming, and it has taken me a long time to home in on the shortest, but most thought-provoking blogs, like this one, and on Tweeters who either make me think, make me laugh or whom I instinctively like.

  14. We can currently create web content cheaply or even for no financial outlay – using social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook. We can even start a blog at no cost if we don’t mind having a generic blogging address using someone else’s bandwidth.

    I think this is what creates the great wash of information and publicity that flows over us if we start trying to engage.

    I’m not sure it has *created* the tendency in some ‘professional Christians’ to cultivate an image, but it’s certainly made it easier for people to publish/publicise their views without much reflection on what image they are actually creating.

    I find the self publicists and the people who are using social networking to try and attract attention (and thereby financial backing) extremely irritating. I struggle with the fact that even the most irritating people I connect with through social networking – where almost every tweet or status update seems to scream ‘Look at me!’ – are human beings with their own issues and problems.

    But perhaps those who feel impelled to use social networking in this way are MORE in need of prayer that anyone else I’m in contact with?

    • Thank you, Pam. I suppose being a show-off at age six is perfectly acceptable; being a show-off at sixty (or whatever) may make others question the validity or genuinness of what one is saying. I think Richard’s point above about how it reflects on the brand/message is important.

      • I suppose a six year old who shows off is still going to have a fairly realistic sense of her/his own importance in the world because being a six year old isn’t a particularly powerful position.

        I also think one person’s ‘showing off’ is another person’s ‘sharing’. I was brought up to think that ‘sounding too pleased with yourself’ was something to be avoided at all costs – even if you WERE pleased with yourself you didn’t share it. Maybe some people just have a sunnier temperament and genuinely expect others to be pleased for them when they list their numerous achievements? πŸ™‚

        • At the risk of sounding offensive, I wonder if there is not also a cultural issue involved? A psychologist friend, who was originally from Germany but had lived in South Africa for many years, told me that when she went to do postgraduate studies in the USA, people thought that one had an inferiority complex if one wasn’t into self-promotion. What they saw as normal, we saw as quite distasteful and arrogant. That was a number of years ago, and in the meantime I fear that the American model has made inroads elsewhere … but I sometimes still feel a cultural dissonance, although that may just be me!

        • I don’t have an answer. You and Macrina have both highlighted important points. Being very English myself, and having spent some years trying to assimilate Benedict’s take on humility, I’m probably not a very good judge. However, knowing one isn’t a good judge doesn’t stop one reacting . . .

  15. I agree that quality counts and we tend to follow our likes and needs, our own experience perhaps . We edit the bits out we do not like, however is that not just being safe, we need to be challenged spiritually even if we come full circle?

    I may follow a blog for the insight but have no experience of its content or even agree with it. I will have been brought to the site for a reason and perhaps learn something from it.

  16. Like the first #disciples #build urself up in the #HolySpirit Be #merciful to those who #doubt #Snatch others from the #fire #Jude 20- 23 5:29 AM – 2 Jul 12 via twitter @MessiahScrolls
    Amen for bringing spiritually mature observations to twitter The next move for Spiritual Nerdists is to bring the twitter reader, religious or no, to the study of Scripture that the will of God for them might be revealed.

  17. This may sound simplistic, but it is ‘chips down’ time in the life of the world:

    Prayer, as you suggest, is of foremost importance. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will purify our hearts and our intentions and that our seed will fall on fertile soil. Then leave it in His hands. It isn’t even necessary for us to have a perfect grasp of the process – any more than we have of the miracle of a grain of wheat – or for us to be anything but bumbling mortals. God uses everything and this is especially potent when our will is that His Will be done. Such prayer will change us as well as those we strive to reach.

    As to where we’re coming from, we have the words of Jesus, Alpha and Omega. In a world which over-analyses and reasons truth out of existence, else distorts it into something partial, this is radical and profound. There is a sense in which education, like the Law of the Old Testament, can only find its fulfilment, when we ‘abandon’ it in favour of Gospel Faith. This provides a real catalyst.

    But always we need to pray and be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.If Christ is the Shadow and Substance of all, that is a primer we don’t need to worry about.

    With love and prayer. And admiration for the way you are embracing technology.

      • It does need bravery – and are any of us sufficiently brave ? I certainly quake – but if we are to be tested, it might as well be straightforwardly, in a good cause. We need to know that suffering has the highest possible purpose.

        But I do think also that God undertakes and we are given grace and protection when out of our comfort zone.

        I struggle constantly.

  18. I have recently been speaking to my bishop about these sorts of issues in connection with the new website we’re working on, and other projects. He is very concerned about the personality cult that has developed in Orthodoxy in recent years and wants us to as far as possible do things anonymously because what we present should be simply in the name of the Church. I sympathise with him to a great extent, but that is not always easy in practice and different people do present a variety of perspectives that can be enriching, and sometimes one has to take responsibility for one’s own views. So it depends on what sort of site it is. But I think that he has an important point – and I have also been reminded of the earlier tradition of monastics publishing things anonymously.

    All this to say that there are no clear-cut answers, but that I think that you raise a very important point!

  19. I think the culture point is important: what is modesty in one culture is being withdrawn in another and even arrogant somewhere else (because one is thought to be too ‘stuck up’ to share things). However, it seems to me that, even through such differences, two things always shine through. The first is whether a good amount of intelligent thought has been given before uttering on a subject. The second is whether the utterance is designed to share a thought in an honest manner or whether it is intended to improve the reader’s opinion of the author. If something comes from a humble soul, one can tell. After a short while one can tell the difference. I value your on-line comments ( including Twitter) because they are thoughtful and honest. Even if I disagree about something, you make me think hard about a topic or just enjoy an idea. Please keep up what you do: some of us need you, just as a weary traveller might, in past ages, have been very grateful for a bed for the night. You and your doggy Porter always make me welcome when I am in need of respite and encouragement.

    • Thank you, Judith-Anne, that’s a very generous comment. By the way, I do sometimes fly a few kites in the hope that they will make people think. That will seem arrogant to some; and I know that some of my American readers, in particular, can have a hard time with my sense of humour. You are quite right, therefore, to stress the cultural context. What took my eye in the first place, however, can’t readily be explained away as cultural difference; and, of course, I have no intention of naming names because that would be, in my view, uncharitable and possibly unjust, too.

  20. As a consumer of online Christian content, and not a producer, I have learned the importance of sifting for authentic content done with integrity. The search is for Christ and how to live and love in Christ.

    I like the point of seeking out and listening to ideas and positions that are different from our own.

    • Thank you, Margaret. ‘Authentic’ and ‘integrity’ are words that recur again and again. I think they mark something we all need to think about, not just in relation to what we produce (if we are producers) but also what we consume. Thank you for pointing that out.

  21. Hospitality includes (of course) encouragement through conversation and shared experience. It would be a great help to those dipping a nervous toe into the Internet Sea, to have a Lifeguard willing to lead the way.
    In other words, for you – gloriously small and ‘unknown’ but entrusted with this blessed and potent ability – the most precious gift you can offer would be the enablement of your followers, so that they too can be Internet missioners.
    Teach us, whet our appetites, help us to avoid the drivel and offer the hospitality of the Gospel in our turn.

  22. Heavens! 42 comments already. I’d like to put a word in for an resource I have found very useful.
    among other things gives one an opportunity to reflect and write about Biblical texts, then to store the reflections online.
    IMHO it is a resource that gives the opportunity to find God.

    And no, I do not get a commission!

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