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.

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The Monastery and the Internet

For those of you who would like to see the presentation I made to the Gott im Web Conference at Stift Heiligenkreuz, here it is. It takes just over 18 minutes and is a shortened version of what I had intended to say. Please bear in mind that it is addressed principally to monks and nuns. The question I was asked to talk about was The Monastery and the Internet: hiddenness and openness, cloister and mission.

The above video was viewed 133 times within a few hours of its release so we have upgraded our account to ensure there is less bandwidth choking. If it doesn’t work, please email us. If you would like to support the online work of the community, please consider making a donation via our Charity Choice account.

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Digital Technologies and Christian Culture

I have been thinking about the way in which digital technologies are changing not just the expression but also the content of what we religious types put online. Here at the monastery we are contemplating some major changes to our web sites, use of social media, etc. One of the things that has struck me is how word (and Word) centred our practice is. Our main web site, like those of many Christian organizations, contains pages of text: information, reflection, explanation, the fruit of our thinking about monastic life and trying to express it in words.

Thinking, words, these are the traditional elements of Christian culture, requiring silence, time and the discipline of logic for effect. But the online world thrives on immediacy, brevity, the interplay of image and sound, action and reaction. I think we can truthfully say that we have tried to take the monastery into that world. The challenge we now face is how to engage more deeply, to be true to our Christian heritage yet at the same time interpret anew the truth by which we live. That raises all kinds of questions about authority and trustworthiness. It goes beyond language, touching on psychology and social attitudes that are not of the Church’s making.

There is no shortage of opinion about these matters. Resources of various kinds abound, with excellent work being done by CODEC and @xiannewmedia, for example. But ultimately, what we do online proceeds from our lives offline, from the prayer, lectio divina and common life of the community. I am not sure what we shall produce over the next few months but I have a hunch that it may be very different from anything we have attempted so far — not because the technology on offer makes new things possible, but because the world which has developed that technology requires a new approach.

As always, I’d love to know what you think.

 

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Wikipedia Blackout

Whatever one thinks of the legislation being proposed in the U.S. A. — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate — and the implications for British web sites hosted on American servers (as this one is), the blackout of the English-language Wikipedia raises some interesting possibilities. Will people start reading books again and doing their own research the hard way? Will the results be more accurate? Will plagiarism be less of a problem? Shall we look back on 18 January 2012 as a golden moment when we rediscovered the beauty and power of an old technology? Despite my enthusiasm for most things digital, I’m rather hoping we may.

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Contemplative Computing

From time to time, someone asks how long I spend online. It is the wrong question. A better question would be, how am I online. My questioners often assume that the way in which they relate to technology, the way in which they use blogging and social media, must necessarily be the same for me, but I don’t think it is. The idea of  contemplative computing has been around for a while, but it is one that appeals to me because it complements my sense of the internet as a sacred space. I suspect that, like M. Jourdain babbling prose, I have been practising it all my computing life but it may be worth trying to tease out some of its characteristics.

A few years ago I noticed that when I checked my email, I found it quite stressful. I was reluctant to deal with the ‘difficult’ emails and so became tense. Yet that isn’t how I usually am with people or when I go to prayer — I am much more relaxed and ‘open’. Once I realised that and deliberately slowed down, the ‘difficult’ emails became much less troublesome. They were no more demanding than anything else. The problem arose from the fact that I saw checking email as something that should be done quickly. Our culture values speed, places a premium on ‘getting things done’, but monastic life works on different principles. Time is a gift to be lavished on whatever is necessary; and what is necessary may be as ‘unproductive’ as gazing at a cloud or focusing attention on a single word or sound. In other words, a more contemplative approach to the use of technology gradually transforms the experience of using that technology.

At #cnmac11 and subsequently, the idea of the digital sabbath came up again and again. Some people clearly felt that a regular break from using technology is necessary and beneficial, citing such positive goods as being more involved with family and friends, more attentive to what is going on around them and so on and so forth. One or two were frank enough to admit that they thought they had become addicted to their smartphone and having a ‘dry day’ from time to time helped them feel more in control.

There are two different issues here: [fear of] losing control and [fear of] losing focus. The connection is fear. If you are over 40, can you remember what it was like to use a smartphone for the first time? How anxious you probably were about pushing the right buttons, getting your text abbreviations correct, learning how to do smileys? It was a mildly alarming business and only when you felt master of the process could you forget yourself and actually enjoy using your phone to text, video or whatever. Then when your phone became like a fifth limb, a different anxiety came into play. What happens if the battery gives out or I misplace the phone, can I continue to function as normal? Am I too dependent? There we have fear again, which can only be allayed by a sense of control.

As any novice will tell you, the first lesson anyone learns in a monastery is that we are not in control. It is all right not to be in control. In fact, that is how we are most of the time, only we try not to acknowledge as much. Being in control is something our society admires, but it doesn’t take much to prove how illusory our control is. A break in the power supply, a failure of wi-fi access, and our wired world ceases to exist.

Lack of focus is another fear, but again, I think our problem arises from the fact that we have a very restricted way of looking at things. Much of my work is done at the computer and at various times during the day I respond to, or initiate, tweets on Twitter. It is not a distraction. If something requires concentrated energy, e.g. writing a letter, I switch Twitter off. At other times, my twitterstream is part of my work — as a community we are committed to using contemporary technology to try to reach out to others and are constantly exploring new ways of doing so: it’s a new twist on the old contemplata aliis tradere. The nearest analogy I can find to express this kind of multi-focus is that of playing in a string quartet. Every player must listen even when not playing himself, but the ebb and flow of sound doesn’t produce strain or a feeling of divided attention, rather it contributes to a sense of the quartet as a whole: the individual is taken up into the music created by all four. Silence, observing rests, is as much a part of this whole as actually playing.

Of course, I have a purpose in being online. I am not there simply to gratify curiosity or assuage boredom, so the question of focus may be easier for me, but I suspect many will be able to resonate with what I am saying. Just as lectio divina can be likened to Slow Reading, so a more contemplative approach to computing can be likened to Slow Living; and the amazing thing is, it doesn’t mean that we get less done (that concern with productivity again!) but that what we do is done better and more pleasurably. It may take a while, but I think contemplative computing may become more and more important to ensure that technology remains at the service of humanity rather than the other way round.

I should love to know what you think.

Update:
There must be something in the airwaves. I found this link this morning about a contemplative computing project: http://bit.ly/gtncVH

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Retrospect: the Christian New Media Conference

I had intended to gather together a host of links so that those of you who weren’t able to attend the conference might get something of its flavour, but the sheer volume of material has overwhelmed me. In any case, I must admit I’m more interested in some of the questions the conference has thrown up, but first, I’d better explain my limitations. As a nun, my connection with the digital world is different from most people’s. My engagement stems from RB 53, Benedict’s teaching on hospitality, and a community commitment to ‘being hospitable’ online. It is an engagement hedged round with qualifications, notably the amount of time I can give and, to some extent, the subjects I can address (I know nothing about small children, for example). I’m not an expert in anything, but like most people who live a life of silence, I can ‘tire the sun with talking’. That’s my forte, and I’m sticking to it!

One of the themes that kept surfacing at the conference was the role of the #digicreative. I am all for beauty and technical excellence, but I found myself wondering more and more what a digicreative is and what he or she does. Creating content is more important than ‘creativity’ as such. One of the marvellous things about technological advances of recent years is that ANYONE, whatever their level of technical skill or artistic merit, can produce a blog or website with a host of features more or less out of the box. Having something worth saying or doing with the technology is another matter. I’d be very sorry if the Christian presence on the web and in social media ever got side-tracked into something secondary. I work on the basis that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. I tell myself that if I had the time, our web sites would be transformed; but I don’t, so they aren’t. Tough.

Another idea that interested me was that of the digital sabbath: turning off one’s phone and computer one day a week. We never do that here because we are, in a way, a ‘public organization’, but we do make it clear that we won’t necessarily respond to people instantly because we have other, and to us more urgent, calls on our time. We are, first and foremost, nuns and whatever value we can bring to our online engagement would disappear if we ever forgot that. But how does it work out for other people? To me, that need to switch off the phone, etc, suggests a degree of engagement I’ve never experienced. Is it possible that Twitter, Facebook and so on can become habit-forming? Is switching off the phone a way of reassuring oneself that one isn’t addicted or does it mean more focus on God and people offline? I’d love to know.

Perhaps the most important question the conference raised for me was purely theological. How does our online activity fit into and enhance our understanding of God and the Church? I came away with a renewed sense of the sacramentality of what we do online, in the sacred space that is the internet. It has been reinforced since by interaction with many of the people I met at the conference. I’d love to thank you all individually, but there’s one bit of ‘technology’ for which there is no upgrade: we’re stuck with the brains we are born with, and mine is unequal to the task. Thank you, everyone who was at the conference and made it so special.

Update
Here’s a link to some photos, videos, audio boos and blog posts on the Conference: http://bit.ly/nMBTO8

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10 Rules for Online Engagement

Yesterday I was privileged to take part in the Christian New Media Conference in London. I’ll write about the conference when I have had more time to digest what I learned. For now, I’ll just share with you part of my own contribution. I call it ‘Ten Rules’, but that is merely a nod in the direction of my monastic heritage. Like the ‘Ten Simple Rules for the Spiritual Life’ of Diadochus of Photice, these are merely guidelines, suggestions, for ensuring our online relationships are truly Christian. They make no claim to novelty: I am grateful to everyone who has helped define them.

Two points to remember as you read them. Before we go online, we need to ask ourselves why we are doing so and what our purpose is. A little reflection will show that the ‘friend’ model of online relationship I’m writing about is not suitable for every situation; and if you are wondering what the ‘friend’ model is based on, I can’t do better than quote St Aelred: ‘You and me, with Christ making a third.’

  1.  Pray. Bring Christ into the relationship at the very beginning, and let your prayer have more of the ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening’ than ‘Lord, open my lips that I may declare your praise . . .’
  2.  Listen. Engage with others, don’t preach at them. Know when to be quiet. It’s O.K. to have nothing to say!
  3.  Respect. Don’t abuse anyone or vent your anger online. It will scare off some people and make others feel uncomfortable in your presence.
  4.  Encourage. Give help when you can; affirm, compliment, if appropriate.
  5.  Spend time: you can’t build good relationships in just a few minutes. You have to be serious about wanting to build a relationship and prepared to commit yourself.
  6.  Share: not only what you are doing, but also what others are doing. This particularly applies to Twitter — don’t use it just for self-advertisement!
  7.  Be welcoming: you need people who disagree with you.
  8.  Be grateful: whingers are not very attractive, nor are those who take things for granted.
  9.  Be yourself: truthfulness is essential. ‘You’ online should be the same person as ‘you’ offline.
  10.  Love. Like prayer, it’s obvious, but unless you pray, unless you love those with whom you come into contact online, you’re wasting your time as well as theirs.

The digital revolution has created a new kind of eternity. What we do online is there for ever, so let’s make sure it is worthwhile and consistent with what we believe.

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Information Overload

We all suffer from it at times: information overload. If the plus side of modern media is that we can be ‘connected’ all the time (Blackberry outages and Broadband failures excepted), the down side is that, unless we are strict with ourselves, we can fail to digest what we receive and our responses become instinctive rather than thought through. There’s nothing wrong with that if we are saints or geniuses, but for those of us who aren’t, I suspect there are only two options. Either we learn to speed-read (web developers will tell you that a webpage has only three seconds to grab attention and fifteen to maintain it) or we cultivate the habit of stopping and savouring before passing on to something new. Personally, I prefer the latter because it reflects not only the monastic tradition but the way I used to do historical research, engaging in dialogue with the text rather than simply trying to absorb it for future regurgitation.

The recent Blackberry breakdown has reminded everyone how fallible our interconnectivity is. Instead of fretting about it, perhaps we could see it as an opportunity to ask ourselves why and how we use the internet, what it contributes to our lives and what it may detract from them. ‘Information’, after all, comes from the Latin informare, to give shape to. We are shaped and fashioned by what we do online as well as offline. Information overload is a serious business.

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Religious Language and the Web

You can see how important Benedict thought the right use of speech by looking at today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 60 to 61. The eleventh step of humility is concerned with speaking little but making every word count. It might have been written with Twitter in mind! The things Benedict condemns, either outright or by implication — harshness, mockery, the obscenity and cruelty we discussed yesterday, vapidity  and mere clamour — are temptations at any time but especially when we go online. Our nearest and dearest may long ago have given up listening to us, but online it’s another matter. We can express our opinions, however outrageous, to our heart’s content; but with that freedom comes responsibility, and it’s worth thinking about how we exercise it.

One of the things that has always interested me is how much religious language is used online. Does familiarity with such language in an online context cheapen our understanding of it elsewhere? I refuse to have ‘followers’ on Twitter, for example, because I’m a follower of Christ and of Him alone. But I think some people actually enjoy the messianic overtones and are for ever calculating how many followers they have, as though that conferred validity on what they say. We regularly use words like ‘authority’ in connection with anything from search engines to blogs; we have ‘communities’ for every interest under the sun; even the most blatantly commercial web site will have a ‘mission statement’; and we devoted (note the word) Apple products users are usually described as subscribing to the ‘cult’ of Apple.

Which brings me back to Benedict. He urges that when we do speak, we should do so gently, humbly, seriously, in a few well-chosen words. There is a quietness about his approach that is immediately attractive. I wonder what his voice was like. Judging by his Rule, I imagine he spoke gently, in a low tone of voice for the most part, but with immense authority, the kind that is innate rather than cultivated. Perhaps today we might think about our own voice on the web. Shrill? Frivolous? Or a voice which allows the Word to speak in and through us?

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A Patron Saint for Twitter

One of the (many) things I have never managed to be organized about is the Friday #ff on Twitter. It is a brilliant idea: letting other people know whom one has found interesting/entertaining/stimulating, but for anyone wearing a cowl or clerical collar it is a bit double-edged. It is as easy to give offence by omission as by commission.

Today’s saint, Jerome, would not have thought twice about letting everyone know his opinion of anyone or anything. I suspect he would have been an active user of Twitter and Facebook for he burned with zeal and tended to scorch those he considered lacking in faith or commitment. It is one of the things I like about him (plus the fact that he got on well with nuns), but all those lonely hours spent grappling with the text of scripture surely taught him an important truth, one that Benedict XVI highlighted when he set the theme for next year’s World Communications Day. Silence, taking in, suspending judgement, allowing the text to master us rather than thinking that we should master the text, are essential if we are to allow the Word of God full scope in our lives.

I think Jerome would make a good patron saint for Twitter. He was pithy, wise, opinionated, all in one. Above all, he loved God and made God’s Word his constant joy and study. Not a bad model for twitterati to follow.

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