October 5, 2010

Befriending in a Facebook World

                One of the lectionary texts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost is Lamentations 1: 1-6.  These devastating words startle the reader: “…all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies” (v. 2b).  Jeremiah’s lament is over Jerusalem, the beloved city of the people of covenant (reduced to the southern kingdom of Judah), now crushed by invading Babylonians.  The traditional linkage of the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile with this book has been challenged of late.  Contemporary interpreters are suggesting that the metaphorical nature of the five poems of the book of Lamentations can be applicable wherever there is a season of intense suffering and pain.  What strikes me about the passage is the utter disruption of the thick relationships of the community—friendships, families, religious structures, and governing powers.

                We live in such a time, also.  From the popular cable program In Treatment we hear: “Families are gone, and friends are going the same way.”  How do we retain meaningful relationships in a world that mediates (commodifies?) friendship through technology?  Over the weekend I went to see “Social Network” with a young adult, seeking to learn more of the origins and epidemic fascination with Facebook.  I have been ambivalent about social networking for a good while, a generational thing, perhaps.  I dabbled in it for about a year (mostly passive engagement), and then recently decided to take my site down.  While it is endlessly entertaining to see “six degrees of separation” in the web of connections, it is massively unrealistic to think there can be significant ongoing exchanges with more than a few.  Besides, the ceaseless posting of personal activities feels like self-marketing (perhaps narcissistic)—a distinct contradiction of humility, the chief virtue of Christian spirituality.

                In a Chronicle Review article (December 6, 2009) entitled “Faux Friendship,” William Deresiewicz asks “having been relegated to our screens, are our friendships now anything more than a form of distraction?”  While the egalitarian accent of friendship in postmodern times is to be celebrated, the expectation that pastors or professors are always accessible and responsive, can be burdensome.  Transgressing professional boundaries of authority and respect, the befriending impetus of Facebook may ultimately prove reductionist.  Further, the lack of face to face engagement—even when people are face to face they are often checking their handheld devices—compromises the incarnational nature of the faith we possess.  Technology becomes a buffer and displaces the hard work of ongoing relationship.  Friendship holds a place of honor in biblical perspective; it is Jesus’ preferred language for those who follow him (John 15: 12ff).  In my judgment, it seems imperative for us to re-fund the idea of friendship with theological depth, for it is central to God’s great redemptive project, reconciling the world.  In that we are invited to participate, and social media might be of assistance; however, at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I offer a cautionary note.

                                Molly T. Marshall

                                                To learn more about our formative, creative, and progressive seminary, visit our website www.cbts.edu











1 comment:

  1. I have to disagree with you here, Molly. Facebook has not trivialized or depersonalized my friendships but has enriched them. I do have meaningful engagement with more than a few, and with many people in my life, I've maintained some contact where there would otherwise be no contact. Rather than just reading the text of an email, I can see and interact with pictures and videos of their family, and I love it. There's nothing inherently "self-marketing" about Facebook itself, it's all in how you use it, which could also be said of anything humans engage in, including face-to-face conversation.

    I use Facebook in many ways as a ministry tool, including with some postmodern young adults who I'm trying to get to know but don't frequently attend church. They won't go to coffee with me, and they won't let me in their home, but they'll let me on their computer. Also, people don't automatically call their pastor in a crisis like they used to, and I've been able to discover personal issues going on with members that they're OK with me knowing but didn't think to pick up the phone and call. For better or for worse, some people will share and discuss certain issues online that they wouldn't in person (due to social anxiety, etc.)

    Had you said, "It didn't work for me," I would accept and find nothing to take issue with. But of course, I have no stock or stake in Facebook, so at the end of the day, people can bash it all they want and it's no skin off my back! :)