For the past few weeks, I have been leading discussions with teenagers about their internet usage and how Christian faith impacts (or doesn’t) their internet usage and presence. We have been focused on issues of identity and truth.
To paraphrase the Christian punk-rock, early ’00s band, Reliant K, okay so, who doesn’t own a smartphone? And the answer, in short, is very few people. Especially in the global north, most people, including teenagers, own a smartphone. In just over ten years, these devices have impacted nearly every part of our lives. They have become the way that many people also access the internet. Largely through social media apps, people connect to the internet through their smartphone. They may have other apps for reading the news or for mobile banking or whatever, but phone usage is in some cases synonymous with social media.
This impacts our identities. This is true both on a biological level (with younger thumbs developing different musculatures than older ones, in response to touch screens) and on a social, cultural and spiritual level. I won’t gripe about effervescent meaning of SnapChat, including its gamification to induce daily usage. Nor will I comment on Instagram’s devastating effect on mental health. These things are known. My concern is with the impact of these tools on identity.
If we consider ourselves Christians, that is, followers of Jesus, then we consider living like Jesus the best way to live — in terms of values, attitudes, grace-oriented-ness, and the like. And the very life of Jesus was about presence. Jesus is the Incarnation, the taking on of fleshly presence, of God. Jesus came here, so that we could see and hear and know God. Virtuality wasn’t enough for God to show us how much God loves us and cares about us. God showed up. Shouldn’t we be doing the same? I don’t think a mass-text message or an Instagram post (even a story) would have communicate the same thing from God, #nofilter. If our identities are shaped by Jesus, how is that impacting the way that we use our smartphones and social media? Is it at all?
And then, of course, with the internet, there is the issue of “fake news.” Rare is the unedited photo. Rare is the objective article. Facts can be “alternative.” Echo-chambers and filter bubbles and whatnot direct us to re-enforcing beliefs. When the text alters the reality (which is the point of Memento, I would argue), how do we find the truth?
As Christians, we believe in truth. We think it exists, and we believe that is held somehow in the very person of Jesus Christ. He is the essence of truth, standing there mutely before Pontius Pilate and all others when they mockingly ask, “What is truth?” There he stands. He can do no other. His truth is love. His truth is grace, and so when we encounter those who would lie, who would distort, who would mockingly say in their words and through their actions, “What is truth?”, our response is one of love, one of grace. This doesn’t mean giving into the lie or even entertaining it, but it demands a creative response to bring into the world more love, more grace, and more of the Kingdom of God. I think this looks different for every situation, for every lie or dissembling. It takes imagination and courage, but it is what Jesus displayed and it is what we are called to as well.
May our identities be grounded in the love of God, and may we speak in truth and in love, in order to bring into the world more love and truth.