I’m not sure about this whole “new website” thing. I heard we were starting it, and I thought, “Jeez, really? Another website to glut the market?” I visited the website and the moving pictures at the top made my eyes go unfocused. Then I was asked to write for the website, which of course I secretly desired to do. “Oh, sure, I could do that.” Ego flattered.
That was seven weeks ago. The website debuted two weeks ago. Here I sit, weeks past my deadline, finally putting digital pen to digital paper. At the behest of the student liaison, I dashed off a proposal for a nice first post on “What Pope Francis has Spoken and Written about Priests and Seminarians.” Never wrote it. Then I proposed writing about how in order for Rihanna to have found love in a hopeless place, she would have to be in heaven because that’s the only “place” where there’s love but no hope (#stthomas). Never wrote it. Then I proposed writing a “reflection” on celibacy and obedience, because I was having one (or four consecutive) of “those days” when the looming promises were feeling particularly onerous. Never wrote it, and probably for the best, thanks to what we in the business call an “interior movement of the heart” that helped me recover my peace, in the same way that shifting your thighs in your La-Z- BoyTM after a big dinner can help your digestive tract recover its peace.
So here I sit, 262 words into a minimum-750-word article, having said nothing yet of any substance. But it’s in this dearth of content that we arrive (Finally, thank God) at the heart of the matter (#grahamgreene), which is twofold: I’m just not sure I’ve got anything to say that you really need to read, and I’m not sure that if I did I would want to publish it digitally.
Now, I’ve got stuff to say. Just ask the boys around here. But does it need to be published? Should it be published, for the love of God and the good of Holy Mother Church? One of my favorite quotes, which my editor tells me is from Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer, is by a guy named Thomas Dubay, and it is “A book should only be written if it is needed.” This isn’t a book (and thank God for that), but the question remains: is this article – and this website – needed? Or is it just another manifestation of post-modern Western people’s urge to digitally procreate? What am I going to say that one of the great luminaries of our theological tradition hasn’t already said? Doesn’t the mere existence of a “deadline” for written work create a publish-or-perish mentality that, as evidenced by our university system, results in stuff that just about no one will read? Aren’t there 9,000,000,000 other blogs about religion and faith for you to read?
Idk, maybe. This article is still way past its deadline…
Now the other scruple: there is something about the digital with which I am not entirely comfortable. As Marc Barnes put it in his recent First Things debut, “This is the phenomenology of the screen: It could be otherwise.” He argues that the screen is by its very nature distracting. Printed materials feel solid compared with digital materials because the screen is “saturated with possibilities.” I could write my profound thoughts in my journal and share them face-to-face with my friends here or write them to my friends elsewhere. What good is it, Barnes asks, for us to present “the most wonderful of truths if the very mode by which we present them is flux? Moses may as well have carved the Ten Commandments in melting ice . . . The form in which content is given informs the content. The screen is in flux. It teaches us that nothing is solid and nothing can be trusted to endure.”
Full disclosure: your author is one of those people who decided a while ago to remove himself from Facebook (and his old MySpace, lol) precisely because of this flux, this lack of solidity. It was a great decision – a return to the “really real” (#plato) from the shadow-world of
digital posturing, inauthenticity, fragmentation, and violence. I didn’t just deactivate it, I straight-up exploded it. I had to send MySpace an e-mail telling them that I died, because I couldn’t access my high school email account to complete the deletion.
Now, Fr. Robert Barron might be ashamed of me. But you know what? Life has gone on, with the mere ability to write, call, text, skype, and even visit folks. There’s an impetus to check in on people now that I don’t have the ability to creep on them. And a whole lot of Facebook friends have just kind of faded off my grid. I’ve learned to cope.
The same philosophy of thinking and writing and sharing seems applicable here. If this article is just one of 56 tabs open in your browser (in between Guy Narrates His Own Airplane Crash | Dump.com and the tab you opened to Google the Graham Greene reference) and could be changed without my permission or knowledge (by the media guy or Anonymous) and is as Barnes says “haunted with the presence of other-words and other-videos, possible-porn and possible-Facebook,” is it worth it? Or is it just another semi-developed drop in an ocean of ill- connected and unsubstantial thoughts?
So, you’re thinking, if you aren’t sure that another internet article is what the world needs and you’re not particularly enamored with the digital platform, why are you writing? Because I get a gold star on my formation report and a fat stipend. Jk jk. Is it because I want to play the contrarian hipster who creates an anti-article? Yeah, maybe.
My point (Seriously? This has a point?) is this. Social media is good, but it is ordered toward something greater. Just like the telephone, texting, Skype, AIM (remember that?), and letter-writing. All of these things are useful in maintaining real relationships in real life. To the extent that these technologies inhibit or take the place of real relationships – real communio – they become disordered. Thus the teenagers who can only express their real feelings about each other via text message and not face-to-face are not in a real relationship. Same with people who text across the table. The reason you Snapchat someone is in order to maintain the relationship, which did not begin on Snapchat and which you hope will terminate in face-to-face interaction of a higher caliber than Snapchat. This is the essence of long-distance relationships. “Can’t wait to see you!” We want to be together, in person, and digital media can be in service of this. I could expound on how technology can also be used to justify inappropriate amounts of time away from real relationships and thus harm the small communities that we are called to be part of by nature, but because of my God-like mercy I will spare you this.
We also have a Father who can’t wait to see us and hear from us and be with us. Real communio with God is possible, communio just as real as with your family and friends and coworkers and roommates, communio where you speak while He listens and He speaks while you listen. This website – and, unbelievably, this article – might even be in service of this relationship. Point is – and I’m not supposed to say this – I hope that when you finish reading this, you shut your laptop and have a conversation – whether with your friend across the table, your mom downstairs, the guy behind the counter at Starbucks, or the Guy Who loved you into existence and will love you back to Himself someday. Depart from the screen and re-enter the real world. I will leave you with the words of Fulton Sheen during his first television broadcast. May your forays into digital media henceforth be merely entr’actes that serve to enhance and sustain the great opera of your real life and relationships.
“There is just one point where broadcasting and television must admit their inadequacy and bow down to the fullness of theology, and that is in their incapacity to communicate the final intimacy of affection, touch. Anyone may hear or see us, but few may touch us. That is the privilege of the elect. Religion gives that third degree of intimacy thanks to Communion, wherein Christ and man are one in the unity of spirit. But broadcasting and television must forever be denied that greatest joy of all.”