Toward a Theology of Facebook

“Excuse me, your status is showing.”

It happened the day my mother “friended” me on Facebook. That’s when I knew the world had changed.

Up to that point, Facebook had been simply yet another social media site I visited, a place to reconnect with long-lost college roommates, take ridiculously time-consuming quizzes to discover my hidden self (for what it’s worth, I’m a perceiving extrovert who enjoys reading and long walks on the beach), and check in on my high school classmates without actually having to attend the reunion. It was all very much a virtual party, complete with virtual cake, virtual drinks, virtual decorations, and virtual gifts.

That is, until my mother showed up.

Suddenly the event was no longer a select meet-and-greet, a party by invitation only. No, somehow, the gathering had grown, moved outdoors, and was happening in the streets. It was a community block party and everyone was invited. Including my mother.

That’s when I realized that my virtual world and my real world had collided. More to the point, that was the moment that I realized that the virtual world, that Facebook, was the real world. And that what I had been using as a form of escapism was simply another level of interaction with very real coworkers, friends, neighbors, and in this case, relatives. In a word, Facebook was community.

As such, it was going to get pretty messy.

Community: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It

Human beings were created to live in community with each other; God Himself declared that it is not good for us to go through life alone. But what we’ve observed over the last several generations was the crumbling of community within American society. Houses were built with stoops instead of front porches; towns stopped constructing sidewalks; commuters moved from home to car to work to car to home again, all without the need to actually engage another human being in conversation. Let’s be honest, it’s part of who we are; we value independence, privacy, and the wide-open spaces, “elbow room” as Daniel Boone called it. And for a while, before social forces caught up with technology, the Internet was a place to indulge ourselves in moments of blissful anonymity and isolation.

But no longer. For as much as we are American, we are more so human; and the need for the ties that bind is so deeply rooted in us that the phenomenon of Facebook was really only a matter of time. The Facebook world was the inevitable self-correction of a society desperate to reclaim a basic level of community and interconnectedness. Here, we were once again able to relate to one another as members of the same village. We frequented the same venues, knew who liked what (or whom), listened to conversations between mutual friends, and engaged each other in at least a superficial way. It was a moment of social utopia.

And it was short-lived. For with the inevitable rebuilding of community came the inevitable difficulties of human beings relating to each other within community. We learned the good and the bad about our friends, discovered that we couldn’t speak without being overheard, found that people could be just as offensive and hurtful online as in person, and quickly began to remember why we were so tempted to isolate ourselves in the first place.

This dilemma between our need to connect and our desire to be left alone is complicated enough for those claiming no faith; but it is compounded for those of us whose lives are rooted in the commands to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For us, faith brings with it the expectation of living in loving relationship with those around us. For us, how we interact with the people around us has direct bearing on how we interact with God Himself. And so for us, it is essential to the very continuity of our lives that we know how to live in community.

Even if that community just happens to be Facebook.

We must not isolate ourselves.

Within the last few months, at least two different friends have remarked to me that they do not use Facebook because of the immoral actions of the people they know on it. They complained about chats that quickly turn to gossip fests, the abundance of vulgarity, and simply not wanting to experience the disappointment of reconnecting with an old friend only to discover that she is living a life contrary to God’s Word. In essence, they withdrew in order to protect themselves and their own sense of well-being.

And I’ll be the first to admit, I feel the same struggle. I find it’s easier to simply hide the profile of my Christian friend who is now living an openly gay lifestyle than it is to interact and engage him about it. Just like in the “real” world, it’s easier for me to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid passing in front of his house. To be fair, this is the way people usually handle relationships that are difficult or stressful. If someone makes us uncomfortable, we steer clear of him. If he’s walking down the canned goods aisle in the grocery store, we dodge into the cleaning section. It’s very natural and all too human.

But for those of us claiming to follow Christ, we’re called to something greater, something—dare I say—superhuman. We’re called to love those around us by being salt and light to them; isolating ourselves and avoiding difficult relationships is simply not an option for us. If we hide our candle under a bushel…well, you know.

Some may object, contending the need of separating from ungodliness. And to them I answer, yes—if the separation is prompted in order to affirm godliness. But more often, separation is prompted primarily by our own sense of discomfort and self-preservation. So even while our hearts grieve at the evil around us, we must remember this: God who is wise enough to choose not to take us out of this world is powerful enough to keep us from the evil in it, online and elsewhere.

We must recognize that everyone is our neighbor—errr, friend.

Another challenge for Christians using Facebook is the temptation to connect only with those “friends” who they like or who like them. There are those people whom we really don’t want to associate with, those people from our past whom we could have gone through the rest of life never seeing again, those people for whom the ignore button was created. And it’s too easy and too tempting to click it.

This ability to choose our friends and acquaintances based on common interests and beliefs is a luxury. And like most luxuries it can easily turn into to self-indulgence. For while we would never dispute the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, we simply would never surround ourselves by those we don’t already love.

So today, perhaps the question is no longer, “Who is my neighbor?” but “Who is my ‘friend’?” The answer, however, is the same. As Christians, we don’t get to pick the people who come into our lives. We lose that control when we enter Christ’s kingdom, for in Christ’s kingdom, all men are brothers and we owe all men our love and service. Even if that means clicking confirm instead of ignore.

We must be transparent.

Aside from the private interpersonal brouhahas, the biggest issue surrounding Facebook is undoubtedly that of privacy of information. And while I am an advocate of personal privacy, I can’t help but wonder if the uproar is rooted in something a little less noble than protecting our constitutional rights. In a world where a quick Google search can turn up a file folder full of information about each of us, maybe the truth is that most people want to control their information simply to control it. They want to be able to present a certain image to a certain person at a certain time without the risk of every site they’ve visited in the privacy of their own home being a matter of public record.

A Christian friend recently posted this status: “I guess some of you don’t realize that Facebook can track what you listen to on Pandora…and I thought I knew you.”

Even though this was tongue in cheek, the observation was correct. A lot of people are driving down the main drag of town with their radio blaring and the windows rolled down.

And sure, while there are any number of privacy controls that you can click to make sure you hide that last comment, erase your web footprint, or block someone from seeing your vacation photos, let’s face it, there is simply way too much information, way too many toggle switches, and way too many distractions to guarantee your anonymity. It’s highly probable that your boss or pastor will see what you just posted about him.

And in one sense, I’m grateful for that. For with greater transparency, with greater exposure comes a greater sense of accountability. The more people that I know are watching me the more I reflect on the appropriateness and legitimacy of my statements and actions. This is the strength of community, especially Christian community. For if secrecy breeds sin, then openness produces righteous living.

I remember as an ESL teacher I saw many of my single expatriate students take outlandish risks that they’d never dare engage in if they had been at home. You see, one of the significant things that happens when people live in anonymity is that they don’t have as many checks on their behavior. Away from their community where everyone knows everyone and no one is afraid to tell your mother exactly what they saw you doing, there is little to keep you from participating in just about whatever your heart desires. Remember what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

But what happens on Facebook does not. And for Christians, this is nothing to fear. It’s simply all the more motivation to live honestly in the sight of all men.

The Conclusion of the Matter

Living in the virtual age is really no different than living in any other age. People are people; and they relate to each other in the ways they always have, often with vice and arrogance. More rarely with love and compassion. For Christians, interacting and living life in the virtual, but very real, community of Facebook is also no different than living in any other community. Both require us to love sacrificially, to see those around us as souls in need of Christ, and to devote ourselves to making every decision, whether it be a comment or status update, under the power and control of the Holy Spirit.

Hannah R. Anderson lives in Vanderbilt, Pennsylvania where she spends her days mothering three small children, loving her husband, and scratching out odd moments to write.

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There are 3 Comments

Teri Ploski's picture

This was very timely and thought provoking!

Bob Hayton's picture

Excellent post on an important subject! Thanks.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Becky Petersen's picture

Thank you for the post. I have tried to convince a couple of my friends that facebook is "okay" but they remain convinced that it is somehow inherently evil. Their reaction is "withdrawal" as you pointed out.

I do differ with you in one point. If your "friends" are supposed to be your friends, you shouldn't "HAVE TO" let everyone who wants to be your friend, be "your friend".

I do think that if you constantly have to worry about seeing bad things on pictures (for example, profile pics), then maybe it is time to consider x-ing that friend. I had one young woman put an almost x-rated picture up and then try to befriend my husband. I was a bit ticked at that since she knows how we feel about that. She didn't try to befriend me--just my husband!

But for the most part, I agree with you. If your activities are pleasing to God, then what are we afraid of? I think, too, that allowing others to see into our lives, we let them see that we are "real people too". Since we live in a country where most people aren't acquainted with pastors and their families, it is an interesting idea for them to be able to see the pastor (they think 'priest') have a family and a family life. To know that we aren't somehow "perfect:" or "superior" but are normal people who do normal things and have fun times/vacations even, and friends is important.

Thanks for the article.

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