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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Faith on Facebook

Both Justin Bieber and Jesus are both (ironically) popular on Facebook. But what does this say about religion and popular culture, particularly with the social networking site in question? By far, Jesus Daily, a page run by a dietician from North Carolina, has gotten more likes and more overall interaction than even celebrity pages ranging from Justin Bieber to Lady Gaga. This level of interaction demonstrates a few things: one, there are many Christians on Facebook who take religious interaction just as seriously, if not more so, than their interpersonal relationships at an actual church. Prayer requests and inspirational scripture quotes are commonplace on the page and many people speak as if it is a strong source of faith for them. And the amount of activity on the page suggests that many people look to it as a source of religious devotion.

Many Christian leaders would no doubt warn, and have been doing so for years, that the use of online churches and devotionals affects how people approach religion as a whole. It doesn’t just apply to Christians, however. There are online sources for virtually any religion you could think of, even such as the folk religion of Japan, Shinto. I remember a website for a shrine that was modernized and drew in people with animated mascots and such. Christianity doesn’t strive to do that, but that speaks to a difference of religiosity in Japan as opposed to America. People don’t make Jesus into a mascot, unless you count Buddy Christ in Dogma, so the way Christians use the internet is more for networking and reaching out to people who are otherwise unwilling to go to church or unable to because of some illness or disability. In this sense, there is a benefit that naysayer Christians are missing. Even if there is a potential problem of people becoming more detached, one can say there’s an equal possibility of people maintaining sociability, but also increasing their spirituality. If it takes the internet to inspire people, then shouldn’t it be seen as at least partly a blessing from God? The internet was something of a factor in me being more social, albeit I’ll admit there is that strong influence of personal detachment, though it varies with each person. I’m a more private individual and generally socially reserved as well, so perhaps it’s my own fault for that outcome.

The Internet as a whole is fraught with so called “spiritual dangers”, such as pornography, covered in another Belief Blog article, so any critiques of the Internet in terms of Facebook and religious behavior seem to miss the point. There’s potential danger anywhere in terms of Christian morality; it’s a matter of believers being aware and vigilant, something of a theme in the New Testament, from what I understand.

There’re other reasons why people choose to engage in religion through Facebook or other social media. Many want to keep themselves separate from churches that have political/inter-congregational squabbles. They still affirm the need for a community and they aren’t unwilling to go to churches and such gatherings, but for more genuine spirituality and devotion, they insist that an online community can help them be more centered. Is this a problem? As noted above, it can be when it makes the person become fixated and obsessed with the online aspect without giving credence and consideration to the real life interaction and contact that occurs in an actual sanctuary.

Many people who are religious lean one way or the other in this, but perhaps there are people that take a middle path. Friends of mine have noted that they’ve searched for years for a church and found it. But some people may jump from church to church, not only to sample variations in theology, but also because they feel like God and Jesus aren’t found in a building, but simply in any group. Jesus himself says in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” In that sense, people can still gather in small groups for devotional purposes and have the same amount of sincerity, if not more because of the lack of explicit social group pressure present in larger communities. It’s done at my alma mater in the form of Catechumenate; it’s done in other forms across the country, such as Cru or Young Life. The nondenominational aspect is one thing; the higher engagement with the secular world in one way or another is what makes it more effective. The internet is also commonly used for evangelistic purposes, so this phenomenon of online religious communities and churches shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, especially with more people becoming technologically capable and wanting something besides petty disputes that break churches apart sometimes. I would caution people to have restraint and not use this method as their only means to be religious, since common sense doesn’t always prevail. Otherwise, it remains a personal search for the sacred that everyone discovers as time goes by. Good luck to all. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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