Thursday, April 7, 2011

Q&A with Matt Swaim, author of Prayer in the Digital Age

I am so grateful to Matt Swaim for thoroughly answering all my many and varied questions about his discussion-provoking new book, Prayer in the Digital Age, which I reviewed for my Catholic Post column this month.  You can read that review here.

Q. Why the title, "Prayer in the Digital Age?"  Who is your intended audience?

When I set out to write the book, I was primarily thinking about my audience as anyone who happened to be a frequent checker of his or her Facebook account.  As I began to dig deeper into the principles of Christian community and communication throughout the history of the Church, however, I found that while things like Facebook may be at the forefront of our collective consciousness in the “digital age,” the underlying issues associated with our media situation share a character with issues of every age in which God has been at work in salvation history.  Nowadays, when people ask me for whom the book is intended, I tell them that it’s for anyone who has a login and a password to something, because not even the luddites among us are really insulated from the digital age.

Q. You point out so many of the negative effects of being too “connected.” Do you
think these dangers are more “real” for those who have fewer specific demands,
such as a young, unmarried adult, than, for instance, for a mom with small children?

You raise an excellent question- because of the multifaceted outreach capabilities of the digital age, and because each of us encounter technology on our own cognitive levels and within our own schedules, it might be easy to think of this as a problem among the “young people,” whoever we might mean by that vague demographic aspersion.  However, when I check my social networks, I see as many, if not more, social network updates from young moms complaining about their children, divorced middle-aged men playing FarmVille, or grandparents passing along politically tinged spam as I do from those who might be considered by what might in a conversation like this be referred to as “young people.”  Ten years ago, I think that we might have been able to pin down the digitally addicted as being of a certain age, marital status, and even sex, but in the past few years, those barriers and distinctions have been obliterated at an unprecedented pace.  Nobody who witnessed the invention of print, radio or television media could possibly have comprehended the pace at which present-day digital technology has caught on.

In terms of how “real” these challenges are, the difference between the way older generations and younger ones process new media is tied primarily to personal formative experiences.  A 60-year-old woman and a 12-year-old boy may push the same buttons on a digital camera, but the 60-year-old sees it as a development, and the 12-year-old sees it as That Which Always Has Been.  In order to communicate with both when it comes to talking about a comprehensive spirituality, we have to maintain a prayer language that engages both; one that is transcendent, and not weighted down by the millstone of whatever ephemeral technology happens to be transmitting it.

Q. I was really intrigued by your critique of Internet “communities.” I agree with
some of your largely negative ideas, yet I have found as mom that I have found
Internet communities & relationships enormously enriching. I, too, have seen
some problems with and in them, but to me they outweigh the disadvantages. Thoughts?

One of the biggest critiques of the book so far has been what readers have perceived as an overwhelming negativity toward technology, which was certainly not my intent!  If anything, I was trying to document, almost in diary form, a critique of my own misuse of technology.  Perhaps nowhere is this more prevalent than in my analysis of social networking, in which I try to break down the ways in which the brain and heart process various types of social media, and how our lives of prayer can be analyzed in light of that. 

I think that if we can begin to understand what media theorist Marshall MacLuhan meant when he talked about various forms of media as messages themselves, we can grow toward some level of mastery over the media we employ, and perhaps move toward becoming users rather than simply the used.  The first appendix in the book, titled “The Church in the Digital Age,” is actually an exploration of how I and others in Catholic media have worked to implement social media in the service of the Gospel, whether personally or corporately, with obviously varying levels of success.  I think that, internally, we all have some sense of when we’ve crossed over the line of using social media to our personal spiritual benefit and into the realm of personal material indulgence.  The benefits of social media use in regards to our prayer lives are directly connected to our own prioritization of the media themselves in relation to the messages such media are transmitting.  If we love Twitter more than whatever tweets we’re reading, that medium will inevitably eclipse the messages sent by way of it.

Q. Would you say your main message in Prayer in the Digital Age is about people
“unplugging” more, or being savvier and more prayerful consumers of the new media?

The goal is definitely to encourage being more savvy.  Retreat is the first resort of cowards; it can be an easy excuse to claim that because secular media mounts constant assaults on the faith, that our refusal to engage it can be considered a form of dry martyrdom.  However, martyrs typically tend to die while arduously defending the faith, rather than from smoke inhalation in the caves wherein their aggressors are throwing torches.  Many Church documents have referred to social media as the “Areopagus” of the present age, referring to the public forum in which St. Paul charitably and confidently defended Christianity in the Acts of the Apostles, with relatively insignificant success.  Somehow, even though Paul might have failed by the pragmatic criteria of the day, the fact that his words have been preserved to the edification of centuries of Christians who have come after, his seeming lack of results at the moment of his address to the “Men of Athens” have resulted in a good deal of results to those of us who live in an awful lot of places that don’t happen to be Athens. 

As Christians, and especially Catholics, we have to be savvy, patient and charitable, no matter how easy it might be for us to act like old-fashioned, reactive and mud-slinging trolls whose best intentions cause us to do more harm than good, no matter how self-satisfied we might be after firing our semi-automatic “truth-guns” into the air.  When we do so, we get a temporary and false sense of empowerment, and everyone who’s not where we are theologically thinks we look ridiculous.  If the truth transcends generations (which we know it does), we have to tailor our representation of it to do the same.

Q. Do you think that Catholics have a special responsibility to be more light than
heat in their use of the Internet? I’m thinking of the quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s
message for World Communications Day this year:

“It follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world:
this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and
respectful of others.”

How can our Catholic faith help with this?

Amen and amen.  Two of the greatest temptations in the digital age are to caricature our public personas, and to mask our public personas.  Perhaps we want all of our social network friends to know us as “that conservative dude I went to high school with,” “that guy who credits all his car repair discounts to Mary,” or “that guy who never posts under his real name but always has negative things to say about whatever level of customer service he just got.”

In the book, I try to dig into the difference between mere manifestation and full-on incarnation.  Online, you and I project images of ourselves; Jesus, in becoming the Word Made Flesh, went far beyond that into the realm of incarnation.  Manifestation is transitional and conditional; incarnation is radical and irrevocable.  When John Paul II, Benedict XVI and others, are referring to our responsibility to be honest, responsible, respectful and the like, I get the sense that they have been contemplating these distinctions between the kind of presence we can have in online communities and the kind of presence we can have in local communities.  There is potential for overlap between these two worlds; since Catholicism is a “both-and” religion, we have to exercise all constructive options when it comes to the enhancement of our appreciation for the faith, whether those options be online or in person.

Q. I really enjoyed the “Patron Saints in the Digital Age” appendix in the book. I
wonder if you would consider adding in a future edition a Peoria diocese native,
Servant of God Archbishop Fulton Sheen, as patron for perhaps podcasts or other new media evangelization, because of his groundbreaking efforts in using the media of his
time, primarily television and radio, to spread the gospel. Any other saints you
might want to add along with the great ones you chose?

Perhaps the most fun I had writing the book was in tracking down the various saints who predated the digital age by centuries but had some kind of life experience that correlated to the experiences we have today in a media-saturated cultural environment.  Servant of God Fulton Sheen is certainly among my heroes, if for no other reason than because he had zero fear of the media, nor made any apologies for the messages he communicated through it.  I think we can all look to him as a model; how often does someone come along who can be questioned neither in commitment nor in charity?  Nobody doubted that Fulton Sheen was dedicated to his cause, and yet, I sense that nobody was truly afraid to talk to him.  Please God, send us more of his kind.

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