Always On -- Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape (Angela Williams Gorrell) -- a Review

ALWAYS ON: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape. By Angela Williams Gorrell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019. Xiii + 183 pages.

Perhaps you are like me and you spend significant amounts of time on social media each day. You may check your Facebook feed several times a day, whether on a computer, tablet, or phone.  You might be on Twitter, Linked In, Instagram, or one of the many other forms of social media. The ones I named are some that I make use of, but there are enough forms of new media out there that it’s difficult to keep up. Or you may avoid these various forms of new media like a plague. Maybe you have chosen to keep your flip phone and use it only for phone calls. You might indulge in a bit of email, but not much else. There are a few persons out there that remain totally detached from modern sources of media, but most of us are engaged with it in some form. We may grow frustrated with it or we might delight in it, but it's there, whether we like it or not. So, how do we who are Christians practice our faith in this social media context?

The title of Angela Williams Gorrell's book is eye-catching. It describes the lives of many of us: Always On. Whether that is a good thing or not, is another question. Gorrell offers us a helpful perspective on matters of living faithfully with this media. She approaches the questions as a professor of practical theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. Before that, she served as an associate research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Additionally, she holds a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary. In addition to her academic credentials, she has also served as a youth minister. Thus, she writes from her own experience in ministry, and from her in-depth academic study of the subject. What has emerged is a helpful guide to those who wish to navigate this world faithfully. Although it is a scholarly work, it is also accessible, at least for clergy and other professionals who deal with the context in which we experience social media.

There is much that is good about the various forms of new media that have become ubiquitous in the last quarter-century. It allows us to communicate with people over long distances. We may use it to maintain friendships over large expanses or even rekindle friendships in ways not possible in person. It also can allow us to share our faith in non-threatening ways. For example, I use Facebook Live to record and share my sermons, which I also download to my YouTube channel. I also have a blog on which I share my thoughts on a variety of topics from politics to religion. At the same time, social media can be destructive. Studies show, as Gorrell points out, that many users experience shame and envy and even depression. There is also the on-going problem of cyber-bullying. Then there is the growing problem of sharing false information, perhaps innocently. How do you know what is true or false? As we may have discovered it's easy to simply share something that seems true, without checking out the source, because it fits our bias. Some politicians speak of “alternative facts.” I think we once called that propaganda.   

Gorrell takes us from considering the possibilities provided by social media to the challenges posed to our use of these forms of media because of our brokenness, which can get amplified through these forms of media. She believes that new media can be of service to the Christian faith, but she wants us to be discerning users. Thus, she helps us explore ways of expanding our dialogue with others while inviting us to reflect critically on our cultural stories. The key here is understanding that social media provides ways of sharing and shaping stories, making it useful for the work of ministry, but only if we are discerning users. In other words, these forms of media aren’t as neutral as we might think. The possibilities for misuse and abuse are great. Believing that we can make good use of media, she invites us to be discerning users through spiritual practices. For this purpose, she suggests using Ignatius of Loyola’s examen as a means of faithful reflection. The reader will have to decide if this is a good approach, but even if suggestive, it is a helpful reminder that we need to draw upon the resources of the faith to strengthen our discernment.

This is a book that needs to be read by the broader Christian community, but especially by clergy. To my colleagues, you may find this to be frustrating and distracting, but you can't avoid it. So, you might as well learn more about it. As for me, I was challenged as I read her book to be more forthcoming in addressing matters of social media in the context of the church. Having seen how destructive it can be, I’m planning on taking it up in my preaching. Since this is part of our world, we cannot run away from it. We might step back. We might put some boundaries, but social media isn't going away any time soon. Some forms might disappear (remember MySpace), but new forms will keep emerging. It’s good to know that we won't be able to keep up with every form (I think I’ve reached my saturation point), but we need to be aware of what is out there. We need to be discerning users. We are, as she notes, living into a hybrid form of life, in which we live in both the physical and the virtual realms. The healthy way to do this isn’t to bifurcate but to integrate. She writes that "in the present social and technological landscape, it is imperative that Christian communities frame the love of God and neighbor (which includes one's enemies) in terms of Christian practices that are integrated across physical and digital environments and practiced during in-person and mediated communication." (p. 142).

So, what kind of presence do we want to have in this new media landscape? It’s a question that churches grapple with. Web sites are helpful but insufficient. So, we add in other forms. But how do we use them faithfully? What kind of message do we present? How does what we say and do in this context bring peace and justice and compassion to our world? These are important questions lifted up for us to consider. Fortunately, Angela Williams Gorrell provides us with a most useful guide to life that is often Always On.


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