The Social Media Dilemma and Courage to “Unplug”

By Joe LaGuardia

The first thing my son does in the morning is open his laptop and watch his favorite YouTube channel.  My daughter checks her social media pages.  I groggily turn over and tune in to Facebook to see what is new.  My wife tells everyone to unplug.

This is our typical day, as I’m sure it is for millions of other Americans who enjoy technology without knowing how it affects their lives for good or worse.

My wife once recommended we unplug from Facebook, and I have been putting off the idea for some time.  The subject came up again, this time at my own initiative.  I’ve been reading The Driver in the Driverless Car by techno-ethicist Vivek Wadwha after hearing an interview with him on the radio.  I knew that I was spelling the end of my social media days when I ordered the book.  It was just a matter of time.

When I recommended we unplug, I asked, “How will we keep in touch with friends and family?” My wife replied, “The same way you kept in touch before we had Facebook.  Make a phone call.”  The wheels started turning, and prayer ensued.

Wadwha’s book focuses on several ethical issues surrounding the emergence of technology.  No matter how invasive, he contends, technology is only as beneficial as we are autonomous.  Dependence upon technology can be harmful and, in some cases, immoral.  Its just as Jesus might have said if he lived in the 21st-Century, “Man does not live online alone, but on every word of God.”

Autonomy is about choice — do we have a choice whether we can survive apart from the technology in our lives, and do we have a choice to go beyond our online tribes and algorithm-shaped echo chambers?

My question about Facebook –“How will we keep in touch?”– revealed an acute dependence whether real or perceived: in short, “How will I live without Facebook?”

That evening, we mapped out the needs, fears, benefits, and costs of social media.  We then sought to rectify our needs, confront our fears with biblical antidotes, and list benefits related to being unplugged.

Assuming we have only three needs for social media–the social media “triad”, as it were: friends and family, news and entertainment, and (in my case as an author and pastor) publicity — that means we had to devise a couple of alternatives for each need.  For instance, we can keep in touch with family and friends the old-fashioned way, by phone or mail (a much more personal touch).  We also have messenger and texting.

For news, we can spend time reading the newspaper that calls our driveway home every morning without fail.  And for publicity, we can drive up subscriptions to this blog, knowing that every post is emailed to those who sign up.

Professional relationships and publicity can also go through the church Facebook page, of which I will be a part, primarily during work hours or ministry projects.  No need to check the church FB page at midnight, during dinner, or any of those other obtrusive times when we seem so addicted to our screens.  Our world has to be larger than 3 X 5 inches, you know.

Our fears were clear: fears of being “out of the loop”, missing news, of not being “present” online either for publicity or pastoral sake, a concern for any clergy worth his salt.  But when we looked to the Bible for help and focused on two admonishments (maintaining privacy and freedom in Christ — autonomy and choice, per Wadwha), we found 2 Thessalonians 4:11-12 relevant and all-inclusive to our conundrum:

And make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…so that you will behave properly toward others and be dependent on no one.”

And, we figured, to be dependent on no thing, social media included.

We had charted our course, now it was a matter of unplugging.  We devised a plan: Write this article, put posts on our Facebook pages to inform everyone of our decision, and put with a link to the article with instructions on how people can contact us.

If you are reading this now, you’ve likely seen the post.

So begins our new adventure without social media.  It will be a challenge as any change is, but we are confident in God’s guidance for this endeavor.  And there is God’s Word to consider: If more of us lived quietly and earnestly, putting our hands to the Lord’s harvest, perhaps we might be a happier society, creators of healthier churches, and the source of a more dedicated, simple folk.

Here’s to unplugging!

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Generational Disorientation and Grieving Blockbuster

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, a Swami, Rabbi, Christian Scientist, and I (the Baptist) went to a local private high school to provide three workshops on our respective faith communities.  I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we were there as part of a larger conference on “sharing our stories.”  Each of us had about 10 minutes to present who we were and our faith.

As the workshops got underway — with about a dozen or so students in each one — we realized that all our planning for telling our stories, sharing anecdotes, and providing illustrations to express our faith fell short.

The rabbi, for instance, opened by recalling a scene from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  After realizing that no one in the workshops (but one!) had heard of the book, he re-calibrated his lesson.  He referred to the hit, prime time show, Big Bang Theory instead, but again fell short.  No one (apparently under the age of 30) watches Big Bang Theory.  When he made a joke about Sheldon Cooper, no one laughed.

I tried a different tact as I wanted to explain various Baptist visions of how to live out the Gospel.  I asked if anyone knew who Billy Graham was.  No one.  I gave a brief introduction and went on with the story.  Then I asked who was assassinated that day 50 years ago–April 4, 1968.  No one knew that it was Martin Luther King, Jr.  I talked about MLK, by now assuming they never heard of him either.

The swami and the Christian Scientist did no better.  We muddled through three sessions of workshops trying our best to connect our lives with theirs.  We were miserable failures.

During the third and final session, we changed strategies and wanted to hear more from the students.  It was a small group, so we were able to personalize our discussion, so we asked the question: “What do you all do–what do you watch, listen to, talk about?”  The rabbi asked, “Is there anything that you share in common, a favorite TV show?”

The students explained that many of their activities revolved around their families–they spent time fishing and going to the beach, etc.  But when it came time to connect with peers, there were limited opportunities.  There were few common interests they shared, and that meant no common language based on pop culture.

Social media, which I assumed connected young people, only tended to keep them in an algorithmic bubble that showed them what they wanted.  Time on the phone, then, meant less time looking outwards–to books (when we gathered in a large group in the auditorium for the keynote speaker, the speaker asked who read Harry Potter–this, in front of over 200 students; only a couple dozen rose their hands, and the keynote speaker had to re-calibrate too), to movies or television shows, or to radio stations (do young people even own radios anymore?).

No shared platform means no shared pop culture allusions, narratives that frame our relationships, or foundations for a common language.  That young people don’t write anymore means that their ability to communicate beyond Tweets and posts and Snapchats at 130 characters is breaking down–or has become dysfunctional already.

Consider some of the things I read or heard recently:

  • Author Vivek Wadwha of The Driver in the Driverless Car, notes that most young people have never written a full-length letter.  To me, that means that people no longer know how to see, describe, and explore how they feel and how to invite others into their thoughts.
  • Recent reports show that a higher usage of “screen time” results in a higher rate of depression and feelings of isolation or loneliness.
  • The mystery as to why radio stations, television, and even movies are going vintage (how many have been throwing nods to the 1980s and 1970s in look, feel, and music–Thor Ragnorak for instance?) is solved: Corporations know that the over-40 crowd not only consumes that stuff more often than younger generations, we also have more money to spend!

As I spoke with those students in class, I asked them how they even found videos and music on Youtube or Spotify to figure out what to listen to in the first place.  One admitted it was all technology–the media platforms automatically feed students what they like, so why do having choices even matter?

I explained that my favorite Friday-night “date” with my wife was going to a Blockbuster video–where all of the choices of movies were set before us and no one and no robot was going to tell me what I liked!  I could easily go to the slasher-horror section as easily as the romance section, and no one was going to tell me what I was going to watch (I used this point as to why I am a Baptist, and focused on liberty during my talk in that third session).

When I asked them if they had an issue that corporations were literally running their life preferences, they said, “No, we don’t care.  We like what we see, so not really.”  I wanted to talk about The Matrix at that point, but I let that one go–for their sake and mine.

Algorithms matter.  I had a feeling that this bunch won’t make good Baptists, as we Baptists are known for having issues with authority and tyranny.  But then again, maybe that’s why my–and so many other Baptist churches–are struggling to attract young adults in the first place.  We walk on the lawn when the sign says, “Keep off Grass,” and we prefer Bibles to programs that give us the “Verse of the Day.”  We know our heroes — from Graham to MLK– and there ain’t no brand going to take their place.

I am not sure our brief time in high school provided thorough research to draw broader conclusions.  Nor am I apt to make assumptions based on anecdotal evidence.  But if my time with these young people mean anything, then all I can say is that I think that I and my ilk are doomed.  It means that, decades from now, we will get arrested for walking and dancing on the grass.

The Cuba Chronicles, Day 3 (and an aside)

By Joe LaGuardia

On 6 November 2017, I embarked on a mission trip with a small group of clergy and lay leaders to Cuba through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  In partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, the CBF has been nurturing mission opportunities over the past several years.  These are my diaries from the trip. Read more: “Introduction” here. Find Day 1 here and Day 2, Part 1 here.  Find Day 2, Part 2 here.

We visited Iglesia Bautista Shalom, a home church in La Boca, Cuba.  La Boca is a small and impoverished fishing village on the outskirts of El Mariel.  A power plant and port stand on the horizon, providing jobs for both towns.

The home is a two-story dwelling, built like many homes in Cuba with brick and mortar, held together by a patchwork of aluminum corrugated siding and roofing. The first floor living room serves as the chapel, in which the congregation greets guests with hugs and kisses.

Their pastor, Pastor Corita, has been shepherd of this flock for nearly 20 years.  She is unassuming, smart–she longed to be a professor of theology–and treats each person kindly and with care.

Several parishioners are either retired from or work at the elementary school, located just across the street.  One retired teacher, for example, is the church’s administrator.  She seems to be like a grandmother to all, and her smile was contagious.  Another retired teacher serves as the chairwoman of the deacons.

Everything in the church reflects the industrial and fishing culture of La Boca.  The church logo has a sailboat at its center. The hand-sewn liturgical banners and the parament on the communion table have loaves and fish.  The chalice and paten are crude and sit idle next to an aged, open Bible.  A bulletin board advertises events, classes, education materials, and the familiar color-wheel of the Christian calendar.

About forty churchgoers enjoy fellowship and worship every weekend.  The liturgy is steeped in the rhythm of God’s seasons (it’s Ordinary Time, ya’ll, and the color is green), and music is indigenous.  An overhead projector, connected to a laptop donated from some United States partner, aids in worship.

It is with a love of the Lord, an emphasis on worship, and a generous love of neighbor that the congregation seeks to bring shalom and support to an otherwise poor neighborhood.  A new ministry endeavor, the purchase of a 20-foot fishing vessel they lovingly call the Daisy, will create a micro-economy that will provide fish to locals at a fair-wage rate, enough to pay for employees and overhead, but not much else.  For being a fishing village, we are surprised to learn that much of the fish is exported to Havana to fuel the tourist industry.  People in the village don’t make enough money to compete, so the haul from the Daisy will be a real blessing.

Upon purchasing the Daisy, they have repaired the hull.  The only work left is building out a floor at a cost of $350.00.  With a passing of the collection plate, we provided the funding and were a part of launching an entire micro-economy for this amazing church.

An Aside: The Sounds of Cuba

At the end of the day, I had time to reflect on a few things.  Although traffic jams exist and make up for much of the noise in Havana (with all of the Ladas and the Peugeots, not withstanding), the real life of Cuba–its sights and sounds–come from the Cubans themselves.

 A cacophony surrounds us.  Dogs insist on barking at nightfall to gossip about the day’s news.  Roosters crow at 4:30 in the morning.  Conversations between neighbors, the sweeping of terraces, the knocking on doors by guests fill the air with fresh banter.  In the marketplace, the sounds of bartering and buying of a few goods are ubiquitous.  Every afternoon, men with a cart walk down the street blowing a whistle and announcing the sale of fresh bread.

There is the occasional blare of a television forecasting some ominous news story (all of the ominous stories are from the United States; the positive ones are about the Castro regime) or hip-hop from Cuba’s version of Mtv.  I have heard more George Michael songs here in the last three days than I’ve heard in the last twenty years, and I have not heard a single note of Country music or classic rock.

We have also experienced the occasional curb-side arguments.  I asked our translator if they were arguing about politics. “No, this is Cuba,” he said (in other words, you don’t talk politics publicly!), “They are arguing about baseball.”

Aside from these little noises from God’s creation, there seems to be a heaviness in the air that mutes everyone and everything, as if there is an impending burden brought on by the worries of sudden changes in the currency or the next food shortage.  Even lovers who snuggle on the sea wall do not have much to say.  No one who passes you on the street says hello.  There is energy and contentment, but both are tenuous.

I was trying to see where I fit in all of this.  Cuba is not like the South in the U.S., with all of its joyful hospitality; nor is it like the North, with its cold, blue-collar terseness or white-color anxiety over the stock market.  Instead, there exists a tension that arrests the entire island, a weight that I can only assume accompanies the suppression of a government bent on shaping its people and the messages they hear.

This is a government that insures the survival of its closed hegemony and some long-lost ideal that government distribution is somehow more beneficial to the people than capitalism.  With my own education in the American Founding and a bedrock belief that God created all of us with the innate longing for liberty, these feelings or musings were new to me and hit me the hardest during my stay in Cuba.  I was moved, and I could see why Cuba needs Jesus, one whom God sends “to bring release to the captives.”