For the season of Advent I decided to take a break from all social media. I had succumbed to the all-too-common habit of checking news feeds and notifications on an alarmingly regular basis. It became an unthinking action, performed by muscle memory — a steady dose of input, information, entertainment, drama, and amusement throughout my day and into my night as well. The first thing one experiences after cutting oneself off from social media is a kind of withdrawal: the stilling of the hand as it reaches for the phone or browser tab, the recalling of the mind as it returns over and over to thoughts of likes and shares, the calming of the will as it’s denied its desire to scroll. >Just…want…to…scroll<.
But then, as the withdrawal symptoms slowly abate, one will at last begin to experience a certain liberation and the beginnings of a greater clarity than one had drowning in the cataract of “the news feed.” Whatever the social connection benefits FaceBook or Twitter may provide, they now come at the great cost of an obscene amount of information, neither sorted by content nor ranked by importance, and far more than can be healthfully ingested. If you’re like me, social media has become your primary source of news, or at least of headlines — your primary portal into other news sources. But the “news” is now mixed in with people’s t.v. show episode reactions, vacation pictures, and endless memes. Eye-witness reports are followed by op-ed pieces, the serious is sandwiched between satire, and as you try to process the gravity of this world event or that Supreme Court case, you’ll notice that Jennifer is currently feeling bored and has expressed this with a smiley emoji with its tongue sticking out.
This strange mixture of information constantly flowing in front of our faces, I suspect, desensitizes us to things of true import, trains us to prefer novelty over stability, and turns our natural appetite for news and information into a ravenous, insatiable appetite through a habit of gluttony. For me, a total fast was required for a length of time. And even now as I’m dipping my toe back into the social-mediaverse, I feel the strength of its gravity pulling me to take up again my bad habits. Why is it so easy to get addicted to a constant flow of “news”?
This is hardly a new temptation for humanity. The thirst for knowledge and wisdom has surely always been a human trait, and the danger of warping that thirst into a desire simply for “new” knowledge must have always come with it. In Acts 17:21 we see that 2,000 years ago in Athens “…all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” The Facebook and Twitter of that day were forums like Athens’ Areopagus where news from all over would come to be spoken aloud to an eager audience waiting to hear it. One could argue that such forums, like our present day platforms, were better at indiscriminately disseminating vast amounts of information than they were at promoting true and worthy information — as St. Paul discovered when he stood in the midst of the Areopagus to deliver some news that he had brought from Jerusalem.
Paul held the attention of the forum for a few minutes but was soon dismissed and presumably never spoke there again. In today’s parlance, they read his headline and the blurb below it, but then kept scrolling. A handful of people there did recognize that the news Paul brought deserved further investigation, and upon learning more, some of their lives were even irrevocably changed because of it. The strange reality of truly important news being missed by the many because they dismissed it before investigating it is, it seems, perennial.
But here I must point something out: those who followed up with Paul and became changed because of his message fist heard him because they were present at the Areopagus. And Paul, knowing the nature of the Areopagus, went there anyway and delivered his news (or as much as he could get out). Paul knew that his message would, if investigated, require of its hearers in the long run a great deal of time, learning, un-learning, and devotion. But that heavy, demanding message from Paul had to first be delivered as news. Of course it must. Any time we encounter knowledge or concepts for the first time, no matter how shallow or profound they may be, we encounter them as news. The Christian message, called by its original believers as “The Way” because of its immersive and total requirements and commitments, was nevertheless preached as “The Gospel.” It had to be Gospel –good news– before it could become The Way. The angels didn’t bring the shepherds doctrines; they brought them good tidings.
We all like good tidings. Getting good news feels good, but it also is good, because news is related to knowledge, and knowledge to truth, and truth is good for its own sake. So news isn’t evil, but neither is it good for its own sake; it must always be valued only in the service of gaining truth. [But just a note: even the search for truth must be tempered with prudence and humility. Truth means more than just knowing everything. For example, just because something’s out there to learn doesn’t mean it’s your business: if someone’s telling another persons’ secrets, you shouldn’t listen; if someone’s exhibiting their body to incite lust, you oughtn’t look; if you encounter images of graphic real life violence or trauma, except perhaps to spur you on to help in some way if you can, you shouldn’t expose your mind and spirit to that.] Sifting the true, noble, right, pure, etc. out of the relentless flow of false, base, incorrect, filthy, etc. in our social media intake is a tall order. But if we must be areopagites, let us at least commit to leaving the forum to follow after a St. Paul, to leaving the news feed when we encounter Good News.