Attempts to evangelize online are not wrong, but the venue is not ideal.
When St. Paul arrived in Athens, he spent most of his time debating the philosophers and citizens in the marketplace. But then, Scripture tells us, they brought him to the Areopagus.
The Areopagus was set aside from the noise of the marketplace. It was made up of a council of elders who heard the most important arguments regarding serious crimes and matters of religion.
Even the pagans knew that Paul’s ideas deserved a more important venue because they had to do with fundamental truths. The marketplace was no place for working out such sublime teaching.
Much religious discussion takes place within the walls of the social media marketplace, built by companies like Facebook. Inside these gated information factories, the noise is cacophonous as pitched debates take place in comment feeds and Twitter threads.
Marketplaces are built on the idea that things can be created and sent fast enough to fulfill our needs and wants almost as fast as we can conceive them. Companies like Amazon have mastered this concept.
Likewise, in the digital age, we tend to imagine ideas and speech as things to be sent as quickly as possible. What is often forgotten is that speech is best performed in the physical company of others, not transmitted over virtual networks.
There is a ritual aspect to speech that demands presence, attention and respect. This is hard to accomplish online. When we say we are “on” Facebook, we are not really there. We are uploading bits of information to a distant server for others to see, freed from the limitations that being present requires.
Words on the screen are like the seeds thrown among the thorns. They risk being choked by the cares, temptations and idols of this world that populate the online “marketplaces” like Facebook and Google.
Rather than spending so much rhetorical energy in the marketplace, take it to the field. When Pope Francis says to go to the peripheries, it is tempting to think that the online environment is one of those peripheries. Sadly, the opposite is true.
The online venue is becoming the center of culture. It is schools, parishes and homes that now sit at the periphery, looking in on the culture through the windows of smartphones. Face-to-face encounters are far less common than Facebook ones.
Changing the culture means getting back to our roots: simple Christian charity, not pious pronouncements on Facebook or email campaigns aimed at evangelizing the youth. Love is our most attractive and addictive offering.
It’s no coincidence that the word “culture” shares a Latin root with cultivation. “Cultura” means tend and grow. A pagan cult was one that tended to the shrine of its idol. We do a really good job tending to the digital shrines on social media — making daily offerings and making friends with others who like the same things we like — while the fertile fields of our schools, parishes and homes remain fallow.
Be like St. Paul. Cast your seeds in the online marketplace, but do not be afraid to enter the Areopagus where your ideas and beliefs can be tried face to face. Done in charity, it will bear fruit.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life
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