The internet, the Reformation, women teaching, and the priesthood of all believers (how a ‘democratised’ platform might keep us reforming)


Image: Behind the scenes of Christian Twitter

There’s a conversation going on in the Christian twittersphere right now about the challenges posed by the internet for a sort of traditional complementarian view that women should not teach or exercise authority over men. There’s a stream of complementarianism that would extend these words from Paul to Timothy far beyond the event of the gathered church (and streams within complementarianism that see this prohibition of ‘teaching and exercising authority’ as a very particular role within that gathering; it’s a broad church).

The firestarter was this piece from Tish Harrison Warren on Christianity Today ‘Who’s In Charge of The Christian Blogosphere’, there’ve been responses (apart from Twitter flame wars) from writers like Jonathan Merritt, Wendy Alsup, Hannah Anderson and Rachel Miller. These are all worth a read and a mull over (and I’m sure there are plenty more to read too). I’ve been sharing a few of these on Facebook, and I suspect some of the people joining in on the discussion have perceived my obtuse quoting and introductory comments like ‘Interesting…’ as endorsements; it’s not necessarily any one piece here that I endorse (though there’s much to appreciate in many of them, and I have learned from them (or been taught by them)), it’s the conversation itself I find fascinating because what is playing out here is a new reformation of sorts; the question will be what scope and size of change this reformation brings… it’s possible that the democratised landscape where there’s already lots more diversity simply means conversations like this are a flash in a pan, where once they might have overhauled the church as we know it…

There’s an irony here that each of these writers writes from the Protestant tradition and what’s at stake is how a new communication medium makes us rethink the role of authority and who is in the ‘priesthood’. In the year where we’re marking 500 years since Luther used the printing press and a stream of fellow pamphleteers to bring down the Catholic establishment; the challenge these writers are responding to, or conversing around, is one brought about by an even more frictionless and democratised communication platform. It might seem odd that it has taken so many years of the Internet for us to get here… except that it’s not odd, because what is happening here is another reformation of sorts; another challenging of the establishment ‘priesthood’ (at least as it operates, if not as it is conceived, within some streams of the ‘complementarian’ church).

There are legitimate criticisms directed at this conversation from those who aren’t stakeholders in it; it seems wrong that the controversy only really kicked off the way it did when a woman, contributing to Christianity Today’s campaign to #amplifywomen, wrote about some of the dangers (to the establishment/’orthodoxy’) presented by this new platform, why single out a blogging woman like American blogger Jen Hatmaker to raise concerns about teaching and authority outside ‘church structures’ when we haven’t kicked up the same stink about controversy-monger/outrage-peddler Matt Walsh (who, for what it’s worth, is Catholic, so there’s a sort of double irony if what he’s doing is acting like a child of the Reformation). It feels like an attack on the ‘theological left’ when we give the ‘theological right’ a free pass; and worse, an attack on a woman, when we give men a free pass.

It’s not a mistake to make this a gender issue though, and an issue prompted by women teaching with some sort of authority; at least if we view the conversation in the schema of the Reformation using its categories; because it really is a question of whose voices are priestly, who can speak as part of, or on behalf of, the church — and what happens when these speakers depart from orthodoxy? What would Luther have done to the next generation of Luthers who out-Luthered him? If you’re a keen enough student of Reformation history you’ll know that the fighting about Orthodoxy 2.0 didn’t stop after the schism from the Catholic Church, and that the seeds of what we’re dealing with now, in terms of a very diverse publishing industry for Christian readers (much more diverse than the duplication of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) kicked off with the Reformation.

It’s easy to scoff at this conversation (as some are in the habit of doing on social media) especially when people are trying to tease out what exactly a woman’s role could or should be in the church (if you’ve already decided to embrace a more egalitarian framework). But this is a question of the sort of practical order that prompted the Reformation, presented, in part, by a very similar technological advancement. The introduction of a ‘democratising’ piece of technology in the printing press meant lots more people could read lots more stuff lots more quickly… and social media/the blogosphere with its essentially frictionless and costless publishing is the printing press on steroids, and it could (and maybe should) have a similar seismic impact on the church. For good or for ill.

And that’s why this conversation is an important and interesting one.

It’s asking what responsibility in the face of almost unfettered access to a platform should look like (which we should be asking in an age of fake news, and Donald Trump anyway).

It’s asking what role the established institutional church, its traditions and its office bearers should play in determining what teaching is orthodox or Biblical (in content and mode); an irony faced whenever the anti-establishment movement becomes the establishment…

It’s asking in what sense we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what accountability in the life of the church looks like beyond those who take ordination vows or vows that submit themselves to church discipline within established structures (cause we’ve seen some pretty heinous forms of people setting up their own platforms apart from accountability (like a church in Seattle)).

It’s asking in what sense the Reformation really happened; do we really have a priesthood of all believers and what does that look like for women, and how do we have a priesthood of all believers with a 1 Corinthians 12 picture of church life and specific roles, and a sense that some of these roles might involve gender…

It’s we’re asking how the internet and the life of the universal church beyond a particular locality is like, or different, to a community that lives and gathers together as a particular expression of the body of Christ; and where authority fits in this picture.

It’s asking all these questions in the face of this new technological age which does inherently favour a particular theology and practice. The Internet is not neutral when it comes to these questions. A democratising platform operates in favour of egalitarian practices. Australian author Jane Caro made a pretty great case for this in an article back in January that is now paywalled; but I managed to quote this paragraph from her on Facebook at the time:

“As education and knowledge spread, Enlightenment followed theReformation, and then all the liberation movements that emerged thereafter, including the abolition of slavery, child labour, and increased rights for women. After all, if every man could have his own relationship with God, why not every woman? Why not every slave?

This democratisation of the word of God led inexorably to democracy itself; predicated on the idea that all men (even, perhaps, women) were created equal. Everyone ended up entitled to not just a relationship with God but with a vote and a say. One followed inevitably, I think, from the other. As those in power understand only too well, once a few difficult questions began to be asked, a great many more would follow.”

Whichever side you land on these questions there are lessons to be learned from the Reformation; even stepping aside from which side of the Reformation had a grasp of the truth there are lessons to learn here. You could be a Catholic complementarian, or a Protestant egalitarian, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two and history would be informative here. This isn’t just a conversation that matters for those facing the reformers with a new media strategy (and as a protestant in a Reformed denomination it shouldn’t surprise you which side I think had the better material to work with). There’s a pretty compelling case to be made that the Reformation ‘won’ where it won precisely because of its media strategy, and particularly because the media practices of the reformers lined up with their theology. You couldn’t really be a Catholic and employ the techniques the reformers employed if part of your theology was a belief that somehow the priesthood was set apart from the rest of the church not just in function, but by language, to play the game of engaging with the masses in the vernacular was to cede quite a bit to the reformers in a way that would’ve started to give some credence to their broader critique; while on the flipside, believing in a ‘priesthood of all believers’ meant there was less centralised control over the messaging of the Reformation, and anybody who had access to a printing press could, and should, use it to proclaim the theology of the Reformation; the Gospel.

The media practices of the Reformation were one of the driving forces behind my thesis (which looked at the media practices of the wisdom literature, Paul, Augustine, and Luther as historic case studies of communicators who had their practice shaped by their theology), I say this to acknowledge that this is an area I think is much more fascinating and fruitful than the average person on the internet… and to acknowledge that I may well be overthinking this present conversation; I’ve done lots of thinking and writing about this stuff… and lots of this thinking was prompted by an excellent Economist article How Luther Went Viral by Tom Standage, who would later write an excellent book on ‘democratised’ communication via Social Media called Writing On The Wall that’s worth a read if any of this interests you at all (here’s a TEDx talk with some of my thoughts, and a review of the book). In the Economist piece, Standage says:

“IT IS a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.”

This is, in many ways, a summary of the current discussion (and what has prompted it), but it is Standage describing the Reformation. Here’s his description of the mechanisms of the viral Reformation:

“The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.”

And here’s where his opponents, the Catholic establishment, failed:

“Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

Another key factor behind the success of the Reformation, according to Andrew Pettegree, a scholar Standage quotes (from a book called “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion”) was the sheer volume of work published and distributed, even though it was published against the weight of traditional institutional authority:

“It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.”

Standing in the practical tradition of the Reformers should mean looking at new technologies — especially ‘democratising’ technologies that level the playing field by giving all people a voice — as opportunities to share the Gospel. To embrace new technologies to share our theology is part of our DNA… and at some point sharing, writing about, and discussing the Gospel is going to feel a lot like teaching… which presents some real challenges to people whose theology and practice is to see teaching and authority in the church as the domain of men. We might talk about a priesthood of all believers; but in practice in most churches in our tradition, we’ve very much got a priestly model tied to the pulpit, eldership, and the male-dominated (or exclusively male) governance structures of our churches. This isn’t a new question. Complementarians have had to grapple with women who write books for many years, and often do make a distinction between what happens in corporate worship and what happens in the broader life of the church; this is a distinction often not recognised by people outside the big-R Reformed scene; some of us make much of ‘WORSHIP’ in the super-capitalised Lord’s Day sense (others of us are puzzled at where the idea that there’s a major difference in the life and practice of the church between the Sunday gathering and all other communal life as depicted in the New Testament actually comes from).

For the big-R Reformed complementarian types there’s a scary scenario where one might have to put themselves in the shoes of the Reformation era Catholics to figure out how they could’ve kept the farm in the face of a new media strategy and new orthodoxy, because the risk, if this group’s position is correct, is that it will be overwhelmed if the response isn’t nimble and imaginative, but also theologically coherent.

For those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition but are more inclined to be ‘reformational’ (always reforming) than historically reformed, there are some opportunities here to ask ourselves some pretty confronting questions about whether our media practices actually do line up with our professed theology; a priesthood of all believers; both men and women. And this is why I, personally, think this conversation is particularly important and worth following even if some of the articles linked above don’t really nail where I’m coming from or think we should be going…

Luther was sure his words were going to be held to account by God; and in some sense his speaking was an act of attempting to hold others to account to God’s word, but also to traditions he believed the church had walked away from. We can’t simply dismiss the voices of our forbears as though we moderns are more enlightened or our pressing questions more pressing… In purely effective terms, Luther is almost without peer as a communicator and an example of someone who grasped hold of a new technology to great effect. He’s also, for all his faults, a great model of harnessing the power of new mediums to promote theological reforms he believed were necessary, and grappling with the questions of institutional authority that follow… these words from the Diet of Worms (where he may or may not have said ‘here I stand, I can do none else’) are a reasonable starting point, and perhaps ending point, in this conversation for all of us:

“I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience.”

What that looks like… well. Let’s keep talking, and listening.

 

You are what you share…

This little ad for an app (State) is titled “you are what you share” – in the world of social media this is true. To an extent. Read some gear on Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall (or this one) to see how this has been sort of true historically too.

This, I think, has massive implications for how we approach Facebook as Christians. It’s important that people see that Jesus defines who we are, but it’s also important for us to be authentic and share stuff beyond the same boring thing over and over again. Sometimes, for Christians, Jesusbooking makes us seem like one dimensional people. And one dimensional people fall off people’s newsfeeds as fast as toilet selfies.

Facebook is messing with your head: What to think about that

This is part 2 of a 5 part series on how the media you consume – in this case, Facebook – changes and rewires your brain, and what the implications are for people using Facebook, especially Christians. In the first post I looked at how your brain is rewired by the Internet in general, social media in particular, and Facebook specifically.

In this post I’ll consider what we should think about the idea that we’ve essentially rewired our heads to incorporate social media into the way we think and operate. I’ll continue to explore these questions in terms of media ecology, neuroscience, and Christian theology.

This post will look at how one might approach the truth that Facebook changes your brain from a media ecology and neuroscientific standpoint – should we be scared? Or is this just the circle of life? A description of the inevitable implications of the intricacies of life within our tech-fuelled environment? How much should we listen to the pessimists and their doomsaying?

facebook brain

The Media Ecology Framework

Every new technology brings change – and it brings the same cultural doomsday prophets with the same cultural doomsday predictions. Change happens (also XKCD). It happens through the tools we create, and as a result of the tools we create. Some of the change is good. New communication mediums make communicating more efficient, they broaden our reach, they provide new platforms for relationships with other people.

Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows featured pretty heavily in post one, is pretty pessimistic about the impact of technology – he also famously asked “Is Google making us stupid?” – and he tends to look back, somewhat romantically, at the way things were.

“Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. – Nicholas Carr, Is Google making us stupid?

Carr isn’t saying anything new here. In fact, he’s (with Wolf) essentially saying exactly what Plato said/wrote when writing was invented, he was “quoting” Socrates in Phaedrus

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Carr is right to sound the warning about the power of the internet – because most of us want to be in control of how our brains are being changed – otherwise we’re being coerced, manipulated, and captivated by the tools we use. But his pessimism is the same pessimism that has been expressed at every point in history. There’s nothing really to worry about in terms of the changes media theory wise – technology develops. It just does. These developments bring social and societal change. Some of these changes are good, some are bad.

The founder of Media Ecology, Marshall McLuhan has some pretty nifty stuff to say about technological changes in his Tetrad of Media Effects, it’s famous enough to have its own wikipedia entry, and you can read about it there – but his basic thesis is that new mediums, when introduced to the communication landscape – or ecology – effect the ecology, the balance of things. So the printing press changed the world by making the written word more accessible, cheaper to produce, and very linear in appearance (lines on the page) and logic. This changed the way people thought, and made communication more accurate and precise. McLuhan also wanted to make sure we didn’t just see communication mediums and technologies as neutrals – he wasn’t a big fan of Augustine’s wrong use/right use dichotomy that believed created things are simply inert – he recognised that things we create are created as part of cultures, with myths and uses – while they could potentially be extracted from those myths and used for something else, McLuhan said:

“Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”

A Short Excursus on Augustine

People who’ve been reading for a while will know I’m a fan of the Augustinian maxims “Wrong use does not negate right use,” and that all gold is created by God and should be “plundered from Egypt and used for presenting the Gospel.” Augustine was talking specifically about a communication medium – oratory – when he wrote this.

I don’t think McLuhan’s position contradicts this. McLuhan isn’t talking about “gold” – neutral created stuff. He’s talking about the stuff we’ve made out of gold – so, for example, Israel should have known that taking the gold of Egypt, and building idols just like Egypt had, out of that gold, was a bad idea. They could possibly have used a golden calf, carefully, by putting it in a golden zoo in the palace or something.

This is a pretty outlandish hypothetical – Israel had real trouble distinguishing between right and wrong use, there’s an example with their use of  the bronze snake they make in the desert in Numbers 21. They’re being bitten by snakes as a judgment against their stupidity, when:

“The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”

By 2 Kings 18 the snake has become an object of worship… that Hezekiah has to smash.

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”

Anyway. Excursus over. Back to the media ecology thing… there are two ways to think of the changes brought about by technology – instrumentalism, and determinism.

Determinists believe this change is inevitable, that the changes wrought by new technologies are unavoidable, and people are destined to become part of “the machine,” while instrumentalists believe mediums are simply instruments that are employed by people for their own ends. Then there are optimistic determinists and pessimistic determinists.

McLuhan is a determinist – but he, on good days, was pretty optimistic about where things were heading because he had an interesting view of the end of the world informed by an interesting Catholic theological framework. I’m more at the instrumentalist end of the spectrum – but I think you can only be an instrumentalist if you are aware of the changes wrought by new mediums. And most people aren’t.

Technology changes the environment it is introduced to, and changes the people who use it. Some people will like the change, others won’t. Some people will find a medium. Some people will be passive passengers in the process of change – some people will be agents of the change, fully aware of what they are doing. You don’t want to be the passive passenger, or you end up like this.

Image: The Matrix, a battery farm of humans. Basically. You need to decide between the red pill and the blue pill. Freedom to rage against the machine – or slavery. It’s not actually that extreme. Unless you want to be Amish. New tools usually replace old tools for a reason – they do jobs better, or jobs we couldn’t previously imagine doing. You’d be an idiot to insist on using a handsaw to cut down a massive tree once the chainsaw has been invented – but you’d also be an idiot to test how sharp a chainsaw is, with your hand, while it’s running. What we need to remember about the Internet is that it presents an incredible opportunity for people with something to communicate.

“The Internet is proving to be one of the most powerful amplifiers of speech ever invented. It offers a global megaphone for voices that might otherwise be heard only feebly, if at all. It invites and facilitates multiple points of view and dialogue in ways unimplementable by the traditional, one-way, mass media… “ “After a one-hundred-and- fifty-year hiatus during which the person-to-person aspect of media was overshadowed by centralized mass media operating on a broadcast model, the pendulum has swung back. Social forms of media based on sharing, copying, and personal recommendation, which prevailed for centuries, have been dramatically reborn, supercharged by the Internet.” – Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall, 2,000 Years of Social Media

From a media ecology sense – change is inevitable. What effect the change has on you is up to you. Forewarned is forearmed.

The Neuroscience Framework

This conclusion is, in part, supported by neuroscience. One of the big ‘tools’ in neuroscience, in terms of shaping your brain, is a thing called “mindfulness” – it basically boils down to being intentional in how you think as much as in terms of what you think about. Just knowing, and adopting or resisting the changes a medium brings is enough to avoid being trapped into mind-altering conformity.

This sort of thinking isn’t new – and while I’m not anywhere near qualified to speak about neuroscience and the efficacy of neuroplasticity in terms of actual medical care for mental health issues – and I’m not trying to do that at all – this quote from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (Book 3) is interestingly prescient.

“But surely we must admit that the mind is capable of healing itself. After all, it was the mind that invented the science of medicine for the body. And while bodily healings are largely dependent on the nature of the bodies themselves, so that not all those who submit to treatment show any immediate improvement, of the mind there can be no doubt: once it is willing to be healed, and heeds the precepts of the wise, it does indeed find healing. A medical science for the mind does exist: it is philosophy. And unlike medicine for the body, the help of philosophy is something we need not look to others to gain. Instead, we should make every possible effort to become capable physicians for ourselves.”

There are actually some neuroscientifically derived practical steps that we’ll look at in a future post – but most neuroscientists see the way our brains adapt according to the use of our technology as part of the ongoing process of evolution. Carr, for example, says:

“When a carpenter picks up a hammer, the hammer becomes, so far as his brain is concerned, part of his hand. When a soldier raises a pair of binoculars to his face, his brain sees through a new set of eyes, adapting instantaneously to a very different field of view… Our brains can imagine the mechanics and the benefits of using a new device before that device even exists… The evolution of our extraordinary mental capacity to blur the boundary between the internal and the external, the body and the instrument, was, says University of Oregon neuroscientist Scott Frey,“no doubt a fundamental step in the development of technology.”… The tight bonds we form with our tools go both ways. Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies.” 

The mental functions that are losing the “survival of the busiest” brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought—the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experiences or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon. The winners are those functions that help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information in a variety of forms.”…The brain of a person raised in the age of print, a person who learned from books and who read books in time of leisure or study, has a brain that is markedly different from a person who has learned primarily from images or who has watched videos in times of leisure or study… technology changes our biology, reshaping our brains, we become the product of our technologies in some deep and profound ways.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

This isn’t really neuroscience – but the concept of “synchronicity” or “spontaneous order” – which relates to the “hive mind” (see the first post in this series), is pretty interesting.

“Steven Strogatz, an expert in applied mathematics, uses to illustrate his theory of spontaneous order. In spontaneous order, Strogatz explained to an elite audience of entrepreneurs in 2004, live organisms and even inanimate objects fall into sync with one another in ways that seem unnatural and inexplicable… Steven Strogatz summarized his case for the prevalence of synchronicity at every level of nature, with examples from the subatomic to the farthest reaches of the universe. He pointed out more obvious examples like fish that move in schools and birds that travel in flocks. He tied in our human experience, as well. “We [humans] actually take pleasure in synchronicity,” said Strogatz. “We sing together. We dance together.” In fact, while he conceded the law of entropy that proves objects both animate and inanimate typically move toward disorder, he also claimed that the tendency toward the harmonization of objects might be an even more certain reality. “Sync,” Strogatz says, “might be the most pervasive force in nature.” – Jesse Rice, The Church of Facebook

Throw the research that shows our heart beats sync when we sing together into the mix and there’s a pretty interesting picture of what happens when humans gather together with the same mind. Neuroscientists, like media ecologists, will either be positive about these changes seeing them as the next step in our evolution (towards becoming Wolverine), or be against them because they think that process should be ‘natural.’

In biomedicalized societies, the concept of brain plasticity has generated much excitement giving rise to a new style of thought, connected to a booming industry of brain-based self-improvement or “neuroascesis,” particularly since the late 1990s. The idea that the brain has the capacity to modify itself through experience-dependent processes has pushed neuroscience towards a less deterministic and more interactional discourse. Aside from genetic programming, neuroplasticity is after all dependent on environmental inputs, and, as popularized accounts emphasize, the enrichment of a given environment can bring about reorganization and genesis of neurons. In adulthood, plasticity has been celebrated as the means through which recovery can occur after trauma and injury, and the mechanism through which new skills can continue to be learned throughout life. In contrast to the notion of the brain as a fixed organ, which determines certain behaviours or dispositions of a person, the plastic self is alterable, continually evolving and able to steer its own course into an open future by working on its material substrate, the metamorphosing brain. This plastic reason has radically recast visions of the brain giving it a sense of historicity, individuality, and situatedness, and assigning it the ability to respond to psychological experience as well as to generate it. In fact, it has become an ethical imperative to deploy one’s brain in ways that preserve its openness in order to maintain psychological health. In this imperative, adult neuroplasticity articulates with individualizing formations of risk and responsibility. Plasticity in the adult brain is thus seen for the most part as a positive thing—a process that should be harnessed in order to learn, change or recover, and sustained in order to prevent mental illness and the negative effects of ageing… 
“Plasticity in the case of adolescence is often framed differently—certainly in the debate about the effects of digital media. The adolescent brain, programmed to be in a much more pronounced state of synaptic plasticity compared to the adult brain, is rendered vulnerable and risky by virtue of its plasticity… Further, the stakes and consequences of neuroplasticity for adolescents are interpreted differently than for adults, for whom opportunities for neural change entail responsibility and provide hope primarily as individualizing practices. However, while the actual locus of change rests within the brain of the individual adolescent, the risks or consequences of these changes are imagined to occur at a much broader level. The stakes are indeed quite high as changes in individual brains are seen to have the potential to collectively shape the future of society.” – Choudhury & McKinney, Digital media, the developing brain and the interpretive plasticity of neuroplasticity 

Because the changes wrought in your brain by these technologies are dependent on you using them actively, rather than passively – you are in control. The changes are what they are – some of them are positive, some are negative, some are only negative if you want to live in the world of yesteryear. I’d say the inability to think reflectively or deeply and the rewiring that turns people into bigger narcissists (which can only be the result of people seeking likes for their selfies) are mostly negative changes. Carr is worried about the effect the emerging shared digital consciousness is having on our brains – which are wired to seek that sort of connection, but maybe not in this way…

There’s another, even deeper reason why our nervous systems are so quick to “merge” with our computers. Evolution has imbued our brains with a powerful social instinct, which, as Jason Mitchell, the head of Harvard’s Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, says, entails “a set of processes for inferring what those around us are thinking and feeling.” Recent neuroimaging studies indicate that three highly active brain regions—one in the prefrontal cortex, one in the parietal cortex, and one at the intersection of the parietal and temporal cortices—are “specifically dedicated to the task of understanding the goings-on of other people’s minds.” While this cybernetic blurring of mind and machine may allow us to carry out certain cognitive tasks far more efficiently, it poses a threat to our integrity as human beings. Even as the larger system into which our minds so readily meld is lending us its powers, it is also imposing on us its limitations – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

But our brain being wired to be more social, or more connected to others – that’s probably a good thing. There are obvious caveats here based on how much you’re in control of the rewiring – and how much it’s on your terms, not the medium’s – but that’s a media ecology issue, not a neuroscience issue.

When we go online, we, too, are following scripts written by others—algorithmic instructions that few of us would be able to understand even if the hidden codes were revealed to us. When we search for information through Google or other search engines, we’re following a script. When we look at a product recommended to us by Amazon or Netflix, we’re following a script. When we choose from a list of categories to describe ourselves or our relationships on Face-book, we’re following a script. These scripts can be ingenious and extraordinarily useful, as they were in the Taylorist factories, but they also mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment. As the computer programmer Thomas Lord has argued, software can end up turning the most intimate and personal of human activities into mindless “rituals” whose steps are “encoded in the logic of web pages” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

It’s this conversion of our personalities and activities into binary bits and bytes that has Tim Challies worried about the effect of the Digital world.

“Time may well show that one of the digital world’s greatest effects on human beings has been to depersonalize us, to tear away our humanity in favor of 1’s and 0’s—to make us little more than their data. And increasingly we relate to one another as if we are not real people, not people with thoughts and feelings and emotions but people who are barely people at all. We relate to one another as if we are all computers, as if we are merely digital.” – Tim Challies, The Next Story

Once again, forewarned is forearmed. If you know the change is possible you can either prevent it – by avoiding technologies, or steer it, by using them deliberately and as part of a bigger mix of brain stimuli. In the next post we’ll tackle the question of our changing brain theologically.

Writing about talking about reading Writing On The Wall: a meta-review

If you’d asked me two months ago who I’d have around for dinner in one of those fantasy dinner guest arrangements, I’d have said, listed chronologically:

  • Solomon
  • Cicero
  • Jesus
  • Paul
  • Augustine
  • Luther
  • Marshall McLuhan

While I reckon that’d be a pretty interesting group of guests, I realise it isn’t the sort of group that appeals to everybody. They appeal to me because they are people, communicators in fact, who loomed large in my Masters project. Which was a look at how communication mediums and technology have been harnessed by Christians (and their Jewish predecessors) to communicate to people about God. You can read my project here to see where I went – it informs my excitement about this new book.

After this week, I think I’d squeeze in an extra dinner guest. Tom Standage. Eight is a better number for dinner anyway.

I’d invite him as much for his sake as for mine – because having read his new book Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, I suspect his list of dinner guests would be pretty similar to mine. But I also reckon he’s a pretty fascinating thinker – his other books include telling the story of world history through food and drink, and he’s an editor at The Economist. And we all know journalists make the best dinner guests…

A little preamble to explain my excitement about this book

You might have caught this post last week, featuring a presentation Tom Standage made at a TEDx about Cicero and social media, where I talked about how Paul was a pretty efficient user of social media too.

Cicero is a pretty fascinating guy – and, for what it’s worth, in my project I argue that he was pretty influential, directly, on how Paul approached communication, especially oratory, as a Christian. I think his letters to the Corinthian church – a city enamoured with sophistic oratory (all flash, no substance) draw from Cicero’s writings about oratory to critique the Corinthian’s buying into Sophistic standards by suggesting that Jesus was the ideal orator who should be imitated. There’s another link between Paul and Cicero – the city of Tarsus. The capital of Cilicia.

Very few people have bothered to make any connection between Paul and Cicero – because most modern Biblical scholars assume that Paul was an idiot. Because he calls himself one (quite literally – it’s the Greek word he uses in 2 Corinthians 11:6). But there are incredible overlaps in the terminology they use, in their critique of other forms of oratory, their emphasis and use of ethos and character in persuasion, and in the position they implicitly or explicitly adopt towards the Roman Empire. There’s a huge similarity in their communication praxis. And one thing modern Biblical scholars fail to explain is how Paul, if he’s an idiot, managed to be one of the most effective communicators of all time…

So it was exciting to me that Writing on the Wall opened with…

In July 51 B.C. the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now southeast Turkey, to take up the post of proconsul, or regional governor.

He gets to Paul, he talks about Luther (in fact, it was an article he wrote about Luther’s use of pamphlets in the Reformation, that forms part of this book, that inspired a significant part of my project). The book offers a fascinating approach to the use of media through history by different groups or in support of different causes – it is massively useful for people who want to think about how they might participate in spreading any sort of message (ie Christianity), and it’s an interesting look at how the world works. I’m not just saying this because it meshes, pretty substantially, with what I already thought… Standage is a pretty compelling storyteller, and has weaved some incredible threads through history together into a rich picture of the way media works – and the way people work with media. There’s lots to learn, and a fair bit to digest. I like to highlight interesting passages as I read on my kindle, and I refer back to my highlighted passages more than the book itself – this book was more highlight than text when I finished.

I mentioned Marshall McLuhan as one of my dinner guests – he’s a guy a lot of media studies people now hold up as some sort of oracle, because he, somewhat like a horoscope (in that he was so general he couldn’t fail) – predicted the Internet and social media (the “Global Village”) before its time. I like McLuhan mostly because he makes some nice quasi-theological (or actually theological at times) observations about the impact of media on its users, and the importance of harnessing new, complementary, mediums for advancing a message.

He said, at one point:

“Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.”

The empires that survive or thrive, through history – are those that figure out how to use these mediums. This is powerfully demonstrated in Writing On The Wall – not just at the “empire” level, but at the level of communicating ideas. McLuhan drew largely on a book called Communication and Empire by Harold Innis, which is a profoundly interesting companion to Writing on the Wall (and is available in full from Project Gutenberg).

Standage’s treatment of social media throughout the ages features Cicero, Paul and early Christianity, seditious and salacious poetry in the British court, the independence movement in the United States, the importance of coffee houses in the developing, fermenting, and sharing of ideas, and the rise of pamphlets, journals and newspapers, then the Internet – it tracks the fascinating movement from media being the voice of the people, to people being the commodity sold by centralised media, to advertisers. It’s profoundly useful, and very interesting.

You should read it.

Reading as conversation: what really excited me about reading this book

But what really excited me about reading this book – was the way social media augmented the reading process. There’s quite a bit of stuff written out there about how social media is changing the way we read and experience texts. An example would be Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Which spends a significant amount of time quoting McLuhan.

And it’s true. Often these are quite pessimistic – they tend to lament the halcyon days of long attention spans, and being cloistered somewhere with a hard copy book. Interestingly – Standage shows in Writing On The Wall that the introduction of every new medium sees the same old criticisms rehashed (and this idea isn’t all that new – there’s even an XKCD comic about this, and I wrote about it somewhere)…

Enthusiasm for coffee houses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented, like critics of social media today, that coffee houses were distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful. – Writing On The Wall

I think most of us are a little bit inconsistent in our thinking here – and we’re happy to be inconsistent. Even early adopters. A nice example of this can be found in two essays by Nicholson Baker, published in the same book of essays – The Way the World Works: Essays – a significant number of essays in this book (also a great read) are devoted to Baker’s attempts to conserve physical media – particularly Newspapers, but also old library books, one essay is about how to read a book. A tactile book. And yet, he also writes and essay celebrating Wikipedia, talking about his addiction to editing and contributing to the online encyclopedia. He’s probably the champion of preserving physical media – he may be the closest thing to a literary luddite – and yet, he writes a celebration of the site that killed the printed Encyclopedia. He also writes a celebration of reading on the iPhone (while writing off the original Kindle).

Anyway. McLuhan, and Carr are right. New mediums change the way we experience texts, and life. And I think this is exciting (which puts me firmly in the optimist camp when it comes to this debate). Baker is right – new mediums owe a profound debt, that we shouldn’t forget, to old mediums. But Standage has something more to add – the more things change, the more they stay the same – experiencing texts has almost always been a social activity. When the social element is removed from the communication equation – namely, when participants become the product, not the audience – something is missing in how media is being produced. This missing “social” aspect is something essential to communication. Why write something down if it’s not to be transmitted to, and experienced by somebody else? An audience. Communication is inherently social. Social media is, at this point, simply helping a text reaching its natural end. Faster. With great efficiency.

So texts should be being produced to be shared and discussed. And social media – as we currently know it – survives and thrives when this happens.

So, because I was already excited about the book’s material, and had already put a fair amount of thought into the subject matter, I thought why not read this book as though it’s a conversation with Tom Standage. And why not make it one. He’s on Twitter. I’m on Twitter.

He’d even already responded to a couple of things I’d tweeted him while anticipating Writing On The Wall’s release.

I read Writing On The Wall as an ebook, on my iPad, in the Kindle app. And as I read, when I found things that excited me, or had questions, I tweeted @tomstandage. He seems like the kind of guy you’d want at a dinner party. So he tweeted back.

And this is what excited me most about reading Writing On The Wall. It’s what excites me about social media being a tool that breaks down distance, and allows people who share interests to discuss things from opposite points on the globe. Sure – you’ve always been able, in a round about way, to write to an author. To send fan mail. To ask questions. To publish in response – but never like we’ve been able to now.

This exercise, where I’m publishing a review of a book on my blog, this is the continuation of a book promotion strategy that began in ancient Rome – but the ease with which this will be shared by people who are interested, and the link this contains to a place where you can buy the ebook, and start reading it right now. That’s amazing. Time and space have truly collapsed.

The distance between author and reader has collapsed. I started tweeting Tom about this book the day it was released. The day I started reading it. I tweeted him as I read it. Day after day. We chased tangents. Shared our passion for Cicero. And the content of the book – while excellent when contained in the book – came alive a little more as I asked questions, and received answers. I was even able to share a quote from Luther, one of his letters, that given the response, seemed new to Tom. I’ve even just started calling him “Tom” in this paragraph – such is the added familiarity or breakdown in formality this experience created. I’m not reviewing this book as someone with an academic interest in the book – though I have that (and the extensive bibliography at the end of the book was pretty exciting to me). I’m reviewing it as a guy who feels like he spent the week talking to another person. The author. And that is something. Something different. Something exciting. For me it demonstrated the substantial premise of the book better than the content itself – we people are wired to be social, and the networks we create or in which we function as nodes, and the ‘media’ that brings such nodes together work best when medium, message, and participants come together in harmony (where medium and message are in sync) and without impediment.

Talking about reading Writing On The Wall

I’ll understand if you’re already over this post – but before you check out, I do want to thank Tom for talking to me (via Twitter). He seems like a really nice guy. And Tom – if you’re reading – feel free to take me up on the dinner offer. The other guys are dead though (except for Jesus, but he’s elsewhere). So I think it’ll just be you and me.

So here are some highlights from our conversation. Starting when I read a post on his blog about Cicero… Before I started reading the book – because social media, in this case, actually extended the experiencing of the book beyond the actual reading of the book. Which again, serves to demonstrate the principle in question – and is another nice parallel to Cicero’s approach to promoting books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is when I wrote the post about Paul as a social media pioneer – ignorant of what was in Writing On The Wall about Paul…

 

 

And here’s where I actually started reading the book.

 

 

 

 

Here’s where I asked Tom a question about something not in the book, which I reckon is a nice piece of support for his argument (and where my project had gone a little more – the use of imagery to complement text/spoken stuff by providing visual representations of “ethos”)…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We talked a little bit about Machiavelli, Cicero’s brother’s guide to winning elections, and Marhsall McLuhan (he’s less of a fan than I am) – but I’m trying not to post everything. As you can see, he was quite generous with his time, and patient with a young punk from Australia lobbing him just about everything that sprang to mind while reading his book…

 

 

 

 

And this is where it gets more meta. Because I was tweeting him as I wrote this review…

The commonplace book features in Writing On The Wall…

 

 

There’s lots to love about Writing On The Wall, and every criticism I had, or that I anticipated making, as I read was tied up as a loose end or answered by the bibliography. There were times that I wanted to dig deeper or find out a source – these times are more than adequately addressed by the end of the book. And if you’ve got more questions, you can always do what I did – and ask the author. Because that’s a social reading experience – and medium and message wouldn’t add up like they do in this case if @tomstandage was an anti-social type.

Cicero and the Apostle Paul as social media pioneers

Tom Standage’s piece “How Luther Went Viral” from The Economist is one of the most important things I’ve read during my time at Queensland Theological College. It became a significant part of the thinking behind my Masters thesis. It was published a while back – but it was a foretaste of Standage’s forthcoming book about ancient social media – Writing on the Wall. Which I’m very much looking forward to reading.

Here’s 16 minutes on ancient social media from Tom Standage that is worth your time.

He defines social media – in order to avoid anachronistically reading web 2.0 platforms back into the past as:

Media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community.

He says the elements required for “social media” to flourish are:

  1. Literacy.
  2. Low cost of transmission.

He looks at Cicero, and he looks at Luther – two of the people I deal with in my project – but I think he misses the missing link between these two.

The Apostle Paul.

(note: other than the fact that there’s a direct link, because Luther was a big fan of Cicero – as, incidentally, was Augustine, he’s pretty popular with Christians who are serious about communication).

I think the Apostle Paul was also a practitioner of ancient social media.

UPDATE: Tom Standage tweeted me to let me know Paul is in his book… Which is another compelling reason to pre-order it.

There’s an article doing the rounds about Jesus being the original tweeter too – but I don’t think he had a monopoly on pithy statements of wisdom. Moses, Solomon, and plenty of people outside the Judeo-Christian tradition were speaking in soundbites before Jesus.

Anyway.

Standage provides a bit of a teaser for his book in a post on his blog that describes Cicero’s approach to promoting his books (this gets a mention in the video), where he suggests Cicero was a social media practitioner in the context of the Roman publishing industry.

He describes the reliance on social networks for books to be circulated, and printed… which I’ll suggest is interesting when one considers the form/genre the New Testament takes. Coming, as it does, in easily (and widely) copied written volumes, about 100 years after Cicero…

Here’s an interesting insight into the purpose of publishing in Rome.

The sign of a successful book was that booksellers would have copies of it made for sale to the public — something they would only do if they were sure people would buy them. Roman authors, then, wanted their books to be as widely copied by as many people as possible, and ideally wanted copies to end up being put on sale, even though the author himself would not benefit financially. Instead, Roman authors benefited from their books in other ways: they were a way to achieve fame, highlight or strengthen the author’s social connection with an influential patron, get a better job, and generally advance in Roman society. Roman publishing was all about social networking, and Roman books were a form of social media.

If the success of an ancient document is assessed based on the volume of copies of manuscripts circulating and the spread, and longevity of the social networking spreading them – then the New Testament texts, and the Christian community are incredible examples.

While I believe that this is divinely orchestrated, the “natural” explanation of this success – because I think God works through natural, human causes, by equipping people for tasks – is equally fascinating. I’d suggest that the Apostle Paul was every bit as effective when it came to social media as Cicero, and that the relatively egalitarian social structure of the early church and non-reliance on famous and educated patrons for works to spread removed some of the inhibiting factors at play in the late Roman Republic, such that the New Testament spread further, and faster, than Cicero’s works.

I’ve tried to make the case for a link between Paul and Cicero for a while – here, I’m just going to compare them…

Cicero: Communicator par excellence

Here’s a cool quote from Cicero, who Standage suggests is the father of social media, from the video above:

“You say my letter has been widely published: well, I don’t care. Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it.”

Sharing and circulating has always been at the heart of social media – it’s not something Facebook discovered.

Here’s Standage’s justification for that suggestion (from the blog post linked above):

To modern eyes this all seems strangely familiar. Cicero was, to use today’s internet jargon, a participant in a “social media” system: that is, an environment in which people can publish, discuss, recommend and share items of interest within a group of friends and associates, passing noteworthy items from one social circle to another. The Romans did it with papyrus rolls and messengers; today hundreds of millions of people do the same things rather more quickly and easily using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other internet tools. The technologies involved are very different, but these two forms of social media, separated by two millennia, share many of the same underlying structures and dynamics: they are two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social connections, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source. This exchange of information allows discussion and debate to take place within a distributed community whose members may never meet each other in person.

The two-way thing is particularly interesting to me – there’s a guy, James Grunig, who’s the doyen of modern, ethical, public relations theory. His big thesis is that rather than being a one way information distribution thing, or an attempt to persuade or manipulate, public relations and communication should be “two-way,” and rather than being two way where the communicator adopts a posture of power and authority – it should be “symmetrical” – a genuine conversation, where your partner is treated as equal.

Cicero wasn’t just an orator par excellence, or a social media user par excellence – he was a public relations strategist par excellence – except he lost. And was executed by his opponents. But he was only executed because he was noticed, heard, and understood – he just happened to be speaking against the move from Republic to Empire.

Here’s a bit more from Standage…

“By the end of the first century BC a more formal way to announce and promote a new book, called the recitatio, had established itself. This was a launch party at which a book (or excerpts from it) were read to an invited audience, either by the author or by a skilled slave known as a lector. Once the reading was over, a presentation copy of the book would be given to the dedicatee, and other less fancy copies would be made available to the author’s friends and associates. The work was then considered to have been published, in the sense that it had been formally released by its author for reading, copying and circulation. At that point the book was on its own and would either spread — or not, depending on whether the author had succeeded in generating sufficient buzz.”

James Grunig, incidentally, had this to say about social media and symmetrical communication in a Q&A on a PR blog, before Facebook became the global behemoth it now is, back in 2008…

I believe the new media are perfect for practicing the two-way symmetrical model. I think it would be difficult to practice any of the other models effectively with the new media. Unfortunately, I’m afraid a lot of public relations practitioners try to practice these other models with cyber media.

Historically, whenever a new medium is invented people use it in the same way that they used the existing media. So, for example, when television was invented journalists tended to use it like radio by simply televising someone reading the news rather than using pictures.

With today’s new cyber media, public relations practitioners first used it like they used publications—as a means of dumping information on the public (following either the press agentry or public information model). With the advent of Web 2.0, however, practitioners seem to be adopting a dialogical model by listening to publics, discussing problems and issues with them, and interpreting their organization’s actions and behaviours to publics.

Effective communication through “social media” isn’t about dumping information on people and running away. Not now – and not for Cicero.

Effective communication through “social media” has, since Cicero, been about getting the conversation happening to spread your message further, growing its influence.

For Cicero, this meant propagating the values of the Republic through his books. His version of the Republic. His virtues. His understanding of the ideal Roman, the ideal orator, the ideal statesman, the ideal state… which are (largely) the focus of his publications.

Cicero’s books – and I’ve read quite a few of them – are packed with ideas. They were a sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, rear guard defence of Republican values. They were pointed social commentary, offering a strong alternative vision for the shape of Rome.

And while I’m a big fan of Cicero, and a big fan of a lot of his principles in the face of the Empire – his integrity, the value he places on democracy and his semi-egalitarian desire to see people rise on merit, not limited by birth, his championing of oratorical substance over style (though style was pretty important), even his faux-stoic Roman virtues – one often feels that his writing functions to underline his fundamental thesis – Rome and Roman society should revolve around people exactly like him…

That’s between the lines of all his treaties on the ideal orator – where he never names himself as the ideal, but always hints at it, while encouraging people to find worthy orators to imitate. In many ways I’d like to be like Cicero, especially in how I communicate.

But, in many ways, I’d rather be like Paul. Who I think takes Cicero’s approach to new heights.

Now. Lets compare the pair.

Paul: A more excellent Communicator

Brand Jesus has lasted almost 2,000 years. The message has circulated, and been propagated with a pretty incredible degree of accuracy since it was first written down – and a huge part of the message was written by Paul. Even if you’re a “minimalist” type who doesn’t think Paul wrote some of the stuff attributed to him. These arguments usually rely on assuming Paul was incapable of employing more than one written style, or voice, an objection that is baseless if he is actually a trained communicator.

In any case, the popular criticism that Christianity was invented by Paul contains a kernel of truth. If not for Paul, then Christianity wouldn’t have circulated the way it did, reaching the heights of influence it has, lasting the length of time it has. Paul is, by any modern measure, a master communicator.

While there’s heaps of New Testament scholarship out there that writes off Paul’s rhetorical or oratorical abilities on the basis of one self-deprecating verse about his speaking in 2 Corinthians (which I think can be nicely explained as part of a connection with Cicero), when it comes to communication excellence Paul the publisher is closely related to Paul the speaker. This is equally true for Cicero. His speeches and books work together to present his message – they feed into one another. This relationship is tightened, and formalised, when one considers volumes that contain speeches by each communicator – for Cicero, there are plenty of extant copies of his speeches, for Paul, there’s Luke’s description of his modus operandi, and summarised content, in the Book of Acts.

I think Acts indicates that Paul gets “social”… here are a couple of quick examples… when establishing an audience for his message, Paul always heads to places where discussion is happening, like in Athens (Acts 17). Where he starts in the marketplace, where Luke says:

“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”

That’s where you go to start a conversation. If you get the social media thing.

His longer term strategy – in places he stays for a while – is to converse in the same location, presumably with the same audience. So when he hits Ephesus (Acts 19)…

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of TyrannusThis went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”

That’s a lot of people. It’s a pretty big network of relationships.

He also writes to the church in this town – an epistle – Ephesians – that most scholars believe was to be read out to the church, but also to be duplicated, kept in the community, and circulated further afield. The evidence – manuscript evidence, and historical evidence, suggests this happened.

He maintains this network of relationships – with a bit of a driveby catch up with the Ephesian elders as he bypasses Ephesus on his way back to Jerusalem (Acts 20).

His words in that meeting are interesting because they support the view that Paul was a “social media” practitioner, who used relationships to drive the circulation of his message such that Luke says the whole town and region heard it.

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

Paul’s approach is all about authentic relationships. And conversation.

You could mount an interesting comparison between Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and any of Cicero’s works on virtues, or being a citizen. Citizenship of God’s kingdom is pretty high on his agenda – but Paul, in Ephesians, also intentionally democratises the spread of his message. That’s where it lands.

All the Ephesians, not just Paul, have a role to play in spreading this message. Owning it. Not just endorsing it.

Which is a particularly cutting edge use of social media – Cicero might have relied on endorsements and patronage – but Paul deliberately encourages every person in his network to transmit their own version of his message, through their words and lives.

Here are some bits from the letter to the Ephesians, chapters 4 and 5, that reveal, I think, part of this strategy… First, in terms of developing social networks that last…

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Second, encouraging this network to participate in communicating – in part through ethos (another thing Paul and Cicero have in common) – the message of Jesus in a multimedia way… he keeps referring to sensory inputs beyond hearing speech, and reading that communicate something… and again, he encourages people to participate in the process.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God

… Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He expands on the communication side of things a bit more in his letters to the Corinthians, which I think are more deliberately focused on questions of communication (amongst other issues)… But finally, the way he closes the letter (Ephesians 6) reveals two things – his understanding of his message, and his role as messenger, and the importance he places on an ongoing friendship and partnership in this expanding network…

Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you.

The repetition in that last part is emphatic. The strength of Paul’s social media model depends on feeling connected, socially. This has a spiritual aspect for Christians, but in sociological terms it proved quite effective as a communication tool, and still proves to be the case today.

We’ve seen that just this week – with the shocking and horrific bombing of a church in Pakistan, churches from across the globe – including in Australia – are communicating with those on the ground in Pakistan with a spirit of brotherhood, in a giant social network. This time with the modern convenience of social media.

I think Paul’s fairly consistent references to his fellow workers, and to people he has close relationships with in the towns receiving his letters is further evidence that they function, much the same way as Cicero’s books. These are indicative of some of the relationships Paul must have relied upon to spread his books. Priscilla and Aquila would be a great example – geographically mobile, they pop up in Corinth and Rome, they could well have been responsible for taking copies of Paul’s letters from church to church, and they would’ve had access to new letters Paul was writing in the times they were together with him… Even though both men ended up dying for their convictions, Paul’s social media campaign has been much more effective than Cicero’s. If we accept Standage’s definition:

Media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community.

Chances are people today are much more familiar with Paul’s work than Cicero’s – even outside the church.

This is probably, in part, because death was part of the package for Paul – as he promoted a crucified king, while Cicero’s horrible death simply served to highlight the death of that which he stood for. The values of the Republic.

This has implications for Paul’s approach to “public relations” – where Cicero adopts something like Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model, or something slightly manipulatively asymmetrical such that he uses his contacts to grow his influence through the appearance of conversation – Paul, as a follower of the “suffering servant” adopts a deliberately asymmetrical approach where he isn’t interested in his own power and influence so much as how we can serve and encourage his ‘public’ while he’s in chains, as a status-renouncing embodiment of the gospel.

Interestingly, and as a final tangent, of sorts regarding the parallel between Paul and Cicero – Cicero published widely, articulating his vision of the ideal theological system, ideal political system, ideal person, ideal virtues, ideal orator and statesman – often championing his own life, which embodied his message, Paul did the same – articulating a theological position – Christianity as the globally significant fulfilment of Judaism, a political system – the ethics of living in this world as a citizen of heaven, an anthropology with Jesus held out as the ideal person, the ‘virtues’ of a life led by the Holy Spirit, and he spends a significant amount of energy defining what it looks like to be an orator of the cross – such that Jesus is the example – but his example can be followed by anybody, not just somebody of Paul’s incredible gifts and abilities.

That, at the end of the day, is the biggest difference between Paul and Cicero as communicators.

Paul isn’t his own ideal. He’s not self-promoting. He’s not seeking his own power and influence. He’s not climbing the social ladder – if anything he’s climbing down it. He’s promoting Jesus.