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Twitter and Tragedy: A Revamped American Religious Experience

On my first Patriots’ Day in Boston, I was enjoying lunch with several colleagues when someone rushed into the restaurant: There had been an explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Moments later, caravans of ambulances and police cars raced, and the reports of casualties rolled in.

In the hours and days that followed, social media became for me, and many others, a sacred space to share our prayers and words of disbelief.

Be nice. They're listening (and taking notes).

Illustration by Ken Davis

SINCE WE NOW know the federal government has been monitoring our every move for years—recording our telephone calls, reading our emails, trying to friend us on Facebook (“you have 295,984,457 mutual friends!”)—I wanted to clarify a few personal remarks that may have been misconstrued by NSA computers; computers which, I might add, are doing a heckuva job.

When I emailed a friend that I thought I “killed” at a recent gathering, I meant that I was particularly amusing that evening. I was not bragging about some heinous crime, which I would never commit anyway because, frankly, that’s not where the laughs are.

But “killed” looks bad in cyberspace, even though it’s something comedians want to do, as opposed to “bombed,” which is the opposite of “killed,” although NSA computers probably recognize a certain similarity between the two and automatically alert law enforcement officials. But again, the word “bombed” is a comedy concept meaning, variously, “wishing you were dead as an audience sits silently in judgment,” or for me, who entertains mainly in the homes of friends, “wishing you were dead, because people are laughing about you in the kitchen.”

But living in a free society means we shouldn’t have to watch what we say to avoid the unwanted curiosity of federal authorities. Heck, I get into enough trouble just trying to cheer up taciturn gatherings. (“Hey, is this a party or a funeral, hah hah?! What? Oh, sorry, I didn’t notice the flowers. Yes, he’ll be missed.”) On second thought, maybe a few days of secret CIA interrogation might do me some good. (“Were you under instructions from al Qaeda when you embarrassed your host by juggling the dinner rolls? Are there other social events you plan to terrorize or disrupt in the near future?”)

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Tweet Your Way Out of Purgatory (But There’s Work Involved)

Photo courtesy RNS.
La Divina Commedia di Dante (Dante and the Divine Comedy). Photo courtesy RNS.

Following Pope Francis’ Twitter feed may be good for your soul — both in this life and the next.

The spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church plans to grant plenary indulgences by Twitter during the World Youth Day, which will be held July 23-28 in Brazil.

The indulgences, which Catholics believe can reduce the time a soul spends in purgatory, will be available to Francis’ nearly 7.5 million Twitter followers in all languages — if they tune in to World Youth Day broadcasts or take other spiritual actions. To get an indulgence, Catholics must have already had their sins absolved by a priest.

Love One Another (some restrictions apply)

Designed by Ken Davis

NOTHING MOVES ME more than a heartfelt tweet. Seriously. Don’t think I’m making fun here. I understand that the Twitter universe (“Twitterverse”? “World o’ Twits”?) is the current preferred method for connecting with the most people in the shortest amount of time. It’s certainly preferable to my generation’s method of communicating, which was to spray-paint the sides of barns.

But if the inspirational tweet is from a member of Congress—taking time away from doing the nation’s business in the most powerful city in the world, depending on where the Koch brothers are living at the time—I can get really choked up.

“My thoughts and prayers are with those in Oklahoma affected by the tragic tornado outbreak.”

Oozing with empathy and originality, this tweet was sent out by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn a few hours after the extreme weather event in May that ravaged the town of Moore. What the tweet did not include—and his office quickly added, lest survivors searching through the rubble for loved ones got the wrong impression—was that the senator would not support federal relief funding unless it was offset elsewhere. If it’s not in the budget, according to Coburn’s long-standing philosophy, it’s not happening.

But let’s be fair: With a tweet you only get 140 characters, so in addition to the words “thoughts” and “prayers,” there’s barely enough room left over to express the important concepts of “freedom,” “liberty,” and “bootstraps,” three concepts people just love to think about when they’re crawling from under what used to be their house. Coburn’s point seems to be that when you’re covered with sheetrock, torn family photographs, and spray-painted sides of barns, the last thing you want is some government bureaucrat arriving with a meddlesome helping hand.

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Hashtag Christianity

Social media illustration, Qiun / Shutterstock.com
Social media illustration, Qiun / Shutterstock.com

I have multiple online identities, the result of subconsciously trying to be a better version of myself — a better follower of Christ. But these various personalities that I portray among social media sites are fabrications. Here are a few examples why:

The single verse I post on Twitter is the only Scripture I read all day — even though my Facebook profile claims that the Bible is one of my favorite books.

C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Donald Miller, and Francine Rivers are also listed, but only to prove my Evangelical IQ.  

I’m #prayingforSandyHook and #prayingforBoston and #prayingforOklahoma, but I rarely pray.

I repost memes about global poverty, loving the poor, reconciliation and promoting peace, but I spend all of my spare time watching Netflix. ...

Vitriol Infests Rick Warren Family’s Grief

Brandon Hook, VKA, RedKoala, and Skovoroda / Shutterstock
Social media and broken hearts. Brandon Hook, VKA, RedKoala, and Skovoroda / Shutterstock

Pastor Rick Warren, the best-known name in American evangelism after Rev. Billy Graham, lost his 27-year-old son, Matthew, to suicide on Friday.

In the days since, uncounted strangers have joined the 20,000 congregants who worship at the megachurch network “Pastor Rick” built in Southern California, Warren’s nearly 1 million Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers in flooding social media with consolation and prayer.

“Kay and I are overwhelmed by your love, prayers, and kind words,” Warren tweeted on Sunday. “You are all encouraging our #brokenhearts.”

But a shocking number are taking the moment of media attention to lash out at Warren on their digital tom-toms. The attacks are aimed both at him personally and at his Christian message.

I Hate Loving Mark Driscoll

Rev. Mark Driscoll, founder of Mars Hill church, has a true gift. Just when I think I’m making at least a modicum of progress toward tolerance – if not actual Christlike love – toward the guy, inevitably he does something to make me despise him all over again.

On the Monday, before President Obama’s inauguration ceremony, Driscoll sent out the following message to his more than 300,000 Twitter followers:

Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.

As of Thursday morning, the tweet has received more than 3,400 retweets and nearly 1,350 favorites. Driscoll’s next tweet was about an iPad Mini giveaway.

QUIRK: PBS CEO Paula Kerger Addresses Big Bird Craze

SAVE THE BIRD meme by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.
SAVE THE BIRD meme by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

OK, the @firedbigbird tweets have been hilarious.

And it's almost understandable that America has given so much attention to the Big Bird comments from Tuesday's debate. (@Firedbigbird had more than 31,000 Twitter followers as of late Friday afternoon.)

I mean, Romney's comment was definitely a "zinger." 

We get it. It's funny. But come on. 

On Thursday, Public Broadcasting System (PBS) CEO Paula Kerger talked to CNN about the issue, and she couldn't believe the iconic children's TV star has gotten this much attention either.

Survey: Most Americans Keep Faith Private Online

Facebook image: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com
Facebook image: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com

Meet the social media “nones.” A new survey finds that Americans, while mostly religious, generally do not use social media to supplement worship and mostly keep their faith private online.

The Public Religion Research Institute survey found about one in 20 Americans followed a religious leader on Twitter or Facebook. A similar number belonged to a religious or spiritual Facebook group.

The results seem to defy the familiar story of prominent religious leaders using social media to build a following – and a brand.

“We were surprised when this turned up really low levels of people engaging religion and faith online,” said PRRI research director Daniel Cox.

NY Judge Orders Twitter to Release Tweets of #OWS Protester

A judge in New York has ordered Twitter to release three month's worth of tweets from an Occupy Wall Street protester charged with disorderly conduct during a march across the Brooklyn Bridge last year.

The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., reports:

Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. rebuffed one of Twitter Inc.'s central arguments, which concerned who has rights to contest law enforcement demands for content posted on its site. But the judge said the company was right on a separate point that could require prosecutors to take further steps if they want to see one particular day of Malcolm Harris' tweets and his user information....

The case began as one of hundreds of disorderly conduct prosecutions stemming from an Oct. 1 Occupy march on the Brooklyn Bridge, but it has evolved into a closely watched legal tussle over law enforcement agencies' access to material posted on social networks.

The Manhattan district attorney's office said Harris' messages could show whether he was aware of police orders he's charged with disregarding. Twitter, meanwhile, said the case could put it in the unwanted position of having to take on legal fights that users could otherwise conduct on their own....

[Harris] challenged the subpoena for his tweets, saying prosecutors' bid for user information, alongside the messages, breached privacy and free-association rights. The data could give prosecutors a picture of his followers, their interactions through replies and retweets, and his location at various points, [his lawyer, Martin] Stolar said.

Read the report in its entirety HERE.

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