Twitter at Church

Next week, classes start again. The first day of class, as I provide an overview of the class, I’ll tell my students that, thanks to the magic of the internet, they have easy access to plenty of things that are more interesting and engaging than what I can provide. Seriously, even if I were the most engaging professor in the world—and I’m not bad, frankly—I can’t compete with cat videos, instant messages, and the rest of human knowledge and entertainment available online. Still, I have no interest in banning laptops in my classroom. Instead, I suggest that, entertaining or not, my lecture and other classroom interactions will generally be more valuable than said cat videos. 

***

A quick confession: if you were a gambling person, you’d probably want to bet that, if I was looking at my phone at Church, it wasn’t my Gospel Library app I was reading. Twitter, Facebook, email, RSS reader? That’s where the smart money is.

***

Almost two years ago, a friend lent me David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. I’ve finally been able to dig in, and, in 100 pages or so, I’ll be done.[fn1] Though it’s plot (such as it is) revolves around an IRS Regional Examination Center, the central theme of the book is boredom. In section 44, DFW writes:

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really larks anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. . . . 

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and hman. To breathe, so to speak, without air. . . . .

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

***

Yesterday at Church, I didn’t look at Twitter, Facebook, email. When I was reading my phone, it was, with one exception,[fn2] the lesson manual or scriptures being referenced.

Which is to say, if you made the smart bet yesterday, you’d have lost.

Why, though? Was Church yesterday more exciting, more engaging than usual? Maybe; in our Sunday School lesson, our teacher contextualized and analyzed Moses 1 in in part through Gauguin’s D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. 

But it’s supremely possible that I’ve ignored similarly engaging lessons in the past, in thrall to Felix Salmon’s analysis of contemporary business news, or perhaps pictures of my friends’ children.

It hit me, though, that, by disappearing into my phone, I wasn’t engaging with my fellow-Saints. I was losing those intangible, but real, lessons we can learn through our interactions, our give-and-take. And I was potentially depriving my fellow-Saints of strength I can offer them.

So, as much as I love Twitter, I’m done with it at Church. Ditto other internet pursuits.

Will it be boring? Probably, at least at times. And I don’t want to suggest that boredom is somehow virtuous; I doubt it has any significant moral valiance. But, per DFW, it is, partly, the condition of modern life. We work to escape boredom, but boredom is part of life. This life is, as President Hinckley said a number of years ago, “interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.”

And so I will engage, even through the smoke and dust and delays of lessons that don’t engage me and talks with which I disagree in anticipation of the occasional spiritual vista that comes only through interaction—real engagement—with other flawed and fallible humans also slogging through the realities of serving and being served without sufficient time or training, but with desire and love. 

[fn1] And I’ll (finally) give you your book back. Thanks, Jason!

[fn2] To jog my memory, I wanted to look at the Church’s recent post on versions of the First Vision.

Comments

  1. Thomas Parkin says:

    It may just be that it has been over a decade since I last worked a desk job, but boredom is a very small part of my life. Is life really boring for people? Doesn’t even thinking about boredom transform it into something else? I’m the farthest thing from a human dynamo. I move through life as a sludge like thing. Still, I don’t intend to sit still longer than necessary.

    Is boredom really the thing people are trying to escape with their twitter and such at church? Maybe they are trying to escape themselves as much as escape the theoretical boredom of engaging other people. I can’t think of a person I’d consider boring. I know some people who would say that only boring people get bored. That seems a little harsh, but I get it. I know some tiresome people, but that’s not the same thing.

    But, I agree. I’m not a person to over-valorize living in the moment. I think there is great value in being in the past and the future and other places. Self-reflection is largely to do with the past, and vision has to do with the future, and imagining another person has to do with a gesture away in space (sometimes at a great distance). But I do think that there are many times when it is best to be as present as possible – church often being one of them.

  2. I give you two weeks.

    Help thou my unbelief!

  3. That’s actually a REALLY good idea!! I’ll have to work better at that.

  4. Boredom is only one of the reason’s that people escape to their smartphones. Another reason is that they have substantive disagreements with the way topics are framed, but don’t feel free to discuss honestly how their views differ. As a result of feeling outside of mainstream mormonism they act the part. In other words sometimes it is an effect of the lack of real engagement and not necessarily the cause.

    As someone who spends a lot of time on my smartphone. Often I do think I learn more from it than I do from hearing the same regurgitated correlated lesson for the gazillionth time with the same scripted answers from the class. But maybe you live in a more intellectual and insightful ward than I do.

  5. Yesterday during priesthood meeting I received a FB message from one of our high council members, “I thought you might be the type of guy that checks his phone at church. Can I meet with you for a few minutes at noon?” Haha, guilty!

    I agree with your message, though, and I believe it applies to many other aspects of our lives, not just church: when we’re with our kids, etc. But I really don’t know if I could survive most weeks in Gospel Doctrine without Facebook, Twitter, or browsing Amazon for at least a few minutes.

  6. I salute you for this goal and desire. I believe you can do it. I’ve been quite successful myself in resisting the temptation to use any social media while in Church lessons. I think it’s important for the teacher to see people looking up at him or her rather into their screens. I actually use old-fashioned scriptures for this reason as well.

  7. I remember being struck by a comment Dr. Nibley made in one of his classes when he expressed that as Saints we should be prepared to bring more than just our bodies to fill the pews on Sunday. I’ve long thought this is exactly what Moroni means in his discussion of the content of the church meeting together:

    5 And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.

    6 And they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus.

    If we’re not engaging and supporting one another as members of the body of Christ then we’re missing out on the second most important reason we gather on a weekly basis. Of course, Moroni did also outline a more charismatic approach to church meetings that would seem quite out of place in our very regimented structures:

    9 And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done.

    How many have attended a Quaker Friends unprogrammed / waiting worship meeting? See Douglas Steere’s inspiring Observation on Quaker Meeting for Worship. A majority of Quakers no longer follow this unprogrammed approach on a regular basis but most Mormons would equate it as strongly similar to our monthly Fast and Testimony meeting where the congregation sits quietly and those who feel a prompting stand up to share their thoughts as inspired by the Spirit. And perhaps this is more aligned with what Moroni himself experienced. Though we would probably find discomfort in the lengthy periods of silence that tend to occur in the Quaker meeting. But I wonder if we contemplate what we can gain from such a meditative approach for any Sacrament meeting, Sunday School class, Relief Society, etc, what might happen for us personally. If we’re bored then we are probably not really focusing on why we are gathered.

    I love this particular passage in Steere’s essay:

    Out of this leveling and this gathering of the meeting, some vocal ministry often develops. I said at the beginning that I often thought about the meeting during the week. Experiences of my own, things that I read, a verse of poetry, some insight that may come while on a walk or in the classroom or in a personal visit, some passage of Scripture that has come up in our daily family worship, these are always being directed toward the meeting. Since we have no minister, all of us have a responsibility. It is not the abolition of ministry but the abolition of the passive laity that the Society of Friends has striven for. One never brings anything to meeting with the certainty of giving it there, but one tries not to come empty. Under the influence of the quiet prayer and this sense of unity in the meeting, what light one brought is often completely set aside, or one feels that this should be reserved for another occasion, or it is made over, or new accents, new illustrations, new simplifications are effected. The mind is often drawn to an entirely fresh seed that unfolds itself there in the consciousness of the worshipper.

  8. John F., that is a very wise suggestion. I prefer using my scriptures to my phone where possible as well but think that it really would make a difference to the teacher.

  9. Sam, what is DFW’s antidote to boredom?

  10. J. Stapley says:

    This is great, Sam. I’ve found over the last several years my patience as steadily dwindled at work for exchanges that aren’t efficient and productive. I consequently have shifted much of my work around to media that facilitates that. My sense is that what is efficient and productive, isn’t necessarily relevant to how people form relationships, though. I tend to think, or perhaps hope, that church is about relationships as it is about other things.

  11. Thanks, everyone. A couple quick responses:

    Aaron, so far, DFW hasn’t painted a successful antidote to boredom. I’m still about 75 pages from finishing the book, but, based on my prior readings, I suspect he’s not going to propose one. I just read (p. 456) one character say, “[A]lmost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting,” but I’m not sure that (a) that’s an objective, authorial voice, or (b) that we should look to universalize that specific, intensely quirky, character. My impression is that DFW wants to suggest that we need to plow through and deal with boredom, rather than looking for a way to fix it.

    john, I thought about bringing my physical scriptures. And I will shift there if I can’t stay off the twitters (and I get what you’re saying about eye contact with the teacher). Still, the convenience of just bringing my phone still has me hooked for now.

    Bonjo, I agree—I’m actually also trying to limit my phone/internet time while I’m home and my kids are awake. I actually watched a movie with them Saturday night (Monsters U, I think?) with my phone in the other room. It’s been a long time since I watched something and actually visually paid attention. (Of course, I drafted this last night on my computer while watching Downton Abbey, with my iPad by my side in case I needed to take notes for my tax blog.)

    And anon, I’m totally sympathetic; I don’t mean to suggest that the phone is merely a way to avoid boredom. That said, I think (hope?) there’s personal and spiritual value in engaging even with a rehashed lesson or talk (though, as I spend most of Sacrament meeting trying to entertain a very spirited little one, I confess that, even without my phone, I don’t engage with Sacrament Meeting speakers that much), even with an ideological bent I disagree with.

    That said, I’m not putting this forward as a normative statement; I don’t know that escaping occasionally down the rabbit hole of the Internet is a bad thing (especially if you’re escaping to BCC!). I just think that it’s not good for me right now.

  12. Good thoughts. I’ll have to consider my phone use at Church too. One thought; Is there a substantive difference in your premise between reading (Twitter, Facebook, etc) and producing content? Does the person who live tweets a Gospel Doctrine lesson participate in a meaningfully different way than someone who just sits in the same room as the class reading Twitter – or reading a newspaper, or an entry in the Bible Dictionary unrelated to the lesson?

    I read somewhere that tablets (and smart phones?) are geared toward passively consuming digital content, not producing or contributing to it. I get that by interacting with the people sitting in the pews next to us or speaking upfront is one of the points of being at church, But there are ways of participating with a religious community that uses social media constructively too; like Bonjo’s High Councilor.

  13. Did your teacher actually show Gauguin’s painting? How did he get away with showing the nudity in class? Curious. I teach art at a college in Wyoming. I admire that painting and use it frequently as an analogy in church. I’ve never had a reproduction with me, though, when I’ve mentioned it.

  14. John, I missed the very beginning of the class (ran into an Institute student and chatted for a couple minutes). Afterwards, our teacher told me he’d used the beginning of the class to give a brief biographical sketch of Gauguin. But he’d printed a copy of the painting out from the internet and passed it around the class. I didn’t look specifically at people’s reactions (I ended up sitting in the second row), but I didn’t notice any objections to the painting or the nudity. I assume, though, that YMMV.

  15. And Bruce, I think that live-tweeting a lesson would change someone’s personal engagement with the lesson; it’s certainly different than passively consuming unrelated tweets (or newspapers or Bible Dictionary entries). I’m mixed on how beneficial it is; having live-tweeted a couple professional conferences I’ve been to, I certainly have paid more attention, but I don’t know if I engaged or just looked for concepts I could tweet. But, with that kind of disclaimer, at the very least it engages.

  16. Anon, when I go to my phone during church, it is for the exact same reason you state.

    But the whole time I’m feeling utter guilt (not being the “good girl” I was taught to be in YW!). I’m sure I’m missing out on some grand spiritual communication if I just listened to the lesson instead. I don’t know what’s easier to deal with: the guilt or the frustration over the lesson/talk.

  17. Anon2, I recommend watching this before you go to church each sunday.

  18. I was somewhat surprised to see a hashtag caption on the latest CES fireside. It almost seemed an acknowledgement that, “ya we know you’re on the phone during this talk…”

    Fwiw, I applaud your efforts, and will do the same.

  19. Sam, re: DFW’s answer to boredom: “This Is Water,” his commencement speech to Kenyon University in 2005 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhhC_N6Bm_s) comes close.

  20. This applies mostly only during fast and testimony meetings and GD/RS/PH lessons, but the teacher/speaker only bears part of the burden for the boringness. When a testimony meeting seems to be going off track, or some other lesson, I try to remember:

    “Be the change you wish to see in the world”

    And I go bear my testimony or (attempt) to make a thoughtful comment instead of disappearing into a device. DH mostly just reads gospel subjects on ipad . . .

  21. Thanks, Anon 2. I think I’m just tired of trying to make a change at the ground level. I recently finished serving as RS prez, and now dh is in Bishopric….seems like an uphill battle so often, even in these privileged positions. I am a huge believer in community and gaining from and giving to each other…but it gets tiring feeling so alone in trying to make a change.

    I think I will listen to that song before every Sunday. :)

  22. I meant: Thanks to the original Anon.

  23. I don’t really get bored. Even if my mind wanders from whatever task I am doing (dishes or listening to an unengaging talk) I simply think of something else and my mind is perfectly not bored. It’s like Twitter and Facebook, only to myself and from myself. I think of a thought, I share it with myself, I am entertained in thinking it and listening to my own thoughts, rather than needing to tell someone else and get a reaction about my own thought or read someone else’s thought for entertainment. I mean, I’m happy to get on Facebook and read my newsfeed, but it isn’t necessary.

  24. melodynew says:

    This will sound pious and maybe self-efacing (mostly pious), but I must confess, in the past I have only used my phone or laptop for lesson-related material while at church. It never even occured to me to do otherwise. And I’ve held out from joining Twitter for a long time. No plans to change that either. However, within the past two weeks, I’ve found myself browsing during meetings – mostly because it seems like “everyone else is doing it, so it must not be that bad.” So, at least for me, this post is well-timed. Thank you, and others here for pulling me away from the edge of Church-ish Electronic Oblivian. I’m backing away now. God bless you.

  25. I don’t have a smart phone, so I am never tempted to check Facebook or Twitter at church. I do have a Kindle, though, and it is very tempting to read novels during RS and SS. Sometimes I give in to temptation. And this is why I probably shouldn’t have a smart phone.

    This reminds me of a novel I read recently, though (not in church–wait…no, not in church)–Children of Men by P. D. James, where the government promises freedom from boredom. Television killed my generation’s attention span. I can only imagine it will be worse for kids who grew up with the internet–so many options for diversion, and you don’t have to wait for it to come to you.

  26. Jason, book lender says:

    Just saw this, you’re welcome, Sam!

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