I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Friday, January 22, 2010

N.T. Wright and Cultural Masturbation

Okay, here's a quickie....uhm....I mean, a quick post.

I came across a blog by Julie Clawson, Why N.T. Wright is Wrong about Social Media. (N.T. Wright is a prominent New Testament scholar who writes for academic and general audiences.) As the title implies, she takes issue with Wright's view of social media, believing that his take: "I was disappointed to hear someone so knowledgeable about history and faith jump on the 'caution people about the perceived dangers of the Internet' bandwagon." She also cites a Pew study that busts the myth that those of us who engage in social media will steal time away from "huggable" (N.T. Wright's term) people, that is, folks in flesh-and-blood. Says Julie, "The study also found that people who spend time on the Internet are actually far more likely to go out and be with real live people than those who don’t use the Internet. The point – social media actually builds community, even of the huggable people sort."

I initially found Clawson's blog helpful, but then I watched the short video of N.T. Wright and found that his position is a good deal more nuanced than I read in Julie's blog. And in fact, I find myself more in agreement with N.T. Wright's warnings.

Wright says that the internet can lead to isolation....that relationships need bodies....that too much internet time dehumanizes communication....he recommends implementing personal rules to spend time with "huggable" human beings and not to be spending too much time in front of a screen; internet is a good deal like tv in this regard.....it is important for online interaction to translate into action....if we are isolated from others, this can produce "cultural masturbation" where the internet becomes a forum for personal gratification (gratification intellectually, in terms of entertainment, in addition of course to sexual).....the internet can become a form of "gnosticism".

Wright says he welcomes the technology as long as we are reflecting on the "meta-issues" that stand behind the technology.

My position on the internet, social media, blogging, etc. has always been that this is a new form of communication, a new form of language. I try not to get caught up in the kind of high-minded, intense debates about whether it is "good" or "bad," "harmful" or "helpful." Instead, I tend to prefer discussing how new forms of language change the way we think, engage each other, perceive ourselves, etc. Perhaps these are the "meta-issues" that Wright is talking about.

While I tend to favor Wright's view, I think Julie Clawson's short blog post is thoughtful and useful to the discussion of the value of the internet and social media.

Here is the video of Wright:

NT Wright on Blogging/Social Media from Bill Kinnon on Vimeo.


John L said...

Interesting. I blogged today some related comments from Renny Gleeson. His TEDtalk speaks directly to the potential disconnects of social media, while pointing out that,

"…[those who] survive and prosper recognize that rejecting the technosphere or attempting to dam it will simply reroute its flow to more viable channels – and their only chance to lead is by having those channels pumping through their doors."

john doyle said...

For every hour you spend on blogs, you should spend an hour with real people, says Wright's Rule. So... if I quit blogging, does that mean I get to quit spending time with real people?

Jonathan Erdman said...


Ha. Yes. Or conversely....if one were a strict legalist on the issue, if one found one's self caught in the trappings of law, then one might start blogging more for the purpose of being able to spend time with huggable people.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John L.,

Good quote.

Sounds like an approach that many people have to desire.

john doyle said...

On the blog linking to this Wright video, Julie Clawson argues for making it real on the blogs by using real names on posts and comments. Awhile back I a post about real identities; here are some excerpts:

"Though formerly I signed my comments as “Ktismatics,” right from the beginning I’ve always identified myself by my real name on this blog. As a consequence I suspect that I’m somewhat more cautious, more civil, in my blogging interactions than if I adopted a fictional blogging identity. In a sense one could say that, by posting as who I “really” am, I’m actually distorting the “real” me.

People choose fictional blogging identities for a variety of reasons. Some do it to hide themselves; others, to reveal themselves. Some probably adopt fictional blogging personae in order to “try on” different identities, voices, and attitudes. I have no problem with any of these reasons... Writing under my own name does potentially expose me to real-life consequences I might not otherwise face. Does this give me the moral high ground? I don’t believe so...

I’ve written fiction under my own name, but I know others who write under a pseudonym. Are they cowards, hiding behind a false front so they can write zombie porn without their business colleagues knowing anything about it? Did Stephen King know all the real reasons he began publishing as Richard Bachman?"

Jonathan Erdman said...


I also took note of Julie's moral assumption that being "real" is better than not being real; that one should be "genuine" as much as possible on the blogosphere. She also pointed out a trend that I was not aware of: that in general online identities have shifted more to people aligning their virtual selves with their real world selves. Presumably this is a part of blog/internet evolution. People are relaxing into being open; people are also realizing that most blogs and other online persona's are not going to be a Big Deal. Most people now (myself included) are thinking in terms of building small communities of dialog and interaction, rather than thinking about being the next "Jesus Creed" or other Big Deal type blogs. Better to build smaller, more meaningful interactions. Use the "real" me....at least most of time.

What I question, though, is the dichotomy between the "real" me and the "virtual" me. First, I think that pinning down a real me is problematic. As such, we tend to just take it for granted and move on: there is a real me. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the real me can become either an obsession that we never can satisfy or it can become a vague notion that we rarely bother with.

If we become obsessed with tapping into our real selves, it can lead to a good deal of an unhealthy amount of focus on the self. It becomes a kind of legalism: I have to tap into my true self. Anything less is unacceptable. This can be quite destructive and counter productive. The real self is always elusive.

On the other hand, people can kind of have this vague idea that their true/real self is in their somewhere, even if they rarely bother to check in with it. So, a person working in the corporate world may have a vague notion that they care about "the issues," but they have large carbon footprints, work for a company that exploits overseas workers, consume large amounts of plastics/garbage/trash, and generally live their lives to make money, spend money, and fulfill their desires. Too busy to actually calculate the ways in which they fall short of their alleged "true self" (a good/kind/giving/righteous/pure person who cares about the issues), they nonetheless keep the concept as a sort of comfort food.

I feel like thinking about the real self is something that is quite frequent in spiritual circles (of many kinds). So, that's my primary realm of experience.

to be continued....

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think you (john doyle) had a bit of preference for the true self in your blog post that you referred to: Still, I do share a kind of camaraderie with others who post under their real names. And I always do feel that my exchanges with pseudonymous bloggers are always somewhat more fictional, more artificial, than with those who go by their real names, even if I don’t know these people in any context other than the blogs.

No doubt, I probably share a similar sentiment. And yet I question how far we should take this real vs. false self language.

At what point do we just mail it in and discuss how difficult it is to define and pinpoint one's true self?

It feels like something significant can happen when we surrender the idea of having a "true self" and merely become content with who we are now, in the present. This may have a good deal to do with grace: giving one's self grace to not have to strive for attaining the ever allusive true self.

Perhaps the most authentic thing to do is realize that inauthenticity seems to be our most authentic way of being.

What are your thoughts on this?

john doyle said...

I noticed that most of the commenters on Julie's post weren't using real names, so she's either riding the leading edge of the trend or hoping that the trend will happen.

Regarding the meaningful community, if your blog is anything like mine then maybe 2% of the visitors on any given day actually comment on a post, and it's mostly the "usual suspects" who do the commenting. I have no idea how many regulars there are who never comment, but we have to presume that they regard themselves as part of the community even if they don't actively participate. I'm fine with that, but I always like hearing from new people.

john doyle said...

I don't consciously reveal much about myself on the blogs, but I suspect that, despite my best efforts at concealment, people get a pretty good feel for there being some fairly consistent self generating all those posts and comments. Would I agree with them that they've detected my true self? Here's a thing about that: I think that other people might know me better than I know myself, and that despite my being at least a moderately self-reflective character.

I'm sure I present myself differently on blogs than I do in person. But I'm not sure which is a more accurate reflection of who I really am. I tend to think that who I am is defined by the sum total of my interactions with the world and with people. It's like defining water: it dissolves sugar, it freezes at 32 degrees, it can be drunk, it falls from the sky sometimes -- is there any true essence of water that transcends these kinds of interactions? I don't think so.

One of the people I interact with pretty frequently is myself, but I'm not sure that relation is any more authentic than any other interaction. If I hide things about myself from someone, then that too is part of who I am, isn't it -- someone who, in certain kinds of relationships, is cautious about revealing too much of himself.

Just thinking out loud here, Erdman -- I have no overarching thesis I'm trying to promulgate about the true self, which remains elusive and which I have a feeling I'd just as soon never capture. I've noticed in recent years that I can identify more with practically everybody. This isn't because I've become more empathic -- probably just the opposite, in fact. It's that I better recognize many more facets of myself than I used to, including some fairly ugly facets.

Okay, that's enough out of me. Who are you really, Erdman?

john doyle said...

No wait, one more thing. While I feel increasingly like I can relate to something about most people, at the same time I increasingly feel as though I have very little in common with most people. How can that be, I wonder?

Jonathan Erdman said...


This is a good observation you make, that others know us better than we know ourselves. I think that this is true in so many ways. It is also true that a person is known better (or in a unique way) when there is historical distance. That is, we have a certain historical distance from JFK that allows us to "know" JFK in a unique way, a way that he himself did now know.

You also suggested that "who I am" depends on contexts and perspectives. Water can not only take different forms but also different functions. This makes the self so complex. Always subject to different interpretations depending on context and interpretation. What a beautiful thing!

I'm glad you responded the way you did, rather than speculating on philosophical constructions of what a "true self" might be. It is more insightful to me, actually. It resonates with me because I have recently been thinking a good deal about what it would look like to use language in a dynamic process, to continually re-write our stories, to continually re-examine the formative language of our culture. And so, I've been blogging abit about how this might apply to theology and faith: was Christianity supposed to settle on definitive language, or should followers of Jesus be involved in a more dynamic, creative process of using language to see things in new ways?

We could apply the same thinking to any context: psychological practice, self-discovery, the blogging community, the academy, etc.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John: While I feel increasingly like I can relate to something about most people, at the same time I increasingly feel as though I have very little in common with most people.


In what specific ways do you notice this?

john doyle said...


See what I mean?

John L said...

"was Christianity supposed to settle on definitive language, or should followers of Jesus be involved in a more dynamic, creative process of using language to see things in new ways?"

I sense many of us are dealing with this tension: between a dynamic, provisional, fluid-like relationship with Spirit, and a static textbook-like understanding. I rather think that Jesus points us towards the former, by both his words and actions. Perhaps this "fluid faith" keeps us from taking our religious identities too seriously, while keeping us engaged and maturing in the realities that matter.

natural said...

great quote :)

seems like something my brother would've said :P