For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
Expanding Our Horizons Beyond the Digital Frame

Expanding Our Horizons Beyond the Digital Frame

You can listen to the newsletter by clicking the play button above or you can click the “Listen in Podcast app” link and follow the directions to open this feed in your podcast app. Currently, you may find the feed on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Spotify.

Some of you reading this know that one of the questions I like to ask is, “What frames what?” I ask this question in order to get at the often-unrecognized ideas, beliefs, and values in the background that shape the ways we think. Because we rarely think about them, we often refer to them as assumptions, and yet these framing ideas have tremendous consequences for how we talk and how we live. They are also typically embedded deep down in our practices. Lately, I’ve been asking myself this question again and find myself especially concerned about the ways that social media have come to frame our most important discussions about life, including important issues of race and justice.

In recent newsletters, Mike Sacasas has been exploring our digital framework in his usual understated but insightful manner and raising good questions in the process. “What does it mean to speak and act responsibly in these times?” he asked a couple months ago. “How does one love one’s neighbor on a social media platform?” I know Mike well enough to know that this was not a rhetorical question. He meant it, and so do I. While it is easy to speak up on social media and easy to feel good about saying the right thing, it is much harder really to know how to love one’s neighbor. One hopes that the net effect of all our talk on social media will turn out to be positive, but I do wonder, and I am concerned.

As Mike has taught me, digitized media encourage and reward certain behaviors, and inversely, they discourage and punish other behaviors. They reward the immediate, quick condemnation of what’s wrong in the world, and they encourage simplistic solutions. They discourage the thoughtful silence in which one might listen, learn, and reflect before speaking. As Mike observed, “social media demands something of us, but it is not thought. It demands a reaction, one that is swift, emotionally charged, and
in keeping with the affective tenor of the platform. In many respects, this entails not only an absence of thought but conditions that are overtly hostile to thought.”

Recently, one of our alumni made a similar observation about his own attempt to respond thoughtfully to the racial injustices that he was finding deeply troubling, “What I thought I was doing was trying to understand the problem in the deepest possible way,” he wrote, but “my reactions made me appear as though I didn’t care as much about racial problems as others did.” By daring to think before he spoke, he
found himself subject to the media watchdogs who are making their lists and posting them twice. In a way that curiously parallels the pharisaical tendency for Christians to distinguish themselves from “sinners” by making judgments based in appearance, the discourse of social media lures us into a shallow judgmentalism that allows us to condemn others and feel good about ourselves.

The great danger here is that what might be called hash-tag culture tempts us to think that by saying the right things on our Facebook page or Instagram, we have fulfilled our responsibility and done our part. This is a serious problem. Our digitized world narrows our vision for seeking justice and doing good. It blinds us to the fact that genuine progress on any important issue requires quiet thoughtfulness, listening, learning, and patient, persistent action. As another of our alumni wrote me, “I, too, have struggled with how to respond during this time” because these issues are ones that “I have been thinking about and responding to for as long as I can remember. I’ve felt troubled that the influx of responses on social media might be another reason for people to quickly forget about the deep need for reconciliation in just a few months when the next thing arrives. I'm grateful that more attention has been brought to racial reconciliation in the past few months, but I’m concerned that it will pass away without many people finding their lives or perspectives much changed.” She concluded, “That’s deep, slow work.” It takes patience, persistence, and time.

In Mike’s discussion of these issues, he has often focused on what he calls “the temporal structures of social media.” Noting that “the patterns of digitally mediated reality can overwhelm other modes of perception, temporality, and place,” he has encouraged us to extend our temporal horizon beyond the short-lived temporal frame assumed by social media. “The effect of our digital media ecosystems is consistent,” he writes. “The focus is inexorably on the fleeting present. The past has no hold, and the future does not come into play.” Elsewhere Mike has observed that “The element of time is an often unperceived factor in our anxiety about figuring out what should be done. At what temporal scale ought we to be thinking?” he asks. “Or, better, at what temporal scales, plural, ought we to be thinking? What are the proper temporal horizons framing our moment?”

As Mike puts it, “Without minimizing the need … to act justly and responsibly in the moment, we should also consider expanding the temporal horizons within which our thinking and acting must unfold. We should consider not only what we must do about what is happening right now, we should also consider what we must do with a view to the next year, the next decade, perhaps even the next century…. Within this longer frame of time, more meaningful actions also come into view. If I am fixated on the moment, and my circumstances, as is often the case, afford me no obvious way of acting in the present crisis, then I might conclude there is nothing for me to do at all.” Even worse, I would add, if we allow our digitized world to frame our understanding of justice, we might think that by posting incessantly on our social media, we will have fulfilled our responsibility and done all we need do.

Personally, I am far less interested in knowing what any of us posted on our social media in the days immediately after the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, or of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, or of George Floyd Jr. in Minneapolis, than I am in what initiatives we were taking six months or a year before Ahmaud’s death, or what any of us will be doing six months or a year from now. It is all too easy for us to jump in with “Pavlovian alacrity” and say something that will leave us feeling good about
ourselves. It is far more demanding to do something that will never get into the news and never be broadcast on social media but will actually do some good somehow—or at least have the potential to do so.

When Richard Spencer visited the campus of the University of Florida a few years ago, I made the personal decision that it is not enough just to be right about what’s wrong. Being right about what is wrong is important, but I do want to encourage us not simply to join the chorus and think that we have done what needed to be done. Being right about what’s wrong is easy, and if that is all we care about, we need only keep on posting. If, however, we want to see hearts and minds and practices and structures changed, we will need to do more than what our social media asks of us. We will have to swim against the current and give a place to silence, to listening and learning, to thought and action and do so in ways that are marked by patience and persistence. Action will probably include words at some point, but social media may or may not provide the right platform for those words, and when it is time to utilize the internet, our digital media need not set the pace or dictate the terms of our engagement.

Dr. Richard V. Horner
Executive Director

Study Center Resources

Planning for the fall semester at the study center has been underway for some time now, and, while the health crisis is posing formidable challenges, we are quite pleased with what we will be offering. Here’s a quick preview. You can be looking forward to two director’s classes, taught by Dr. Horner and Mike Sacasas respectively, and offered both in a limited in-person format and via Zoom. The Dante read group will resume, and we will be launching another reading group, Readings in the Christian Imagination, which will meet twice a month via Zoom.

In addition, this newsletter will be a hub for our digital presence. Along with twice-monthly essays you can expect twice monthly conversations with Dr. Horner and Mike Sacasas, audio of the director’s classes, and occasional interviews with scholars and writers of interest to our community.

We certainly encourage you to pass along a link to the newsletter to those you know who would value the center’s work, especially as so many our offerings will be available to those beyond the Gainesville community.

Share A Newsletter of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville

Recommended Reading

— Matt Stewart interviews Ken Myers on the occasion of the (near) 30th anniversary of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, an unparalleled resource for thoughtful Christian engagement with culture:

As to conversation, there’s a lot of research to suggest that many habits of mediated communication diminish the capacity for immediate—and loving—communication. From the beginning, I’ve tried to provide a model for loving conversations (although I’m usually not face-to-face with my guests). I’ve come to appreciate—thanks largely to Oliver O’Donovan—the centrality of communication in all its forms to our social existence. I’d already been persuaded that love is at the heart of our lives, as it is in the life of God as Trinity. Communication and community and common good: all these things are intertwined. So “communications media” need to be attentive to that kinship.

— Micah Latimer-Dennis presents ten theses on digitally mediated worship:

As communities ease into gathering for worship again, for some churchgoers the risk will be too great. Alongside the traditional, in-person option churches will offer a “virtual” option for participating. It seems likely that when the last wave of infection has finally broken, many churches will maintain this option. It would benefit us to consider what that change will mean for worship.

For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
Listen to audio version of study center essays as well as lectures and talks.