This post was inspired by a flurry of tweets using the #medialit14 hashtag.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Really it’s just a sci-fi way of saying “once upon a time”, and that works; after all, Star Wars is basically a fairytale in space, a folktale with robots. Forget the rest of the scrolling preamble, that one line let’s you know what you’re in for.
And then a stonking great spaceship flies across the screen and shakes you out of your seat. Awesome.
Everyone who’s browsed a library or studied literature or tried their hand at writing knows the power of the opening line. Never mind judging a book by its cover, those first few words are what really counts. Take 1984 as an example: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Fourteen words in and you know you’re somewhere else, somewhere wrong. And yet it’s still April, there’s still a spring chill in the air… Maybe this world isn’t as distant as you’d like.
It’s also a line that’s almost made for Twitter. There have been a flurry of tweets from CODEC‘s MediaLit training course (hashtag #medialit14) around the use of social media in communicating religious concepts – basically, can you nail the essentials of the Christian faith in 140 characters? Or can you use the vernacular to explain something like atonement theory?
But that raises the question of whether we’re using the right tools for the job. Twitter, for instance is all about instant impact – it’s fast-moving and transient, and that’s great but it’s probably not the best place to explain the Trinity in all its complexity. Maybe Twitter’s not a tool to explain the mysteries of the universe, but a way of drawing people into story that they can then begin to explore for themselves. The equivalent not of a theology textbook but that killer opening line that gets into your head and lives with you until you see the story resolve itself.
I don’t know if that’s how the writers of the Bible saw the world, but you’ve got to admit, they hit on some great openers, even if by mistake. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people”; no-one ever preaches on Lamentations, but that’s a great opening. And I so wish “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the Temple” opened Isaiah 1 and not Isaiah 6.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Wait, which God? How did he create everything? You mean he stands outside of the created order? That tribe next door says there are hundreds of gods and they made the world from the entrails of a sea monster, you mean they got it wrong? Dr. Sheldon Cooper keeps talking about the Big Bang, where does that leave God, huh?
You’ll never resolve all those questions in 140 characters. You can invite people into the questions though, and you can practice your humility and your listening skills, because you won’t know all the answers, but if you practice love and respect, that won’t matter. The conversation is what counts.
But that’s all a bit technical. Look at the Message’s paraphrase of John 1:1 – “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.”
Now, I’ll admit I’m not always the greatest fan of the Message, but I love this line. It’s like Bruce Springsteen has discovered theology. “The Word became flesh and blood” is all a bit cosmic, “moved into the neighbourhood” is contemporary and everyday. Bring the two together and you get something mysterious and poetic walking the streets around us, a glimpse of the Incarnation in the space of a tweet. Does it matter that it uses the vernacular? Does it matter that we lose some of the links to the Old Testament stories of God? Well, maybe, if we ignore them completely, but this is just the first line of the story, the opening of the conversation. There’s time for the rest later, but at the very least we’re left with a couple of questions:
Who exactly became flesh and blood?
What happened when they moved into the neighbourhood?
Of course, Christians get obsessed with answers more so than questions. We sometimes worry that the whole Kingdom of God will come crashing down if we can’t answer every theological question and mystery in words of one syllable. And sure, there’s a place for apologetics, but there’s also a place for testimony, for inviting people into a story. My timeline has lots of people tweeting random Bible verses, but when a pastor from Australia tweets that he and a bunch of his colleagues have been arrested for protesting the treatment of asylum seekers, well, that makes me sit up and take notice. Jesus is somehow present in those tweets in a real and compelling way; they explain a theology of incarnational mission in a way that mere concepts can’t.
So maybe communicating through social media isn’t so much about being a digital theologian but a digital storyteller. Again, it’s a different set of tools, and maybe we shouldn’t see Twitter or Facebook as a simple method of communication but as the campfire around which we can gather and start telling our stories. And those stories will evolve into relationships as a natural consequence of us talking to each other.
So budge up and give God a seat at that campfire.