The Whole World Isn’t Watching
Professor of New Testament
It looks as though we may need to update the old Zen koan: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?” The new version might go, “If I eat a sandwich but don’t write about it on Twitter, will I still be hungry?”
Now at this point I feel compelled to insert the customary, “Technology has lots of wonderful uses…” and the contractually obligatory, “like allowing people to read our faculty forum, Every Thought Captive!” And technology does, in fact, have lots of wonderful uses. Encryption programs can allow dissidents to report on the atrocities committed by repressive governments with minimized fear of reprisal. On a less dramatic level, you can post photos of your recent trip to Ethiopia on Facebook without having to email a bunch of people directly (let alone make actual prints and mail them, as we used to do in the late Bronze Age).
But the Twitter-ization of communication in the last few years clearly represents the other side of technology’s two-edged sword. Life, I suppose, is always some mix of grandeur and triviality, but the difference now is that your trivia can reach a worldwide audience within seconds. Whether everyone is out there anxiously awaiting your news (“im typing a thing for evry thot cptiv right now, how cool is that, then im snacking, prb a sweet ‘n’ salty nut bar, ill keep you posted!”) is of course another question altogether. Maybe the whole world isn’t watching.
But there is always the chance that it might be, and that is the problem I want to focus on. One of the most powerful forces that shapes our behavior is simply who we think is watching us. We try to get good grades to please our parents. We tailor our jokes to please our peers. We cut our lawns to please our neighbors. This is all natural enough, but the world-wideness of the Web adds a new dimension to the problem. I can begin to derive significance for my humdrum little life from the assumption that the Global Community is clicking like crazy to read about my latest thoughts on politics, religion, and what color shoes I’m thinking of wearing tomorrow. We speak of “death by a thousand cuts.” We might tweak that to, “life by a thousand tweets.” I came, I blogged, I conquered. I am read, therefore I am.
Most human enterprises end up slogging towards the swamps of idolatry, and the new communication tools look like they’re taking that same sad path. The internet can serve as a surrogate sheltering sky, aglow with galaxies of fellow bloggers and tweeters; a Zodiac of sympathetic stars happy to guide our ways. But like all makeshift deities, it promises much more than it can deliver.
Because at the end of the day, we all live pretty ordinary lives, and continually blogging about them is not going to change that. What makes the difference is recognizing that your ordinary life is, in fact, lived out in the presence of a very extraordinary God, who knows every hair on your head and loves you with limitless concern. With his eyes on you, you don’t need to worry about who else is watching.
Dr. Sean M. Mcdonough, Professor of New Testament, joined the seminary in 2000 after serving as Chair of the Biblical Studies department and lecturer in new testament at Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji. He is active in ministry as a sunday school teacher and occasional preacher at First Congregational Church in Hamilton, MA, and as a speaker for Medair, a christian relief organization in Switzerland. He has written several books and a variety of articles for scholarly and professional journals.