Social media, anti-social behavior, and the Body

A new study (which you can read about here) has found that the use of social media is actually making most people less social, spending less time communicating with others face-to-face.

What impact does/will this have on the liturgical assembly? Their identity, after all, is primarily a Body gathered, face-to-face. I suppose the mystical Body of Christ is not limited by an absence of physical proximity between its members, even in the corporate act of prayer. Yet we believe in an incarnate God, held and touched and seen face-to-face by Joseph, Mary, and Simeon. Our prayer tradition, founded on that enfleshed God, may suffer when its members are physically severed from one another.

Perhaps a more troubling facet of this study is its finding of a trend for people to edit their social media lives to seem better, if not close-to-perfect. Again, a vital component of our corporate faith is a corporate and public acknowledgement of our failings or shortcomings: our sins. What impact will this have on the already-embattled sacrament of reconciliation, or even the Penitential Act at Mass?

In my view, these types of macro trends in the surrounding culture need to be in our awareness as much as internal matters. We can be deluded into believing that the ways our assemblies are formed by the surrounding culture for the 6.75 days of the week they aren’t in the sanctuary have no effect on Sunday, or on the Body at prayer in the long term.


  1. An interesting idea to ponder on but I found myself wondering why Simeon was mentioned and not Anna, who also recognised the baby Jesus as the deliverance of his people.

    1. @jane Coll:
      There is no account of Anna holding the infant, as Mary would have to feed him, and Joseph would have for the presentation ceremony in the Temple, at which Simeon also would have held him.

  2. Regarding: “What impact does/will this have on the liturgical assembly? Their identity, after all, is primarily a Body gathered, face-to-face.”
    – Type or style of liturgy would be considered in a response to the question.
    – For a made up example: Praying the divine office as a community, one side facing the other, could provide a different answer, than say that for attending a Mass according to the missal of Pius v.
    – Generally, an hoped for hypothesis could be an expectation that for those who attend any liturgy the participation of any sort would be a slow acting antidote to social media that is less than an aid to community interaction in terms of family, neighborhood, church.

  3. I appreciate you attending to this important topic, Alan. And I fully share your conviction that broader cultural trends shape liturgical life in fundamental ways. That said, my take on this — not least regarding a theological recourse to the Incarnation when thinking through digital media and liturgical practices — differs from yours. For now, I will simply point to the chapter that reflects on “Virtual Bodies, Digital Presence, and Online Participation” in my forthcoming book titled “@ Worship” (Routledge, August 2017), but if you want a good take on the topic, I suggest Kathryn Reklis’s online piece “X-Reality and the Incarnation” at

  4. As regards the “trend for people to edit their social media lives to seem better, if not close-to-perfect”: the same trend surely haunts our offline lives, including those we bring to worship?! I can think of a multitude of strategies to “improve” the image of our offline lives, from breast implants in younger women or aging women coloring their hair, to botox injections, cosmetic surgeries galore, etc. And none of this stops at the doors of brick-and-mortar sanctuaries, to my knowledge. Body-enhancement technologies are part and parcel of our lives these days, online and offline.

    1. @Teresa Berger:
      Thank you, Teresa. I was very much hoping you’d comment on this; it’s a new field/topic to me, at least in a specifically liturgical-theological context.
      I’d thought of the other “editing” that we all do in our lives. Part of me thinks that social media is only amplifying or accelerating that innate human tendency.
      A particular thanks for the Reklis article – and I am very much looking forward to your book!

  5. Considering the issue in the specific context of sacraments, it might be interesting to see how the Catholic Church has engaged what might be called pre-modern X-Reality.

    Matrimony: I would think the most salient example would be proxy marriage. Vows could (and still can) be validly exchanged by proxy (because vows were like a contract, and contracts could/can be executed by authorized delegates. But matrimony still requires physical consummation. And that’s not in X-Reality.

    Baptism: Matter requires water over a body. No X-Reality.

    Anointing: Matter requires oil on a body. No X-Reality.

    Orders & Confirmation: Matter requires hands on a body. No X-Reality.

    Holy Communion: Matter requires material food being consumed by a body. No X-Reality.

    Reconciliation: Here, while the matter requires expression of confession and purpose by penitent, the current form of the sacrament would not on its own seem to require bodily proximity, but one might argue there’s a scriptural model for proximity in the Paschal Mystery, as well other concerns might be speculated to drive that requirement – the sanctity of the seal and related matters.

    * * *
    Stepping back from the specifically sacramental context, our history offers us ample examples of relationships being cultivated and maintained other than in physical proximity. See, for example, the letters of the New Testament, as well as the flood of correspondence among Christians over the centuries. Telephonic media added another possibility for the past few generations.

    I have friendships with people whom I’ve never met in person. But a friendship originating in physical proximity will not feel or work in quite the same way when the opportunity for physical encounter is effectively eliminated.

    I will speculate that the glowing aspect of current devices is probably going to be understood as more of a problem than people realize now.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Thank you, Karl – I didn’t know about proxy marriages! (But am relieved that it was only the contractual portion.)

      Last year the Patheos blog had an article about online baptism:

      Of course, this doesn’t pertain to a denomination where the matter/form issue is the same as for Roman Catholics.

      I’d thought of the “TV Mass” as being an immediate forerunner of the X-reality liturgical assembly. I suppose when the communities in Rome, Corinth, etc. read Paul’s letters in the gathered assembly, they understood Paul “present” in some way.

    2. @Karl Liam Saur:
      I predict that you will have much to say about my chapter on “Sacramental Bits and Bytes” in the forthcoming book I mentioned above. I take a somewhat different/broader look at the liturgical tradition that you do, and consider notions like baptism by desire, and ocular, spiritual and visionary communion, to map a broad struggle I see in the history of the church to think beyond notions of sacramental reception shackled to spatial proximity alone. — All of which does not mean that I think sacraments can simply be digitally mediated! What I do think is that this deserves nuanced, deep reflection.
      Hence the forthcoming book…

      1. @Teresa Berger:
        I may.

        I am curious if you step back for a metaview about how such extensions/extrapolations/interpolations can (usually unintentionally) deepen a culture of sacramental legalism?

        Blunt rules certainly have a robust legalism of their own. My experience, both direct and in contemplating history, is that nuanced and refined rules tend to deepen a culture of legalism even more, but that counterintuitive result if of course rarely contemplated at the outset. (For a topical but purely secular analogue to this: the Glass-Steagall Act was a relatively blunt statutory-regulatory instrument. Repealing it and replacing it with ever more nuanced rules has done many things, among them being a much thornier thicket in terms of regulatory culture (which has operated to the advantage of them with resources to game it).)

        As you may be aware, I regularly bleat about how (i) people come to mirror those whom they oppose, and (ii) improvements often end up deepening unwelcome aspects of the problem sought to be solved. The purpose of the bleating is not to stop change (far far far from that) but to encouraged much greater epistemic humility than is typical in our solution-seeking culture – and also, and perhaps more importantly at a spiritual level, to use that as an opportunity to cultivate solidarity that is otherwise too hard for most people to try. (I offer that in an effort to be more transparent about the context of my remarks.)

      2. Karl Liam Saur (see #11): “As you may be aware, I regularly bleat about how (i) people come to mirror those whom they oppose,” […]

        When I was in Master’s I lived in a Presbyterian college (forgive my repetition). One divinity student lunchmate often pointed out aspects of literature which, as a Catholic, are very often in my blind spot. Once the student noted that from his perspective, Paradise Lost was not as much a mere reframing of the allegory of the Fall, but rather also a profound comment on aesthetics. In his understanding of Milton, people cannot behold beauty unless the impulse is to destroy beauty. I left traditionalism not because of the wondrous chant and obscure semiotics within which I could spend a lifetime contemplating. No, the need for human vanity distorted this liturgy beyond comprehension. A mirrored participation in this vanity is not the brokenness necessary for my growth as a disciple.

        Karl; […] “and (ii) improvements often end up deepening unwelcome aspects of the problem sought to be solved”” […]

        Brokenness is crucial to being a disciple, but the process of breaking often includes an intellectual, or at least visual, immersion in liturgy which is, at first, often perceived as radically different or even scandalous. I fully agree with you that humility often engenders solidarity. This solidarity is often plastic because we are in need of grace constantly, even under the guise of what is often untenable for a believer but nevertheless salutary despite facile knowledge.

  6. “Their identity, after all, is primarily a Body gathered, face-to-face.”
    Not just a “Body gathered”, but a Body which shares and eats together the one loaf – a vivid expression of unity in one Body. Something which is normal part of human life. The breaking of bread and sharing the cup cannot take place over social media.

    And even more shocking, something which is not normally part of human practice: sharing the one cup. While we are used to sharing one bread (cutting a wedding or birthday cake, etc.), in drinking, even if from the one coffee-pot or bottle of wine, we have our own cups or glasses. But sharing the one cup! Everyone – rich and poor, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and slave-owner, young and old, community marginalised just as much as community pillars – it must have been a severe cultural shock for the early communities of Christians. But even when we receive “both kinds” today, we usually have many cups rather than one (unless in a small group).

    This is more than face to face. There is an intimacy here which we have lost. How can we address it?
    See Thomas O’Loughlin: “We Drink from One Cup”, in the Furrow, Maynooth, Ireland, February 2017.

  7. Some contentious remarks here!
    First of all, as an alien living in relative isolation in a virtually unknown quadrant in the Cosmos, I value Face Book because it has become the most immediate form of communication I have with people from my past elswhere in this counry, and especially with family and friends in Europe. I have made some genuinely good friendships through FB whom I would not have otherwise met.
    Secondly, in the liturgucal assembly, how often do people look at each other face to face, eye to eye? We sit with our backs to everyone behind us. And we don’t generally get to talk with one another because we were taught as kids it’s a sin to talk in church (aIthough that never stopped me, I was steeped in sin by age 5!) In so many ways, the liturgical assembly has yet to become a body of interactive people who welcome one another into their homes and who collectively struggle towards inter-faith dialogue and consequent socio-political reform in our quest for universal justice.
    Finally, the clincher, without social media, we would not have access to Pray Tell, and I for one would be the poorer for it.

    1. @Tony Barr:
      Not only do I agree with you (and share your experiences), but I also think that knee-jerk celebrations of spatial proximity — over and against digitally-mediated presence — occlude precisely the kind of realities you describe with regard to any real life, brick-and-mortar assembly.
      Sorry to be getting back to my book all the time, but for more: see “@ Worship.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *