Social Media and the Shepherd (Psalm 23)

By Henry G. Brinton

Americans are spending a lot of time on social media, but how much and what for? 

 

This year some have given up Facebook for Lent. Others joined the “National Day of Unplugging” on March 7-8, putting away their phones, tablets, and laptops for a 24-hour digital Sabbath designed to slow people down in an increasingly hectic world.

According to the National Day of Unplugging website, people unplugged in order to dance, sleep, write, play, reflect, relax, reset, tune in, chill out, stay sane, and be more connected.

But wait a second — be more connected? That seems odd, since the promise of social media is that it will strengthen connections. Facebook links us instantly to hundreds of friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. Twitter enables us to follow people and collect followers of our own. LinkedIn links us to colleagues through an enormous professional network.

Social media seems to be all about connections. But its links have serious limitations.

A researcher named danah boyd (who uses lowercase for her first and last name) is an expert on how teenagers use the Internet. She has a variety of Twitter accounts, both professional and personal, and uses Flickr, LinkedIn, and Facebook as well.

But Facebook is a site that boyd finds hard to manage. “I have to simultaneously deal with professional situations, friends from the past, friends from the present all in one environment and I don’t share the same thing in those worlds,” says boyd. “For me it’s a world of context collapse.”

Context collapse — a new phrase which describes the limitations of social media. Think about posting a picture or a message on Facebook. When you do this, you are sending a single message to numerous audiences made up of friends, family members, colleagues and neighbors. You are collapsing many contexts into one, and this creates problems because you normally communicate with each of these groups in a slightly different way.

Think, for example, of party pictures. Are they appropriate for your colleagues to see? And a political message. Is that what you want your church friends to receive? A message meant for one audience can clash with a wider audience, creating awkwardness and confusion. That’s context collapse.

Such a breakdown can leave you feeling disconnected rather than linked, frazzled instead of focused. It can make you anxious for a place of peace and serenity, where you can — in the words of Psalm 23 — lie down in “green pastures” beside “still waters” (which in the original Hebrew reads “waters of rest”). When you suffer context collapse, you need to focus on someone who restores your soul, renews your life, and keeps you on the right path (vv. 2-3).

Instead of social media, you need a shepherd.

One way to gain this peace and serenity is to unplug for a day or even for a season. Lent challenges us to turn away from the infinite audiences of the Internet and direct our hearts and minds to the one audience who always wants to be connected to us: God.

Psalm 23 contains a single focus that is the opposite of context collapse: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (v. 1). The God of this psalm is a good shepherd who gives us everything we need — our sense of self-worth does not have to be based on a collection of Facebook likes or Twitter followers. No, when we follow God in faith, we find that we “shall not want.”

God, the shepherd, becomes our context when we unplug from social media. We begin to see that the LORD is the center of our universe, providing us with food (green pastures), drink (still waters), and security (right paths). Although many of us rely on technology to complete our work and earn money, Psalm 23 reminds us that God is the true source of everything we have. When we unplug our phones and computers, we are putting our trust in the LORD who provides.

Jana Riess is the author of Flunking Sainthood, and in this book she admits, “I am usually guilty of measuring my worth by my productivity: did I meet my work quota today?” But when she powers down her computer at the start of her Sunday Sabbath, she finds that she is able to put all of her seemingly urgent items on hold until Monday morning. God’s command to keep the Sabbath is the most radical of commandments, she says, because it is a decision not to let your life be defined by the “production-consumption rat race.”

God loves us and cares for us not because of what we do, but because of who we are — God’s children, God’s sheep. God leads us in right paths “for his name’s sake” (v. 3), which is an ancient way of saying that God does this because it is part of the nature of God to do so.

Psalm 23 becomes even more personal when the psalm-writer starts to speak directly to God instead of simply speaking about God. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me” (v. 4). God provides in even the most life-threatening situations, says the writer: When the lab report comes back with a cancer diagnosis, when your boss tells you that your position is being eliminated, when a police officer shows up at the door to say that there has been an accident.

Facebook will not provide comfort at times like these, nor will LinkedIn. Only a divine shepherd can give you what you need to survive. Biblical scholar J. Clinton McCann, Jr., notes that “the darkest valley” can mean the realm of the dead or the experience of exile — in either case, God provides comfort and protection. The “rod” could mean a shepherd’s tool, but could also refer to a king’s scepter. In the ancient world, kings were known as the shepherds of their people, with a responsibility to protect them and provide for them.

Psalm 23 ends with a description of God as a generous host, one who again provides food, drink, shelter and protection: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v. 5). Knowing that this is part of the nature of God, the psalm-writer concludes by saying that “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long” (v. 6).

The Hebrew word for “mercy” in this final verse would better be translated as “love.” Such love is at the very heart of God’s nature, and is so much more powerful than the Facebook likes that grab our attention. Psalm 23 assures us that both goodness and love shall follow us all the days of our life, a following that is ultimately more significant than all of the followers of Twitter.

So take a bold step during these last few weeks of the season of Lent, and unplug your devices for a 24-hour digital Sabbath. Choose one form of social media — whether Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, or some other — and give it up until Holy Week is over.

Add a daily reading of Psalm 23, focusing your attention on God the shepherd. Make the LORD your audience and speak to God in prayer. You’ll find that God will provide for you and give you peace, in ways that social media never can. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, because the giving of such gifts is part of the nature of our loving divine shepherd.

Study questions:

  1. How are you helped by a establishing a single focus on God the divine shepherd, as opposed to responding to the many focal points provided by social media?
  2. Social media provides connections to people around the world, but time online can leave us feeling scattered. Where do you see value in unplugging for a day or a season? What benefits have you experienced from going offline?
  3. Psalm 23 promises that with the LORD as our shepherd, we “shall not want” (v. 1). Does this mean that God literally provides everything we need? What is our responsibility to labor, earn a living, work for justice, and share with those in need?

Resources for additional reading:

Blair, Elizabeth, “Online, Researcher Says, Teens Do What They’ve Always Done,” NPR Books, February 25, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/02/25/282359480/social-media-researcher-gets-how-teenagers-use-the-internet

Kelly, Heather, “Go offline for ‘National Day of Unplugging,’” CNN, March 6, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/06/tech/mobile/day-unplugging/

McCann, Jr., J. Clinton, “The Book of Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 767-769.

“National Day of Unplugging” website, http://nationaldayofunplugging.com/

Riess, Jana, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2011), 86, 96.

Henry G. Brinton, a graduate of Duke University and Yale Divinity School, is the senior pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia. He writes frequent editorials about religion and culture for USA Today, the Washington Post, and other publications. A regular contributor to the preaching journal Homiletics, he is the author or co-author of five books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012). His wife Nancy Freeborne Brinton is a professor in the College of Health and Human Services at George Mason University, and they have two grown children, Sadie and Sam. An endurance athlete, Henry has completed a marathon, triathlon, or century bike ride a year since he turned 40 in the year 2000.

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About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.


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