A couple pieces of media that I engaged with yesterday and today have got me thinking. One seems harmless enough while the other is on front pages everywhere and yet in their basic motivations and psychological factors they seem to be quite similar.
The first piece that I watched yesterday was the movie Eighth Grade, a film that would be entirely unremarkable in its portrayal of pre-pubescence if it wasn’t for the fact that it captures what growing up is like in the age of the 24-hour feedback loop of teenage connection. It shows all of the stereotypical anxieties of teens and pre-teens that have been true since at the least the 60’s and the age of authenticity but now magnified exponentially by new avenues of “connection” and narcissism. No longer can teens and pre-teens escape the crushing pressure of fitting in once the bell rings at 3:00 pm but rather they take the middle school hallway with them in their pocket when they go back to their parent’s car.
I graduated high school in 2005, maybe one or two years before the smart phone was mass released and watching Eighth Grade, I was profoundly grateful that I wasn’t born any earlier. (I just checked, Jobs announced the iPhone in January of 2007.) So for Kayla, the protagonist in the film, not only is she humiliated when she is named “Most Quiet” in the 8thgrade superlative assembly, she also goes home and in a devastatingly lonely moment, isolated in her bedroom, makes one of her YouTube videos, confesses that, “I don’t really know if anyone even really watches these videos.” Whereas I used to be able to go home after the final bell, maybe thinking about all of the moments in the day where I missed out on what everyone else was doing, I would be able to forget after watching an episode of Arrested Development, because I wasn’t worried about how many times my phone would buzz in my pocket or how many thumbs up I was getting on some website. It’s one thing for adults to say who cares or get over it but if we think back to what that time of life was like, it’s simply not that easy.
The second event that I heard about yesterday but didn’t read anything about until this morning’s paper was the shooting in Christchurch. The details of the mass murder reveal that the young man responsible for the killing those gathered for prayer in the two mosques was unhinged from reality because of his time and the murderer, just before going in to the mosque says, “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie” a reference to a YouTube internet meme. One struggles to even know how it’s possible that a person could say something like that in such a moment. The only possible explanation is the extent to which they are enmeshed in the online world and have given up real life for a virtual one. The New York Timeswrites that it is a shooting “disturbingly rooted in the internet” and quotes a remark from by the murderer on 8chan, a discussion site, where he describes his soon to be action as a “real life effort post”.
Now admittedly, these two situations are worlds apart in their motivations and real-world consequences, but at their core they seem to be rooted in the same need for acceptance and recognition. It’s often reported now that emergency rooms are seeing a rise in attempted suicide rates for young people and that experts see a link between the increase in suicide rates in the last ten years and the pressure of being online.
So the question is how can Christians make sure it is known that true acceptance and belonging is found in Christ and in a community of believers? How can pastors let people who sit in their pews know that to feel true acceptance, one must surrender to God and also to the difficulties of being in real, messy community with one another. It would be a beautiful thing if churches could be the place where teens look up from their phone screen and see a real avatar (a person!) with a real emoji on their face (a smile!) welcoming them in to the community to be seen, known, and loved. Because it’s evident now that the lack of real flesh and blood relationships is having horrible effects on our world.
Note: I do recognize the hypocrisy of saying this online of all places. But I wanted to try and connect some thought that the past 24 hours have brought. I will, however, see you at Christ Church Mission on Johnson Drive tomorrow in flesh and blood!