Monthly Archives: May 2009

What Does “Mere Christianity” Look Like?


“It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is a something, or a Someone, who against all divergencies of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”

-C.S. Lewis, preface to Mere Christianity

I always loved C.S. Lewis’ idea of “mere Christianity”—that there are fundamental beliefs about God and Christ that bind the church together, even while so many of the particulars might be different or contradictory. It’s an idea that makes sense. And it’s comforting. It helps explains why Christianity as a belief system has managed to survive so many centuries and penetrate so many disparate cultures. There are certain core beliefs (amazing, world changing beliefs) that can’t help but endure. And as I’ve spent the last few days in Lewis’ house here in Oxford, his idea—“mere Christianity” is one I’ve thought about again and again.

I think about it while I’m writing my book, for one thing. If there is any underlying reason why I’m writing the book, it’s that I think the church today needs to rediscover “mere Christianity” as opposed to “cool Christianity” or “jazzy Christianity” or “online Christianity” (or whatever other conflated, stylized “Christianity” you can think of). I think we’ve become obsessed with the form and presentation of the Gospel while forsaking its substance (or divorcing substance from form, which is equally problematic). And I think a good dose of “mere Christian” back-to-basics and unity-mindedness could do us some good.

I also thought about this idea as I was in downtown Oxford today, looking at old cathedrals and convents and churches and vestiges of Christianity’s indelible impact on this place. I especially liked seeing the Oxford Martyrs monument, on the spot where Thomas Cranmer and 2 others were burned at the stake for their beliefs. Though the church is not alive here like it once was, the physical and spiritual remnants are enough to inspire anyone. Sitting in the University Church of St. Mary’s on Thursday I was able to catch a free chorale concert by a touring choir from William Jewell College in Missouri. It was sad to me that beautiful cathedrals like this in Oxford are now primarily venues for concerts and tourism, but then when the choir started singing the American folk hymn, “What Wondrous Love is This,” it didn’t matter. It was beautiful and transcendent. When songs like that are still being sung in places like this, the worldwide church is alive and well.

I think about the idea when I’m chatting with Tammy, the other writer who is currently staying at the Kilns, or Donna, who is the caretaker of the Kilns and also lives here. We are all from different backgrounds and Christian traditions, but we are all fond of Lewis and fond of “mere Christian” fellowship. It’s been great hearing about Tammy’s passionate and daring preference for the book of John over anything Paul wrote. It’s fun having an afternoon Pimms-and-pineapple juice with Donna and talking about our mutual appreciation for Tim Keller. It was fantastic when the three of us had dinner and drinks at a restaurant on the banks of the Thames last night in Oxford. The C.S. Lewis Foundation always has a knack for bringing unlikely groups of people together and allowing them to experience the heavenly feeling of mere Christian fellowship… and this week has been one more instance of that.

I will probably be thinking of this idea tomorrow when I go to London and visit some churches (Grace Church Hackney and Hillsong London). I love going to Christian churches in foreign countries (I love going to churches just about anywhere) and seeing how the Christians in a given community worship. I love having communion at these churches—jumping right in to this ultimate sacrament of community, like every Christian should wherever they are in the world. Every church is a little different, and some are very different—but ultimately they all are centered around the same Someone—Jesus Christ—and speak praise and thanks in the same voice—that of the worldwide body of Christ, the Church.

Finally, I think of Lewis’ idea as I sit here, in his bedroom, thinking about the type of Christian he was. Lewis gave so much of himself when he was alive. I think about how he took in some kids from London during the war, and how he gave away most of his income from book sales, and how he replied to every fan letter he ever received. And this is to say nothing of his immense scholarly and literary contributions to the Christian tradition and the world at large. He was a man of God, to be sure, and if I can be a mere Christian in the Lewisian mold I will certainly have lived a good life.

First Day at The Kilns

I’m writing this on the bed of C.S. Lewis, in his second floor room in his beautiful home—The Kilns—just outside of Oxford. There’s a little brick fireplace in the room, a creaky wood floor, and an adjacent study where he did a lot of writing after his wife Joy died.

It’s a ghostly little room, haunted by the absence of a legendary literary hero as well as the curious visage of what looks like a photo of the shroud of Turin, hanging above the fireplace mantle. The curtains are brown burlap and the walls are painted bluish gray. Outside the gardens are thriving and green, with hydrangeas and begonias and apple and pear trees enjoying their early summer growth spurts. Down the path there is a hidden pond, sodden with algae and leaves. I went hiking back there tonight, after dinner. I climbed to the top of Shotover Hill, on a muddy, well-worn path that Lewis himself took many an evening. That Lewis had trod on these very paths and slept under this very roof was indeed an inspiring thing, but more than Lewis himself (or his writings or his legacy), these things brought to mind a longing for something other and separate and elsewhere. Fitting, I suppose, as this is an idea Lewis frequently explored.

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis wrote this:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

This house is not the thing itself, and yet through it comes so much. It’s more than just Lewis for me. It’s a stream of memories of the weeks I’ve spent in Oxford in summer past, with amazing people I might not ever see again. It’s the smell of the rain and the bright green trees and all the memories of grasses and habitats I’ve had occasion to roll around in over the years. It’s listening to Debussy on damp blankets under the stars at Tanglewood one summer in the Berkshires. It’s the echo of a tune that I have not yet heard.

It’s beautiful, and I’m so blessed to be here.

A New York City Blur


“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” -E.M. Forster (Howards End)

“Only connect.” That is the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s Howards End—a book I have not actually read, but which I have on my list. “Only connect” is a sort of life mantra for a friend I had dinner with in Brooklyn last night, and in thinking about what I could say about my NYC experiences over the past few days, the phrase kept coming up. “Only connect.”

I try to live my life in this way. Making connections, tying things together, seeing how all the pieces fit and how my geometry class in high school ties in to things like enjoying hot dogs and playing jump rope. But while living in this “only connect” way is totally exhilarating, it can also be pretty exhausting. The world is just so expansive and overwhelming and broad and diverse. The more that I travel, the more I recognize that this is so.

The last 48 hours in New York City have been something of a blur, overflowing with thoughts and observances and conversations and good food. I’m too tired now to try to process it all, so I’m afraid the following is not going to do justice to Mr. Forster’s sage epigraph advice. Instead, I’ll just sketch out a few things that have been memorable. There will be time for connecting the dots in a few days. For now, some brief, unconnected thoughts.

-New York City has felt decidedly unreal and almost dream-like for me on this trip. Maybe it’s because I arrived here on Sunday morning (having taken a redeye and slept only 3 hours) and then proceeded to visit 3 churches (sitting through the services) and have lunch in Greenwich Village with one person and dinner in Williamsburg with another. It was a foggy blur, but it was great. I will write more about these churches later (as in months later…).

-Talking about modernism, postmodernism, and the phenomenology of hipster fashion while eating arepas in a restaurant full of hipsters is a total trip. Especially when you’re delirious from lack of sleep.

-Standing on the platform of the M train in Brooklyn during a thunderstorm suddenly made me think of all the summers of my life.

-New York City feels like the most American place on earth. For this reason: everyone walks around with a confident sense of upward mobility. Whether this is evidenced in knockoff Coach purses, hipster Raybans, iPhones or Diesel skinny jeans, the effect is the same. NYC is a place where status (or status aspiration) is worn on one’s person.

-Food is going to be a theme of my trip. I travel in such a way that my money does not go to accommodations (I stay in hostels and am happy to do so) but to food. I don’t think there’s a better way to experience the pleasures of a foreign environment than through food. Some food highlights of the day: Rhubarb scone for breakfast at an amazing diner in Brooklyn; family style Italian (with my family) at Carmine’s on the Upper West Side; blueberry/creamcheese/shortbread dessert at Magnolia Bakery in Midtown; Ukrainian split pea soup and a good pinot noir at Veselka in the East Village. Oh and yesterday: the Caracas Arepa Bar in Williamsburg was AMAZING.

-Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg Brooklyn has the most hipsters per square inch than anywhere on earth (apart from fleeting events like Coachella). My camera could not snap pictures fast enough.

-Gentrification is fascinating. And so is the way that it ties in to so many things: class, race, organic food, Animal Collective, public housing, politics, Bob Dylan, the Internet, skinny jeans rolled up to shin length, and menus that change daily.

-I’m flying to London tomorrow night and will commence my week at C.S. Lewis’ house on Wednesday. Until then!

Heading Across the Pond

I’m leaving on Saturday on a “research”/“writing” trip to New York City, London, Oxford and Paris. The reason I’m going is threefold:

-I wanted to visit churches in New York City, London and Paris (probably the world’s three hippest cities) as part of my hipster church tour.
-I wanted to have a week in Oxford just to write.
-I needed new scenery and a summer vacation.

The coolest thing about my trip is that when I’m in Oxford, I will be staying at the Kilns—the quaint little English home of C.S. Lewis on the outskirts of the city. The house is owned by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, who I’ve been associated with for the last 4 years. The Foundation opens the home throughout the year to scholars and writers who need an inspiring place to get their work done. They call it the C.S. Lewis Study Centre.

Of course I feel completely lucky and spoiled that I’ll get to spend a week there—sleeping in the room where Lewis slept from 1930-1963. I’m immensely blessed to be able to write in the study where Lewis wrote the majority of his world-impacting texts. I only hope some of his brilliant, humble spirit will waft its way into my own hand as I write in that place. I don’t expect miracles—but Lewis would probably say that I should.

Anyway, I will be hopefully be updating my blog every few days throughout my time in Europe, wherever wifi is available. After my week in Oxford, I’ll be in London for a few days, and then in Paris for four days. So bon voyage, readers! Next time you hear from me will likely be Sunday night, from Brooklyn—where I’ll be writing from the cradle of hipster civilization.

Best Documentaries to Represent America

A few months ago I posted a list of the 25 films that I thought best represented America. Someone then suggested that I make a list of the documentaries that I thought best represented America, which I thought was a great idea. So after much consideration (because there are a lot of great documentaries about American culture), this is the list I came up with: the 10 documentaries that best capture the intricacies and complexities of American culture. If an alien came to America and needed a DVD primer on what we’re all about, these would be the documentaries I would suggest. (In chronological order…)

Salesman (1969): This Maysles Brothers film about door-to-door Bible salesman is the quintessential portrait of middle class American capitalism in all of its comedy, tragedy, and ambition. It’s like Death of a Salesman except real. See also: Grey Gardens (1975).

Woodstock (1970): I had to include a music doc on this list, and there is really nothing better than Woodstock, the iconic documentary about the famous 1969 music festival in Upstate NY. It’s a treasure of American history and a paean to the tumultuous and free-spirited tenor of American culture in the Vietnam era. See also: Don’t Look Back (1967) or Gimme Shelter (1970).

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976): Barbara Kopple’s seminal documentary about a 1973 coal worker strike in rural Kentucky stands as one of the most singular portraits of the blue collar Americana ever seen on film. Her unobtrusive observance of the thick-skinned residents of Harlan County, Kentucky is a valuable testament to a particular time and place in American culture. See also: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936).

Sherman’s March (1986): Ross McElwee’s 1986 documentary began as a film about the famous Civil War general’s march to the sea and ended as a self-conscious study of romantic neuroses. Very American. See also: Bright Leaves (2003).

The Civil War (1990): Ken Burns is to American documentary what Ozu is to Japanese cinema. That is: he’s the master. Any of his films could have made this list (Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc) but I think the 11-hour Civil War is perhaps his most momentous achievement. And what is more American than The Civil War? See also: Baseball (1994).

Hoop Dreams (1994): This is the Citizen Kane of American documentary, in my opinion. It follows two young basketball stars in inner city Chicago over a five year period as they aspire to get college scholarships and make their NBA dreams a reality. It’s a film about much more than basketball, however. It’s about the American dream and the unfortunate systemic issues that keep that dream at bay for so many people. See also: American Teen (2008).

On the Ropes (1999): Before last year’s American Teen, Nanette Burstein made this amazing, intimate documentary about three young boxers and their trainer in New York City. In many ways it’s like Hoop Dreams: Boxing, dealing with similar issues of class and race and the American dream. See also: When We Were Kings (1996).

Spellbound (2003): A compelling narrative of 8 kids in the running to win at the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. It’s a film about competition, diligence, diversity, upward mobility, class, race, and a lot of American other things. See also: Mad Hot Ballroom (2003).

The Fog of War (2003): Errol Morris is one of the best American documentarians, and this film—a psychological portrait of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara—is a great biographical film about a figure that looms large over 20th Century American history. See also: Standard Operating Procedure (2008).

The King of Kong (2007): This is a fun documentary about nerdy middle-aged “gamers” and their obsession with world records, but it is also one of the most profound cinematic microcosms of Americana to hit the screen in recent years. See also: Murderball (2005).

Hipster Church Tour: Mars Hill Church

As part of the research for my book, I’ve been visiting churches all over the country over the past year—a tour of “America’s hippest churches,” you might say (though soon to expand to Europe as well). The goal is to gain a good bit of qualitative data on the subject I’m writing about, to understand firsthand how various church bodies are fitting in to this whole thing. I have stopped at dozens of churches in many states and talked with countless people, and every now and then on my blog I will describe in depth my various observations about these churches.

The first stop on my tour was Jacob’s Well in Kansas City. Read about that here.

Next on the tour (which will continue every month or so, for the next year at least) is Seattle’s Mars Hill Church.

Church Name: Mars Hill Church
Location: Seattle, WA
Head Pastor: Mark Driscoll (officially “Preaching and Theology Pastor”)

Summary: Mars Hill Church in Seattle is one of the defining churches of hipster Christianity. It’s the church of Mark Driscoll, the original cussing hipster pastor, whose strong, controversial personality is a huge part of the church’s success. Founded in 1996, Mars Hill now holds services at seven campuses across the Seattle area, ministering to many thousands of young attendees every week. I visited the church on a Sunday in November, and attended both the original campus (where Driscoll preaches live) and a satellite campus in Lake City where Driscoll speaks via a televised feed.

Building: The main campus of Mars Hill is located in a massive warehouse style building in Ballard. The sanctuary is a large, darkly lit hall with modern hanging lamp fixtures and an elaborate stage complete with a massive backdrop of LCD panels. The Lake City campus is an actual renovated church—a smallish church complete with vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and pews.

According to Lake City campus pastor James Harleman, the congregation of Mars Hill is 40% churched, 30% ex-churched, and 30% un-churched. And just from my cursory observations, I would venture that the congregation is 80% under the age of 40. They’re young, and they’re hip. I saw lots of tattoos, skinny jeans, v-necks and Jesse James scarves in the crowd when I was there.

There is no one “worship band,” but rather a stable of standalone bands that alternate playing at the main Ballard campus and “house bands” for the various satellite campuses. With names like Ex-Nihilo, Red Letter, and E-Pop, these bands tend to play indie rock versions of classic hymns like “Nothing But the Blood” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” more often than the flavor-of-the-week contemporary worship songs. At the Lake City campus on the Sunday I visited, for example, a band called Sound and Vision performed math-rock arrangements of songs like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” and “All Creatures of Our God and King,” complete with Nintendo-sounding beeps.

Arts: A lot of artists and designers attend Mars Hill, and many of them “tithe their talents” to the church, designing logos and websites and printed materials for the church’s branding. The result is that Mars Hill has a very cool, cutting-edge aesthetic that doesn’t feel top down (because it isn’t; most of it is made by non-paid church volunteers). The church also expresses its love of art by hanging up local artists’ work on the walls and by hosting film screenings (called “Cinemagogue”) and film review blogs.

Technology: Mars Hill is a very technology-happy church. The sound and light systems in the buildings are high tech, and the use of video is widespread and professional-quality. During the service I attended, texting was also incorporated—with the congregation being urged to text in their questions during the sermon, which Pastor Mark might answer at the end. Mars Hill’s website is predictably high-tech and stylish, and features its own social networking site, called “The City,” meant to “enhance” and “deepen” the community life of the church. This is the type of church that is always on the cutting edge of technology and finds a way to incorporate all the latest doo-dads and media into the life of the church.

Neighborhood: The main campus of Mars Hill is located in Ballard, in Northwestern Seattle. It’s a trendy area these days—full of artsy shops, restaurants, cafes, theaters and home to many a yuppie. Mars Hill is big into missional dispersion, however, and has other locations across Seattle and Washington: Downtown Seattle, Bellevue, Lake City, Olympia, Shoreline, and West Seattle.

Preaching: Mark Driscoll is heavily in the Calvinist/Reformed camp, and likes to preach on things like sin, man’s depravity, Christ’s atonement, justification, the cross, and how dumb “religion” and “legalism” are. He also likes to be controversial and doesn’t shy away from taboo topics and language. On the Sunday I visited, Driscoll’s message was on the Dance of Mahanaim section of the Song of Solomon (an “ancient striptease,” as he referred to it, and “one of the steamiest passages in the Bible”). During his sermon—part of “The Peasant Princess” series—Driscoll, looking like a metrosexual jock in a tight t-shirt, cross necklace and faux hawk, talked about how wives should be “visually generous” with their husbands (i.e. they should keep the lights on when undressing, during sex, etc.).

Quote from pulpit:
“God doesn’t look down and see good people and bad people; He sees bad people and the Lord Jesus.”

Quote from website:
“The great reformer Martin Luther rightly said that, as sinners, we are prone to pursue a relationship with God in one of two ways. The first is religion/spirituality and the second is the gospel. The two are antithetical in every way.”

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father


Dear Zachary is a documentary by an average guy—Kurt Kuenne—who set out to make an homage film about his best friend who was tragically murdered. It’s not an average film. It’s a masterpiece that had me in tears pretty much start-to-finish. I haven’t been as punched-in-the-gut wrecked by a movie since the last 20 minutes of United 93. Dear Zachary came out in 2008 and would have made my top ten list for sure. It’s now out on DVD and available to “Watch Now” on Netflix. WATCH IT NOW. But beware: it is relentlessly affecting.

This is a film that never makes a false move, and although it is ridiculously emotional, it is resolutely not a manipulative film. I kept trying to figure out what Kuenne was doing to elicit my uncontrollable emotion. Was it the music? The editing? The constantly crying talking heads? It was all of this, but mostly it was the film’s subject matter.

Dear Zachary is a film about injustice. It’s about legal injustice, moral injustice, and existential injustice. The latter of the three is the hardest to deal with. It’s perhaps what makes this film so hard to watch. The story of Dear Zachary is the tragedy of Andrew Bagby, a much beloved average Joe who was suddenly murdered by an ex-girlfriend who was pregnant with his baby. The baby—Zachary—never gets the chance to meet his father, which is the reason why Kuenne made the film: as a preservation of the legacy of Andrew Bagby for the son who will never know him. In a way, though, it’s a film about all of us. Andrew Bagby could be any of our friends, our sons, our uncles, our fathers or friends… He could be us. The film is about the injustice of death. The awkward and jolting suddenness of a life extinguished. And we are all way too familiar with this.

There are other things to admire about this film than the fact that it makes you cry. It is an exceptional example of personal documentary cinema, in the vein of Capturing the Friedmans or Tarnation, and it seamlessly incorporates found footage, interviews, documents, photographs, and all the other typical archival elements. It is also a great example of mystery crime documentary, in the vein of Errol Morris’ films. The truth of the crime and the legal proceedings is revealed in a series of unexpected, wrenching turns that will knock you over again and again. The film also has a vigorous fluidity and adaptability to it: it morphs and changes as it goes along, and indeed, Kuenne’s plan for the film is forced to shift when his subjects’ lives take unexpected turns.

Dear Zachary is a masterpiece of personal cinema with universal resonance. It’s a reminder that this is what cinema at it’s best is all about: evoking the flow and pressures and releases of life—in all of its ruthless and beautiful velocity.

Talking About Blogging

I figure the best way to end this little “Talking About…” communication series is to get really meta and write about blogging. It’s a form of communication I’ve been quite familiar with for the better part of the last two years, and it’s something I’ve always approached with a critical eye.

In my first blog post back on July 1 2007 (“Welcome to my antiblog”), I laid out a series of “Dos and Don’ts” that would guide my blog from the start. I’ve listed them below, with evaluative comments about how I have or have not stayed true to them.

First, the DON’Ts:

1) No blog entry will detail events, persons, or problems from my personal life, unless used as literary devices or otherwise in service of some more substantial point. In fact, the use of the first-person pronoun in general should be used with discretion.

The first part of this has held true for my blog. I do not get too personal. The voice I use on the blog has been completely honest and I hope even vulnerable at times, but I purposefully have not delved too much into my personal life. As for the first-person pronoun avoidance, this was too much to ask. I started using “I” immediately and frequently in my blogging, and (as you can see), I haven’t stopped.

2) This will not be a “news” site that pointlessly reiterates stories as seen on CNN, TMZ, ESPN, or other such widely seen sites.

I have from time to time fallen prey to this sort of thing, but most of the time I try to offer a different take or a more critical perspective on the news stories currently capturing the public’s attention.

3) No crappy, late-night ramblings or sub-par filler writing. Only high quality and serious interrogations of issues, ideas, art, etc.

It hasn’t always been high quality, and I have definitely indulged in a few late-night ramblings on here, but for the most part I think the tone I have maintained has been one of “serious interrogations of issues, ideas, art…” At least that what I’m always aiming for.

And now, the DOs:

1) Link to the best stuff on the web (articles, mp3s, videos, etc) that might otherwise be lost in the ridiculous glut of information out there.

This is something I have not done very well. I’m not the greatest aggregator and should probably be better about linking to other good stuff beyond my own blog.

2) Write about (and link to other writing about) anything and everything, as long as it is done with an earnest curiosity and minimum of irony. The world needs more earnestness, I think.

I have tried to minimize the irony on this blog, and I think I’ve been successful for the most part. But irony and earnestness are sometimes confused or misconstrued in online forms… so I’m sure there have been times when something I’ve written about in all earnestness has been taken ironically, and vice versa.

3) Provide more questions than answers. There’s a reason the blog’s called “The Search.” It’s always ongoing.

I hope this has been the case. I definitely don’t think of myself or what I’m writing about as being definitive or any sort of answer; rather I am just one among a chorus of voices who hopes to spark dialogue and discussion about important issues that we all think about and deal with.

So, now that I am nearly 2 years in to the blogging world, what are my thoughts? Well, here are a few in no particular order: 1) Blogging is first and foremost valuable to the blogger. Not only does it give you a platform to talk publicly about things you are passionate about, but it forces you to communicate in a lucid, readable, appealing manner. In short: it makes you a better writer and hopefully a better communicator. 2) Blogging has a dangerous lack of accountability. There are no editors, no filters, no advisors looking over your shoulder. But there are commenters. And that keeps you honest and forces you to be careful with what you say. 3) My blog voice is a strange mix of very personal and very impersonal speech. On one hand I am speaking to my community—my family and friends and faithful readers; on another hand I’m speaking to a vast, unknown Internet public who I have no connection to. It’s strange. 4) Blogging is a helpful incubator for ideas that I’m wrestling with. 5) Blogging makes it easy to micromanage my public identity, though it also forces me to be consistent and authentic. And finally, perhaps one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned: 6) Writing about things on a blog and sharing my thoughts with the world is fun, but it can’t compare with being around people in physical presence and just talking to them. Even the best blog can’t compete with that.

Talking About Facebook and Twitter


I reluctantly joined Facebook back in September. I’ve been on it for like 9 months now, and I suppose you could say I’m a little less antagonistic about it than I once was… like when I wrote this article back in 2007, or even this one back in February. I mean, I still have a love/hate relationship with Facebook, but I’m definitely less extreme about it these days.

Facebook is a reality we have to deal with (as well as Twitter… but we’ll get to that in a minute). It’s quickly becoming our preferred mode of communication and a source of many hours of time spent on a weekly and even daily basis. And in keeping with my newly diplomatic approach to Facebook, I have thoughts about both the good and bad aspects of this type of communication.

The Good: Facebook allows you to consolidate a vast majority of friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues in one massive, easy-to-use online Rolodex.

The Bad: Isn’t it a bit strange to reduce all types of “friends” (including best friends, bosses, professors, etc) to just another part of the “friend collection”? Isn’t it strange that everything is so public and shared and mixed… so that my friend from one area of my life can observe and make assumptions about my acquaintances from other areas of my life? Or maybe this is a good thing?

The Good: On Facebook, you can easily share photos, videos, and pretty much anything about yourself that you’d like to share.

The Bad: You don’t have to share anything you don’t want to share. You have complete control over your image, to the point that you can even untag yourself in a photo or remove any comment or unsightly representation of yourself that doesn’t fit with your ideal projection of yourself.

The Good: Facebook is a quick and easy way to schedule events, parties, and social gatherings. It makes it easy to do spontaneous things and allows groups to communicate together more easily.

The Bad: Facebook is too quick and too easy. Whatever happened to the glorious challenge of scheduling, playing phone tag, and figuring out the nuances of group dynamics in a gloriously clunky manner?

The Good: Facebook is an efficient means of promoting yourself or something you like. It allows you to inform vast numbers of people about things that you want them to read, or see, or listen to, and it gives you the opportunity to keep people in the loop as to your life’s important goings on.

The Bad: Do we really need to be tempted to think that our life’s goings on are important and worthy enough to be trumpeted to the entire Facebook world?

The Ugly: Might Facebook be turning us into more prideful narcissists, overly obsessed with our publicized Facebook identity and prone to narrate our lives via mass-transmitted status updates?

Which brings me to Twitter. OH, TWITTER. This is something I have a hard time finding much good in at all. Okay, that’s not true. As a marketing or PR device, or an impersonal means of alerting large groups of people about something important, Twitter is a good tool. But in my experience the majority of people use Twitter as a nauseatingly indulgent means of self branding and pat-on-the-back public self actualization. People love using Twitter to subtly announce their importance (“over 100 emails on my blackberry this morning!”) or suggest something about class distinction (“Oh dang, I just remembered I have to take a Redeye tonight to New York!”). Occasionally someone will tweet an interesting link or thoughtful observation about something, but 90% of them are just shameless self-promotion.

My over-arching concern about all of this stuff is that it is pushing us farther into our own worlds and making us even more individualistic and self-obsessed. There’s a reason why it is FACE-book or MY-Space… these things are all about ME.

In my article, “The Problem of Pride in the Age of Twitter” (Relevant, Jan/Feb 2009), I wrote:

I think that contemporary technologies are nurturing the part of our humanity that strives to be the master of our domain, the sole creator of identity. In former eras and communication environments, our human longing for community and connectivity and the shared creation of meaning was foregrounded. But these days, it seems that everything technology-related is pushing us inward, to the “i” world of iPod, iPhones, iMacs, etc. Under the guise of increasing our levels of connectivity, these technologies are ultimately just tools to help us isolate, insulate, and unshackle from the outmoded constraints of having to answer to anyone other than ourselves.

That remains my concern with these online “extensions of ourselves.” Though they can and are used to cultivate community and interpersonal relationships, they are also tools to aid us in our never-ending quest to be in complete control of our identities. And I’m not sure we need any more help in this quest.

Coming next in the Communication series: Talking About Blogging.

Talking About Online Chatting

Since some time in the late 90s, online chatting has been a popular form of communication among people below a certain age. Whether AIM, gmail chat, facebook chat, ichat, or whatever other mode of usage, the online ping pong form of communication is something most of us have participated in or do participate in on a daily basis.

And as with most forms of communication, I have mixed feelings about it.

On one hand, I really enjoy the way that online chatting allows for more thoughtful back-and-forth. Certainly it doesn’t always happen, but at least the form lends itself to more thought-through responses. In face-to-face communication, if you pause for too long or look nervous trying to come up with something to say, it makes the situation awkward. Online, it’s accepted. You can take all the time you want to craft a message before you hit “send,” and both parties accept that this is how it should happen. Face-to-face, we often fill awkward silences with rushed statements or uncomfortable silence-fillers. Online, we can go about it slower and more methodically, crafting just the right response to communicate exactly the right thing.

I also like the way that online chatting preserves (or can preserve) a record of the conversation. You can scroll up to reference something that was previously said, or archive entire conversations to reference in the future. You can keep tabs on the tone, history and direction of the conversation. Finally, I think it is definitely the case that there are things—important things—that can be said much more readily and clearly in a written online chat than a face-to-face in-person chat. Like it or not, there is something about physical proximity and eye-to-eye connection that makes it hard to say things we might want to say or need to say. Online, it is easier. Alas, this is both a good and a bad thing… which leads me to some of my “on the other hand” qualms…

Is making the “hard stuff” easier really a good thing? This is my first question about online chat. I know for myself and many people I associate with, it is often the case that we opt for a chat message or email rather than face-to-face because it is convenient. Certainly when I want to chat with someone in Japan or something, online is a great option. But we also sometimes forgo face-to-face because of the awkward or dangerous aspect of it. Online chatting is much more controlled, after all.

But is “controlled” necessarily a good thing? Do we really get to know people—the real people—through controlled circumstances and “safe” methods of communication? I think it’s definitely possible that we can, because I do think I’ve gotten to know people better through online chatting, and I’m very thankful for that. But I also think that there is an implied distance and convenient removal to the whole thing. With every medium there is an implicit message, as McLuhan would say, and with the medium of online chatting it might be this: communication through this form is chiefly about efficiency, speed, convenience, and the absence of all face-to-face baggage.

One thing that I come back to in thinking about online chatting is the fact that it is just “one among many windows” on a personal computer screen. Typically while I am chatting with someone online, I am doing any number of the following things: checking or writing emails, writing something else, watching something online, eating, cooking, cleaning, buying plane tickets, listening to music, and/or chatting with a handful of other people simultaneously. What does this chaotic multi-tasking situation do to the meaning of a “conversation,” if only on a symbolic level? What message are we sending to one another with our laissez faire “brb” approach to starting and stopping and resuming-when-convenient communication patterns?

Don’t get me wrong. I love online chatting. I do it every day—with friends from across the world and coworkers a cubicle away. I have great, meaningful conversations. I schedule things and get important work done. I learn about people and they me. It’s a totally valid communication form, and it’s changed a lot of our communication patterns in the 21st century. For better, definitely; and also for worse.

Coming next in the Communication series: Talking About Facebook and Twitter.