Text for Ecclesia and Ethics II Presentation

unnamedThis is the “transcript” of my presentation that I gave at the Ecclesia and Ethics Conference this last Saturday. For those who are registered you can listen to the recording of the session. This text doesn’t contain my full talk—it was just a guide. I ad-libbed quite a bit—especially during the section where I discuss the Beloved Disciple in the Fourth Gospel—and I didn’t write my conclusion before presenting, but it does contain the gist of my talk. You can access it after the jump:

“Status Anxiety, Social Media, and Discipleship”

Ecclesia and Ethics Conference 

Brian LePort

Introduction

In 2004 philosopher Alan de Botton released a book titled Status Anxiety about, “A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.”[1] This may be a concept for which many of us previously had no label, but it isn’t an idea foreign to us. If you feel pressured to obtain the social status provided by wealth (“keeping up with the Joneses”) or vocational success (the so-called “corporate ladder”) then you experience status anxiety.

Recently, I have noticed that for many of us there is a new source for our status anxiety: social media. When de Botton wrote his book there was one broadly used social media platform: MySpace. Facebook was in the process of becoming the biggest and most used. Twitter was a couple of years away from being launched (2006). Many people were discovering the instant fame of blogging. Now it is rare to meet someone who isn’t on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or something similar and many people have tried to gain an audience through blogging at some point over the last several years. The language of social media tends to create a desire for small time celebrity. While Facebook has you connect with “friends” you can still create pages either promoting yourself or something important to you. Twitter and Instagram allow you to gather “followers” and blogs can thrive only if you gain a readership.

Meanwhile, the Christian idea of discipleship is one of following. Disciples follow the example of Jesus Christ as he is presented to them in the Gospels and modeled to them by servant-leaders in the Church. “The one who is least among you…is the greatest.” In a society that makes one feel strange if one does not have the desire for some sort of small time celebrity what might the call to discipleship tell us about our need to resist, not these social media platforms themselves, but the status anxiety that they create and the pseudo-worth they offer to those who are able to wield these tools in favor of their own self-promotion? This paper will explore that tension juxtaposing our society’s invitation to be “followed” with the Gospel of John’s depiction of following Jesus as a disciple.

 

Status Anxiety

According to de Botton status is determined by “one’s position in society”, “one’s legal or professional standing within a group”.[2] Employer is ranked higher than employee; professor is higher than student. In certain circles one may be privileged based on their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, politic affiliation, etc. When one is part of a group where they don’t match the preferred criteria there is awareness that one is being perceived as inferior.

Obviously, we’d prefer to find ourselves in social groups where we have high status rather than low status. De Botton observes, “The consequences of high status are pleasant. They include resources, freedom, space, comfort, time and, as importantly perhaps, a sense of being cared for and thought valuable—conveyed through invitations, flattery, laughter (even when a joke lacked bite), deference and attention.”[3] It follows that the opposite is true of those who lack status in a particular group: one lacks resources, freedom, space, comfort, time, and often the sense that one is cared for or thought valuable. The worst consequence may be the feeling of being ignored altogether.

According to the psychologist William James,

“No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as if we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily torture would be a relief.”[4]

When we meet troubled adolescents or “twenty-somethings” we realize that there is a good chance that their behavior has something to do with being neglected, ignored, and mistreated when they were younger. When one experiences social rejection it can become a source of anxiety. De Botton lists the following causes of rejection: “recession, redundancy, promotions, retirement, conversations with colleagues in the same industry, newspaper profiles of the prominent and the greater success of friends.”[5] Our worth is often determined by our perception of what others think of us. More specifically, what people who matter to us think of us. As de Botton says, “…status is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain over a lifetime.”[6]  When we experience what it feels like to be noticed, acknowledged, and appreciated we will do all that we can to avoid losing this feeling. This is not necessarily negative: there is a thin line between a healthy desire for community and an unhealthy need for attention. Both are determined by a desire to become someone who does something in the world. We want to transcend mere existence. We want to be known as making an impact and we want to be remembered.

This is not to say that we’re all narcissist. Instead, this is part of how we recognize love—for better or for worse. We need to know we matter to other people. We need to know that our daily actions, our vocations, our energy is being directed toward the betterment of the world, our family, our neighbors.” De Botton writes, “Money, fame and influence may be valued more as tokens of—and means to—love rather than ends in themselves.”[7] He adds: “To be shown love is to feel ourselves the object of concern: our presence is noted, our name is registered, our views are listened to, our failings are treated with indulgence and our needs are ministered to.” [8]

We know that studies have been done that suggests the necessity of touch for infants. As babies our chemical and psychological makeup can be shaped by whether or not we receive attention and care or are neglected and abandoned.[9] As we grow older this need for human contact and acknowledgment does not dissipate. We want to be loved, respected, and wanted. Social anxiety, in part, is an extension of this very natural reality.

Unfortunately, we are often unable to evaluate whether or not we are receiving the necessary amount of attention, honor, affection, and love due to us without comparing ourselves to others. Our parents know whether or not we are learning at an appropriate pace by comparing us to the progress of our peers. This is how grade-school works. We know we are an “A” student not by letters and percentages alone, but more importantly by the social benefits of not being a “D” student. We become aware of our ability or inability to earn favor from others based on competition with our peers.

As we get older we realize that there are some things we’ll never be able to do as well others, so those things cease to be a gauge by which we measure our worth. For example, when I was a teenager I thought I was quite good at basketball (I wasn’t). When I was about seventeen I realized, finally, I was never going to be a great basketball player, let alone go the NBA, let alone earn a scholarship to college, let alone make the high school team. This realization freed me from gaining worth from whether or not I was good at basketball and I no longer compared myself with those who were good.

I am thirty-one now, working on my doctoral degree, hoping to teach or serve the Church in some capacity related to education. So who has replaced the basketball players as my peers from whom I gain a feeling of superiority or inferiority? Those who are part of my same field of study! We compare ourselves to those who are closest to us, who do things we think we should be able to do, whose success could cause us to be overshadowed and forgotten. According to de Botton, “Our judgement of what constitutes an appropriate limit on anything—for example, on wealth or esteem—is never arrived at independently; instead, we make such determinations by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, a set of people who we believe resemble us. We cannot, it seems, appreciate what we have for its own merit….We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms. We see ourselves as fortunate only when we have as much as, or more than, those we have grown up with, work alongside, have as friends or identify with in the public realm.”[10]  I don’t expect to be as wealthy as Bill Gates, but I might envy someone who went to my same college and had my same major if they have more opportunities than I do or make more money.

Last year I heard a story on NPR about sibling rivalries.[11] The discussion was centered upon Super Bowl 47 where John Harbaugh, the coach of the Baltimore Ravens, was facing Jim Harbaugh, the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. According to Shankar Vedantam, the NPR Science Correspondent, we’ve come to learn that sibling rivalries usually exist when both children try to be good at the same things, whether sports, music, or whatever. When there is a gap in age or interests there tends to be less competition. If one child is great at playing the piano that usually doesn’t make the child who is good at baseball feel jealous, unless of course the parents are music fanatics and dislike athletics. Take a moment and ask yourself, “How do I gain worth? What am I ‘known’ for doing?” Then think of siblings with whom you sense little competition. They may be “into” something very different from you. Those who don’t overshadow us don’t threaten us because we don’t foresee how they may detract from the attention and affection due to us.

 

Social Media

In late 2005 I created my first blog. I signed up for MySpace around the same time and then moved to Facebook when MySpace began to fade. Eventually I began using Twitter and I experimented with Google +. In some sense these mediums were helpful for simple things like keeping contact with friends and family, creating a “social network”, and so forth, but there also arose the pressure to build a personal brand. Suddenly it wasn’t merely about connecting to friends on Facebook or following interesting Twitter accounts, but instead it was about numbers. If I connect to more people here and more people there then there is a chance that a great percentage of them will read my blog or think of me if and when an opportunity arises for which I may be a good fit. On one hand, there is nothing wrong with this. Every businessperson, everyone who has submitted their resume in hopes of being hired somewhere, knows what it is like to have to brand one’s self and network in order to prevent being overlooked.

What makes this sort of networking stressful is what de Botton discussed when he wrote about how we feel more pressure to keep up with those we see as peers. It is one thing to be a florist to has to compete with a handful of other local florists. It is something completely different to promote one’s self as a public personality, a public thinker, someone who works in the world of ideas when everyone is qualified to do so.

The democratization that has been caused by social media has had its benefits. For example, one can express their opinion without having to go through traditional gatekeepers. That said, it has had its detractions as well. We have a hard time telling expertise from mere opinion. Since anyone can say something about anything one has to do more than think and write well to gain an audience. One has to become a brand, a product, a personality.

Democratization makes it seem like everyone has a chance to become something fabulous. This can be a good thing. Opportunity is not bad, neither is the leveling of the playing field. What can be bad is when we confuse opportunity for reality. Just because you could become influential using social media doesn’t mean you will become influential, or famous. And this is ok! Status anxiety sets in when we think that because others do something well, and it benefits them, that we must be doing something wrong if we don’t share their success.

This leads many of us to spend more time that we ought to spend on things like designing a website, following a bunch of people on Twitter in hopes of being followed back, or using our Facebook to connect with anyone who may read our blog. Again, let me emphasize that these actions in themselves are not wrong. What we must avoid is the danger of gaining or losing self-worth based on our success in the realm of social media.

Now I am sure that some of you are thinking, “Social media doesn’t affect me this way.” That is good, but since the theme of this year’s conference is “Gospel Community and Virtual Existence” it was imperative that I show how social media with its invitation to be known, to be followed, to be heard ties directly into de Botton’s theories about status anxiety. For those who do not find worth in being known or ignored in the virtual world let me encourage you to ask yourself what might it be that does cause these feelings of inferiority. Work? Parenting? Where do you think you should be more successful and because you aren’t successful in the present it leads you to self-doubt, stress, and anxiety? Maybe the virtual world is not a source of social anxiety for you, but there is a good chance that something is. It is that thing that all of us must acknowledge if we are going to hear Jesus’ call to follow him with listening ears.

 

Discipleship 

In John 21:15-23 we find the Apostle Peter in dialogue with the resurrected Christ. This text reads as follows,

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

In this passage Jesus works diligently to draw Peter’s attention to himself. Jesus wants Peter to be aware of the implications when he declares his love for Jesus. If Peter loves Jesus then Peter is responsible to feed the flock. Peter has not been flawless in his discipleship. He has failed to follow Jesus as he ought. Jesus doesn’t reprimand him for failing to be the best Mini-Me he could be. Jesus points Peter outward toward those who will need him.

Yet Peter seems to miss the point. Instead of getting Jesus’ message and giving his whole heart to hearing Jesus he asks, “What about that guy?” Peter doesn’t allow himself to feel secure before Christ. Instead, Peter determines his worth based on whether or not the Beloved Disciple will share a fate similar to his own. If Peter’s life is to end being taken where he wouldn’t go by his own volition then it is only fair that the other disciple shares a similar fate.

Jesus responds forcefully: “Follow me!”[12] The narrator’s commentary in verse 19 is eye-opening: what Jesus had just said explained how Peter’s death would glorify God. Peter couldn’t see how his death would glorify God because he was too distracted by how his death compared to that of the Beloved Disciple.

Throughout the Fourth Gospel we find juxtaposition between Peter and the Beloved Disciple.[13] The Beloved is depicted as the model disciple. Apparently, assuming he is in view in John 18:15-16, he is a person of high social standing, but literarily this never factors into his identity. In fact, his own name has nothing to do with his identity. He is the disciple who is characterized by Jesus’ love toward him. Let me emphasize this: it isn’t his love toward Jesus that characterizes him, but Jesus’ love for him. As the model disciple his character is one who invites us to find our worth in Jesus’ love for us.

The Beloved Disciple has been depicted in imagery of Jesus’ Last Supper as leaning against Jesus’ chest. This presentation of intimacy and security is derived from John 13:21-28. In this scene Jesus tells his disciples that he will be betrayed (v. 21). There is panic in the room as each disciple begins to suspect the other (v. 22). Then, as if a spotlight shines on one character while the rest of the stage goes dark, we are introduced to the Beloved Disciple’s state-of-being-in-crisis: leaning, reclining, secure (v. 23).[14]

My pastor emeritus Jeff Garner was the first to help me see the beauty of this scene. This unnamed disciple is known throughout the Fourth Gospel by titles that relate to Jesus’ love for him. Not his name. Not his family or tribe. Not the disciple’s love for Jesus. Not the disciple’s fidelity to Jesus. No. Jesus’ love for him.

To be beloved is to accept the love that is there already. That is it.

The disciples in the room that panic do not recline. These disciples do not relax. These disciples are as loved as the beloved, but the difference is that these disciples are not presented as secure in that love. Each begins to turn against the other. Isn’t this our posture toward one another when we fail to find our identity in Christ’s love for us? When we fear our place at the table?

Peter the great disciple, the apostle, the rock has the good sense to motion toward the Beloved: “Tell who it is of whom he is speaking.” Peter knows the Beloved’s relationship to Jesus allows him access to the answer that the rest of the disciples seek (v. 24). The Beloved turns to Jesus, asks Jesus who it is, and receives an answer: “…the one for whom I shall dip the morsel and give it to him.”

Amazingly, if we let the narrative guide us, at this point it could be the Beloved. The Beloved could betray Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say “you,” “Peter,” or even “Judas.” For a brief moment if we stop reading, let the scene pause, and wait, we realize it could be anyone in the room. It will be Judas, but it could have been the Beloved (v. 26).

As the narrative unfolds Judas is identified, but according to the Evangelist it is the Beloved who knows at this moment what is happening. Jesus knows. The Beloved knows. Everyone else remains insecure.

In John 20:1-9 we have the first description of Easter morning in this Gospel.[15] What I find beautiful about the picture painted here is how applicable it is to us today. Often when we think about Jesus’ resurrection we concern ourselves with the question of its historicity. Did it actually happen? There is good evidence for Jesus’ resurrection as well as a multitude of reasons to have doubt, yet in spite of the inconclusiveness of the hard evidence we find that in our heart of hearts we know we have good reason to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead. It is the gospel that was preached to us. It is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. When we have exhausted all our reasons for why others should believe and we have heard all the reasons we shouldn’t believe we still believe.

In John 20:1-9 Mary Magdalene comes running to the disciples telling them that she has seen the stone removed from the tomb. At this juncture in the narrative there is no indication anyone had seen Jesus alive. Peter and the Beloved Disciples take off on a sprint toward the tomb. The Beloved outruns Peter and when both have arrived all they see is burial linens. When the Beloved went inside the tomb he examined what he saw and it says, “He saw and he believed”.

What did he believe? At this juncture he did not believe some objective historical event known as “the resurrection” for in verse 9 it says “They did not understand from the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead”. In other words, the Beloved Disciple believed that something right, something good, something amazing had happened even though the disciples had not yet fully put two and two together. Whatever had happened it was not the removal of his body by Roman soldiers or the Jewish authorities. This was not a grave robbery. While the words “he is risen” had not made sense who Jesus was did make sense. Even before the Beloved Disciple has the evidence he first trusted. He trusted because he knew Jesus. He knew Jesus because he had found his value in being a disciple loved by Jesus.

The reason for anonymity of the Beloved Disciple character in this Gospel is so that the reader can step into his shoes and see the story from his perspective. When I read the Fourth Gospel I want to stand in the sandals of the Beloved Disciple peering into the tomb knowing that the Jesus in whom we believe in trustworthy. I want to stand before Jesus on the cross, even when other have abandoned him, and I want to hear him invite me into his family as he says to Mary, “Behold your son” and to me “behold your mother”.

As noted above I did not write my concluding remarks, but I did have concluding remarks which can be heard on the recorded version.


[1] Botton, Alain De (2008-12-10). Status Anxiety (Vintage) (Kindle Locations 73-75).

[2] Ibid., Kindle Locations 61-68

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Principles of Psychology (Boston: 1890) quoted in de Botton  (Kindle Locations 137-141)

[5] Ibid., Kindle Locations 76-77

[6] Ibid., Kindle Locations 82-83

[7] Ibid., Kindle Locations 113-114

[8] Ibid., Kindle Locations 117-118

[9] E.g., Katherin Harmon, “How Important is Physical Contact with Your Infant?” accessed from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/infant-touch/ on 24 February 2014.

[10] De Botton (Kindle Locations 274-278)

[11] “Examining the Science of Sibling Rivalries” Weekend Edition. National Public Radio.  26 January 2013. Web. Transcript 26 January 2013. Both the audio and the transcript can be accessed from http://www.npr.org/2013/01/26/170336345/examining-the-science-of-sibling-rivalry.

[12] Greek imperative, Ἀκολούθει μοι.

[13] I owe the following insights to my former pastor, Dr. Jeff Garner.

[14] The next seven paragraphs were original published at http://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/maundy-thursday-beloved-and-secure/. They have been modified for this paper.

[15] The next five paragraphs were original published at http://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/he-saw-and-he-believed-being-a-beloved-disciple-on-resurrection-sunday/.They have been modified for this paper.

2 thoughts on “Text for Ecclesia and Ethics II Presentation

  1. Brian, this is great! It sounds like humility–an awareness of oneself and one’s place, and at the same time, an awareness of God’s love for us. Thanks for sharing!

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