If John the Baptist had a Twitter account, I wonder what his profile would be? “Wild and hairy 30-year old, living in the desert, eccentrically dressed, eats dead insects, raids bees' nests. Willing to baptise anyone ready to repent. Preparing the way of the Lord. ”
I’m a great fan of the so-called social media. Because of Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere I am constantly learning things that I probably would not have known. I (sort-of) meet people I wouldn’t have met, and even sometimes become (sort-of) friends with them. They give me a wider outlook on life, and expose me to views and opinions that I might not have encountered. And there is undoubtedly a kind of community which can develop between those who communicate regularly via these means. I enjoy the reflections of those I follow or whose blogs I read, even when I do not agree with their tone or content.
I’m not of course unaware of the downsides: first, communicating via these media can become a bit obsessive. Secondly, it is certainly distracting, to the extent that the beckoning Twitterfeed can lure you (well, me) all too easily away from other things which demand my focused attention. Thirdly, there is no doubt in my mind that it gives some people the green light to be far ruder or more outspoken than they would be in person. (I sometimes encounter cynicism so bitter that it practically takes my breath away. I once deleted a Facebook friend because she was so spitefully insulting about the Archbishop of Canterbury that I was personally offended. She subsequently e-mailed me to say that she was "entitled to her opinion"; but I don't believe we're entitled to spit out whatever bile happens to burning within us, heedless of our audience.) Lastly, I can also see - though I am less sure about - its potential to damage or arrest the development of face-to-face social skills in young people.
But the main danger I would say is that, at some level, my Facebook page, my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and this blog - are all about me. Specifically, they’re about me telling you who I am and what I think, on the assumption that you might be interested. Looked at that way, it can be seen a quite a feat of the ego. It’s true of course that many others are doing this as well, and I am in turn a consumer of their tweets and blogposts; and there are some bloggers and tweeters who confine their output entirely to non-personal material, often of a purely factual or improving kind. But I sometimes worry that I might be engaged in a rather artful form of self-advertisement. Here I am! Aren’t I clever? Aren’t I wise? Look at me!
In this season of Advent, Christians in the Church of England and beyond consider in services and in their own Bible reading: the patriarchs (like Abraham), the prophets (like Isaiah), John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. These are the principal figures the Church identifies as having witnessed, in their various ways, times and situations, to the advent (or coming) of the Messiah. Their calling was to point to Him, whatever their fears and whatever the consequences (which were often considerable, and in John's case, ultimately fatal). These people did not seek the limelight; but neither did they shun it. They used it, not for the fortification of their own egos, but for the glory of the Other. "Here I am!" they say to us, "Look at Him!"