During my webinar on parish Facebook pages last week I quoted this passage from Bishop Ron Herzog’s address on social media at the recent US bishop’s meeting:
Although social media has been around for less than 10 years, it doesn’t have the makings of a fad. We’re being told that it is causing as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago. And I don’t think I have to remind you of what happened when the Catholic Church was slow to adapt to that new technology. By the time we decided to seriously promote that common folk should read the Bible, the Protestant Reformation was well underway.
Bishop Herzog is right to reflect on the revolutionary nature of social media. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube: all of these (and more!) are changing the way people access, consume, interpret, and communicate information. He warns his fellow bishops that “[m]ost of us don’t understand the culture,” and so will be ill-prepared for the challenges that come with evangelizing the “Digital Continent.”
Yet I think that, in at least one respect, the Catholic Church has a major advantage in the world of social media: we have a long history of communicating through images and pictures. We take for granted that, in our modern American culture, people can read with some proficiency, but this was not the case for most of the Church’s history. For centuries we used paintings, statues, illuminated manuscripts, and stained glass windows to pass on the faith in an illiterate culture. Over time a sophisticated visual shorthand developed: think of the iconography of the saints that allow us to instantly identify St. Patrick, St. Joseph, or St. Therese.
In a post-literate culture meaning and stories are once again conveyed through pictures, sound, and other non-textual cues. The Church has an abundance of such treasures that can be digitized, edited together, and published for the benefit of a new generation longing for the truth of the Gospel. What’s more, we have a cohort of young, energetic, and faith-filled youth who have the drive and expertise to produce such media.
How can we get those treasures in the hands of those that can do the most good with them? How should we think differently about communicating the faith in a post-literate society? What modern “iconography” can be employed?