Social Media: A Return to the Middle Ages?

1407AD Latin Bible

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?

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Author:Jonathan F. Sullivan

Jonathan F. Sullivan is the director of catechetical services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @sullijo; he also blogs on catechetical topics at www.JonathanFSullivan.com.
  • http://www.thinveil.net Brandon Vogt

    Jonathan,

    I don’t know if you’ve checked them out in the past, but I recently finished two books that deal with this very issue. They are both written by an Evangelical Protestant, but the same effects can easily be seen in the Catholic world.

    I did a video review of them here:

    http://www.thinveil.net/2010/11/video-book-review-books-on-new-media.html

  • http://Www.catholicservant.com Craig

    I find the connection with the Reformation interesting. To this day, Catholics still get tagged as not knowing Scripture….although if you think about it….consider how much we get through attending Daily Mass!

    Great post!

  • Beth Nicol

    Interesting post in the idea of communicating with images. That might be an advantage, true. But, I do believe the Bishop is dead on. The protestant Evangelicals are soooo far out in front on the social media and technology issues that it will be difficult to play catch up, even if it starts now. But, the other thing the Catholic Church faces is the authoritarian, hierarchy that is inherent in the church itself. This new medium reaches folks best, I think, when folks are willing and able to jump in and just do it… and so often our structures prevent that from happening.

    Only time will tell.

  • Brad

    This is a great article, and it’s refreshing to hear a Bishop that sees the power and benefit of social media. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes a battle at the local level.