catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 13 :: 2009.06.19 — 2009.07.02


Loving your online neighbor as yourself

Everybody loves a buddy movie. Recently, my family saw Up, the latest Pixar film. Watching that movie, I learned that plot doesn’t matter if the characters are solid. Believable friendships are more important than believable plots. Up is the story of an old man and a boy who are pulling a floating house around South America with a garden hose. There’s even a talking dog. It’s an absurd plot, but I don’t care because I believe these characters. And I believe their friendship.

This is true in most of the big summer movies. Despite myself, I even believe in the friendships shared by a pointy-eared Vulcan, a doctor nicknamed Bones and Captain Kirk.

My favorite friendship community, though, is from an older blockbuster, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. I concede that the books and the movies can be melodramatic, self-indulgent and ridiculous at times. But then in the final movie, Sam picks up his fallen friend on the slopes of Mount Doom. He can’t carry his friend’s burden, but he can carry his friend.

I’m such a sucker. I cry every time.

Sam’s loyalty to Frodo is based on a promise. Gandalf says, “Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee.” Sam’s promise is the beginning of the fellowship of the ring. The loyalty between Sam and Frodo expands to include two more, then another, then another, until the party swells to nine. But the fellowship goes back to that original promise and Sam’s original loyalty.

In contrast to this loyal relationship, there’s a problem with online friendships. Our promises are cheap. Our loyalty is thin. There is no penalty for abandoning our online friends. Unfriend someone on Facebook, and they’ll never know.  But we’re still left with this new, negative approach to relationships. Ten years ago, it wasn’t even possible to unfriend people. Today, we unfriend online with the click of a button.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that real online fellowship and friendship is possible-but only when our online relationships contain the kind of promise Sam made. Most online relationships contain no commitment at all.

It is hard to be committed in the midst of so much noise. Try juggling accounts on a personal blog, a network blog, Facebook, Twitter,,, Diigo, tangle, YouTube, OpenID, and so on. (I confess that I have active accounts in all of those places.) It can leave a person feeling completely fragmented.

I could mope about it. Facebook friends aren’t real friends. Most of my Twitter followers are probably robots, for crying out loud. And even if these friendships and followers are real, they are virtual. But let’s not be too quick to dismiss our virtual communities, friendships or followers.

Once upon a time “virtual” meant that a person had high moral virtue. Someone in the 15th century could describe catapult as a virtual publication, for example. It contains high moral virtue. They might say the same about publications I work with. and are virtual publications even by the 15th century definition.

Of course, someone from the 21st century would also describe these publications as virtual.

But we’ve replaced the moral sense of the word with the technological sense. A virtual friend is an approximation of a friend. Virtual reality is different from actual reality. Virtual sex is certainly not the same as actual sex.

It’s not hard to see why so many Christians dismiss the whole mess. Christianity Today’s virtual publication Out of Ur recently argued that “connecting online has value, just not as much as we think.” The author of that guest post reduced virtual community to “mostly a disembodied, and largely cognitive connection.”

Again, the implication is clear. Virtual friendships are shallow. Virtual communities are abstract. We can’t trust them. In a sense, they are almost a false connection between people.

But listen, all connections between people feel false at times. Think about the communities you interact with on a regular basis. How well do these people know you? Think about most of your everyday friends. Do these people know about your dreams and aspirations?

It is easy to pretend that we have everything together online because we’ve practiced pretending like for our entire lives. No matter what happens on the way to church, we take a deep breath, brush on a fake smile, and prepare to shake hands with people we barely know. No matter how our projects may be struggling at work, when the boss asks, we put a positive spin on it.

We accept pseudo-community in place of real community because it is easier. We can pretend everyone is getting along if no one shares their deep passions. It is especially easy to pretend like this when we are meeting in person regularly.

Certainly being physically present with someone is important for building community and deepening friendships. But it is not a requirement.

After all, I’ve never met Jesus in person, and I sure would like to think I have a real relationship with God. It is a disembodied relationship. In some ways, it is largely a cognitive connection, though I realize that I am called to love God with my heart, mind, soul, and strength.

We can debate the slippery slopes of social media all day. Ironically, many of these discussions are highly abstract. Like the loudest critics, I’m tired of abstract relationships and abstract arguments. Let’s move past the semantics and get to the real issue: People are connecting with online tools more and more. Christians need to come alongside and help those connections be as real and life-affirming as possible.

This means we ought to take social media seriously. We ought to explore online friendships. We ought to get our virtual knees dirty helping our virtual neighbors negotiate this new world.

That’s why I’m on Facebook. That’s why I have a blog. That’s why I have a Twitter account. That’s why I believe online magazines are the best option for sharing content out of the nonprofit organization where I work.

The new way of connecting may feel completely absurd to me, like an old man with a flying house and a talking dog. But the friendships there can be real and they deserve some loyalty.

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