Lent, Facebook and Desire

Are you giving up Facebook for Lent? Lots of people are doing it. In a 2012 survey published on Christianity Today and generated using Twitter, Facebook appeared as the 6th most common thing that people give up for Lent.

Responding to the Christianity Today survey, one blogger suggests that Facebook and the other most common things that people give up for Lent are more like a “40 day long New Years Resolution.” He regards them as more like self-imposed rules that we legalistically follow, or “some superficial monastic self-flagellation.” Now, it is clear that this author is writing from a Reformed perspective and takes a different approach to Lent then those who are more sacramentally minded. Even so, he would find some common ground with Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox.

The common ground is this: Lent is about more than giving things up. It can also be about taking something on and doing something new or different. One Eastern Orthodox writer heartily agrees, “The point of the Lenten fast, for us, is not really about what we give up. It is about what we are supposed to do when we feel ourselves wanting what we have told ourselves we should not have.”

Lent is a time of fasting. It is a time spent waiting in the desert where what we want is not always readily available. It is a time to remember where we have come from and where we are going. It is a time of scarcity; a recognition that our wants will not and cannot always be met. It is a time to reflect upon our desires.

Proper Lenten devotion recognizes the great value of human desire. Lent does not call for the elimination of our desires, but, rather, their re-orientation. 

According to a long and ancient Christian tradition, all human desire is oriented toward the ultimate value, God. The problem is that our values can become disordered and our desires can become disoriented.  What we think will satisfy our desires only ends up leaving us wanting more. No matter how great your job is, no matter how much money you have, no matter how many Facebook friends you have, Christian theology has always taught that these things cannot bring a person ultimate satisfaction. They can bring a penultimate satisfaction when valued appropriately, but the more we desire from them, the more discontent we may become.

So, what does Facebook have to do with a theology of desire? I think that Facebook can be a powerful tool through which we seek to satisfy our desires to love ourselves and to be loved, and to love our neighbors. If Facebook can help us to satisfy these desires then, it seems to me, Facebook is helpful. If, on the other hand, Facebook disorients these desires, then it is harmful.

I want to put to the side the argument over whether Facebook is a “neutral” tool and focus on one way that using Facebook may disorder our values and disorient our desires. Facebook is sometimes like a window, or a magnifying glass, through which we imagine ourselves. As we seek to satisfy our desires by using Facebook, we can, at the same time, acquire a disordered value of self. Much has, in fact, been written on the way that Facebook encourages an inflated (narcissism) or deflated (voyeurism) value of self. In both cases, our desires are disoriented and we are left discontent because Facebook overwhelms us with the possibilities of what our lives could look like and the sense that I could be whatever I make of myself on Facebook.

This year, I am giving up Facebook for Lent. I don’t want a new self-imposed rule, and I certainly don’t want to engage in any monastic self-flagellation.  What I want is to take a fresh look at how I satisfy the desires that I use Facebook to satisfy, and I want to re-orient them toward their ultimate goal in the loving communion of the Triune God.

Jim Watkins is the Featured Artist editor for Transpositions and recently completed a PhD with David Brown. His thesis explored and developed a theological model for human creativity in the arts.

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