Is Snark Un-Christian?

“Snark” is one of those wonderful terms born of the internet. It reminds me of some of those great Yiddish words that sound like what they mean – like klutz, shlep, and schmuck. The word is basically a synonym for sarcastic, an amalgamation of “snide” and “remark.” Depending on your perspective, to call someone “snarky” is either a compliment of the highest order or a derogatory term for an overly negative person.

Snark often plays out on social media as a sort of public gallows humor. You can spot it on Facebook though it’s more prevalent on micro-blogging sites like Twitter that offer opportunities for real time back and forth repartee.

Some clergy are particularly adept at snark, making cutting comments about everything from liturgy to church meetings to the seven habits of the highly dysfunctional. At its best, snark highlights deeper truths that bubble just beneath the surface in a humorous manner. When engaged in a lighthearted rather than angry way, snark can be a delightful respite from the profound responsibilities of ministry. Indeed, I’d contend that true snark, while at times acidic, is never without a degree a levity.

Christians with a predilection for online snark occasionally encounter pushback from those who don’t think it’s appropriate. The best snark comes right up to the line without crossing over it and that can push people’s buttons who expect more positive output from their clergy and lay leaders. This all begs the question: Is snark un-Christian?

If you get back to the original definition of “sarcastic,” I don’t think you have to look much further than Jesus himself for validation. While it’s rarely put this way, Jesus had a wicked sense of humor that made extensive use of both hyperbole and sarcasm. If Jesus was Tweeting I’m pretty confident he’d be a master of the medium (though I doubt he’d have as many followers as Justin Bieber).

Here are some examples:

1. “Let the dead bury the dead.” (Matthew 8:21-22)

2. “How can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4)

3. About John the Baptist: “What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces.” (Luke 7:25)

4. Upon his arrest: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (Mark 14:48)

5. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” (Mark 12:38-40)

6. About the scribes and Pharisees: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24)

7. About profaning the holy: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew 7:6)

There are countless other instances of Jesus using a cutting remark to make his point and, yes, he also got a lot of flack. Obviously I’m not comparing snarky Christians to Jesus but there is a place for snark in the Church. Snark, like all humor, simply looks at life and faith and ministry from a slightly different angle and we all need that. Ultimately it’s about taking our faith but not ourselves too seriously — which is critical to the health and vibrancy of the Church.

I’ve been both accused of and lauded for my degree of snarkiness. Much of it is simply personality and the internet allows me to share this “gift” with a wider group of people. I take solace in the fact that it’s something that people can opt out of by not following me on Twitter or not reading my blog or not friending me on Facebook. In other words, it’s snark-optional.

Of course, if you’re into this sort of thing I also have some Twitter clergy folks you’ll want to follow: Laurie Brock @drtysxyministry, Scott Gunn @scottagunn, Megan Castellan @revlucymeg, David Sibley @davidsibley, and Anne Lane Witt @VaPriestess. Oh, and a couple of anonymous snarkers: @ChurchSnobTEC and @MapleAnglican. Your life will never be the same.

So snark on, friends. You’re in good company.


Suggestions for Religious Spammers

Like most people I get a lot of e-mail spam. Sure, I get my fair share of offers for cheap drugs — mostly Viagra — and offers for various “relationships.” And you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a bank in Nigeria has lots of money waiting for me.

But I also get lots of messages greeting me in the name of Christ. I’m not sure if it’s because they’ve figured out I have some connection to religion or if everybody gets these. If you’re a shoe salesman do you get messages that begin “My Dearest Mother Hubbard?”

Anyway, I hadn’t checked my spam folder for awhile so here’s a sampling of come-ons. As with preaching, spammers need a strong opening to hook the reader. Here are a few:

Dear Co-worker in Christ, Calvary greetings to you in the Name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the Saviour of the World .

Dearest Beloved One in the Lord. My Greetings to you in the Precious Name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

My dear, Sorry that this message is coming to you at this time, I have prayed concerning you before contacting you.

Greetings to you my dearest in Christ. Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.

My name is Michelle Stephen a 75 year old lady, I want you to help me collect $4.2,000,000.00
and dispatched it to the poor. I have set aside 25% for you.

If I ever undergo a vocational change and start leading seminars for spammers, I would offer several suggestions.

1. Grammar is important. Ditto punctuation and spelling. I personally never respond to pleas over the internet to give money for a toddler’s lung transplant in Ethiopia unless everything is spelled properly. Don’t they have spell check in the spammer’s lair?

2. Speaking of the spammer’s lair, you need to set up your own version of the man cave. You can call it the Spam Cave if you wish, but know that I have copyrighted that term. A proper Spam Cave should have cabinets chock full of Hormel Spam.

3. You are not the apostle Paul. Please do not begin your “epistles” in the same manner ie. “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Also Paul never used “dearest” as a term of endearment.

4. The subject line of an e-mail is important. Some not to use (which I have seen) include “21 BIBLES PLEASE HELP” (also, typing in all caps does not add urgency; it adds annoying); “Apostolic Greetings !!!” (who exactly is the apostle here? You? Me? It’s definitely not me); “Browse hot singles in your area for unattached…” (wait, that was for something else); “Greetings From Yours Sincerely Sister in Christ” (I think you’ve confused the concluding valediction with the subject line).

5. Finally, please send me your e-mail address so I can bombard you with monetary scams couched in the language of faith. Don’t worry, Jesus would want me to do this.


Annoying Status Updates

One of the great things about blogging is what I like to call “channeling the crank.” Actually I’ve never used or even thought  this expression before but whatever. I like it so I’m sticking with it. What I mean by this is that whenever I feel cranky, which does happen on occasion, I can channel the crank rather than taking it out on those around me.

In today’s version of keeping those around me safe from crankiness, I thought I would direct my energy toward annoying Facebook statuses. Below are a few general categories of those that annoy me. Granted, I’ve probably been guilty of using some of these over the years. And I have no illusion that others aren’t annoyed by some things I post: “If I see one more status update where he uses his annoying ‘religious’ jargon, I swear I’ll un-friend him.”

So with that as the context, here goes:

1. Anything having to do with the food that you are either eating or preparing. Unless you are dining on foie gras with the King of France, I’m not interested.

2. The weather. Is it flurrying? That’s great but please keep it to yourself. If I’m really interested in the weather where you are (and chances are I’m not) I will consult the Weather Channel.

3. Quotes from fill-in-the-blank inspirational leader. If I want to be inspired by MLK, JFK, or anyone else whose last initial begins with the letter K, I will read a book by or about them. Having you quote them is somehow less inspiring than going directly to the source.

4. Anything posted by bishops. Since the ability for public snark was extracted at ordination to the episcopate, all posts are non-offensive and “safe.” I’m delighted you had a wonderful visit with the good people of St. Elsewhere — save it for an article in the diocesan newspaper (oh, that’s right, it was eliminated due to budget cuts).

5. Videos of songs and/or hymns. I’m glad you love the Kings College, Cambridge, version of “Once in Royal David’s City.”  So do 25 of my closest friends. Plus, I have the CD. The basic rule of thumb should be that if you are a professional musician and you played the music yourself, post away. Otherwise go listen to your i-Pod.

6. Pictures of your children. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love posting pictures of my kids and seeing pictures of your kids. It’s one reason why we don’t have to send out so many Christmas cards these days (plus stamps are going up to .45 cents). But, really, once a day will suffice.

7. Posts reminding everyone that it’s National XX Day. Unless it’s National Coffee Day (September 29th), I don’t care.

8. Status updates longer than two or three sentences. A status update is not a novella. If you have that much to say all at once, start a blog. Or become a preacher.

9. Posting more than four times a day. I realize you have a lot to say, are endlessly fascinating, and believe everyone is hanging on your every word and action. That may well be true. But there’s an outlet for this. It’s called Twitter.

10. Liking your own status update. Zuckerberg shouldn’t even let this be an option. Liking your own status update is like laughing at your own joke — it’s annoying. Please stop.

I realize this leaves little left over to write about on Facebook. And I’ll probably lose a friend or two. I guess I could write a blog post about what types of status updates really float my yacht. But that wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Nor would it do much to channel the crank.


Of Cell Phones and Sanctus Bells

Unless you’ve been living in a hole (ie. you’re not on Facebook), you’ve likely heard about the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic stopping Mahler’s Ninth Symphony when a cell phone went off in the middle of the piece. Maestro Alan Gilbert waved the orchestra to stop playing as a marimba ring tone rang out from the front row (why is the volume always jacked up on the most obnoxious ring tones?!). Naturally it was during a quiet, dramatic, most inopportune moment. You can read the story here.

Most clergy (and lay people) can relate both to the experience and the frustration of cell phones going off in the middle of public “performances” (we happen to call them liturgies).  Look, if you’re a high churchman you’re used to things ringing during the eucharist — sanctus bells rung at the elevation of the bread and wine are an integral part of the mass. But things rung by anyone other than an acolyte (ie. that cell phone) interrupt the flow, the majesty, and the passion of the sacred space created through intentional, devoted worship.

We certainly all have stories of cell phones going off at the worst possible times. A cell phone went off while I was preaching just this past Sunday. If it has to happen, I’d obviously prefer it to go off during a particularly boisterous hymn. But at least when I’m in the pulpit I can just stop and wait it out (trying my utmost not to glare).

I particularly remember two instances of cell phones ringing in church. Last year a cell phone went off in the middle of the Good Friday silent veneration of the cross. I remember thinking “This is outrageous!” but there’s nothing you can do about it. The other was at my church in New York during a baptism. A teenage friend of the baptismal family was standing around the font as we were baptizing a little girl. Her cell phone went off…and she answered it! “I’m at a baptism; I guess I’ll have to call you back.” I wanted to dump the holy water all over HER (and her flip phone).

I’d be interested to hear other cell phone stories if you have them. Maybe we can compile the best ones. What are your strategies for dealing with this annoyance? Have you ever stopped the proceedings like Maestro Gilbert or do you just barrel through? Has YOUR cell phone ever gone off during a service?

I’m not sure what Jesus would have done if a cell phone went off during the Sermon on the Mount. Something tells me he would have grabbed it and tossed it into the Sea of Galilee.


St. John’s 2.0

Thanks to a good web design team and lots of helpful feedback, we finally have a new website up and running here at St. John’s. Check it out by clicking here. I’m delighted to share this and am very pleased we pushed to get it up before Christmas.

Revamping the website was one of my major goals when I got here in August 2009. Why is an online presence  so important? Because that’s where the people are. Websites are by far the number one way visitors and newcomers find churches. They make first impressions long before a visitor meets the (hopefully smiling!) usher at the front door. I’d even argue that church websites are virtual ushers — so they had better be welcoming, friendly, and easily accessed.

The new website is still a work in progress — we need more pictures and in the future we hope to have audio (choir, sermons), video, and the capacity to accept online donations. But it’s a great start and I’m pleased with features like an online visitor’s card, link to our Facebook page, quick sign-up to receive the weekly e-news, an online pledge card, and a place for prayer requests.

There’s also a LOT of content. This is what surprised me the most about the whole process — the amount of time it took to unearth/write so much of this. Anyone who has been through a website redesign (especially for even larger projects) is probably laughing at my naiveté. If I ever did this again (not anytime soon, please) I’d consider just taking a whole week off to focus on it. Squeezing it into everything else was a challenge — albeit a worthwhile one.

The web design company we used was Christos Communications, the brainchild of the gifted and talented Kelly and Rob Harris. Kelly serves in the Communications department of the Diocese of West Texas and I’ve known her for a number of years through Episcopal Communicators. She and Rob were very responsive, creative, and their prices helped us to do this in a very cost-effective manner. Plus they’re as honest as the West Texas day is long (I have no idea if that’s a relevant simile). But that’s an important commodity in the world of web design. So kudos to them both and if you’re looking for a redesign, by all means get in touch with them.

Now back to sermons, bulletins, and all of those good things. ‘Tis the season.


Phone Home

The main reason I had children was for the free at-home tech support. And it’s finally starting to pay off. When I recently upgraded to a new BlackBerry and couldn’t figure out how to get the Facebook application, I gave the phone to Ben who pulled it up before I could even say the words “status update.” The only cost to me? A shrug, an eye roll, and a look that said “could you possibly be any lamer, Dad?” Which, in my book, is a small price to pay.

Ben’s now the family phone expert — and as of last week he has his own phone. In other words, he’s armed and dangerous. His new phone — which does not have internet access — was a combination 11th birthday/elementary school graduation present. Both events are taking place this month (6/8 and 6/15) and we gave it to him on his birthday. We stuck the phone in his bed and called it to wake him up on his birthday. Which was a lot of fun — he was bewildered, confused, and excited all at once.

Of course it took dialing the number three times before he was roused, which is a sure sign that he’ll be a teenager soon enough. And as I see him sprawled over a wingback chair, limbs splayed in all directions, ear buds in place, fingers rapidly texting a friend, I just shake my head. There’s no turning back — we’re in full tween mode. Next stop: teenagedom.


Fauxting?

I read an editorial in yesterday’s Boston Globe by a senior at my alma mater, Tufts University, that introduced me to a new word: “fauxting.” I’m not sure how to say it but I’m thinking you pronounce the “x.” Otherwise you’d sound like a Brit who has just broken wind.

It refers to the practice of “fake texting” in order to avoid eye contact with someone you know but who will probably ignore you. I guess that happens a lot on quads these days. So it’s basically a social media preemptive strike. I imagine it’s also done in any awkward social context when you don’t want to appear to be alone lest anyone thinks you are, God forbid, a loser. It’s basically using a smart phone as a social crutch.

There are worse things in the world than fauxting but it’s a pretty sad commentary on the isolation that so many feel even in an era of unprecedented connectivity. You may have 600 friends on Facebook but how many do you really know? How many would you want to have lunch with? You may follow hundreds of people on Twitter but how many of them would you follow to the ends of the earth?

This is precisely why social media must be complemented by actual human contact and relationship. When it is, these virtual relationships can supplement our real relationships and the sense of isolation fades away. For many people of faith, relationship with God hovers between feeling like a virtual relationship and an actual one. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” says Jesus to (Doubting) Thomas in John’s gospel. There are moments with God feels so close and there are moments when our relationship with God feels more like a slow computer trying to download a large file.

Faith takes patience, perseverance, and forebearance. The hope is that we come to see our relationship with the risen Christ as more actual than virtual. Virtual friends are nice but it’s true friendship that sustains us on the journey of life and faith.

I’ve never fauxted but I have reached for my BlackBerry when waiting for someone in a public place. Maybe deep down we all still have some semblance of social anxiety stemming from an awkward middle school dance. If only I had the ability to fauxt back at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn in the 1980′s!


All Points Bulletin (Board)

Like any modern clergyman worth his weight in used printer cartridges, I e-mail, blog, Facebook and Tweet. I even used Power Point at our recent Annual Meeting. I’m always trying to get our parish to communicate in new and exciting ways. So why is it that the communications tool with the greatest impact on daily church life is still the bulletin board?

I recently had one put up on the wall outside the church office and you’d have thought I co-invented the internet with Al Gore. People are thrilled! On Sunday mornings you can find people loitering in front of it, reading news clippings (those are from things called newspapers that people used to read on a daily basis), staring at flyers for upcoming events, and even picking up copies of recently preached sermons. Move over Ronald Reagan, I’ve become “The Great Communicator.” Who knew the good, old-fashioned bulletin board would become a communications miracle?

This seems to be yet another reminder that as communicators we live in an in-between time. While some folks are all digital all the time and others are all newsprint all the time (please wash your hands), most are somewhere in the middle. Being born too early to be fully digital, I guess I’m in that category myself. I’m usually about five years behind most technologies. I get there eventually.

Here’s an example: When we moved here, I tried to save money and the environment by subscribing to the Boston Globe only Thursday through Sunday. I’ve always been a newspaper each and every day kind of guy. Ever since I learned to read I have started my mornings with a bowl of cereal and the sports section. Now, Monday to Wednesday I feel out of sorts. I wander around the kitchen with my bowl of cereal and it’s just not the same. Which has nothing to do with the morning ritual of arguing with the kids about getting socks on.

So the bulletin board is a window into a simpler time. A time when we weren’t all radically available via smartphone. In time people may stop noticing the new bulletin board. But I somehow doubt it. It’s tangible, it’s visible, and people like it. Plus it never crashes.


More Blogging Priests?

As you may have heard, the pope recently encouraged Roman Catholic priests to start blogging. Start? What have they been waiting for? If social media is all about building community, this is precisely what “communities” of faith should have been doing all along.

Sure, Benedict himself still writes out his speeches and sermons by hand in German. Probably on those yellow legal pads. But he’s now encouraging younger clergy to get out into this new-fangled thing called the World Wide Web. It’s unclear how this was communicated from the Vatican hierarchy: snail mail, fax, carrier pigeon, or message in a bottle.

His message, released on the Catholic Church’s World Day of Communications (who knew they had one?), has gotten a lot of press. Here’s the article from MSNBC titled “Pope to priests: For God’s sake, blog!” My friend, fellow blogger, author, and communications expert Meredith Gould (herself a Roman Catholic) grieves “the too-pervasive lack of awareness and understanding about the power and value of digital communications” by the Catholic leadership. Check out her recent post on the subject here.

I’m hardly an expert blogger. At least on the technology side: I’ve been blogging for a year and a half and I can’t even figure out how to add a Twitter widget! But I do look at this as part of my ministry; an extension of the pulpit. Though of course I can have a bit more fun with such an informal medium and I cherish the back and forth with those of you willing to leave comments.

Meredith concludes her post by expressing pride in the Catholic clerics who have embraced digital media. “But does the Pope and his advisers truly think average parish priests have either the time or talent to blog on a regular basis? Will they have the freedom?” It’s a good question — I’m interested in seeing ( and reading) the answer.


PopeTube?

So, the Pope’s on YouTube. The Vatican’s YouTube channel is cleverly called “The Vatican.” I’m not sure how many cardinals it took to come up with something so catchy. If I was the Vatican’s marketing director I would have gone with PopeTube. I’m just sayin’.

According to The Vatican (the Holy See, not the YouTube channel) the new venture “offers news coverage of the main activities of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI and of relevant Vatican events” and is updated daily. It’s also, I hate to say, incredibly boring. The videos are over-produced with stiff-anchorman-like voice overs. And while Benedict XVI is many things, let’s face it. Telegenic he’s not.

Here’s one with the snappy title “Common Desire for Ecumenism between Rome and Canterbury.” It shows Pope Benedict schmoozing with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Don’t blink; it’s 46 seconds.

I certainly don’t begrudge religious institutions embracing technology. I think it’s grand. I just wish most of their content didn’t look like a bunch old guys were the producers. Which of course they are. My advice? Loosen up, Vatican! Have some fun! Show us why being a Roman Catholic in today’s world is so compelling. And give us behind-the-scenes peek at the Popemobile. 

Until that happens I’m not sensing many viral videos from the pope.


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