Emotional immodesty on Facebook: a Christian perspective

Everybody loves to complain about Facebook. A constantly changing layout and interface. An addictive waste of time. And, most recently, Facebook has provoked an outcry from users over the complicated and ever-changing privacy settings. Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg responded recently to these latest complaints in a Washington Post op-ed, and in his defense of Facebook, articulated the “few simple ideas” upon which it was built. “People want to share and stay connected with their friends and the people around them… If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world. These are still our core principles today.”
These core principles are hardly self-evidently true. People certainly do love to share and they do want to stay connected, but it’s not clear that Facebook use has made the world a better place; a quick survey of the social networking site, in fact, suggests the opposite. Moral degenerates post compromising and embarrassing things on their pages for the world to see. Drunken, pornographic photos. Awkward tweets about one-night stands. Catfights on the news feed.

It seems as though 99 percent of Facebook users post an astounding amount of highly personal and inappropriate material on the electronic venue, accessible to family, employers, and the general public. 99 percent of Facebook users are, sans doubte, morally immodest in a very public way.

But this isn’t news to anyone.

Christians—Protestants and Catholics alike—have, almost since its inception, been inveighing Jeremiads against the evils of Facebook. What people won’t tell you is that Christians increasingly harbor a Facebook flaw of their own. Specifically, many of them seem to have a problem not with moral immodesty, but emotional immodesty.

Emotional immodesty on Facebook might look like this: a young husband and wife having an intimate conversation, dripping in mawkish lingo, referring to each other by their Twitter names while on the public Facebook news feed. (Yes, this actually happens.) It might be women who get engaged, posting their every saccharine emotion, or how much they spent on a wedding dress. It’s pregnant women posting pictures of their ultrasounds and creating Facebook photo albums with a monthly picture of their pregnant belly for all to see. It’s new mothers posting pictures of themselves just after giving birth, and tweeting about their new baby’s first bowel movement.

Think I am making this up? How about this Facebook tweet by a new mother:

“Projectile pee is quite hilarious…thank you, Sammy, for peeing on mama twice yesterday… :)”

Emotional immodesty on Facebook looks like a forlorn woman posting, “I feel invisible to men,” a thought one might share with one’s closest friends, or maybe a psychiatrist. It amounts to little more than emotional prostitution that turns Facebook into a sentimental red-light district. Facebook’s emotional immodesty has a spiritual dimension too. It reads the way people might tweet about their inner prayer life, updating their status with their deepest spiritual insights. Its tone is holier-than-thou and uncomfortably personal. In fact, it’s downright pharisaical: a platform to be excessively public about spirituality and the inner life. Take this recent Facebook posting, for example:

“I love that I can talk to @[Twitter name] about anything, but I love it more when we spend hours over coffee talking about God’s love for us and how we can grow in displaying that through our marriage and to our son.”

The instinct to display happiness and God’s love to the world is a good one. However, announcing it in a sentimental display is only showy and embarrassing.

And it is not how Christian laity are called to live in the modern world. As a Christian, I am called to emulate Jesus Christ and his holy family in my daily life.

And when Christians examine how Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived as a family, we find their lives extraordinarily humble and private. Take the example of Joseph. We don’t have a single recorded word from him. All we are left with is his example as a man, father, and husband. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation on St. Joseph, “Guardian of the Redeemer”:

The same aura of silence that envelops everything else about Joseph also shrouds his work as a carpenter in the house of Nazareth. It is, however, a silence that reveals in a special way the inner portrait of the man.

The Gospels speak exclusively of what Joseph “did.” Still, they allow us to discover in his “actions”—shrouded in silence as they are—an aura of deep contemplation. Joseph was in daily contact with the mystery “hidden from ages past,” and which “dwelt” under his roof.

When Joseph learned of Mary’s extramarital pregnancy, we are told he intended to handle what was potentially a scandalous matter “quietly.” Joseph’s tremendous legacy is imprinted in Christian history through his quiet deeds, not his words.

Similarly, Mary, whom we call “blessed among women,” is characterized by a certain gentleness and quietness. Luke tells us that after hearing the profound news that she is to be the mother of Christ, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

If Mary had received the blessed news from the Angel Gabriel today that she was to be the mother of the Savior of mankind, she would not have updated her Facebook status or sent out a tweet.

The very way Christ came into this world is the utmost example of discreetness. From the examples of the holy family, we can safely infer that emotional and spiritual modesty is a Christian virtue that we are called to emulate.

But we needn’t infer anything, because Jesus himself commands us to live out a certain humility in our lives when He says, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.” While one cannot impugn the motives of anyone on Facebook, it’s hard not to see the extraordinarily showy manner many Christians maintain about their personal relationships, their families, and their faith; one wonders if they aren’t acting “so that others may see them.”

As Christian laity, we are called to live in, but not of, the world. In a world where the private affairs of most are splattered across media in all its forms, we should recall the examples of Jesus, St. Joseph, and Mary, individually, relationally, and spiritually. Christians should not engage new media by excessive religious and relational showiness, but rather by quiet and humble example. By choosing not to post drunken photos and lewd tweets, we demonstrate our choice to live differently from the world. By safeguarding the privacy of our families and friendships and the quiet humility of our prayer life, we direct our lives towards God and uphold the Christian virtue of modesty, in all meanings of the word.

Ashley E. Samelson blogs about faith, feminism, and politics at http://www.rogueinrouge.com This .article was previously published at First Things.


  • Saadia says:

    I don’t understand the last statement. What does it mean to safegaurd the privacy of freindships and when does it become important?

  • tucompay1976 says:

    RE: “We don???t have a single recorded word from him. All we are left with is his example as a man, father, and husband.”

    Could this be the result of limited or no data?  Are we reading his “silence” as the unwillingness to speak or does his silence reflect the absence of testimony? 

    Re: “When Joseph learned of Mary???s extramarital pregnancy, we are told he intended to handle what was potentially a scandalous matter ???quietly.???”

    The key phrase here is “potentially a scandalous matter.”  I am not disagreeing with your call for more discretion.  However, the context you seem to be relying on does not reflect our current standards.  Unfortunately and fortunately, the fact that Mary had a child outside of marriage today would not be scandalous. Thus Joseph might say today a bit more than he did then.

    Re: “we should recall the examples of Jesus, St. Joseph, and Mary,”

    Again, was their discretion an act of humility, fear, or both?  I’m no scholar of the Christian past but is it wrong to gamble on the latter?

    Re: “By choosing not to post drunken photos and lewd tweets, we demonstrate our choice to live differently from the world.”

    Agreed.  But maybe they shouldn’t be getting drunk in the first place.  Perhaps one could argue that the public nature of such behavior does have a limited albeit important consequence: parents know what their children are up to. 

    Re Saadia’s question Re: “By safeguarding the privacy of our families and friendships and the quiet humility of our prayer life, we direct our lives towards God and uphold the Christian virtue of modesty, in all meanings of the word.”

    I think that the author is suggesting Malcolm X’s old sentiment that we should not air our dirty laundry.  Of course, the problem is that mediums like Facebook, in my view, have rendered the “dirty laundry” idea meaningless; that is, getting drunk and posting pictures of such a state are no longer considered “dirty laundry.”  On the contrary, certain forms of un-Christian behavior are now seen as status-builders: the more women I photograph myself with, the more “manly” I represent myself; the drunker I photography myself, the more “party-guy” I represent myself; etc.  Safeguarding our friendship, in this context, would mean that we not publicize certain behaviors on Facebook because (the author believes) it would damage our family’s image and/or friendships.  She is calling for Christians and, I assume, Muslims (possibly everyone), to give up this exhibitionism and to use public sites for less scandalous (in her view) purposes.

  • Saadia says:

    tucompany: I don’t really want to be judgemental or to make personal attacks.

  • Saadia says:

    It seems like this blog entry, rather than encouraging interfaith understanding, concludes by doing the opposite.

  • OmarG says:

    The author reminds me why I’m not Christian anymore, since many years ago…

    My advice: don’t read it; if you read accidentally, ignore it.

    Its the ever present dilemma: control thyself or attempt to control everyone else because of one’s personal failings. People like the author and many other of our own fundamentalists see the world the same way.

  • Anas says:

    It seems to me that an important part of our deen has to do with ‘leaving that which doesn’t concern us.’ I understand that to include the details of the emotional and family lives of others, for the most part. I think social media collapse naturally occurring gradations among those closest to us, then those a little more distant, and so forth, into just a couple of categories. The different softwares may allow one to reconstruct these distinctions to some extent, but it takes effort and the results are clumsy. The result is that intimate stuff can easily end up shared with waay too many. The article is just noting yet one more way in which we are not adapted to our technological tools, with deleterious results.

    I think the general rubric of ‘minding one’s own business’ is a powerful one for us as Muslims, especially if we understand how little of the affairs of others actually do concern us.

  • Anas says:

    btw, editors. This is NOT an ‘interfaith’ perspective. It is a Christian perspective. I would have read the article anyway, but I’m just sayin.’

  • Saadia says:

    Anas: I think you make good points – I’ve also generally said (since Jan. 1st 2010) that concern and involvement should be helpful and not annoy or harm. Its commendable when people mostly do understand and act upon that because it can be tricky .

    And so many people don’t need to be involved or to dissect without a good reason because its contrary to adhab (I don’t need to be reminded of all my bad manners btw because there are soooo many.) The reason is that its offputting.

    I agree with the author about modesty encompassing more than one form, but “hijab” means a privacy in more ways than just a headscarf. To me it is part of space issues.

    She also seems to be responding to Asma’s idea about men’s “Gheera”. But women can also be protective of their family, friends, etc..

  • asmauddin says:

    Anas, point well taken. I had been debating ‘Christian’ versus ‘interfaith’, but had settled on the latter, thinking the point was to share the Christian perspective with a Muslim audience in the hopes of finding commonalities. But your perspective as a reader has convinced me to change the title 🙂

  • Anas says:

    wow. thanks Asma, I can be a bit pedantic about that stuff.

  • sarahjay says:

    @ Ashley

    Thanks for this piece! I appreciated the sentiment. When on Facebook (which I mostly use to stay in touch with people), I often find myself wondering why/how people can be so frank about VERY personal information.

    It was great to read this from the Christian perspective and many of thoughts resonated with my own faith perspective. peace!

  • katseye says:

    @omar-nice points!!

  • tucompay1976 says:

    I’m not sure what I said that is judgmental.  Can you be more specific?  I thought it was clear that I was trying to offer an interpretation of the author’s work that would (possibly) satisfy your question.

    I’m also not sure if the author is being judgmental.  What does that mean anyways?  A judgment can be an informed conclusion about something based on a reasonable standard of morality, for example.

  • edabdalghafur says:

    Excellent, excellent post.  One of the better ones I’ve come across lately.

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