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.