friendship

Reflections on Ruth

Recently, my wife and I read through the book of Ruth as part of our devotional time. It’s a beautiful little story, composed of a series of tautly narrated scenes that are all the more powerful for their understated grace. Artful and elegant, it manages to convey its message in a few, quick strokes. And, of course, I shouldn’t forget the memorable characters featured in the book – Naomi, Boaz, and above all, Ruth herself. Given its succinctness, Ruth can easily be read through in the space of about 15 minutes, and provides the reader with a satisfying and cathartic experience. There’s also much by way of rich theology that can be extracted from the book; indeed, though it is short, Ruth is far from superficial. It contains reflections on friendship, covenant, sacrifice, the scope of salvation, the power of the noble, independent woman, and the unseen hand of a providential God.

These are important themes, and I certainly want to touch upon some of them. Reading the book, however, led to me to look afresh at the character of Ruth. I must admit that I haven’t always given her the attention she deserves. When I was growing up, sermons or studies about Ruth tended to focus on Boaz and his role (from a Christian perspective) as a “type” – a prefiguring, that is – of Jesus. The main thrust of the message was that just as Boaz redeemed Ruth and Naomi from a precarious existence and an uncertain future (thus fulfilling his role as kinsmen-redeemer), so Jesus redeems us from sin and estrangement from God. This is true so far as it goes, and we should always be ready to adopt a Christological lens as we read the OT. But an all-too-hasty reliance on this sermonic trope means that not only do we fail to read Ruth on its own terms (as opposed to a mere prelude to Jesus); we tend to marginalise Ruth herself. Restricting ourselves to Boaz’s typological status, and the function he plays in the narrative, has the perverse effect of reducing Ruth to a patient – a passive recipient of another’s activity. Perhaps this reflects the male-dominated nature of theology and pastoral ministry: it’s easier to interpret the narrative from the point of view of the male protagonist than it is someone of the opposite sex. It might also have something to do with the concerns of low-church evangelicalism, which tends to read Christ into as much of the OT as possible. A figure like Boaz is certainly ripe for such an interpretation, even if that means neglecting other features of the text. But my point is that this focus drastically minimises Ruth’s central importance to the narrative. She is hardly a mere respondent to a male actor’s primary role; rather, she herself is a powerful, independent, savvy individual, whose own actions propel the narrative forward.

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In any case, it’s on Ruth that I want to concentrate my (sometimes recursive) reflections, drawing on the main elements of the book as they relate to its eponymous character. From the very beginning of the narrative, she proves her enduring worth to those around her, particularly her mother-in-law, Naomi. Just as Boaz tends to be the focus of many a sermon, to the exclusion of the story’s female characters, so is his evolving relationship with Ruth foregrounded within narrative synopses. But I’d say that the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is just as crucial. Certainly, Naomi’s shift from bitter emptiness to fulness of joy was in no small measure due to the actions of her daughter-in-law. We tend to take for granted the deep compassion Ruth extended towards Naomi, as well as the degree to which she relinquished her own rights for the sake of her mother-in-law. However, it’s precisely this familiarity that means a closer examination is warranted.

To appreciate just how radical Ruth’s actions were, some context is probably necessary. Within the first five verses of the book, Naomi is rendered widowed and childless, having witnessed the deaths of both her husband and her adult sons (1:3-5). Having moved with Elimelech to Moab to escape famine, she was now isolated in a foreign land – a stranger with no one to care for her. In the patriarchal societies of the Ancient Near East, a woman without a male relative to provide guardianship was in a very precarious position. We might recall that brief episode in Luke 7, where Jesus raises a woman’s son in the town of Nain (vv.11-17). Not only are we told that the woman was a widow; Luke also informs us (quite deliberately) that the man who had died was her “only son” (v.12). Of course, in raising a dead person to life, a great and awesome miracle had been performed. But lying behind the spectacle was Christ’s deep concern for the woman’s parlous social and economic condition, given her last male relative was dead. The evangelist’s aim is to underscore Jesus’ compassion for the vulnerable and marginalised, here rendered to a grieving widow by miraculously re-uniting her with her son (v.15). Naomi was in much the same position as that woman. For all intents and purposes, she had been left with nothing – save for the apparent knowledge that she was bound to die alone, bereft, crushed and empty (cf. Ruth 1:21).

This is what Naomi believed – indeed, it is what she was bitterly resigned to. Even in the narrative’s initial scenes, however, there are seeds of hope, of redemptive transformation. That hope is embodied in Ruth the Moabitess. We may note in passing the interesting, perhaps deliberate, parallel between the two women: both of them travelled from one country to another, with Naomi migrating to Moab and Ruth journeying to Israel with her mother-in-law. But whereas Naomi’s time in Ruth’s homeland occasioned grief and loss, Ruth’s relocation was accompanied by – and actively presaged – the eventual transfiguration of Naomi’s present emptiness (cf. 4:14-15). That transfiguration began with Ruth’s signal decision to remain with her mother-in-law (1:16-18). She, along with her sister-in-law, Orpah, sought to go with Naomi back to her homeland. But whilst Orpah eventually returned to her own people, Ruth did not. Instead, she committed herself entirely to Naomi, renouncing her own rights – indeed, her own life – to care for her mother-in-law.

Ruth 1:16-18 is a “hinge” moment in the narrative, on which much of the rest of the story turns. Refusing Naomi’s exhortation to go home to her own family, Ruth pledged her undying loyalty. She promised to be with Naomi, and to make her mother-in-law’s people her own. Just as noteworthy, of course, was Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s – and Israel’s – God. The words of 1:16-18 bear the unmistakable marks of a covenantal promise, in what amounts to a triumph of precise narrative art. The “You/I will” (or “Your/will be my”) contrast occur no fewer than five times in this excerpt, which reflects what I have already said about Ruth’s comprehensive and unwavering commitment to bind herself to Naomi’s fate. This was solidarity in its truest sense: Ruth identified her own life trajectory so completely with her mother-in-law’s that what was true for the latter was to be true for the former. Moreover, she placed herself under the weight of divine punishment if anything but death itself separated her from Naomi (“May the Lord deal with me…”). Ruth not only promised to unite her life to Naomi’s; she also rendered herself accountable before Yahweh, thereby accepting the consequences of failing to fulfil her vow. This was no cheap boast, but rather the perfect expression of covenantal devotion, sealed with an oath before Israel’s great lawmaker and sovereign.

Talk of such friendships is somewhat foreign to our modern ears. A covenant implies a legal agreement, something that has binding force on the parties involved. It’s the very antithesis to what an “authentic” relationship should be, so one might say. It’s true that we have probably become somewhat inured to the liquidity of contemporary relationships. Many friendships (though not all) tend to be characterised by a kind of casualness – a transience that is often allied with a basic regard for one’s own convenience, preferences or interests. Call it the consequences of radical individualism, if you like, or the reification of the autonomous self. The point is that people aren’t likely to place themselves under the stringencies of what amounts to a legal obligation, where their rights may be curtailed, and they themselves may be called upon to walk the difficult road of self-abnegation; even marriage, which is probably the closest approximation we have to the idea of a bond grounded in covenant and law, is becoming far rarer – and, where it does occur, seems far more fluid and impermanent.

So, when we read something like Ruth’s vow of loyalty, we might be surprised by the self-relinquishing depth of her decision. It seems a little strange: who, after all, “forgets” themselves in such a profoundly comprehensive way for another person? Perhaps some do, but in the ordinary course of events, it’s hardly common. Ruth would seem to be something of an anomaly. But is that because she made a foolish decision to give so much of herself to Naomi, without properly thinking through the consequences of her actions? Or is it because we (and by “we”, I mean the culture at large) have drifted away from what true friendship is meant to look like – that is, the kind of self-giving friendship as the Creator designed (cf. John 15:13)? When even the ties of marriage can dissolve with the rapidity of melting snow – and often do so with the tacit approval of a permissive culture – we shouldn’t wonder why we might find a story of bold, robust, covenant-making friendship to be rather startling.

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As such, we cannot miss the radical nature of Ruth’s actions; nor should we downplay the total sacrifice she was undertaking. Think, for example, of the great cultural and geographical shift she had to undergo. Even today, migration from one country to another is no small feat, often entailing a significant amount of upheaval: an unfamiliar environment, social and cultural dislocation, possible loneliness, uncertain prospects, weak or ambiguous social networks, and so on. Imagine, then, someone making that choice without the benefits of modern telecommunications or international travel, migrating to a land where, historically, his or her people are regarded with suspicion (cf. Num 25:1ff). A sombre finality would have cast itself over Ruth’s decision, for she was not likely to see her family again (cf. 2:11). She was going to leave everything she knew – everything that anchors and grounds and stabilises a person – to take up an uncertain existence in a foreign land, with a people who considered those of her ilk to be idolaters and scoundrels. For all intents and purposes, Ruth’s decision meant permanent separation from her past. What, in turn, could she realistically (from this point in the narrative, at least) look forward to? As I have noted, Naomi was fatalistic about the loss she had experienced, and the diminishing likelihood that life would issue in anything else but gnawing emptiness. And yet, Ruth appeared to be entirely undeterred by such unwelcome prospects, so determined was she to forsake her life for her mother-in-law.

We ought not neglect the religious-spiritual concerns underpinning Ruth’s decision. Her choice to cleave to her mother-in-law was governed, not only by her concern for Naomi, but by the recognition that the God her mother-in-law followed was, in fact, the true Lord (cf. 2:12). Naomi even urged Ruth (implicitly, perhaps) to return to the deities of her own tribe and family (1:15). But Ruth was unswayed: she determined to follow Yahweh, as Naomi did, and in fact showed a purer faith at this point than her mother-in-law. Although she was about to embark on a journey with a woman whose own prospects were very dim indeed, Ruth seemed to understand that by doing so, she was actually joining the community of the elect, and cleaving to the world’s rightful sovereign. To anticipate some of what I want to say below, Ruth combined the basic tenets of God’s will in her person and promise: to love him, and to give of oneself to others. Ruth recognized the truth of Israel’s chosen status before a holy God, even as she recognized the consequent demands that flowed from this identity.

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Ruth’s actions have been described as an example of “excessive altruism” (Martin Luther King, jnr.). This is quite true: Ruth was driven only by a selfless, unerring concern for Naomi’s welfare. And she proved her worth, substantiating her earlier promise to bind herself to her mother-in-law. Reading through Ruth 2, for example, we find the Moabitess expending herself in service of her mother-in-law, engaging in the arduous task of gleaning grain so that they had enough to eat (vv. 3, 17-19, 23). During this time, she encountered Boaz, one of the family’s kinsmen-redeemers (vv. 8-13). The chapter ends, poignantly enough, by telling us that “[Ruth] lived with her mother-in-law” – a reminder that Naomi, despite her embittered complaint (cf. 1:21), was neither bereft nor alone. The scene is set, of course, for Ruth’s night-time rendezvous with Boaz, and their eventual union.

There is much that we ourselves may glean. We should not simply understand Ruth’s altruism in a merely secular sense. The author shared with his or her contemporaries a thoroughly spiritual worldview, where one’s moral actions were inseparable from one’s religious identity. More to the point, Ruth’s acts of compassion – expressed in the humble earthiness of her work – clearly distilled the core demands of Torah. As the biblical scholar, Isabel Docampo, has written, “From the moment she uttered her pledge to Naomi in the middle of Moab’s fields, Ruth enacted God’s love as taught by the Torah”. Her actions not only reflected concern for the needs of another; they were deeply linked, by way of obedience to the demands of holy love, to her promise to serve Yahweh. True piety so often finds its expression in charity, especially as it is directed towards the lowly and the weak (cf. Jas 1:27a). Seen in the context of her double pledge (1:16-17), Ruth’s sacrificial love beautifully embodied (prospectively, of course!) Jesus’ admonition that the whole Law is summed up in the two greatest commandments: love the Lord with all your soul, heart, mind, and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Ruth’s was a demonstration of obeisance to the deepest intentions of the Law – thus marking out this Moabitess as a true follower of Yahweh.

We would do well to appreciate this point. I have already noted that Ruth’s devotion to Naomi outweighed whatever regard she had for her own security, and that she understood Yahweh to be the One in whom she might take refuge. In all of this, Ruth completely subverted then-conventional notions concerning the identity of the righteous, and the boundaries of the covenant community. Recall that for many Israelites, Moabites – and Moabite women, in particular – were indelibly linked with that notorious incident in Numbers 25. Such “heathens” were but a snare to God’s elect, and allowing them entry to the covenant community was inviting spiritual and moral pollution. Biblical tradition holds that Moab’s kings had either waylaid or actively oppressed the Israelites (Judges 3:12-30; 11:17). More relevantly, Moab’s women were associated with harlotry in biblical imagination, having seduced God’s people to commit both sexual immorality and idolatry (Num 25:1-3). However, Ruth stood these traditions on their heads. Not only did she not undermine or sully the purity of the redeemed community; she positively enriched it with her lavish, unwavering commitment to love of God and love of neighbour. Rather than leading local Israelites astray, Ruth offered her contemporaries an unsullied distillation of what it meant to truly align oneself with the purposes and will of Yahweh.

How one reconciles this with the stringent demand of Deuteronomy 23:3-6, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the one tradition was intended as an abstract legal requirement, to be “relaxed” in the face of the irresistible fact of a non-Israelite’s allegiance to Yahweh. Perhaps we have here more than one tradition pertaining to the nation’s relationship to foreign peoples. Whatever the case, Ruth’s participation in the redeemed community – culminating with her marriage to Boaz – was a sign that the ever-present temptation to limit God’s covenant blessings on the basis of ethnicity was, in fact, a violation of the basic thrust of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1-3). One commentator has said that Ruth shows us – and, one would think, its original audience – that “true religion is supranational”, such that a “foreigner who trusted in God and wished to be identified with the people of God was worthy of full acceptance” (Charles Oxley). The reality of Ruth’s membership within the covenant community looked forward to the great vision of the prophets, who held out the eschatological hope of the universal reach of Yahweh’s blessings (e.g., Isa 2:1-5; 25:6ff; 56:3-8). With the actions of its central character, the book of Ruth functions as a rebuke to a narrow cast of mind that rigidly ties true religiosity to a person’s ethnic or cultural features (cf. John 1:12-13). At their worst, such characteristics can become pernicious idols in the life of those who are bound by them, restricting thereby the extent and scope of God’s grace. For the book of Ruth, on the other hand, ethnicity is completely de-coupled from piety; what counts is, again, obedience before God, of which charity and selfless devotion towards others is a key manifestation (cf. Micah 6:8).

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If Ruth the woman disturbs settled accounts of foreigners, then her character and actions also help to overturn other accepted notions – this time around gender, sex, and male-female relations. Her efforts, of course, were instrumental in Naomi’s own journey from emptiness and loss to redemption and fullness. I noted earlier the seeds of hope, even as Naomi resigned herself to the bitterness of death, that lie in the narrative: Ruth’s vow to remain with her mother-in-law, despite their being no obligation to do so; and the author’s subtle comment in 2:22 that Naomi returned to Israel – not alone, but “accompanied” by Ruth, at the time of harvest. Throughout the narrative, Ruth is presented as someone who takes the initiative, who does not wait to be acted upon, but engages decisively in action. It is action that is neither rash nor foolish. If wisdom could be seen in part as the artful calibration of ends with means, so that the desired result is brought about, then Ruth was very wise indeed. However, this was more than mere shrewdness. As Boaz himself remarked, Ruth was already known as a “woman of noble character” (3:11), which suggests that not only did she possess practical nous, but integrity and honour in abundance.

Far from being a mere recipient of paternalistic largesse, Ruth forged her path through adversity and loss. Instead of remaining helpless and inert before the welter of economic and social challenges she likely faced (migration, cultural dislocation, relative poverty, “outsider” status, etc.), this Moabitess laboured with tireless determination to provide for both herself and her mother-in-law. Ruth is presented as the very epitome of the savvy, independent woman, who engages with others in the open, public realm of the field and the workplace. It was her initiative that sustained Naomi upon her return to Bethlehem; and, even if we grant the necessity of Boaz’s decision to welcome both Ruth and Naomi into his household as their kinsmen-redeemer (4:9-10, 13-15), this was the direct result of Ruth’s earlier approach (3:7-13). His immediate response, we might recall, suggests that he saw her actions as a gracious gift to him (v.10). Certainly, it reverses the usual train of events, where masculinity is often associated with activity and initiative, and femininity functions as a passive, demure counterpoint. We are thus left with a narrative construction of women that would have challenged the prevailing patriarchal ethos. As the great OT scholar, Claus Westermann, perceptively argued, the book of Ruth “is one of the few [ancient] narratives in which the thoughts and actions of a woman comprise the events that to a large degree characterize the story…” He went on to observe – quite rightly – that Ruth’s actions effectively “upend the established order”, for she is neither “dependent” nor “subordinate”. Yes, Boaz is important to the story, and it would be a mistake to marginalize his role. But it is Ruth who drives the narrative forward, to such an extent that her decisions – the decisions of a poor, foreign female, no less – determine the trajectory of events. If one were wanting to use story to challenge or undercut dominant notions concerning social hierarchy and value, one would be hard pressed to do better than this subversive little romance.

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One final comment, of a Christological nature, before drawing my reflections to a close. I said earlier that many sermons on Ruth emphasise Boaz’s role as a type of Christ: as the ageing Bethlehemite (cf. 3:10) redeemed Naomi and Ruth from a spectral existence lived on the edges of local society, so Christ redeems us from the perils of our sin-soaked alienation from God. This is true, and we ought not to dismiss the various signs the OT holds up to the final messianic revelation. But if what I have said about Ruth is true, could it not also be the case that she be seen as a kind of pre-figuring of Christ? After all, who was it that acted faithfully and compassionately, extending herself for another’s good? Who laboured and toiled and sacrificed to sustain their life? Who ensured that they would not be left alone, condemned to a life of scarcity and want? Who identified herself so radically with another’s fate? Who summed up the deepest demands of the Law in her own person? And whose actions guaranteed her mother-in-law’s transfiguration from emptiness to wholeness? In all these ways, Ruth acted out the kind of grace that Christ embodied in excelsis. Even without the obvious conceptual link of redemption (Boaz, Naomi’s and Ruth’s kinsmen-redeemer; Christ, our redeemer [cf. Mark 10:45; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 3:13; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14]), I think we’re on solid ground in seeing certain parallels between Ruth’s sacrificial efforts, and the (far greater) sacrifice undertaken by Jesus (again, see John 15:13). Not only men, but women, too, may be assured that they have the chance to reflect the gracious, self-abnegating love of the divine in their own lives – love that redeems and heals and transforms and comforts. Apart from anything else, the story of Ruth shows us, I think, that the spirit of Christ may be witnessed in even the most unlikely of individuals. The liberality of God in calling a people to himself – a people formed by his word and spirit to embody the character of his Son – knows no bounds. If we restrict it on the basis of nationality, culture, gender or social status, then we do so to our own loss.

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Social Networking: False Promises? (Part One)

In the space of less than a decade, Facebook and other social networking sites have become an indelible, ubiquitous – and, according to some, indispensible – part of contemporary culture. This is not only so in the prosperous west; indeed, much of the rest of the world has become enamoured with this relatively new development in communication. From humble beginnings, some of these sites have risen to places of great social and cultural influence (Facebook, which started at Harvard University in 2004, now boasts several hundred million users worldwide, and its inception has been turned into an Oscar-winning film), that influence has shaped, and is shaping, our relationships, our interactions with the world, and even the way in which we view reality.

But can it be said that these changes have had an unambiguously beneficial effect on the way we live? Has that amorphous concept known as “society” been changed for the better? Some point to the increased capacity for network-building and the development of wider friendship groups, and this cannot be denied. Links between previously disparate individuals are certainly created and strengthened, which can only be a good thing in an often disconnected world. At the same time, however, many have concerns over some of the less desirable effects that social networks seem to have wrought on people. What I want to do in this part of my look at social networking is focus on the social and relational implications of sites such as Facebook, and the kinds of negative effects they have had. I mean, for every person who has had the fortune of being able to strengthen existing relationships through Facebook, Myspace or Twitter, there is someone else for whom these online environments only deepen and reinforce the sense of loneliness they may have already felt. For every person who can claim to use these sites to successfully network with others, there is someone else who not only cannot do this, but who feels even more socially distant than before.

It might be argued that this is simply a reflection of life: people in the real world are often divided into social butterflies and lone wolves; a site such as Facebook simply mirrors this reality. This may well be true, but when a site implicitly claims to transcend barriers to friendship and social connection, one has to ask whether this is indeed the case. For example, it is easy to see how this might be played out within the Facebook environment. You’re happy with your 23 friends. Content, you might say. But then you see that one of your friends has 487 of his own. It may induce petty jealousy – a niggling emotion, but nothing to worry about. However, it may also induce something far more serious and far more emotionally damaging. It’s not the fault of Facebook, of course; nor can one say that such social networking sites have actually created these conditions (not directly, anyway). But again, this is hardly the perfect advertisement for a site whose raison d’etre is to bring people together. Moreover, it could be suggested that although a site like Facebook may reflect (as opposed to create) the socially stratified world in which we live, that sense of disconnect and alienated anonymity may only be deepened with the immediacy and constancy of others’ popularity within the cyber community.

This is no mere speculation; nor is it nothing more than a hypothetical situation. I know of people who have entered into the world of Facebook (or some other social networking site) with the ultimately forlorn hope that such technology will help break down the social and geographical barriers that previously hindered their ability to foster strong and enriching relationships. Those hopes were dashed. Their sense of disconnectedness and loneliness was hardly ameliorated; quite the opposite, in fact, as they struggled to garner attention in the same way that others do. And given the constant reminders of other users’ popularity (due to the ease with which one can view another’s Facebook page), that sense of their own social inadequacy is only reinforced. Social networking sites may have the potential to break down social and geographical barriers (and we shouldn’t deny this fact). But it also seems that the kind of social disconnection that people feel in the “real” world can now be brought right into their living rooms. Add to that the now notorious ability of Facebook to create social addicts of us all, and the tension between the desperate need to be accepted on something that represents the cultural zeitgeist of our age, and the often-felt reality of digital alienation that lies behind the promise, becomes unbearable for some.

The problem is one among many. Even if, say, Facebook is unequivocally able to create an environment that is conducive to networking and friendship, one needs to ask just how strong those networks and so-called friendships really are. Everyone on Facebook is called a “friend” when another user invites him or her. In many cases, a friend in the Facebook world is a friend in the real world. But how often is this the case? How many of a person’s 673 Facebook friends (to use a purely hypothetical number) are actually true companions? Now, simply having this number of people on one’s Facebook page is not a problem in and of itself. But when the word “friend” is used in such a loose and cavalier manner, it is stretched beyond breaking point. In other words, the word (and, one might say, the concept) is trivialised by the all-encompassing use of what ought to be a special and selective term. Friendship is far too precious to be undercut by the way it is applied to even the most distant of acquaintances and the most shallow of relationships. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that “friendship is one soul in two bodies”. Looking past any literal interpretation of that quote, we can see how friendship is elevated to the status of something that possesses almost unique intimacy, bringing two separate lives together in such a way that they become deeply interdependent. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus himself spoke of friendship in glowing terms, describing both the sacrificial love and the relational intimacy that characterises its true expression (John 15:13, 15). These poetic descriptions of platonic unions stand in stark contrast to the shallow and trivialised notion of friendship that one sometimes witnesses on social networking sites.

These concerns have already been raised in the public sphere. An article in The New York Times detailed the explosion of so-called “weak ties” as a result of sites such as Facebook, and the problems that follow (Clive Thompson, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”, 5th September, 2008). Before the advent of such technology, distant acquaintances, such as an old high-school friend or a business colleague, may not have been so important. They were present in the background of a person’s social landscape, but did not elicit much energy or attention. Now, however, things are much different. The proliferation of relationships and social ties that are more distant and less intimate than a person’s inner circle – aided and abetted by social networks’ capacity to transcend time and space at will – has had, according to some psychologists at least, a burdensome effect on individuals’ emotional energy. If everyone on, say, Facebook is clamouring for your attention; and if everyone is worthy of the appellation “friend”; and if such technology has the effect of making social ties appear stronger than they really are; then it becomes easy to see how a person can be stretched socially and emotionally by the obligation to respond to the false appearance of friendship. Although a site such as Facebook can put one in touch with others who have similar interests and tastes, it can also sustain weak social ties that may in fact undermine one’s more close and intimate relationships.

Indeed, certain questions arise as a result. To what extent are people robbing themselves of the chance of true, substantive relationships with other flesh-and-blood individuals for the online attraction of cyber-relationships? How far does the notion of “Facebook friend” undercut the notion of actual friendship? And is all this changing the way we look at the concept of friendship, leading us to devalue the hard work and effort it takes to build and maintain them? One may expend emotional energy maintaining the constant existence of weak social ties out of nothing more than devotion to digital norms and customary obligations, but is that simultaneously trivialising the notion of authentic friendship, and all that that entails? Does a social networking site such as Facebook (or Myspace, or Twitter) give us an illusory picture of intimacy and relational knowledge? We may know what another “friend” did over the weekend faster and more easily than we were able to just ten years ago with a flesh-and-blood companion, but that is a far cry from true knowledge of another person. As Danah Boyd, a Harvard academic studying the phenomenon, said, others can “observe you, but it’s not the same as knowing you”.

The concept of reality – personal reality – is also a question without a concrete answer. We now have the unprecedented ability to construct certain portraits of ourselves on sites such as Facebook, but how much do these portraits reflect our true selves? It must be said that such sanitized versions of people’s lives are not only inimical to the requirements of true friendship, but they may induce a false (or at least, severely truncated) representation of personal reality. What we take to be reflections of people’s lives are, in actual fact, mere slices of social reality that only bear an oblique resemblance to a person’s true self. How does the seemingly happy and care-free triviality of Facebook play with someone who is in the deepest throes of depression or social anxiety? I suspect that it doesn’t play so well, which may not be a direct cause of such sites (Facebook doesn’t actually cause depression), but has been increased by their ubiquity and pervasiveness. Indeed, therein lies part of the problem, for although we may enjoy connections with a whole host of different people, those connections betray a fundamental distance (the “weak ties” phenomenon) that is only reinforced by the kind of culture that has developed on social networking sites. As the quote above suggests, mere observation of an individual’s daily routine is not the same as actually knowing them as a whole person. Of course, I can’t claim to have expert knowledge in these areas; nor can I claim to have concrete answers for the questions I have just posed. But we must be aware of the potential of Facebook, et. al., to undermine, or at least transform, the very truth of friendship – a truth that is sometimes difficult, often demanding, but nearly always rewarding.

It’s not just the concept of friendship that seems to have been transformed by social networking sites. Triviality, for instance, seems to be something of a core value on these sites (before going on, I have to put all cards on the table, and admit that I, too, engage in this online banality from time to time). But that can only have a deleterious effect on one’s efforts, thinking and perspective on life. If a site such as Facebook continues to exert such wide – and deep – cultural influence over young people (and some older people, too), it is not unreasonable to suggest that the trivial take on life that seems to have sprung up as a result may end up defining the way in which the world is viewed. Given the ubiquity of Facebook and other sites that I have already mentioned, there is little doubt that minds saturated in this kind of environment can only become infantilized. The truly great things of this world that should occupy our thoughts and our time have taken a back seat to the immediate and transient pleasures of knowing who-did-what last weekend, or who-had-what for lunch. The vacuous and the banal now occupy an over-sized place in people’s minds, squeezing out far more substantial concerns. Even a cursory look at the Facebook “news feed” Wall will put to rest any claims to the contrary. And if one’s attention or thinking is narrowed and truncated in such a way, what does that say about our culture as a whole? I don’t want to press these arguments too far, but it seems that sites such as Facebook, for all their promise (and let’s be frank; they can – and do – deliver on such promise), can actually have a detrimental effect on a person’s ability to think, to critique, and to engage with this world in a mature manner. To be sure, we cannot assume that this is simply the fault of Facebook or some other such site. Facebook, for example, is as much a reflection of common cultural pursuits as it is a driver of them. It both creates and imitates cultural mores in a dialectical relationship. What is more, not every user of such sites is in fact worse off as a result. Nevertheless, the pervasive presence of such sites at least raises the issue of whether or not they are feeding into an infantilized society, which jars horribly with efforts to build people who are well-rounded and critically engaged individuals.

I might sound like a prophet of doom with all of these grave concerns about something that seems to be so innocuous. But let it never be said that the things we create exert no power over us as individuals or us as a society (if we let them). That much is true. And, within the Western world at least, the concerns that I have detailed above are fairly close to the mark. Now, it might sound like I am completely opposed to Facebook and its ilk, but that it’s not actually the case. For as in most things, so in this: ambiguity reigns. As I have already noted in this article, social connectedness is often enhanced (and one might even say enriched) by social networking sites. How often is a matter for debate, but one must concede that fact. Indeed, relationships in the real world are, in some cases, deepened as a result of social networking that occurs online, at a much faster rate than previously. In addition, the ubiquitous triviality that is constantly witnessed on such sites is very different from the more substantial uses towards which, say, Facebook, is put, especially in other parts of the world. However, I don’t want to anticipate too much what I want to say in my next post. Those points – and a Christian perspective on the whole phenomenon – will have to wait for Part Two of this series.

UPDATE: I’ve just found out that the manager of my blog has just posted this entry on Facebook. Hmmm…using the very medium that I critique on my blog in order to publicize it. I am aware of the irony.