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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Twitter and the Life of the Spirit

I am new to Twitter, and only got into it in the new year.  I'd never bothered much with social networking sites.  At best, I thought, they are a mindless way of passing the time by indulging in gossip; at worst, decidedly risky, for as we know reputations have been famously brought down by idle tweets. 

But I've been surprised how I've taken to it.  It feels a bit like discovering photography a few years ago.  Perhaps it's because they are quite similar.  Photography captures the essence of something by putting a frame around it. Composing an image is to limit the viewer's horizons in ways that 'focus' (pun intended) attention so that we see afresh and perhaps gain 'insight'. In the same way, Twitter imposes the discipline of 140 characters which requires us to put a (pretty small) frame around what we want to share and try and communicate in a sharply focused way.

Someone once spoke of 'the sonnet's narrow room'.  That means the 'given' shape of 14 lines with rhythms that are set: the poet who wants to write a sonnet isn't free to vary its structure.  The challenge of doing something interesting, creative and beautiful inside that 'narrow room' has fascinated poets since Petrarch.  Shakespeare's Sonnets are like Bach's Goldberg Variations: they show the endless variety that is possible at the hands of a master even when the terrain on which to work is no bigger than a pocket handkershief. 

I think Twitter may appeal to people who are miniaturists.  We like the idea that much can be said in a few words.  We value understatement and reticence, where a wealth of meanings can reside at the margins of what is said, implied by nudges and hints rather than stated openly.  'Tell all the truth but tell it slant' said Emily Dickinson, one of the great practitioners of saying much in a small space.  The truth at the centre of Christianity can be expressed in a tweet: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth. (No quote marks: that would bring it to 142 characters.)  Perhaps if you can't say it at tweet-length, then it isn't worth saying. 

The Word made flesh, words made flesh.  There's a relationship because in good communication, it's not simply a matter of words being uttered, but of something being done, and so enfleshed in some way, incarnated.  Philosophers of language talk about speech acts ('how to do things with words'), but words always do something if they are more than lazy, or as we say, idle, words.  Twitter, I think, can powerfully concentrate the power of very few words to do all sorts of things: make us cry or laugh, tell us what we did not know, encourage us to act or warn us to be careful, make us think in new ways, interrogate us or draw us into a dialogue, drive us to be more aware and to pray. 

The Diocese of Durham is tweeting a daily Bible verse or reflection during Lent, and I have been doing the same in a rather different register.  The Bishop's tweets from his recent visit to Nigeria were a sobering impulsion to pray.  Maeve Sherlock, a working peer who worships with us when she is in Durham, is fascinating on the daily doings of the House of Lords.  Margaret Masson, Senior Tutor across the road at (my) St Chad's College, is another artistic, intelligent tweeter on things literary, spiritual and quirky.  My colleague Stephen Cherry tweets wisely and theologically in a sharply observed way and with a wry smile.  Maggie Dawn the theologian and spiritual writer is one of the best who realises the possibilities of this medium.  I am following the daily tweets of Captain Scott in his dreadful Antarctic journey of exactly 100 years ago.  The North Pennines AONB brings daily fresh air, nature and wide landscapes from Upper Weardale.  I followed the General Synod debates about women bishops via official and unoffocial tweets. Durham Cathedral's tweets sometimes tell me things I did not know....And carefully selected news feeds give updates and links to breaking stories: I follow The Guardian, BBC News and the Tablet.

True, there is infinite scope for triviality, prurience and time-wasting; potential too to hurt people and cause damage.  But understood and used sensibly, it can bring people together in true online communities to celebrate, share wisdom, learn, laugh, become more aware of the world and its pain, collaborate in what is just and good, and to pray. In all this, it can be not only wholesome but a real tool for mission.  To my mind the 140c discipline makes it a more serious medium than the sprawling Facebook.  We shouldn't be too solemn about a medium that is meant to be enjoyable. But as it's there, let's use it for good to build up social and spiritual capital.  Happy are those who can say something wise in two or three brief lines, for they are worth hearing and heeding.  

I think history's greatest teacher, the Master of the brief yet profound saying, would have loved Twitter.  Who is that? Jesus of Nazareth, of course.  Read the beatitudes. 


  1. Living in a remote part of the Diocese, twitter allowes me to hear all the latest news & views from Durham itself, it's great!!

    1. Glad to have contact with beautiful Upper Weardale where we spend much of our free time. Thank you.

  2. Even the great sprawling Facebook can be compelling if a Twitter account is set to post simulteously on Facebook -a. Different audience, and always a medium worth using - Christianity is unfamiliar and here is the message in 140 letters.

    1. Thank you. Yes, my Tweets are automatically routed to my Facebook page. Interesting that in that context, they appear even more terse. I agree that we should use all means, digital or other, to communicate Christian faith.