Jesus holds a smartphone to create a selfie for his Facebook timeline

Why the #ashfie and the forty-day period of fasting might not be a match made in heaven

Displaying religious suffering during the Season of Lent on social media

7 minutes to read
Column
Inge Beekmans
14/02/2018

While some people are still recovering from their Carnival-hangover, for many Christians, the next liturgical season has already begun. The season of Lent is a period of reflection, in which believers avert their attention from any earthly pursuits towards God. Fasting, praying, suffering and selflessness are just some of the key characteristics of this ancient ritual (Boer, 2016). But are new traditions like the use of #Ashtags and participating in the push-ups & prayer Lenten Challenge threatening these principles?

Guidelines for an individual journey

When it comes to Lent, there is not one particular set of rules all Christians have to oblige to. Rather, many churches will develop their own guidelines, and will encourage their members to formalize a more individual form of fasting, in which they select activities that might distract them from their connection to God and eliminate these activities temporarily from their lives. (Catholic Online, n.d.) Multiple researchers have shown that the use of social media can be extremely distractive. (Brooks, 2015) Therefore, it might be logical to think that many Christians will abandon their social media accounts for the time being, allowing themselves some peace and quiet, some time to reflect. What is happening in reality, appears to be very much the opposite. Believers are not just using their social media accounts during Lent, but are displaying their individual Lent- and fasting experiences online, and are translocating parts of their religious lives to online environments.

@intoanewlife on Ash Wednesday

Apparently, after receiving a cross of ashes on her forehead on Ash Wednesday, @intoanewlife decided to postpone the process of repentance for just a few minutes to make a selfie and share this selfie on her Twitter-account. Two of the hashtags she is using are #ashtags and #CatholicsAreCool. Both are not necessarily in line with the tone of voice somebody might expect from a believer that is starting a period of fasting and suffering. These hashtags appear to be self-promotional, which opposes the idea that during Lent, a good catholic will give God his or her full and undivided attention.

"Text messages and social media are a gift from God"

The Catholic church is a relative newcomer on the online stage, only fully embracing communication technologies and social media since 2013. During the last few years, the church has shown huge dedication to reach young people through new technologies. Pope Francis even met with Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2016, and told him that: "Text messages and social media are a gift from God". (Catholic Herald, 2016) In his 2016 Lent Message, he also spoke positively about digital communication technologies, arguing that: "The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks." (AP, 2016) We might look at 'meaningful' as one of the key words in this statement. The tweet from @intoanewlife surely has a certain meaning, but its contents are not particularly meaningful.

Roderick Vonhögen tweet over de vastentijd en het gebruik van sociale media.

One year before the pope's incentive, Roderick Vonhögen, a well-known Dutch priest, tweeted about the use of social media during Lent, stating that: "Fasting is best done when it is done in secret. However, with this interview I would like to ask for attention for the poor inhabitants of the Netherlands." It is impossible to compare the pope's speech with Vonhögen tweet. The pope is speaking about Lent and online conversations in general, Vonhögen about the customs surrounding fasting. Still, there are reasons to believe that Vonhögen is more dismissive when it comes to combining the Season of Lent with the use of social media. His message is clear; this ritual has to be performed in private, and therefore, an individual should probably not post on social media about his or her Lent-experiences.

Longing for engagement and isolation

That being said, why is Vonhögen using social media? He appears to be in a complicated position, a fine balancing act between the desire to experience Lent in a more private, individual way, and the responsibility he has as a well-known priest. 

Roderick Vonhögen shares a meme about Good Friday

The pilgrims that are described in Als pelgrims online gaan (Van der Beek, 2015) appear to experience a similar squeeze, searching for isolation on the one hand, but connecting with their followers through online platforms and blogging about their pilgrimage on the other hand. According to Van der Beek, these apparent contradictions can be explained by an individual’s ability to switch between different roles. In an example she uses, she describes how an individual might be committed to the role of a pilgrim at one moment and committed to the role of a father at another point in time. 

The same appears to be the case for the way Vonhögen writes about Lent on his Twitter-account. On the one hand, he is a priest with a public responsibility. On the other hand, he is a Christian individual with his own private religious experiences.

@sandrashaheen shows what she did when Ash Wednesday and #datenight were happening on the same day

Promoting the religious self

Even though a person that is on a pilgrimage can post about his journey on social media without totally discharging his or her religious or spiritual experience, there are reasons to believe that pilgrimage and social media are not an automatic match. Van der Beek argues that: "The combination of suffering and online media is uneasy". (Van der Beek, 2015, p. 88) She states that social media are tailor-made to manifest the self in a positive manner. This positivity and the notion of pain and suffering are often conflicting with each other.

A similar conflict also manifests itself in the social media posts that are published on Ash Wednesday. @intoanewlife and @sandrashaheen both display their Lent-experiences in a 'fun' manner, which is probably perceived as inappropriate by many Christians. On top of that, their social media posts don't fit the belief that Lent is something that is best done in secret.

Paula_m_davis invites her followers to take part in her 'push-ups and prayer Lenten Challenge'

Lent as a social media challenge

Some people take it one step further, or maybe even 'one step to far'. The push-ups & prayer Lenten Challenge invites people to focus on themselves and their physical appearance. This would be somewhat in order if the challenge had any self-reflective aspects to it. But it doesn't. On the positive side; it is plausible that some of its participants will experience a reasonable amount of suffering.

Just like for any other event, the use of social media has become an integral part of Lent. Believers are displaying their experiences in many different ways. A few social media posts appear to connect to some of the principles of this ancient ritual, but most are in sharp contrast with the ideas of repentance, atonement, fasting, reflection and prayer. These posts are a distraction, and in some extreme cases even offensive or inappropriate. The Season of Lent and the use of social media don't need to be conflicting, but a true Lent-experiencer can never be a 'show-off'. What might be the saddest thing, is that we will probably never hear from the people that have actually decided to give up social media for Lent, because without the use of these online platforms, they will never be able to tell us.

References

AP. (2016, 9 februari). Pope Francis to open Lenten pastoral effort on social media

Boer, M. C. (2016). Passie in het publieke domein. 

Brooks, S. (2015). Does personal social media usage affect efficiency and well-being?. 

Catholic Herald. (2016, 25 januari). Pope Francis: ‘Text messages and social media are a gift from God’. 

Catholic Online. (z.j.). Fasting and Abstinence. 

Van der Beek, S. (2015). Als pelgrims online gaan.