The season of Lent is upon us. This is a holy season for Christians who seek to identify with Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting as he prepared to be tested and later crucified. In order to identify with Christ’s self-sacrifice, Christians often join in a symbolic fast, giving up certain foods such as meat or chocolate or even giving up certain practices.
In recent years, fasting from the internet or other forms of technology has become popular. Fasting from technology is encouraged by many religious leaders as the ideal way for individuals to reflect on their daily dependency on technology. Sometimes called taking a “digital Sabbath,” it refers to the Christian and Jewish practice, in which one day a week is set aside as sacred.
On such a day, secular practices such as using media are halted in order to help believers focus on God and their faith. This is based on the premise that the best way to critically engage with technology is to unplug from it. It’s a way to remember that true communication is unmediated by technology and grounded in being with one another in the “real world.”
Unplugging from social media or limiting one’s internet use for a set period such as during Lent can be helpful for some individuals. My research, conducted over two decades, however, shows that some of core assumptions on which digital fasting is based on can be problematic or misguided.
Technology can, in fact, be good for religion. The question is, how do we engage with technology thoughtfully and actively?
In my recent book, “Networked Theology,” my coauthor Stephen Garner and I discuss how some religious communities believe the media primarily promote immoral values and frivolous entertainment. Therefore, they insist interaction with media via digital devices should be controlled, just as is done during a digital fast.
In “Networked Theology,” we explain how abstaining from media is based on an assumption often referred to as “technological determinism.” It is a theory that argues media technology shapes how individuals in society think and act. Technology is presented as the central factor driving society, and its character is often described as selfish and dehumanizing.
This view presents the internet as a medium that creates environments that disconnect us from reality. For example, YouTube could be seen to promote entertainment culture over wisdom, Facebook encourages self-promotion over community-building and Twitter facilitates tweeting whatever comes to one’s mind rather than listening.
People are not passive users
The truth is digital media is increasingly a part of daily routines. People learn, do business and communicate with technology. Often technology enhances our daily lives, such as eyeglasses correcting vision or the telephone helping people communicate across time and space.
The problem, however, comes when we assume that people have only two options: to engage technology and inevitably be seduced by it, or refuse to use it in order to resist its power.
Digital fasting follows this second option. It presents individuals as slaves of technology. Taking the occasional timeout from the all-powerful grip of technology is done in order to simply regroup and prepare to again face its irresistible seduction.
In my view, such an approach places too much emphasis on the assertion that technological devices now dictate most people’s lives. It also does not take into account that technology users have the ability to make their own choices about how they approach it. So people can choose to use technology in ways that fulfill spiritual goals.
In “Networked Theology,” we argue that digital technology can be reshaped by users. As others have written, we agree that people should take more responsibility for the time spent with their devices.
Deepening devotion with technology
So, instead of resisting technology during Lent, individuals could use this space of holy reflection to actively consider how to integrate technology to support their spiritual development.
Religious groups have the ability to determine the culture technology promotes, if only they take time to prayerfully create their own “theology of technology.”
I describe part of this process as being “techno-selective.” What this means is reflecting on the technology we select and how and why we use it. It also means being proactive in shaping our technologies so they enhance and not distract from our spiritual journeys.
A digital Lent can become about considering how our devices can help us do justice, practice kindness and demonstrate humility in our world. For example, people could ask if their postings on Facebook are helping in creating a positive or more abusive world? Or, whether the apps they use or their cellphone etiquette promotes peace and social change?
Apps for social justice
In the last five years I have been working with a team of students at Texas A&M University to explore how social and mobile media are being developed that can support a variety of religious beliefs and practices. We found there are religious apps to help people do that. Internet memes also provide unique insights into common stereotypes about religion within popular culture.
Memes can be crafted to counter such misconceptions. For example, the wearing of hijabs, or headscarves, by Muslim women is viewed by many outside the religion as oppressive, but wearing the veil and modesty are themes frequently affirmed in memes created by Muslims.
Further, our research on religious mobile apps has found increasing numbers of apps are available that help individuals stay faithful in their religious practices on a daily basis. Apps can help with the reading of sacred texts, provide religious study aids, help locate kosher or halal products to maintain a holy lifestyle and connect people with places of worship and also to other beliefs.
Also apps designed to encourage involvement in social justice causes, such as TraffickStop, Lose Weight or Donate and CharityMiles, help raise awareness of key issues and even help users link their daily practices, such as what they eat, to micro-donations to social justice organizations.
A digital Lent?
Lent is a great time for religious individuals and groups to pause and consider not only their own technological practices and how they shape our world but also the ways in which digital resources can be integrated into their communities to support their beliefs.
So instead of giving up Facebook for Lent, consider doing Lent digitally.
Practicing 40 days of technoselectivity might actually have a longer-term impact socially and spiritually on one’s daily life. It could even deepen religious devotion.
So much can be said about love. The beloved 1 Corinthians verses, such as “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8a), are in many a wedding ceremony. But it’s when life gets hard that we draw on God’s love, who we love, and who loves us. Dr. Melvin E. Banks, the founder of UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.), has 25 biblically based, two-minute podcast shorts that cover tough love, love and sorrow, love and relationships, beloved hymns, unconditional love, peace and love, and loving Jesus.
Anyone familiar with the schedule kept by the Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, was not likely surprised by the news that he is stepping away to take a much-deserved sabbatical. Rev. Wesley was known to be on call to answer his parishioners’ needs 24 hours a day.
I’m grateful that Wesley, in announcing his sabbatical, also shared his reasons for it — feeling far from God, tired in his soul and needing to recuperate mentally and physically. I hope his message reaches beyond his church and denomination and spurs action for kindred clergy who find themselves having similar feelings.
The Rev. Howard-John Wesley. Photo by Dave McIntosh, courtesy of Alfred Street Baptist Church
In 2015, 52 church-appointed Methodist pastors agreed to be interviewed by me and my fellow researchers at the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, write down what they did every hour of every day for a week and score their activities for meaning and enjoyment.
In this study and others, including a survey that compared 1,726 clergy to thousands of other North Carolinians, we found above-average rates of depression, obesity and chronic diseases, all of which are substantiated by other researchers who studied clergy of other denominations. One reason for these poor health patterns is how clergy respond to the demands of ministry; their call is so sacred that they often stretch themselves too far.
We also found that, not only can clergy combat burnout, they can flourish in their vocation.
By comparing the behavior of flourishing clergy and those experiencing burnout, we were able to identify four strategies for clergy to flourish: caring for their physical and mental health, setting boundaries for their work and personal lives, nourishing friendships and mutual relationships, and working in alignment with God.
Taking care of one’s health is a particular challenge when a pastor’s schedule is at the mercy of parishioners’ needs. Flourishing clergy not only proactively made plans to attend to their physical, mental and spiritual well-being, but also made backup plans to adjust for their unpredictable schedules: If a meeting preempts plans to attend a morning exercise class, walk with a parishioner at lunch. Called away for a hospital visit? Then play basketball with the youth group in the evening. They also reported finding time to practice spiritual devotions and walk in nature.
We found that flourishing pastors reminded themselves often of where God was leading them, especially when they faced criticism. The work of clergy is quite visible, and parishioners sometimes feel free to disapprove of their pastor’s message and say so publicly, immediately after pastors have poured their hearts out from the pulpit.
After hearing criticism, pastors who experienced burnout in our study reported feeling distressed. Those who were flourishing recognized the criticism and worried only if it related to God’s larger goals for their work.
We all know that friendships and social support are important, but in our study those hourly activity logs that clergy completed during the research revealed that only flourishing clergy took the time to share the joy of their small successes with friends and family.
We’ve also found that parishioners play an important role in clergy well-being. The clergy who do best have parishioners who remember they are human.
If you’re a parishioner, you can ask your pastors about their family, their interests, their vacation plans. Suggest that your pastor have a guest preacher any time a month has five Sundays. Encourage your pastors to keep Sabbath and then remember what day of the week their Sabbath is, and don’t schedule any non-emergency work on that day.
Think about how you would like to receive constructive criticism and offer it the same way, perhaps over a cup of coffee that you buy and with an offer to help.
My heartfelt wishes for health to Rev. Wesley, then, and to those reading this: these lessons about clergy, I suspect, pertain to us all. We are more likely to flourish if we share our joy with others, have back-up plans for healthy activities, and align ourselves with a greater purpose.
(Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell is an associate professor at the Duke Global Health Institute and research director of Duke Divinity School’s Clergy Health Initiative. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Close-up view of ancient stones during sunset at UNESCO World Heritage Site at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK.
As we immerse ourselves in the holiday season and get into the full swing of the Christmas season, I’ve heard people accuse this celebration of having origins in paganism. Yes that’s right paganism. I’m talking about the good old garden-variety orgy and sacrifices paganism.
If you don’t know your church history you will be taken aback. When you find out that this holiday that we have known as the celebration of the birth of Jesus is rooted in ancient Roman fertility rites it may throw you for a second.
This same holiday that has inspired so many songs and beautiful movies was also inspiration for people to release their inner lusts. Yes Christmas has pagan roots, but that isn’t a reason to drop it just yet. I will get into the reasons for that but first let’s start with a little history just in case you are not convinced of its pagan origins.
Christmas was created as a holiday that coincided with the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a week-long festival that involved sexual license and human sacrifice that revolved around the Winter Solstice and the pagan god Saturn. Early Christians succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans by allowing them to continue to practice Saturnalia as “Christmas.”
In fact no one knows the actual date when Jesus was born. The date of December 25th was chosen to coincide with the Winter Solstice in which the sun was reborn. This seemed to be a likely date for the “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2).
So yes Christmas does have some pagan origins and many of the things we do to celebrate Christmas (Christmas trees, mistletoe, gift giving) are leftovers from the older pagan holiday.
But it would not be fair or factual to declare that it’s a complete pagan holiday. It is a Christian holiday with some practices that contain pagan roots.
Whether we should celebrate or not celebrate Christmas is an issue of conscience. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans regarding holy days:
In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God.. For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and rose again for this very purpose—to be Lord both of the living and of the dead. (Romans 14:5-8)
In other words it’s not about the origins of the day but whether you can give honor to God with a clear conscience by celebrating that day. For most people, Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth and the arrival of hope in the world, not a pagan festival.
This is the way they have grown up and it does not offend their conscience because they partake in festivities in honor of Christ’s birth and not to the Roman god Saturn or to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun.
Others may have a hard time with it due to knowledge of the origins of Christmas. This is their prerogative. The key thing is whether it will bring glory to God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
And that brings me to another reason we shouldn’t drop the celebration of Christmas and condemn those who do. Christmas is for pagans because Jesus is for pagans. What do I mean by that?
I think the story of the three wise men illustrates my point. The three wise men from the east were unchurched “pagans”. They weren’t schooled in the rabbinical schools at Jerusalem. They weren’t raised as children to observe the Mosaic law.
They were pagan astrologers and all they had was a star. But what that star led them to changed their lives.
Christmas is for pagans because everyone needs Jesus. Today we are always in danger of being inordinately focused on our gifts and presents. While we are decking our halls and making our lists we may be ignoring those who need to find Jesus.
If this season of toys and wrapping paper and office parties can be used as a springboard to talk about the greatest gift God has given the world then let’s keep celebrating. We must figure out ways to turn it away from the consumer-driven season it has become and make it more like the star that attracted the wise men to Bethlehem.
Let’s focus on Christmas being a tool to inspire people to worship the God of the universe. This is what the world needed back then and this is what the world still needs now.
My 13-year-old son’s shocking confession forced me to confront my tendency to obscure Jesus behind the “religious” parts of my faith.
As is the case for many Americans, I use the Christmas and New Year holidays as a time to reflect and try to gain perspective on matters near and dear to me. So one recent evening, I sat down with my sons to discuss where we are spiritual as a family, and to get a read on their individual faith journeys. I never could have imagined what I heard or the impact it would have on me.
Our conversation began simply enough. I asked each of them to share how they feel about where they are with God. I intentionally left it open-ended so they wouldn’t feel like I was steering them in a specific direction. I could see the antennae going up in my 13-year-old’s brain, so I reassured them that this was not Mom on some kind of surreptitious fact-finding mission, looking for ammunition to blast them to kingdom come if they didn’t give the “right” responses. The antennae retracted, and the words began to flow.
Me: So, son (the 13-year-old), how’s it going for you spiritually?
Son: OK, I guess … Well, maybe not so OK.
Me: What do you mean?
Son: Well, I’m still praying some, and I kinda remember to read my devotions sometimes, but … I don’t know …
Me: It’s OK, just be honest.
Son: Are you sure?
Me: Yes, I really want to know how you feel.
Son: Well, I love God and everything. I know I need to follow Him and do the right things, but it’s just … the Christianity thing.
Alarms went off in my head, and everything in me went on full alert. What did he mean “the Christianity thing”? He was about to tell me.
Son: I mean, Christians … all they talk about is going to church, which movies you shouldn’t watch, do this, don’t do that … this music is bad, don’t look at porn …
[ Me (in my head): OH, LORD … porn?!?! Maybe I’m not ready for this conversation after all. ]
Me: OK, so what’s the problem? We should be obedient to Christ, right?
Son (now getting more animated): Yeah, I know, but it’s just the way they are … everything is do this, don’t do that … blah blah blah.
Me: Are you saying you don’t want to be a Christian anymore?
Son: No, Mom.
Me: Well, are you saying you don’t want to walk with Christ anymore?
Son: No, no, that’s not it. I want to walk with Christ. It’s Christianity that doesn’t interest me.
Whoa. What was my boy saying? And how was he able to draw this distinction between Christ and Christianity? I assumed he considered them to be one and the same. But then, a flash of revelation hit me, wrapping some concepts together that I have been grappling with and teaching on during the past year.
Just like many of us adults, my child is feeling a disconnect between who he envisions Jesus to be — and what He desires and requires — and the way in which professed Christ followers go about relating to Him and requiring others to relate to Him. Are we bombarding our young disciples and those who might become disciples, with rules and regulations without stressing the Person of Jesus Christ?
My son is no theologian or scholar, but at a visceral and instinctual level, he is resisting the system we have created to facilitate a relationship with Jesus. I know that obedience is important, and apparently so does my son. But he confessed to me that he is bored with our packaging of what is supposed to be a dynamic, life-giving, robust sojourn with our Lord.
In the midst of all this revelation, another thought hit me. I am probably one of those “Christians” to whom my son is referring. After all, he has more exposure to me than anyone else. It’s not completely surprising that a teenager would feel this way since parents often stress behavior and conduct in our attempts to control and manage our offspring. Our discussion highlighted the fact that our goal should be more about influence and guidance rather than control. Also, Jesus needs to be front and center when we demonstrate Christianity; we are following a person, not just rules.
This dichotomy of Christ vs. Christianity has intrigued me. I believe it has potentially powerful implications for everything from youth ministry to family spiritual life. In my next two columns, I’ll explore this topic from different angles. First, I’ll present a roundtable discussion with other young people to find out the biggest questions and concerns they’re facing as they attempt to live out their faith in the real world. Then I’ll finish up by asking a few urban youth leaders for their thoughts and responses to my son’s and the other youths’ comments and questions.
Consider how you might be presenting, or re-presenting, Christ to the teens and young adults you know. Are we, as the bride of Christ, obstructing their view of Him with a heavy and unattractive veil of “Christianity”? I pray it won’t be so.
Raymond Blanks said he wants to be an example for the young men in his classroom. PHOTO CREDIT: Devna Bose/Chalkbeat
Raymond Blanks knows Newark gets a bad rap beyond its borders. He also knows “how beautiful” his hometown can be. After college, the University High School graduate said returning to teach the children of Newark felt like a personal responsibility.
Back in high school, Blanks was inspired by his then principal, Roger León, who has since become the district superintendent. “He used to tell us that he worked for us, and whatever we needed, it was his job to give to us,” Blanks said of León.
Now, with seven years in the classroom under his belt, Blanks is as determined as ever to serve his community and “pay it forward.” According to him, he is currently one of two black male teachers at North Star Academy’s West Side Park Middle School, a charter school where he teaches sixth-grade math.
Black men like Blanks remain underrepresented in America’s teaching force, making up only 2% of teachers nationwide. Research shows that when students have teachers who look like them, their academic performance improves. But even in Newark, where around half of the students are black, black men make up only about 8% of the teaching force.
Blanks talked to Chalkbeat about what it’s like being one of the few black male educators in the city, getting to know his middle schoolers through music and video games, being awed by his students’ “grit” amid adversity, and showing them how math is relevant to their lives.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
If there was a conscious decision, it was because of the stigma I hear about my own city and what I would hear about our failing schools. That was something that motivated me to be someone who could maybe change the narrative — only 2% of teachers across the country are black men. It was that, and seeing the correlation between illiteracy and education and crime. So there wasn’t just a moment. It was a really strategic decision, and a lot of things played a factor.
Tell me more about the stigma you heard about living in Newark and what in particular struck a chord with you.
There’s a misconception that the whole city is dangerous when that’s not really the case. Even in college I had experiences where I’m articulating myself to a dean and they’re surprised that I’m from the city of Newark because they think that everyone from here is a certain way. I know how beautiful Newark can be.
How do you get to know your students?
I like to get to know my students by eating lunch with them. Sometimes I’ll just ask them who their favorite artists are and what video games they like to play. They take a liking to me being interested in things that they like to do that’s not math or academics. They may talk about a rapper that I have no idea about, and it lets me know that I’m getting older, so that’s funny. And I’ll say who I listen to and they’ll say I’m old, so we can make jokes about it.
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
I used to teach high school, so it’s a high school lesson about stop-and-frisk in Newark, [when] police stop people for random searches or checks. The lesson was about ratios and proportions, so I was still bringing math into the classroom. What I had them look at was the rate at which men of color are stopped and the rate at which white men are stopped.Then we looked to see if the numbers were proportional, or if black and brown men were stopped at the same rate as white men. We found that it was disproportional. So that lesson empowers the students through mathematics. When they can see how math ties into something relevant, it’s a little more powerful.
Raymond Blanks, a sixth-grade math teacher at West Side Park Middle School. PHOTO CREDIT: Devna Bose/Chalkbeat
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
The kids are a little mindful of the lead situation. They’ll tell me,“Hey, Mr. Blanks, the water fountain is on red. That means the filter needs to be changed.” … In this West Side Park community, you see a lot more single parent homes, and we get a lot of mixed emotions every day. And as an educator, you’re trying to figure out how to reach this kid so that they feel safe and comfortable enough, so I can deliver this lesson. Sometimes in the classroom, you find yourself being a guidance counselor, and you have to figure out a way to persevere. I try to ask, “Hey, is everything okay?” before I jump to conclusions and ask why they aren’t working. It could be something from home that spilled over into the classroom.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspectiveor approach.
There was a situation where a student was struggling with hygiene. It wasn’t a situation that got to the point of bullying, but the student was self-conscious about it. We were able to get ahold of a parent, and we realized how some of our students experienced neglect from their guardians and are basically raising themselves. And it’s like, “Wow, they have a lot more grit and perseverance than I had at that age.” My perspective has definitely changed. I definitely try to be more patient. Being from this community, I know it involves a certain grit that you have to have, but these are things that I wasn’t exposed to. So I really have an appreciation — or a certain level of love and affection — for children who have to go through that and are still able to do what they need to do at school.
Is there anyone in your life who swayed your decision to become a teacher?
My old high school principal is Newark’s current superintendent Roger León. He had high expectations for us. He’s someone that really inspired me when I was a student. He used to tell us that he worked for us, and whatever we needed, it was his job to give to us. So that stuck with me even a decade ago when he was my principal.
My former math teacher, Sean Lloyd, was someone I always looked up to. He was so hard on us, but it was always coming from a place of love. He had high expectations, and he knew what we were capable of. So at a very young age, he just really instilled in us how great we were, but we had to put the work in. And he’s someone that I eventually, years later, ended up working with, which was really cool. We keep in touch to this day. He’s gone from my teacher to my friend over the years.
How did it impact you having him, another black man, as your teacher?
For me as a student, it definitely made a difference. I was lucky enough to have, growing up, four or five black male teachers, but I meet kids from my own community who have had zero. Seeing someone who teaches well and cares about students that look like me I think really played a factor in my becoming a teacher. I thought, “What’s one of the biggest ways I can have an impact in my community and pay it forward?”
What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?
Be patient with children and invest in them, but still hold them to the expectations that you think they should be meeting.
What part of your job is the most difficult?
It’s just a lot of time and energy that you’re investing, which I underestimated. Like, I’m investing energy in a hundred lives every year. And I get a new group of kids each year, so that takes a lot out of you.
My first year of teaching, I actually was at a crossroads where I didn’t know what to do because I was struggling so much and I didn’t think I was cut out for it. I had a moment where I was like, “Do I change careers?” I didn’t have command of the classroom and that humbled me. I decided that I had to be better, especially when you’re dealing with students who have mixed emotions and are sometimes raising themselves. They’re angry, maybe not at you, but at their living conditions, and they don’t know how to channel their emotions. I think I underestimated how hard this work is right when I first started teaching.
What made you want to stick with teaching?
I like challenges, so I wanted to take on the challenge. Also, intangibles kind of seeped in. For example, I’m from Newark, and black men are good for the classroom. I wanted to be an example for young men and someone that our young women can go to to talk, and just being someone who children can say they remember having and they enjoyed learning with. It’s all coming from a place of love.
Can you tell me about a time when being a black male teacher made a difference in your classroom?
A lot of has been indirect, but I had a parent who I had to call because, unfortunately, her daughter was being rude and not being herself — she’s one of my top students, and I rarely have to call home. The mother said to me, “She’s acting that way because she doesn’t have her father and she sees you as a father figure in her life.” And that was something that resonated with me because, this student has never told me this, but she has at least told her mom. I do know that this kind of work creates situations where I may be filling a void for some students, which is another reason why I do this work. That’s why it’s so important and why especially more black men should do it.