There’s Twitter, the 140-character bound communications service. There’s Twitter, the multi-million-membered social network. There’s Twitter, the soon-to-go-public company. But there’s also Twitter, the idea-distributor. Twitter, the community-builder. Twitter, the platform.
In those broader senses, Twitter is much older than its official seven years of life would suggest. Twitter may be, in fact, nearly 2,000 years old.
In a conference with Italian newspaper editors, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi — who, as president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, acts as a kind of culture minister for the Vatican — discussed social media and the Church’s use of it. And he claimed, during the discussion, that Jesus was the earliest of Twitter’s early adopters: the first person ever to use Twitter. Well, to “use” it.
Jesus’s pronouncements, Ravasi noted, tended to be “brief” — made up of fewer than 45 characters — and “full of meaning.” The first Christian also relied on elementary and thus easily sharable phrases like “love one another.” He also delivered many of his messages via stories and symbols, Ravasi said, “a bit like in television today.”
Ravasi is, of course, speaking figuratively, in loose (and, here, translated-from-the-Italian) metaphors and analogies. But he’s also making an important point about the fundamental continuity of communications technologies over decades and centuries. We may tend, sure, to associate religion more with a lack of tech prowess than an embrace of it. But while many of the traditions of the Catholic Mass, for their part, involve words and rituals — incense, organs, the occasional Latin phrase — that are centuries old, their ceremony is only part of the picture. At the macro level of a social system and a religious institution, the Church is nothing if not an agent of communication: It’s medium and message at the same time.
And it has, like its fellow denominations and its fellow religions, embraced new technologies to spread its word. From Father Coughlin and his radio to Reverend Schuller and his television to the Dalai Lama and his Twitter feed, religious leaders have often been relatively quick to embrace the latest communications capabilities. And religions themselves, of course, spread along social networks. Ravasi’s claim of Jesus as word-made-tweet may be specific to his own belief and true only in the broadest sense. But his larger point holds: If religious leaders aren’t “interested in communication,” as Ravasi put it, in some sense “they are defying their duty.”
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