Here’s a timely one from our friend Win Bassett:

Regular columnist for The Guardian and Church of England priest Giles Fraser tackles one of Mockingbird’s favorite subjects this week, the wounded soul of social media. Fraser frames his discussion with the evolution of Christmas cards:

04Christmas cards used to be about mangers, kings and shepherds. Then they became about robins. Then about reindeer. Now they are about us. “Religion has gone away,” said the novelist AS Byatt “and all we are left with is ourselves, so we have to be interested in ourselves. And we can be psychoanalytically interested in ourselves or sociologically interested in ourselves or interested in why we wear these clothes rather than those, or we can put ourselves in reality houses on the television.”

Fraser attributes this shift, in part, to what he calls “the secularisation thesis—the change of the look of our Christmas cards reflects a transference of interest from fantasy to reality.” Poet Dana Gioia, in his fantastic essay on “The Catholic Writer Today” in this month’s issue of First Things, also asserts this absence of imagination in Christianity today:

Wallace Stevens remarked that “God and the imagination are one.” It is folly to turn over either to a political party, even your own. If American Catholicism has become mundane enough to be consumed by party politics, perhaps it’s because the Church has lost its imagination and creativity.

Self-indulgent Christmas cards and social media, Fraser writes, replace the need for creativity in defining ourselves. Drawing on ideas from Byatt, Fraser notes “that those with a weak sense of internal self-definition find their identity in the gaze they elicit from other people. It is not I think therefore I am, but I tweet therefore I am. In such a world, I exist in so far as I am told that I exist by the attention of other people.”

We all know the rabbit hole in which this soon lands us: a study published last year in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking “found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the happier they perceived their friends to be and the sadder they felt as a consequence.” Mockingbird’s own David Zahl spoke about this last month in his talk “Grace in the Age of Facebook.”


Finding this grace may mean backing away from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others, and reclaiming one’s imagination for self-identity:

As Byatt contends: “The word Facebook is very interesting, because it means it’s a mirror. And you need a mirror because you haven’t got a picture. You need a mirror to tell you who you are.” In other words, social media is all about “exchanging constant reassurances that you exist”. The problem is that we have become terrorised by image, constantly fretful to manage the self that is reflected back to us, neurotically checking how many followers we have, at the mercy of other people’s sense of who we are.

Fraser writes that we can start this process this Advent season by focusing again on the One True Star:

Once we followed the star. Now we follow the stars, hoping they too might follow us. But maybe, just maybe, the star itself is a better guide. And, best of all, it doesn’t always lead back to me. Which is perhaps why I think, counter-intuitively, it may be more about reality and less about fantasy.

Don’t worry about following Sufjan Stevens on Tumblr, but do listen to “The stars in the heavens / looked down where He lay” while you ponder the reality you’ve perhaps missed by, among other things, following a Twitter link to the Kardashians’ Christmas card.

Win Bassett’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and elsewhere. He’s a former assistant district attorney and serves on the PEN Prison Writing Program Fiction Committee. He’s from southwestern Virginia and studies at Yale Divinity School. He’ll be at Mockingbird’s 2014 NYC Conference.