"If you want the theology of fluff, I am not your gal," says Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. "There's plenty of that around, so I don't have a lot of competition for making meaning in the real world."
A former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, where she is a professor, and current Washington Post religion and public events columnist, Thistlethwaite has tackled the cyber age — and its implications in our religious and political lives — in her latest book, Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World.
She said this in her column about the uprising in Egypt: "Young people have found a way around the control of information of repressive regimes by effectively using the Internet and especially social media. They are expressing themselves, their aspirations, their need for jobs and a decent life, and they are filling the streets in Egypt. And if that's not spiritual, I don't know what is."
Speaking by phone in advance of her visit to Colorado Springs, she says, "My argument is that the age of the Internet is changing how we make meaning. And that applies to religion."
And, she posits, this making of meaning in the pages of Facebook, the endless streams of tweets, and in the popular realm of YouTube, produces a great deal of anxiety. People run away.
"One of the places that you can run away to is Eden, when everything was innocent," she adds.
Conservatives, she argues, run to this innocence within strict beliefs about salvation. Liberals run to innocence by throwing their faith into reason.
"'If only people would act reasonably,'" Thistlethwaite says, mimicking the liberal. "Well, the Fall means that people aren't reasonable. So everybody has got their own way of dreaming of Eden. But the rest of us who are struggling to live in the real world know that making meaning is complicated."
Watching the left and right adjust to this new paradigm fascinates Thistlethwaite. She sees the right outpacing the left in exploitation of the medium.
"The problem with progressives is not that they are wrong, it's that they are boring. 'You're right, but I am just so tired of listening to you,'" she says. "I spend a lot of time teaching progressives how to use this medium in a way to get to where people live. People want to know, 'What does this mean to me?' It is called Y-O-U-Tube."
"The conservatives are able to distill their message to something that is easy to understand. It is impactful, and it is about you," she says. "Progressives have never met a dependent clause they didn't like. It is this endless series of qualifications, and you've got to say, 'OK, cut to the chase. Why should I care?'"
Thistlethwaite, an ordained minister, embraces the challenge of discussing this complicated age, saying she feels we're really standing on the edge of a new era. By comparison, she points to the invention of the printing press, and how it helped to spur the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
"It is staggering in its implications, and we are just at the beginning of this. It's like standing around with Gutenberg, and asking, 'So, what do you think the impact of this will be?'"
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