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Piety builds audiences

Posted on 07 June 2012, 6:56

Which generates more social engagement: vacuous tweets by celebs with tens of millions of Twitter followers, or motivational tweets by religious leaders with followers in the thousands?

According to On Twitter, God is Greater than Glitter, a New York Times story, it’s the religious tweets which win out, with huge numbers of retweets and favoriting. All of which must be making the angels cheer while Lady Gaga and Rihanna slink back to their gilded hotel rooms sick with envy.

However, when you read the detail of the story, it quickly hits you that the religious tweets are really nothing to tweet about. Here’s Rick Warren’s offering, for example, which apparently gained a huge number of retweets…

Growing older is automatic. Growing up is a choice.

Meanwhile, Joyce Meyer opines…

God’s timing is perfect; He is never late…

Rick and Joyce may have 626,000 and 993,000 followers respectively, but on this evidence they are sending their followers tweets straight out of The Book of Well, Duh. (In fairness to Rick, not all his posts are this saccharine.) At least Lady Gaga’s tweet, which revealed that she glued pearls to a mask on a flight to Korea, was personal and intriguing, even if it didn’t raise a storm of retweeting.

But Rick and Joyce are not alone. You don’t have to search very hard on Twitter to find its deep stream of piety, with people happily announcing 24/7 that God never closes a window without opening a door (which frankly makes him sound a bit OCD), that they’re not looking for a hole in the ground but a hole in the sky, and that the Lord never sends us burdens greater than we can carry – an observation coined in the days before God gave us suitcases on wheels.

But out cliché-ing everyone else in social media is Jesus Daily, a Facebook page with approaching 13 million likes. Founded by Dr Aaron Tabor, an anti-aging skincare specialist, Jesus Daily was crowned most engaging page on Facebook in 2011, smiting Justin Bieber and Real Madrid into 5th and 8th places respectively.

Jesus Daily builds its incredible social engagement by posting platitudes, questions with ‘right answers’ and kitschy pictures of puppies, kittens and crosses in clouds (see above), all with the relentless invitation to LIKE. For example…


LIKE if everyone should be able to read the Bible!


LIKE if you thank God for great mothers! We love you.



That last example received 241,328 likes, 4,163 comments and 19,959 shares, which makes the Jesus Daily brand a Facebook success by any measure. But its easy piety, offered every day to its ‘me too!’ audience, is like shooting ichthus fish in a barrel. The page’s creators know exactly what to say and show to manipulate their followers, and the truthlets they peddle are so worn down by mindless repetition that the main thing they do is make people feel nice about their faith.

That, of course, is what piety always does. It pressures you to agree with its simple beliefs and then reassures you that you – along with 241,328 others! – are an accepted member of your religious tribe. Praise the Lord! Clicking that LIKE button tells me I’m among the countless saved, rather than the damned!

It reminds me of that joke: ‘Eat shit. One million ants can’t be wrong.’

Piety is a fake form of faith, as it can never be true to the messy experience of people who live as fallen human beings struggling in their journey to God. Jesus always resisted piety and instead said awkward and difficult things which were not designed to build audiences. He was the polar opposite to Jesus Daily, with its oppressively positive tone, not to mention its pictures of Jesus with shampooed hair, dirt-free fingernails and rugged good looks.

I know I’ve gone for the negative in this post, but for me piety has always been one of the big enemies of faith. I take from it all the challenge of communicating a truly human faith in the different online worlds we live in.

click to post about this on facebook   click to bookmark on delicious   click to post about this on reddit   click to post about this on twitter   Tweet this

Interesting that this is in danger of turning into a discussion of the best way to advertise Christianity, rather than the value of insubstantial religious fluff.

For myself, as a semi-detached observer, I’d far rather see the church being honest about its internal disagreements and the fluffy-bunny failings of its members (or, for that matter, any other failings they might have). Apart from the cultish connotations of stifling disagreement as John appears to want, I can see for myself that a huge amount of public Christianity in this context is cloyingly saccharine.

When Simon (or someone else) points this fluff out, I know there are some who see things as I do, which gives me hope for the church. Otherwise, as far as I know, there’s no disagreement and Christianity is as shallow as clicking a “Like” button because Jesus is your best friend.

If it makes you feel any better, atheism’s just as bad for shallow, crowd-pleasing echochambers. It’s much more interesting when people engage in genuine thought, discussion and debate, but it’s much easier to preach to the choir.

Recovering Agnostic, Sun 10 Jun, 02:53

I can see both Andrew’s and Simon’s points. We certainly need to be self-critical and to laugh at our follies (of which there are many). We also need to hold one another accountable. But are public attacks on one another the best way of doing it?

John Grayston, Fri 8 Jun, 00:20

We’re going to remain in disagreement over that important point, I’m afraid, Andrew. I’ve been operating for a long time now on the basis that when the Christian faith is self-critical and mocking of its own failings, then it is much more attractive to people looking at it from outside. Experience and reason tell me that it’s the best way to go as an (admittedly unusual) form of mission.

Simon, Thu 7 Jun, 22:57

I’m no fan of empty piety, on Twitter or elsewhere.  But I’m equally unsure about the kind of ‘reverse piety’ that mocks and celebrates the ridiculous in religion without always pointing to something more substantial.

Andrew Graystone, Thu 7 Jun, 21:13

There seems to be quite a difference culturally between USA and UK about the amount of diluted bible-speak one can stomach. I’ve noticed this particularly on Twitter. Good article!

Claire Alcock, Thu 7 Jun, 20:44

Yes that sort of vacuous spirituality is at the least bland and expressionless, and at its worst destructive to an active faith. However I’d like to attempt to redeem the concept of piety, which at its best is a rich blend of courageous humility and deep love for God, expressed in ways that are not designed to be noticed by anyone except perhaps Jesus. I know it’s only semantics but I quite like the word piety!

Sarah, Thu 7 Jun, 19:02

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