Having spent time in analog recording studios before the digital revolution, one bit of technical jargon still remains with me. The term “signal to noise ratio” refers to the measurement of desirable audio signal compared with the amount of undesirable noise that analog audio devices create. The phrase is rarely used now because the noise generated in the digital realm is negligible, but “signal to noise” has taken on new meaning in the Internet age.
In our streamlined, online universe we communicate instantly, chat endlessly and share abundantly—so much so that in this world of pristine digital signals, I believe we have finally located the source of the noise. It is us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of faith and religion.
At a recent workshop for mission and ministry professionals from Jesuit schools across the country, I spoke on the topic of using social media for outreach to millennials. Though it’s an issue I have a lot of experience with, I confessed that it was a source of conflict as well.
In our screen-dominated lives, there is a sense among many that this technological revolution is a sign of an evolutionary change in humans. We have mystified our tech wizardry to the point that it almost seems an end in itself, threatening to shift what once grounded us: “In the beginning was the word, and the word became text.”
I couldn’t disagree more. “And the word became flesh” isn’t a figure of speech, it is a necessity for millennials in a 21st-century economy of belief. In terms of conveying transcendent truth and meaning for millennials on the margins of faith, we are living in a post-textual world, where words are no longer sufficient. In a marketplace overstuffed with loud ideas, data, opinions and arguments about religion, authentic lives of service, simple faith and justice are far more persuasive.
Researchers have described this phenomenon in terms of a lack of connection many young Christians feel regarding their parents’ expression of faith, being overly focused on politics and culture wars rather than Gospel messages about poverty and justice. This is consistent with millennials in general, who are much more concerned with the poor, education and the environment than the previous generation.
To complicate things even further, millennials are also the most media savvy generation ever to walk the earth. They’ve been messaged and marketed to since birth. They are allergic to hypocrisy, and they understand tone and message the way fish understand water.
It is no accident that “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are among their most trusted sources of information. Think about that for a moment. If the satiric deconstruction of mainstream media messaging is actually your most credible resource, you’re clearly dealing with a highly sophisticated understanding of media.
This does not absolve us from the responsibility for doing media well in the religious sphere, but it certainly should be the backdrop for any efforts we make. Millennials know the chasm between institutional religious rhetoric and reality. For them, service and reflection are more authentic, compelling and incarnational languages of faith.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the beautiful elegance of so much of the technology I use everyday—including the MacBook Pro I’m typing these words on, the iPhone I’m using to text questions to a friend in ministry, the iPad Mini that I’m receiving Facebook messages on and so on. This technology has tremendous power to connect, but ultimately it is a tool that helps point to the truth. It isn’t the truth itself.
Sometimes I feel as if we’ve fallen in love with our hammers instead of the homes they can help us build. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., recognized this temptation decades ago in a pre-Internet age. “Nowadays the world does not need words,” he said, “but lives that cannot be explained except through faith and love for Christ’s poor.”
That is why, 2,000 years later, we try to do as Jesus did instead of fetishizing the type of sandals he wore as he traveled to deliver his message.
It is why the lives we lead say more about us than our words ever could.
It is why the moment I finish typing this I need to close this screen and go “do” some religion instead of just talking about it.