Mark Zuckerberg, the Church of Facebook can never be. Here’s why

A great article from Peter Ormerod of the Guardian.

You can see why Mark Zuckerberg might be getting a God complex. Facebook now has 2 billion monthly users. In crude terms, this makes it bigger than every religion bar Christianity. It’s perhaps understandable then that Zuckerberg appears to see his creation as a possible replacement for the church.

The company’s founder drew the comparison this week at a speech in which he suggested that Facebook could fill the gap in people’s lives left by the decline of churches, as well as other organisations. “A lot of people now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else,” he said.

Now, it feels a little impertinent to challenge this 21st-century deity, but here goes: you’re talking piffle, Mark. Because at their best, churches offer a perspective on life fundamentally opposed to the culture Facebook encourages and upon which it feeds.

For one, churches are messy. They are not organised by any algorithm or tailored to the individual end user. Far from it: a church service is not made for any one person: the same liturgies have been intoned and the same songs sung by millions of people all over the world, in many cases over the course of the centuries. We can’t just flick past the bits we don’t like: we are confronted with discomfiting Bible passages, impenetrable mysteries, harrowing truths. Unlike Facebook, a church tells us that we are not at the centre of the world.

Rather than encouraging us to show off our best side at all times, a church compels us to examine ourselves in the round, to face up to those things about ourselves that we would like to pretend aren’t there. A good high church service may be rich in poetry and imagery, offering a taste of the incomprehensible; a good low church service may be disarmingly spare; a good evangelical church service may allow the congregation to slough off their usual self-consciousness and throw themselves into proceedings with flowing emotion. They all offer different ways of being, of opening ourselves up. Facebook meanwhile presents us with impoverished, narrowed versions of ourselves – the version we think most of our friends think we are, all the better for those likes and shares.

And churches, at their best, bring us into contact with people we would never think of as friends. There are cliques, of course. But we all come to the same table and drink from the same cup and sing the same songs and say the same prayers. The Lord’s Prayer, after all, is not in the singular, but the plural: “Give us today our daily bread.” It’s a breaking down of barriers, an awareness of mutual responsibility and dependence, a celebration of brokenness. It’s an unsanitised experience of humanity, and all the healthier for it.

Of course, churches can be dreadful places too. Far too many services are dreary, perfunctory affairs – which, given the material and ideas at their disposal, is pretty much unforgivable. Churches can be toxic and abusive; they can leave their members hurt and drained and resentful; they can turn passive aggression into an art form. They can be as superficial and as focused on appearances as the worst of Facebook. That’s because they are made up of people. Churches show the worst of us, as well as the best.

But that best is worth clinging on to. There is a place in the world for Facebook; there are times when I would rather be confronted with a picture of a cat than with a glimpse of eternity. Yet a good church is more than just a social network: it’s a place of transcendence, space, silence, peace, devotion, richness and depth. No matter how grand Zuckerberg’s visions may be, they will never compete.

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