The digital cathedral: Coffeehouses as social media? Pubs as sacred space?

Posted Mar 04, 2014 | New Media Project

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By Keith Anderson, guest blogger


This is the third in a five-part series on Keith's forthcoming book, The Digital Cathedral.

Keith AndersonIn his new book, Writing in the Wall: Social Media—the First 2,000 Years, Tom Standage, digital editor of The Economist, reminds readers that social media existed long before the invention of Facebook and the iPhone. Social networks, he writes, are nothing new. People have always found ways of connecting and networking with one another by means of whatever technologies were available to them at the time. Facebook didn’t invent the social network; they just successfully digitized it.

Standage convincingly describes how the Roman letter system and pamphlets from the printing press, which propelled the Reformation, were both forms of social media—and, importantly, that they were more than just about the circulation of written or printed information. They were about connecting people and ideas. In this spirit, he also includes the coffeehouse as a form of social media.

Coffeehouses as social media?

Coffeehouses were an innovation of the Arab world, dating from the late-fifteenth century, which then appeared in Europe in the mid-seventeenth century. Quickly, “coffeehouses established themselves as centers of information exchange where the latest pamphlets, broadsheets, gazettes, and newsletters could be read and discussed.” The first coffeehouse opened in London in 1652, and it was a hit. By the end of the century, there were 550 in the city. Coffeehouses became networked, relational, and incarnational hubs for connecting, communicating, and learning.

Coffeehouses tended to specialize in a particular topic, whether science, politics, literature, or finance, depending on their location. People would come in, pay their penny, have a coffee, and discuss ideas and current events.

At the time, coffeehouses were subject to many of the same critiques as Facebook or Twitter—that they were a distraction, a waste of time. However, Standage traces how coffeehouses played important roles in the writing of Newton’s Principia and the creation of the London Stock Exchange. Adam Smith himself wrote The Wealth of Nations in a British coffeehouse.

Standage writes: “The effect of these caffeine-powered hubs was to increase the speed and efficiency with which information percolated through society. Coffeehouses imposed order on the chaotic media environment of the time, sorting material by topic and making it much easier to find specific types of information, and people to discuss it with. Both pamphlets and people, to use the modern term became more ‘discoverable.’ Coffeehouses gave physical form to the previously immaterial social networks along which information passed, making it much easier to connect to them.”

Today’s coffeehouses continue that tradition. The resurgence of coffeehouse culture in America over the last thirty years, fueled largely by Starbucks, is not simply about grande mocha frappuccinos (though they are delicious), but about social connections—with baristas, friends, neighbors, and strangers.

Pubs as sacred space?

Local pubs serve much the same function. They, too, are social media—local gathering places, where news and information are shared, where new connections are made and relationships are reinforced. Of course, these days, as we sip an espresso or lift a pint, we are also simultaneously connecting on digital social media through our mobile devices—checking-in, posting, texting, Instagramming—and thus engaged with an even more expansive network of followers and friends.

Increasingly, ministry leaders are finding their way to coffeehouses, holding office hours or hosting more structured conversations; to local pubs for theology pub nights; and to what we now, in our twenty-first century way, typically think of as social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Being present in these local and digital gathering spaces fosters and reinforces a certain culturally-resonate ministry stance, which values listening, relationship, and deepening engagement over time.

But ministry leaders have a particular role to play in these spaces, for, as Elizabeth Drescher writes in Tweet if You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, “When we undertake leadership as a practice of Christian presence in social media landscapes ... we are contributing to the creation of a networked sacred space.... We are allowing ourselves to stroll or pedal along the various paths and avenues that connect the widely distributed outposts of the new digital global village. And we are developing spaces where people can come together to explore the meaning of their beliefs, values, and commitments together.”

These places—be they local or digital— are not just social media. They can also be sacred spaces.

As Bryan Berghoef, author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God, observes, the pub “becomes sacred in a more accessible everyday way, and the dualism between sacred and profane, whether we are thinking in those terms or not, sort of dissipates, and we see that unity and sacredness of all of life and if I can have a conversation with a stranger … we can have this human engagement and I can hear their story and I can see their authenticity in it and I can see God in it. And that’s a holy, sacred moment.”

Ultimately it is the encounter with the other—friends, neighbors, and strangers—whether online or face-to-face that makes these media more than social. It makes them sacred.

The Rev. Keith Anderson is a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA. He is the author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse 2012). His forthcoming book is called The Digital Cathedral. He blogs at pastorkeithanderson.net.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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