Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Would Jesus Tweet?

Stanley Spencer, The General Resurrection (Tate Gallery) 

Not many readers, perhaps, will recognize the name of Walter Savage Landor; but your bloguiste is among what must be a happy few who own a fine large paper edition of his complete works—all sixteen volumes of them. Old Landor (1775-1864) was a colorful and rebarbative literary figure, who back in the day won elite critical acclaim (but, alas, only a puny popular audience) as a poet and dramatist. His most enduring works, however, are several volumes of Imaginary Conversations in which historical characters have improbable chats with each other across the centuries. Two of my favorites are a conversation between Fra Lippo Lippi and Pope Eugenius IV, and a three-way debate among Dante, Boccaccio, and Geoffrey Chaucer—on the occasion of the English poet’s well-known visit to Arezzo.

Walter Savage Landor

There are also conversations that one can only wish were imaginary. In the spiritual frenzy attendant upon the celebration of Passover and Easter, the American Broadcasting Corporation had the bright idea to launch an “in depth” investigation of the current state of American religion, in which their exotic news anchor, Christiane Amanpour, would conduct a series of probing conversations with prominent “religious leaders”. The conversation  I stumbled upon was with religious leader Franklin Graham, son of the once-famous evangelist Billy Graham.

My father was a simple believer, yet a man of deep theological insights. One of them was this: Should you have any doubts concerning the divine nature of the Church, you need only consider the miraculous fact of its continuing existence despite the nature of its leadership over the centuries. Enter, right, the Rev. Franklin Graham. He and Ms. Amanpour warily circle a couple of the great spiritual issues of the age before homing in on the most pressing of all: the Second Coming of Jesus Christ! Mr. Graham is sure that we are in the “last times”—though estimates range elastically between a week and a millennium—for all the biblical signs are there. Wars? Check. Rumors of war? Check. Earthquakes? Check.

 The Rev. Franklin Graham in conversation with Christiane Amanpour

The terrible Lisbon earthquake of 1755 caused the greatest thinkers of that age to question whether the world could possibly be governed by a loving God, but from the apocalyptic point of view it’s apparently the more the merrier. One technical problem puzzles Graham. The Second Coming will be known to “all men” (Luke 21:35). But earth’s population is very large and widely distributed across the globe. How will everybody know when the Great Event occurs? Somewhat cautiously Ms. Amanpour suggests a possible solution: will God use Social Media?

To the dramatic forms of communication already predicted by Saint Paul --“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (I Thessalonians 4:16)—Amanpour and Graham add a possibility more awesome yet. Christ will announce his return with a terrible tweet!

It is an idea that had never occurred to me, to be honest, but it seems to have merit. There are actually few ideas sufficiently simple-minded as positively to benefit from the discipline of being limited to Twitter’s 140 keyboard strokes, but I suppose the apocalyptic imperative must be one of them:

Amanpour and Graham are onto something big. Some witty Torah scholar was able to encompass the entire Passover story in a Social Media format. Christian leaders ought to be able to do as well. Jesus was a man who knew his audience. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” he said. There is every good reason to believe that were he here today, Jesus would tweet.

His followers need to follow his lead in this as in other matters. This may involve thinking outside the box. For example relatively few parts of the Bible, in its present form, are really fit for the Social Media Age. This fact may explain what seems to me to be a creeping biblical illiteracy among our youth. It’s just, like, way too many key-strokes. Take the current Ten Commandments, for example. Among their other conspicuous inconveniences is their utter untweetability. As things now stand, you get on average only fourteen keyboard strokes per commandment. Now it just so happens that, counting its two word spaces, thou shalt not alone takes up all fourteen, exactly. A carefully selected, edited, and compressed Three and a Half Commandments might rescue the social-media situation, while at the same time giving us all a slightly better shot at salvation. (I could handle honoring my parents and avoiding making graven images, and there has to be half another one I could scrape up somewhere.)

Other parts simply require the exercise of a little imagination, as in the Twitter Lord’s Prayer: “Papa God, hurry up, send bread, forgive sins like us, ixnay on the temptation, keep away from bad stuff, you’ve got big three, always. Amen.”

On the other hand, there are a few discrete passages of Scripture that are already such perfect tweets as to defy any possibility of improvement. One of them, as it happens, is strikingly appropriate to the conversation of Ms. Amanpour and Mr. Graham concerning the Second Coming. It is in fact the shortest verse in the Authorized Version of the Bible (John: 11:35): Jesus wept.