The Standard Journal

Social media and the ‘City of God’

- By Kathryn Jean Lopez NEA Contributo­r Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at klopez@nationalre­

“That should keep you busy,” an Amtrak conductor commented as he saw my already-worn copy of St. Augustine’s “City of God” in front of me shortly after I boarded a train from Baltimore to New York. Reading the 1,000- plus- page classic was not something I had planned for 2017, but Twitter, of all things, drew me into it.

Chad Pecknold, a professor of theology at my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, had the idea to conduct a 15- week seminar over Twitter on a book he was teaching in class. Of course, a classroom is one thing and social media, very much another. But sure enough, as I logged into Twitter for the first session, all sorts of people from varied background­s s hared their favorite quotes from the first chapters of the book and made connection­s to politics, religion and culture today.

Now entering its fifth week, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. eastern standard, on Thursdays, Pecknold leads the discussion, flagged with the hashtag #CivDei, which makes it easy f or anyone who misses “class,” as I have already a week or two, to catch up.

I say that Pecknold leads the discussion, but he’s more a moderator than an instructor. The first thing that’s evident about the experiment is how reader- driven the discussion is. At a time when virtue and other enduring things seem absent from social media discussion­s, here were people from all walks of life talking about it, the soul and civic engagement.

One of the CivDei crowd took a poll the other day, checking to see how many were reading a physical copy of the book and how many were using a digital reader. Most had the book in their hands during the course of the week, sometimes taking pictures of highlighte­d favorite quotes and notes. Pecknold identifies this “making us more analog” as an “unexpected consequenc­e” of the Twitter time with Augustine.

“To see people proudly share pictures of this nearly 1,100-page book is pretty inspiring. It sends people away from social media so that they can then use digital technology in a better way, one which is tied to real objects, and which is about t hings which aren’t ephemeral,” he says.

Pecknold is as surprised as anyone that the whole thing appears to be working, with readers engaging throughout the country and internatio­nally.

“It’s like we’ve suspended the rules of Twitter for 15 weeks or something,” Pecknold tells me about how surprised he’s been at the “fraternal enthusiasm and cheer behind CivDei.” He adds, “Social media can feel like a fake world sometimes in the sense that it promises a social connection that it can’t possibly deliver, and which can sometimes be socially alienating. There’s a kind of competitio­n on social media for who can land the best blows, claim the best zingers with the right amount of ironic detachment.” Not so with the CivDei community.

“There’s a surprising sense of freedom in CivDei,” Pecknold observes. “It has limits — two hours on a Thursday night — and people are always more creative and free within limits. And you see this. Everyone notes how fast the two hours go by, even if you didn’t get the reading done, even if you are just following the hashtag passively, there’s a kind of rush to it all that’s exhilarati­ng, and seriously stimulates the mind. People are constantly making fascinatin­g connection­s to our own time.”

What’s ultimately the point of CivDei? “I think it could be making us better citizens. Augustine is big on dual citizenshi­p. His aim isn’t to make us better citizens of our country, but to make us citizens of the City of God. It’s just that he thinks becoming a citizen of the City of God will have the effect of making for happier souls, and thus a happier city, ordered to the highest ends. So, I hope it has this effect on us.”

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