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Ask the Expert: Deanna Thompson

Hamline religion professor, who speaks and writes about living with cancer from a theological perspective, prescribes social media as spiritual medicine

 

Interview by Julie Carroll

Deanna Thompson’s new book, The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, examines how individuals and communities can use digital technology to care for one another during difficult times.

What led a religion professor to write a book about social media? 

In the isolation brought on by a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, I came to understand the Christian concept of the body of Christ in a new and radical way. I learned that we don’t have to be physically present with one another to be a community or to provide life-giving support.

How have your views of social media been shaped by your own life experience? 

After my diagnosis, my tears made it difficult to communicate with others face-to-face how I was doing or what it was like to have my life derailed by incurable cancer. In my virtual communications, I could write in complete sentences without tears preventing what I wanted to say. When I was too sick to accept visitors, virtual expressions of support helped me and my family feel a little less despairing.

How can people of faith use social media for good? 

The practices of Christianity—from liturgy to prayer to visiting the sick and imprisoned—are about cultivating and focusing attention on those who are hurting. Creative expressions of these practices in virtual spaces include offering experiences of worship for those who are physically unable to get to church, soliciting prayers and conducting prayer services via Facebook, and being in touch regularly with those who are going through tough times from a distance. These are not meant to supplant in-person visits and connections but to enhance and complement them. 

Do you have any cautionary advice regarding social media? 

Some churches are reluctant to use social media to talk about prayer requests out of the concern for privacy. While this is an important concern, there are ways to address it­—by creating a closed social network, establishing agreed-upon guidelines for what gets posted, etc.

Internet access is an issue, not just based on socioeconomic realities but also for people with disabilities. In addition, there are some illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s, that can prevent people from being able to connect with others virtually.

Communities of faith need to be cognizant of these issues as they imagine new possibilities for being more connected virtually.