(My grandmother, taken in Busch Stadium in the late 1980's.)
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
My grandmother used to say that the most important baseball games were best listened to, not watched.
Marshall McLuhan defined radio as a "hot" medium, because it did not involve the complete involvement of the listener. His theory was often illustrated by using a light bulb as an example; the light radiated from the bulb creates its own environment, thereby enabling people to create spaces during nighttime that otherwise would have been dark and empty. Radio, he claimed, put the onus on the listener to create meaning, rather than a "cool" medium such as TV, which provided all the input and meaning to the viewer.
I wonder what Granny would have thought about McLuhan, and I wonder what McLuhan would have said about social networking. What I have recently discovered is that the two of them together have the potential to create a truly thin space.
In case you're not familiar with the concept of "thin spaces," the term comes from Celtic Christianity. It describes a place where the boundaries between heaven and earth are so thin we can catch a glimpse of the glory of God--a place where the walls are broken and the light of God fleetingly streams through the cracks onto us. This glimpse is almost never a function of our desire or through our control. It shows up when it shows up, and disappears as mysteriously as it appears. That said, the Bible still shows us that sometimes those thin places can also be connected to physical places--mountaintops and wilderness are two places that seem to give humankind a slightly better chance than usual to discover a thin space.
I believe that when Major League Baseball met radio for the first time, on August 5, 1921 (the date of the first game ever broadcast, Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies, on KDKA,) it created a "thin space enhancer" as real as Mt. Sinai. There's just something about listening to a game on the radio, whether it's while driving, working, eating, or sitting out on the porch at night, that seems far more entrancing than watching one on TV. When I think back to some of my warmest childhood memories, it's of listening to St. Louis Cardinals baseball, and particularly at night. I can remember riding through the night in the back seat of the car to the static and crackle of games on AM radio, or falling asleep to the late games during their "West Coast Swing" with the two hour time difference. It seemed that some of the best conversations I ever had with my grandmother were during ballgames on the radio.
Even in my adult life, I have magical memories of this--particularly during September and October, in both the September pennant drive season, and the playoff season. It was not uncommon for my grandmother and I to be miles apart physically, but both listening to the game, and phoning each other multiple times during the game to discuss what just happened. When we did that, we were no longer separated, but literally in the same living room. Of course, from my vantage point, she was in my living room, and from her point I was in her living room, and it created this thin place where two people, in a very real sense, were two places at once. Actually, make that three places at once--we were also at the game itself.
One of my more recent ponderings has been how social networking re-creates this in a new way.
When Granny died in 2002, one of the things I mourned was that there'd never be another person in my life that I could just call and interrupt and start chatting about what was happening in a baseball game as it was happening. I would be mostly listening or watching baseball alone.
Facebook has changed that for me.
Last night, I was listening to the fifth and final game between the Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of postseason play. The winner would be facing the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL championship.
I knew this was an important enough game that I would prefer listening to watching it. So I cranked up a fire in my chiminea and put the radio out with me. I already knew I was in a place that radio takes me where TV does not. I tend to become more physically active when listening to a game as opposed to watching it, doing things like pacing the yard, looking up and railing at the sky, and then sitting down and hunting up facts and statistics on my laptop.
As I started nosing around on Facebook, I realized four or five of my friends were also tuned to the game (although I'm betting they were watching it on TV.) I found myself commenting and agonizing along with them, even though we were all several states apart. The Cardinals took a one run lead in the first inning, and that was the score when it ended. With each inning, I realized that I was not alone at all. My yard was truly filled with my friends...and in that thin place, I also strongly felt my grandmother's presence, as well as all those years she and I had spent analyzing and agonizing over baseball. It was, if you can imagine it, an even richer and fuller community than when it used to be "just Granny and me, talking baseball."
What used to be just the two of us became a piece of the company of Heaven. Win or lose was not so much the issue (although I'm ecstatic the Cardinals won.) It was about this community of shared emotions, and in it, my grandmother was alive and well. I felt a huge peace in the middle of the storm of emotions I often carry around during important ballgames, a place where like-hearted people can share their emotion, in a place where geography normally separates us. It doesn't replace face-to-face interaction--nor should it--but it creates a level of in-between space where a certain level of personal intimacy never existed until recently.
Last Saturday, I had attended a Diocesan workshop on "social networking and the church" and realized a handful of those attending, I knew first from social media. We also learned at the workshop that studies show that positive reactions in social media--commenting or "liking" something on Facebook--releases endorphins--the same endorphins that make certain face-to-face interactions like smiling and waving generate.
In retrospect, I see now, despite all the fears people drag along about social networking, another in what has become a long series of reasons why we truly should carefully embrace this medium as a tool in our life as spiritual people in spiritual communities. If this is what social networking can do with multiple folks watching a baseball game, what can it bring to our prayer and fellowship lives?
Truly, the goodness of the Lord is in the land of the living--and perhaps social media is simply another manifestation of how those thin spaces pop up, shining the light of God onto people hungry for it.