Little did I know that a sabbatical experience last October would change the way I think about the future of scriptural scholarship.
While participating in a sabbatical program at the School of Applied Theology in Oakland California, I was asked to give a reflection on the readings at the Eucharistic celebration.
The first reading was the beautifully lyrical greeting from Paul to the Ephesians, written perhaps to some dear friends or an anonymous congregation. But lyrically beautiful — in the style of correspondence, of letter writing, which has not existed among many of us for at least a generation or two.
"Grace to you and peace from God our father… who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens… [and] destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will" (Ephesians 1:1-10).
Then in Psalm 98, we participated in what was in essence a public relations jingle — a commercial, advertisement, pep talk, or perhaps political slogan: "Sing a new song unto the Lord;" and, "The Lord has made his salvation known." Catchy phrases that could stick with us and send us humming along as we plow that furrow, harvest that row, haul that net, drive that truck, or write that sabbatical reflection.
And finally Saint Luke (Luke 11:45-54) treated us to a "Wiki-Leaks" style exposure of an ongoing conversation between Jesus and the political establishment of the day, in a semi-private setting at the home of one of the Pharisees.
With Scripture, I often wonder how it might appear in today's vernacular, in today's media. For instance, how might today's readings appear in our electronic social media? How would the lyrical and narrative messages have survived this generation's "grab-and-go" approach — even to issues of depth and substance — which often reach us through thumbed tweets on our smart phones?
For anyone who might be unsure about this, a tweet is a single message on Twitter. And Twitter is a type of social media (of which Donald Trump apparently is a great fan). And are we aware that no tweet can be more than 140 characters long? That counts letters, punctuation and spaces as well.
Our two readings from Ephesians and Saint Luke were each hundreds of characters long . . .so of all our readings today, only Psalm 98 could have translated easily for use on Twitter:
The Lord has made his salvation known. Seven words; 38 characters.
Sing a new song unto the Lord. Seven words; 30 characters.
These two would combine for the length of an average tweet. Somebody has estimated that the median tweet is around 60 characters and the average tweet is around 68; but the most popular-size tweet is about 28 characters long.
So I wondered — How could Paul's message be tweeted? How would Jesus' response to the scribes sound on Twitter? If social media were the next testament's medium, at something between 30 and 140 characters per message, what might be the core of our sacred Scriptures?
So I practiced doing two or three tweets for each of the readings of that day.
Imagine: #Ephesus (pronounced "hashtag Ephesus." Now, don't let the hashtag term worry you; it is just the symbol attached to a word that makes the Twitter conversation easy to find and follow.) So:
#Ephesus Dear 1s, grace 2 U & peace from God R Father & the Lord Jesus Christ. [Original: "Dear ones, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."] At 17 words in 79 characters (including #Ephesus), this needed very little editing. Saint Paul was a man ahead of his time!
A second tweet at 15 words and with 78 characters might expand this and provide the core message:
#Ephesus God chose us, loves us, adopted us thru Jesus Christ; we R God's own. [The latter is from the original: "we are God's own."]
And finally, with 16 words, and a little long at 84 characters, we have this summary promise:
#Ephesus God's great gift: Christ redeems, forgives, is all n all. & now we know it.
And then we attempt this with Luke's rendering of the contentious conversation among Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes. Remember, the scribe had just whined to Jesus, "By saying this you are insulting us, too!" So, if there were such a Twitter tag as "#Pharisees" or "#ScribesInsult," the first tweet (at just 41 characters) might be:
#ScribesInsult If the shoe fits, wear it.
And in light of what Saint Paul might have tweeted us earlier (and hoped that we would agree with enough to "retweet"), we ought to try a more positive tweet. Perhaps that more positive — yet challenging — tweet from these overheard conversations might be:
#Pharisees (or #EachOfUs) What U have heard & seen, now share & live; so that others might also live.
Even though at 17 words and 86 (or 85, depending) characters, it stretches Twitter's attention limit, it is still within bounds.
And the "Woe to you" message is quite simple, and would make an excellent, although uncomfortable, tweet.
Now what? All we have heard from the prophets, all we have heard from the Scriptures, all we have heard from each other, and all we have received from our lavishly loving God is ours to make real, to make a part of our lives. It is ours to share — through actions, conversations, or social media — so that all others might also receive these lavish gifts of love.
So, what do you think? Could we hijack the social media from political maneuverings and reorient it in the service of God's word among us? We could call it the California Emergence of the Sacred Tweets.
[Sharon Sullivan has been an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph for 35 years. She holds a Ph.D. in special education from Purdue University and taught for 25 years at Brescia University in Kentucky, where she returned in 2016 after serving in congregational leadership She also continues work with environmental and advocacy issues.]