Twitter, the pope and theology in 140 characters

Marta Layton

Just how much timeless truth can be expressed in 140 characters? It looks like Catholics the world over are about to find out.

The Vatican recently set up an official Twitter handle for the papacy, @Pontifex. He already has more than 600,000 followers, quite a feat given the fact that Pope Benedict XVI has yet to send a single tweet (he's scheduled to start posting today). According to the Reuters article announcing the pope's entry into the Twittersphere, the tweets will "come from the contents of his weekly general audience, Sunday blessings and homilies on major church holidays." While they may initially be written by aides, the pope will review and approve whatever is sent out under his name.

I'd like to commend the pope and the Roman Catholic Church generally for putting him out there like this, especially considering the Internet doesn't respect hierarchy nearly as much as the offline word. As the Vatican's senior media advisor, Greg Burke, told Reuters, though, "This is the new market of ideas and the church has to be there." Many people of my generation are turned off by the church and part of it is politics, but part of it is also simply feeling like the church simply isn't relevant to the way we live our lives today. Good on the pope for meeting young people where they live.

Still, I'm also a bit concerned by this move. Twitter limits your messages to 140 characters and I can't see how the pope - or anyone - could do that without the message suffering. The Vatican isn't blind to this problem. As Archbishop Celli, leader of the Vatican's communications commission, put it in the article, "Reducing the pope's message to 140 characters is definitely a challenge, but we have seen that a profound thought can also be expressed in a brief Biblical passage. We can see this as sparks of truth or pellets of wisdom."

The Bible can express profound truths in a few words, but only because we are familiar with more than just that one beat in the story.

I am encouraged that the Vatican recognizes that the medium changes how they will need to communicate their message. If the pope and his aides treat his tweets like "bites" of wisdom that could definitely help him communicate his message more effectively than if he tries to boil down any particular message down to its 140-character essence.

Yet I’m not so sure, as Celli suggests, that brief Biblical passages have a truth you can communicate in a 140-character message. The Bible is hard to understand, and it's complicated. Messy. When you try to read it as simple or straightforward you often get into trouble. Paul's letter to the Romans talks quite a bit about grace and the limits of what the law can accomplish, but in James we learn that "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." Imagine if you only read one of these passages but not the other. You probably would misunderstand how grace and obedience work together. The Bible can express profound truths in a few words, but only because we are familiar with more than just that one beat in the story.

I wish the pope luck with his new Twitter account, and I do believe this will be a good thing. But at the same time I caution him - and us - from thinking God's truth can be summed up too neatly. If the Bible has taught me anything, it's that the person who thinks they have all the answers probably hasn't seen the whole question.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Theology