The Scent of Lemons

I was sent this book specifically to review after I responded to a post/tweet on facebook/twitter (can’t remember which) at a time when I was seriously thinking about the role of social media in society in general and my life and ministry specifically. It is a relatively short book written in bite-sized blog-like chunks, or, given the subject matter, perhaps that should be byte-sized chunks. Despite its brevity, it packs in a lot of scholarship and reflection, indeed at times it reads like a literary link-dump, citing other larger works that have a more specific focus, but it builds a good case for how all communications technology, including contemporary social media, are not simply neutral tools, but serve to shape individuals’ neurological function and human society in general for good or ill. It is not a luddite rejection of technological development and its often unintended social effects, but rather, is a measured appraisal by someone who uses these tools, but is seeking to help others use them with wisdom. The author makes no secret of his religious perspective as a Catholic teacher, previously working directly in the education of young people, and more recently in a seminary in Rome, but, with the exception of the closing section where Pope Benedict XVI is cited at length, this is not a dominant factor. Some of the phraseology, however is strangely characteristic of Catholic academia, which might make this attractively produced paperback less accessible or at least appealing to the wider facebook generation than its brevity might suggest.
It chimes well with other material I have been reading recently, especially Peterson’s “The Contemplative Pastor” especially it’s insistence that communication tools should enhance communion (that I commented on this time last week), and that we are fooling ourselves if we believe that real communion can take place in the virtual world or over long distances. With such technology have we substituted the quantity of communication for the quality of communion, enjoying the ability to communicate with someone half a world away, whilst neglecting real relationships with those in our geographical communities, or even our own homes?
The author’s key concluding suggestion of observing some level of technological fast in order to be able to more sensibly use the freedoms made available to us through information technology and social media is worth serious consideration. I’ve floated the idea previously myself in the past and I know a number of friends had a facebook fast last year during Lent. Maybe you might want to do that this year, although it does raise the question as to what is the equivalent of Pancake Tuesday or Mardi Gras in terms of clearing the decks for such a fast? A night of playing facebook games or trawling through twitter? It also begs the question as to what you might do with the time you might recoup through avoiding social media. Some friends last year suggested that it gave them more time to read and listen to music, which whilst laudable, is arguably simply a retreat into older forms of 1 directional communication technology, and may actually work counter to this author’s desired aim of fostering greater communion with those close at hand…
Might I suggest that if you do go down the road of a facebook fast this Lent that as part of the discipline, on Shrove Tuesday print out a list of your supposed “facebook friends” and make a genuine effort to meet with them face to face with no book, electronic or otherwise, in between…
And while you’re at it, go out and smell the lemons, or if you aren’t as fortunate as the author to live where you can do such a thing, get out and about and use all your senses to appreciate the real and wonderful world in which we find ourselves…

This is an amended and extended version of the review that I posted on Goodreads


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