Social Media and the ‘City of God’

At a time when virtue seems absent from social media discussions, here were people from all walks of life talking about it.

By Kathryn Jean Lopez Published on February 3, 2017

“That should keep you busy,” an Amtrak conductor commented as he saw my already-worn copy of St. Augustine’s City of God in front of me shortly after I boarded a train from Baltimore to New York. Reading the 1,000-plus-page classic was not something I had planned for 2017, but Twitter, of all things, drew me into it.

Chad Pecknold, a professor of theology at my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, had the idea to conduct a 15-week seminar over Twitter on a book he was teaching in class. Of course, a classroom is one thing and social media, very much another. But sure enough, as I logged into Twitter for the first session, all sorts of people from varied backgrounds shared their favorite quotes from the first chapters of the book and made connections to politics, religion and culture today.

Now entering its fifth week, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST, on Thursdays, Pecknold leads the discussion, flagged with the hashtag #CivDei, which makes it easy for anyone who misses “class,” as I have already a week or two, to catch up.


I say that Pecknold leads the discussion, but he’s more a moderator than an instructor. The first thing that’s evident about the experiment is how reader-driven the discussion is. At a time when virtue and other enduring things seem absent from social media discussions, here were people from all walks of life talking about it, the soul and civic engagement.

“It’s like we’ve suspended the rules of Twitter for 15 weeks or something.” Chad Pecknold

One of the CivDei crowd took a poll the other day, checking to see how many were reading a physical copy of the book and how many were using a digital reader. Most had the book in their hands during the course of the week, sometimes taking pictures of highlighted favorite quotes and notes. Pecknold identifies this “making us more analog” as an “unexpected consequence” of the Twitter time with Augustine. “To see people proudly share pictures of this nearly 1,100-page book is pretty inspiring. It sends people away from social media so that they can then use digital technology in a better way, one which is tied to real objects, and which is about things which aren’t ephemeral,” he says.

Pecknold is as surprised as anyone that the whole thing appears to be working, with readers engaging throughout the country and internationally.

“It’s like we’ve suspended the rules of Twitter for 15 weeks or something,” Pecknold tells me about how surprised he’s been at the “fraternal enthusiasm and cheer behind CivDei.” He adds, “Social media can feel like a fake world sometimes in the sense that it promises a social connection that it can’t possibly deliver, and which can sometimes be socially alienating. There’s a kind of competition on social media for who can land the best blows, claim the best zingers with the right amount of ironic detachment.” Not so with the CivDei community.

“There’s a surprising sense of freedom in CivDei,” Pecknold observes. “It has limits — two hours on a Thursday night — and people are always more creative and free within limits. And you see this. Everyone notes how fast the two hours go by, even if you didn’t get the reading done, even if you are just following the hashtag passively, there’s a kind of rush to it all that’s exhilarating, and seriously stimulates the mind. People are constantly making fascinating connections to our own time.”

Becoming Better Citizens

What’s ultimately the point of CivDei? “I think it could be making us better citizens. Augustine is big on dual citizenship. His aim isn’t to make us better citizens of our country, but to make us citizens of the City of God. It’s just that he thinks becoming a citizen of the City of God will have the effect of making for happier souls, and thus a happier city, ordered to the highest ends. So, I hope it has this effect on us.”

Many of us spend more time than we realize in front of screens. Instead of lamenting that, how can we creatively let these be paradoxically doors into fuller lives of real engagement and encounter and community? Pecknold shows how with his project.

“It’s like we are all looking for wisdom about where we’ve been and where we are headed — looking at the foundations of Western civilization gives us insight about ourselves that most of us lack,” Pecknold says. “It’s the kind of higher learning we need right now.”


Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Copyright 2017 United Feature Syndicate

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