Reclaiming Our Attention from the Distortion Machine

This is a reprint of a guest post I wrote for the Fratres Dei blog. Be sure to pay some love forward and check out Rachel’s amazing blog about embodied spirituality and contemplation in the material world!

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Social media is kind of my thing. I met my future spouse through Tumblr, I’m an author who promotes her work on Twitter, and, as some of you may know, I’m the digital communications manager for Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction & Ministries.

Thoroughly a product of the digital age, I’ve been privileged to witness the best social media has to offer. I’ve seen friendships forged, beautiful art created, valuable information exchanged, and online spaces for religious expression blossom. However, I’ve also lost weeks of my life to mindless scrolling, been “dragged” and “cancelled”, participated in unwarranted digital pile-ons I still regret, and woken up in a cold sweat from nightmares about being doxxed.

Sometimes, friends, the internet is bad.

At the start of 2019, I knew that something about my relationship to social media had to change. As an increasingly public figure, I was placing too much of my worth in my public persona. My attention was becoming more and more fragmented, and time on social media was the only “leisure” time I was allowing myself away from my day job and writing, even though I viewed social as just another form of work. I had no inner life I didn’t perform for the internet. My prayer life was nonexistent, because I couldn’t sit still that long, much less devote intentional time to something that didn’t have an immediate material benefit or reward.

But what do you do when the internet feels like an increasingly essential, increasingly centralized feature of the human experience, and if, as for many of us, being active on the web is part of your job?

Common sense advises moderation, but I’ve never been good at finding balance. As I started listening to podcasts about the effects of social media and reading Cal Newport’s phenomenal Digital Minimalism, I realized this isn’t a Sarah-specific compulsion. The majority of Americans have a disordered relationship with social media. Like a gaslighting lover, social demands a glance at our phones every spare moment, yet convinces us to consistently underestimate how many hours a day we devote to the tryst. And as we uncover more about how social media is configured to work on our brains the same way slot machines do, keeping eyes on screens for as many minutes as possible to turn the highest profits for companies, whether or not those minutes wreck our sense of self, warp our view of our political reality, or urge us to throw money down the drain on products we would never otherwise want…The straits get a bit more dire.

As this year’s Lenten season commenced, I felt that gentle nudge, that divine voice in the back of my head saying here’s your chance. A chance to pull the plug on social for forty days and re-set my inner schema. It wouldn’t be a total fast, since I do spend a handful of hours a week managing the Fratres Dei social, but there would be no more browsing, posting, or scrolling from my own accounts for the rest of Lent.

By and large, I’ve taken God up on the offer, and the results have been quietly astounding. First of all, the jittery fear of missing out (on what? Malicious gossip and highlight reel announcements of rivals’ successes and the thousandth click-bait headline heralding society’s demise?) faded in about a week. What followed was overwhelming relief that I didn’t have to care about it all. Human empathy is a divine gift, and social media constantly exhausts it. We swing wildly from outrage to apathy, which makes it hard for us to be attentive and compassionate towards the real needs that surround us. Secondly, I got time back I didn’t even know I had lost. I started finding hours to cook big, wholesome meals while listening to audiobooks, and since I didn’t have the illusion of connection from seeing friend’s Instagram posts all the time, I started calling them a lot more. But most of all, I got my focus back.

The fragmented attention created by the noise of social media is really no attention at all. Conversation with a friend, playing with a child, reading a book, and especially listening for the stirrings of God in our lives require real, sustained attention. Constantly flipping from platform to platform, or article to article, trains our brains to make only the most cursory skim of information. Re-training the brain takes time, but we can start by setting aside hours of our day where we leave our phones on the charger, whether we’re out for a run, meeting someone for coffee, or scribbling idea in a notebook. It’s only in these moments of receptivity that God can press in with soft revelations, interesting food for thought, or divine encouragement.

I observe both the church calendar and the wheel of the year, a cycle of seasonal holidays used by Wiccans and other earthy types. The wheel’s holidays usually involve baking, candle-lighting, handicraft, and other things I love to do but never seem to have time for. But when the spring equinox rolled around during Lent, I suddenly had the time, and without the pressure to post aesthetically pleasing pictures and a description of my practice online for the edification of the masses, I didn’t experience the usual sense of poor planning or inadequacy. So, I pulled out the yellow candles, put a bit of soda bread and calendula tea out on my altar, and said some prayers praising God for light, and for new life. The ritual existed for no one except me and God, and that, I found, was empowering. For the first time in a long time I didn’t worry about how I looked or if I was doing “enough”. I just followed my intuition and listened for God.

Like chocolate, long naps, sex, and whisky sours, social media is good, if used in intentional moderation that doesn’t throw off the balance of the rest of our lives. It should be a tool that we use, not a corporate-run outrage machine that uses us for clicks and buys. Philippians calls the faithful to turn their thoughts towards “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable”. Personally, I find that hard to do when I spend hours a day being fed an inane stream of war crime, advertisement, callout post, wedding pictures, advertisement, human rights violation, cat picture, bad faith political meme, advertisement through my smart phone.

Now, I haven’t jumped off the social media bandwagon entirely. In a move I hope my audience will find charmingly meta I’m currently denouncing social media in a social media post, after all. But for now, I’m enjoying being time-rich and having the space to simply notice my emotions, my relationship to space, and my own breath. I’ve been noticing God a lot more too, not because God wasn’t there when I was scrolling or posting, but simply because I was too tapped in to digital white noise to notice.

Yearning to take better notice of the divine already in your midst? Learn to listen with a spiritual direction session with Fratres Dei.

ODD SPIRITS is on 99¢ sale through the month of October!

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This novella will be on sale for the ghoulishly low price of $5.99 for paperbacks and 99¢ for e-copies until All Hallows Eve. You’ll never see it at a lower price, so grab your ticket to flirty tarot readings, folk religion, and mysterious hauntings today! 

It takes a lot of commitment to make a marriage between a modern ceremonial magician and a chaos witch work, but when a malevolent entity takes up residence in Rhys and Moira’s home, their love will be pushed to the limits. Brewing up a solution is easier said than done when your magical styles are polar opposites; throw a psychic ex and a secret society in the mix, and things are bound to get messy.

This diverse paranormal romance novella is perfect for fans of The Raven Cycle and The Haunting of Hill House!

“Like a lovingly-prepared home-cooked meal, Odd Spirits compels its reader to both devour and savor…Gibson’s background as a poet allows her to deftly create richly-drawn little moments.” –Rouges Portal

See what people are saying about the novella on Goodreads!

FIENDS has arrived!

THE FIENDS IN THE FURROWS anthology, featuring my Southern Gothic story “Revival”, is available now in ebook and paperback!

Growing up as a girl in a conservative religious community is challenging, especially when you’re the bastard child of a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher and a Catholic waitress. Considered unclean by the congregation and her grandfather, the fearsome Reverend, because of her affinity for the church’s’ venomous snakes, eight-year-old Callie Ann spends most of her time feeding crickets and mice to her only friends.

 But as the Reverend’s sinister hold on his rapt flock grows, so does Callie’s connection to her dead mother, and a dark prophecy begins to take shape. 

What People Are Saying

“Revival finds that old time religion venomously snaking its way back, to the peril of those who would dare to dance with vipers and tempt Fate itself.”

“Gibson’s Revival was like THE BAD SEED set to a religious hymn (that’s a good thing)”

If you’re craving some grimy gothic goodness with your brave little girls toppling abusive religious hierarchies, add FIENDS to your Goodreads TBR! Also be sure to subscribe to my intermittent author newsletter to stay in the loop about new publications, giveaways, and flash sales!  🕸🐍🌾💀

On Writing Southern Gothic

Today over on tumblr, someone asked me for “tips for writing about those foggy marsh drenched southern gothics”, and I decided to share what I had to say with ya’ll as well.

Gothic genres are squarely situated in their geographic locations, so the best way to get a feel for a Gothic genre is to get a feel for the land. If taking a trip to the bayou or Piedmont is prohibitive, read the greats. I recommend Flannery O’Connor’s entire body of work, the Anne Rice novels set in New Orleans, and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”.  You can also check out  My Blood on the Scrarecrow Southen Gothic inspo tag.

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Photo courtesy of Rodney Harvey

As far as craft advice goes, avoid dialect. Dialect is phonetically rendering words the way they may sound in an accent (nuthin’, wassat, sho’nuf) and it tends to be distracting to the reader and insulting to the speakers of the accent you are invoking. You can invoke an accent through word choice and placement instead (see my use of vernacular terms like “best believe” in the prompts below) and the best way to learn these turns-of-phrase is to listen to native speakers

Similarly, steer clear of tropes that have now crossed the threshold into hurtful stereotype such as the ignorant redneck, “magical negro”, Jezebel, mammy, or in-bred mountain family, unless you have a very good reason. Odds are, unless its intelligent subversion, your reason is not good enough.

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Still from AMC’s Preacher.

I still feel like my Southern Gothic writing is bit of a caricature in many ways, because the first breath I took wasn’t muggy and magnolia-sweet, but after a decade of my formative years spent in the mountains of western North Carolina, I’ve got an inkling. Here are some jumping off points for you:

  • If you don’t leave this town by nineteen years old, you won’t leave at all. If you try, you’ll find all roads lead back to your now-abandoned high school.
  • You can do all the brutalizing, cheating, and bloodletting you want inside this house, but God help you if the neighbors hear about it.
  • The forest takes a couple of human sacrifices a year, lost hikers or fresh graduates who had a little bit too much to drink at the homecoming party. It’s simply the way of things.
  • The cicadas do the screaming for every neglected child, battered wife, and dispossessed son who can’t shout for themselves.
  • Everyone sees the sinful things their neighbors drag across their backyards in the middle of the night. They just have the good sense not to go around letting on that they know about it.
  • Heredity is horrifying. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things you can inherit.
  • You’d better not break the heart of the wrong local girl, because there’s a good chance she’s got a granny witch living up in one of the hollers who’ll stick your name in a mason jar with some piss and pins and make your life a living hell.
  • If you cut the magnolia trees, they’ll bleed red as you or me.
  • It’s not a matter of if the preacher man has seen the devil, it’s a question of whether or not he greeted him as an old friend.
  • When you finally meet Jesus, you best believe he’s going to be carrying a list of crimes for you to answer for.

If you’d like to hear more of my  overgrown,God-haunted thoughts on the subject, check out my Southern Gothic story REVIVAL in the Fiends in the Furrows anthology! This story is my homage to the South, and it’s got snake handling, brave little girls, and fiendish prophecies in it.

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INDIE RADAR: Queering Lent

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After seeing a number of my friends toting around Queering Lent, I decided to pick up the slim volume of devotional poems penned by a nonbinary pansexual Presbyterian pastor. Written as a spiritual practice over the course of last year’s Lent, the highly personal poems touch on interwoven themes of suffering, identity, and empathy burnout, all while employing classical mystical language of God as Lover.

Independent publishing can be a toss-up, so when I find something that shines in the lackluster mire of self-published titles, I’m quick to promote it. Queering Lent gleams despite its unpretentious packaging, and while some of the poems are unremarkable, many have a sort of understated profundity to them that’s hard to forget. In particular, I found the poetic sermon on binaries, the expansiveness of God, and the upside-down kingdom of Heaven in the back of the book to be particularly stirring, and I’ll be returning to it again and again in this Lenten season and beyond.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Slats a number of times, and they’re a truly unique artist and ardent lover of God who has a way of infecting atmospheres with joy. If you’re  interested in learning more about the creative process behind Queering Lent, you can check out this feature on Slats over at Sanctified Art. You can buy a copy of Queering Lent on Amazon, and 100% of the proceeds go to organizations committed to supporting queer and trans people in the church.

Ten Top Titles in Progressive Christian Nonfiction

A few days ago, an anoymous reader asked me over at Millennial Gospel if I knew of any books in a similar vein of progressive, experimental, grassroots theology. While I’m not as well-versed in Christian nonfiction as I would like to be, I do read an awful lot of it, and thought I would point you all towards the best of what I’ve read in the genre.

I read heaps of spiritual memoir, which is where I find the most authentic, gritty accounts of faith in a postmodern world.

  •  Rachel Held Evan’s Searching for Sunday accounts her journey out of evangelicalism and her wrestling with faith in the Episcopal church
  •  Nadia Bolz Weber’s Pastrix is the story of a rough, addicted, tattooed woman finding God and becoming one of the most unorthodox and celebrated pastors on the Lutheran scene right now
  •  Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is a classic work of “emergent” Christianity, and shares the story of his chaotic, beautiful re-discovery of a God who had disappointed him in childhood
  •  Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss is a prose-poetry story of struggling towards the ineffable Divine in a life of academia, love, and illness.

For those interested in progressive, Biblical perspectives on gender and sexuality

  • Mark Labberton’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture covers the science of gender dysphoria, different theologies of difference and inclusion, and treatment options for trans youth all from a moderate, Christ-centered perspective.
  • Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist is an affirmation of the God-given dignity and power of women told in a bounteously grace-filled, warm tone that invites both men and women into God’s vision for equality
  •  Mark Gushee’s Changing Our Minds and Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian for those seeking a Biblical, ethical, and sociological defense of the inclusion of partnered LGBTQ folks in the kingdom of God

Budding theologians will enjoy

  • Richard Rohr and Mike Morrel’s  invitational exploration of the mystical, relational Trinity in The Divine Dance
  • The more ambitious should pick up Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, after which you may never need another defense of the feminine face of God.

I read a lot of  political theology and liberation theology for graduate school, but I would not wish 45 page academic articles on you guys! That said, I do really like

  • Lammin Saneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity: The Gospel Beyond the West, which explores the theological and cultural shift of Christianity to the global East and South, and unpack colonialism, western guilt, and new trends in Christianity in a conversational, question and answer format.

But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for any accessible introductions and point them your way.

What other titles in progressive Christianity do you consider essential? Comment with your favorites and I’ll add them to my TBR!