‘That should keep you busy,” an Amtrak conductor commented as he saw my already-worn copy of Saint Augustine’s City of God in front of me shortly after boarding in Baltimore for New York. Reading the 1,000-plus-page classic was not something I had planned for 2017, but something Twitter, of all things, drew me into.
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 this semester anyway. Of course, a classroom is one thing; social media, very much another. But sure enough, as I got myself to Twitter on that first Thursday night, a father announced he had put his kids to bed and was ready, a federal judge weighed in with his insights, and all sorts of people from varied backgrounds shared their favorite quotes from the first chapters of City of God, and made connections to politics and religion and culture today.
Now entering its fifth week, held from 8 to 10 (Eastern time) on Thursday nights, the discussion is led by Pecknold, who designates chapters and half-hour slots, all flagged by the hashtag #CivDei, which makes it easy for anyone who misses “class,” as I have already a week or two, to catch up at another hour.
I say that Pecknold leads the discussion, but he’s more a moderator than an instructor, definitely no lecturer. The first thing evident about the experiment is how reader-driven the discussion is, and in the best of ways. At a time when virtue and enduring, eternal values can seem the farthest things away from social-media discussions, maybe especially about politics, here were people from all walks of life talking about virtue and the soul and civic engagement.
One of the CivDei crowd took a poll the other day, checking to see how many are reading a physical copy of City of God and how many are Kindle-ing their way through. Most have the book in their hands during the course of the week, sometimes taking pictures of highlighted favorite quotes and notes and posting them in their contributions to the Twitter discussion. Pecknold identifies this “making us more analog” as an “unexpected consequence” of the Twitter time with Augustine he created a cyber space for. “To see people proudly share pictures of this nearly 1,100-page book is pretty inspiring,” he says. “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.”
Pecknold is as surprised as anyone that the whole thing appears to be working, with readers engaging throughout the U.S., and internationally.
“It’s like we’ve suspended the rules of Twitter for 15 weeks or something,” Pecknold tells, noting how surprised he’s been at the “fraternal enthusiasm and cheer behind #CivDei.” He explains that
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.
What’s ultimately the point of #CivDei? “I think it could be making us better citizens,” Pecknold says.
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 leads a way with #CivDei.
“It’s like we are all looking for wisdom about where we’ve been and where we are headed,” he adds. “Looking at the foundations of Western civilization gives us insight about ourselves that most of us lack. It’s the kind of higher learning we need right now.”