Playing God on Twitter

Finding religion in 140 characters or less

No deity has been left behind. God, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha. Even their greatest rival: Satan. They’re all tweeting, ancient scrolls swapped for timelines. Will following become the new form of worship? Or will @Jesus_M_Christ be crucified?

Temple student Josiah Schlatter (ironically biblical name, check) currently plays the role of @Jesus_M_Christ, a crude, humorous version of the Christian savior, through an account that’s been consistently gaining followers since Schlatter created it last year. He’s now finding himself on all of the best “tweet mocker” lists on the Internet and has nearly 400,000 followers for tweeting things like, “The problem with sending Kim Jong Il to Hell is that Hell is better than North Korea,“ “Why does every singer feel the need to make a shitty song about my birthday?” and “#occupywallstreet all you want so long as I get my 10% every Sunday. #gangstajesus.”

“Once people started retweeting, the ball started rolling. Pretty soon we had a decent amount of followers. The rest is history,” says Schlatter, who notes there’s been a definite uptick in tweeting God imposters since he began. “A friend of mine created @Santa_St_Claus and @TheeBuddha because he wanted in on the religious train. The best part about tweeting as a ‘God’ is that you can basically have an opinion on anything. But lots of people try to tweet. Most people fail.”

@Jesus_M_Christ gets advertising money from sites like “Sponsored Tweets” and “TwtMob,” by tweeting things based on the advertising content. He then gets money for the hits to the links he posts. One of Schlatter’s proudest Jesus moments so far, though, was when he flew to Los Angeles to accept the National Lampoon Award for “Best Deity” from Andy Dick.

His holier-than-thou advice for prospective tweet mockers? “If you suck, people can tell. Just don’t suck.”

Despite all of his glory, Schlatter gets plenty of backlash from some of the more “serious” God tweeters out there.

“It’s an obvious satire of the idea of Jesus, so the smart religious people just laugh it off because it’s a joke. The stupid ones freak out,” Schlatter says. “Luckily for us, the stupid people are stupid and don’t have much sway because they are idiots. So they’ll yell at us and call us blasphemers, but that’s because they have a tenuous grasp on logic and probably have no clue what ‘satire’ means. So they just make me laugh.”

Lauren Kogen, who is currently studying for her doctorate in communications at Penn and working as an adjunct professor of media/popular culture at Temple, believes the trend of parodying God makes sense for a generation that’s grown up in the era of reality television and an overall media explosion.

“For a lot of them I think the appeal of being famous is really big, either literally being famous or simply having a lot of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter. And hey, what better way to get people to pay attention to you then to claim to be a God,” Kogen laughs. “They think it’s funny. And I think there’s a little bit of narcissism in there, to be honest.”

But God is taking over Twitter in a more serious way too. There’s @Team_God, with the tagline, “We tweet for God alone! We inspire, we motivate, and we wake up the world. Join us and be a part of #Team_God! :)”

“Most Christians feel strongly about their calling to preach the gospel,” Ryan Hennesy, who’s in a master’s program at Princeton Theological Seminary, points out. “Because of that, I would have a hard time condemning someone who’s using a Twitter or something like that to promote their religious ideas. I think that taking it to the level of claiming to be the divinity you’re claiming to serve, there is some hesitance that I would have in doing so. But at the same time, the Bible has some pretty clear records of people who are prophets.”

Many agree. According to a recent Pew Research study, The Social Side of the Internet, the percentage of religious people using social networking rose from 36 percent in 2008 to 52 percent in 2010—the biggest increase of any social group online.

“People today have very busy lives. They might not be able to sit through a religious sermon once a week, but this is a short and convenient way to do that,” says Kogen. “It’s God in 140 characters or less.”

I think ultimately both gangster Jesus and more orthodox tweeters serve the same purpose: to lift spirits and bring people together. @SoulDirection1 tweets, “Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful,” while @Jesus_M_Christ spreads Christmas cheer in his own way: “I think my mom has always been pissed at me that I wrecked her vagina before she ever even had sex.”

In an ever-expanding sea of religious tweet mockers and tweeting ministries, at least social media is keeping conversation going.

“It is important to be able to create a culture of open dialogue, which on some level, is fundamental to the religious path,” says Hennesy. Though he’s a Christian, he tries to disassociate himself from people who would be offended by the likes of @Jesus_M_Christ, who doesn’t bother Hennesy. “People who use joke accounts, for the most part, are satirizing the cultural element of religion as opposed to the spiritual ones.”

He’s probably right, for the most part. But @Jesus_M_Christ will not repent.

“Religion’s just a joke, and I perpetuate it,” says Schlatter. “It’s a way for old people to suck up their free time without resorting to weed or heroine or crack or coke or booze. Religion’s just another way to get high.”

It’s a tumultuous time in Twittertown. Which God will you follow?