Andrew Graystone writes:
BEX LEWIS, who died on 18 February, pioneered Christian engagement with digital technology. She taught many people to navigate the online world without fear. Bex described herself as a “life explorer”. She travelled widely and explored boldly in the untrodden territories of digital theology and culture. As a result, she had an enormous circle of friends around the world, many of whom had never met her in person, but regarded her as a role model and an inspiration. This was particularly true for women leaders in the Church and academia.
Rebecca Mary Lewis was born on 9 March 1975. She was an academic historian, senior lecturer in digital marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and an honorary research fellow at St John’s College, Durham University. A gifted and gracious communicator, Bex had a rare natural ability to speak both inside and outside the confines of the Christian community. The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, described her as “a woman of deep learning, and who could express her wisdom in words any of us could understand”.
She loved her academic research, but was just as much at home speaking at Greenbelt or appearing as a digital agony aunt on The One Show. Her doctorate from the University of Winchester examined the power dynamics of government propaganda in the Second World War. She wrote the definitive book on the “Keep Calm” poster, and the phenomenon of its re-application to 21st-century culture (Keep Calm and Carry on: The truth behind the poster, 2017). She was particularly interested in the distinction between those who had wanted to “use” the war as an opportunity to reassert traditional values, and those who embraced the imperative to create a different future.
She applied the same analysis to the advent of digital technology, and in particular to social media. When many other Christian voices feared a digital Armageddon, Bex calmly encouraged Christians to experiment and engage with what is positive in new technology. She became well known for running “social media for the scared” sessions for the Church of England and introduced many Christian leaders to the delights and opportunities of social media in mission and ministry. She worked for a time at CODEC, the Centre for Digital Theology at St John’s College, Durham, where she developed the “Big Bible” project, encouraging millennials and others to connect with the Bible digitally through local reading groups and online conversations.
In 2014, she published Raising Children in a Digital Age. She encouraged parents not to make enemies of their children’s screens, but to engage with them positively, like explorers navigating a new world where there are treasures to discover as well as dangers to avoid. All Christians needed to discover what “digital discipleship” means, and a church that seeks to insulate itself in analogue culture condemns itself to irrelevance.
Part of Bex’s attractiveness to Christian leaders, and especially women, lay in the way in which she carried her significant intellect unapologetically, while at the same time modelling openness and vulnerability. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, it was natural for her to document her experience in a series of informative and highly honest blogs.Ever the educator, she clearly intended these for our benefit as well as hers, and they were illustrated with pictures of her #WaitingRoomFeet as she queued for almost daily medical appointments.
She gave a moving Lent Talk on BBC Radio 4 and embarked on a programme of academic research into the use of social media by people living with cancer. When, in 2019, her cancer became metastatic, she knew that her time was limited. But instead of counting down the days, she signed every blog and tweet #BusyLivingWithMets.
Throughout the pandemic, I was privileged to share a “support bubble” with Bex. There were joyful walks, bacon butties, whole seasons of Schitt’s Creek, and many conversations about illness and death, which we called #Bexit. Bex was very particular about language, and wholeheartedly rejected the notion of “battling” with cancer, and also the “toxic positivity” that is sometimes demanded of those who have the disease.
When “Bexit” came, it was shockingly fast, but also peaceful and without fear. She had won her adventure with life and stepped simply and courageously into a new realm of possibilities. Such was her impact on social media that within hours the hashtag #BeMoreBex was trending in the top ten on Twitter.
Nine times out of ten, when I had a thought about life in the emerging digital culture, I discovered that Dr Bex had had it first. Among all the naysayers, she was relentlessly positive about the possibilities of technology and of life itself. She disagreed with my use of the term “Real Life” to distinguish flesh-and-blood reality from its online expression. She insisted that all life was Real Life, including its online forms. She was right, of course. If anyone knew about Real Life, it was Bex. She is no doubt delighted to be exploring its new territories.