There were two things that always confused me as a boy–the existence of the op-ed and of the popularity of Tabloid Magazines. Herbert Swope, the innovator of the op-ed, suggested that its purpose was to “print opinions, ignoring facts.” The op-ed gives anyone a voice, no matter how unfounded the things they say may be. The purpose of the Tabloid Magazine is to “print gossip and slander, ignoring facts.” Differences aside, you can begin to understand my dislike of both. One of my earliest childhood memories was that of walking through a check out line at a grocery store in Northeast Philly with my grandmother. I remember the first time that I saw the Enquirer–which was, at that time, one of the most popular Tabloid Magazine in America. When I asked my dad about it, he made sure that I understood that it was altogether “worthless trash.” To this day, whenever I walk through a check out line at a grocery store, my soul abhors even a two second gaze at the cover of one of the many Tabloid Magazines that tower over the check-out conveyer belt like tacky wallpaper. Sadly, many in the church have turned the internet into one all-encompassing op-ed, Tabloid Magazine. Whether in blogs, blog comments, podcasts, sermons, Facebook, Twitter or You Tube, Christians have essentially bound together the op-ed of the New York Times with Star Magazine and the Gutenberg Bible. “Concern for biblical fidelity” has become the linguistic Trojan horse for gossip, slander, vitriol and pride; and, we’re all guilty, and we know it. In many respects, we’re still on the frontier of this thing we call the internet, as it has only existed for less than 20 years. That’s a drop in a bucket in the grand scheme of history. Nevertheless, here’s a recap of what I’ve experienced and observed over the past 13 years:
I sent three emails to a girl I liked when I was 19, but quickly got tired of this new and strange thing of trying to keeping up a long-distance relationship online. I attempted to download some jam band bootlegs on Napster when I was 22, but got tired of waiting for the server to respond to my requests. That was basically the extent of my use of the internet from 1997 until 2001. Just a few months after I was converted, I found this amazing site called Monergism. I spent hours reading Reformed books and articles. Ministries like Ligonier, Desiring God, Truth for Life and Grace to You were already in place in the late 90’s–giving us access to some of the best teaching and preaching in the world. Most of us were introduced to the greatest living theologians on account of the labors of these ministries. What was once the unchartered territory of technology, had become the new frontier of an online theological gold rush. With the advent of Challies.com in 2003 and Between Two Worlds in 2006, the Evangelical world was hit with a theological wave. Many of us were thrilled to be riding this wave. But all was not well in the land of media milk and honey.
The internet rapidly became a echo chamber of unfiltered, uncharitable clamor. Anyone who had a voice felt as though they needed to herald that voice online. We all became guilty of rushing into the jungle of controversies in the comment sections of blogs, while convincing ourselves that it was safe to do so behind the seemingly impenetrably shield of a laptop. The comment section taught us that even those who did not seem to be particularly contentious in person had plenty of love for controversy tucked away neatly in their hearts. Battle wounds abounded. M-16’s were used where simple clarifying questions might have sufficed. With every new edifying web site came a dozen harmful blogs. The remaining depravity of our hearts was seen in their vitriolic words that we placarded online.
In 2006, the face (pun intended) of media changed forever. Facebook and Twitter became the mass aggregate weapons of our day. Anything said by everyone with whom you’re connected was now in front of you. Unless you are one of those rare type-A, organizational machines, you probably didn’t taken the time to filter the information you would want to see–which means that you now see everything that algorithms decide you will see. Social media are such powerful weapons that they have even been employed to fuel a national revolution. As Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative explains: “In the same way that pamphlets didn’t cause the American Revolution, social media didn’t cause the Egyptian revolution. Social media have become the pamphlets of the 21st century, a way that people who are frustrated with the status quo can organize themselves and coordinate protest, and in the case of Egypt, revolution.” Rather than seeking to overthrow Satan’s kingdom, many in the church have decided to overthrow those, in the body, who they dislike.
Not long after the blog revolution, a new media phenomenon emerged which allowed controversy to escalate in more sophisticated ways. Podcasting gave us a voice that was previously only read online. It became a vehicle for self-made celebrities. It put tone and emotion to what we wanted to say. It turned ordinary voices into leading voices. It was an instrument that allowed us to escalate otherwise highly nuanced difference into matters of supreme importance. It provided a new platform for fueling controversy and encouraging conspiracy theories. We allowed ourselves to believe that whatever leading podcasters talked about was the issue with which we all needed to be involved. Case in point.
The emergence of blog trolls, with the support of their gossip loving social media promoters, has made the current event controversies of the church the front page of the evangelical Tabloids. We have waded into the deep waters of gossip and slander while convincing ourselves that we are merely being “zealous for the truth and purity of the church.” We have been quick to involve ourselves in issues of which most of us have no business involving ourselves. We have been quick to rejoice when brothers have fallen, and have spent our time and energy judging their motives. We have not learned what David meant when he said, upon Saul’s death, “Tell it not in Gath” (2 Sam. 1:20), and have failed to understand why our God commands believers not to go to court with one another before unbelievers (1 Cor. 6:5-6). Instead, we have rushed to “Publish it in the New York Times.” While doing so, we have dismissed the sin of gossip in the name of “concern for biblical fidelity.” We have failed to respect church courts, while saying that we are doing what we do out of love for the church. For every appeal we have made to 1 Timothy 3:1-7, we have failed to obey Proverbs 24:17; 18:8 and 1 Timothy 5:13.
Add to all this the way in which the church has allowed current events to shape our op-ed use of the internet. We see far fewer solid biblical and theological expositions online than we do social commentary. The church has become skilled at exegeting culture while remaining unskilled at exegeting Scripture. Many pastors and theologians have decided to speak to the needs of the day, which, in turn, has amounted to speaking to any and every issue that the secular world throws in our face. This may appear to have immediate value, but will certainly not be of any lasting impact. Many of the issues of the day, that seem so colossal and important at present, will have short shelf-lives in the long run. Many have fallen into the trap of the “tyranny of the urgent” when it comes to speaking to current events. Sites that boast of theological substance have frequently become nothing more than op-ed, cultural commentary–baptized news feeds and cultural advice columns. This is not to say that we are not called to take a stand against sin that threatens the well-being of the church. We must certainly be ready to speak with courage and boldness when the truth of Scripture is being undermined, and the members of our churches are bullied into compromise. While there are times when we need to speak to the latest social controversy, one thing is sure, most of today’s issues and controversies are sure to be yesterday’s news. Jesus wasn’t compelled to respond to the current event news of His day (Luke 13:1-5) with culturally contextualizing analysis. We would do well to spend a lot more time considering His responses and a lot less time reading everyone’s social commentary.
Despite all the negative uses of the internet that we have seen over the past decade, I still remain positive about the way in which God will use it to propagate His truth throughout the dark recesses of this world. I have personally chosen to invest time in writing for several blogs, participating in several podcasts and using social media on a daily basis. As I make my way through this new frontier and have fallen into many of the traps and snares mentioned above, I am seeking to learn from the godly examples of those who are on the front lines in this venture. The plethora of angry, arrogant and self-aggrandizing voices do not make void the benefits that have accrued from godly, wise and humble men and women using this medium for the glory and honor of Christ. Here are four commitments that we all ought to make as we seek to avoid the trap of using the internet as an op-ed, Tabloid Magazine and seek to use it for the glory of God instead:
1. Exalt Christ. More than anything else, we need to make John the Baptist’s motto the motto of our hearts: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). If we are committed to Christ and the work of advancing His kingdom, we will seek to avoid the trap of slander and gossip. We will not feel compelled to cut others down with our tongues. We will be grieved when divisions among brethren arise over issues that are not foundational to the faith. We will invest more time seeking to teach the whole Christ from the whole Bible to the whole church. We will focus more on our own need for the cross and less on the failings of others. We will focus on removing the plank from our own eye prior to helping our brother remove the speck from his (Matt. 7:3). Tim Keller sums this up so well when he says, “We are much better at noticing the works of someone else’s sinful nature than we are at battling our own.” Keeping the Person and work of Christ at the center of all that we think, do and say is the sure way forward in a right use of the internet. When others see what we do online, they ought to be able to say that we are people committed to knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).
2. Teach the Great Timelessness Truths. There is one reason why I love reading the writings of the 16th and 17th Century Reformers and Puritans–they have a timelessness to them. On rare occasions you will find a Puritan treating some current event. Usually, however, they are expositing and applying the timeless truth of God’s word to the minds and hearts of people who have the same sin issues as those to whom the Prophets and Apostles wrote. This is not to say that cultural context doesn’t matter. It most certainly does. But the beauty of Scripture–and the theology of Scripture–is that it transcends time and culture. This is why we can read a book like Jeremiah, written to Israel just prior to the Babylonian exile, and God speaks to us and our spiritual needs today. When we remember that the word of God transcends the context of the human authors, we realize that it is the great timeless truths of Scripture that we need more than anything. What God did in Christ crucified works at all times and in all circumstances. The Gospel is not bound to a cultural setting. The more we keep our minds fixed on Christ, the more impact we will have in the world in which we presently live. Many of the sites that boast of cultural engagement cannot be said to be Gospel-centered in any meaning sense. Christ and the work of redemption are often passed over or relegated to a peripheral place in many of the posts seeking cultural engagement on some current event.
3. Earnestly Pursue Brotherly Love. This is not a call to naive ecumenism. We must always take a stand against theological error when it undermines the grace of God in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, we must be careful not to draw the line of orthodoxy around “me and my friends,” so that anyone who does not agree with us on some particular aspect of theology or methodology suddenly becomes persona non grata. When we realize that we are called to love our fellow ministers with the brotherly love with which Jesus and the Apostle admonished us (John 13:34-35; 15:12-17; Romans 12:10; 13:18; Gal. 5:13; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 3:8; 4:8; 1 John 3:11; 23; 4:7-12; 2 john 1:5), we will cease vilifying those with whom we have small theological or methodological differences. A lack of love stirs up discord, which, in turn, leads us to stir up others to pour energy and time into combating someone who is a brother or sister in Christ. At ground zero of many intramural theological debates is pride in the hearts of men who want to be seen and heard. We need a massive dose of 1 Corinthians 13 in our hearts before we set our fingers to s keyboard or our tongues to media outlets.
4. Exercise Wisdom in Knowing When to Engage. A wise friend once taught me that whenever I am asked to write something or feel compelled to say or write something, I should always ask myself, “Am I the one who needs to speak to this issue? Are there older and wiser men that can speak to it? Have others already spoken to it?” It takes a great deal of wisdom to know whether a particular battle is a battle in which we must fight. Think how much sin would be avoided online if every one of us would ask this question prior to writing or saying anything publicly. There have been many times that I wish I had heeded Proverbs 9:7; 12:18; 17:27; 21:23 and James 1:19. The same principles that God gives us for the use of our tongues goes for the use of our fingers behind a keyboard.