Not long ago I participated in an online discussion which considered the role of theology in Christian ministry on the web. The conversation was, in many ways, startling. For one thing, the role of theology was (by some) impugned as worthless and indeed inimical to Christian faith in our era. For another, during the discussion there were moments of open hostility and contempt. The whole thing, despite being conducted under the auspices of a Christian group discussing Christian ministry, felt remarkably unlike Christianity. The result was profound discomfort on my part.
Taking stock of my own frustration, I took a backseat to the discussion and attempted to discern what was going on in the substructure of that online group. From my new perspective, I came to an ironic realization: that this very discussion, which was intended to identify the role of theology in online ministry, itself displayed the precise problems of ministry on the web. And so, upon reflection, I believe I can identify three significant problems, generated by the nature of online discourse, that cloud our ability to share the Christian faith online. If we are going to share faith authentically and digitally at the same time, we must both account and compensate for these difficulties.
The Problem of Split Personality
The first problem I observe is the problem of split personalities. We are given a strange permission, due to the nature of the internet, to behave online as we would never behave in real life. And the natural consequence is that we develop online personas that are different from those we use in real life.
Several factors contribute to this personality divorce. One of them is the way that the internet encourages a kind of filterless sharing. Humans have always had an inner monologue and an outer persona—but most humans have the social know-how to recognize that not every thought ought to be shared at any given moment. Usually we learn this lesson as children. Have you heard the story about the little boy with his grandfather at the store? They were in line behind an obese woman. Suddenly, her beeper went off, and the boy announced, “Look out, Grandpa! She’s backing up!” As children we hadn’t yet learned the rules of culture, and so phrases such as “That person’s fat!” and “What’s wrong with his face?” often emerged unexpectedly and at humorous moments. As we matured we gained certain filters for our language and thoughts—in truth, what we gained was discernment, which means that we developed the ability to choose which thoughts we would share, and which we would keep to ourselves, given our present circumstances and company.
An online environment, by nature, lacks the cues to inform our sense of circumstance and company, and, as a result, the internet gives us permission to say whatever comes into our minds at a given moment, without reflection, without concern for how others might feel or react. What we experience online, then, is essentially the inner monologues of unrestrained and discourteous children. For a given discussion, a participant can throw an intellectual stink bomb into a room, then run away and never deal with the consequences. After all, all that you require to be a participant is a keyboard, but nothing else. And hence the rules of courtesy, of discourse, of discussion, of propriety, and even of human kindness become disposable in the online environment. The problem of split personality, then, is a problem of maturity.
Another factor, however, which contributes to split personalities online is the native anonymity of the internet. The screen name may be one of the most regrettable developments in our era. How are you to know, even when someone uses a ‘real’ name, whether such a person is really that person? You cannot, unless you have met and confirmed with the person in real life. And anonymity such as this gives permission for a number of things: it permits us to pretend we are not ourselves—we can intentionally alter our online personas. Anonymity also permits us to say “what we’re really thinking”—a regrettable sentiment which is really shorthand for “the ugly thoughts I cannot share in polite company.” Don’t get me wrong, not all anonymity is bad—there are times when, for external reasons, it is better for people to share from the security of an alias—but those times are rare. Most often online, anonymity serves as the darkness under which we hide our indiscretions.
The Problem of Ugly Equality
The second difficulty generated by the nature of online discourse is what I call ugly equality. The internet, divorced from personality, anonymous, and unfiltered, also flattens each participant to the same level. Every person’s thoughts appear in the same font, on the same page, with the same background colors and designs. There are only infrequent and unreliable ways to mark expertise or qualification. A person can post, and repost, and repost thoughts that have been addressed, modified, and corrected by others. The result is a form of discussion group spam; a victory of argument by attrition and volume. Added to this flattening effect is, as part of the DNA of the internet, the latent distrust of authority. The internet celebrates what it calls “freedom of expression.” As with all freedoms, this one is capable of abuse as well as good use. At times, it provides the conditions for incredible, stunning creativity. But the dark side of this “freedom” is that it violently despises any limitations.
The combination of this flattening effect and the distrust of authority creates the ugly equality of the internet. Ugly because it is flattens what ought to be textured, as if two dimensions were superior to three, or as if sheer volume can replace subtlety, or as if the opinion of the masses determines what is right. It is ugly because a mob is always ugly. But it is also ugly equality because it is disingenuous—there are real authorities in our lives, which must be honored and often obeyed. And especially in a theological context, there is a final Authority Who will be obeyed and honored with or without our permission. Thus, the freedom presented by the online environment is unreal and deceptive. It is a freedom most decidedly expressed in a direction away from God. It is a profoundly rebellious environment.
In such an environment, only a few factors serve to mark who is, and is not, worth listening to. One of these is humor. If you are funny, you win arguments. Make the masses laugh—and especially if you can make them laugh at authority, or tradition, or anything that smacks of control—and you win the mob’s affection. Another factor is popularity. In a mob rule, celebrities are politicians—become famous and your opinion will have validity. And a final factor, interestingly, is grammar, the ultimate leveler of ideas. Because if I can find a spelling error in your thoughts, I can dismiss your opinion regardless of its content.
As a result of these factors, during a Christian discussion the claim that “I am a pastor,” or “I have a degree in theology,” or, “I have eight years of ministry experience” accounts for precisely nothing. Each opinion, due to the flattening of the internet, is valued equally. This is quite absurd, because in no serious place in real life do we act similarly. If you want investment advice, you go to someone who has experience and training in investments. If you want medical advice, you go to someone with experience and training in the medical field. The same should naturally be true in matters theological and spiritual, and yet the flattening effect of the online environment levels every player to the same field. My opinion online counts for as much as the next guy—whether he be an angry emo kid living in his parent’s basement, or a theological PhD in a university.
The Problem of Gnosticism
A final difficulty (for our purposes) generated by the online environment is what I will call Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a heretical way of thinking that denigrates the physical in praise of the spiritual. As such, the online environment, as a space of disembodied discourse, is a profoundly Gnostic place. Online we are pure minds, without bodies, sharing our thoughts and interacting as pure spirits in a kind of metaphysical space.
This divorce from the physical is what stands behind the splitting and flattening of our personalities. But it is distinct from the two previous problems in this way: it is anti-Church. The Church is the physical people of God gathered together, unified, and led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is within the context of our physical churches that we grow in Christlikeness, where we grow to learn about Jesus, where we must practice practical forgiveness, practical love, practical suffering, and all the practical aspects of our Christian life. Christianity—following Christ—is nothing if not a set of practical relationships lived in space and time with other people. The online environment, in removing the physical body, removes the primary field where we practice our faith.
In short, a personal Church is essential to faith. It is within the local church that we learn submission to godly authority. We are taught (which means that we come to the spiritual table as learners, and not authorities). We are directed (which means that someone else helps to guide and shape our faith). By contrast, an ‘online’ church has no real power, no real teeth to its teachings. Say what you like online, and the worst that can happen is that you’ll be banned from a discussion group. Even if that’s the case, you can always join under a different, anonymous user name. There is no way to determine who is right and who is wrong, only by appeal, or repetition, or popularity contest. The only real consequence the internet has to offer is that you would be ignored. This is not how the Church operates.
Furthermore, without personality, how do you change the mind of a person who is wrong? It is impossible to reason a person into understanding, because reason never changed a person’s mind who refused to be changed. Hence, all the back-and-forth of arguments on the internet are almost entirely useless; much heat is created, but little light. And the real reason for this is because in almost every case some other factor stands between that person and truth. Thus, your debate lacks teeth because it lacks personality. After all, God did not send us a list of reasoned arguments for why we should serve Him, He sent us Jesus in the flesh—a person.
Lastly, the Gnosticism of the online environment contributes to the idea that the Church doesn’t matter, or that local church involvement is secondary to faith. It contributes to the sense that “All I need is Jesus and my bible”—another truly regrettable sentiment. We are not, after all, pure ideas, or pure souls, or even pure individuals. We cannot and must not deal with one another, whether online or in real life, as if we were only such and nothing else. Our discourse, then, online, can only ever at its best be accurate, but it can never be truly personal. And here we must not confuse the word personal with the idea of “sharing my personality.” Personal here means the physical wholeness of another, warm-blooded human being, who is sharing with me, as I am, in my body, right now. It is a kind of relationship that is a digital impossibility. There is no such thing as an online Church.
Split personalities, ugly equality, and Gnosticism: three severe problems to account for when sharing the Christian faith online. Accounting for these, how shall we go forward?
Regarding split personalities, we must, as Christians, make sure that we employ online personalities that are in harmony with our real-life personalities. We must be consistent people. We must beware the temptation to harness the power of anonymity so that you can just “let loose.” Toward this end, a good measure is to remember that if something is inappropriate in real life, it is also inappropriate online.
Then, with personalities that are consistent, honest, and courteous, we must engage and comment both faithfully and consistently. Remember that, by and large, and regardless of what your interlocutor says, you are engaging with a culture that is composed of spiritual infants. And so in our comments we will rarely move beyond the milk of our faith. But what that means is that we must know that milk inside and out. You must be able to articulate the basic essentials of the Christian faith repeatedly and clearly. Learn your creeds. Know your scriptures. Remember that because qualifications and experience are irrelevant, consistency is our best weapon. Never tire of the basics. And remember, as well, that you are writing as much for other people who read what you say as you are for the individual with whom you are having your particular conversation.
Lastly, remember not to view the online community as a true reflection of real life. Don’t be dragged into the Gnostic deception. And never allow the internet to replace real community with real people in your real life. One hour in genuine bible study with fellow believers is worth, to the health of your soul, a thousand hours in online groups. Because while you may learn a great many facts in such a group, you will never learn how to be a person following Christ in relation to other real people. You will be all head, and no life.
The prevalence of the internet is only going to continue to increase, and no doubt, as a consequence, these attitudes will begin more and more to become part of our everyday experiences. We don’t have to look far to see discourteous and socially unaware people, we don’t have to speak out loud for long to discover a society-wide distrust of authority, and Gnosticism is as old as Christianity. What that means, then, is that the responses I advocate here must be an essential part, not only of our online lives, but of our everyday Christian walk. In all things, then, we must be authentic, faithful, knowledgeable, and lastly, with our Lord Christ as the primary example, personal.