Faith on the Interwebs

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.

Solutions

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.

Christ, Incarnate for us in the Virgin Mary.

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.

8 comments on “Faith on the Interwebs

  1. Ah Jeremy… sometimes I think you are a communication scholar disguised as a man of the cloth. :-)

    My thoughts, point by point:

    1) Split personality: Your take on this is almost straight-up “cues filtered out theory,” identified by Sproull and Kiesler in their 1986 examination of e-mails in the workplace (http://www.jstor.org/pss/2631506). That perspective is not in vogue among comm scholars at present–but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to it, and I think there is, for reasons you mentioned. A theory that has somewhat superseded the cues-filtered-out approach is the “social identity model of deindividuation effects” (SIDE theory). The theory predicts that our behavior in group contexts depends on whether we are most aware of our identity as individuals, or our identity as members of a group. The latter, I think is actually more damaging–and is somewhat the opposite of what the cues-filtered-out model predicts. In other words, the argument isn’t that social cues are entirely absent online, but rather that we latch on quite firmly to the social cues that are available. We then conform to the norms for the group identity that is salient. In the context of Christianity, I think it’s clear how this could become a problem. If the group identity that’s salient is that of being Calvinist/Arminian/Presbyterian/Southern Baptist/etc., for instance, those in the discussion group/blog ring/etc. will conform to that group identity–and perhaps treat Christians as other groups an out-group worthy of criticism. In some sense, then, I wonder if the Internet may, at times, fragment Christians more than unite us. In other words, what takes over is what you call…

    2. Ugly equality, or a mob mentality: That’s really what SIDE theory says will happen; indeed, that’s the line of research from which the theory arose (check out the Wikipedia article for more info). However, I think care is needed in laying the blame for this. I really don’t think it’s the medium; the technology is, I would claim, morally neutral. But we, as human beings, are not. We are sinners. Apart from the Holy Spirit, we love darkness. And the anonymity of the Internet, along with the leveling effect you identify here, can serve to magnify that darkness.

    3. Gnosticism: Great thoughts, great warnings, here, Jeremy. The Internet plays quite well into the hands of those who think Christianity is little more than an extended philosophical discussion conducted via the canons of scholarly logic. And this reality of personality–but I would rather say, of *relationship*–is something that I think communication scholars have only begun to reckon with–probably because many of them do not hold a biblical view of relationships as arising from the relational nature of our Trinitarian God. I do think we must acknowledge the importance of written media in the history of the faith–indeed, that is one of the very means by which Paul ministered to the 1st century church–and the means by which we have the Bible. But I think the closing of 2 John is very, very instructive: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (verse 12, ESV). The apostle is clearly acknowledging the importance of the written word–after all, he’s writing a letter–but also acknowledging that, in some sense, face-to-face communication offers something more, something *complete*, that pen and ink (or blog posts and status messages) cannot touch. (See also 2 Cor. 3:3 and 3 John 1:13-14).

    4. Solutions: Great thoughts here. I would add:
    a. A warning that, despite these dangers, we abandon the online sphere at our peril! All contexts for discussing the faith possess strengths and weaknesses. We must be aware of them, but also be aware of the example of the incarnation–and the online world is an important, powerful sphere of discourse into which we, as Christians, must incarnate. We must be salt and light that transforms the online world, rather than abandoning it (as, regrettably, the evangelical church has abandoned some other spheres of discourse in our culture).

    b. In some degree of tension with (a), remember James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (ESV) The online world tempts everyone to be a teacher. I have no question that for you, as a pastor, the online world serves as an important outlet for your God-given ministry; that may not be the case for every believer.

    So now you’ve tempted me to write something the length of a blog post itself. :-) Indeed, this may get copied to my blog soon. Good thoughts, my friend.

  2. jmichaelrios says:

    Hey Andrew, I’m grateful for this response! (However, I don’t intend to grade your papers for you…). A couple of things are especially worth remarking upon.

    The idea that we latch onto the existing social cues more firmly rings very true, and I can definitely see how this would lead to a potentially more fractious/alienating community. Add to this the general sense that Christians have of being ‘threatened’ in the world, and we have a recipe for either trenchant social retreat, or militant defense of the faith. In this particular post, however, what struck me was the idea that so-and-so online would NEVER speak to me with either such words or such tone in real life. And in response to such angry rants, I can either a) correct him calmly, b) fire back angrily, or c) ignore him. None of these seems particularly useful (online). If I were treating with a real person who said such things, I would naturally turn the discussion to the source of the anger, rather than the content of the disagreement. It is VERY difficult (though not impossible) to do this online.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the net is evil–I believe (as your language hints) that it is profoundly neutral, and therefore capable of both proper use and abuse. And yet there are no consistent controls for who speaks, who has authority, and who determines (in a theological context) what is orthodox. Have you ever had a mod step into an online discussion and address heresy as a way to guide the discussion, reprimanding the heretical offender in the process? It’s unthinkable–and so heresy receives equal screen time to orthodoxy–sometimes more. It’s a strange situation. I’m not even sure I have a good solution for it (other than pastors who KNOW their theology inside and out and can communicate it to their people).

    Thanks for the 2 John verse–highly appropriate here!

    Both warnings are fully appreciated, endorsed, and recommended in turn!

  3. Oscar Forbes says:

    Sorry but what exactly do you mean by this; “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.”

    You are right that he didn’t send a list of “reasoned” arguments, because they were grossly unreasonable.

    You only have to look at the promise of eternal pain in hell for not submitting to gods commandments and for committing sin to see that the demands are rather rude and to be honest, very dark age.

    Imagine just for a moment, that your boss says to you, that if you go home and have sex with your girlfriend that he would put me in a furnace, whilst simultaneously sustaining my life so that I lived through it for ETERNITY. (The idea of eternity disgusts me, but that is another argument.)

    It’s just one of the horrible things many religions cover up as just something you need to put up with, not me thanks, I believe that I am an awesome creature, period, and I have the common decency to know what is right for myself.

    I think you are a great journalist, I just really believe that you are wrong.

    PS: Please note that there are no contradictions in my little comment here (if you find I will be more than happy to clear them up for you), however I found many contradictions in your piece

    • Joe White says:

      Oscar, sounds like you and God have a lot in common: he doesn’t like the idea of eternal pain in hell and he also thinks you’re an awesome creature, period.

      cheers!

      • Oscar Forbes says:

        I’m sorry Its not that I’m not grateful of what you just said, but to me, it was like saying “Oscar, sounds like you and The Flying Spaghetti Monster have a lot in common”.

        No I don’t, because he doesn’t exist in my concept of reality.

        Its a little bit insulting.

        I think you are a damn fine person though!

        Just so that its clear, I think also that your religion has helped shape you to the nice man you are today, I didn’t ever want to try and discredit your beliefs until the churches, which symbolise your faith (to an outsider), began doing horrible things, like not allowing same-sex marriage, just as a very “light” example, in the grand scheme of things.

        It would seem stupid of us to forget what it has done.

        But also very smart of us to forgive only if the churches were to denounce their “sins” to the entire human race,
        and repent.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Oscar, thanks for taking the time to respond. It sounds to me like your objection, generally, is with Christianity as a whole, and not with the particulars of my argument here. That’s fine–but laying that out front will help us to clarify the conversation. Especially because when you say that “I really believe you are wrong,” I think you’re speaking about my faith as a whole.

      That said, I’m not sure where to begin, other than to assert that indeed, Christianity proposes as its central tenet something that is highly unreasonable–that God, the eternal, infinite, almighty being, became, by means of his power, a human infant, and then lived, taught, suffered and was put to death by the very people he came to teach. The doctrine of the cross is unbelievably unreasonable–but that is precisely it’s point. Someone else received the punishment that was due to me. What is ‘reasonable’ is that each of us is held responsible for our own crimes and indiscretions. And I think that each of us, held to measure against a perfect standard, finds that we fall drastically short. This despite the fact that we are each of us awesome creatures!

      I could, of course, say a great deal more. But maybe I’ll ask you this–have you ever read the gospels as a way to know the character of Jesus? Not for information and not for theology, not ‘to save your soul’, but as a pure character study? If you haven’t, I think you might find it really rewarding. If you’re willing, try either John’s gospel or Luke’s, and as you read ask yourself the question, “Who is this Jesus person?”

      Blessing and Peace to you,

      Jeremy

  4. Sam Giroux says:

    Very nice article, JR. I cannot agree more that the physical church is/was vital to my Christian development. You cannot truly experience Christ love for us through the computer screen or by yourself. Gathering with friends and family to discuss and learn about faith creates an intimacy that breeds love.

    It made me remember when you asked me to go to church with you and your Mom on the Sunday’s after a sleep-over. If you simply said read this and get back to me on this Jesus thing, it would not have been effective at all. While I was not completely unexposed to Christ earlier in my life, my church going experience began with you. Then when I went to college and did not attend church, I always felt a longing to go back. This is where I am today. It is not the building that matters, but the people and the love withing the structure that is important. A Love that is so powerful because it comes from the LORD.

    Saying this, I believe that the internet and other written works are wonderful resources and supplements to our development. It allows for self exploration and research, but do not expect to find the faith here. You need to make a conscious effort to have an open mind and take comments with a grain of salt while also being quite critical of the material.

    Finally, given your arguments above, because we have little opportunity to convince people effectively through these mediums, it is a poor use of our time to disciple the faith as we are charged.

    Faith and Love

    Sam

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