”If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” — 1 Corinthians 13:2
“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be,’ — she always called me Elwood — ‘In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”– Jimmy Stewart in Harvey
Has it really been close to two weeks since I posted my article on pastors and social criticism? My how the time flies. That means the original impetus for this series, the Wilson/Wilson debacle, has faded into obscurity (in Internet time, it’s practically Cretaceous). Still, if there’s one thing this blog has never strived for, it is timely relevance. That’s planned, to a point – I find irrelevance much more fun, and a whole heck of a lot easier to achieve. Still, with the recent eruption of controversy surrounding that one place that serves the fried food (I’ve taken to calling the affair “Le Cordon Blew” – a couple of hams and plenty of cheese, all over a bit of chicken.), it seems appropriate to be ruminating on the proper conduct of Christians in online discussion.
We have built into our language of discussion and debate a warlike terminology. People are “up in arms” about an issue (what, did you think that phrase meant something more innocuous?). They “take shots” at one another (not shots WITH one another, though that might resolve disagreements more quickly). This loaded (SEE?) vocabulary contributes to the general atmosphere of debate in this country, where resolution, understanding, compromise, or even dialectic are not the things aimed at; rather we strive one against the other to score points and come away the victor. Needless to say, this method produces very little thought of real merit. Stale catchphrases loop endlessly, their terrible logic and utter lack of context laid bare for all to see (but, like the Emperor wearing his new clothes, none dare to correct). Add to this both the context-free nature and open domain of the Internet, and you have a recipe for disaster.
But I digress. The point of this post is not to decry thought in the Internet age (though perhaps that topic will be explored at a later date), but to provide some practical navigation tips, a guide for the perplexed, if you will (gee, that would make a great book title). Because as infuriating, bemusing, and unbecoming as these tendencies are when coming from a non-Christian, they are downright ugly and unbiblical proceeding from someone who claims to follow the Prince of Peace. Sadly, Christians repeatedly give in to the temptation to mock and belittle their “opponents” when engaged in online debate. This concerns me deeply. In case it had escaped your notice, Christians have enough of a credibility problem in America today, and much of it is self caused. Let’s not continue to muddy the waters with cheap, unloving discussion techniques.
Before I get to my list of practical tips, I want to do something I rarely do here on the Philistine: I want to get personal for a moment. One reason I started this post with that great quote from Harvey is that it speaks to me in a very real way. Growing up, I was always one of the “smart kids”. Things came to me very easily, and I usually had a leg or two up on most of my classmates. I say this not to brag, but rather to confess: for most of my life the sins I have struggled with most have been pride and arrogance (different, but so closely attached, like twin heads of a hydra). Thankfully my parents raised me well enough that, in general, I did not see myself as somehow “superior” to others in any meaningful sense. However, I was frequently guilty of feeling and even expressing contempt for the ideas and arguments of others. This tendency became more pronounced as I entered high school, and most of my shameful memories involve me being sarcastic, scoffing, or otherwise belittling others. I still struggle with pride, with dismissing others, but I can say that I have had lots of success in my battles and, at the very least, have learned to keep it internalized. Going to college and meeting many people a good deal smarter than I am helped; being a teacher has helped, as I have learned to radically empathize with my students; and of course the daily humblings required in marriage have helped most of all.
All this to say, I understand the temptation to approach debates in a martial spirit. I get it, I really do. It is quite a rush to decimate somebody’s flawed argument, and no one appreciates a good zinger more than me. But our greatest tool in dialoguing with others cannot be our intellect, or we will do nothing more than wound, push away, and embitter others. Christians on the Internet must be exceptional primarily in one sense: that the love they show those they disagree with should excel beyond anyone else. Here, then, are some tips to remember.
1). You Are Not Martin Luther. You Are Not the Prophet Isaiah.
The first thing Christians need to regain is a sense of perspective. The temptation, particularly for more socially conservative Christians, is to feel under attack, and therefore feel justified in a display of excessive force in striking back. This is the “lone gunman” approach. Hiding behind the barrels of Internet anonymity, these Christians pop out from time to time to fire off shots in the perceived “culture wars”. They also tend to assume they speak with a voice of authority which gives them the license to be blunt and bold. Indeed, in order to justify their actions they often point back to the prophetic tradition (I mean this in a loose sense, including extra-biblical figures such as Luther) where the speakers often do not pull punches in their pronouncements.
Unfortunately for these people, the chances that they have been chosen to follow in the footsteps of the prophets seem slim at absolute best. Far more likely is the scenario that they have fallen prey to their own desire to speak authoritatively. A good measure: if you find yourself eager and enthusiastic about the job of tearing down strongholds, ya ain’t a prophet. Most prophets stand out for their reluctance and feelings of unworthiness at the prospect of prophesying, traits which do not seem overly present in most Internet discussions.
2. Keep Your Weird Opinions Private
Since I believe very strongly in justification by grace through faith, I hold it as a matter of principle that you can have all sorts of wrong headed and just plain bizarre ideas about the way the world works and still be Christian. Still clinging to the Reformation conviction that the Pope is the antichrist? I’d maybe suggest you open your eyes a little, but that’s cool. Think that dinosaur bones were put in the ground by Satan in order to separate the (YE) sheep from the (evil evil evolutionist) goats? You’ll get some weird looks from me, but whatever dude. Even if you reject me, I can still find it in my heart to consider you a brother or sister in Christ.
But come on people, keep those things to yourself. If you hold a belief that is so far outside the mainstream as to be offensive to those around you, Christian duty demands that you keep it to yourself. [To be clear, I am not speaking of core, creedal beliefs, obviously. I am thinking more of extreme fringe beliefs and ideas that have little to do with matters of faith]. That’s what really gets me about Douglas Wilson and the slavery issue [Brief rundown for those not in the know - Wilson has written repeatedly to praise the antebellum/Confederate South (calling it "the last Christian nation") and has stated that the system of slavery there, though sometimes excessive, was on the whole one of the most humane and completely in accord with the Bible. He has also stated that this period represented the apex of healthy race relations in the history of the United States. All positions, needless to say, that have no mooring in serious scholarship and pose some pretty grave questions as to Wilson's priorities and ways of thinking about things]. Even these views, egregious as they are, do not disqualify Wilson from the kingdom, but WHY IN THE WORLD IS HE WRITING ABOUT THESE THINGS FOR A PUBLIC AUDIENCE? Even if we pretend that this is bizarro world and that Wilson is 100% correct and justified in believing what he does, what conceivable good could it do to express these views to a country scarred by its racial history? How does airing these views in any way enable Wilson to love his African-American brothers and sisters? Baffling.
3. People Can Legitimately Disagrree With You Without Being [Insert Epithet Here]
Language is powerful in ways that most of us fail to realize. Unfortunately, in our interactions with others, we often fail to grasp the power we hold in our tongues (or the tips of our fingers). Internet debate famously brings out the reductionist in all of us (see Godwin’s law). For Christians this often manifests itself in the following way: “Only a Godless liberal/fundamentalist/evangelical/hippie feminist” could possibly believe such a terrible/stupid position.” Choose whichever group you despise and fill in the blanks.
Not only does this name calling threaten those we interact with, it also makes complicated issues “simple” and stalls debate. Beyond this, it creates divisions fueled by animosity within Christianity. As someone positioned in the middle of the spectrum, this is incredibly frustrating. Conservatives: just because liberal Christians do not reach the same conclusions you do about what the Bible means does not (necessarily) mean that they bow down to the idols of the world and hate Christ. You could learn a lot from their passion for doing real, permanent good in the world, for helping the marginalized. Likewise, liberals: just because a conservative takes the Bible’s words more literally than you do does not (necessarily) mean they are simple minded, and their emphasis on personal piety does not (necessarily) mean they ignore the bigger picture. You could learn a lot from their zealous pursuit of God in His Word.
4. It Doesn’t Count As Persecution If You Are Being a Douche.
My wife grew up in a church where, over the years, many people left because of things said by the pastor or others. The judgement on those who left was “They couldn’t handle God’s truth”. In actuality what they couldn’t handle was the ungracious presentation of ideas that may or may not have been tangentially related to God’s truth. “Stnading up to persecution” has become a big thing in the American church (again, I’ve mostly seen it in conservative circles, but it could be more widespread than that). No doubt persecution for religious beliefs really does happen in America, but to hear certain people tell it, the USA resembles pre-split Sudan in terms of its hostility towards Christians.
Hear this, friends: if you are attacked for saying things online in ways that are tactless, hurtful, and damaging to someone’s human dignity, you are not being “persecuted for your faith”. Jesus said “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my sake,” not “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for being a real prick.” Which reminds me…
5. It Doesn’t Matter What You Said, It Matters What They Heard
The title for this section pays homage to the hands down best piece of advice I received in premarital counseling. No matter how right you are, or how clearly you think you put something, it matters what other people take out of what you say. Don’t dismiss people as troublemakers because they took offense at something you said. The corollary to this rule is: give others the benefit of the doubt before you give it to yourself. Don’t place the impetus on others to correctly interpret what you have stated ambiguously.
Sorry to keep returing to dear old Doug Wilson (I’ve really been holding back, I promise) but what disgusted me most about his involvement in the Wilson/Wilson debacle of ’12 was his arrogant, aggressive response to those who found his words hurtful. First he accused them of lacking imagination and needing to take ESL classes if they didn’t understand what he was getting at, then later he referred to anyone who disagreed with him as a “feminist bedwetter”. You can’t make this up, people. Which reminds me…
6. There Is Only One Stone of Offense over Which People Should Stumble
Here’s the sad thing about Christians seemingly doing their absolute best to offend people: the world is going to be offended by Christ. He is the stone of offense, he is the weakness of God which infuriates the worldly wise. He offends because He comes to love and help broken people who cannot bear the thought that they might be in need of grace. He offends to the core of our self righteous being. Yet He is the gentlest offender we can imagine. His offense stems not from stinging words or arrogant posturing, but from the utter undoneness he brings when people see their true selves. When we bring that other baggage into the equation, we run the very real risk of eclipsing and obscuring that encounter. And that would be a shame.
Let me be clear: I am in no way saying it is wrong to hold opinions, or to hold them strongly, or even to publicly disagree with someone online. Debates and disagreements are healthy and beneficial, sharpening our thinking as we dialectially clash. But we must seek to couch our disagreements in the charity of Christian love. Whether we are arguing with other Christians about a theological subtlety or an atheist about the very existence of God, we must always seek first to love the person we are discoursing with. We must give up our rights – to anger, to the high ground, to “being right”, and serve with humility. To close, a little poem by C.S. Lewis, one that has stuck with me as I have navigated these treacherous waters.
The Apologist’s Evening Prayer
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on They behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of They head.
From all my thoughts,
even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.