In 2011 Rob Bell published Love Wins. Then there was the reaction, the vitriol and damnation. There was Justin Taylor’s all too swift public drubbing. There was the infamous Piper-tweet. I felt sad. Sad that Bell seemed to veer in his theology all for the sake of provocation. Sad how fast we forgot Bell is a brother first and a provocateur second.
We watch, we skim, we post, we stir the blogosphere—our new means of burning our so-called heretics. The Internet provides everyone with a voice. We can be as loud and thoughtless as we want. It’s our right. Isn’t it? I disagree.
Though we will not always agree, we can at least act considerate and thoughtful in our public interaction. The Teacher reminds us, “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent.”
Some argue for rebuffing poor theology when it’s publicly disseminated. I can see merit in this argument. But we must consider the venue and our motives—and the option of silence. We don’t always have to be the first to respond, to post, to tweet.
When Christ bids us to follow him, he bids us to die, said Bonhoeffer. Our posture looks like self-sacrifice, not self-love and platform building. Are we fighting the good fight when we seek corrective measures for those with whom we disagree? Or are we just spouting off our own opinions? The Internet, when poorly stewarded, allows us to throw up cheap grace as our license to say what we want, how we want.
Consider The What
But it’s not only how we respond, but what we discuss.
Toggle forward a few years and Christian infighting and cynicism is commonplace. I’ve had two close friends, both prominent Christian leaders, feel the brunt of the Christian Internet battle mace. They received personal attacks and one blogger used harsh expletives. Expletives, it seems, are the new Christian buzzwords (but that’s another post).
There was also the Rachel Held Evans controversy, with regard to an explicit word used in her new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Evans fanned the flame of controversy by tweeting and blogging about “the word.” Why? What is the point? Can we not settle editing discussions offline with our editors?
There are, however, bright spots. Like when popular blogger and author Tim Challies asked Ann Voskamp for forgiveness because of what he wrote in his review of her book.
He said, “I had neglected to remind myself while writing it [the review] that Voskamp is a real person and, not only that, but a sister in Christ. As a writer myself, I ought to remember that words are meaningful and revealing and in some way a part of the person who writes them.”
Silence Is Golden
In 2011 I interviewed Notre Dame professor and church historian Mark Noll. He said, “there’s not a whole lot of serious Christian reflection on hot-button issues. Christians,” he continued, “are less inclined to offer a well developed theological position on cultural topics.”
The more I watch how we interact with one another online and what we produce for the general public in terms of thoughtful content, I am inclined to agree with Dr. Noll. Is Rob Bell merely stirring the theological pot for the sake of stirring it? Provocation for provocation sake? Maybe, maybe not.
This much, however, I do know: any Christian who holds a position of influence, especially those who lead other Christians in worship each week, should prayerfully weigh what issues need raised and whether those issues will provide up-building—as Kierkegaard calls it—for the family of God.
We need responsible stewards, thinking leaders who reflect on the “why” of what they’re writing and speaking about before pushing the “publish” button. Sometimes I feel like Christians clamor for the limelight of the ether for no other reason than platform building—a dangerous direction, centered on the self rather than others.
The national pop-media operates as the theater for the absurd, a stage for reactionary opinions, media stunts and self-worship. And this is the table at which some evangelicals wish to sit? Christians offer little to the public discussion on searing cultural issues, like gay marriage for example, other than ideological hoo-ha from both theologically conservative and liberal perspectives. Has our ambition for influence hobbled our witness?
“The leader of the future,” writes theologian Henri Nouwen, “will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.”
A New Christian Solidarity
To be a Christian is to be one with Christ, just as Christ himself is one with the Father (John 17:11). Our solidarity with Christ should, therefore, define us in a fragmented world bent on ripping one another to shreds online.
It’s no small thing that Christ’s final thoughts center on the apologetic of unity. But Christians love divisions, quibbling over methodologies, bickering within the ranks. Increasingly we seek distinction from one another rather than from the world—as Jesus prayed.
“The time is always ripe for re-union,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions towards re-union, if it is only by their prayers.”
I find that my prayers fail here. I don’t pray as I should for Christian solidarity. I find myself wanting to respond to posts and articles and books and pastors—to react and not to think, to oppose rather than pray. Perhaps instead of “live-tweeting” we should practice live study, live discernment, live restraint.
The trail towards unity rests in abandonment of self. How we respond and what we decide to write about online should stem from a contrite spirit and it must always seek the betterment of others. That is the Christian way. “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18) Christ sent us to serve, to die, to heal, to hold to truth, to love in the complete sense of the word.
As I follow hard after Christ I find the more I wrap myself in him—and thus abandoning myself—the things that might otherwise cause division within my heart fall away. I am engulfed in Christ and feel the solidarity of the Three-In-One grow in me a guided love—one that values truth and goodness; one that wraps me in His glory, beautifying this ugly skeleton of a man.
As I prepare to engage in the fragmented world before me, I prepare for the difficult task of living in solidarity with Christ—with a living and brilliant solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
May the sentiment of Lewis’ words here be our prayer as we seek daily to stand united, together as one. “I sometimes have a bright dream of re-union engulfing us unawares, like a great wave from behind our backs, perhaps at the very moment when our official representatives are still pronouncing it impossible.”
Stop the Beating
And so what of our public interaction on the Internet? Perhaps our goal for public square interaction should be to give the world reasons to come to our table, to see what we are up to: thoughtful interaction, love-guided action, deep reflection on issues that matter, humility and honor. Perhaps then we would spend more time reflecting theologically about the cultural hot-button issues and less time turning out shallow, reactionary rhetoric that suits CNN, FOX, USA Today, or the New York Times Bestseller List.
To change metaphors, Imagine how unsightly we, the body of Christ, must currently appear, to have one side of our face colored with the red and purple hues of a split lip and beaten eye from our infighting, and the other side of our face colored with the tan and rouge hues of likability lipstick and marketability makeup.
How sad that we, the family of God, continue to attack one another like stubborn, spoiled siblings, seemingly clueless that we’re reducing our Divine family to a reality-TV show—making the ratings but missing the point.
“The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind,” prayed Jesus for his followers, “just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.”
*For interested parties, I will be posting articles on my site www.timothywillard.com discussing more nuances of this argument. Like, how to disagree civilly, how to develop a content rubric and an “ether theology” and the importance of writing in community.