Category Archives: internet/social media

“Dark & Monstrous”: The Perils of Online Christian Community

A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons.  This is how group-think afflicted Christian often act online.
A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons. This is how Christians, awash in group-think unawares, often act online.

“How can you handle all that arguing??”  Friends regularly remark to me how much they dislike getting into religious discussions on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like.  They say this in shock that I seem to enjoy it.  I suppose we all have different personalities, some of which are amenable to getting in the gutter and slogging it out and some of which are not.  For my own part, I am not sure which is better; I only know that I am not good at seeing foolishness and not naming it as such.

There are many inherent dangers in the world of internet Christianity.  Ivan Pils, an Orthodox layperson, recently laid out some of these from a specifically Eastern perspective in a great piece for First Things.  His comments, though, certainly apply outside of Orthodox Christianity (so you might, as you read this, replace “Orthodox” with whatever your chief adjective is for your genus of Christianity – evangelical, progressive, Baptist, Emergent, Methodist, Missional, etc.):

It is unhealthy to have more co-religionist friends online than in your own parish. I have seen this happen to some converts who first encountered Orthodoxy online—an increasingly common phenomenon—and therefore naturally built their new identities around people and ideas from the Internet. The parish, characterized by creative chaos, is by definition a place to practice humility, patience, and brotherly love, and to be challenged by how others live the Christian life, not to have one’s biases reinforced.

By contrast, the online inquirer is comfortably anonymous, and can freely consume a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. And there is a lot of junk out there: Anonymous blogs make the Orthodox case for every outré cause, from monarchism to Marxism. Faceless vigilantes harbor dark vendettas against bishops. And respectable-sounding forums provide a place for lonely sticklers to pursue uncharitable acts of Pharisaism against everyone from Roman Catholics (ultramontane Latinizers) to Muslims (bloodthirsty Turks) to the wrong kind of Orthodox (new-calendar ecumenists, or heartless liturgy-fetishists). One can easily find a sympathetic corner of the Internet and stay there, without having to face uncomfortable alternatives to one’s preferred vision of Orthodoxy. This is dark and monstrous.” (emphasis added)

So much truth here.  If you find more community online than in your local parish, beware.  The local church does not exist to confirm all of our biases, and to seek this out in fear or loathing of anyone who might challenge our pet theological fancies is unhealthy socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  Maturity does not come to those who seek safe refuge from all possible challenges to our assumptions and deeply held biases.

The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.
The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.

A good test for spiritual health is this: am I regularly in contact with people who challenge my worldview?

Pils is dead-on that “there is a lot of junk out there.”  Indeed, it seems that the key to being a significant voice in the online Christian conversation is to be at least half-crazy and barely Christian.  All the more reason to pause if you find yourself loving your online ecclesial family more than the flesh-and-blood Body of Christ.  You’ve traded a gnostic personal playground for the Christian life that God intended for you: a life in real community, with all its attendant blessings and challenges, conflicts and potlucks and pettiness and hugs.

In my last post, I noted Michael Eric Dyson’s critique of Cornel West: the true prophet is tethered to a true spiritual community.  Absent that filial and communal bond, Christian thought, speech, and action is likely to degenerate into a sad parody of church. And this, to me, explains rather elegantly so much of the garbage online that passes for Christian discourse.  It can’t be an accident that the most outlandish malarky comes from those with few or zero ties to the local church: ex-preachers, blogging hobbyists with an ax to grind, seminary students, campus ministers, agnostics masquerading as Christians, and former church staff members.

There is no shortage of those with a grievance against the local church (some days I am one of them); but beware of critique against the church from those who are not invested in it.  Words come cheaply when they are never tested by the gritty reality of other flesh-and-blood persons, and instead only see light among the self-chosen sycophants with whom it is so easy to surround oneself in the online world that we too easily mistake for reality.

In the image above, a pack of wolves surrounds a bison.  The pack mentality is strong among Christians online, and the instinct to hunt, run to ground, and destroy is easily spotted.  If you don’t believe me, get into a conversation with a TULIP-loving Calvinist or one of Rachel Held Evans’ minions (in reality, two sides of the same coin) – the pack will come out very quickly.

Even among Christians dedicated to caritas, the internet can be a place where our most base instincts are allowed to roam free.  As with many things, social media is a useful servant but a very poor master.  Let us resist the wide path, the easy substitution of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ for an online facsimile of like-minded people who all hate the same things.  This is a fool’s bargain when compared to the complex, messy beauty of the community God gave us at Pentecost.

Thoughts?

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Unprofitable Conversation

Don't cast your pearls before swine, friends.
Don’t cast your pearls before swine.

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to converse with people who are allergic to insight.  This is hard for me, as I enjoy conversation, dialogue, and argument.  But we all know people who seek conversation not out of a genuine search for truth or honest curiosity, but rather out of a desire for power, influence, and self-aggrandizement.  These temptations are there for me also, of course. Only the holiest of saints are totally immune.  But I try to admit when I’m wrong, when I’ve said something poorly or ill-thought.  “Whoever hates correction is stupid,” says Proverbs 12:1.  I’ve learned much from Henry Cloud on how to handle the foolish and the evil (though I’m sometimes better at it in theory than in practice).

So, after wading into conversation with evil fools who despise correction, after giving too much of my attention and energy to those whose only truth is power, whose only language is manipulation, I found these words from John Wesley helpful.  Perhaps you need these words today as well.  And I thank you, dear readers, for correcting me when I am wrong, for offering critique when I could be more clear, and for joining your own reflections to mine that we all might grow in the knowledge and love of God.

From Sermon 81, In What Sense We Are to Leave the World (emphasis added):

8. Here is the sum of this prohibition to have any more intercourse with unholy men than is absolutely necessary. There can be no profitable fellowship between the righteous and the unrighteous; as there can be no communion between light and darkness, — whether you understand this of natural or of spiritual darkness. As Christ can have no concord with Belial; so a believer in him can have no concord with an unbeliever. It is absurd to imagine that any true union or concord should be between two persons, while one of them remains in darkness, and the other walks in the light. They are subjects, not only of two separate, but of two opposite kingdoms. They act upon quite different principles; they aim at quite different ends. It will necessarily follow, that frequently, if not always, they will walk in different paths. How can they walk together, till they are agreed? — until they both serve either Christ or Belial?

9. And what are the consequences of our not obeying this direction? Of our not coming out from among unholy men? Of not being separate from them, but contracting or continuing a familiar intercourse with them? It is probable it will not immediately have any apparent, visible ill consequences. It is hardly to be expected, that it will immediately lead us into any outward sin. Perhaps it may not presently occasion our neglect of any outward duty. It will first sap the foundations of our religion: It will, by little and little damp our zeal for God; it will gently cool that fervency of spirit which attended our first love. If they do not openly oppose anything we say or do, yet their very spirit will, by insensible degrees, affect our spirit, and transfuse into it the same lukewarmness and indifference toward God and the things of God. It will weaken all the springs of our soul, destroy the vigour of our spirit, and cause us more and more to slacken our pace in running the race that is set before us.

10. By the same degrees all needless intercourse with unholy men will weaken our divine evidence and conviction of things unseen: It will dim the eyes of the soul whereby we see Him that is invisible, and weaken our confidence in him. It will gradually abate our “taste of the powers of the world to come;” and deaden that hope which before made us “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.” It will imperceptibly cool that flame of love which before enabled us to say, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee!” Thus it strikes at the root of all vital religion; of our fellowship with the Father and with the Son.

What you share (or RT) is what you love

Courtesy Galleryhip.com.
Courtesy Galleryhip.com.

Have you ever met a new parent or grandparent? They are almost always chomping at the bit to show you pictures.  And it’s not just proud moms and granddads.  All of us share, promote, and defend that which we value, worship, and love.  The ability to “+1,” “like,” share, or RT a post, status,  or article is only the newest way we do this.  What we share is what we love.  St. Augustine notes:

“In the theatre – that den of wickedness – someone who loves an actor and revels in his skill as if it were a great good, or even the supreme one, also loves all those who share his love, not on their account, but on account of the one they equally love. The more passionate he is in his love, the more he tries by whatever methods he can to make his hero loved by a greater number of people, and the more he desires to point him out to a greater number of people.  If he sees someone unenthusiastic he rouses him with his praises as much as he can. If he finds anyone antagonistic, he violently hate that person’s hatred of his hero and goes all out to remove it by whatever methods he can.”

What a perfect description of how social media works.  Whether what you love is a celebrity (as in Augustine’s example of a famous actor), an idea, or a product, the odds are you find ways to share this.  The Christian word for this is evangelism.

Often, it seems that Christians are willing to share everything but the love we have for God. We put Apple stickers on our car, post about which team(s) we have winning the NCAA tournament, pin to our favorite crafts on Pinterest, or tell our neighbors about the great new fish recipe we just attempted.  But talk about God? That’s only something those “crazy Christians” do.

Augustine would suggest this is precisely backwards:

“So what should we do in sharing the love of God, whose full enjoyment constitutes the happy life? It is God from whom all those who love him derive both their existence and their love; it is God who frees us from any fear that he can fail to satisfy anyone to whom he becomes known; it is God who wants himself to be loved, not in order to gain any reward for himself but to give to those who love him an eternal reward – namely himself, the object of their love.” (On Christian Teaching, Book One, p. 22)

Unlike Justin Bieber or a mobile phone company, the love of God is pure and self-less.  God does not want us to buy anything, but only desires to give.  God has no need of our love, but loves us enough to continually seek us out – the Hound of Heaven, as Francis Thompson named Him – purely out of a desire to give of Godself, the one pure, unchangeable, and fulfilling object of our love.  If we really believe that God is the most true, good, and beautiful object of our love, how could we not share the Love to which all over loves point?

We share what we love. Whether the thing loved is a cause, a shoe brand, a song, or the Three-Yet-One God through Whom all things were made.

What, or Who, are you sharing today?

There is No Beating an Internet Troll

Image courtesy karengately.wordpress.com.
You know who you are.  Image courtesy karengately.wordpress.com.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “The best solution to an internet troll is a physical beating?” More than once, I’ve encountered trolls of a sufficiently brutish nature that I concluded the only possible solution was violence.  Oddly enough, a former professional MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter named Josh Neer recently tested that theory.  Here’s what went down, according to the aptly named MMA news outlet Bloody Elbow:

“The 5’9″ Neer, who has fought at Welterweight (170 pounds) for most of his career was seen in the video he briefly posted to YouTube on top of the 6’6″ 240 pound Martin landing elbows to Martin’s skull before teammates dragged him off the beaten man. Then Neer appeared to kick the downed Martin in the face although both he and his coach claimed he tripped.”

The video, which you can see at the link below, shows 14 seconds of a vicious beating.  The reason? Martin had been trolling Neer on social media, which Neer initially ignored, but under sustained verbal assault he eventually relented and agreed for Martin to come in and spar.  He posted his rationale for the invitation, along with a sample of Martin’s messaging:

neer troll

Despite the video, Martin claims he was sucker-punched and that the full video would show a much closer encounter.  He added, “If I fought Neer I would take him to decision because he can’t score nor choke me out or take me down when I’m in my guard!”  (Note that the size difference between the two fighters makes such declarations less brave than it sounds.)

Neer got what many of us wanted: he got to beat up the troll.  Let’s be clear about what a troll is.  This definition is culled from the Psychology Today piece linked below:

“An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, in fact, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response. “

Martin got his response, in the form of a serious beatdown. But did it stop the troll, did it cause a breakthrough or a change? No.  This is because trolls are probably psychologically resistant to insight.  A recent study likened internet trolls to “prototypical everyday sadists.”  It goes on to elaborate:

“Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

There is no negotiating with a sadist, whether through intellectual convincing or physical violence.  Josh Neer learned the hard way that one cannot beat them into submission (even if you elbow them repeatedly in the face).  As we learned from the classic early Broderick movie War Games, the only way to win with trolls is to refuse to play the game.   You cannot beat them, but you can refuse to join them.

Thus, the Psychology Today blog concludes,

The next time you encounter a troll online, remember:

  1. These trolls are some truly difficult people.

  2. It is your suffering that brings them pleasure, so the best thing you can do is ignore them.