3 words that will shape digital culture for good and cultivate virtue in the public square

By / Nov 9

It happens like clockwork. Often within a few moments of breaking news or some other major event happening in our culture, we see one of the most damaging effects of social media and digital culture. Our feeds are immediately filled with “expert” opinions, half-baked ideas, and reactionary takes that routinely fail to account for the reality of the situation and resort to partisan or cultural talking points. In these moments, it seems that everyone we know has a take on what is happening. It’s tempting to join in as we seek to align ourselves with the “right” tribe or group online.

The internet was originally promised to be a major turning point in the pursuit of truth and free expression. We were told that the democratization of information would usher in a new era of freedom and emphasis on truth. The idea is that the truth would naturally rise above the fray given the freedom of information and a common pursuit of truth. But along with this pursuit came an onslaught of fake news, misinformation, and opinions based on feeling and emotion.

In reality, much of the ”news” we hear about today or “expert” commentary is nothing more than content designed to whet our appetites for immediacy, inflame our alliances to group identities, or stir up controversy to influence our behaviors. Social media in some sense breeds behavior in which we project ourselves as omnicompetent. We are constantly being pushed to post about “what’s happening?” on Twitter or to post “what’s on our mind?” on Facebook. We are encouraged and incentivized to post our random musings, unformed thoughts, and reactionary takes for the world to see.

So, how are we to break this vicious cycle of self-promotion and recenter our lives on pursuing wisdom in a digital age? The answer might sound trite and overly simplistic, but I am convinced that three little words can help change a culture: I don’t know.

Information overload

Each and every day, we are bombarded with more information than we could ever hope to process. In our digital first world, it is far too easy to focus on the things right in front of us. Social media naturally breeds an expert culture, where we seek to prove our knowledge, allegiances, and abilities often before we consider the full impact of these decisions. Through our feeds, we fall prey to what Neil Postman referred to as an “and . . . now this” culture, where we are encouraged to quickly move from one thing to the next without any real reflection or sustained evaluation of what we are being exposed to each day.

As writer Alan Jacobs puts it in his recent book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, “navigating daily life in the internet age is a lot like doing battlefield triage.” In this digital age, we are often overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information to process. So, we usually default to shallow engagement and forgo deep reflection on the important things of life.

In conversations about technology and what this level of information access is doing to us as people, we often focus on some of the more prominent effects of technology such as screen time, app limits, and the rise of various psychological effects like the increase of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and more. While all of these issues are important and should be addressed by the church, one of the most subtle and deleterious effects is how society perceives truth and how this information overload is causing all of us to lose grip on reality. This isn’t an isolated occurrence but has become a cultural practice across political, social, and even religious grounds. 

“I don’t know” and epistemic humility

In our digital age, it is easy to falsely believe that we know more or can navigate more than we can actually handle. As we wade through this battlefield of the mind, our sin tempts us to believe that the problems we see in the online world would simply go away if people just believed what we do or would just listen to us. Richard John Neuhaus reminds us in The Naked Public Square, “In principle, we should be suspicious of explanations for other people’s beliefs and behavior when those explanations imply that they would believe and behave as we do, if only they were as mature and enlightened as we are.” In the digital age, cultivating humility and understanding of how deeply embedded sin is in every aspect of our life can help usher in a more righteous pursuit of truth in a divided society.

One of the most countercultural things we can do in the midst of information overload — especially with the constant allure of projecting ourselves as omnicompetent online — is to simply say “I don’t know”. While it may sound trite and doesn’t entail that we cower from speaking truth, it reminds us that we are indeed finite and limited in what we actually know. We simply aren’t designed — nor do we need — to have an opinion or draw an immediate conclusion about the onslaught of information we face each day.

Paul warns young Timothy that “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:6-7). These simple words seem to typify our current age of constant connection and ease of sharing things online with social media, especially for God’s people. 

Social media generally yields itself to “vain discussions” where we try to prove ourselves to others and become teachers of others, often without a deep understanding of what we are actually saying or making confident assertions about. Modeling epistemic humility or a responsive awareness of the limits of one’s own knowledge by regularly reminding ourselves and those around us that we do not have all of the answers can help combat the concerning rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Not only are we ill-equipped for the task of responding to everything we see online, we simply aren’t created for that type of responsibility. Cultivating epistemic humility can breed a culture of curiosity and intrigue as it encourages sustained study and a culture of learning rather than uninformed opinions passing as facts or knowledge.

Speaking truth with grace in the public square

So when is the last time that you slowed down to evaluate the desires that may motivate your posting, sharing, or clicking online? The evaluation of our online habits shouldn’t be driven by a pursuit of avoiding the dreaded cancel culture, where a single post can ruin someone’s life, or out of a desire to back down instead of speaking truth to power with grace and understanding. With platforms (and society) designed for instantaneous connection and constant sharing, wisdom calls us to step back and seek to examine our souls before engaging online.

Slowing down can allow us time to verify the truth before we share, notice the actual person made in God’s image behind the inflammatory post, and think about why we feel the need to contribute in the first place. We can ask ourselves what we are trying to prove to others or what kind of façade we are seeking to build online. This pause can also help us see what is driving our need to be the one who corrects everyone’s controversial opinions or to show ourselves to be on the “right side” of the latest political controversy.

Of course Christians should engage online. However, when we engage, we should desire for others to know that we are not confident in ourselves but in the One who made us in his likeness (Gen. 1:26-28). Social media can tempt us to think that the things we say and do online are spoken into a void of time and space, disconnected from real life. But behind the avatars and updates are flesh-and-blood human beings with struggles, fears, and desires, just like you and me. Let’s be the ones who prize people over power and truth over position.

Why our boredom feeds wasted time on social media

By / Oct 19

The world is many things. It is both stunningly beautiful and unquestionably broken. It is vast and expansive, and surprisingly small. And it is loud. Very, very loud. The noise that we hear so often now, though, is not the sound of thunder or rushing waterfalls, but rather what G.K. Chesterton described in his book Orthodoxy as the bustle of “human repose.” 

That contradictory phrase — bustle of human repose — has become even more true in our own day than it was in Chesterton’s. A sort of societal idleness, masked as activity, has reached its widespread peak in our era of social media. And the noise is almost unbearable. 

Boredom will not be silent

As a self-acknowledged grouch when it comes to noise, I should start by stating something obvious: noise, in and of itself, is not inherently negative. In fact, some of the most moving and formative experiences of life involve a high decibel count, like a good belly-laugh with friends or the collective voice of a congregation singing to and about the Triune God. And we can be sure that these sorts of joyful noises will come with us when heaven and its King descend and this age gives way to the age to come. 

But this is not the noise that Chesterton had in mind when he wrote Orthodoxy, nor is it the clamor that fills our minds when we scroll through social media. 

Despite all the good that we’ve convinced ourselves we’re doing on our respective social media platforms, we are without question contributing to a societal noise that is not healthy by filling every idle moment with a post or tweet, or simply scrolling our timelines. Part of it could be, as Blaise Pascal wrote, that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

But, in this case, I suspect it is more so the fruit of boredom or, to use Chesterton’s word, repose masked as activity. And what’s more, this deafening noise, this way of idling away our days through the glow of a screen, has deadened our capacity to embrace the blessed monotony of real life. 

The cure for boredom

Has there ever been a time in history in which more hours of our day were wasted? On bathroom breaks, between meetings, on the clock, and across the table from those dearest to us, we’re haunted by a perpetual boredom fed by the very thing with which we seek to cure it. The constant buzz of social media — it’s noise and sensationalism — draws us in, rescuing us from and reminding us of our life’s mundanity all at the same time. It is a self-perpetuating black hole of boredom. 

But there is a cure. And for Christians, it’s spelled out for us in the black-and-white text (or red letters, depending on your Bible) of the scriptures. The cure for boredom is obedience to the commands of God; particularly in obedience to the cultural mandate and the Great Commission. 

1. Cultural mandate

In the opening book of the Old Testament, not long after God had formed Adam “out of the dust from the ground,” Moses wrote, “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it” (Gen. 2:15). This text is part of what has historically been referred to as the “cultural mandate” (Gen. 1).

The cultural mandate, to summarize very briefly, is at the very least the commission that God gave to Adam, and to us, “to work and watch over” the areas where he has placed us. For Adam and Eve, this was the garden in Eden. For us, it is our homes and our places of business, and wherever else God has placed us. As God’s likeness, we have all been given a task to attend to. 

On this topic, I can’t help but think of Samuel Hamilton, one of the prominent characters in John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden. When introducing Samuel, an able and tireless farmer, the narrator writes, “He was a busy man. He had no time for nostalgia.” Samuel Hamilton was a busy man; he had no time for Chesterton’s “bustle of human repose.”

Boredom is not an unhealthy thing. It’s what we do with our boredom that reveals whether we are healthy.

So, before we allow boredom to drive us online to the noise of social media and to the neglect of our God-given responsibilities, maybe we, like Samuel Hamilton, should go do the dishes. Or instead of mindlessly scrolling through our feeds to pass the time, maybe we should faithfully serve the work our employer has hired us to do. Maybe we should retire from the mindless bustle that takes up so many hours of our day and instead take up the activity of faithfully carrying out the cultural mandate, wherever God has placed us. 

The jungle of weeds overtaking my home’s flower beds bears witness to my own neglect. What areas of responsibility have you neglected in exchange for idle time on social media?

2. Great Commission

On top of the cultural mandate lies the commission given by Jesus, to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe” the commands that he gave to all his disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). As if working and keeping the places where God has put us wasn’t enough to stave off boredom, here is another task: go and deliver the greatest news the world has ever known to everyone you encounter.

Moreover, though we are certainly messengers of good news, by God’s own decree, we are much more than that. We are “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), “ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), and, by virtue of our union with Christ through his Spirit, we are those who’ve entered the “strong man’s” (Satan) house and begun to “plunder his goods” (Matt. 12:29). When we carry out the Great Commission, sharing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and when our hearers set their allegiance on Jesus in response, we get to witness the plundering of Satan’s house. 

One of the phrases that my pastor repeats often is “if you’re a Christian who’s bored, you’re doing it wrong.” So, if we find ourselves bored, and prone to medicate our boredom with idle scrolling, let us commit ourselves afresh to the mission of God.

Make friends with boredom

Boredom is not an unhealthy thing. It’s what we do with our boredom that reveals whether we are healthy. 

Does our boredom send us to the digital ether in search of stimulation? Does it compel us to embrace the noise of social media because we’re afraid of the quiet? Has our boredom given way to idleness, a sort of addiction to the mind-numbing habit of seeking entertainment as we scroll endlessly down? 

In our day, boredom comes easily. We have no lack of entertainment, but we nevertheless live in a boredom epidemic. And if we continue to feed our boredom with paltry substitutes like the never-ceasing noise of social media, we will find ourselves in a perpetual state of unhealth. But if we make friends with our boredom, if we respond to its message by giving ourselves to the mandate and mission of God, we will find that boredom is our ally, not something to be stuffed down with the idle noise of our social platforms. 

If you’ve grown weary of feeding your boredom with the noisy bustle pouring out of your social feeds, hear the clarion call of God through your boredom: “Go and make disciples.” 

Why the transgender revolution can’t transcend human nature

By / Oct 13

As the world grapples with the transgender revolution, one area where the revolution refuses to subside is in the area of sports. There are now too many documented instances to count, but Christian legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom has put together a helpful clearinghouse of information on the subject.

As many might remember, the issue of allowing transgender-identified persons to compete in the category of their preferred gender identity rose to the cultural surface during this year’s Olympics when a transgender female (biological male) competed against other females in a weight-lifting competition. The athlete in question failed to advance, which, for some, may have put to rest the question of there being an unfair advantage in play when males competed against females.

But the issue shows no signs of going away, especially as a report from the European Sports Councils Equality Group is questioning whether innate advantages in male athletic performance can be reduced solely down to testosterone levels, which is what most regulatory bodies have tended to focus on in their rule-making.

What “retained differences” reveal 

The report offers these words summarizing their findings: “Our work exploring the latest research, evidence and studies made clear that there are retained differences in strength, stamina and physique between the average woman compared with the average transgender woman or non-binary person registered male at birth, with or without testosterone suppression.”

The language of “retained differences” is a massively revealing tell that we cannot ignore. There are admissions and clues given to us even from an unbelieving world that end up reaffirming God’s created order. It’s a sentence that also reveals why such a report needed to be written in the first place: “Retained differences” evidences an unwitting theological category for “nature” in general, and human nature in particular. Nature is a created reality (Genesis 1:26-27). The idea of “essence” speaks to there being a human nature known as male and female. And these categories, in Christian thought, are said to be immutable categories that cannot be transcended based on choice or self-willed preference. 

We know the nature of a thing by understanding its purpose, and purpose is never severed from a thing’s design. Hence, when we speak of male and female, we are speaking of those sexed persons whose bodily design bears a teleological purpose toward a particular end, namely, reproduction. As the Nashville Statement rightfully states, “the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.” The Nashville Statement’s wording testifies to the reality of an enduring gender binary. When God made us males and females, he did not make that an exclusively psychological category, but a physically enfleshed reality.

Even where testosterone is hormonally altered by medical therapies to make it virtually negligible to compete against women, that does not altogether reconfigure the innate advantages that males possess. There are more aspects to maleness than mere testosterone alone — such things as muscle, bone density, and anaerobic capacity. We cannot escape who God made us, despite our best attempts. Our true self will always shine through. The question is whether we will live in conjunction with it, or in futile opposition to it.

The underlying problem of the transgender revolution 

The report proposes several solutions to resolve transgender competition. But the attempt to resolve this dilemma will ultimately be pointless, because where you have a culture trying to suppress what is simply there by virtue of nature, human creativity will not, for long, withstand the natural flow of the universe. 

Where all interested parties in the report attempt to find supposed satisfaction in striking compromises, what it really does is reveal the underlying problem of the transgender revolution: When society takes the drastic action to separate gender identity from biological sex, it has done grave damage to the sustainability and equilibrium of gender and sex throughout virtually all segments of culture. The report seems to admit that there are no perfect solutions. It is the Christian who can help explain why that is: It is fruitless to treat nature as a malleable substance. It simply cannot be done without grave confusion and injustice happening.

This latest controversy reflects a truth of the Christian worldview: We are embodied beings whose sex is always brought to bear in our everyday life. While I might be more than a “male” as far as how I understand myself in the world, I am never less than a male. My experience as a professor, a husband, a father, and even as a friend, is an intrinsically sexed experience.

The sooner that our culture recognizes this, the sooner we can return to what is true.

SBC Executive Committee and task force negotiations, pregnant women and the COVID vaccine, and government shutdown

By / Oct 1

In this episode, Lindsay and Brent discuss the SBC Executive Committee extending task force negotiations, the CDC urging pregnant women to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Youtube cracking down on anti-vaccine misinformation videos, COVID cases falling by 25%, and the Senate reaching a last-minute deal to avoid a government shutdown. They also give a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jason Thacker with “Is Facebook discipling your church members? How technology is shaping the church and altering our worldview,” Catherine Parks with “What is the state of abortion around the world? An international round-up of recent legislative efforts regarding abortion,” and Jill Waggoner with “Mindy Belz helps Christians think about the Middle East: 9/11, suffering, and the hope we have in Jesus.”

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. SBC EC extends task force negotiations
  2. CDC to pregnant women: Get vaccinated
  3. Youtube cracks down on anti-vaccine videos
  4. COVID cases fall by 25%
  5. Senate reaches last-minute deal to avoid shutdown

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Mindy Belz helps Christians think about the Middle East

By / Sep 28

When news from the Middle East and Near East regions of the world begin to fill my screen, there’s one reporter that I want to read: Mindy Belz. 

I’ve known about her work as an editor and war correspondent with WORLD magazine for over 15 years, but her 2016 book, They Say We Are Infidels, was instrumental in shaping the way I understand this part of the world, revealing its rich Christian history. Her relationships with international churches and believers have provided her decades of insight into these predominantly Muslim parts of the world. 

As Christians in the West consider today’s international crises, as well as reflect on the impact of 9/11 20 years ago, Belz shines a light on both the histories and cultures of these far-off nations, shares her reasons for going into hard places, and points us to the eternal things that should guide our lives.

Jill Waggoner: Can you help us zoom out and understand the cultural landscape of the Middle East and the significance of Afghanistan?

Mindy Belz: Afghanistan commonly gets lumped into the Middle East because of the wars after 9/11, but it’s technically considered part of the wider Near East or Central Asia. That’s important, because Afghanistan is somewhat of a bridge. It has a lot of the Islamic elements that have bedeviled the United States and the Middle East (in Lebanon with Hamas and Iraq with al-Qaida and ISIS). But it also has this history of being under the thumb of the Soviet Union. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and subsequent occupation set the stage for the American engagement there. It began as a Cold War engagement, and then it moved into what we know today, an engagement over terrorism that had its base in Afghanistan. That history is significant to how it came onto the American radar, but of course, 9/11 propelled it there to stay. 

I traveled to Sudan in 1998, 1999, and in June of 2001. Sudan was engaged in this war that pitted Christians in the South versus Muslims in the North. It was a precursor to what we would see after 9/11. Christians have been like a footnote in these conflicts, and yet, to me, they were an important piece because what Christians experience is often a precursor to what the entire population is going to face. When we look at the war that was happening in Sudan in the 1990s, we see this dramatic and atrocious conflict between a jihadist government in the North and the Christian population in the South. That set a pattern for what we saw repeated in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, where this concept of “conquering infidels” came into play with really deadly force. 

JW: How did 9/11 change U.S. engagement in this region of the world?

MB: It had been a Cold War engagement up until that point, very much based on our national interests in keeping dominance over the Soviet Union, Russia, and its breakaway republics after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 9/11 changed it dramatically because then it became about U.S. survival. It was an attack on the U.S. homeland. Nothing like that had happened in modern memory. It was no longer war at a remove; it was war up close. 

Significantly, that moment built on the Cold War alliances. NATO, within days after 9/11, invoked Article 5. This was the first time in its history, putting NATO on a war footing in support of the United States. Among the victims of 9/11, there were more than 90 nations represented. We had tremendous international support for our response to it.  

JW: How would you help a younger audience think about 9/11?

MB: 9/11 is possibly the largest event of the century and certainly one of the landmark moments in U.S. history. 

It is important to go beyond the headlines and the 10-minute recap you see on the news. You can visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum site or go to the museum and see the names. It’s such a powerful reminder of the ordinariness of the people who died. They had no intention of stepping into a war zone when they were going to work that day. I would encourage anyone to read some of the original sources on the 9/11 Museum site. Find the 911 calls on YouTube. Not everyone wants to go down that road, but I think it’s valuable to get a real sense of what people went through.

It is also important to generally appreciate what the terrorists’ goals were. I’ve had the 9/11 Commission Report on my shelf at the ready for years. It is a thick book, but mine is so well thumbed now. Parts of it read like a novel. It helps you understand all the players and what was happening from the FBI, CIA, and military standpoint. You understand what was happening in Washington and New York. It describes what ​​al-Qaida was planning and the hijackers’ stories leading up to that day. Original sources are what we have to rely on, especially as we see misinformation surface. 

I’ve [also] really enjoyed reading about the millennials whose whole generation has been shaped by how our country changed after 9/11. I have much encouragement and hope as I see how many of my children’s peers committed themselves to military service or aide or nongovernmental organizations. When I covered the refugee crisis, I saw many 20- and 30-somethings that dropped everything to help these refugees coming across the Mediterranean. That defines the generation to me. I have great hope because of how this generation has been shaped by really sobering, hard events. 

JW: How would you encourage the Western church to think about and understand the Christian church in the Middle and Near Eastern parts of the world?

MB: I went to Iraq to cover the war early on and discovered the Christians along the way. There was this rich history there outside of what many think of as the Holy Land. I was going in churches that were built in the 300s. Their liturgy was in Aramaic. They were holding on to traditions because they were precious to them, not because they were following rote tradition. Everywhere I went, I was having my own presuppositions exploded. 

I met people whose resilience drew me to them. They had a patience about the Christian conflict with Islam and a determination about it that seemed to be lacking in the American public. The U.S. eventually wanted to turn away from the conflict and commitments in Iraq, as we are seeing now in Afghanistan. One of the reasons these wars have ended in such disarray and with such tragic consequences is that we never engaged them on the terms in which we said we were. We failed to understand that this is an age-old conflict. We failed to look at the really good examples of how people from outside of Islam have engaged with Islam.

On my journeys, I [saw] great examples of people coexisting and also being great witnesses, and in some cases being martyrs. The Old English definition of a martyr is a witness. They were being martyrs on a daily basis, and sometimes with their own lives, in order to stand and to give testimony to the Muslims that they lived alongside. 

JW: Recently, my 10 year-old son got in my car as I was listening to the news. He asked what it was, and I told him. As I turned it off he said, ‘Why are you listening to that? Aren’t bad things happening?’ I wondered how you would answer that question. In a world where ‘bad things’ are happening, why should we pay attention?

MB: Because the love of Christ compels us to. We can all have a sense of discouragement and helplessness in the face of any days’ bad news, but we know Christ came to enter into bad news, bringing life and the good news of the gospel. 

Our life in the United States gives us so much material comfort and grace that we lose sight of the consummation of all things. We might be tempted to think that the consummation is like our day to day: the sun shining, peace with our neighbors, a grocery store nearby. Our current reality dulls our sense that there is a future — where Christ is reigning and has reconciled all things under his feet — that is beyond what we can imagine right now. We can be tempted to lose sight of that chapter of the gospel narrative. I have a sense that the Christians who went before me had a much clearer view of what is to come that compelled them through the hard things of any day. 

JW: Many people have had trauma in the last two years. I imagine that your journeys have allowed you to see things that I’ve never seen, creating difficulties for you on a personal level that might extend beyond the experience. Do you have a personal word for those who are dealing with trauma? 

MB: It is definitely a real thing and something that I’ve struggled with from time to time. I have faced life and death moments. Because I’m still here after those moments, I can say they propel us to the feet of Christ and into the arms of God. 

Sometimes I dread going into a place where there’s a lot that’s unknown. There also have been times where I felt like I knew the situation, but when I was walking down the street, I could feel the tension and feel how much things had changed. This happened to me in 2019 in Syria, and I knew I was not in a safe place. Within 30 minutes, a bomb went off right across the street from me. I’ve been in moments where all I know to do is pray and trust that God has me where he wants me. That might be a place of death or a place of witness — seeing something that’s really, really hard. 

I come back to this fraternity that we have with Jesus. In those moments, we see in a new way what he endured, and what he was willing to endure, for us. We also see our own weaknesses and shortcomings. We’re brought face to face with the fact that we’re not Jesus. We quake and have fear and sometimes we run away, and that’s okay to do. 

The only way I know to process those things is in community. The community that I have with my husband, first of all, is the only reason that I have been able to continue this work — his support, patience, and willingness to hear the things [I’ve experienced]. Also, I process with my church community, pastors, and friends who are good counselors. We have to process these things in community, but we also have to process them as a way of recognizing our weakness and the profound sacrifice that Jesus made. 

Why our idols can’t satisfy

By / Sep 22

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. AW Tozer came up with that, not me. Posed as a question, Tozer’s statement is especially revelatory. If Mr. Tozer were to have asked, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?”, the answer, if not restrained by self-deception, would tell you a lot about yourself. And potentially, how much of yourself is in love with a lie. 

What we think about God and what we believe about God don’t always resemble one another, although we’d like them to. We want to look in the mirror and see the same face, but the fallenness of everything means that there are invisible contradictions everywhere. We will say that God is holy, but there are little gods we may or may not have given a name to that have earned that attribution by our misplaced faith in them. I say this because when you interrogate the why behind our various forms of idol worship, the language used describes a holy thing, and the expectation of the worshipper sounds like faith.

Making our gods

An Old Testament illustration of this happened at the bottom of a mountain. God’s people, deluded by impatience, irked that Moses was still at the top of it with Yahweh, asked Aaron to make them gods. The first evidence that their hope was an unholy one was made plain by their own words: “Make” and “gods.” The two words should’ve gotten caught in their throat followed by a cough or some bodily reaction to show how ridiculous they were being. A real god can’t be made; a real god makes. He is uncreated and therefore sustained by no one except Himself. His life is His, not borrowed or given through some other means. He is as unlimited as the sky is wide. The same blue one He made without heaven’s help. 

Idolatry always involves an exchange. It is a magician’s act in which the holy is traded for the profane. The unique for the common. The transcendent for the earthly. The Creator for the creature. Exchanging the truth about God for a lie, as Paul puts it, leads to creaturely worship, glorying in a made thing (Rom. 1:25). Made things treated as a god or idols aren’t holy in and of themselves. They all lack that transcendental value and moral purity that God possesses in Himself. Which is interesting to think about really. How in our quest for an invented god, we’re always compelled to worship someone or something that exists just like we do with the futile expectation that they’ll succeed in being able to give us what is beyond their reach. 

The limits of our idols

Idols are also local and limited. How did Israel expect a golden calf to guide them if it couldn’t move on its own? It could only go as far as a few humans were willing to take it. Them going with it, instead of it going before them. As it went, with their help, it also couldn’t foresee what was ahead of them, not simply in terms of direction, but also time.

Even though their god couldn’t be more than what it was, and even though it, ignorant of the future, couldn’t know what was to come, Israel still decided to give the calf credit for what happened before its birth. About their golden bull they proclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4) Coopting God’s testimony about Himself, they ascribed the Lord’s words and works to a crafted thing that couldn’t even save itself from the soon-to-come desecration of its handmade body. 

We should never expect an unholy thing that was made with our bare hands to be sovereign enough or powerful enough to save us from anything when an idol’s entire existence is dependent on whoever it is that brought them to life.

A god with no life could not notice you in your room, listen to the quiet suffering stuck in your chest, and comprehend it as pain. An idol can’t speak so they can neither rebuke or comfort when the time calls for it. And if our idols are mere men, they may have eyes to see and mouths to speak to the issues of your heart, but what they say and what they see will always be narrow compared to God, who doesn’t need to call you to know how you are. An idol’s lifelessness makes it ignorant and incapable of serving anyone by way of salvation. To hope in anything that has been made to deliver, whether it’s sex, a relationship, a job, money, an identity, alcohol, or whatever is to become as ignorant as the idol itself. “They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save” (Is. 45:20). 

Idols are powerless because they are not holy

Whether you have recognized it or not, I’ve tried to make the point, maybe too subtle to be seen, that their unprofitability is rooted in their unholiness. Their failure to be God. To be transcendent. Different. To exist in the way we need them to. As a living being, able to see, hear, act, and think. Powerful enough to overcome every power and problem that the world has either inherited or borrowed. Every idol is a created thing. For Israel it was a calf without a name, but eventually Baal, Asheroth, or Molech (2 Kings 21:3; Judges 2:10-23; Jer. 32:35, Lev. 18:21).  

I don’t know your idols by name. You might, and the God you’ve exchanged it for certainly does, but know that who or whatever it is, it will fail you forever. I don’t say that to shame you, but to come for and against the lies that brought your own golden calf into being. It was manufactured on purpose and eventually trusted to be and do what it can’t. Whatever that thing might be, it too is local. Your needs transcend places, and God forbid you must wait to buy, or call, or fly, or walk to, or knock the door of a person, place, or thing to get hope or peace or joy. When God, who is both in heaven and in you is already there, where you are, with Himself to give. In Him is life, and ain’t we all needy of it? Of Him? Not only for salvation but also satisfaction. 

Idols function as a kind of “savior.” A manufactured messiah made to fill the empty parts within. But if a made thing didn’t make you, then it surely can’t make you whole. Watch and pray that your hope doesn’t look to the high places as rescue (Num. 33:52; Lev. 26:30). Instead, look to the hills from where your holy help comes (Ps. 121:1-2), for any other hope is an unholy one.  

Whenever we trust anything other than the holy God to save us from all our fears, doubts, and anxieties, satisfy our deepest longings, and provide our every need, we have trusted in an unholy god to be what it never will. To say that God is holy is to say that God is God and there is no other God besides Him, “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God” (1 Sam. 2:2). And if He is the only God, then Elijah’s words to Israel ring true for us today: “… How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kg. 18:21). What point was Elijah trying to make by appealing to the true nature of Yahweh and Baal as the motivating factor for which one should be followed? It’s that if a being is indeed God, then He is not only deserving of the exclusivity of our worship, but He is also the only one sufficient for our needs.  

This excerpt is adapted from the recently published book from B&H, Holier than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him

The toxicity of Instagram, USA gymnastics vs. FBI, and the new ERLC presidential profile

By / Sep 17

In this episode, Lindsay and Brent discuss how toxic instagram is for teens, how the FBI failed USA gymnastics, how 1 in every 500 U.S. residents have now died of COVID-19, California voters reject the governor recall, Texas judge agrees to consider a block of the Texas abortion ban, and the profile for the next ERLC president. They also give a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jason Thacker with “How can Christians navigate the digital public square? Introducing a new ERLC research project on ethics and religion for a technological society,” Jill Waggoner with “4 ways the church can serve Afghan and other refugee communities: An interview with a pastor born in Syria,” and Willis Deitz with “5 things I’ve learned about children’s ministry and volunteers.”

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls
  2. Facebook tried to make its platform healthier. it got angrier.
  3. USA gymnasts describe how FBI lied about their allegations into Larry Nassar
  4. 1 in every 500 US residents have died of Covid-19
  5. Gov. Newsom Keeps His Seat As A Majority Of California Voters Reject The Recall
  6. Judge agrees to consider temporarily blocking Texas abortion ban
  7. ERLC trustees approve profile for next president

Lunchroom

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Sponsors

  • The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility. by Ray Ortlund || Pornography may seem inescapable, but God can free us from its destructive power. In this book, Ortlund writes six personal letters, as from a father to his son, giving hope to men who have been misled by porn into devaluing themselves and others. The Death of Porn inspires men to come together in new ways to fight the injustice of porn and build a world of nobility for every man and woman—for the sake of future generations. ||  Pick up a copy wherever books are sold or visit crossway.org/plus to find out how you can get 30% off + a free copy of the ebook. 
  • What God Has to Say about Our Bodies || There’s a danger in focusing too much on the body. There’s also a danger in not valuing it enough. In this book, Sam Allberry explains that all of us are fearfully and wonderfully made, and should regard our physicality as a gift. He offers biblical guidance for living, including understanding gender, sexuality, and identity; dealing with aging, illness, and death; and considering the physical future hope that we have in Christ. || Pick up a copy wherever books are sold or visit crossway.org/plus to find out how you can get 30% off + a free copy of the ebook.

How can Christians navigate the digital public square?

By / Sep 16

My family lives just outside of a small town in Tennessee with a historic downtown district. Like many small towns throughout our nation, we have a downtown square that serves as a hub. In prior generations, these public squares were gathering places for everyone. People regularly traveled in from the outskirts of town to shop, eat, and do business. They would also come together for community events and to freely engage with one another. While many historic downtown public squares have been abandoned in light of the growth of suburbs, there is a renewed interest in revitalizing these historic neighborhoods and to provide a place for communities to gather once again — especially in a digital age that has led to increasing isolation.

These public gathering places serve as an apt metaphor for a period when much of our daily communication, commerce, and community are facilitated in the digital public square of social media and online connectivity. With the rise of the internet and various social media platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, and massive online retailers and internet companies like Amazon and Google — these new digital public squares promised to bring about a vibrant era of connectivity and togetherness across distances, more diverse communities, and more access to information. Many of these initial promises were made in light of oppressive regimes throughout the world that stifled free speech, suppressed human rights, violated religious freedom, and limited access to information in order to maintain control over other human beings made in the very image of God. 

Ethical challenges in the digital age

While technology has brought incredible benefits and conveniences into our lives, it also has led to countless unintended consequences and deep ethical challenges that push us to consider how to live out our faith in a technological society. Each day we are bombarded with fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories, ever growing polarization, and more information than we could ever hope to process. We are regularly faced with challenges where wisdom and truth are needed, yet faith is not always welcomed in the public square and in the important debates over digital governance. In truth, technology has always been used and abused by those who seek to hold on to power and wield it to suppress free expression all around the world. But today, these threats seem more visceral and dangerous to our way of life than ever before.

One of the most challenging ethical issues of our day with technology is centered around the proper role of digital governance and the ethical boundaries of free expression in the digital public square. Many have recently begun to question the role of the technology industry over our public discourse, as well as the responsibilities of individuals, third-party companies, and even the role of the government in digital governance. While much of the dangerous, illegal, and elicit content is rightly moderated, questions remain as to what kind of ideas or speech are to be welcomed in the digital public square and how we’re to maintain various ethical boundaries as we seek to uphold free expression and religious freedom for all. 

On one hand, our digital public squares are very public and have an incredibly diverse group of community members. But on the other hand, there is often immense pressure to conform to certain secular ethical principles that tend to push people of faith out of public conversations and debates simply based on their deeply held beliefs about God, the nature of humanity, and how we are to navigate these challenges to free expression and religious freedom. 

A new research project

The complex nature of the questions surrounding ethics and religion in the digital age is exactly why I am excited to announce that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is pioneering a new research project called the Digital Public Square. This project is designed to help provide the local church and the technology industry with thoughtful resources that will help everyone engage these important debates over digital governance and promote free expression as well as religious freedom for all. We seek to cast a robust vision for public theology and ethical engagement in a technological society — a vision grounded in a historical understanding of the role of the church in society and in the unchanging Word of God. While some believe that religion has no role to play in a modern society, we believe that our faith is central to how we engage these pressing issues and live faithfully in the digital age.

The Digital Public Square project will gather some of the best voices from across academia, journalism, public policy, think tanks, and most importantly, the local church to clarify the state of the digital public square and to cast a vision for Christian engagement in the areas of content moderation, online governance, and engagement with the technology industry as a whole. Just as Christians have sought to develop a robust public theology on matters of church and state relations for many generations, Christians must also think deeply about how God would call us to engage the challenges of technology and these companies that operate around the globe in vastly different cultural contexts. We will seek to answer questions surrounding the nature of free expression, the role of democratic values around the world, and best practices for cultivating a truly diverse digital society where people of faith are a vital part of these important conversations.

We will do so in a four-prong approach that will extend throughout 2021 and 2022. The project will include an in-depth report on the state of the digital public square, a set of guiding ethical principles for digital governance, and numerous resources for the local church to use in order to engage and bear witness to the gospel in the digital age. These resources will include two different book-length volumes: Following Jesus in a Digital Age with B&H Publishing, and The Digital Public Square: Ethics and Religion in a Technological Society from B&H Academic in 2022. The latter will feature contributions from 14 leading thinkers from across society addressing the pressing issues of digital governance, such as the nature of the public square, US and international technology policy, religious freedom, hate speech/violence, seuxality and gender issues, pornography and other objectionable content, misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, and the rise of global digital authoritarianism. 

To learn more about the Digital Public Square project and to receive project updates, along with our weekly content on technology ethics, visit ERLC.com/digital.

Matthew Soerens on Afghan refugees

By / Sep 2

As the United States departed from Afghanistan, there remains an urgent humanitarian crisis in the country, both for the U.S.’s Afghan allies and those fearing persecution from the Taliban.

Chelsea Sobolik welcomes Matthew Soerens, the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief to discuss how and why Christians can serve Afghan refugees who qualified for the Special Immigrant Visa Program and the Refugee Resettlement Program.

Guest Biography

Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, where he helps evangelical churches to understand the realities of Afghan refugees and immigration and to respond in ways guided by biblical values. He also serves as the National Coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition that advocates for immigration reforms consistent with biblical values.

Matthew previously served as a Department of Justice-accredited legal counselor at World Relief’s local office in Wheaton, Illinois and, before that, with World Relief’s partner organization in Managua, Nicaragua. He’s also the co-author of Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis (Moody Publishers, 2016).

Resources from the Conversation

How the grace of Jesus enables us to say no to pornography

By / Sep 2

We live in a pornified culture. From popular television shows to music, and even billboards along the highway, pornographic images and language are pervasive. As it becomes more normal and increasingly ubiquitous, we may wonder: is there any hope for unseating pornography from its cultural position of power and influence?

Ray Ortlund, with his signature optimism, answers with an emphatic, yes! In his new book, The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility, Ortlund pens a letter to young men charging them to do just that — to take up the noble cause of dismantling the pornography industry by the power of the Spirit and with the grace of Jesus. The Death of Porn is unique from start to finish. I suspect it will be a spark that ignites a movement lasting for generations. Ortlund recently talked with us about this and more. Read more below.

Your latest book, The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility, as the title suggests, tackles the topic of porn. What compelled you to write this book?

I wrote this book because so many of the magnificent young men I know are held back by this one thing: porn. I long to see this generation of men set free, men rediscovering their dignity and purpose, men perceiving women with the same God-given dignity and glorious purpose. And if enough men dare to believe in their true greatness, we will be at a turning point — the death of porn, the birth of revival.

It’s a unique book in that it’s written as a series of letters from you, “an older man” (your words), to your reader, presumably a younger man. What inspired you to take this approach?

I was inspired by a letter from way back in 1791. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote a letter to a young politician named William Wilberforce. It was the last letter Wesley wrote before he died. He called Wilberforce and his friends to give their lives to bringing down the slave trade in the British Empire. And they did. It took a lot of courage and many years. But they succeeded. And now it’s time for the young men of this generation to fight for the freedom of everyone being exploited by the predatory porn industry.

The Death of Porn is a book that seeks to help liberate men and women from the chains of pornography, and it does that primarily by pointing to Jesus, our union with him, and the call he places on our lives. Why is remembering Jesus, and remembering who he’s made us to be, a more effective antidote against the pull of pornography as opposed to the “white-knuckling” approach that we often encounter? 

No one is helped by being pressured, cornered, or shamed. The only way we really grow is the opposite — by being dignified, included, and lifted up. I believe that with all my heart. After all, the Bible says, “By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:7). So let’s move all our chips over onto the square of God’s grace, and let’s find out what only he can do for us — and through us — in this desperate generation!

The tone of the book is overtly optimistic. Considering the cultural behemoth that is the pornography industry, why should Christians share this optimism? Can we really bring about the death of porn?

Short answer: Yes! If the risen Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, then we have no right not to be wildly optimistic. I only hope that my book is optimistic enough, given what Jesus can do.

Longer answer: Our risen King loves to inspire social justice. For example, the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s launched schools, hospitals, libraries, orphanages, and labor unions. It awakened Christians who addressed prison reform and poverty and slum housing. They could have shrugged their shoulders and said, “Nothing ever changes in this world. Why even try?” But what cowardice that would be! What a betrayal of Christ himself! The fact is, those brave Christians did make their world a better place. 

Now, in our time, our risen Lord is calling us to be his new resistance movement in a world of injustice, saying a loud no to the porn industry — stigmatizing it, marginalizing it, diminishing it — and saying a loud yes to the worth of every man and every woman. Let’s give our lives to the liberation of this generation, not because we can foresee our chances of success, but because we can see the worthiness of the cause. And we know that Jesus loves to flip impossibilities into actualities!

You talk a lot in the book about nobility. How would you define the term nobility, and what does nobility look like in practice?

Our God-given nobility is a major theme in the Bible. For example, “But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands” (Isa. 32:8). There is nothing second-rate in Jesus! All he is for us, all he brings to us, is noble, uplifting, worth reaching for.

Here is what the biblical word noble means: a heart that’s all-in. Not a perfect heart, but a generous heart that cares for others, including every victim of porn.

In practice, it looks like a Christian man reaching out to one other man — any man who wants his freedom back. And that Christian guy nobly shares his heart, his honesty, his vulnerability with that friend. And together those two men begin a journey into a new impact they’ve never dreamed could be theirs. It starts small, but it makes a big difference, because the risen Jesus is right there with those two men. 

To that point, one of the practices that you advocate for in the latter half of the book is the act of confession. You say, “We don’t overcome our sins by heroic willpower. We confess them to death” (89). How does the act of confession diminish the power of sin and the shame that it brings?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer nailed it: “The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him.” We never do well, when we cover up our sins, hidden in the secrecy that shame demands. 

But when we dare, by faith in Christ crucified, to confess our sins to a faithful brother, we are no longer alone. We step out of the shadows of denial and start walking in the light together (1 John 1:7). We can finally turn to God in prayer and find healing (James 5:16). Any man who lives in ongoing confession will never be alone again. It is so freeing!

As the book’s subtitle suggests, you are not just calling your reader to a life of personal purity, though that’s certainly included. You are trying to convince your reader that “we can make a world of difference.” You say, “Jesus is calling you to build a new world of nobility, to the furthest extent of your influence, for the rest of your life” (103). Can you talk about that?

Porn is a justice issue. Yes, our personal character is on the line. But even more, our social conscience is at stake. Jesus is not saving isolated individuals here and there. He is creating a new community of beauty in this world of brutality. We, in our life together, are his liberating counterculture, and his “holy city” will last forever (Rev. 21-22). He is calling every man in this generation to join with him in building his new world right here, right now.

Relatedly, in the final chapter you offer practical ideas on how to build this world of nobility. As a father of three boys, one of them really hit home for me. You tell the reader to “educate the rising generation in our history and our stories of nobility,” and then you say something striking: “if you don’t fill their imaginations with greatness, porn will fill their mind with ugliness. Our kids long for nobility. God has planted it deep within them. Teach them how to be at their best” (107)! For fathers and mothers and mentors helping raise children in our day, how important is this? Where’s a good place to start?

We grownups can and must invest in our children for their long-term future. How? For starters, let’s read to our children. Every evening after dinner, rather than watch TV or look at our phones, let’s cuddle on the sofa and read good books to our kids. Let’s read aloud the great stories of the Bible — even acting them out together! Wouldn’t that be fun? And let’s read to them The Chronicles of Narnia, the legendary tales of chivalrous knights, the heroic stories of valiant soldiers and sacrificial mothers and courageous reformers and brave explorers. Okay, there’s a time for silly books. But let’s make sure our kids fall in love with the inspiring stories! They’re going to need all the inspiration they can get, when they face the future as adults.

Undoubtedly, there may be some reading this interview who find themselves in the throes of pornography addiction, experiencing shame and wondering if they can put this addiction to death in their own life, much less the society at large. What would you say to that person? How would you encourage them to move forward?

Yes, some readers are thinking that very thing right now. I’m glad to say this: You are not alone. You are not beneath God’s grace. You are not such a spectacular sinner that you can defeat the risen Savior. But there is one hard step you must take. You must call a faithful friend right now and say, “Can we get together? I’m not doing well, and I need help.” And the two of you get together this week. And you pour your heart out. And with your faithful friend, you begin a new pattern of weekly get-togethers for honesty, prayer, and healing (James 5:16). Yes, it can be embarrassing. But your outpouring of confession and sorrow is where the Lord himself will visit you with his powerful grace. Your new beginning is just a phone call away. It’s how you can start a new life — in transparency, honesty, openness. Jesus himself awaits you. So, make the call?

Your book’s dedication page is one of the most beautiful and hopeful I have ever read. When you think about your grandchildren’s generation, knowing the culture they’ll encounter as they grow up, what are your hopes for them?

I hope, most of all, that my grandchildren will feel deep within how good God is, how glorious he created them to be, how bitterly distasteful all sin is, how life-giving Jesus is, how powerful Christian community is, and how they can advance the cause of Christ in their generation. What will matter far more than what they own is what they believe. If my grandchildren, and yours, will believe the gospel in its totality, they will not just cope; they will flourish. And the world they hand down to their children will be a better place, for the glory of God.