By / Jan 8

In the midst of a crisis, such as the attempted coup at the United States Capitol on Wednesday, we naturally long for answers. If you are anything like me, you likely doomscrolled most of the day and night, hoping to grasp what just took place and what it means for our future as a nation. In the moments following the mob violence and rioting, many turned to blame one side or another for the rising dissension and breakdown of our public discourse. Some blame big tech for not doing enough early on to quell the spread of wild conspiracies and misinformation online. Some blame the social media tools themselves as the main culprit, arguing these tools are inherently dangerous and have no place in civil society given the violence they incite. Others will lay the blame solely at the feet of their perceived political enemies, as they attempt to explain away the sins of their own tribe and shift the blame for the disintegration of civic life to someone else.

Social media has given rise to countless benefits in our society, even the ability to know about events as they happen such as this tragic assault on our democracy and institutions that took place yesterday. But social media can also be the rocket fuel poured on the smoldering embers of malice, discontent, and dissension that have long plagued our public life. In recent years, they have ignited over the politicization of every aspect of our lives. 

In our evaluation of technology, we often fixate on the deleterious consequences of its use or completely overlook the ways that technology is molding and discipling us each and every day. But a proper understanding of these tools and their “web of relations,” to quote the famed philosopher Martin Heidegger, will yield a worldview that is able to recognize how these tools disciple us into certain types of people who are fully accountable for our actions. In reality, these social tools have made it easier than ever to spread misinformation, disinformation, and wild conspiracy theories to the masses in record speed.

What may seem initially to be an honest question in the pursuit of truth or “insider information” can quickly lead to real-world harm and violence by those who are bent on exerting bravado over others as they seek to make a name for themselves or show that they are part of the right tribe. This does not mean that we can just simply accept anything we are told by others as fact without questioning, but it does mean that propagating wild theories after the truth has been proven time and time again is not only dangerous to our nation and democracy but also to our souls.

The danger of conspiracy theories

Social media allows for immense connectivity for people across the world, but also has the tendency to create information silos and walled gardens—where we view those on the other side in the worst possible light and our own in the best. We are often discipled through the use of these tools over long periods of time to see the immense online world as simply an innocuous digital medium of random avatars and profile pictures, rather than a place made up of real human beings just like you and me. We forget that the things we tweet, share, and post affect others, which often includes their physical safety and livelihoods.

Conspiracy theories, such as those that possibly led to the Nashville Christmas RV bombing and the lies that led to the destruction at the Capitol, are often much more prevalent on social media than we might like to acknowledge and have real world consequences. Social media can easily trick us into believing that the things we do online do not have real-world consequences and that our personally curated echo chambers are reflections of true reality. But what’s happening online is not a case of innocuous questions being asked, the spread of unverified “insider” information, or the real truth that “they” don’t want you to hear. Conspiracy theories and misinformation can lead to violence and set a dangerous precedent in our cherished democracy as we lose the ability to have respectful rigorous debate over tough issues. 

The reality behind many of those who promote conspiracy theories is that they are not usually concerned about promoting the truth or finding out answers, but rather are pursuing power and prestige. And in many ways, this is inherent in the design of social media. For all of their benefits, these platforms are designed to allow for the spread of information quickly and to incentivize the building of personal platforms with little to no accountability. We are encouraged to craft content that garners as many likes, shares, and retweets as possible in hopes that these messages go viral or influence others in some meaningful way.

While social media can be used for good, the nature of these platforms easily lends itself to be taken over by the wild theories and mistruths that spread quickly through high engagement with others. This is one reason that many platforms have community standards that govern user speech and why these companies have been encouraged to pursue good faith moderation through government legislation. On top of how these platforms are designed, misinformation and disinformation is frequently created to spread like wildfire by containing either an element of truth that has been misconstrued for a malicious purpose or some statement designed to play on one’s deeply-held beliefs and desires, as seen in the popular QAnon conspiracy theories promoting dangerous lies about our nation and its leaders under the auspice of a concern about child sex trafficking. 

Pursuing truth and righteousness in the public square

The Scriptures are clear about these types of motivations of self-aggrandizement and power, as well as how the people of God are to pursue truth in love throughout all areas of our lives (Prov. 8:13; 16:18; John 15:13). The Christian pursuit of truth and righteousness is even more valuable in the age of social media as many of our neighbors (and ourselves at times) can fall prey to these complex lies and those that share these mistruths. Conspiracy theories are not just to be rejected by the people of God, but repudiated and removed from our public discourse as the church (1 John 4:1; James 1:19). Christians of all people are not to traffic in lies, but to pursue truth as we follow the one who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

The Church has the obligation to stand up for truth in all areas of life and not to tolerate the spreading of misinformation, lies, and the prognostications of those seeking to retain power, position, or influence. While social media makes the spreading of misinformation and conspiracy theories easier than ever before, we each must take a look in the mirror to see how we may be tempted to succumb and share information online that whets our appetites or even validates what we want to be true. Believing the best about your tribe but choosing the worst of your perceived enemies is not only dangerous, but it also seeks to invalidate Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). 

As the prescient French philosopher Jacques Ellul stated in the 1950s about the hold of technology on our lives, we must see how technology is shaping every aspect of our society. But contra Ellul, we can have deep and abiding hope that our society— and more importantly, that we each personally—can recognize the influence of technology, namely social media, and seek to alter our relationship with these tools in ways that love God and love our neighbor. The loving and most caring thing that we can do for our neighbors as the church and for those among the Body of Christ is to pursue and speak truth and show the world that our hope for the future is not tied to any earthly pursuit of power, position, or influence, but to the One that bled and died to give us new life with himself for eternity.

By / Mar 18

I recently saw an internet meme with an image of a 2-foot-tall book with several thousand pages. On it was the caption, “Things People Find Offensive: 2016 Edition.” I would have found the image funny had it not been for the fact that its message was painfully true.

Okay. Truth be told, I still found it funny.  However, many people aren’t laughing—and understandably so—as one wrong public statement or tweet can land you quarantined in the politically incorrect hall of shame. And once there, you’d probably be shamed some more while undergoing a public crash course on what you should’ve said if you had any common sense. More than likely, you’d eventually be “farewelled” from relevance, and maybe even fired from your job.

That’s tough stuff. I get it. So what is political correctness, exactly?

Settling on a singular, succinct definition has been a difficult task. For the average evangelical frustrated by the current state of affairs, to be politically correct probably means something like the following: adherence to language, policies or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society—particularly, marginalized and minority groups.

Simple enough? Absolutely not!

It is undeniable that, for a whole host of reasons, our current cultural conversation is in a state of crisis. From university campuses to political campaigns to the public square, we find ourselves seemingly incapable of amicable exchange. To be sure, the situation is a bit more complex than a mere call for civility. Many a monograph and popular-level article have been written in an attempt to trace the historical development of what is now our PC society. While some choose to highlight the genealogy of an economic Marxism gone cultural, others focus their analysis on the state of affairs on college campuses—one piece in particular having diagnosed the problem as a coddling of collegiate minds. I think perspectives such as these offer interesting insights that need to be seriously considered as we contend for a more sensibly sensitive society.

However, I think that evangelical Christians would do well to be mindful of a few things as we seek to engage.

There are two extremes to be avoided, not one

I often hear Christians decry political correctness in favor of a climate where they can “say whatever they feel/want.” Every time I hear that phrase—or a derivative of it—two thoughts come to mind: first, a question, “what exactly is it that you want to say?” and, second, I’m reminded that the goal of a distinctly Christian dialect has never been unbridled speech.

The biblical witness is clear. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart,” warns James, “this person’s religion is worthless” (Ja. 1:26). Likewise the apostle Paul instructs, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

While censored speech is certainly problematic, unsanctified speech is just as poisonous; our outrage should be against both. Far from saying whatever we feel, Christians are called to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders,” and to “let [our] speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).

Clarity and thoughtfulness are helpful

While I suggested previously that civility alone would not remedy the problem, it certainly helps. Arguably, one of the things that our PC culture has forced evangelicals to do is to reflect a level of clarity in our public square commentary that, prior to this moment, we felt little pressure to do.  Previously, we could not only count on interlocutors to be charitable in their listening, but we could assume their familiarity with, and even partiality to, our rhetoric and reasoning. Indeed, times have changed. And, ironically, many of our efforts to avoid giving offense and being misunderstood—albeit painstaking and frustrating at time—have resulted in fresh and helpful articulations of some of our most deeply held convictions and their resultant sociopolitical implications.

Yet, I believe that there is more that we can do. As we rightly critique political correctness, we have to be careful to not subsume too much under its heading. Sometimes I fear that what many evangelicals label as the outlandish demands of the PC culture are often challenges to simply be a little more thoughtful, culturally aware, and historically informed. For instance, it is possible to discuss the immigration issue in such a way where concern for the rule of law can be expressed and the decency and dignity of our image-bearing neighbors can be affirmed. Similarly, to seldom acknowledge racial offenses is as equally problematic as seeing them everywhere. As one former presidential candidate recently noted, there is a difference between giving into political correctness and simply seeking to be correct.

I think a Pauline principle can be instructive here as we think about how our Great Commission task dovetails with a call to be winsome with our words.  “I have become all things to all people,” Paul says, “that by all means I might save some.” This is the point, after all. Why should we lean into a run amok PC culture rather than retreat? It is ultimately a question of what our predominant evangelical posture will be. Will we simply be mad, or will we be on mission?

Challenges remain, but they, too, are gospel opportunities

With all that has been said it yet needs to be made clear that serious challenges are on the horizon. Evangelicals who hold to a biblical sexual ethic, for example, will continue to face increasing criticism, ostracization and threats to religious liberty. When the culture embraces and affirms that which the scriptures clearly condemn, we must obey God rather than men. And we must realize that such conviction will come with a cost—a cost that we have hopefully already counted.

And yet, how we steward can bring disrepute to what we steward.  Yes, right is right, but there is such a thing as being wrong-right. Now more than ever, Christians need to evidence an understanding of that. Elsewhere, Dr. Russell Moore has expressed that the sexual revolution will inevitably yield its own refugees. The Lord’s church must be ready—with both its gospel-fidelity and Christ-like character bearing witness—to receive these individuals with words of grace and truth. Our only offense should be the offense of the gospel.

Ultimately, a run amok political correctness can be neither satisfied nor sustained. While being deeply sensitive to injustices, racial and otherwise, I must admit that I find it troubling how an uncritical culture of offendedness is being fashioned. It seems that the status of “offended” is legitimized simply by virtue of it being claimed. And the offender is mandated to do penance to the degree dictated without question or qualification. These kinds of transactions set awful precedents for public square interaction.

Nevertheless, it is important that we, as evangelicals, realize our dual role in such a chaotic PC culture—advocate and herald. Advocate because we have come to know the one who is just, and therefore we deplore injustice wherever it may be found. Herald because the one who is just is also justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. And, speaking of offense, we’ve all offended him.