By / Apr 19

Recently, I was reading a book and was impressed by the scholar’s careful exposition, nuanced approach, and charitable engagement with critics. Naturally, in the age of social media, I decided to look up the author online and was surprised by what I found. It seemed that the scholar was acting a certain way on one medium and a different way on the other. Social media tends to tempt a number of us to post things that we would never publish in a book, much less say in person to another human being.

“The medium is the metaphor”

There is often a significant disconnect between how we portray ourselves online and then personally with others. This is notable because social media and digital culture tends to bifurcate our lives, giving us the impression that we have an “online” life and a “real” life. We frequently use technology to portray ourselves in certain ways depending on the medium, where the medium often dictates to us how we are to live, understand truth, and navigate the tensions in life. Neil Postman, in his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, describes this reality by using the phrase “the medium is the metaphor.” He writes how the medium in which something is communicated has significant bearing on the content itself and the reception of that message.

Postman describes this phenomenon by saying, “Major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, and by demanding a certain form of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth telling” (27). Earlier in the book, he writes how this concept may also be portrayed in the Bible when God forbids his people from making images of him in the Decalogue (Exo. 20:4) because he knows that it will alter the way that his people see him and hear his call on their lives.

Postman claims that every form of media favors a particular kind of content, and these forms are able to take command of a culture, shaping it toward a particular end. He argues that the rise of television media significantly altered the way that we thought about the world, the nature of truth, and even how we structure our lives. It became both a “meta-medium” that directs our knowledge of the world as well as a “myth” that functioned below our conscious awareness (78-79). He deems these new forms or methods of knowledge “dangerous and absurdist” as they replaced the prior emphasis on the written word.

Since Postman died in 2003, we can only speculate how he might describe the exponential breakdown of truth and ways that we process information in 2021 with social media. I can only imagine that he would be even more alarmed at the dangerous perversions of “truth” from conspiracy theories, fake news, and deepfakes, as well as the disconnected lives that people exhibit online, in print, and in person.

What does this mean for us?

So if Postman is correct—and I think he is—then what does that mean for those of us who inhabit this age of social media?

First, we each need to recognize how digital tools like social media are constantly shaping or discipling us each day. We must realize that the power these digital mediums have over us is not only altering how we think about truth, the world around us, and our neighbors but also altering how we depict ourselves. The reality is that we often mimic what we see online to the detriment of our souls and public witness.

Why is it that we tend to post takedowns without context or subtweets of those with whom we disagree? Why is it that we feel we must comment on every bit of news, especially on things about which we have little or no prior knowledge about? Why is it that we will spend countless amounts of time crafting a perfect post that someone will spend mere milliseconds reading in order to garner additional likes, shares, or engagement? Why is it that we will act charitably and gracefully toward someone in person or in long-form writing, only to turn around and seek to disgracefully dunk on them with an uncharitable post, clickbait title, or angry rant just to be seen as the right kind of person to our own tribe or to appease our naysayers?

While these issues are complex and much more can (and should) be written on these issues, we need to see that the medium itself is encouraging and shaping us toward that end. But it is far too easy to scapegoat the platforms or technologies today, rather than taking personal responsibility for our own actions and for the disconnect in our digital lives.

Second, we need to recognize that we think the digital world is cut off from reality. We tend to view it like a private megaphone that we can use to say and do things that we never would otherwise. Social media can easily become merely performative and fuel our addictions to self aggrandizement. We build platforms on outrage and then seem surprised when our outrage fails to satisfy. Thus, we must continue to dial it up in order to keep people coming back as they grow more and more desensitized to this type of content.

This point was brought home to me over the weekend when a friend and former pastor of mine posted about how he recently heard two different stories that detailed how someone’s online presence affected their “real life.” Both stories involved a person either being hired or being passed over for a professorship based on their online activities and public disposition. He explained how our online activities have become part of our resumes. While the medium of social media may encourage or even allow us to divide our lives in some type of digital fairyland disconnected from reality, the things we do online are very public and will have long-lasting effects on us, not only in terms of job opportunities but also on our souls. 

Each person must evaluate these things for themselves and reach a conclusion about how to move forward in this digital economy. Some will intentionally step back from social media and pursue obscurity online as they invest in the people and places right in front of them. Others will use digital platforms to encourage, challenge, and teach others but must do so with their eyes open to the detriments and dangerous effects of these tools. While we may think we are fighting the culture war or protecting the sheep through our digital engagement, we may actually be leading others and even ourselves astray by failing to remember that we are called to be above reproach in all places and through all mediums (Titus 1:6-8), and to model Christlikeness as members of the body of Christ.

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By / Apr 7

The ERLC is excited to sponsor Band of Bloggers this year at the Together for the Gospel conference. The theme of the discussion is Platform Building and the Gospel. I had the chance to sit down with Timmy Brister, the organizer of the event and ask him a few questions: 

You've been hosting this event for a few years now. What are the most positive developments you've seen in the Christian blogosphere since you began? 

Having led an event for eight years, I've seen relationships develop with bloggers that have transcended simply blogging. Bloggers have become friends, and even in my case, bloggers have become co-laborers in gospel ministry. So I would argue first and foremost that bloggers realize that it is more than just the blogs but the people behind the blogs. Another positive development is the increasing number of bloggers who have since published books, having been seen by publishers through their blogs. Many of them are excellent writers, and blogging provided them exposure to their gift and provided future opportunities to write books that have been a great blessing to the evangelical community and beyond. 

What are some of the troubling developments? 

I'm not sure if this would be classified as “troubling”, but blogging has evolved over the years, especially from decentralization to centralization. Bloggers started out having their own, independent voice. When bloggers become “successful” it seems that they are either branded and grouped in a larger network/organization, or they are blogging for a specific ministry. Again, I'm not saying that trend is all bad, but it does have a way of filtering and shaping the voice of bloggers as they are now writing representatively to some degree as opposed to writing with a unique voice to the evangelical community. That tends to produce a tribalistic mini-narrative or echo chamber of sorts that could prevent us from listening and learning from others not in our tribe. Another concern over the years has been the dehumanization effect of blogging (and social media as well). Because we are looking at a screen and not a person, it is more tempting as people tend to have less restrain in saying things they would normally not say in person (or in the way it is said). Finally, it is troubling to me that the blogs that focus on negativity or controversy have the larger audience. That speaks both to the troubling nature of the blogger as well as the (rather large) community willing to pay attention to unprofitable and even sinful speech. 

You are talking about platform and celebrity, two topics under much discussion in the evangelical world right now. How does a gifted leader discern between leveraging his gifts for the larger body of Christs' and a sort of crass attempt to create a platform at any costs? 

I'm really glad we are attempting to tackle this issue in our upcoming gathering. It is one that requires careful thinking and healthy discussion. I think Matthew 5:16 really comes into play here. Jesus tells us that our light should shine before men, but the outcome is that they glorify our Father who is in heaven. How does that happen? How do you do what you do “before men” so that it is not interpreted being all about you? In one sense, that's a miracle of God that anyone would glorify God when our good works are seen. In another sense, there is a manner by which we can conduct ourselves that, while making offerings to the public and taking advantage of platforms available to us, we are not trying to create artificial light to draw excessive attention to ourselves. We should not shrink back from desiring to be useful or be ashamed of the gifts God has given us, but we should shrink back and be ashamed when our usefulness and gifts point to ourselves rather than to the Giver of those gifts. The hard part about that is we are guilty of that in very subtle and often unrecognizable ways, and that is why community is so helpful in bringing self-awareness and constructive accountability as we all want to exalt the name of Christ and not our own. 

It also seems there is a kind of bloodlust to take down Christian celebrities. That, too, can be a form of pride and arrogance, can it not? 

I think it can not only be a form of pride and arrogance, but it is more explicitly a lack of love for that person. Paul says that love does not rejoice in wrongdoing. While these celebrities are not our enemies, they are often treated as such. Proverbs 24:7 exhorts us “not to rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” If that is true for our enemies, how much more true is it for our fellow Christian brothers and sisters! When a Christian celebrity is embroiled in a controversy, I think it is important for all of us to examine our own hearts and ask why we feel the way we do. I am that “you who are spiritual” who “restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1) are too few in number. That ought not to be the case.

Is there a way to “earnestly contend for the faith” and yet do it in a charitable way? 

I hope so. One of the best articles I've ever read on this subject is by Roger Nicole on “how to deal with those who differ from us.” I highly recommend it. Speaking the truth in love is a skill that requires humility and boldness, tenderness and conviction. We cannot have one without the other. Contending does not mean fighting or being argumentative, and unfortunately, contending for the faith has been smeared at times by those who are doing it wrong. But it is smeared all the time by those who are not doing it at all. It would serve us well to rehearse as a rhythm of remembering 1 Corinthians 13 in all our dealings with others, knowing at the end of the matter, faithful contending for the faith is not measured by arguments won but by displaying the character of Christ and pointing people to him.

Where do you think the Christian publishing and blogging is moving in the next few years? 

The last few years have seen a massive spike in e-books and self-publishing. Additionally, books seem much shorter in length. I see both trends continuing for the foreseeable future. I have been buying and reading books for 15 years, and I must say that the past few years have produced an amazing number of excellent books, and the kinds of books being published today demonstrate a healthy trend addressing topics and issues at the heart of the Christian faith. Blogging is no longer new. If I'm not mistaken, more people kill blogs today than start them. However, blogs are still valuable and will continue to shape the voice of evangelicalism in the future. No one is reading tweets from a week ago or bookmarking them for future reference. On a daily basis, I have over 150 articles read daily from the past nine years that people fine simply through the search engine. That alone reminds me that the blogposts we write today has the potential to impact lives many years later. 

What can attendees of Band of Bloggers expect at this event? 

I hope to speak the love languages of every attendee–assuming they are speaking Chick-fil-a and books! Seriously, Band of Bloggers exists to provide a venue for bloggers, authors, and leaders to network together for fellowship and to discuss important matters related to the gospel of Jesus Christ and our work online in all of its forms. I enjoy giving books away, and this year we are doing more than ever with 7,000 books worth over $106,000 thanks to generous sponsors. In short, those who attend can expect to a get a full stomach, a full bag of books, and a enjoyable time of discussing how we can best honor Christ and his gospel through our presence online.