By / May 29

One of the blessings of the digital age is that we can connect with and find information regarding places all around the world, almost instantaneously. We can learn about cultures, customs, and the beauty of God’s created order with a few short swipes on our phones or devices. Alongside these wonders, we can also learn about natural disasters, wars, crimes, and a host of other things as they happen. While there are many dangerous and deleterious effects to this level of information overload, Christians can also embrace certain aspects of our information age and leverage it for good, especially on the international stage. 

One danger of this digital age is social media’s ability to redirect our attention in unhelpful ways. Because of the endless amount of knowledge and the overall tone online, we sometimes become desensitized to world events, with one tragedy supplanting the previous one at breakneck speed, or enraged by what’s going on nationally, all while forgetting the circumstances in our own backyard. Working for the good of our local communities is imperative—it is likely where we are able to make the most difference. 

However, the necessity of working for our local good does not dismiss our responsibility to our international neighbors. Like the rich young ruler of the gospels, we must not seek to minimize who our neighbors are and congratulate ourselves for the attention paid only to what is most immediate to us. Rather, in a global and interconnected world, we must ask what is required of us as we seek to fulfill the two great commands of Scripture: love God and love neighbor.

God’s Word and Global Responsibility

Frequently, discussions of the breadth of the Christian’s ethical responsibility devolve into unhelpful dichotomies. We either assume one must forsake our local communities in support of global issues or embrace a hyper-focus on local issues to the neglect or near abandonment of international affairs. These contrasts assume that Christians are unable to advocate for ethical behavior and a morally upright society on both fronts at the same time.

Some may criticize the simplicity of this point by saying that the debate is over which has priority for the believer. While this can be a helpful distinction at times, this does not mean that the Church should neglect one or the other, but prioritize when we have limited time, resources, and energies. For Christians, this must not be seen through a partisan lens or as competing concerns. The scriptures make clear that the priority of the Christian life is to first honor God as the Creator of all and to also love our neighbors—no matter their situation, perceived usefulness to society, or distance between us (Lev. 19:18b; Deut. 6:5; Luke 12:29-31). 

A main theme throughout the biblical narrative is the centrality of the imago Dei, or image of God, as the very root of what it means to be human. This is the foundation of the Christian ethic—both personal and social. The structure of a God-honoring society will stand for the dignity and worth of all people, regardless of how politically expedient it may be at the time to trample upon or neglect those made in God’s image.

The command to love God and love neighbor by speaking truth in grace is at the very core of the Christian ethic and has ramifications not only in our local communities, but also for those made in God’s image around the world who experience the dehumanizing play for social control or who live under unjust conditions for which we may have the power and opportunity to intervene on their behalf. 

This does not mean that Christians will agree on all the foreign policy particulars or the exact role of the state, but it does mean that we cannot limit our moral responsibility to love our neighbors simply to where and when it is convenient for us. We advocate and care for the most vulnerable among us, not out of a sense of power or duty but solely based on the fact that all people are made in the image of God and have an inherent right to be treated as such. The moral call on Christians in societies around the world must not be seen as an either/or but a both/and in terms of how we live out our calling both locally and globally. 

Natural Law and the Pursuit of Justice

In a globalized world, discussions of human rights—right to life, freedom of speech, religious freedom—can become complicated as various cultures and customs overlap and compete with one another. While the West has often placed human rights at the center of the democratic order, this is not true of other states and rogue actors. However, Christians believe that the natural order of creation, and the intrinsic worth of each person, speak to the pressing issues of our day and inform our approach to advocacy on the international stage. 

Central to Christian advocacy is the awareness that each person, by virtue of their humanity, has an internal sense of justice and dignity. As the apostle Paul relates in Romans 1-2, though we may suppress the truth, that does not negate the fact that we intrinsically know particular actions to be right and wrong. Abuses of human rights are one such area where we can make appeals across divergent cultures. This approach, drawing on natural law principles and scriptural revelation, recognizes that each person’s sense of justice is shaped and informed by their God-given conscience. 

Even though authoritarian governments may desire to erase the moral guidelines and declare that the state’s might makes actions right, Christians can declare that there is a God who sees and will bring justice on all wrong doing. As we advocate on the international stage, we bear witness to this truth, and to the ability of all peoples to recognize that abuses of rights are attacks on the dignity of fellow image-bearers.

A Voice for the Persecuted

As Christians look to international affairs and standing with the vulnerable around the world, we appeal to the Word of God and the God-given conscience that transcends fluctuating moral attitudes in order to call others to action. Just over this recent year, the international community has witnessed an unjust war in Ukraine, revelations of the true extent of the genocide of the Rohingya minority by the Myanmar military, and massive refugee crises around the world. These clear examples of the utter depravity of human nature become undeniable as we see so many of them unfold on our phones via social media and viral videos. 

The ERLC has responded emphatically to the ongoing brutal genocide in Xingjang of the Uyghur people under the Chinese Communist Party. We also sent a letter to NBC, urging them to be honest in the coverage of China. In addition, we advocated for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and even sent a letter to Secretary of State Blinken urging its passage. Our advocacy against the Uyghur genocide will continue as we remain a voice for persecuted people.

Standing for human dignity and participating in global affairs need not, and truly must not, take away from our work in our local and national contexts. The Church advocates for justice and dignity throughout our societies, not because this will usher in some type of utopian social order but because this pursuit is in accordance with God himself. Dignity is not ours to assign, debate, or remove based on our political preferences or desires. Instead, in obedience to our Creator, it is ours to uphold, champion, proclaim—near and afar. 

By / Mar 30

“I’m here to tell you that the water is poisoned.” These are the jolting words that open Chris Martin’s new book, Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media. The water he’s referring to is the social internet, a term he uses to describe not just social media but the entire internet. And like a fish in water, totally at home in its environment, the social internet “has become so woven into all of our lives that we don’t even notice it anymore.” What’s more, we often can’t see that the waters we’re swimming in have been poisoned.

And that is Martin’s stated goal, “not to tell [readers] to delete our social media accounts . . . but to help [us] see that the water is toxic . . . to help [us] recognize that social media is changing the way [we] think, feel, and live . . . and largely in negative ways.” In Terms of Service, Martin sets out to shine a big, bright spotlight on the noxious environment we’re swimming in and then to shine that light on a better way forward. 

As a content marketing editor at Moody Publishers and a social media, marketing, and communications consultant, Martin has spent years advising some of the foremost Christian leaders and authors on digital content strategy, and is, therefore, qualified to speak authoritatively about the social internet’s toxicity. As a Christian, he is uniquely equipped to shepherd readers away from those toxic waters, and to the living water that Jesus offers those who come to him. For readers, the question is: will we continue swimming with the toxic tide of the social internet, or will we paddle against the current, refusing to be malformed by its poison?

What have we gotten ourselves into?

In the first section of the book, Martin provides a brief overview of the internet’s history and evolution, from its earliest prototype as a government project in the late 1960s to its virtual omnipresence today. In a matter of about 60 years, the social internet has evolved from a primitive project to a pervasive and, Martin argues, “inescapable” reality. He says, “We may be able to log off the social internet, delete our accounts, and never participate, but we can never escape its influence.” And then he follows that statement with a piercing question: “What is it doing to us?”

One of the critical pieces that we tend to misunderstand, and which Martin spotlights, is that the social internet is not a neutral tool. Well-intentioned though we may be, we fundamentally misunderstand the way the internet and specifically social media works when we assume otherwise. “The social internet is designed to be addictive,” he says. “It is not a neutral tool humans discovered and decided to use nonstop on their own.” Instead, “Since the start, and especially in the more recent iterations, the social internet has been designed with the intent to get people addicted.” In the early days, our forays into the internet began primarily as a quest for anonymity, a means of exploration, and a source of community. But now, it’s an addiction. And, Martin argues, it’s not entirely our fault.

“Our addiction to the social internet is ours to overcome, but it isn’t totally our fault. The social internet is designed with addiction in mind. The systems are designed to enslave our eyes. We’ve been set up. We’re being played” (emphasis added). Borrowing the language used by Sean Parker, former president of Facebook and founder of Napster, our brains have been “hacked.” The platforms where we spend so many hours of our lives have been designed with algorithms that exploit the human brain, leading to all kinds of ill effects, which Martin explores in the next section. 

The social internet is “an invention that was originally designed to serve us but which we have come to serve. We are servants of the social internet. It governs our days and poisons our lives more than we recognize.” What have we gotten ourselves into?

Malformed discipleship

In the second section of the book, Martin highlights five ways the social internet is shaping us, though the list is most certainly longer. From the ways we view and treat others to the way we view and behave ourselves, this “digital discipleship” is not so much shaping us as it is misshaping us; not forming us, but deforming us. Make no mistake, the social internet “is making its mark on us.”

If Christian discipleship is the process by which Jesus makes us more like himself, more truly human, then the social internet disciples us — and don’t be fooled, it is discipling us — with another end in mind. It is doing the opposite, unraveling our humanity bit by bit (and byte by byte). And, as Martin argues, it is doing so in at least five distinct ways. The social internet shapes us to “believe attention assigns value,” to “trade our privacy for expression,” to “pursue affirmation instead of truth,” to “demonize people we dislike,” and to “destroy people we demonize.” And as devastating as these are to our becoming more like Christ, they are symptoms of a deeper sickness.

Our addiction is virtually indisputable. As with any addiction, we are dependent — enslaved, even — on the thing we desire. And this addiction, widespread as it is, has produced and exacerbated a four-fold effect that is deforming us both individually and corporately. It is forming us to become more polarized, gullible, unhappy, and anxious. And, if I can add to Martin’s list, bored. We are addicted to the toxic water we’re swimming in, and the effects are overwhelming.

Undoing our digital discipleship

In a stark description, Martin says, “The social internet is brilliant and obscene. It sharpens the mind and dulls it. It brings nations together and tears them apart. It perpetuates, reveals, and attempts to repair injustice. It is an untamed beast upon which we can only hope to ride but never quite tame.” But if this “brilliant and obscene” tool is a bell that cannot be “unringed” and “a Pandora’s box that, now open, will never be closed,” then how can we possibly expect to undo the damage that Martin describes? How can we “de-toxify” the environment in which we now live? Thankfully, Martin doesn’t leave us guessing. He gives us a sample of six practices that can help put us on firmer ground moving forward: studying history, admiring creation, valuing silence, pursuing humility, establishing accountability, and building friendships.

At the core of each of these suggested practices, to some degree, is the implicit encouragement to retreat for a time from the digital ether we’re constantly staring into. Instead of peering into the pixilated displays that occupy our pockets, Martin encourages us to look elsewhere — back in history, up at creation, inward in silence, down in humility, and around in accountability and friendship — nearly anywhere but the digital twilight zone we’re immersed in. 

While the social internet is here to stay, undoing our digital discipleship will require a strategic retreat from its active use with some regularity; a sort of reimmersion into this God-made, material world. To reframe Martin’s earlier statement: though our addiction to the social internet “isn’t totally our fault, it is ours to overcome.” 

A most consequential decision

Despite all the caution that Martin suggests when it comes to our engagement with the social internet, it’s not all fire and brimstone. There is plenty of good that can and does come from the social internet. Thus, his goal is, again, not to convince readers to delete our social media accounts altogether. Instead, he aims to help us see. And, having read the book, we can’t unsee what Martin has shined his light on. So, a question looms: now, what?

What we do with what we’ve seen in Terms of Service is entirely up to us. But a decision is imminent: will we respond with the caution Martin encourages, or will we keep swimming as if the water isn’t poisoned? For the people of God, the decision seems clear. If the discipleship we undergo at the hands of the social internet unravels our humanity, as I’ve said, and Christian discipleship restores our humanity, then we would do well to empty our hands of our phones from time to time so we can “take up our cross and follow [Jesus],” which is the essence of true discipleship (Matt. 16:24). 

Martin’s predictions for the future of the social internet aren’t exactly optimistic. He forecasts more of what we’re experiencing right now; mental health issues, polarization, and even war. But it doesn’t have to be this way! And for Christians, we have an opportunity to show our peers, many of whom are hypnotized by the social internet, a way out of these toxic waters. But it’ll require an intentional, daily decision on our part — a decision that echoes from our elder brother Joshua: “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,” whether the gods of Facebook or the gods of Twitter. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).

By / Mar 9

Do you remember what it felt like to walk the hallways of high school between classes or sit at the lunch table? Hallways and lunch rooms were the primary stages for social engagement in high school in years past. Sure, you talked with your peers in class, but most of the time you were paying attention to lectures or doing work. It was that time in between classes or while eating lunch that the social dynamics were most active.

Everyone, even the kids who say they aren’t, is performing in some way. High school hallways and lunch rooms are like little stages on which teenagers craft their personas and identities among their peers. It’s exciting and stressful, just like performing on any stage. In the 20th century, teenagers left the social stages when they went home. Unless they had plans to attend a social function in the evening or hit up the mall, the social dynamics of high school were left for phone calls with trusted friends until the next school day.

Today, as Derek Thompson says in his book Hit Makers, teenagers are always in the high school hallways. There is no escaping the social stages on which teenagers perform, because instead of walking the runway of the high school hallways for a couple hours a day, five days a week, teenagers have their personal stages in their pockets, calling them to perform every hour of every day with no opportunity to retreat to a social backstage for rest from their ever-present performance.

If you remember the social stressors of the high school hallways and lunch rooms, you can empathize with the feelings today’s teens have as they carry those performance arenas around in their pockets all the time. Is there any wonder, then, why teenagers are more anxious and depressed than before? 

The relationship between social media and depression

Mountains of data have been collected in the last few years that point to a clear relationship between increased social media use and increased experiences of anxiety and depression. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the correlation between social media use and symptoms of anxiety and depression come from the current teenagers that make up Gen Z or “iGen,” as they have been called by researcher and author Jean Twenge. Authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff cite one particularly troubling study in their book The Coddling of the American Mind. Research shows that, in the early 2000s, just more than one-in-ten girls aged 12-17 had a “major depressive episode” in the previous year. But, by 2016, nearly one-in-five girls aged 12-17 had a major depressive episode in the previous year. The rate of major depressive episodes among adolescent girls nearly doubled in less than a decade. Haidt and Lukianoff note that adolescent boys also experienced an increase in depressive episodes, but not as dramatic as that of girls.

Girls are more likely to become anxious or depressed because of increased social media use than boys because the root of anxiety and depression in girls tends to lie more in social dynamics than it does for boys. Whereas boys often deal with social conflict through direct, physical confrontation, girls are more likely to deal with social conflict in ways exacerbated by social media, which is one explanation for their increased anxiety and depression.

“Being a viewer in your own life”

Bo Burnham is a comedian, actor, and director. His career began when he started posting off-color comedic songs to a YouTube channel when he was in high school and YouTube was a relatively new platform. Burnham and I are roughly the same age, and I remember watching his videos in high school ashamed at how hard I was laughing because of how inappropriate they were (and are). Burnham’s 2021 Netflix special Inside is a comedy and a tragedy all wrapped into one hour-long program, and I could write pages about it here, as it is full of masterful commentary on the absurdity of the social internet. But instead, I want to call attention to a quote he gave when he was interviewed following the release of a movie he wrote and directed, Eighth Grade

The movie, which accurately depicts the most awkward aspects of the modern eighth grade experience, naturally features social media heavily. The film’s main character is an aspiring YouTuber, much like Burnham was when he was in high school. Burnham says regarding the social pressures young people face today that no one has ever had to face before:

What is the feeling of walking through your life and not just living your life, not just living your life—which is already [hard] and impossible—but also taking inventory of your life, being a viewer of your own life, living an experience and at the same time hovering behind yourself and watching yourself live that experience? Being nostalgic for moments that haven’t happened yet. Planning your future to look back on it.

Those are really weird, dissociative things that are, I think, new because of the specific structure of social media and how it dissociates ourselves from ourselves.

We find ourselves in a spot in which we feel we have to live our lives and create a documentary of our lives at the same time. We, as Burnham says, hover behind ourselves and watch ourselves live our lives while living our lives. Is it any wonder mental health crises are on the rise?

Another unfortunate reality is that this is not limited to teenagers. Data shows that social media use is adversely affecting the mental health of adults just as it is with teens. Sure, it’s safe to say that adults may feel less peer pressure to be as active on social media as teens are, but we’re all performing in the same way. With constant performance comes constant pressure. With constant pressure comes the gnawing anxiety that you’re going to fail in the spotlight at some point. How long can you really perform before you need to take a break? What if you feel like you can never take a break and log off?

Navigating the current technology and social media landscape as a parent, let alone as a Christian parent, is daunting. On one hand, outright banning all social media activity can unintentionally ostracize your child from his or her peers. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to show that social media can easily hurt young people. In the face of the fear and difficulty that comes with parenting amid such tension, we parents must run to the Scriptures and cling to our God, who says in Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” God is with us as we love our children and do all we can to lead them in the ways they should go. We must lean on him for our strength and our hope.

This article has been adapted from “Terms of Service” from B&H Publishing (2022). 

By / Feb 18

Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to protect children from the potentially harmful impacts of social media. The Kids Online Safety Act of 2022 includes five major elements:

  • Social media companies would be required to provide privacy options, the ability to disable addictive features and allow users to opt-out of recommendations like pages or other videos to “like.” It would also make the strongest privacy protections the default. 
  • The bill would give parents tools to track time spent in the app, limit purchases, and help to address addictive usage.
  • It would require social media companies to prevent and mitigate harm to minors, including self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and unlawful products for minors like alcohol.
  • Social media companies would be required to give kids’ data to academic and private researchers. The scientists would use that data to do more research on what harms children on social media and how to prevent that harm.
  • Social media companies would be required to use a third party to perform independent reviews to quantify the risk to minors, compliance with the law, and whether the company is “taking meaningful steps to prevent those harms.”

Whether the bill will be something Christians should support remains to be seen. But as Dr. Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, told ABC News, it’s an attempt to apply what social science research has taught us about the potential harms of social media. “I think politicians are taking what we know from the science and saying, ‘How do we build in these safeguards?’”, says Anderson.

Questions for evaluation 

While it’s important to build safeguards on social media for our children, every Christian adult should also consider what guardrails they are putting up for themselves. Listed below are 14 questions for self-reflection that we can ask ourselves about our social media engagement. 

1. The time use question: In 2020, the average adult spent three hours a day on social media. Do we spend more daily time on social media than we do on spiritual practices, such as prayer and Bible reading?

2. The best use question: Even if the time we spend on social media is not out of proportion to other activities, we should still consider how we want to spend our days. Is our social media usage an example of following the command in Ephesians 5:16 to make the “best use of the time”?

3. The bubble question: Social media allows us to choose who we interact with, allowing us the ability to create the online equivalent of gated communities. What types of interactions are you missing out on by engaging only within your social media bubble?

4. The corrupt company question: In light of question 3, what kind of bubble are you creating? Who are you surrounding yourself with online? Bad company — even disguised with Christian language — that will corrupt (1 Cor. 15:33)? Or good company that will build up? 

5. The looking with lust question: The predominance of personal photos on social media can allow us to get an intimate glimpse not only into people’s lives but often of people’s bodies. What precautions are we taking to prevent ourselves from looking with lust on the images we see in private (Matt. 5:28)?

6. The one another question: Throughout Scripture there are more than 50 “one another” commands that apply to our fellow believers (for example, the commands to “encourage one another and build up one another” in 1 Thessalonians 5:11). How are you using social media to fulfill those commands?

7. The probability of cancellation question: Cancel culture refers to the modern practice of withdrawing support for someone (i.e., “canceling them”) after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. What are the chances that you could be “canceled” for something you post on social media?

8. The loving your enemy question: Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43). Do we use our social media accounts to identify the “enemies” we need to pray for?

9. The foolish controversies question: In Titus 3:9, Paul tells us to avoid foolish controversies because they are unprofitable and useless. Does our social media usage increase the likelihood that we will engage in such foolish controversies?

10. The eulogy question: Imagine that if at your funeral someone who despises you was able to give a eulogy that consisted of them reading 10 items you posted on social media. Would you have any concerns or fear of embarrassment if that were to happen?

11. The anonymity question: Many people on social media (especially on platforms like Twitter) choose to remain anonymous. But Jesus says “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open” (Luke 8:17). If you have an anonymous account, would you be ashamed if your identity was revealed? (Alternative question: Should we be engaging with those who choose to hide their identity while attacking those whose identities are known?) 

12. The unwholesome talk question: Paul commands us by saying, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29). Do we use social media to engage in unwholesome talk?

13. The true and noble question: Additionally, Paul says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Does our social media usage help us to think about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy?

14. The glory of God question: Paul also says, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:13). Can we honestly say that all that we do on social media is glorifying God?

By / Feb 8

Social justice is a polarized topic in these divided times. The issues that are associated within this discussion are important and should be evaluated from a biblical perspective. Dr. Thaddeus Williams, an associate professor of systematic theology at Biola University, helps us do that in his recent book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth. Below, he answers questions about justice, identity politics, and the role of social media in our conversations.

Jason Thacker: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What got you interested in a lot of these topics, and why did you end up writing this book?

Thaddeus Williams: I teach systematic theology at Biola University, and I’ve always considered myself sort of a generalist fixated on how the lordship of Jesus applies to every square inch of life. So from where I’m coming from, there’s really nothing out of bounds or any territory of reality that Jesus doesn’t declare “mine.” I’ve been interested in literature and art, and with most of my books, I sort of want readers to be confused and ask, “What am I reading? Is this apologetics? Is this systematic theology? Is this church history? Is this literature? Is this poetry?” And the answer is yes, it’s all those things. Because again, if Jesus is Lord over every square inch, then we should reflect that as best we can. 

So when it comes specifically to questions of social justice — which is my latest book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth — I noticed in all the speaking and traveling, I do, some version of the problem of evil [would come up], with the top question being “How can a good God exist when the universe is so messed up?” But in the last four to five years, that’s shifted pretty dramatically. Some version of “How do Christians think biblically about social justice?” has now taken first place. So the first motive behind the book is realizing there are a lot of Christians out there seeking biblical clarity on these questions.

And I’d say a second big reason was seeing a lot of friends and students of mine getting swept up into certain social justice ideologies, and they just slowly became unrecognizable to me. The fruit of the Spirit — love and joy and peace and patience — slowly got replaced with bitterness, rage, resentment, assuming the worst of other people’s motives, and self-righteousness. I was scratching my head and trying to get to the bottom of it. I realized, at the root, there are a lot of very trendy ideas about social justice that are on the rise these days. And I’m convinced a lot of these ideas are a direct assault on a Christian worldview and directly undermine Christian character.

And one of the final reasons is a lot of the stuff I was reading out there was super polarized. For example, if you think racism exists, then [some think] obviously you’re a far-left, snowflake, social justice warrior Marxist. Or, you might think something isn’t as racist as it’s cracked up to be, so you’re [labeled as] an alt-right, fascist, neo-Nazi or something. And I’m only slightly embellishing there. These days, that tends to be the way these conversations go. So, I hoped to put out a resource that could actually draw Christians together to think it through biblically and as charitably as possible.

JT: In the book, you lay out a biblical vision for social justice, and you make the case that social justice isn’t optional for the Christian. Can you help us understand a little bit of a biblical understanding of social justice and the role of the imago Dei?

TW: Just think of how many passages where God doesn’t suggest, but rather commands justice. “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed” (Jer. 22:3). And most of us are familiar with Micah 6:8. It’s not, “What does the Lord suggest of you?” It’s, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This is a running theme from the Old to the New Testament — to do justice. 

So I argue that there’s no such thing as a private injustice or even a private sin that won’t, in some way, affect others. Because both sin, by its very nature, and injustice, by its very nature, are corrosive. They send out a destructive ripple effect on the people around us. So, in a way, all injustice is social injustice in the sense that it affects people around me. And the flip side of that coin is also true. If I’m doing real justice, it’s going to bless the people around me. 

JT: Can we use the term social justice, especially since the term has been co-opted by ideologues? 

TW: The term was invented by a Christian thinker a little over 200 years ago. And if it’s being used and abused today, well, let’s reclaim it and inject those letters with biblical content. Throughout my book, I draw a very basic distinction that runs throughout. On the one hand, social justice, simply defined as the kind of justice that’s compatible with the biblical worldview. But on the other hand, a lot of what’s on the rise these days is what I call “social justice b,” which is deeply incompatible with the biblical worldview. 

So, what are some of the marks of biblical justice? Think of that famous wedding passage where Paul’s describing love (1 Corinthians 13). Paul says that real love is not easily offended. I would say, for example, that’s one mark of biblical justice; it’s marked by a slowness to take offense. This social justice movement that we’re seeing on the rise today is the exact opposite. It actually encourages and inspires people to take offense. By [it’s adherents’] standards, the more offended you are, the more virtuous you are. 

A second point of distinction of biblical justice is going to start with the pride-leveling reality from Paul’s argument in Romans 3 when he says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A biblical approach to justice isn’t going to play these kinds of inner-tribal identity group games of saying, “Well, I’m in the good group. We’ve been oppressed. You’re in the bad group, and you’re the oppressors.” Rather, it’s sort of like a wrecking ball that smashes far-left and far-right versions of identity politics where my economic status, skin tone, or my XX or XY chromosomes will determine the worth and value of what I have to say. A biblical view knows we’re tragically united in Adam. But then there’s this new identity in Christ that draws people together from every tongue, tribe, and nation. So a biblical approach to justice is going to give us a foundation for real, meaningful unity that you just won’t find in the “social justice B” alternative. 

How does the image of God fit into all that? If I’m starting from a biblical perspective, then even the people I most passionately disagree with are not enemies on the battlefront of a culture war. Instead, I need to see them at a deeper level. I need to see them theologically and through biblical lenses where this person is an image-bearer of God. And when that clicks, it’s really hard to keep playing the name-calling game, the mudslinging, the assuming the worst about everybody who disagrees with me. If you look at the “social justice B” alternative, there just isn’t a category for the imago Dei. It lends itself more readily to being able to use some pretty dehumanizing language to describe people who don’t agree.

JT: Let’s dig a little bit into some of the issues surrounding identity politics and the elevation of group identity over and against biblical categories of being in Adam or in Christ. One of the criticisms that a lot of Christians have of the social justice movement broadly is the elevation of this group identity. Help us to think through some of the valid elements of understanding group dynamics in the ways that certain groups have been disenfranchised over time, and at the same time realizing that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. How do we navigate some of the tensions between those worldviews?

TW: I’m going to resort to my mentor, my friend, the living legend of the Civil Rights Movement, John Perkins, who, as you mentioned, was kind enough to to write the foreword to my book. And he shares four basic points. Number one, we’ve got to start with God. If you don’t start there, then these tribal identities are going to lead to tribal warfare. If we don’t start with God, then we’re not starting with the image of God as the premise of how we engage somebody. 

His second bit of insight is to be one in Christ. Basically, he says, regardless of the melanin levels in your skin cells, recognize that you have been adopted by the same Father into the family of God. You have been redeemed by the same Son, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and you’re inhabited by the same Holy Spirit. Whatever cultural differences, melanin level difference, XX or XY chromosome differences, or whatever other kind of cultural category we could sort people into, a running thread through New Testament theology is that we are family. And if we aren’t reminding ourselves of that often, then we’re going to fall into these, polarized political traps and start excommunicating each other left and right. 

His third bit of advice is to keep the gospel first — the historic gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says this is of first importance. He cites this ancient — and some scholars think it’s actually the earliest — creed we have on record from the first century church: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he rose from the dead on the third day and appeared. If we get so swept [up] in social justice that the best news in the universe, the saving death and bodily resurrection of Jesus, becomes an afterthought, then Perkins says we aren’t doing justice and forth. 

And finally, he says, just teach the truth. He clarifies and says don’t go with what’s politically in vogue or what’s trendy right now. Don’t go with what politicians and presidents say. Don’t side with the Twitter mob. When we start with God’s Word, it’s going to take us back again and again to the fact that we all need community in Christ. We join an every-tongue-tribe-and-nation kind of community that gives us a foundation for being a true family. Whereas the further and further we drift from the text, the more we get swept up into the political moment, which is all about us-versus-them tribalism. 

JT: Throughout your reading and research, what role [did you discover that] technology, specifically social media, plays in some of these identities and tribalism and polarization? How do you counsel Christians to use these technologies more wisely?

TW: That is a profound and pressing question. The advent of the trifecta of the internet, social media platforms, and smartphones is extremely new in the history of the human race. And that means that I now have at my fingertips instant access to everything horrible happening on planet Earth, with a few swipes. I can quickly be pulled down a rabbit hole of depressing headline after depressing headline. I think a lot of the fallout of the social media and smartphone revolution is that we just don’t know how to cope with scrolling through a news feed and seeing everything horrible thrown into our field of consciousness on a daily basis. That’s part of the problem. 

The second part of it is we need to contextualize the rise of social media. Particularly in American history, we were coming out of the 90s. The internet came to be when I would argue relativism was at its peak in America. Really, the only thing considered sinful in the mainstream 90s was calling anything sinful. Part of the problem is that anything-goes style relativism just doesn’t fit our design. God designed us, according to Scripture, to be part of an epic drama of good versus evil, to fight the principalities and the powers and take every thought captive into obedience to Christ. We’re designed to be part of that grand moral melodrama. And relativism just took that from people, because relativism can’t give you anything bigger than your own personal tastes and preferences. Nobody’s going to die for their favorite flavor of ice cream, right? We don’t die for preferences. So on the heels of that, I would argue that relativism has a shelf life.

As social media has become basically a fixture of life in the 21st century, you have a lot of people who were bored morally through the 90s. Now, all of a sudden, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. So now people think: “I need to to be a warrior, I need to to signal my virtue to the masses, and I need to be able to to hashtag my solidarity or my outrage at every new headline, because that’s a lot more exciting.” In the broader cultural context, part of what we’re seeing is the convergence of a new technology that enables people to voice moral outrage unlike any platform humanity has ever seen, and this is coming on the heels of a stage of extreme moral malaise and boredom. Put those two things together, and you have a recipe for everybody being outraged all the time — at others who either don’t have enough outrage or the wrong kind of outrage. 

So what can Christians do in a moment like that? We don’t want to just write off social media. One of the things the Church has been great at through history is whenever there is a new innovation, new ground is pioneered in communication technology. As soon as the Gutenberg press came out in the late 15th century, Christians were right there at the forefront to say, “Let’s get the Bible out there in a way that it’s no longer under lock and chain in a Roman Catholic cathedral. Let’s get it in the hands of the masses.” During any one of these decisive technological leaps forward, the Church has adapted and often been at the forefront. 

So, as Christians, we don’t want to have [the attitude that] social media is bad. I know people who heard the gospel for the first time through social media. My dad has this mission field in cyberspace where he’s reaching out to Baha’is and Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. He’s been able to have meaningful points of contact and share the gospel. So I would say it’s not something to be afraid of, as much as something to capitalize on for the sake of the gospel.

And let me add a few bits of advice on navigating a technology that can be ambivalent and can pull us in really good or bad directions. Two things immediately come to mind. We need to recognize something that I describe in my book as the Newman effect. I’m borrowing here from a 2018 viral interview between Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and news host Cathy Newman. Any time Peterson makes a point, the response was “so you’re saying,” followed by an inflammatory interpretation of what Peterson was saying. I argue in the book that social media has sort of made Cathy Newman’s out of all of us. So, as we engage this very new technology, [we should] not play by those rules. [Unfortunately], that’s how most conversations that I’ve seen on important questions tend to go as we buy into the Newman effect and automatically assume the worst of other people’s motives. 

Secondly, think of the rise of Millennial and Gen Z folks who don’t identify as religious. There is a clear uptick over the course of the last 10 years. Researchers trying to get to the bottom of it found the number one answer was some version of, “I saw this really hilarious two-minute YouTube video of this guy just ripping Christianity.” People were now settling ultimate questions, eternally-weighty questions based on some two-minute sound bite they saw or some 60-second clip. So, that’s something we want to be very careful of, especially as we deal with complex questions like race, economics, sexism, abortion, or fill in the blank. As Christians, we just can’t settle for soundbites, which means we need to deliberately resist the algorithms that will only send us the kind of stuff we’re already buying into. We need to be very intentional about breaking out of our echo chambers. For Christians committed to truth in the age of social media, we need to be as intentional as possible about getting at the whole truth.

JT: What are some books that you would recommend for folks? Maybe one or two works that help us understand some of these issues, whether from a more historical perspective or more of a practical outworking on some of these?

TW: The one I’ve been going through again recently, that seems like it was written for these crazy times we’re in, was written a couple of hundred years ago. It’s William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. It’s rightly considered a classic. And what he does there is he’s able to give just rock solid theology. Wilberforce has a clear grasp on the historic gospel of the Christian faith and the implications of that gospel for society, particularly when it comes to questions of justice and social justice.

A lot of social justice causes revolve around questions of gender, gender identity, and sexuality. Religious freedom gets wrapped up in there, too. So, another resource is The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Truman. He does a really helpful job of kind of walking through the history of some of the ideas that used to be in the ivory towers of academia, but have now gone mainstream. If you want to be discerning in this cultural moment and see a lot of the trendy ideology for what it is, I would put his book pretty close to the top of the list.

This article originally appeared here. 

By / Jan 13

One of the great promises of social media is its implicit pledge to make its users well-known. Friends and followers, likes and retweets all whisper to us that we are being seen and known. And as our digital audience grows, we feel affirmed, important, influential, and maybe even powerful. It can be intoxicating, and social media companies know it. 

Christians often find ourselves in serious pursuit of more online followers and influence. Sometimes, it’s because we are rightly seeking to embrace the call to spread the gospel that’s been entrusted to us. Yet, the very nature of social media means users are encouraged to increase their notoriety. And while this may create a unique opportunity for us to share the gospel, it also presents us with a dangerous temptation that Jesus warns us to avoid — “practicing our righteousness before others to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1).

So, while God may be calling some believers to use social media platforms for the sake of the gospel, what if the way of faithfulness for most of us is more akin to serving in obscurity? In a culture that seeks notoriety at all costs, one of the most important ambitions that some of us can choose to adopt is to embrace a quiet life, where we serve and share the gospel with those around us and recognize that our God-given desire to be seen and known will only be fully met by Christ himself. 

Practicing our righteousness to be seen by others

Why do we sometimes do the things we do on social media? It’s a basic question that we often fail to ask ourselves. Our feeds can frequently turn into kitschy Christian tropes, self-aggrandizing photos of our religious activity, and faux humility that spotlights just how earnest and spiritual we are. And, why? It’s because social media is one giant marketplace that makes it easy and “normal” for us to show off without even realizing it. 

What’s so addictive about our public displays of righteousness, as Jesus tells us, is that they promise and produce a reward that our flesh loves. Public displays of our piety — like Jesus’ examples in the Sermon on the Mount of praying and fasting or a punchy, well-timed religious quote meant to “own” one of our detractors — undoubtedly gain the applause of our followers through likes and retweets, giving us the dopamine hit that we’ve grown so addicted to. 

In giving ourselves over to this use of social media, we have contented ourselves with and even preferred the reward that comes not from the Father but from our crowd of followers. “Truly,” Jesus says to us, “they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:2). 

Gain followers, lose your soul

One of the interesting things about social media is that, regardless of which platform is being used, it has become our culture’s most prominent stage for acting out its most prized virtue: self-expression. It’s where we go to express ourselves and rally others to our cause. But following Jesus is not chiefly about expressing ourselves, as much as our culture may recoil at the thought. Instead it’s about denying ourselves (Matt. 16:24). It’s not about adding to some ever-growing list of followers, but about following Jesus with a cross on our back. 

Jesus assures us that he will return one day “with his angels in the glory of his Father,” and when he does, he says, “he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27). At his coming, will we be those who have “gained the world” of social media, having forfeited our souls in the process, or will we be those who value self-denial above self-expression? 

Your Father who sees in secret

Social media, though it can certainly be used for good, is often the trumpet blast that Jesus condemns in his sermon (Matt. 6:2), the loud invitation for onlookers to clap their hands with “likes” and shout their approval with “retweets” at the righteousness that we have publicized for them. But Jesus tells us, “Beware.” And not because our desire for reward is inherently bad, but because we’re settling for a lesser reward! 

We do not have to practice our righteousness before others to be seen and rewarded. Our Father sees our acts of faithfulness, and he will reward us. He sees when we give and pray and fast in secret (Matt. 6:2, 6, 17). And he sees when we read his Word without posting a photo on Instagram, when we share a meal with a brother or sister without tagging them and announcing it on Facebook, and when we refrain from disparaging an image-bearer on Twitter. Even if no one else ever sees these “acts of righteousness,” our Father sees in secret, and he will reward us.

Lead a quiet life

Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are worthy of our consideration in a culture that has made an idol of celebrity and self-expression: “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs” (1 Thess. 4:11). Our society rewards those who are loud and bombastic; those who are pugnacious, insolent, and “omnicompetent”; and those who parade their righteousness around for all to see. But God calls us to embrace something different — a life of self-denial; a life of unheralded, unseen acts of faithfulness; and a life content with obscurity

As St. Augustine and others have said, all of life is lived coram Deo, before the face of God. Therefore, we don’t have to fear that our effort to follow in the way of Jesus will go unnoticed, even if our peers never acknowledge it. And we don’t have to worry that the cups of cold water we give in Jesus’ name (Matt.10:42) or our hidden day-to-day faithfulness will go unrecognized, even when there are no “likes” or “favorites” to reward us. We can be content with praying behind closed doors (Matt. 6:6), giving anonymously (Matt. 6:3), serving and sharing the gospel with those around us, and quelling the impulse to practice our righteousness before our audience of social media followers because we are waiting for a better reward. 

May we be countercultural — happy to live a quiet life, hungering and thirsting for the righteousness that doesn’t need to be performed before others, and finding our joy and satisfaction in the approval of God alone. 

By / Jan 5

In the fall of 2021, while pouring my morning coffee, I barely noticed the newspaper headline about Facebook — near daily reports made it easy to ignore. But 24 hours later, the multi-part series in the Wall Street Journal caught my full attention: “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic For Teen Girls, Its Research Shows.” The lengthy two-page exposé reported that Facebook’s own research reveals its photo-sharing platform, Instagram, is to blame for a host of dangers, including contributing to clinical depression, eating disorders, and self harm. 

It should come as no surprise that a photo-sharing app — built around filtering and editing selfies to their best effect — causes comparison and negative physiological effects among teen girls. What makes this news is that Facebook knows about the harmful effects but isn’t willing to stop because the very thing that causes problems also generates huge profits.

“The features that Instagram identifies as most harmful to teens,” reported the WSJ,  “appear to be at the platform’s core.” And Facebook isn’t interested in lowering its income: “Expanding its base of young users is vital to the company’s more than $100 billion in annual revenue, and it doesn’t want to jeopardize their engagement with the platform.”

Alarmed, but not surprised

Christian parents should be alarmed by this news, but not surprised. This story follows a biblical pattern. Scripture teaches us what life is like in a fallen world where people are motivated by selfish gain. Paul speaks candidly about the danger of loving money, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). 

Facebook likely won’t curb its own magnetic and wildly profitable platforms. But even if Facebook were motivated to place children’s welfare above revenues, parents would still bear the responsibility before God to guide their children in stewarding this and other technologies for their good and his glory.

The wise author of Proverbs urges his son saying, “listen to me,” “give ear,” “do not turn away.” This example of ongoing, repeated conversations between father and son about the way of the wise is a model for all parents to follow, especially in our cultural moment. There is a battle raging for the souls of the next generation. Before we even consider giving our children phones with access to social media, we must teach them wisdom so they can use them well, and not be used by them.

Delay, delay, delay

The first thing parents can do is simple: “Delay, delay, delay.” That’s the advice of author and psychology professor Jean Twenge. Author and psychoanalyst Erica Komisar echoes her advice. She recommends parents “not allow social media until at least middle adolescence, or ages 14 to 18, and only allow it in a limited way from the beginning.” Contrary to the embrace of digital devices so common in American homes, Komisar says, “the longer you can delay it the better.” 

Waiting until children are more mature protects them while they are still vulnerable and unprepared for the pressures of social media. Delaying means more time to mature. But also, it creates space for instruction and discipleship, and time to discern if your children are ready for the responsibility. Maturity and wisdom are what’s needed to steward technology in a way that keeps it a tool.

Tool, not taskmaster

Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, is encouraging a generation of “digital minimalists” who “see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves.”

He says most apps’ benefits are dwarfed by their costs — what they take from you is far greater than what they give. He urges people to use them sparingly. “Don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into [your life].” He advocates for “applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins.” 

Children need parents who model this sort of digital surgical strike. They need to see us using apps sparingly, with wisdom, when they serve worthy purposes — and avoiding them when they don’t. They need to hear us talking about social media with the language of if, rather than when. If we get on Instagram. Not when we do. And once there, we need to use those platforms for God’s glory, not our own (1 Cor. 10:31).

We can’t expect our children to apply digital discernment if that’s not what we’re modeling for them. This begins with us not assuming every app is worth downloading and not handing over our time without first determining if the app is a tool that will serve what we value most.

We, and our children, need the freedom to decide if something is worth giving time to. The prevailing assumption seems to be that everybody will get on Facebook, everybody will have Instagram, everyone will be on Twitter, and whatever else the newest trend is. But that isn’t true. Every family is free to opt in, or not. And if opting in, to have a better reason for it than “everybody is doing it.”

All of life discipling

Delaying smartphones and social media is an important strategy when children are young. But it’s only part of the solution. If your children are still young, this is the season for laying a foundation of biblical truth. 

Do they know they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psa. 139:14) and created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26)? Are they convinced that they, like all of us, have a sin nature (Rom. 5:12), are under God’s wrath (John 3:36), and are powerless to earn his favor (Rom. 3:20)? Teach them that “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses,” (Eph. 2:4-5) sent Jesus, the divine Son, to take our place on the cross (Rom. 3:25). Tell them that he paid the price we could never pay, opening the way for us to be restored to God (Col. 1:19-20). And exhort them with the amazing news that everyone who believes in him and calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13).

These are the truths they need for all of life, and beyond — certainly before they venture into the virtual world. Give them the gospel. And ask God to help them to desire the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5). Weave it into conversations when you sit in your house, walk along the way, lie down, and rise up. That’s the all-of-life discipleship Deuteronomy 11:19 commands, and it’s no less needed in the virtual world than in the physical one.

Before you send them out, equip them to be in the world, not of it (John 17:14-16). This is the call for every Christian parent (Psa. 78:4, 6-7).

Count the cost

The pull of social media is strong on adults. How much stronger must that feel to the youth in our lives? Despite any good of staying connected with friends, social media can feel like slavery to a teen. Twenge said teens used “an addict’s narrative” to describe their Instagram use — they wanted to stop but couldn’t. “Your teen likely knows the downsides of social media,” says Twenge, “but [she] needs your help to manage it wisely.” Be alert to signs that your child needs help to break away.

If your teen is already on Instagram, be there with her. Talk to her about what she’s seeing, any pressure she feels, how she responds to negative emotions and defiling images, and if she ever wishes she could take a break. Share your approach to social media. Pray together for the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom. Ask God to help you steward the technology and, if necessary, to take a break from it. 

We can’t expect social media companies to tame a problem that also generates huge revenues. But even if Facebook were to change Instagram, something else would take its place. This is a problem with technology that can’t be solved by technology, because at root, it’s a spiritual problem. 

Thankfully, God’s Word contains the solution. Parents need to prepare their children for the world before sending them into it. Ground their identity in Christ before they go out into the world, both virtual and real. If they go looking for their identity anywhere other than God, there will be trouble.

If your teen has the maturity to use social media sparingly, for intentional purposes, it may be a place she can shine like a light in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation (Phil. 2:15). But don’t let the pressure of peers or marketers or even your own friends be the reason you say yes to social media. 

Don’t send her in early or unprepared. The cost is too high.

By / Jan 4

For the past few years, I have had the opportunity to highlight some of the top ethical issues in technology to be aware of as we begin a new year. In 2021, I wrote about the concerning trends of content moderation — especially in regards to free speech and religious freedom in the digital public square — as well as the growing concerns over facial recognition technologies and the ongoing debate over personal privacy. While many of these same issues will likely carry over into 2022, some have given way to larger concerns about pervasive surveillance, in addition to the threat of digital authoritarianism around the world.

For all of the good uses of technology, it has profound and consequential effects on us as humans. It shapes us in particular ways, including how we see and engage with those around us. While many today are reframing what it means to be human, Christians know that every person is created in God’s image and has inherent dignity. Furthermore, we know that our identity is rooted in God our Creator and that we are to love him and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). This question of human identity is a central to many of the top ethical issues of the day, especially in our technologically rich society.

If 2021 taught us anything, it is that we need to take these particular ethical issues seriously. The church needs to understand that technology is becoming one of the primary disciplers of our people, forming us in ways that we may never fully understand. In light of these realities, here are four of the top issues to keep an eye on in 2022.

Content moderation and free speech

Of all of the issues our society faces today in terms of technology, there is widespread agreement across partisan lines that content moderation is one of the most consequential debates today, even if that agreement only consists of an acknowledgement that the current state of things is not sustainable in the long term. Some argue that technology companies need to moderate more content — especially around fake news, misinformation, and hate speech — while others argue that these companies are simply suppressing certain types of speech that they disagree with on ideological grounds and acting as unaccountable “moderators” in the open marketplace of ideas.

In 2022, these issues will only become more controversial and divisive as major political parties in the United States and in countries around the world debate and possibly legislate how and by what standard these companies should moderate or suppress certain types of content online. One of the key elements in this debate will be where to draw the line over free speech and the nature of religious freedom in the public square.

Misinformation/fake news

This past year, I have heard from countless pastors and ministry leaders about how to navigate the rise of fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories in their local churches. Some Christian leaders argue that misinformation is not a problem plaguing the local church, but this is often because many of us have become so accustomed to it. And almost no one truly believes they are spreading a conspiracy theory or fake news given that they believe it to be true. 

One of the most subtle and deleterious effects of technology today is how our society perceives truth and how the information overload we face each day is causing all of us to lose a grip on reality. This isn’t an isolated occurrence but has become a cultural practice across political, social, and even religious grounds. While this debate is endlessly complex, one of the most countercultural things we can do in the midst of information overload is to simply say, “I don’t know.” Conversations about these problems will only grow in the coming year as our society awakens to the fact that misinformation and fake news have real-world consequences.

Digital surveillance and data privacy

Amidst many of the digital issues of the day, there is one issue that seems to be right outside of the limelight but will likely be a central ethical concern in 2022. With the ubiquity of technology and our dependence on it, there is the vast and growing concern over personal privacy and the use of data. Governments around the world are beginning to or have already regulated the flow of data and who has access to it, often focusing on a right to privacy. In the U.S., there has been a continued push for a federal digital privacy law similar to that found in the European Union with the GDPR and states like California with the CCPA. In 2021, much of the movement in this space centered around what it could look like for the U.S. to have a “digital bill of rights” as we move further into this digital first world.

For Christians, a right to privacy is not derived from the moral autonomy of the individual, as in many non-Christian ethical theories, but from the dignity of all people. One of the functions of privacy in this world is a way to care for the vulnerable among us and uphold their dignity as image-bearers in a technologically-rich society. As we see each day, however, is that data and information can and will be used, abused, and manipulated toward selfish ends because of the prevailing nature of sin in the world. 

Unfortunately, technology will be used to control and strip others of their dignity. One of the main ways this will be done in our digital society is through the misuse of data and information. Thus, there is a great need for a right to privacy grounded in a transcendent reality of human dignity, rather than the pursuit of autonomy and individual freedom. In 2022, we may see some more movement from local, state, and federal governments to address these important issues of data collection, personal privacy, and the use of this information by private and public actors alike.

Digital authoritarianism

In 2021, we saw the explosive growth of technology control entire people groups and even nations. While much of the focus in the West was on how technologies are shaping how we see the world around us, throughout the world these tools are still being used to prop up strong men and authoritarian regimes — bent on controlling the flow of information and subjecting people to massive propaganda in order to retain power and positions over those who are vulnerable. One of the clearest examples of digital authoritarianism is seen the continued genocide of the Uyghur people in China under the repressive Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

As I recently wrote, the CCP uses countless forms of technology to suppress basic human rights, surveil its citizens, and subjugate our fellow image-bearers to some of the worst forms of both physical and mental abuse. Technology is one of the most powerful tools the CCP has in its arsenal to control and manipulate others. But this heavy hand of authoritarianism isn’t limited to the CCP. Nations around the world have shown that they will use any means necessary to limit access to information, suppress free expression, and cut people off from the outside world altogether. In recent years, we have seen this take place in Iran, Russia, Belarus, and most recently Cuba. 

As we move into 2022, it is clear that digital authoritarianism is becoming commonplace around the world and will only continue to rise as technologies become more accurate and accessible to those bent on suppressing human rights and religious freedom in order to maintain position or power over others.

As Christians engage the most pressing issues of our day, we must do so with a rich vision of human dignity and a public theology that is rooted in the truthfulness of Scripture. While ethical issues with technology may seem unimportant or pale in comparison to others at times, we must remember that these concerns are central to many of the ongoing debates we have been having for many years. Looking out onto the ethical and policy landscape of 2022, there is much to be hopeful about, but there are also many pressing issues that need to be addressed by thoughtful and rich engagement from the church — as she proclaims the goodness of God’s design and the truth of the gospel to a world desperately in need of both truth and grace.

By / Jan 3

We live in a loud world, and it can feel like the one who shouts and throws around the snarkiest comments online wins. The other day I was scrolling on social media (my first mistake), clicked on a news story, and then read the comments (so many mistakes). The topic is not important, but the commenters split into two sides and were full of hate, fear, and anger. Many of the loudest voices identified as Christians. It sent me reeling for a few days. Is this what it means to be a Christian and live courageously in our day and age?

It seems many of us have lost sight of what it means to obey Jesus, especially online. There are those who claim boldness for Christ but reject his example of humility and self-sacrifice (Phil. 2). There are those who tell you God is in control one minute but then spend the following hour convincing us everything is spinning out of control (and that we better be mad about it). And there are those who try to sprinkle some Christian language on whatever agenda gets the most clicks and shares in that moment. It’s all very loud and disorienting. 

Learning about real courage from Romans 12

But here’s the thing: real courage is very often quiet. In a crazy, noisy world like ours, the most courageous and countercultural thing we can do is live with intentional calm. In a world where it seems like everyone around us is losing their minds, Christians are called to have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). 

But what does that look like, practically? I’m grateful we don’t have to guess. Over and over again, the early church was given instructions about how to live as Christ-followers in the midst of hard circumstances (like living under the rule of the Roman Empire). For example, in Romans 12, Paul writes:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 17–21).

This quite opposite of the rage we see online, often perpetuated by Christians. Whether it’s a hot take about COVID-19, a defensive opinion about the latest politicized issue, or a mean-spirited theological debate, we have gotten into the habit of dishonoring Christ and his people in the name of “courage.” 

On the contrary, it takes real, Spirit-born courage to live the way Paul describes — to live peaceably and honorably when it feels better to be defensive and self-protective; to serve others faithfully, even those who wish us harm, when it’s easier to give up and hide from the evil around us; to trust that God is just and in control when it would be more satisfying to enact revenge; to be misunderstood, even by our brothers and sisters, but refusing to retaliate.  

What is most amazing to me about this passage is the last imperative: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Up until this point, Paul sounds a little bit to me, dare I say it, naive. These are hard words to live by in a fallen world. But he’s not naive. He’s reminding us that the gospel offers a new way of living that doesn’t just repay evil with more evil — it actually overcomes it with good. Amazing!

Conclusion 

For centuries, Christians have read these words and taken heart amid pandemics, wars, famine, and persecution. These living words of God enable us to live with real courage and do the kind of humble, quiet, countercultural things that have eternal consequences. And if we are called to live this way toward our enemies (v. 20), how much more should we demonstrate kindness, grace, and good to our fellow believers? 

So let’s not be fooled by those who appear to always be taking a stand courageously but only seem to spread anxiety and chaos. Let’s not be egged on by the bluster that has us creating enemies and seeking revenge. Let’s not give in to the temptation to join such practices that are wicked in nature. And let’s not even come close to describing these things as “Christian.” 

Instead, let’s seek the simple clearheadedness necessary, born of a mind renewed by the Spirit in the Word of God (Rom. 12:1-2), to keep about the work God has for us. Just as the Thessalonians were instructed “to live quietly” and continue the daily work God gave them (1 Thess. 4:11), we won’t be distracted by noisy, secondary issues because we are too focused on moving the gospel forward. 

We have days and years ahead that demand a choice: will we choose the quiet courage that’s grounded in trusting a just and sovereign God, or will we get sucked into infighting, anger, and dishonoring the glory of God. I want to wake up each morning in 2022 and choose the better. Will you join me?

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.