What to do with Impersonal Influencers in a Digital Age, Part 1

What to do with Impersonal Influencers in a Digital Age, Part 1

Personal Influencers

My fourteen-year-old self was angsty, not an uncommon state of being for a pubescent male. Nonetheless, my angst did not quickly dissolve as I matured. It began instead to fester and to corrode my relationships with others and most importantly with God. I was shaping for myself an isolated existence.

Fortunately, the youth pastor at my church saw past that. Knowing that I loved basketball, he enticed me into attending youth group by promising to organize a game afterwards — the kind of game that you need to bring a change of athletic clothes and basketball shoes to play. On top of that, he did my parents a service by offering to drive my gross, sweaty self home. (I may or may not have discovered deodorant by that time. I can’t recall.) In these twenty-minute car rides, God used him profoundly to shape my life. By asking me deep theological and spiritual questions, he helped me wade through the “right answers” about God and see the truth of God, calling me back to him.

Your story might have some different characters and settings, but perhaps the plot runs parallel to mine. A pastor, teacher, parent, or mentor personally impacted your life at a sort of moment of crisis in ways for which words of gratitude will always fall short.

Rise of the Impersonal Influencer

While I certainly hope and pray that that is the case and that personal influencers continue to set lives on a higher course, our culture is increasingly being shaped by impersonal influencers. On the one hand, this is nothing new. For as long as literature and the arts have been around (which is to say, most of human history),  impersonal influencers have guided society along its course — sometimes along well-tread paths, sometimes up new and exciting peaks, and others times right over the edge of a cliff. The soaring melodies and poignant lyrics of certain musicians have encouraged and inspired me towards greater devotion to God. A handful of authors with an intellectual capacity that far outstrips my own and with the skill to effectively express their thoughts have allowed me to see truth (and error) more clearly than I would have under my own faculties.

But on the other hand, the advent of more efficient telecommunication systems (printing press, telegram, radio, etc.) dramatically increased these kinds of influencers. Even more, the Digital Age has seen an exponential growth in impersonal influencers: One can download complete books, stream a TV show, watch a YouTube video, browse Instagram pictures, receive Snaps and Tweets, read your news or Facebook feeds, subscribe to a blog, listen to a podcast, share a playlist. And that’s not considering the myriad forms of media I failed to mention! While not necessarily detracting from the influence of those who have personally entered our lives, this exponentially growing cacophony of impersonal influencers certainly does provide a unique set of considerations and challenges.

By now, I’m sure many have heard of the echo chamber effect of social media — that most of us are exposed primarily to what confirms our viewpoints, making us less sympathetic towards different perspectives. We are additionally learning of the effects on our psychology. In the endless comparison game that media affords, depression and anxiety devours new prey daily. It becomes more difficult to maintain focus as our brain becomes accustomed to scrolling from one story to the next in a matter of seconds. If an article or video doesn’t please or entertain immediately, we move on, and this shapes not only our ability to pay attention but our capacity for delayed gratification as well, a mindset necessary for success.

A Unique Challenge

However, one issue that I believe receives less attention is this: Undue influence is given to those who, while perhaps intelligent, are often better suited to networking and entertaining than counseling the hurting, providing political and social commentary, or expounding theological truths. You might catch this when a movie star parades a particular cause at an awards ceremony, especially if it conflicts with your point of view. You sarcastically reflect, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna trust him, the one who [fill in whatever immoral actions].” But you don’t think twice when that Christian blogger, who majored in English Comp and read a theology book once, reinvents (i.e., distorts) the doctrine of Christ’s atonement; or when that attractive Christian Instagram couple provides a hodge-podge of spiritual advice firmly wrapped in their own personal narrative; or when that Christian musical artist whose hit worship song makes you feel good about yourself theologizes a hot-button issues.

(These, by the way, are generalizations. If you think I have anyone in particular in mind, you might be correct, but I likely have at least two other similar examples as well. And maybe you do think twice about the Christian media personalities, but only when they espouse ideas that outrageously clash with your personal experience. More on that below.)

For those in the Church in particular, we may describe this condition differently. In the past, the weight of theological and spiritual formation outside of the home (we cannot forget that formation begins with parents!) rested primarily with called, equipped, and approved pastors, elders, teachers, and deacons — both the personal and impersonal influencers. This is significant. Men and women might feel prompted by the Holy Spirit to serve in a particular capacity, but then they would receive training in their field/calling and undergo a process of approval by a local church, presbytery, diocese, or denomination. Those latter two steps are what we often find lacking in many of our online influencers today. Unbounded by the orthodox teaching and oversight of a church, these pop theologians find their source of truth and authority more in pious feeling and have a greater tendency to stray from God’s Word. They may share much godly, Christ-centered truth; however, if their platform is ultimately shaped by their self, either the waves of human mutability will toss beliefs and practices to and fro in endless revision and alteration, or the sands of human fallibility will prove to be fragile.

But we must not overreact (or mischaracterize my analysis as a gross generalization). This by no means requires us to shut out anyone who is not officially endorsed by the institutional church in an official capacity. The lack of institutional approval does not necessarily make one a self-absorbed, Scriptureless heretic. This does not require us to reject the teaching, counseling, or advice from an “untrained” individual either. Indeed, God can and does use the simple things and people of the world to confound the wise. Even simple folk may be made wise by the light of God’s Word and empowered by the Spirit to shape his kingdom. And yet, while many of the apostles were simple fisherman, the Son of God did personally train them over the course of several years. And Judas Iscariot was not replaced by whomever felt a personal call; the Eleven followed a semi-formal process in selecting his successor.

Objections

At least two camps may object thus far. Those in the first camp, more than likely from an evangelical or charismatic background, are wondering why I am not a Roman Catholic. In stressing the institutional church as far as I am, aren’t I simply upholding a Catholic view of authority? The Church says what is truth and error, right and wrong? Not at all. God has ordained that specific offices be established to shepherd his Church according to his Word. But institutions do go wrong. Nothing is a replacement for the Word of God as the first and final arbiter of truth and practice. History has demonstrated the necessity of persons correcting the institutional church in error by returning to the Word, but in the case of the Protestant Reformers, this was done within the context of communal conversations which also drew from the wellspring of their ecclesial forebears. John Calvin, for instance, often quoted both western and eastern church fathers to demonstrate that he was not inventing doctrine out of thin air. Heresies and false teaching — doctrinal inventions and corruptions — do creep into the Church by rejecting or, as more often is the case, twisting Scripture, and orthodoxy — that which the Church has always taught — highlights the doctrinal boundaries of the faith.

Those in the second camp, more than likely from a liberal background, will balk when I speak of “orthodoxy.” Isn’t orthodoxy just what those in power decide is right while squelching alternative perspectives? My response to this assertion is twofold: First, this group, perhaps more than the charismatics motivated by religious experience, proves most susceptible to being tossed to and fro. But while the charismatics find their religious experience more firmly shaped by Scripture, the liberal’s malleability comes from the commitments and concerns of the ever-changing culture. Second, from my engagement with those who make such claims about the limits of “orthodoxy,” a cursory, unfaithful analysis of the historical record is often to blame. Just because one or two church fathers expounded a belief that challenges the now-perceived orthodoxy, this does not mean that it was a widely-held doctrine by the universal Church that those in power then sought to put down because it was not their view. Generous orthodoxy can be very well historically established.

But our Christian media personalities, while more than likely shaped by a general orthodoxy, too often fall outside the shepherding of an equipping, certifying body. Personal experience, cultural standards, or well-intentioned errors thus, because of the expansive nature of modern digital media, are widely exacerbated when consumed by the typical viewer, reader, or listener. Christians may be directed to dip their toes into murky doctrinal or moral waters or jump in completely, or non-Christians may find reason to ridicule a misrepresented Christianity. Our approach for meeting this unique, multifaceted challenge should be likewise multifaceted.

See next week’s column for three suggestions on approaching this challenge.