In my previous column, we were analyzing how our digital age presents a unique challenge. Those who influence us impersonally through various forms of media have taken a privileged place in shaping our views on any number of subjects when they may not really be equipped or approved by any kind of governing body to do so. That makes it more likely, but by no means certain, that personal or cultural bias creep into one’s thoughts. How do we respond?
As consumers of media, we must begin with our mindset in receiving the input of our impersonal influencers. This begins with being cognizant of the media we absorb in the first place. Too frequently in our perfunctory scrolling and clicking, the beliefs and desires of these influencers bypass our consciousness, and we implicitly begin to align our own beliefs and desires with the messages we unconsciously perceive. We first enjoy the perfectly framed and filtered photos of the Christian Insta-mom’s Marie Kondo-ed household. Then we long for our house to become an imitation of what we have viewed online. Then we find that our desires have changed, becoming discontent with our current circumstances, and that a willingness to listen to this individual’s advice has arisen within us in the unconscious hope that our life will transform into that picturesque fantasy. Her questions become our questions. Her answers become our answers. Her advice becomes gospel.
Wake up to reality: first, that no one’s life is that put together and second, that this process occurs more often than you realize.
Secondly, we can develop a healthy skepticism. An unhealthy skepticism doubts and questions every single thing to the point where you are the alpha and omega. You always know better. This fosters pride and arrogance. On the other hand, uncritically accepting everything is no grounds for building your life on truth which leads to flourishing. Everyone else always shapes and reshapes reality for you. Instead, we recognize that God is the author of all truth and goodness, and he confers on his image bearers various gifts and abilities and glimpses of his truth. Yet, because all are subject to sin, that truth has been distorted in various ways. That being the case, we ought to engage our impersonal influencers with this mentality. They might offer sound counsel; they might not. They might properly critique culture; they might improperly approve culture. They might encourage godliness; they might encourage sin. As the old adage goes: Eat the watermelon, but spit out the seeds. Recognize this from the outset.
If such is the case — if we might discern good or bad, true or false — and if we are just subject to the corruptive influence of sin, we must also allow ourselves to be challenged. Our online echo chambers have fostered a tendency to reject only those impersonal influencers which outrageously contradict what we believe. And if they do so on one point, we throw the baby out with the bathwater as the saying goes. To provide a poignant example that is sure to rile a few feathers: because someone takes an immoral stance on abortion does not mean their view of systemic racism or global warming ought to be rejected. And just because someone does stand for the rights of the unborn does not mean their view of immigration or laissez-faire capitalism ought to be accepted. Our ears must remain open; at least be open to listen.
To respond to our unique cultural challenge, we need more than a proper mindset when consuming media. We need critical tools to evaluate properly that which we absorb. Remembering that the Holy Spirit can give even the simple wisdom to share, still as noted above, God has instituted particular offices for building his church. It never hurts to check the credentials of an impersonal influencer. Have they been trained and equipped? Has a trusted church body or institution approved their expertise? If so, their influence is more likely to be shaped by an orthodox interpretation of God’s Word rather than personal experience, cultural bias, or unintentional error. The ethical musings of a musician, for example, do not hold as much weight as the opinion of the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. If the former agrees with my moral sensibilities and the latter challenges them, there is a greater chance I ought seriously to reconsider my perspective.
Furthermore, our evaluation can and should take place in a three-layered community. To take advantage of our digital age, an online search can produce an expanse of biblical perspectives with which you may compare. If a media personality claims that more faith can erase hardships and produce material blessings, go to Google and search “biblical responses to suffering.” If a blogger comments on our culture’s view of sexuality, see if their stance is confirmed or challenged by others. This is the first, most easily accessible layer. (Of course, one should verify the credentials of these other sources as well.)
The second layer of community takes into consideration history and geography. How has the universal church across time and space responded to the particular issue at hand? Our perspective can become so distorted by our particular setting that we need the voices of our brothers and sisters situated in other contexts to expose our cultural bias. This can give us a better awareness of the orthodox boundaries of Christianity within which faithful biblical interpretation can take place, drawing us back to God’s Word as our source of authority and the not whims of humans.
Finally, evaluate what you consume within your local church community — your family in Christ. Surely your church isn’t so corrupt that there aren’t a few godly, wise leaders with whom you can share your thoughts. This is the God-ordained office to which they were called, equipped, and approved. Why not utilize the regular means of theological and spiritual growth? How else could you, a member of the Body of Christ, expect to grow if you are cut off from that Body? Does a severed arm continue to grab, hold, and lift things. A disturbing image, perhaps, but one that effectively communicates an acute truth: Staying connected to our local church helps us to stay disconnected from the sticky web of internet folly.
The last tools we need are more personal — fear of the Lord, a deep familiarity with his Word, and prayer. Proverbs informs us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (9:10). If we are to discern the implicit and explicit messages we apprehend in the media, we need the wisdom that derives from God, and we can only receive that if we in reverence approach his throne, which in Christ we can do confidently (Hebr 4:14-16; cf. Hebr 10:19; Eph 3:12), knowing that he is generous in bestowing such a gift (James 1:5). In this we already see the necessity of petitioning God in prayer. Whatever intelligence we possess will not be able to outwit the Deceiver without the power and intelligence that designed and created all things.
Remember that the Deceiver himself even slyly approached Jesus, using Scripture to bend the Son of God to his own will (Matt 4:1-11). But Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, demonstrated his deep familiarity with the Word (for he is the Word!). I do not say he had knowledge of Scripture; this might be misconstrued as coldly, abstractly knowing pieces of information. But I do not say he was only familiar with it as if he happened to hear it spoken aloud on occasion. It was true knowledge — thorough and personal, affecting faith and wisdom. As we are united to Christ by the preaching and studying of the Word, the same holds true for us. The Word must be imbedded in our hearts so that it can light our path (Ps 119:105) and make us, the simple, wise and discerning (Ps 19:7; 119:30).
John tells us in his first letter that we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). In his context, he warned against those who denied that Jesus was fully human and also from God. As we prayerfully and reverently develop a deep familiarity of Scripture, that same awareness for the essentials of the faith will sink into us as well. When our impersonal influencers begin to source their thoughts from personal experience or culture in a way that contradicts or detracts from God’s revealed truth about himself — his trinity, attributes, incarnation, redemption in Christ, resurrection, etc. — our internal alarm will sound. This comes by being formed more by a community of the Word than an online community. Which, in reality, forms you?
Response: Institutional Equipping
This analysis began by claiming that a large number of online influencers are not necessarily qualified to be counted upon concerning a number of topics — social and political commentary, theological and spiritual formation, etc.. Nonetheless, they offer their hot-takes, and we often unconsciously absorb their perspectives. In response, we can more conscientiously consume and critically evaluate the media to which we are privy, remembering that there is only one gospel and it was not recorded on a podcast as two musicians pondered the deep questions of life.
While this response focuses on us, the consumer, another option is available to us. If a large number of impersonal influencers are not really trained and equipped, let’s train and equip them! The institutional structures of the church can be seeking ways to better equip those who network and entertain well — the vloggers and bloggers, videographers and photographers, musicians and artists. (This might go back to the larger problem of the church failing in its mission to make disciples in general, but that’s a topic for another day.) Many of these have a unique, effective way of communicating, but without the substance to inform the form, so to speak, the message can more easily err or misguide. What kind of kingdom impact could result from the partnership of pastors and teachers with artists, writers, and activists?
This of course circles back to the debate concerning whether only those who have received technical, institutionalized training are truly credible, but see my thoughts above on this.
The institutional church can assist in another important way: by forming and fostering networks and forums of distributing media and directing people to these trusted sources. Denominations have an advantage at this point over the independent congregational churches, and indeed, one of my critiques of my own theological practice is not belonging to a particular denomination. At this point, however, my creative solutions run dry. It would take a collective of more dedicated, diverse minds to consider what this might look like.
Surely my analysis of this age of online, impersonal influencers does not describe the changed circumstances with complete accuracy and precision, and my proposed responses to one unique challenge in this arena, while hopefully nuanced, still require no small amount of further evaluation. Therefore, if you have journeyed along with me this far, I encourage you to apply what I have said to my own thoughts here. Remember that as a created, sinful (but graciously redeemed!) person, I may grasp elements of the truth with remnants of error as well. But consider what others say, discuss in community, and most importantly, compare with the Word of God.