My favorite blog posts are the ones that begin with a question to which I don’t know the answer, and this is especially true for a new series I’m pleased to announce today: “How to be a Christian on the Internet.”
Now, I realize I could just as easily call it “How to be Decent to One Another on the Internet” or “How to be Human on the Internet,” but given this particular community of readers, I wanted to frame the discussion around specifically Christian values and concerns, (many of which also apply to those of other religious persuasions, of course). And I wanted to introduce the topic through a series of questions, precisely because questions are about as far as I can go with this topic without tripping up on my own failed attempts to establish guiding principles or rules about how to engage other people with wisdom, conviction, and grace online.
So over the next four months of summer, I’ll be posing the following six prompts to some of the wisest and kindest people I know and sharing their responses in a series of roundtable discussions. We’ll interview researchers, psychologists, bloggers, journalists, clergy, authors, activists, artists, leaders, and all sorts of other people. We'll look at the latest research, consider the relevant philosophical/theological issues at hand, and discuss best practices. There’s no set schedule. I’ll just post each roundtable discussion when it’s ready.
Here are the six prompts:
Both Scripture and Christian tradition remind us that faithful prophetic protest is crucial to confronting injustice, speaking truth to power, and advocating for and standing with the marginalized. Social media has provided a powerful tool for doing just that. Just look at the role it has played in organizing and reporting on the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, in challenging the teachings and behaviors of authoritarian religious leaders, and in amplifying voices that have traditionally been sidelined (like those of women and LGBT Christians). But along with the call to prophetic witness we must also consider biblical admonitions to “speak the truth in love,” to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,” and to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” So what’s the difference between being prophetic and just being a jerk? How do we advocate both prophetic challenge and grace-filled public engagement without resorting to incivility on the one hand or tone-policing on the other? Is an online “call out” an effective way to create change, and if so, how can it be done well?
I often refer to the readers of this blog as a community, and indeed it often feels like one. We share stories, engage in debate, confess our deepest fears and failures, help one another out, teach and learn, laugh and cry. But in the last year or so I’ve also grown more aware of the limits of such a community, especially when the mental and emotional energy required to maintain online relationships detracts from those longtime, flesh-and-blood relationships with family, friends, and church. To what extent is an online gathering a community? What does it look like to have a healthy regard for such communities, including both their possibilities and their limitations?
3. “Twitter Fight!”
Very rarely have I been in a conversation with someone who, when presented with new evidence or a strong argument, immediately changed their mind….and yet I seem to expect this to happen in 120 characters on Twitter! (Or with a distant relative on Facebook.) Often we take to social media to debate theology, politics, and culture, and yet because the forum removes important conversation cues like vocal tone, body language, and established relationship, these debates tend to only further entrench existing views. Is it even possible for online debates to be productive? If so, what principles should we apply for effectively and persuasively engaging one another in that space?
4. Boundaries & Balance
From writers who are creatively exhausted from managing a constant stream of online feedback, to readers who can’t seem to pull themselves away from their smartphones, to activists who are burned out from responding to yet another crisis with a social media campaign, to foodies who can’t enjoy a meal without snapping a photo for Instagram, our writing, reading, and sharing habits consume more of our time and mental energy than ever. Yet few of us have the option or desire to completely unplug when our technology also has the power to connect, encourage, and challenge us in some really beautiful ways. So how do we find a balance? How do we protect our “real life” from getting eaten up by our “virtual life”? (Or is such a distinction unhelpful?) What are some general principles and practical ideas for drawing healthy boundaries around the time we spend, relationships we nurture, and the work we do online? And what does it mean to mark the Sabbath in our hyper-connected, plugged-in culture?
It seems like everyone’s talking about shame these days. From Jon Ronson’s popular book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, to Monica Lewinsky’s now-viral TED talk, “The Price of Shame,” to Brené Brown's much-discussed research, to articles in Christianity Today, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and more, our collective conscience appears to be a bit bothered about the way transgressors (or perceived transgressors) are punished in the media these days. And yet this aversion to public shaming is coupled with a desire for justice, particularly when the transgressor (or perceived transgressor) is a person of power. Is it right to categorize shame as either all-good or all-bad? Is shaming ever an effective way to inspire change? Given the centrality of grace in the Christian life, how should Christians respond to those who have been publicly disgraced, and how to we avoid appealing to grace as a way of letting abusive or dangerous people off the hook?
We are often told, “don’t feed the trolls!” but it’s important to keep in mind that not all critics are trolls and not all disagreement is bullying. So how do we make those distinctions? How can we let the helpful critiques in while keeping the harmful critiques out? What sort of policies keep our online forums safe for productive conversation, and what sort of practices keep our hearts healthy for feedback?
If you have another pressing question that you would like to add to the prompts, leave it in the comment section and I’ll definitely consider it for a seventh installment. And if there is someone you would especially like to hear from, let me know.
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