Becoming a Smarter Digital Citizen

Technology is amazing. In my life, I’ve seen the advancement of personal communications at a pace and to a degree that I would never have guessed was possible within my own life. I scoffed at the people who told me when I was a teen that television would be replaced by videos streamed on the computer. That was incomprehensible to me, since the internet was so limited as a resource then. I still remember having someone from the city (Buffalo) come out to do a demonstration of the internet at my rural school. They showed us ERIC and we were supposed to be amazed. Given that I was young, I didn’t recognize the potential of a database that would index academic articles, and the platform was extremely limited in comparison to contemporary tools.

Fast forward a few decades and now we are surrounded by a sea of digital influences. I read most of my news online and the news that I do read often depends on the people I follow on social media. I too rarely actually go to the landing page of any website, including those sites whose content I regularly consume.

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However, since I get the majority of my content through social media, that makes me vulnerable to manipulations in the algorithms. This is because, in order to keep us addicted to their content, social media platforms distort the way information is displayed on their pages. There are complex calculations running in the background to ensure that you see your cousin’s pregnancy announcement when it pops up, but only get one link to that article that everyone is reading. Also, if they think you will be offended by that popular article, they might just not show it to you.

There is no question that the social media platforms are manipulating the content that gets displayed. That, at some level, might be considered tolerable (since they own the platform) and some might believe it is relatively benign (I do not). But there is a deeper problem: the manipulation of algorithms by people that want to do us harm.

In a multipart series, Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day has researched the manipulation of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube by bots and bad guys. I’m linking here to the series, with a brief synopsis of each video, because I believe that this is content worth sharing and considering as we learn how to live within our present digital culture.

The Art of Digital War

Because of his former day job, which involved working alongside the military on weapons systems, Sandlin was afforded a unique opportunity to engage some experts on the future of war and how cyber warfare will play into the way that wars will be fought or avoided in the coming decades. This video is a key part of understanding why the manipulation of social media feeds is worth the money and time invested in it.

Manipulating the Big Three Platforms

Some of these videos are a little long, but I found them very engaging. What is most helpful is that Sandlin was given access to experts from YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook who are trying to combat the rise of bots and overtly hostile actions. I have my own concerns about how our digital overlords are using their self-granted, self-regulated powers, but it is worth seeing how the algorithms are being manipulated to better understand the world in which we live.

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The Problem with Your Newsfeed

Although this video was released before the three-part series on the manipulation of particular platforms, but it provides a very helpful guide to being a better digital citizen. Sandlin talks to someone who works through a process of validating information before sharing it, and tries to teach us to do the same. If we all followed this sort of process, instead of simply sharing something that made us feel the right way, then false information would not be disseminated so regularly.

Sandlin also recaps why carefully parsing any links that you might share is so vitally important, because so much of the contemporary divisiveness and viral disruption of communities depends on false, or at least biased, information getting out into the main stream very quickly.

Conclusion

I’m writing on a website that has no paper counterpart, so obviously I’m not ready to step out of the digital world. A lot of the views for this website come through social media sharing and from search engines, so it isn’t in my interests to jump ship just yet.

However, we really do need to think about how the new information economy is shaping how we learn, see, and understand the world around us. We need to recognize that even more than the biased, but more benign forms of censorship and self-promotion inherent in commercial media, the rise of the portability of digital tools makes it easy for a relatively small, hostile actor to significantly influence the course of societal debate.

Being a good citizen in a digital world is part of being a good neighbor. Part of being a good neighbor is learning how the bad guys work (and the not-so-bad guys that are just as manipulative) so that we can resist unhelpful misinformation and reinterpretation in a rapidly changing environment.

Transhumanism and the Image of God - A Review

Transhumanism is a term that will be unfamiliar to many Christians, but will become increasingly important in the coming years. Transhumanism, simply defined, is “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.”

For some, this term conjures images of Darth Vader, the Borg from Star Trek, or the dystopian world of The Matrix. However, the reality is that transhumanism is around us, is much more pervasive than we often believe. To some extent, all technological innovation leads to changes in humanity, but that pace appears to be accelerating.

Our smartphones are changing the way that we focus, constantly dragging our attention away from more significant things to the trivial. Social media is functionally altering the way that we socialize with one another. We tend to focus on documentable events rather than companionable experiences. The internet and the availability of search engines are modifying how we value knowledge of facts.

In his recent book, Transhumanism and the Image of God, Jacob Shatzer shows that transhumanism is with us now and, to some degree, inescapable. At the same time, it is our responsibility as Christians to begin to ask questions about to what degree we can accept the changes demanded by technology and to what degree we ought to resist them.

At its most radical level transhumanism includes the intentional tampering with the human genome. The groundwork for a radical reimagining of the possibilities for this sort of tampering is being laid in China, for example, where recently human brain genes were put in rhesus macaque monkeys. Or, pig brains have been kept alive––to some degree––after they have died. These are experiments whose long term goal is to push back death for humans, perhaps even leading to eternal life.

Shatzer rightly unpacks some of the potential ethical questions that are folded in questions like these. For example, the ability to tamper with the human genome and “improve” it might have consequences we have not yet anticipated in terms of mutation. It would be rather cruel to modify particular humans into a form that undergoes excruciating pain beginning at age 30 or has increased opportunities for psychoses. These are the sorts of consequences we might not uncover until we have already cursed a generation to such an unfortunate and unnecessary fate.

Even without unforeseen consequences that impact the modified humans directly, such practices raise ethical concerns about how technological mutation of certain humans might leave those who can’t afford the modifications (or are unwilling to tamper with humanity) as a permanent sub-class to the new generation of Supermen. Thought experiments regarding such modification always begin with the “common good” in mind, but history has shown that concern for genetic improvement tends to end poorly for those perceived as second-class humans. Additionally, he rightly notes that, “We in the West spend on Botox while others throughout the world lack mosquito nets to help protect from malaria.”

But the main point of Shatzer’s book is not to raise alarm about some dystopian future but to point out the many ways even Christians within our culture adopt technology and adapt to its demands without ever considering how we are being changed and whether or not the technology is good. We often never ask the question of purpose and value. Instead, we focus on the marginal benefits or novelty of the given technology. As a result, many of the men in the church are addicted to internet pornography, millions of Christians spent hours on their phone pointlessly scrolling and almost no time in prayer or Scripture reading, and we are damaging our bodies through sedentary lives inspired by technology. These are real consequences, right now. These are realities we need to wrestle with.

Transhumanism and the Image of God is a reminder that we need to reconsider what it means to be human. It is a call to reconsider what this life is about and in what ways technology is distorting the created order or masking its goodness. The book is carefully written and simply explained. Although it was published by IVP Academic, it is well within the difficulty range of laypeople who regularly read.

Shatzer’s book deserves a wide reading. This is the beginning of an important conversation; one that Christians cannot afford to sit out. Pastors and other church leaders should read this as they consider the way they are shaping liturgies and the structures of their church programs. Parents should read this book to begin to evaluate what sort of humans we are raising. We cannot afford to drift with the rapidly shifting technological currents, otherwise we will wake up in a few decades unable to recognize the sorts of humans we are and what we have done to the generations that come behind.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be - A Review

Sin. It’s one of those topics that we are all skilled in the practice of, but often try not to think about a whole lot. Too often, our concept of sin is narrowed by a set of concerns for personal redemption and our consideration of its devastating power is abbreviated by the belief that our sin has been paid for at the cross by Christ.

This thin conception of sin has devastating effects on Christian engagement in society and the degree of empathy many Christians have for those who commit obvious, flagrant sins. Cheap grace can only abound when the severity and pervasiveness of sin throughout our individual lives and the fabric of society are underappreciated.

The tragedy of much contemporary and theologically orthodox Christianity, particular among evangelical Protestants, is that a faulty definition of sin has led to thin ethics. Sin is sometimes popularly perceived of as something that is paid for by the cross and then entirely behind the Christian. To a degree this is true, Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross provided a path for the elect to be redeemed. Forgiveness for sin is now available for those that repent and put their faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as the hope for eternal life. All of this is true, but it neglects some of the ongoing effects of sin in even the lives of Christians and especially in the world around us.

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Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, is an important book for understanding the nature and effects of sin. The book was originally published in 1995, and won multiple awards. It is both excellently written and exceedingly positive. This is the sort of book that should remain in print because of its enduring value as an accessible and theologically precise systematization of the doctrine of sin.

The key concept for Plantinga is Shalom. The Hebrew term shalom refers to holistic flourishing of the world across multiple dimensions. From a human perspective, shalom entails right relationship with God, non-human creation, and humanity. This flourishing existed only for a short time in the beginning of creation, which we see described in Genesis 1 and 2. We have the promise that it will exist later in the New Heavens and New Earth, as depicted in prophetic passages like those at the end of Revelation and in several sections of Isaiah. We live in a world right now that has had its shalom disrupted.

With the idea of holistic flourishing in view, the concept of shalom becomes both clearer and more complex. Sin is no longer a transaction between God and humanity alone, but a transaction that has implications for a whole web of relationship. Ultimately, sin’s penalty is due to the offence of God’s character (Ps 51:4), but its substance may be primarily disruption of the human-creation or human-human relationship.

When we begin to understand that sin is a disruption of shalom, the cycles of Judges begin to make sense. The people of Israel were oppressed, the repent, God sets them free, they fall into sin. That sin has both personal implications (separation from God) and social implications (disruption of systems and relationships). Thus, we can see that God might be justified in desiring to begin society all over again if “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. . . . For all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” (Gen 7:11–13) Sin isn’t just a personal violation of God’s law, it also entails distortions of all of human relationships.

Plantinga’s book begins from unquestionably orthodox foundations in the Reformed tradition. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be explores dimensions of sin as it is seen in both personal and social dimensions. He approaches the topic by describing sin categorically. It is a form of corruption, which requires a concern for spiritual hygiene. Its corruption permeates life and society. Sin is a parasite on the good in this world. It is an attack on God’s Kingdom and his common grace. Sin finds its way into human interactions and life in unbelievably difficult ways through addiction, a little-considered dimension of sin. (Usually addiction is dealt with as a simple failure in will-power.) Sin can also be a form of flight from the responsibility to deal with faults in shalom and neglecting our call to restore it.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a Christian classic. It’s taken me years to get around to reading it, but it’s a book that is consistently found in the footnotes of other significant texts. The book was named the Christianity Today book of the year for 1996, because of its theological acumen and its clarity. Plantinga’s book is one that is accessible to any reasonably theologically engaged Church members.

If this book were published today, it would likely be viewed with suspicion because it explores the social implications of sin. This begins to sound a bit too much like social justice for some people. If the fear of considering the impact of sin on holistic flourishing of creation by some Christians will have hugely negative influences on the ability of future generations of Christians to appropriately relate to society. We are already seeing this happen as younger generations, recognizing the implications of Christianity for social ethics, are drawn to non-orthodox versions of Christianity because (despite denying central tenets of the faith) they often have a better (or at least more engaged) attitude toward the social implications of Christianity.

The Crunchy Con Manifesto - A Proposal for Actual Conservation of Something

Conservativism is in crisis in the U.S. The term has become altogether too closely aligned with a form of political populism that has little to do with conserving anything of value. For many people on the political left and the political right, conservativism has become largely about listening to angry men in cowboy hats and pretty women in tight t-shirts rail against immigrants, gender revisionists, and “liberals.” Often there is also implicit support for large businesses which are always good for America (especially when they support grifters on the right), except when they lobby for socially progressive policies and for one of the groups that the cowboy hats and tight shirts are angry at. Other than moving society in the United States back to some apparently great condition that is never defined, only reminisced about, there does not seem to be a coherent theme to what passes for conservativism.

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In truth, both conservativism and liberalism, as they are used (but rarely defined) in popular discourse are forms of social progressivism. “Liberalism” focuses on achieving atomistic individual freedom to enable people to pursue whatever sexual goals they have and free them from the economic need to do work that aids society. This is often, seemingly paradoxically, pitched as part of the goal of economic collectivism (e.g., socialism) and moral totalitarianism (e.g., attempts to outlaw Christian sexual ethics). On the other hand, “conservativism” tends to be focused progress toward individual freedom to pursue economic goals and social structures that more closely relate to some earlier ideal, which are rarely defined beyond a desire for neighborliness. The progress of conservativism is achieved through lack of government regulation on the economy and fighting against social outgroups that themselves feel as if they are fighting for a place to exist.

Of these two forms of progressivism, I have a decided preference for the “conservative” form. There are obviously destructive elements in contemporary political liberalism that only willful ignorance of economics, history, and basic philosophical anthropology can overlook. However, similarly obvious blind spots exist on the political right, as well. My chief grievance against political “conservativism” as it is often presented is that there is nothing that it is trying to conserve. It is just progress in a different direction toward a goal that is just as undefined as the goals of the left.

As I’ve been exploring this dilemma of political homelessness, in part through the work of Patrick Deneen, though there are others, I discovered a book that Rod Dreher wrote in 2006 that presents a better vision of conservativism, in my opinion. At least, it forms a different starting place for dialogue about what conservativism ought to be aiming at. His book, Crunchy Cons, is a valuable book for those dissatisfied with where the GOP has gone, but completely appalled at the corrosive politics of the DNC, as well.

There are ten articles in Dreher’s “Crunchy-Con Manifesto” that I will quote in their entirety here. (After all, Dreher is the king of block-quoting other articles online, so he can’t mind too much if I take a couple of pages from his book.)

A Crunchy–Con Manifesto

1.       We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

2.       We believe that modern conservativism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

3.       We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity’s best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4.       We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America’s wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk identified as “The Permanent Things”––those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.

5.       A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

6.       A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract.

7.       Appreciation of aesthetic quality––that is, beauty––is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

8.       The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

9.       We share Kirk’s conviction that “the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. . . . The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10.   Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve it create anew.

Having sent a salvo against mainstream “conservativism” on the beginning pages of his book, Dreher goes on to journalistically explore people living out particular aspects of this manifesto. They tend to be (but are not exclusively) theologically conservative within their faith tradition, live within a large nuclear family, and community focused. Most significantly, the people Dreher interviews are focused on achieving a positive goal, not simply attempting to escape some negative restriction.

For those seeking an alternative response to contemporary political options, Crunch Cons may be the beginning point for future exploration. This is the book in which Dreher introduces the concept of the Benedict Option (I have not yet read his book), which he explored more fully in the hotly debated volume by that name. Although some of the content is dated, this book remains a good counterpoint for the GOP/DNC binary we seem to be stuck with, and may inspire a positive shift toward a conservative movement seeking to actually conserve something important.

Integrated Justice and Equality - A Review

Social justice is a contentious topic among Christians these days. A large reason for that is that the term has many and varied definitions. While the term was originally used to discuss ensuring actual justice within society, it has come to be interpreted as a means to privilege some ideological groups over others, to justify inherently unjust economic systems, and to excuse violence for certain, approved causes.

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 The corruption of the term has led it to be a polarizing phrase between theological stripes of Christians. Progressives who claim faith in Christ recoil when conservatives attempt to use the term to describe their efforts. Sometimes the affirmation of “social justice” leads Progressives to advocate for causes that undermine true justice. Those on the right often repudiate the term, even when the term is meant appropriately. Often the negative reaction to the term “social justice” leads conservatives to reject important works that are biblically warranted.

 In his book, Integrated Justice and Equality: Biblical Wisdom for Those Who Do Good Works, John Addison Teevan sets out “to encourage the good works of compassion that Christians want to do to make the gospel while differentiating between good works and social justice.” He notes that in order to do that, he must begin by disambiguating his terms. Throughout the text, Teevan is arguing for what he calls integrated justice, which is justice built on a traditional, biblical understanding of justice.

 In Chapter One, Teevan argues toward a biblical notion of justice, which is often significantly different than many perceive. Through historical argument, Teeven establishes his position that social justice is a term that originated outside of the church by those who found the work of the social gospel attractive, but liked even the traces of gospel that were left in the movement. He surveys the recent historical discussion, interacting critically with contemporary, conservative Christians. Chapter Two provides a survey in greater detail of understandings of justice, especially in those traditions that have impacted Western culture. In the third chapter, Teevan outlines the historical evolution of social justice, which he argues is largely rooted in Rawl’s understanding of politics. He also develops his critiques of social justice with the notion of a biblical, integrated justice. These two chapters provide the foundation for the rest of the volume.

 The remaining three chapters offer critiques of social justice, arguing it tends to undermine true justice, and bring the book to a close. In Chapter Four, Teevan critiques the notion that economic inequality is inherently unjust through practical examples of perfectly just inequality and the problems associated with attempts to create equal outcomes. The fifth chapter argues against redistributive economic systems designed for “fairness,” which often do not accomplish their stated goals. At the same time, Teevan is critical of capitalism, because he recognizes the limits of the economic system. All economic systems rely upon the virtue of the people. The final chapter brings together the concepts of the earlier chapters to outline specific warnings, conclusions, and practical applications for the reader. What he produces is a call to activism, but an activism grounded and controlled by the norms of Scripture and a traditional understanding of justice.

 This is a volume much more likely to convince the uncertain that to lead to converts. Those longing for a better society but who are repulsed by the gross depravity of much of the social justice movement will find an outlet to pursue true justice in this volume.

 At the same time, Teevan appears to concede the term social justice too quickly. Notably absent from his volume is a discussion of the development of the early Roman Catholic use of the term social justice, which was much more biblical than present parlance. It may be possible yet to redeem the term and turn it to good use.

 Overall, this is a much needed, accessible volume that is both biblically informed and economically accurate. Teevan provides a helpful critique of the social justice and gives a sound justification for his newly coined term. His critiques are honest and forthright. He does not demean, mock, or dismiss, which make this book a useful resource for the church. Additionally, Teevan moves beyond his critique into encouraging practical application, which is necessary to move conservative Christians from theory to action.

We Have Forgotten

We have forgotten that it is possible to be wrong without animus. This is why society is so terribly unforgiving.

We have forgotten that it is possible to disagree without despising. This is why our friendships are so fragile, sparse, and transient.

We have forgotten that it is possible to forgive without retribution. This is why the quest for social justice often turns to mobs and unrelenting abuse.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be correct without being in control. This is why politics has become the supreme interest in society.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be right about some things and wrong about others. This is why the list of acceptable voices from history continues to diminish.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be different without being degraded. This is why attempts to find equality lead to eradication of excellence.

We have forgotten that it is possible for cost and value to be different. This is why conspicuous consumption is still rampant.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be new without being better. This is why our hunger for more goes unabated and ancient books go unread.

The Fake Web is Ruining the Internet

Something is amiss in the futuristic, digital wonderland that is the internet.

Among the most obvious problems are the incessant arguments including those caused by trolls and those perpetuated by sea lions. Add that to the sheer magnitude of bots online, and we have a real problem that can lead to misery, confusion, and misdirection away from facts.

The possible paradise of the internet is turning out to be a myth. The democratization of information has made it nearly possible to discern what is true.

Marketplace Distortion

Consider the validity of marketplace ratings. While there are examples of faux reviews that are exceedingly humorous, like the ones for the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer on Amazon, fake reviews make buying decisions harder. And that’s not the way it is supposed to work.

The ideal of online reviews is for people who have used the product to honestly review them. However, anyone who has tried to sort through the reviews on products in a major online marketplace will know that amid the real, honest reviews are dozens that appear to be made up. These often are very high or very low ratings (depending on whether the company or their competitor funded the reviewers) and include gratuitous typos, insufficient information, and information designed to mislead. So, a product may have hundreds of reviews, but the real ones with important criticism may have been diluted by fake reviews.

The prevalence of fake reviews in the online marketplace makes using reviews nearly worthless sometimes. Add that to the ability for sellers to revise listings of old products to newer ones, while bringing along their reviews, and you have a recipe for unhelpful confusion.

Another trend that is unhelpful with the democratization of information is the volume of websites that seem to indicate they are dedicated to product reviews, but which are really dedicated to trying to acquire revenue through affiliate traffic. For example, do an internet search on “best gifts for a 10-year-old boy, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Someone trying to get suggestions for Christmas or birthday may want a blogger’s suggestions that their kids liked, but may only be able to find suggestions in click-through format designed to rake in money from another online marketplace.

Sometimes these offerings are helpful, but they accomplish the opposite of the intended purpose. When someone does a search online for creative suggestions, they are usually looking for something off the beaten path. However, these dozens of “product review” or “product suggestion” websites tend to all “recommend” the same dozen or so products, none of which they have any real knowledge of. (Full disclosure: I use affiliate links at the bottom of my book reviews and sometimes get a little money from them, but that is secondary to the actual review.)

The reality of the internet is turning out to be something less than the promise.

The Web Is Mostly Fake

According to a recent article from New York Magazine, we’ve passed the point where, by some measures, more than half of internet traffic is fake. Given that the next video you watch or next widget you buy may be recommended based on the programmed habits of a bot, this matters significantly. For those, like me, who spend time creating real content online—especially those who depend of traffic from YouTube or other traffic sites—that distortion can be disheartening and financially debilitating.

Because traffic generates traffic as we all chase the next cool thing, this fake traffic is distorting our culture. Is someone’s video really viral, or did they create or finance a bot army to give them clicks, help them trend, and push a somewhat novel but largely inane product into everyone’s feeds? The world may never know.

Given that a fair amount of news reporting—both traditional media and various internet outlets—is now mind-numbing reporting about trends on social media, the power of faking on the internet may have significant social implications. Is anyone really mad about the latest controversy? Or, was some minor infraction by a local official magnified by thousands of bots financed by someone who is either making money off of the clicks or gaining power by fracturing society? This is a powerful question that I don’t have an easy answer to.

One Proposed Solution

I do think, however, that we have the potential to curb some of the worst excesses in our own control by using self-control and changing our habits.

Perhaps the best solution to the problem is to use the internet in an old-fashioned way, with sustained patronage, long time relationships, and word of mouth recommendations. Major branded websites for news and information will likely remain significant, but to some extent we need to rely more on pseudo-social connections rather than search algorithms.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

For example, as a blogger well after the heyday of blogging, I think we need to bring back the blogroll. If someone likes my website, there is a decent chance that they will like the blogs I like, so I can let them know what and who I follow. That also means that I am vouching that I’ve watched/read enough of the content to know that it is real and not bot-generated.

In a world of depersonalized identities, we need to reorient toward personal connections, even if it is only virtually. The possibilities for deception are still higher, but bots are generally identifiable through their patterns of activity, real people are both more predictable and more erratic.

Conclusion

Much of the internet has become, for all intents and purposes, worthless. People are fake. Reviews are fake. Facts are fake. As we try to live life in a virtual age, taking advantage of the real benefits of the internet, we need to begin to reestablish habits that will make our experiences online more benefit than curse.

The Storm-Tossed Family - A Review

Families are under attack and the only hope for them is to be reshaped by the cross of Christ.

That might sound like a reactionary statement, which could be accompanied by a decline narrative and commentary on how much worse things are today. However, as a central idea of Russell Moore’s recent book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, he provides evidence that the family has always been critical and has always been a spiritual battle ground.

Moore writes, “Family can enliven us or crush us because family is about more than the just the life cycle of our genetic material. Family is spiritual warfare.”

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The spiritual importance of the family is made evident in the pages of Scripture. Even before one of the Ten Commandments anchors the family in the very character of God, we read of Satan’s attempt to disrupt the first family by tempting Eve to sin. Shortly after that we read of one brother killing another out of jealousy. The Bible is clear that the family is a focal point for satanic attack and that the disruption of the family is one of the clearest evidences of sin in the world.

Logically, we must ask why that is.

Again, Moore helps to explain, “The family is one of the pictures of the gospel that God has embedded in the world around us. Through a really dark glass, we can see flashes in the family of something at the core of the universe itself, of the Fatherhood of God, of the communion of a people with one another.”

The balance of the volume explores the nature of the family, the corrosive ideas that are negatively impacting our families, and offers a better vision for the good of the family.

The Storm-Tossed Family is reasonably comprehensive. After introducing the concept of family being spiritual warfare Moore begins by identifying points where contemporary culture conflicts with a cross shaped vision of the family, tearing down mistaken ideas and offering a better version of the family.

This process begins with Moore’s affirmation that the Kingdom of God is the primary concern of Christians, not the family. Here he is debunking the dangerous idea that the function of the church is somehow social or political—to preserve the nuclear family—rather than spiritual.

The most important distinction in that important, but secondary, concept of the family is that the family is a picture of the gospel, not the gospel itself. No one comes to Christ because they see a strong nuclear family. They come to Christ because they recognize their need for a savior and the hope that he offers.

Additionally, Moore deconstructs one of the ongoing myths of Christian sub-culture by reminding readers that the church is a family. Thus, the hyper-territorial parenting styles that are a fairly common occurrence in children’s church and the preference of “family time” over church activities in all or most cases represents a deviation from the pattern outlined in Scripture, particularly the New Testament.

Subsequently, the place of singles in the body of Christ becomes less questionable. No longer is the local church projected as a way to support the nuclear family in a hostile world. It does that, to be sure, but the primary purpose is to be a family to exemplify the gospel. Thus, singles are an integral part of the body, not a loosely attached appendage consigned to a class of misfits on a Sunday morning.

The themes that Moore tracks down are plentiful, and the above paragraphs provide just a few examples. He also delves into human sexuality, pointing out where the church has conceded a great dal of ground to the world around—we are, as Moore has argued frequently, often simply slow-moving sexual revolutionaries. As long as we are a few decades behind society, we feel like we are being sufficiently conservative. The point, however, is not to be conservative per se, but to be biblically faithful.

The Storm-Tossed Family is an important book for our age. Moore manages to highlight errors prevalent in even the most theologically orthodox churches while holding firm to the positive patterns of family that are indicated (though rarely exemplified) in Scripture. The connection between the gospel and proper function of the family is, without question, the central theme of this book.

The good news in this book is the good news: Christ came to redeem us from our sin. One of the most affirming and reassuring anecdotes in this book is of a man, realizing he had failed often and significantly as a father, being told that Christ would redeem his failures. The message is not that it is ok to fail, as if all the wrong we do will be undone, but that in Christ all things will work together for good. Repentance is real, powerful, and effective. God doesn’t change the past, but he will redeem it through the blood of Christ. That is the sort of hope that all of us imperfect people need to hear about.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

On Reading Well - A Review

It is a general rule that when Karen Swallow Prior writes something, you should read it. Her latest book, On Reading Well, is no exception.

In this volume, Prior brings her lifelong interest in literature, which has culminated in her work as a professor of English, and an interest in seeing people–particularly Christians–live ethically.

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Her thesis in On Reading Well is that careful reading of literature forms the human soul. Even books that were not written with a specific moral—and perhaps especially those not written with a specific moral—can be morally formative when the story is well-told. In one sense, we borrow the memories of the characters by living their experiences vicariously when we read carefully.

To carry out her mission, Prior selects twelve books that might find their way on the reading list of university syllabus in any setting, then explores their moral terrain. A clear message from Prior’s curated list is that we can learn from the human condition well explored, whether or not we agree with the theology of the author.

The literary discussions are framed in terms of virtues, with four chapters on the cardinal virtue, three on the theological virtues, and another five on what Prior calls the heavenly virtues. When the virtues are discussed as concepts with their substance filled from contemporary sources, such approaches often fall short of the mark. This structure works and is edifying, in part, because the content of these virtues is filled with substance from the Christian tradition, with influence from classical thinkers who have also influenced Christians throughout the centuries.

I have previously read most of the works Prior covers. In some cases, it has been several decades. There were four chapters on material I have never read (I won’t say which, lest some readers get judgmental.), but Prior’s careful discussion enables even an unexposed reader to gain from the chapters.

Readers will benefit more from the book if they have read all of the literature Prior discusses. Perhaps the most beneficial approach would be to read the particular work of literature just prior to reading each chapter. However, for those simply seeking to grow and better understand how humans ought to live, this book can stand on its own.

At one level, this is a book that teaches readers about ethics. At another level, On Reading Well is a warm invitation into the world of literature. This invitation is extended graciously and unpretentiously.

Reading literature is important for those seeking to really know people around them. This is especially true of pastors and theologians. As a theologian, I have found that my ability to empathize with others, to understand, and to explain hard concepts clearly ebbs and flows based on my reading. One might think this would have primarily to do with the theology that I read, but it has more to do with the literature that I am reading. Specifically, when I am reading imaginative stories (not all of which is quality literature), my imagination is invigorated. I am equipped with clearer illustrations of sometimes complex theological or ethical concepts. Often these are not drawn specifically from the book that I am reading, but simply a reflection of the pattern of thought that comes from reading a good story well told.

Prior taps into the link between the moral imagination and reading. We are formed by what we read and how we read. A subtext throughout this volume is the call to read and think carefully about the books we encounter. This is no guide to chugging through an arbitrary list of supposedly important texts, but a demonstration of the sort of thoughtfulness that should characterize the time we spend partaking of good books.

On Reading Well is enjoyable for its quality as a book in itself. For those who enjoy reading literature, it is a treat worthy of a fireside reading. This has a place in the library of homeschool families, where it shows what close reading looks like and may help some families move beyond the list of reading comprehension questions into discussions about the soul of the literature they encounter. Pastors can benefit from this by exploring thought beyond the bounds of commentaries, the latest non-fiction volumes, and even classical theological works. The church will benefit if the men called to preach are reading good books carefully, even if it does not lead directly to sermon references.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Ethics and the Young Believer

Evangelical churches, in general, are failing to adequately equip young Christians to live the Christian life because we do not offer them a robust ethical framework to understand the moral situations they encounter in this world. Instead, we allow culture to teach them ethics or assume that they will pick up the right moral lessons from Scripture without explicit instruction. We, as the church, need to reconsider how we disciple young believers to live ethically in the world.

For some people, thinking about ethics seems to mean pondering the difficult questions on the margins of life. For example, the trolley problem is a popular exercise in moral reasoning. It is supposed to have deep significance in understanding the meaning of human life and our duty to one another. Another common moral dilemma is whether one should lie if Nazis come to the door asking if one has Jews hiding under the kitchen table. This is supposed to be a test to show how one values truth against human life.

There is meaningful discussion to be had behind these sorts of problems. However, they are far from useful in generating truly helpful thought about ethics when the are presented before real ethical structure is offered.

Lack of an Ethical Framework

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Most people lack a coherent ethical framework, and that is a problem. Some might argue that my perspective on this is driven by my training as an ethicist. This is, in part, true. It is my training as an ethicist that helps me to recognize the need for a coherent framework and the problems with a lack of a coherent framework for ethical thinking.

Consider, for example, the question of lying to the Nazis from above. When this is presented to most people, it is pitched as a choice between (1) valuing truth telling over human life or (2) seeing the immeasurable value of humans. The right answer for most people is to lie to the Nazis.

What happens, though, when one reasons from dilemmas to an ethical structure is that the odd, unlikely cases begin to define the norms in an unhealthy way. Once the idea that human life is more valuable than truth is established for the case of the Nazis, then it does not take much to argue that human flourishing (often undefined) should champion over supposed truths. The structure has been set by the dilemma, so that a slight shift in meaning can make worlds of justification possible.

We need better ethical thinking before we run into life’s dilemmas.

The Problem with Dilemmas

The problem is not the outcome of the case, but the situation of the case itself. These dilemmas are typically set up to produce a particular response or push people into a specific train of thinking. In the case of the trolley problem, it is nearly always some smart, innovative person tied to one set of tracks with a large group of commoners tied to the other. The dilemma ignores the facts that (1) our choices are rarely so clear, (2) there is no right choice, (3) there are alternative options. The trolley problem is set up to enforce consequentialist ethics, by evaluating whether the genius saving many lives is more worthy than the commoners living their own lives. What shall we do in the face of such conundrums?

Most of the time, the best answer is to ignore these unhelpful problems or, better yet, to look for an option nor offered in the setup. The trolley problem has been refined to ensure there is no other option, because for every possible alternate solution a defeater has been established. For example, no heroism is possible in dashing out to untie the genius because you are locked in the control house. The setup of the problem is a setup. Additionally, the scenarios are usually presented in unrealistically: we are told that the genius will invent some drug that will save the lives of millions. No one knows these things, so the case is fraudulent.

When it comes to the case of lying to the Nazis, the problem is also in the setup. First, the setup relies on the assumption that any untruth is a lie. For those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is often pitched as a violation of the Ten Commandments. However, the Ten Commandments actually mandate not bearing false witness against our neighbors. There is more than untruth happening here: it is untruth combined with an authority that deserves truth (the court) and a bad motive (to damage the neighbor). Without discarding the norm of communicating truth, the complexity of the ethical action (saying an untruth) helps to simplify the problem.

One solution to the question of lying to the Nazis relies on my understanding of the complexity of moral actions. In this case, I believe it to be just to tell an untruth to the Nazis because, as an unjust government they do not warrant a truthful response, and my motivation (I hope) is to glorify God by preserving the life of the innocents hiding under my table. This resolves the question, but, it really creates more problems than it solves if presented in the wrong circumstances.

Even in this case with a more complex ethical structure, if the situation and solution is presented to immature hearers (for example, children), then marginal case is often interpreted as having a much broader application. Often children’s literature tends to make such marginal cases the norm. For example, one of the major premises of Harry Potter is that the adults are idiots and that only the kids can save the world. The plot of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets depends on him willfully withholding key truths from Dumbledore. While at the end of the book, Harry, Hermione, and Ron save the day, what we really have is a case where their immaturity put everyone’s life at risk unnecessarily. It makes for fun reading, but bad ethics.

The problem is that we rarely offer a better alternative from within the church.

Some Thoughts on Ethical Education

Rarely to we invest the time with young Christians helping them work through the ethical framework they need for life.

Instead, we often attempt to do moral reasoning as a drive by to exegesis and we wonder why people in the church come up with the wrong ethical conclusions.

To be clear, exegesis is important and we cannot do without it. In some cases, Scripture is so abundantly clear in particular passages that trying to avoid the truths presented requires all sorts of mental gymnastics—much like the approach commonly demonstrated by those lobbying for a revisionist sexual ethics. However, we cannot always jump from a passage of Scripture to a moral principle without passing it through the whole of counsel of God, because our circumstances are analogous not identical to those in Scripture.

Part of the discipleship process ought to be discussions about ethics. All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for edification, but Scripture is not an instruction book. Rather, it is a complex tapestry of genres of material that requires a lifetime of dedicated study and appreciation to begin to understand.

When we send young Christians out into the world with a fideistic ethics (God said it, I believe it, that settles it) then it is not surprise when alternative interpretations of Scripture or the silliness of the application of some supposed ethical norms (e.g., not wearing mixed fabrics) leads to abandonment of any vestige of Christian ethics and, often, Christianity.

Even the most biblicist of fundamentalist preachers has a more robust ethical schema than the literal application of the whole Mosaic law. The problem is that we too rarely talk about those things in our Sunday School classes, from our pulpits, and as we disciple one another. So, the result is that we send young Christians out into the world with a handful of inconsistent principles and a methodology that is incoherent, and we wonder why they don’t flourish in the Christian life.

As Christians, we need to reconsider how we teach ethics during the discipleship process.

Suggestions on Where to Start

A good place to start in gaining an understanding of a robustly orthodox Christian ethics is David Jones’ book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. He provides a framework for Christian ethics that begins and ends with Scripture. It is robust and clear. The paradigm is sufficiently complex to handle ethical questions both simple and complex.

I am also partial to John Frame’s work. For a brief introduction, his volume Perspectives on the Word of God offers a primer to his triperspectival theology and ethics. Additionally, his much longer volume Doctrine of the Christian Life offers a more thorough explanation of his ethical methodology with application to a large number of moral issues.

For pastors and educated lay people, the gold standard for Evangelical ethics is Oliver O’Donovan’s seminal book, Resurrection and the Moral Order. This is a very important book, too rarely read, but it is also very difficult reading.