Social Media Justice and the Gospel

One of the common complaints against Christianity—what Tim Keller calls defeater beliefs—is that a good God…a loving God…would not judge sin and wouldn’t punish it if he did. He would just wipe it away and forgive it without judgment. We are taught by culture not to like violence, so we like to believe that a just God would also be non-violent.

Miroslav Volf, a theologian at Yale and a Croatian who had personal experience with the gross injustices of ethnic cleansing and genocide in former Yugoslavia argues that a God who punishes evil through judgment is necessary to keep people from seeking revenge:

If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence––that God would not be worthy of worship. . . . The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God. . . . My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many . . . in the West . . . [But] it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence [results from the belief in] God’s refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die . . . [with] other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Our belief in a God who violently judges sin is necessary to restrain our hearts from desiring immediate and exorbitant revenge on the people that seek to do us harm. This is why Habakkuk calls for the judgment of the Lord in chapter 2 of his short book, rather than trying to settle all of the scores with his own hands.

In fact, in the history of Christianity, some of the worst evils that have been perpetrated in the name of Christ have been caused by people not trusting into God’s justice, but trying to bring about their own version of justice in their own time.

Social Media Justice

As Christians living in a world that celebrates injustice, often presenting it under the cloak of goodness or true justice, we find ourselves given a tool to announce our disapproval of everything bad. Thus, we think, we can stand against real injustice, even if it only via posts or tweets.

This is the mentality of the social media warrior. In fact, in our age, the digital assaults on people’s reputations that are perpetrated in the name of injustice are not much different that murder. The goal of many social media warriors is to destroy the life of their victims, but without the shred of mercy that actually killing them would entail.

An example of this is the recent brouhaha over the interaction between the Native American activist Nathan Phillips and a boy from a parochial school. That case itself has turned into a Rorschach test for your political position, so I will leave that unending debate over who was right (if anyone) in that situation to others.

However, what we should not miss is that there was an instantaneous urge to crush, smash, and destroy by those that hated the look on the boy’s face in the initially miscaptioned photo. To be clear, the opposite reaction could have been obtained from the other side if an activist wearing a charged political slogan had been caught in a pose that could have been represented as disgust, smarminess, or disrespect of one of the political right’s favored populations. The problem is not left vs. right, it is the urge to destroy.

And there were calls for destruction. Based on questionable interpretations of the event, which were driven largely by an inflammatory caption on a photo posted by a bot Twitter account run out of Brazil, people who consider themselves good and just and consistent in their pursuit of justice were calling for assault and even execution of the child in the photo. There were dozens of physical threats made against the school itself. All of this in the name of justice. Again, when the tables are turned, there are voices on the right that are just as nasty in their pursuit of justice.

This is exactly the sort of “justice” that Habakkuk is warning against: Justice that is really unjust because it is brought about in our way by our hands, instead of according to God’s judgment.

Conclusion

I believe in a God of judgment because it is the clear expectation of the authors of the Old and New Testaments. The need for a just God of judgment reinforces my belief in the God described by the Bible. The rise of the social media warrior with his virulent, destructive cruelty in the name of justice reminds me why Christianity must be true, else we have no hope.

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We need a just God who will make the wrong things right. That is part of the gospel. Just as is the fact that salvation is available for all who believe in accept the power of the atonement to cover our sins, and put faith only in that for our final redemption. God is just. Our attempts to force justice in this world will bring about injustice. Thank God that he sent Christ to keep those who receive him, who believe in his name, from bearing the deserved wrath for our sins on our own shoulders. Thank God for being a God who is both just and gracious at the same time.

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.

Amusing Ourselves to Death - A Review

Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, is an assessment of the shifts in Western culture since the advent of modern communication technologies. This is the sort of book that was prophetic in its day and, although somewhat dated, still communicates significant warnings to readers now.

Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985, during the Reagan presidency. It certainly does not escape Postman’s notice that the ascendency of an actor to the highest political office supports his point that entertainment has become the central purpose of American culture, though that fact is more a capstone illustration of the book’s greater point than the central argument of concern.

What Postman notes, however, is worth paying attention to. His central premise is that the medium is the metaphor. This is an intentional deviation from Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan that the medium is the message.

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Postman’s clarification is helpful, since it separates the content of the message from vehicle that carries the message. In other words, the facts of the news are the same (if written well), but the secondary signals created by the means that the news is transmitted also shape the reception of the news.

For example, Postman notes that prior to the invention of the telegraph, most newspapers focused almost exclusively on local news. The telegraph sped up the spread of national and international news, so that information could be had within minutes rather than days or weeks. The change was not wrought overnight, but the shift of concern from local issues to global ones has completely overtaken us today. Notably, it is much easier for me to find out about the personal lives of political leaders across the globe than to find out what the local city council is talking about.

Not only has news changed, but education has changed. Instead of doing the long, hard work of training minds, much of our educational methodology has shifted to entertainment. Postman notes that Sesame Street is a prime example of this, though certainly neither the worst nor the only platform that does this. According to Postman, whatever good is done by teaching through entertainment is undermined as it forms the learning human to expect education to be exciting. Thus, the endurance to learn and slog through difficult tasks has been diminished by the medium that is very effective in achieving short term gains.

It would be easy to claim that Postman was merely clutching at pearls, if the evidence did not point overwhelmingly toward the aggravation of the problems he identifies.

The point is not that technology is bad, but that technology is most effective if it is used in a particular manner. As a result, it is most commonly used in its most suitable manner, which shapes the media consumer in powerful ways. The efficacy of each medium to convey certain parallel signals effortlessly alters people’s epistemologies.

(Epistemology is the study of the way that people know things. Whether or not we know how to spell it, everyone has an epistemology.)

Not only how we acquire information but how we know is shaped by how information is received. Media is forming our minds to perceive in particular manners.

We need look no farther than click-bait internet articles to see that Postman is correct. There are entire companies that feed off of deceptive headlines that declare one thing in their headline and argue something entirely different in the body of the article. Even news sources that are still considered credible have recognized that few people read beyond the headlines and those who do are unlikely to get past the perspective that the headline has already presented, whatever the evidence is that runs to the contrary.

The reshaping of epistemology is radically important, even more so now than it was in 1985. Our elections have been tampered with by agents from other nations who spread misinformation with just enough truth to cast doubt. Our news sources have recognized this, along with the inability to discern opinion from fact in most of the population, and thus they have largely abandoned anything like an attempt at objective reporting because getting their constructed truth out is more important the facts. Additionally, with the wide array of “news” shows of varying degree of accuracy and political leanings available all 168 hours each week, the presentation of information has to be even more entertaining than before. In our current milieu, there appear to be a fair number of people that get their news through comments on social media rather than any legitimate news source (regardless of its bias). So, the cycle continues and the hole gets deeper.

Postman’s warning is an important one. It may even be easier to accept now that a quarter of a century has passed and the challenges have morphed.

Lacking from Postman’s analysis is an answer the for the disease that ails us. He’s standing athwart history yelling “STOP,” but does not provide a solution.

The truth is that there is no easy solution, and that the simplest solution (i.e., turning everything off completely), is unworkable because we and our children would be functionally disconnected from so much of society. However, we have to figure out a way to throttle the flow, learn how to think and exist without electronic devices, and recover some of the humanity that is being eroded with every flicker of our many screens.

I Have No Opinion About Whatever Is Making You So Mad

I have no opinion about whatever it is that someone did, said, wrote, or believed that has you so upset.

Even if I had an opinion about it, I might not want to air it publicly.

Simply because I am not speaking out for or against whatever just happened does not mean that I am against or for it. Nor does it mean that I am a co-conspirator in injustice. That isn’t how guilt works. Really.

Opinions

I have strong opinions about many things. Many of them are also deeply researched. I am, academically and vocationally speaking, competent and qualified to speak on a number of issues. I am personally acquainted with some things well enough to comment on them and have reasonable and warranted opinions.

I am not, however, prepared to comment on the latest snippet of news, out of context interview sound bite, or social hoopla that has been uncovered or invented in the last 24 hours. In fact, to speak on this issue would be inappropriate unless I had some unique background in the subject matter, additional context to add, and awareness of more than the drive by commentary that has everyone so upset.

A Historical View

When the historians write the story of our present age, I fully expect them to describe how much disinformation and overreaction there was because people didn’t take time to think and weren’t equipped to do the necessary thinking.

They may call us this the age of the flip out, the knee jerk, and the public flop and twitch.

It’s not like these are different fundamentally than any other generation. Propaganda was alive and well in previous centuries. Wars have been started due to failed romances and jilted lovers.

What is different is that the flop and twitch is constant and ever shifting. We don’t even have the common decency to get upset about one thing and rail against it for several weeks. Instead, we have a new freak out every day.

Also, something different is this foolish idea that not flopping and twitching over everything that makes X upset—which may or may not be true—constitutes material participation in the alleged evil that is being freaked out about.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

In fact, many times, the freak out is not over what someone actually did or said, but what someone thinks they meant based on misreading or misunderstanding what they wrote, said, or did.

Someone sees something and misinterprets it as malicious. Several people blog about the evils of the malevolent action. Suddenly there is a fire storm in which anyone who doesn’t storm the battlements is guilty of hating puppies. Several people blog about the lack of response by “important people” who haven’t spoken out about the issue because they obviously don’t care. Meanwhile, half the people being maligned may actually know something that gives them a different position, not be aware of the situation, or simply not feel that the issue is worth addressing with such vigor. However, they must be burned at the altar of activism for their sin of inactivity.

While all of this is happening, before a response can be ventured and research conducted a new “crisis” has arisen that demands instantaneous, fact-less condemnation. Even if a correction is made, it is rarely read and the “hot take” condemnation of the event and the silent people allegedly condoning the supposed evil remain permanent artifacts on the internet. Rinse and repeat.

False Alarm Fatigue

Do you remember the red cups at Starbucks? I don’t think anyone was actually ever upset about the cups themselves, but there was a veritable cyclone of blame and aspersion flying around the web.

This is creating an environment in which Twitter—a social media platform that could be fun—is dying because smart, thinking people are getting tired of people with too little information demanding absolute agreement with their opinion of everything instantaneously and without qualification.

How many well-wrought books are we going to lose to foolish reactions on the internet? How many reputations are going to be ruined on the altar of condemnation for an improper or insufficient response?

In the meanwhile, I have no opinion about what you are upset about. Or, perhaps I have an opinion, but I don’t think it adds to the conversation.

Against White Identity Politics and Religious Registration

For all of the tizzy that some people are in over the election and the counter finger-wagging from others, there are some signals of significant causes for concern. There have been a number of false reports that have come out about the transition team and, since they supported the prior assumptions of many, they have been run with. This is problematic. However, through the noise of exaggeration and misreporting of news, there are some signs that ought to concern people of good conscience.

Against the White Genocide Movement

This election has revealed that there are good people that are becoming attracted to a movement for white ethnic identity, which is often described as opposing “white genocide” or “cultural Marxism.” As a response to the perpetual hammering of identity politics on the left, it is an understandable development. However, as a strategy for unity and justice, it is doomed to failure. Any political system that seeks disunity over unity should be rejected. The United States has already tried separate but equal once. It failed. It was mostly separate, but hellishly unequal. We should not think about going there again.

As Christians, our identity is first in Christ. As Paul tells us clearly, in the church “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col 3:11) The church is a fundamentally political institution. We have “immigration policies” in which we offer membership to believers who have participated in the initiation rite of baptism by immersion. (At least in the Baptist context.) We seek justice in our relationships toward one another. However, the church is doomed to fail in the pursuit of justice if it retains distinctions based on nationality or ethnicity.

Photo: Lighting Strike by Fabio Slongo. Used by CC License:   http://ow.ly/48DR306gJNI

Photo: Lighting Strike by Fabio Slongo. Used by CC License:  http://ow.ly/48DR306gJNI

The future of the church is unity across ethnic barriers. This is the image we see in Revelation 7, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” This is not a vision that should fuel ethnic division or even permit us to countenance such as the body of Christ. While we are unlikely to attain to this vision while on earth, this is what we should pursue today.

Rejecting white nationalism or white genocide does not equal a call for an “open border” immigration policy. (A common accusation against many on the right and left by those supporting white identity politics.) The United States has the right to set immigration policies that take into account the good of its citizens—this is a function of nation-states in our day, and is not inherently unjust (although it may be pursued unjustly). However, the perception of some (and some that I’ve seen who claim to be Christian) is that we must build a movement of white ethnic solidarity and ban all immigration or risk being overcome. The second is implausible, despite ridiculous claims to the contrary. The first should be anathema to Christians given our eschatological hope in a supremely diverse chorus of voices joined in worship.

Against Religious Registries

Recently someone actually went onto national television to argue for a registry of Muslim believers. Or, at least, he argued there was precedent for it. Much news can be made of this person’s relation to the incoming administration. Of greater concern for me is that such a terrible idea should never have seen the light of day outside of a condemnation of our distant past.

The person speaking was correct to note that the U.S. has a precedent for registering people. He was also correct to note that during World War II we registered and interned ethnic Japanese, some of whom were immigrants. There is a precedent for such a registry.

However, the internment of ethnic minorities during World War II is an instance of protectionist government overreach. This is a black mark on our nation’s history, not the sort of historical event we should dust off and try to recreate in the present. We should not even consider it an option, though I will engage in a thought experiment for the sake of discussion.

Let’s assume we create a registry of everyone in religion X. To do so, we have to ask ourselves how we will determine whether someone is part of that religion. Is it attendance at a worship service? Is it being born into a family that has at some point attested to being part of religion X? Is it having grown up in a nation that is perceived to be predominately filled with religion X? What happens if someone converts to another religion? How do we determine whether that conversion is authentic?

All of a sudden, the government is trying to make decisions about things that it is simply not qualified to do. Religion isn’t ethnicity, where a family tree justifies inclusion. Even when dealing with ethnicity, how much is too much? One parent? One grandparent? A brother in law? For religion, the government would have to ask a different, more nebulous set of questions.

The obvious and necessary outcome is that the government steps into the role of religious authority. Person A has demonstrated sufficient effort to be considered Christian even though he grew up in a Muslim home. At the same time, since Person B simply stopped attending the Mosque and hasn’t picked up another active religion, should he be considered to still be Muslim? Unless he eats some bacon and draws a cartoon of Mohammed? Would open sacrilege be sufficient (or necessary) to change a classification?

Suddenly, I’m catching a whiff of the Inquisition. That’s not a high point in human history, much less in Christian history. I’m also hearing echoes of the persecution of the Jews under the Nazi regime. Certainly it wouldn’t start there and it might never get to that extent, but the echoes of that horror of the persecution of the Jews should be enough to steer us clear.

So what happens when the anti-theists get hold of the government? Now we can get parallel registries of Muslims and Christians. No worries, they will just be keeping tabs on people of faith. Why? Just to keep everyone safe and ensure the government knows what is going on. And then to perhaps ensure that we don’t have people of certain faiths in certain government positions. Does this sound like a dystopian fiction? Yes, but it’s only a step or two beyond registering Muslims, which someone felt comfortable bringing up as a possibility in a TV interview.

This is the sort of thing that Christians (and any reasonable people) should speak against. It’s not a good idea. It’s not going to make us safer. It’s not going to end well. If we’re for religious liberty for some (ourselves?), then we need to hold out the same rights for all. That needs to be the principle we stand on.

The government does not have the wherewithal to regulate religion. The common good is not enhanced by the government regulating religion. Making people register their religious affiliation is not simply information gathering, it is regulating. We must keep this power away from the government.

Just a Media Overreaction?

One of the tragedies of contemporary society is the 24-hour news cycle. This creates the problem of the proliferation of interviews of people who might know someone that knows something speaking authoritatively about stuff. There is such a need to fill the airwaves that they bring people that might float the idea of something like a Muslim registry on national television. This, then, fuels dozens of hot takes (like this one), replays, edits, and discussion panels. Sometimes the furor is over nothing.

I’ll be glad to find out that this suggestion is really nothing. Unfortunately, there are some that will hear it and begin to think that such a simple encroachment on civil liberties is really worth it to prevent the explosion of another IED or another religiously driven night-club shooting. Because of the protectionist stance some (particularly whites) are taking, this will begin to sound like a good idea. Reading Twitter and some of the Alt-Right propaganda sites provides evidence that this idea isn’t just nothing.

Sometimes there is an overreaction that deserves to be neglected. The media cries wolf too often, as a rule. However, we can’t let their failures in the past prevent us from seeing problems in the present. These are issues that have the potential to take root in the minds of some in our churches and we should be careful not to let sin get a foothold.

The purpose of this post, therefore, is not to fuel the overreaction, but to offer some consideration for the ideas that are actually being floated as plausible and to encourage Christians to think about how these ideas betray the gospel (as with white nationalism) and put impartial justice in jeopardy (as with the Muslim registry). People are actually talking about some of these things as if they are good ideas. They aren’t, and we should make sure that the church is clear in standing against them.

Beware the Sea Lion

I learned a new term recently. It can be a noun or a verb. One may encounter a "sea lion," or someone may "sea lion."

The term is drawn from a cartoon in the Wondermark series drawn by David Malki. I've included the image here for your interest.

When I encountered the cartoon, I knew that I had found an amazingly accurate description of a certain online persona.

This cartoon can be found at:   http://wondermark.com/1k62/ 

This cartoon can be found at:  http://wondermark.com/1k62/ 

A sea lion is the sort of person who cannot allow a balloon to go unpricked. Seeing someone post something in public, the sea lion jumps into the conversation. However, the point is not to add anything to the conversation, it is to waste the time of the person who is making the comment.

To be clear, there are times that online conversations can be meaningful, but by definition, the sea lion is not interested in such conversations. Typically he is interested in a) proving himself smarter or more culturally enlightened than others, b) disrupting a conversation he disagrees with, without acknowledging that another person may simply have a different set of presuppositions, c) just generally being a nuisance all while pretending to be the truly mature and civil one, d) silencing speech that he disagrees with and which rely on a different worldview.

Sea lions are annoying, but they are simply a part of internet life. They can sometimes be confused with people who are legitimately asking questions about a topic that they know little about. Recognizing the difference (and avoiding being one) is important.

Some Characteristics of a Sea Lion

1. A sea lion typically recognizes that the comment was not necessarily about him, but chooses to engage it anyway. Some people simply have too much time on their hands, and being the vigilante of the Facebook wall or comments section seems to be their preferred disservice to the world. Never mind that the comment may have been made in jest, intended as a light hearted generalization, or be entirely tangential to the main point; the sea lion boldly goes where no one cares to hear his opinion.

2. A sea lion often plays dumb, attempting to get their victim to fall into a script that they have carefully crafted a rebuttal to. Online debates are often tedious and they tend to fall into certain patterns. College sophomores spend a great deal of time diagnosing those patterns and learning to rebut them so they can look smart in debates. Often the rebuttals are neither fair nor focused on the main point under debate. However, the sea lion is always ready for the unsuspecting fool to play along.

3. A sea lion is often characterized by attempting to move the argument back several steps or by refusing to accept an assumption the other parties have agreed upon. Rarely does the sea lion state that this is his tactic, but attempts to drag the conversation back to his own presuppositions. Often the sea lion is arguing about elementary level concepts when the conversation is on advanced topics that build on a common set of elementary assumptions already agreed upon.

4. Sometimes the sea lion is unaware he has presuppositions. There is an army of ignorant online warriors who seem to be unaware they have a worldview. All reasoning must be done on their terms, because they and only they have rightly reasoned from first principles to final conclusions. They represent truth and all difference in opinion represents a tainted deviation of their truth. This sort of sea lion asks the Christian to prove God when the Christian is debating theories of the atonement. (Let the Christian recognize that of course the atonement is silly and unnecessary if there is no God.) But the sea lion is oblivious that the faith assumption there is no God requires as much suspension of disbelief as any other faith assumption.

5. A sea lion often takes being ignored or told off as "victory." The other parties couldn't face the crushing logic of the sea lion, therefore they banished him. More likely the sea lion is just a bore and was shushed or blocked for habitually trying to subvert conversations.

6. The sea lion assumes that if someone makes a comment, they must follow up if he replies. This is part of the narcissism of the sea lion. Being the sole mind in the universe and sole arbiter of truth, the sea lion assumes that justice entails dealing with his (often erroneous or ignorant) arguments.

7. The sea lion is usually prepared with links from friendly sources that support his position. (Often he selects his topics by the ones where he's found articles and studies that he can use as irrefutable support.) If the victim does not have rebutting sources at hand, then his argument can be dismissed as being unsupported (and likely unsupportable, of course). If the victim does have rebutting sources, these are dismissed as being hack science, paid for by the Koch brothers (or Soros, depending on the topic and side). The sea lion's sources are, of course, irrefutable because Science and Peer Review. If sources are used from a different field than the sea lion is prepared to defend, then these will be rejected as from a flawed discipline.

Dealing with the Sea Lion

There is no perfect way to deal with the sea lion. Often ignoring them is the best way. Blocking Uncle Bob is probably going to lead to tense times at the Thanksgiving table.

Sometimes the sea lion has a point, your argument may be flawed or in an inappropriate venue. (At this point, the person may actually not be a sea lion, so it's important to evaluate the pattern of the person's interactions.)

However, often the true purpose of the sea lion is to silence dissenting opinions. Often this is perceived as a part of social justice on the part of the sea lion. At its best it is a form of annoying thought-policing, at its worst, sea lioning turns into a form of harassment or bullying.

Sea lions are often attempting to raise the social costs of online interactions by being persistent, argumentative (though in their minds always civil), and pedantic. They are typically off topic or in the wrong forum, but they typically aren't the vitriolic troll.

Unfortunately, there is no good way to avoid all sea lions, except by not engaging in online speech that disagrees with them. That is exactly what they want.

Therefore, the best thing to do, it seems, is to speak well, use evidence appropriately, and ignore the sea lions until they go away. Very seldom do people change their minds based on online arguments (I have no support for this, but I know it to be true). I will venture to suggest that no sea lion has ever changed his mind based on an online debate, however much time the victim has wasted.

However, if someone has a peer reviewed study to show me, I might just change my mind.

Spammers at the Gates

Not long ago I got one of those spam e-mails in my inbox. I'm continually amazed at the implausibility of these e-mails. It makes me wonder if people are still falling for them. However, since I keep getting them, I have to believe that someone out there is still responding.

After the e-mail, which I've included for your interest and humor, there's a humorous video of someone who played along with an e-mail scam. At least one person is keeping the spammers busy.

Hello friend,
 I want to trust you with this confidential proposal. Before I continue, let me introduce myself to you, I am Col. Thomas Collins the commander of the Special N.A.T.O coalition force with the United Nation troops in Afghanistan, on war against terrorism. I was working with General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S and NATO forces in Afghanistan before he was replaced last June by another General David Petraeus. I am serving currently in a Taliban territory; a remote Village in Bamyan province to the bustling capital Kabul (CBC’s Doc Zone).
 Because of series of killing of England/United States troops in Afghanistan especially the shot down of UN helicopter that killed 30 American soldiers and 12 England Soldiers on the 5th of August 2013 and the five American soldiers who were killed by a bomb in Afghanistan onThursday last week. After this series of killing I and my colleague decided to share the money we recovered on our raids on terrorist’s camp in Afghanistan. I have now in my possession the sum of $16M (Sixteen million US Dollars).
 I have carefully packaged the money in a box, I have made contact with a friend who is working with the UNITED NATIONS RED CROSS here in Kabul. He will assist me move the consignment out of the trouble area down to your country, which is the only safer means of moving it out of this hell hole, he will deposit it with the United Nations Red Cross as a diplomatic luggage as I have told him that the luggage belongs to one of our soldier that died during the attack but before giving up he told me to make sure the luggage get to his family. He will deposit the consignment for safe keep and to make contacts for its proper use.
 So I need someone I can work with on trust and that is why I contacted you. So if you accept, I will put you forward as the beneficiary/owner of the funds and then the box shall be deposited on your name as the beneficiary and the Red Cross Agent will transfer the box to you anywhere in your city. I just need your acceptance and all is done. I have 100%  assurance that you will surely receive the box without any hitch through United Nations, every arrangement will be made to proceed to your country.
 Once I confirm your interest to my proposal, and your positive reply I will proceed with the arrangement to move the consignment out of the trouble area and register your name as the beneficiary then move the consignment to your country Red Cross office. I am willing to give you 30% of the total sum when the money is delivered to you. I wait for your response so we can proceed immediately. In less than 7 days the money should be in your safe custody.
 The only telephone access we have here is radio message which is for our general use and is being monitored, therefore all communication will be via email till we finish our assignment. Please keep it to your self even if you are not interested, thank God for President Barrack Obama whose keen interest is to call us back home soon.
 Regards,
Col. Tom Collins

Implausibility

The implausibility of this sort of e-mail is evident on several levels. First, why would someone contact me as if I'm the best person to receive a $16 million shipment. I wouldn't say no to $4.8 million if I found it on the street, but I hardly think that I'm the best person to fulfill this sort of function. There has to be another layer of people more likely to succeed in laundering this amount of money that are closer to the troops.

Second, the author can't even bother to be consistent in his own e-mail. He's an American colonel, but at the same time, he wants to get money into "your country." At least if you're going to lie to me you should be a little craftier.

Third, I'm supposed to believe that the phone is monitored but e-mail isn't? Seriously? Who falls for this stuff?

Anyway, I guess I've violated the agreement because I've published the solicitation even though I was asked by the good Col. Tom Collins not to. I wonder what might have responded and strung him along like the guy in this TED talk.

Playing Along

Here's what happens if you actually play along with the spamming scammers. The speaker is a comedian, so his timing is good. This is one of the more entertaining TED talks I've watched.

Used by CC License. Danger from Heavy Seas by Anne.  http://ow.ly/CyQN3005z9p

Used by CC License. Danger from Heavy Seas by Anne. http://ow.ly/CyQN3005z9p

Statistics that Broaden Our Perspective

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review

The use of statistics in argumentation is often maligned. Often this is for good reason, since some very subtle sleights of hand can cause factually correct statistics to significantly misrepresent reality.

For example, there is the joke about the PR department’s reporting of the results of the annual softball game against the R&D department. After losing by a dozen runs, the company newsletter reported that the PR department had suffered a single loss that season while the R&D department had finally managed to achieve their first win of the year.

Despite the very plain dangers of the use of numbers, they are often a good way to illustrate things. Sometimes numbers, when properly used, can help put things into a whole new perspective.

Human Deaths due to War

This video about the numbers of deaths during various wars in history shows how statistics can help us understand our world a little better. Particularly with the rise of the modern media, with social media increasing the number of citizen reporters, we get a steady stream of information about who is killing who and how awful it is. This video helps to put things into perspective

Without diminishing the reality of human suffering, this video shows that things may not be as bad as we believe based on our Facebook feeds. It would be good to live in a world where no one is killing anyone. In fact, I long for that day, though I anticipate it won’t come until Christ returns.

Life is hard and injustice is real, but this visual representation of statistics helps put things into perspective. And perspective is helpful in keeping us from being overwhelmed by the horrors of the world. There are many horrors and will continue to be more, but it may be they are not nearly as pervasive as we might think.

Outrage Porn

Social media enables what has come to be known as "outrage porn." If a definition is required, outrage porn is the phenomenon where people are addicted to being upset about what someone (usually distant from them) is doing and how wrong it is.

This is what leads to people actually getting upset over the colors of a dress in a picture on the internet. It is what leads to a constant stream of angry bloggers (from the right and the left) taking the words of actors, politicians, and regular people out of context, writing about them, and starting a movement to call for the people’s demise. (Or worse yet, actually caring what some of these celebrities say and thinking it is important simply because they say it.)

Outrage porn is how we get a national debate over a boy with a science experiment clock or intentional faux bomb thingy. It doesn’t matter that none of us are in a position to know enough about the topic, we are justified in lauding the victim and crucifying the authorities or mocking the supports and justifying suspicion based on religious grounds. (This is a false dichotomy, of course, but it makes the point.)

We’ve lost perspective because of the broadening of our field of view with the narrowing of our focus. We can see the whole world through the internet, but the lens tends to be more and more biased. Often the bias is myopically focused on the present to the exclusion of the past. (After all, we can’t really trust history because it was written by the dominant culture.)

Taking a Step Back

The video and its visual representation of history (inasmuch as the statistics are reliable) help to put things into perspective by breaking through the “newness” of the newsfeed and seeing history synchronically; it sets different eras beside each other.

In this case, it reinforces the horrors of World War II. It helps me to understand the generation that lived through it a little better. It also shows me that today might not be quite as bad as I thought.

There is room for concern, but no need for despair. In that, this is a helpful video, really.

Why Churches Should Have Websites

Used in original by creative commons license: http://ow.ly/SxKG4 

Used in original by creative commons license: http://ow.ly/SxKG4 

My recent relocation to a new city has driven me to a fundamental belief that a church that does not have a digital footprint is failing the community. In other words, in the American context, a church without a website is in error.

To some a website seems superfluous. What does it matter if we are preaching the Word and doing ordinances correctly? A few years ago I might have argued the same thing. However, from the perspective of someone looking for a church home, the lack of a website is a significant failure on the part of a church.

Three reasons to have a website

The first reason it is important for churches in the digital age to have a website is because without a digital footprint it is nearly impossible to find a church. As a newcomer to town I have no idea where some of these small churches are located. I don’t have a phone book and a phone book is insufficient for getting information out in this day and age anyway.

If churches want to be found by anyone who doesn’t live right next door, they need to communicate their presence. The most efficient way to do that is with a simple website.

The second reason for a church to have a website is to provide helpful information. For example, what time does the church meet? Unless the congregation takes out an ad in the phone book (which will likely cost more than a simple website), then having the only marker of the church’s existence be the name and seven digits of phone number in the yellow pages is not very helpful.

Additionally, a website can simply convey what the church believes. Are you a moderate SBC church that refuses to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000? This is good to know so that people can skip over to a biblically-faithful congregation. Also, how does your pastor preach? A visitor shouldn’t have to spend several hours to visit just to find that the pastor uses a text as a springboard for a ramble through a self-help lecture. That time could be better invested looking for a congregation where Scripture is valued and there is opportunity to serve.

It doesn’t take much time or money these days to create a simple website that presents the basic facts and links in some sermon samples (even if they are the best ones). The result is that people know what to expect, where to be there, and you are more likely to get visitors that are more likely to join the fellowship.

A third reason for a church to have a website is to meet the needs of the community. How will the person in the midst of a divorce find out you have a care group to minister to that situation unless you put it online? Maybe through word of mouth, but most people depend on a web search.

How about the ways that your congregation provides emergency aid to the community? Or, if the church does job training or a clothing closet, it is insufficient to expect work conversations to really communicate the resources to those in need. When technology is so inexpensive and ubiquitous, the failure to use it should lead others to question whether the aid programs are intended to be effective.

Stewardship

Although recently someone attempted to tie the existence of church websites to the decline in SBC missions, that tie is tenuous. Perhaps it applies to churches that spend large amounts of money on top of the line sites. That isn’t the point of this discussion.

A failure to have a website is a marker that you really don’t want to have people visit. Whatever your rhetoric is, you don’t want visitors if you won’t provide information about your congregation. This is not just new move-ins to the community, this applies to those in your community that suddenly have a need that drives them to seek out a church.

When a church fails to provide a digital footprint with basic information, it puts the onus on the visitor to figure everything out. As a believer who is required by my contract to join a church, I am forced to do the legwork to find a church. However, if I did not have that driving force, it would be much easier to stay in bed on a Sunday morning than to make phone calls, visit around, and potentially miss the beginning of your service because the church didn’t publish a schedule.

A church without a website is still a church. This isn’t a question of orthodoxy. However, a church without at least a simple website is not stewarding the available technology and resources well. While this isn’t essential to the gospel, it is a gospel issue because it undermines the effectiveness of a congregation in serving the community.

Communicating Truth in a Digital Age

Used by CC license. Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/seanbonner/2086934736

Used by CC license. Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/seanbonner/2086934736

The greatest thing about the internet is that democratizes the exchange of information. We are no longer dependent on curators choosing which parts of the story we get to hear.

The worst thing about the internet is that it democratizes the exchange of information. We no longer have people filtering the stories we hear to help us get an accurate understanding of issues.

Carl Trueman wrote a critique of the problem the democratization of the internet a few years ago:

Then there was the case of a young guy who wanted to engage in email banter about something I’d written. What fascinated me was the way this person referred to himself at one point in our exchange as a scholar. Yet he had no higher degree, no track record of publications which had passed muster with peers in the field. Indeed, he’s still a student, not yet even beginning a doctoral program. Indeed, he’s a long way from possessing that most basic of academic union cards: a PhD. Now, I guess I’m old fashioned but the category of scholar is one which should be reserved for those who have established themselves in their chosen field by actual scholarly achievement, not by simply talking a good game. This credibility is achieved by consistent, careful and scholarly contributions to a field in terms of refereed publications which then enjoy currency among qualified peers outside the person’s immediate circle of epigonous friends.

Trueman may be a bit stodgy when it comes to academic qualifications. Sometimes people without the guild card of a terminal degree can make outstanding contributions to fields of study. However, those people are usually put forward by an expert who knows the field and recognizes the contribution made by an individual. Rarely do they self-identify as an expert. And rarely do they rise to the top of the field by merely reading and writing blogs.

Additionally, sometimes people that have academic qualifications are not as well informed as they believe themselves to be. This is particularly true when people are qualified in one area and speak out in another.

Overreaching by assuming authority in another discipline is a common trap for smart people to fall into. They assume that because they are highly qualified in one field, that ability bleeds over to other fields. Thus, an excellent civil engineer may feel herself to be an expert in evolutionary theory, too. The potential for that expertise may exist, but, as we all know, potential and actuality are two vastly different things.

The Value of Experts

Trueman’s criticism is generally valid because the process of earning a PhD in any subject trains an individual to recognize their own ignorance. The practice of careful scholarship and the fear of academic hubris that is generated during higher academics should improve a person’s ability to reason and explain a position.

There is an old aphorism, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” I heard professors spout that over the years, but it never really sunk home until I started working toward a PhD.

When I was reading introductory books and sitting in classes as an MDiv student, I was able to gain much of the information rapidly. Sometimes I felt like I knew it all. Then I started doing independent, academic research and realized how little I knew. I also realized how many of the opinions that I held so strongly had more potential criticisms that I had imagined.

This doesn't mean that my positions were not correct. I held to and still hold to a robust orthodoxy. However, sometimes I’ve had to rephrase my understanding of my positions. At other times, I’ve maintained my position and recognized that I’ve held it for the wrong reasons. And, still other times, I’ve come to the recognition there are a broader range of valid options than I had initially allowed.

Used by CC license. See Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tedxcalgary/15917692961

Used by CC license. See Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tedxcalgary/15917692961

None of this means there isn’t an absolute truth, which can be objectively known. Neither does it mean that all ideas are fair game and we can’t know anything. However, it does mean that a bit more humility is in order than I originally allowed, particularly when I am dealing with differing ideas within the bounded set of orthodoxy.

This is where the democratization of expertise comes back into this discussion. The internet is the Wild West of information and opinions. Anyone with a little time can start up a blog and make it look official.

As a result, the internet gets flooded with content that is ill-reasoned, ill-informed, and often caustic toward people that hold different opinions. You won’t go far on the internet before you run into someone being denounced because he holds a different position than another person.

Debate is a good thing, but in the wilderness of the internet there is a great deal more bloviating than debate. This is true on the left and the right. Part of this is that things look black and white when considered at an elementary level. This means that the subtleties of positions are generally not understood. It makes debate difficult, but being an insulting troll very easy.

So what’s the point?

The point is that we all need to engage in online conversations with grace and humility. We need to appreciate our own limitations. The handful of blogs and few books we’ve read don’t necessarily qualify us to comment on every social or theological debate.

We need to be clear, but gracious, where Scripture speaks clearly. In places Scripture doesn't specifically speak we need to be especially gracious and humble in how we approach the issue. We also need to recognize the complexity of our views and the opposing views.

No one believes they are a bad guy. Everyone thinks they are doing good, except for a few psychotically selfish people. Most of the time the place the discussion needs to begin is much deeper than the actual issue in question. The problem is not in the particular position, but at a deeper theological level.

For instance, the debate about abortion is more about an appropriate understanding of the value of human life than it is about individual rights. When we hold the debate in rights language instead of dealing with the deeper theological issue, we will make little progress. Unfortunately, the popular debate is nearly always couched in rights language.

Worse still, when we insult and impute motives to the people that disagree with us we merely galvanize their position. As William Blake wrote in the Proverbs of Hell, “Damn braces. Bless relaxes.” It’s hard to convince someone of your position when you’ve insulted them. More significantly, it’s hard to show the light of the gospel to someone you’ve verbally assaulted.

Christians, as people who claim to have access to objective truth through God’s special revelation, need to be especially careful about engaging in conversations well. We need to be purveyors of truth who seek to make our case well, but never compromising on both the meaning and the tone of our message.