I happened to be reading through the Internet Monk archives this morning, in search of the post that inspired me to start my series of posts on tradition and innovation, and I came across a post where Michael Spencer surprised me by making four novel (to me, anyway) but accurate observations about discussions of Christianity on the internet. [Emphasis added.]
7. The deep influence of the culture war model of discipleship is everywhere. In fact, the pervasive presence of political rhetoric and opinion is a constant intrusion into the Christian blogosphere, at times obscuring all other discussions. As in several other things, the meaning seems to be found mostly in identification, not in participation or practice. This shapes us toward the belief that political conviction is the fruit of spiritual growth. I would disagree.
I’d long ago noticed that, at least for the noisiest people, the quest for spiritual growth boiled down to a quest to join the correct group, spiritual formation reduced to a matter of hanging around with the right people, behaving like they behave, reacting like they react, opining what they opine, assuming that growth will naturally follow. It hadn’t occurred to me that this has been turned from the usual cliquishness to a full-blown approach to discipling believers. But I think Spencer is right that the cultural warriors have sanctified this particular human weakness and now actively prey on it to build their ranks.
What surprises me the most is that holding certain specific, detailed political convictions has become so important as a test of one’s Christian maturity—because it is only important that we hold them, not that we arrive at them through study and reflection. In fact, now that I think about it I will differ with Spencer’s last statement; I don’t think modern Christians believe that political conviction is the fruit of spiritual growth, I think they see it as an alternative to spiritual growth, a way of cutting to the chase.
8. There is a deep involvement by those in the blogosphere with media, and this is integrated into their spirituality. This is especially true regarding movies and television, which are the preferred narrative modes as opposed to reading fiction. Issues regarding the secondary and spiritual influences of media are rarely heard. Being “up to date” with the latest media events is mandatory. How does this fit into my spirituality? Are we underestimating its formative effects?
I think it is a major embarrassment that Christians have so unquestioningly embraced mass media, and in particular its techniques of shaping a message. We are in deep denial about how much those techniques can end up shaping our own thinking. For example, let me pick on Spencer the internet personality for a moment. This particular post of his opens with these words:
I’m writing about spirituality these days. Yeah, I know how a lot of you feel about that word. So deal. We’re going to use it. We’re also going to use another word some of you don’t like: formation. Now that we’re good and grumpy, let’s go for a ride.
These words are brimming with attitude, an attitude that permeates the blogosphere. But if you read on, after a couple more sentences the attitude has evaporated and the tone is nearly neutral. Why would Spencer open with such an attitude when it isn’t pertinent to the point being made, and in fact he drops it completely a few sentences in? Because that is how people write these days. Because it what people have been trained to expect lively writing to be: blunt, brash, rude, ironic, choppy, contemptuous, casual, idiomatic.
But when it comes to writing these characteristics are not good, just fashionable. And, to risk being overly pious, I think they exemplify an unloving attitude towards the reader. Now, I understand that much of this kind of writing takes an ironic stance, something like teasing—you know I’m not really being rude and contemptuous towards you, because you aren’t really like the guy I’m talking about, and that’s part of what makes my rude and contemptuous words funny—but it still ends up sharpening our skills in some questionable areas, and it reinforces an unloving attitude towards those guys, the not-so-imaginary ones who really are the target of my rudeness and contempt.
There’s a lot more that could be said about the dangers of media, but I think we could make a lot of progress if we would just think for a bit about how fraught with danger it is to adopt attitudes that were crafted by ungodly people for purposes of their own.
9. One sees very little that is of a really radical nature in the discipleship or community exemplified in the Christian blogosphere. Despite a lot of adjectives suggesting radicalism, the Christian spirituality of the blogosphere appears to be quite conventional, especially in regard to issues of comfort, finances, lifestyle, children, community, mission, etc.
Ouch. We are good at making fun of things like the Goth subculture, where middle-class suburban white kids have taken a truly transgressive vision and reduced it to a collection of suggestive but ultimately harmless quirks in dress, makeup, and music. Can we put our own markers of radicalness—large families, homeschooling—to the test, distinguishing those which really are different and difficult, from those which we’ve merely agreed to call radical?
10. I see little evidence that the spirituality of the blogosphere has made Christians more informed about and congenial toward those with whom they disagree or differ. Instead, stereotypes and extreme examples are more easily created and brought into what are often “cut and paste” conversations. There is much to learn from those with whom we differ, but I rarely see any evidence that opposing sides are using the net to learn from one another. It is overwhelmingly about being reinforced in our own positions.
This may be the single best reason for Christians to be wary of the blogosphere. Groups do not form in the blogosphere based on shared interests, but rather based on like-mindedness. Online community thrives not on shared purpose or goals, but on the joy of joining together in opposition to someone else. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in Life Together, Christians are already especially prone to temptations in this area; the blogosphere provides myriad new ways to sanctify such wickedness, and should probably be avoided on that basis alone.