Category Archives: Social Media & Theological Discourse

A Glance at my Forthcoming Book, ‘TheoMedia’

I just received the page proofs for my new book. I am not sure of the release date, but it will certainly be out in 2013. I will be blogging about the book more in the days ahead, but for now, here is what I wrote for the publisher as a possible description for the back cover:


Is the Bible media savvy? Can ancient Scripture address the cutting edge technology of the digital age?

The church is unsure of itself in the 21st century’s media culture. Some Christians denounce digital media while others embrace the latest gadgets and apps as soon as they appear. Many of us are stumbling along amidst the tweets, status updates, podcasts, and blog posts, wondering if we have ventured into a realm beyond the scope of biblical wisdom.

Though there is such a thing as “new media,” this book reminds us that the actual concept of media is ancient, theological, and even biblical. In fact, Scripture regularly features the media of God, “TheoMedia.” These are the means by which God communicates and reveals himself—creation, divine speech, inspired writings, the visual symbol of the cross, and more.

If God creates and uses media, then Scripture provides a theological logic by which we can create and use media in the digital age. This book is not an unqualified endorsement of the latest media products or a tirade against media technology. Instead, it calls us to rethink our understanding of media in terms of the media of God in the biblical story of redemption.

It also calls Christians to a life of media saturation. But the media that are to saturate our lives most prominently are the media of God….


Social Media & Theological Discourse [5]: The Necessity of Wonder

This post is part of series we are calling “Ethics for Social Media & Theological Discourse.”  Here are the preceding posts: Intro; [1] the dangers of the screen-to-screen mode of communication; [2] Wisdom from the 17th Century; [3] John Dyer article at CT; [4] The Wisdom Literature on Speech; [5] A Confessional Aside.

This series of posts is feebly making suggestions for how we conduct theological discourse in the realm of cyberspace.  The distance (even anonymity) permitted in online interaction seems to be attended by a number of hazards, namely the temptation to be theologically careless with our words or to be  personally downright mean with our words.  The contention of this post is that a requirement for all Christian theological dialogue (online or offline!) is wonder.

If we are trembling over the wonder and beauty of the God we so passionately discuss from our keyboards or smartphones, we will be less likely to cast hurtful stones or to articulate irresponsibly.

I have been reading a lot of Karl Barth recently.  In his Evangelical Theology, he has a chapter on “wonder” in which he calls for a continual astonishment over theology’s subject matter:

“If such astonishment is lacking, the whole enterprise of even the best theologian would canker at the roots.  On the other hand, as long as even a poor theologian is capable of astonishment, he is not lost to the fulfillment of his task.  He remains serviceable as long as the possibility is left open that astonishment may seize him like an armed man” [1].

Our impassioned theological discussions sometimes result in someone (verbally) trying to “seize” his/her interlocutor “like an armed man.”  The theological task is best undertaken by those who are already seized by the nonpareil grandeur of God rather than by those who are quick to make their own triumphant seizures.

Paul himself is overcome with wonder after his laborious, theological argumentation throughout Romans 1-11—so overcome, in fact, that he blurts out, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and inscrutable his ways!” (v. 33).

Oddly, the motivation of theological discourse is often winning instead of worshiping.  In heated debates both today and in ages past, Christians sometimes act as if the goal in discussing theology is to conquer our opponent rather than to worship our Lord.  This is not the goal of theology.

The online setting can be so helpful in promoting constructive dialogue about God.  But the ease and the expediency technology permits with the glowing “Publish” or “Send” icons do not encourage well-crafted replies grounded in a worshipful wonder over the One at the center of our discourse.  The innovation of the Internet requires us to develop a range of new disciplines as Christians.  One of them is taking the time to seep in the wonder and astonishment of God before we blog, Tweet, or make hasty comments about Him.





[1] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 64.

(Social Media & Theological Discourse: A Confessional Aside)

I “refresh” the email Inbox (is there some new news to be unlocked from the ever-updating oracle of the Internet?).  I check on the dashboard of my blog (do I dare allow my eyes to move to the WordPress chart that tells me the number of visits per day?).  I go to Amazon to see where my book ranks (45,256 or 231,970?). I go to The Ooze where I have a published  article (did anyone post a comment to my piece?).

All this clicking.  All this sick self-worth hanging on info to be revealed on the screen of my laptop.  What is this doing to my soul (or revealing about my soul)?

…And how does this affect theological discourse online?

Joel is going to be writing a post on this soon… I am eager to read it!

Social Media & Theological Discourse [4]: The Wisdom Lit. on Speech

This post is part of series we are calling “Ethics for Social Media & Theological Discourse.”  Here are the preceding posts: Intro; [1] the dangers of the screen-to-screen mode of communication; [2] Wisdom from the 17th Century; [3] John Dyer article at CT.

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give an account

for every careless word they speak….” (from Jesus in Mt 12:36).

Our use of technology often precedes our maturity to use it responsibly.  I believe this notion is evidenced in the way Christians are discussing theological controversies by way of FB, Twitter, Blogs, and even cell phone texts.  Any use of technology should involve a critical assessment of its potential harms as well as its potential usefulness.  Thankfully, more and more writers (both in and outside the church) are thinking responsibly about our use of communications technology.  Most of us, however, are embracing the latest technological innovations and trends uncritically.

I am supportive of online theological discourse.  I am thankful for the “space” the Internet has provided for pubic interaction over the most precious realities of our faith.  Joel and I are writing this series of blog posts not to decry social media as a means of theological discourse (we would be disqualifying our own blogging activity if we were!).  We are writing to collaborate with you, our readers, in developing an ethic for how that discourse is conducted via social media.

The need for establishing an Ethic for Online Theological Discourse

I just spent some time looking over the comments (now at 1,506) posted at the end of Justin Taylor’s well known article on Bell at The Gospel Coalition (a site for which I have the utmost respect, by the way!).  There are many well-reasoned, carefully written words in those comments.  But there is also name-calling—yes, name-calling, and not just directed at Bell.  The comment-ers at time call each other names.  Now Jesus called people names at times, and I talk about that in Faith Without Illusions.  But the sort of name-calling in those posts seems a far cry from what Jesus was doing, his heart furious, yet also painfully broken, over impenitent Jerusalem.

I also recall the ugly online comments that were being leveled at N.T. Wright, especially in the preceding days before his appearance at ETS in Atlanta.  The explosion of comments, tweets and online articles haunting Rob Bell’s book release is not new.  As matter of fact, it is a now a pattern.  Those who attended Wright’s debate with Frank Theilman and Thomas Schreiner reported that Wright called for an ethic for blogging.  This series at Hopeful Realism is a modest (and surely insufficient) attempt to answer that call.

The Bible’s Wisdom Literature and Speech

Theological discourse—whether online, at a conference, or around a dinner table—is a thrilling and necessary Christiane practice (“…you shall talk of them [the words of the Law] when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise”—Dt 6:7).  But we should bring the Wisdom Literature’s teaching on speech to bear on how we conduct the discussions.

James is a NT example of Jewish Wisdom Lit.  Here are excerpts from the discussion on “the tongue” in ch. 3 that seem quite pertinent…

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (v. 1).

(According to Dyer, when we click “publish” online we are knowingly or unwittingly “assuming a position of leadership and teaching…”).

“And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness….  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the image of God.  From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (vv. 6, 8-10).

Some of the posts I have seen about Rob Bell have been full of this strange and incompatible mixture of blessing God (in the tauting of “correct” doctrine) and the cursing of others (in the accusation that Bell or others posting non-Bell-condemning comments are a heretic or a “wolf”).

“These things ought not to be so.”

Proverbs is peppered with teachings on speech that should be heeded as we lift high our cyber-voices by clicking “publish” or “tweet” or “send.”

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18)

“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (13:3).

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1).

Some questions after this verse: is it out of vogue to give a “soft answer” these days?  Is a “soft answer” viewed as weak?  Is a “harsh word” required to demonstrate doctrinal fidelity in our online discourse nowadays?  Does a 140-character limit more encourage a “soft answer” or a “harsh word”?

“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words?  There is more hope for a fool than for him” (29:20).

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (18:2).

Does that blinking cursor in that blank screen space beneath “What’s happening?” or “What’s on your mind?” invite us into a serious quest for “understanding” or for “expressing [our] opinion”?

I find it quite frustrating to observe how hastily and fiercely Christians will engage in theological debate yet with only a faint dabbling in theology, with little if any serious engagement with primary texts or with no expertise in ecclesial history and without tried experience in plying exegetical and hermeneutical skills.  We so quickly rush into battle waving the banner of Luther’s soteriology without having read his own texts.  We are so quick to spar in the name of Jesus without having spent years in careful, prayerful study of the complexities and nuances of the Gospels that bear his witness.

And since we are discussing wisdom literature, let’s not forget the lessons from Job.  The bulk of this ancient book comprises speeches—it is chock full of theological discourse.  The friends of Job are confident in their tidy theodicies and in their airtight theological proposals.  Yet at the end of the book, God says of them, “you have not spoken of me what is right…” (Job 42:7).

All theological discourse must be uttered in the humble awareness that after our mortal blabbering, God Himself may tell us the same thing: “you have not spoken of me what is right.”

I myself have been so miserably guilty in failing to guard my words.  As a matter of fact, some of my darkest sins involve the crafting of malicious and careless words.  So when I click “publish” in just a moment, it had better be with fear and trembling.

Forthcoming down the road: Should we neglect being vigorously on guard against heresy? NO.   Are we not responsible for addressing falsehood?  YES.  How we do that biblically is in the docket for later posts….


Ethics for Online Theological Discourse [1]: Screen to Screen vis-a-vis Face to Face (notice the wordplay?)

This post is part of series we are calling “Ethics for Online Theological Discourse.”  Here is the preceding post: Intro.


Since the release of Rob Bell’s video promoting Love Wins, cyberspace has been flooded afresh with a great deal of uncivil discourse.  Since so much theological dialogue is now taking place online, Christians need to begin thinking much more seriously about the nature of those tweets, posts, and comments we are publishing for public view on the Internet.  Theological discourse within the church has had a rather checkered past, marked by ferocious attacks, gross misunderstandings, and overly simplistic polarities between artificial extremes.  Ever since Paul confronted Peter so forcefully that day in Antioch (Gal 2.11-14), the church has witnessed the highly charged passions its members can display over theological allegiances.

But since so much theological discourse now occurs online, our ranting and raving—however justified or unjustified—is available for public viewing and hearing.  Uncivil theologizing rarely seems to win outsiders over to Jesus.

I just wrote a book that provides biblical models for how we address bad theology and ethical failures among God’s people.  So I am not calling for doctrinal compromise or for a facile agreement to just disagree for the sake of politically correct tolerance.  During these series of posts, Joel and I are calling for a more critical and more careful appropriation of social media as a means of expressing our theological convictions.

Let’s start by considering social media’s mode of communicating—it is screen-to-screen, not face-to-face.

This is a big deal.

When our interaction with others is faceless, we unwittingly depersonalize our interlocutors to the extent that our criticisms become less charitable.  When writing a blog post, I am staring at text on a screen, not a face sitting across the coffee shop table.  To write text about another’s text feels like slinging words at other words, rather than exchanging actual blows with the real live person behind those words.

I am not saying that there can be no screen-to-screen theological dialogue (or else I would not be free to write this post!).  What I am saying is that the dangers and pitfalls inherent to screen-to-screen communication must be acknowledged and responsibly navigated if we are going to publish our convictions online.

Another insufficiency of screen-to-screen discourse is that it permits only limited interactivity.  Sure, people can add comments in agreement or disagreement to blog posts or they can tweet back their rebuttals.  But when you are engaged in an intensive, face-to-face discussion, you are constantly having to pause to clarify what you mean and to respond to the immediate interjections and questions of your dialogue partner.  We are not so inconvenienced in screen-to-screen discourse, which means that the comments we are making on the Web are often without the nuanced clarifications which face-to-face interaction requires.

If we are going to conduct serious theological dialogue within cyberspace, then we must discipline ourselves to overcome as much as we can the limitations inherent to screen-to-screen interaction (and when those limitations cannot be overcome, we need to honestly acknowledge it).  Simply remembering that we are hurling words at faces, not just screens, might tone down some of our rhetoric.  Simply remembering that screen-to-screen communication is notorious for misunderstandings and misinterpretations should promote the highest degree of clarity in the articulation of our viewpoints.

I will close with this from 2 John 12:

“Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink [screens and pixels…?].  Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”