This post is part of series we are calling “Ethics for Social Media & Theological Discourse.” Here are the preceding posts: Intro;  the dangers of the screen-to-screen mode of communication;  Wisdom from the 17th Century;  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….