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How social media corrodes understanding

218062_1Dear Reader, please be warned that what follows is going to be a full-on Grumpy Old Man rant. But stay with it; there is something really important here.

On the way back from an academic conference on the understanding of evil in early Christianity, I was checking Twitter and found a blog post recommended by Rachel Held-Evans, the well-known US blogger and voice of ‘progressive evangelicalism’. She commended it as a ‘good post on tomorrow’s [lectionary] gospel reading.’

I don’t want to pick out an individual, so I am not linking to the post itself. (I guess if you are desperate you could track it down). It includes a strong biographical element where the writer laments the constraints he feels as a legacy of his conservative /fundamentalist Christian (Southern Baptist) upbringing and how this inhibits his ability to read things like John 14.15, where Jesus says ‘If you love me, [you will] keep my command[ment]s’. Because he was brought up with the idea that to be a Christian essentially means conforming exactly to a set of rules, he struggles with the idea of ‘commands’ of Jesus. The post thus has the merit of honest articulation of this person’s agenda as he approaches the text; none of us comes to Scripture agenda-free, and part of mature reading is a level of self-awareness so we can see how we might be reading into the text instead of reading out of it.

But his conclusion is an odd mixture of insight and ignorance. After a brief meander, he decides that Jesus does not have many commands—what he teaches is more like a couple of key principles. And since the mention of the Spirit is in John 14 intertwined with the mention of commands, clearly we need the Spirit to help us work out these principles. (Jesus could not have left any commands, or rules, since you do not need the Spirit to keep rules.)

He reaches this conclusion by means of two breathtaking assumptions.

The first is thatJesus was speaking to His disciples while He was still on Earth. Most of them were illiterate and barely knew the Old Testament.’ Now, I cannot complain here that this writer is ignorant of all the research on literacy in the first century, or on the nature of Jewish engagement with the Hebrew Bible. His is not an academic blog. And I can see where he gets the idea from: In Acts 4.13, the Jewish leaders are surprised by Peter and John’s courage.

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

It’s not uncommon to hear sermons on this, suggesting that it means they were illiterate (hence God can use anyone). But it is much better to understand this as expressing the fact that Peter was not a member of the scribal elite. Worse than that, this blog writer goes on to deduce that the disciples knew nothing of the OT, and therefore that Jesus did not expect them to keep OT commands—something rather contradicted by the Sermon on the Mount, much of Jesus’ other teaching, not to mention Jesus’ own practice. Besides, 1 Peter is a highly sophisticated piece of writing which includes perhaps the most extended reflection on the importance of Is 53 in the NT. Who did he think wrote it? OK—many scholars say it cannot be Peter precisely because of the (false) assumption that he was nothing more than an ignorant fisherman. But what about Matthew? John? Jude? James? A sweeping, popular assumption based on little reflection is informing a key issue here. (In fact, there is a good, historical argument about the literacy of Jesus and the disciples—and hope to blog on this later in the week.)

The second assumption is even more bizarre. The blog writer has seen lots of lists of Jesus commands. But how many commands did Jesus actually issue? To find out, he did a quick search, in English, of the word ‘command’—and found really only two. Love God; love neighbour. So these are the only things Jesus commanded. Never mind that he uses the part of speech called an ‘imperative’ at just about every point in his teaching ministry! I suspect you would find several hundred just in the Sermon on the Mount! Here, this blogger is demonstrating ignorance of the most basic issues in how you read a text.

So, you might be wondering, why am I picking on this poor individual? After all, there must be hundreds—thousands—like him! Yes, indeed—and that’s the point! The world of the internet is awash with people who have a view, based on not very much, but presented as something of value. James is wise to warn us not to presume to be teachers (James 3.1), and this is easily extended to blogging. And get this: Rachel Held Evans, a leading influencer, particular for younger ‘progressives’, has just recommended this as insightful to her 43,647 Twitter followers! By now, a good number of sermons will have been preached based on this. Ignorance is permeating the pews thanks to social media.

41G+5ePsPCLNow I am well aware that the idea that the internet is stunting our thinking is not new, nor confined to Christian belief. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows from 2011 offered an extended argument on this. But this phenomenon is now spilling over from social media and into the world of print publishing. On the First Things site, Andrew Walker and Owen Strachan lament the reception of Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian—not simply because they do not agree, but because the arguments are based on ignorance and lack of awareness of widely-acknowledged facts about the texts and the ancient world. (You can find Walker’s more detailed review on the Canon and Culture website.) And Vines came to prominence through his widely-shared YouTube broadcast.

The real danger here is a lack of critical thinking, a lack of interest in the question: ‘Yes, it might be entertaining, or engaging, or say what I want to hear—but is it true?’. There is a caricature which says that concern for the truth is the preserve of anally-retentive, awkward, conservative/fundamentalist Christians. But it is not. It should be the concern for all Christians. The way many people, and in particular Christian influencers, are using social media is corroding this concern for asking even basic questions of truth. And in turn this is corroding understanding of faith, the reading of Scripture, and even Christian discipleship. We will all be the poorer for it.

Rant over…for the moment.

Additional note

There’s a fantastic article on The Federalist (thanks Steve W!) which explores the ‘death of the expert.’

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

The author (Tom Nichols) does just lament this nostalgically—he sees the implications for human knowledge.

This is a very bad thing…Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself.

Critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House…None of this ignorance stops people from arguing as though they are research scientists.

Particularly pertinent for current discussions about ethics and theology, he sees the way that this new openness actually destroys our ability to hold reasonable conversations.

This subverts any real hope of a conversation, because it is simply exhausting — at least speaking from my perspective as the policy expert in most of these discussions — to have to start from the very beginning of every argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument. (Most people I encounter, for example, have no idea what a non-sequitur is, or when they’re using one; nor do they understand the difference between generalizations and stereotypes.) Most people are already huffy and offended before ever encountering the substance of the issue at hand.

This last sentence seems to sum up the tone of many online conversations about theology—and the more so the more controversial the issue.


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20 Responses to How social media corrodes understanding

  1. Tom May 25, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

    Thanks Ian. Another way in which instant online “information” is corroding our ability to think is the degree of tribalism and selection bias it encourages. For instance, the very reason I’m reading this is that I follow you on Twitter, because I generally like what you have to say!

    I was discussing this last night (with a real life person, face to face, over a beer. Y’know, the good old fashioned way of having a debate). Everyone in the world claims to “only believe xyz if there’s proof”, or “I go with the science”, and yet bizarrely I don’t recall witnessing a single online entity on Twitter, the blogosphere or any such platform say “you know what, you’re right. Your argument is better than mine. I’ve changed my mind on this issue.” Every fact can be “debunked”, every argument supported with evidence of some kind or other. And yet true scholarship – deep study of a subject in order to come to an understanding of it and form an opinion, not the other way round – is becoming rarer and rarer.

    Because of this, those that are humbly trying to understand a subject seem quiet and unsure of themselves, whilst those who have loudly built their camp and will not shift come hell or high water increasingly define the terms, flood the available media and lead opinion.

    • Ian Paul May 25, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

      Thanks, Tom—and thanks for following!

      Yes, I agree with you that social media makes us very selective about who we listen to. I do follow some on Twitter that I don’t always agree with. And it seems to be a feature of that platform that people don’t respond very well to disagreement!

      And you are spot on about noise and silence. I am fascinated to meet people who say ‘I read your blog…but I never feel confident enough to comment.’

  2. Tim Nevell May 25, 2014 at 5:21 pm #

    Not to mention all those television documenturies about bible history etc, which have a very selective take on the bible.

  3. James Byron May 25, 2014 at 10:02 pm #

    The split isn’t between shallow and deep research so much as between different starting assumptions.

    It doesn’t matter if a person has the alphabet after their name if they hold a firm belief in the authority of scripture. Confirmation bias then takes over. Simon Peter *has* to have written the letters in his name, therefore, Greek literacy has to have been widespread amongst Jewish fishermen. The conclusion is dictated by the premise.

    • Ian Paul May 27, 2014 at 10:43 am #

      Hmmm…I wonder if you are confusing two things here. I think the blogger that I am quoting would quite likely believe that Peter wrote 1 Peter—but he just has not made the connection with his own comment.

      The serious question is whether Jesus’ disciples were a. illiterate and b. ignorant of the OT. The writer infers the second from the first, and therefore rules out the idea that Jesus expected anyone to follow the commands of the OT.

      I don’t think this idea has anything to do with confessional position. It does have a lot to do with a completely unthinking approach to the text!

  4. Paul Collier May 26, 2014 at 7:31 am #

    Plus ca change … My father often admitted he read the Daily Telegraph because he knew he wouldn’t have to read anything he disagreed with.

    • Ian Paul May 27, 2014 at 10:44 am #

      There has always been media tribalism. My worry is that the form of social media actually encourages people to live in a closed world, when most often it is described as world-opening.

  5. Holly May 27, 2014 at 4:45 am #

    Further, I am astounded at the credibility and “voice” which has been achieved by RHE. She holds a bachelor’s in English Literature, I believe, yet links to her blog are widely disseminated and referenced by pastors on my facebook feed. Surely they have the works of credible theologians lining their bookshelves, and surely they have read them?

    I’m one of those quiet readers who generally does not feel confident enough to speak. I appreciate your writings, however, so thank you!

    • Ian Paul May 27, 2014 at 10:47 am #

      Thanks for the encouragement Holly! Yes, it is amazing how influential some bloggers are…simply because other people follow them. I guess this is about celebrity culture. Some bloggers are famous for…being famous.

      That said, RHE does write well, and positions herself more as a journalist than a theologian. She does engage in theologian bloggers (and even recommended one of my posts once!). I thought some of her studies on the issue of women in leadership in the Bible were good.

      But it is not easy for readers to spot the move from good argument to not much more than eloquent writing…

    • Ian Paul May 27, 2014 at 10:52 am #

      And I hope you will now feel able to comment again!

  6. Holly May 27, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Thank you, Ian. You make excellent points.

  7. Sarah November 12, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    Amen! We really need to start asking questions of qualification and expertise in the Christian blogger world. Quite a few of the most prolific Christian bloggers who are hugely followed at the moment seem to have gain popularity based on their writing style (hence lots of English grads etc) and ability to shape a narrative as opposed to any credentials. What I find more disturbing is the way that many of these bloggers are now being invited as speakers to big college events/conferences (check out Held Evan’s speaking schedule). The post to the pulpit seems to be an easy jump!

  8. Emlyn November 12, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    Thanks for reposting this on Facebook Ian – I missed it first time round! I think that in part you are raising the issue of unintended consequences, and this prompted me to consider a related issue. As someone who has used electronic Bible texts for almost 15 years I have become increasingly concerned about the impact on my own reading. There is some research which suggests that comprehension of a digital text is less than that of a paper text (http://tinyurl.com/lde56ye) and whilst I know that there is serious debate about this (http://tinyurl.com/mv4u4n8), I do think it’s an issue worth thinking about. Clearly there are pros and cons, but as your blog suggests, the problem is that we drift into things without thinking about those unintended consequences.

  9. David Runcorn November 13, 2014 at 9:14 am #

    Thanks for a helpful reflection Ian.

    I am trying to sort out a spirituality talk for Trinity Bristol for next term on ‘praying and growing in an age of social media’ – or some such title.

    I think there are a host of issues about patience, attention deficit, concentration, addictive habits, waiting, demand, immediacy and potentially idolatrous assumptions about access and knowledge …. that are very problematic to growing at depth in life and God. All of which of course impacts of trying to have thoughtful debate on helpful websites such as yours.

    I still recall the final communion and blessing at the end of a training course for spiritual directors. During the communion prayer I suddenly realised the young church army captain beside me, about to be commissioned to a ministry requiring deeply attentive, disciplined, discerning listening, had his phone tucked into the service booklet and was texting through the eucharistic prayer.

    • Ian Paul November 13, 2014 at 9:27 am #

      That’s fascinating. Would you like to do a guest blog post on the spirituality session?!

  10. Mary Hancock November 14, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Hi Ian. I hope that no one who was trained and authorised by the C of E would preach a sermon along the lines you mention… But I agree with the point of your post. I am getting weary of listening to interviews where interviewer and/or interviewee are uncritical, partial and ignorant. Thanks for your Grove on Revelation btw, have been using it with a bible study gtoup. We are slowly and carefully making our way through all of Revelation, not just the first and last few chapters, and are having a fascinating time.

    • Ian Paul November 14, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

      Great to hear about your reading of Revelation! But I fear you are being too optimistic about Anglican preaching…!!

  11. Wolf Paul February 2, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

    “(In fact, there is a good, historical argument about the literacy of Jesus and the disciples—and hope to blog on this later in the week.)”

    Did you ever get around to that particular blog post, Ian?

    • Ian Paul February 2, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

      Not yet, sorry. That’s still in the planning stage! (Three or more books to read on this!)

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