In case you missed it, there were some storms last week. First there was a tornado.
Then John Piper offered an interpretation of the tornado and a bigger storm hit. In a mere 24 hours, there were hundreds of comments, thousands of tweets, and dozens of counter-posts by pastors (Boyd, Jones), professors (McKight), and others (Spencer, Kinnon, Coker).
I have no desire to further the debate over whether Dr. Piper’s assessment was correct. Personally, I think John Piper has served the Lord well in his time on earth, and any critique I would offer of his ministry would amount to little more than a baby whale spouting next to an aircraft carrier. What I am interested in is what we can learn from the story of Piper and his critics about Internet theological discourse regarding contentious issues.
Godwin’s Law for Christian Discourse
When it comes to Internet theological debate on hot topics, there seems to be a sort of Christian Godwin’s Law at work. If you’re not familiar with it, Godwin’s Law was humorously submitted by Mike Godwin almost 20 years ago in the early days of the Internet. It states:
As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
In other words, debates will inevitably end with one person comparing the other person’s views to Hitler. It turns out that if you replace “Hitler” with “heresy,” you’d describe about 86% of debates on Christian blogs and forums on hot topics. In the case of Piper, he made a similar argument about calamities previously, but no one seemed to notice since it didn’t touch a contentious issue. However, when he made a case that addressed the issue of homosexuality, the “h” word came out within hours.
Now we could dismiss this by saying that people argue on any medium. And that’s true – remember Cain and Abel? But I think that the Internet itself, for all its strengths and all the promise it offers, is uniquely suited toward pushing these controversial debates further and further, and below I offer three such reasons why this is almost always the inevitable result.
The Internet Discourages Time for Reflection
The speed of discussion on Internet means that anyone of us can immediately give our opinion on world events and lofty theological ideas to a huge number of people we know nothing about. With no limitations on authorship, no editorial oversight, and no time to publication, we frantically peck out words seconds after an event. The virtue of “first post” seems to ride high above and virtues of patience and forbearance.
Compare this to the time before the Internet, when news would reach us more slowly. Without dozens of outlets for our every thought, our reactions would have to percolate in our minds for a while before they could be released into the world. It doesn’t mean they would be automatically better, but at least we would be prevented from making snap judgment about a post we just scanned.
The Internet Strips Away a Relational Context
On one hand, it’s not too hard to see why Piper’s conclusions would seem offensive or unbiblical to some readers. Yet when he took time to further explain the context of his comments and how they fit into his life experiences, they seem to make more sense, even if we might ultimately disagree with his conclusion.
Almost any discussion is enriched when it takes place in the context of an existing relationship, because the person on other side of the table can filter our words through our shared and individual life experiences, something the person on the other side of the screen cannot do. Rather than frantically typing at anonymous avatars, relational context allows us to converse and exchange as brothers and sisters.
Of course, when Piper writes a book, his audience is still people he doesn’t know, but the medium of print has three important differences the medium of blogging. First, the time between the event and the publication would be much longer meaning that Piper (and his editors) would have more time to craft the words and consider their impact. Second, his thoughts would be couched in a larger, more nuanced book level discussion which might allow us to disagree more gently and thoughtfully. And third, a reader would not have an immediate opportunity to respond, meaning that he or she would be forced to think before communicating.
The Internet Promotes Disregard for Authority and Community
The Internet is not merely a means of communication, it is more fundamentally about giving individuals the power to choose what information they consume. The trade-off is that the more choices we have, the more decisions we make in isolation and the fewer we make either in community with others or under the authority of leaders.
Of course, I could claim that the Bible is my authority and that my view is more biblical than that of Piper, Boyd, or the iMonk. But everyone claims the Bible is their authority. Bible, Bible, Bible – everyone quotes the Bible. What’s really happening is that I “agree” with leaders when their interpretation of the Bible matches up with my personal views. The Internet simply gives me more views from which to choose.
And the more choices I put in front of myself, the more choices I make. The more choices I make, the more I believe in my ability to chose. In the end, my authority is not the church, nor the Bible, it is my will to choose.
There’s a Time for Everything
This is not to say that no good theological discussion happens on the Internet or that nothing from Tornado-gate was worthwhile or helpful. Instead, I am simply saying that certain theological topics will almost always follow Godwin’s Law when they are discussed on the Internet. Without time, relationships, and context, it’s extremely hard to make sense of these complex issues and online discussion will rarely avoid devolving into accusations of heresy.
So next time a big event comes up, or next time someone make a post on a contentious issue, slow down, grab a friend, stock up on a favorite beverage, and hash it out offline.
Then go comment wild.