Someone on the Internet Is Wrong: The 10 Stages of a Christian Internet Controversy

Has it really been almost a year since Rob Bell’s Love Wins trailer?

When the social media backlash began, I noticed that the responses to Bell were nearly identical to what John Piper received the year before when he made his tornado comments. Now, a year later, the tables have turned again and Piper’s comments that Christianity has a “masculine feel” have prompted his detractors to follow the same script right down to the call to stop giving Piper attention.

So before the next controversy hits, I’ve attempted to catalog a step-by-step (and tongue-in-cheek) account of what happens when a popular Christian leader says or does something deemed important by his or her frenemies.

1. The Instigation

It turns out that this is the only real variable in the process. The question is: who will it be? Who will say, write, or blog something that catches the attention of the Internet masses? It might be a traditionalist like Piper who restates a familiar doctrine a new way that non-followers find particularly offensive. Or it could be a progressive type like Bell who “asks questions” in a way that catches the ire of the old guard.

2. The Reporting

The second step is the key to the whole process. An important blogger or speaker must detect the problem and alert the masses to the fact that “Someone on the Internet is wrong!”

3. Social Media Echo Chamber

Now, the chain reaction begins. RSS feeds light up. Tweets are rewteeted. Like buttons are pressed (although what we really want is a “dislike” button, amiright?). The word is really getting out now, and people are “becoming aware” of the issues and sides.

4. Contextual Reminders and Supportive Defense

Almost immediately, those who support the instigator begin to clarify, restate, give context to, and defend the statement(s) under attack. Did you listen to the entire video, they ask? Did you read the entire book? Do you understand the social-rhetorical context and redemptive-historical milieu in which the background of the event and statements may have occurred? Obviously, if you did and you were reasonable, you’d get it.

5. Social Media Echo Echo Chamber

As soon as the defenses are up, the supporters of the instigator being tweeting and liking in kind. And, just to be sure, they go to the ends of the Internet (i.e. Google+ and MySpace) to ensure everyone knows their guy was right all along.

6. Minor Leaguers Step up to the Plate

This is where Christian blog stars are born. Minor league Christian bloggers (like myself), armed with a dream and a few dozen hits a day, begin to offer “second looks” at the issue, “rethinking the controversy” for us, and occasionally attempt to “find common ground.”

7. Comment Wars!

In the first few steps, most of what happens stays within the supporting or detracting networks. The instigator’s team defends themselves, and the other side congratulates itself for opposing something so clearly wrong. But it doesn’t take long before commenters begin fights on other side’s blogs, showing why nested comments were invented.

45 Minutes Later…

All the people who have been working or spending time with loved ones during the previous 45 minutes begin to sense they are missing out on something huge. They begin to check in and see just how wrong (or right) their guy (or gal) was about the thing.

8. Accusations of Mean Spirited Debate

Once the sides are fully entrenched in their views, the supporters of the instigator stop defending the initial issue and begin accusing their frenemies of not conducting their attacks with love, not talking in person with the instigator, and generally being un-Jesus-ish. Also, BibleGateway and YouVersion see a spike in searches for Matt 18:15-20.

9. Affirmations of Standing Up for Truth

After the reporting side has been accused of mean-spirited, they bring out the tried and true “standing up for truth” defense. After all, Jesus called the Pharisees names, and Paul did his fair share of heresy hunting. We are not unloving, they say, because it is the height of love to point someone to truth.

10. Social Media Gets Blamed

Exasperated, the accusing side realizes they are convincing very few people and may in fact be bringing more attention to the other side’s wrong view than they intended. People like me write op-eds about social media and Christianity (like this very blog post), and then everything gets really meta and confusing.

So we wait for the next big thing.

11. Something Changes

July 21, 2012 Update

In the last few days, the “next big thing” happened in a back and forth between Jared Wilson, Rachel Held Evans, and Douglas Wilson (and lots and lots of others) over some very mature and sensitive subject matter. As I scanned the seemingly endless posts, I found myself growing very cynical, thinking to myself that it seemed as if the entire Christian blog world had agreed ahead of time to follow the 10 steps above as closely as possible.

But then something happened that surprised my saddened, but dismissive attitude. This time, Jared Wilson broke the cycle and apologized for hurting people with words.

In the coming weeks, I’m sure there will be plenty of painstaking analysis of the entire debacle (Step 12?), so it’s probably not worth pointing out things like how inattentive we are to way the Internet’s speed and anonymity effectively control and guide these kinds of battles. At this point, I’m just happy to see that every once in a while Christians on the Internet behave differently and, hopefully, our good God is glorified in some small way.

Spring 2014 Update

In the Spring of 2014, there have been at least to major changes or reversals due, at least in part, to social media. First, there was Mark Driscoll’s desire to downplay his role as a celebrity pastor in favor of more focus on his role as a local pastor, part of which involves him stepping away from social media. Second, World Vision decided to reverse its decision on employees in same-sex marriage.

All of these cases are interesting because they show that the playfully pessimistic view I portrayed in the original post is perhaps too pessimistic. The body of Christ is not perfect and many of us still disagree with the decisions (and/or their reversals), but we are not merely an echo chamber. Somewhere lurking in the bits and bytes is a God who is omnipresent and omniscient. May we ever be aware of his presence and activity.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

34 thoughts on “Someone on the Internet Is Wrong: The 10 Stages of a Christian Internet Controversy”

  1. Guilty as charged. You nailed the process pretty keenly.
    I have seen myself at nearly every one of these stages except the first one. I need to be more controversial, or get a spot praying at NASCAR.

  2. John,

    I apologize if this quote is off topic, but it just reminded me of the cover of your book and I didn’t know where else to post it on your website:

    ‎”The ‘protestant’ search backwards for ‘simplicity’ and directness – which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because ‘primitive Christianity’ is now and in spite of all ‘research’ will ever remain largely unknown; because ‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance…. Still more because ‘my church’ was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history – the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the ‘mustard-seed’ and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is pan of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree. Very good: but in husbandry the authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites, and so forth. (With trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!) But they will certainly do harm, if they are obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth of the plant when it was (as they imagine) pretty and unafflicted by evils.”- J.R.R. Tolkien

  3. Hilarious! Thank you for articulating so insightfully and delightfully our experience with a dear friend, a recent instigator. :)

  4. That was for real, freaking laugh out loud funny. I have repented, am repenting, and will continue to repent of such. It really is a silly cycle, isn’t it? It’s no wonder that God chose a point in history to enter into the creation when writing was commonplace and there was even a common language… but no stinking Internet, cell phones, or social media in existence. Could you imagine what the Great Commission would have looked if they had? Ah, the wisdom of God. How I thank Him for it. And, oh the “wisdom” of man (self included). How idiotic.

    Great post. Exceeds the typical wisdom of man by a factor of at least 3.2. Nice work. I need to go spend some time with my wife. But I’ll be back in about 45 minutes.

    ;)

  5. This sounds like advice given by Screwtape to Wormwood on how to distract Christians from the really important things of the faith.

  6. John,

    Here’s another awesome (yet off topic) Tolkien quote:

    “All this stuff is mainly concerned with the fall, mortality and the machine. By the machine, I intend all use of external devices or even the use of inherent inner powers, with the corrupted motive of dominating and bulldozing the real world. The machine is our more obvious modern form. The enemy in successive forms is always concerned with sheer domination, and so the Lord of Machines… As the servants of the machines are becoming a privileged class, the machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move?”- J.R.R. Tolkien

  7. John,

    I just love reading, but I do have a habit of wandering off topic ;)

    While the Arthur C. Clark quote is well known, the Tolkien quote below it is not.

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”- Arthur C. Clarke

    “The Enemy’s operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but ‘magic’ that produces real effects in the physical world…Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive..The Enemy, or those who have become like him, go in for ‘machinery’- with destructive and evil effects-because ‘magicians’, who have become chiefly concerned to use magia for their own power..The basic motive for magia…is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect. But the magia may not be easy to come by, and at any rate if you have command of abundant slave-labour or machinery.. it may be as quick or quick enough to push mountains over, wreck forests, or build pyramids by such means.”- J.R.R. Tolkien

  8. oops, I forgot this awesome C.S Lewis quote that I think relates to the topic at hand:

    “He (the devil) always sends errors into the world in pairs–pairs of opposites…He relies on your extra dislike of one to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.”
    ― C.S. Lewis

  9. @Simple Mann There is not enough of personal vitriolic attack in this. Better would be something like

    Only the real Nazi who hates God (in Christian context) or hates freedom (elsewhere) would ever mention the Godwin’s Law!

    Blessings

    1. @Matěj Cepl –

      You said my attack was not strong enough. I could not disagree with you more. You obviously worship a different Jesus.

      (was that better?) :)

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