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.