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How Does the Internet Shape Our Theology?
Today I have a new, somewhat lengthy essay at Mere Orthodoxy. “Untangling Theology from Digital Technology” is my attempt to interrogate the effects of social media on how we think and talk about the Bible. In the years I’ve spent paying attention to evangelical culture, I think this is an under-discussed part of the controversies and disruptions we’ve seen over the past decade. The Web is a medium that contorts what’s put into it. Theology is not exempt.
Here’s an except:
The Web’s disembodied nature has massive implications for how we understand and articulate theological truths. Traditional notions of gender roles are extremely controversial, for example, but the Internet introduces a further plausibility problem by separating us from our bodies and flattening concepts such as pastor, gender, and even “person.” In a digital epistemology, identity is expressed entirely by output. Thus, within the plausibility structure of digital culture, “pastor” only means “someone who talks sermons.” Podcasts create “internet pastors” and blogs universalize spiritual writings and render local contexts (church, community, etc.) seemingly irrelevant. If we’re conditioned to think of preachers and preaching as digital tokens, the idea that only men can do this is not just controversial, it is inexplicable. What difference does the anatomy of the person on the screen make? What does their gender “do” to their words? Online, complementarianism feels at best arbitrary, and at worst like one of those elite, exclusionary social dynamics that the Web was supposed to fix by now.
But this effect goes beyond complementarian/egalitarian lines. The “winsomeness” debate, for example, is on one level an interesting discussion of whether evangelistic concerns should always determine what someone is willing to say politically. But on another level, the entire conversation is little more than a referendum on how highly online we are. What many people skeptically call “winsomeness” is simply the social norms that are required for healthy life with other people. It is not normal behavior in society to reflexively call your political opponents, who are sitting next to you on the bus, or working across from you in the next cubicle, traitors or baby-murderers. Withholding that language and instead trying to find common ground, while minimizing opportunities for explosive disagreements to emerge, is not cowardice; it’s quite literally the cost of membership in a culture. (A Christian nationalist regime would not change this, as our Protesant-Catholic and even intra-Protestant history demonstrates.)
Read the entire thing here.