Perhaps one of the most influential people in my life and development as a Christian has been my pastor, who has mentored me for the last 3 years. While my time studying under him has been beneficial on several fronts, one of the most valuable practices I have learned is to be humble. Now, I understand it’s a tricky thing to talk about yourself in terms of being humble since even uttering (or in this case writing) the phrase exudes some sort of pride about ones humbleness, but in this context I mean it in terms of the self-recognition of one’s own ignorance. Being shown how little it is you actually know about something should cause us to realize that the best approach to discussing that topic is to shut your mouth and listen with the understanding that you don’t know nearly as much as you thought you did (cf. Jms. 1:19). In other words, we should be humble. This type of interaction has become almost the hallmark of my conversations with my dear mentor, and it is a beautiful thing.
I use this anecdote as an introduction to this brief piece on the effects of social media in theological circles because it gets to the heart of what I want to say: social media fosters very shallow thinking about deep theological topics. I am not saying that social media has no value or place in the life of Christians at all, but since it is a social medium people are more inclined to dig in even in the face of their apparent ignorance. I’ve watched this phenomenon ensnare more and more people (including myself) and hold them back from any real growth and maturation in their convictions. Being able to recognize that you are wrong and to admit that you don’t know something is not evidence of intellectual inferiority, it is a badge of maturity.
Psalm 1 talks about the righteous person as being planted by streams of water who produces fruit in and out of season (Ps. 1:3). Those who are spiritually nourished have deep roots that anchor them to the shores of refreshment. This righteous person is not like the wicked who are compared to chaff that is driven away by the wind (Ps. 1:4). The contrast is stark: one is constantly fed and the roots grow deep while the fruit never ceases to grow, while the other is rootless and detached from any source of nutrition, and it is, therefore, blown away by the next wind that comes through.
Likewise, Paul writes to the Colossians about the need for steady growth in the knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ so as not to be deluded with plausible arguments (Col. 2ff). He exhorts them to “walk in [Christ], rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught…”. They are to stay rooted and established in the knowledge and practice of what they had received from the apostles. What Paul is trying to impress in the minds of the Colossians is the need to know who Jesus Christ is in such an intimately deep way that anyone who would introduce a plausible teaching about him would have no hope of moving them from their well-established convictions.
Christians should pursue a deep knowledge and understanding of those things which God has revealed. They should desire to dig deeply into God’s word so that it may be deeply planted in their hearts and minds. When we begin to employ deep study and careful thinking, then we become less and less like the person who is blown about by every wind of doctrine and more and more like the tree firmly planted by streams of water.
Jesus begins telling a series of parables in Matthew 13 starting with the parable of the Sower. The Sower scatters seeds on his field and some of the seed lands on different types of soil. Some fell along the path, some were devoured by the birds, others fell on rocky soil, sprang up quickly, but then were scorched when the sun appeared since they had no depth of root, and others found good soil and began producing fruit. Jesus tells us the point of this parable in verses 18-23 when he explains that the soil represents those that hear the message Jesus was proclaiming about His Kingdom, which is the seed that was scattered. According to what kind of soil the seed falls on determines the growth of the roots of that seed. One seed fell on rocky ground and began to grow. Jesus tells us, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matt. 13:20, 21).
In the Matthean context, this parable was taught in order to talk about those who received the gospel of the Kingdom in a salvific way and that reception is tethered to the depth of the soil. However, I think we can also take a principle away from this: those who receive God’s word with joy and zeal should be careful to allow that seed to sink deeply into their minds so that they have a foundation that stabilizes them when trials and tribulations arise. In other words, like we saw above, deep roots hold us firmly in place, whereas shallow soil produces superficial growth (knowledge) that serves no purpose for the believer in situations that desperately need that knowledge.
Social media, as a social platform, allows anyone to walk into nuanced theological conversations, glean the talking points from the most ‘liked’ commentator, and walk away with a knowledge of those talking points. These talking points can then be weaponized to destroy the poor little ignoramus that knew as little as you did about that particular topic just 2 hours ago. But what may be even more damaging is that the information that was gleaned is instantly assumed to be truth by the gleaners. But why should the one who grabs ahold of a theological position on the internet have any confidence that the reasoning and assumptions behind the construction of that position are true? How could we possibly make such a quick decision about the truthfulness of a theological position without first having done the necessary legwork to discern truth from almost truth?
I am guilty of the practices described above. As I stated at the beginning of this article, my mentor was the one who began to show me how this practice produces shallowness. I remember many occasions where we sat in his study over a cup of coffee and, after 15 minutes of me rambling on about an eschatological position, he would simply ask me how I knew that that position was true. Those are humbling moments. When your theological convictions can be torn asunder by one simple question. But this is how I was learning–this is how I was growing–at least that’s what I told myself. My pastor wanted me to go back and start at the beginning; he was asking me to start with how to read my Bible and how to interpret it carefully. This man was asking me to withdraw into, what I considered, the boring and humdrum basics of Christian theology. Apparently, he didn’t know that I was already in the sophisticated realms of postmillennial, reconstructionist, exclusive psalmody-singing presbyterianism. Pfft. Get on my level, pastor. But time and time again I could not substantiate my convictions through exegetical insights derived from key texts–everything was superficial. All that I was learning on social media was shallow.
Now, I want to be careful here as we wrap-up, because I can hear the screeching now, “Are you saying that we can’t learn anything from social media?! I’ve grown so much from my Facebook group?!” I get it, I really do. Of course there is a place for online discussion, and that discussion can be extremely helpful and edifying. So what I am not saying is that we should abandon our Facebook and Twitter accounts and seek refuge in a monastery until we can emerge purified of ignorance. What I am saying is that Christians should be careful how they handle the truth. It should be a sobering event when you adopt a certain theological position, and that position needs to be first and foremost grounded in Scripture. The online world can introduce so many different strands of thought in such a brief amount of time, and that can be dangerous because those strands cannot be sewn into stable chords which connect with one another overnight. What I am not suggesting is that you cannot hold onto something that seems to be true–you can. But as you hold that position do so from a seat of humility. Do not clench your new found doctrine with a tight fist and bare your teeth in a zealous defense of it if you’ve yet to consider it deeply and are confident that you can argue for it thoroughly from the Scriptures.
If we set out to build a house, we have to lay the foundation first. It is the integrity of the foundation that determines the stability of the house. So while it is fine to adorn the house with fancy decorations, those mean nothing if the house collapses with the first gust of a stiff breeze.