The internet vs the eighth commandment

Alastair Roberts has embarked on a thoughtful series of posts on recent controversies in the Christian blogosphere and what they show us about the problems with internet discourse.

In his latest post, Alastair looks at six ways in which the internet (and especially blogging and social networking) has transformed how we discuss things. I’m summarising these below, as I think it is useful to keep ourselves aware of these tendencies – not least so that we can each resist them as they push us towards hasty, reactive and strident responses to things we read or see online:

  1. A collapsing of contexts, leading to “the realization that there are people in close relational networks to us who hold radically different beliefs and exposure to those opinions.”
  2. A decontextualization of thought, in which the readership or audience for any communication is “potentially much less defined or circumscribable”, making it “harder to hold straight-talking conversations without more sensitive individuals being exposed to them” and greatly increasing the “possibility of having one’s position reduced to a decontextualized soundbite.”
  3. A personalizing of ideas, in which ideas “become far less distinct from personal relations” as they “follow the trajectories of social networking connections.” [See how the controversy which prompted Alastair’s posts has generally been seen in personal terms – Rachel Held Evans v Douglas Wilson and Jared Wilson – rather than in terms of “complementarianism” vs “egalitarianism”.]
  4. A collision of undifferentiated conversations, in which those who prefer “intimate, affirming, non-threatening, welcoming, and accepting” conversations are brought into contact with those who prefer “combative, disputational, confrontational, and challenging” conversations, and in which those for whom a topic is an intellectual challenge rub shoulders with those for whom it is a matter of great sensitivity and vulnerability.
  5. Decreased moderation of and democratization of discourse, in which (far more than in the past) “everyone has means of self-expression and participates in less bounded conversations”, and as as result “there is a lot more noise surrounding the signal and it is harder to keep discussions on target.”
  6. The spread and speed of thought, with “little time for consideration, reflection, and patient processing.” We find ourselves “encouraged to make up our minds in a matter of minutes” (or even seconds), leading to our “reacting, rather than responding.”

The last of these is probably, as a matter of moment-by-moment practical advice, the most important. Sometimes (often), we just need to slow down a bit and give ourselves time to think.

The other practical advice I would give is found in Luther’s exposition of the eighth commandment (on the Lutheran/Catholic numbering), in which he explains that the commandment not to give false testimony against our neighbour means:

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest possible way.

I could point to a concrete example in the past week of where I was about to “react” vehemently to something someone had said to me in a discussion on Twitter, but then consciously decided to “explain everything in the kindest possible way” and assume that he must have meant something other than what (to be frank) the natural reading of his words suggested. As it turned out, that helped defuse the whole situation and, while we didn’t reach agreement, the discussion remained at the level of “vigorous debate” rather than the “ill-tempered row” that I, for one, was teetering on the edge of turning it into.

(Of course, Luther isn’t always the most obvious person to turn to for advice on how to avoid debates becoming violently overheated!)

So here’s my two-pronged approach to avoiding stoking the flames of internet arguments:

  1. Respond rather than reacting.
  2. Explain everything in the kindest possible way.

Though sometimes, you just need to BAMO: Block And Move On…

Christmas myths and merriment

Alastair Roberts has a great post on the recurring question at this time of year: Is Christmas stolen from the pagans?

You’ll want to read the whole thing (much of which quotes a thorough debunking from a pagan forum), but here are the key points that leapt out at me on reading it:

  • Christmas is “the Feast of the Nativity,” not “Jesus’s Birthday.”: “While modern fundamentalists typically claim it’s Jesus’s ACTUAL birthday because they’re theologically and historically ignorant, mainline denominations have never so claimed.”
  • Why Christmas trees, holly and the rest? Not because they’re “stolen from the pagans”, but because church law required (and still requires) green plants to be in the church for all services as an expression of creation and life. And in northern Europe, in December, that means “fir trees, evergreen boughs, and holly.”
  • A reiteration of William Tighe’s argument that December 25th was chosen for Christmas only because it was nine months after March 25th, which the early church had concluded must be the date of Christ’s conception.

As Alastair points out, though, in many ways the whole argument rests on the pretty fatuous notion that “the origins of a particular tradition or practice have some privileged claim upon its ‘meaning'”. The “meanings” of cultural traditions are as changeable as the meanings of words.

Alastair’s conclusion is one I agree with entirely, which is why I enjoy both the “secular”, “commercial” elements of Christmas, and the specifically Christian aspects:

Within contemporary Western society, Christmas means more, but considerably less, than the ‘meaning’ Christians find in the feast. The ‘real meaning’ of Christmas in contemporary Britain is shaped by commercialism, pop culture, British and Western European cultural traditions, and many other forces besides Christianity. I don’t believe that we can maintain that Christians have some exclusive claim upon its celebration. Rather than seeking bland acknowledgements of the rightfulness of our claim from an indifferent society, we are better off enjoying the celebration for what it is, while maintaining the peculiar and unique place that the celebration holds in the lives of Christians.