Tuesday, August 18, 2020

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Alan Shlemon at Stand to Reason has written a thought-provoking piece called “How 2020 Is Taking a Toll on Your Soul” about the effects of the internet in the last five months on society in general and Christians in particular. To nobody’s surprise, in COVID lockdown we have been spending record amounts of time online. In the UK, the highest percentage increase in time spent online is among those over the age of 54.

As a result, I’ve felt it and I’m sure you have too: that indefinable malaise and “inordinate pressure to say the right thing”. Shlemon argues it’s partly a consequence of the false sense of omnipresence and omniscience social media inspires.

Ringside Seats

The internet gives us ringside seats to every tragic, evil event that takes place on the planet — or at least the ones the social media megacorporations want us to know about. Shlemon quotes a Texas pastor named Richard Caldwell who points out this is something God probably never intended. Human beings are not emotionally or intellectually equipped to cope with everything bad that happens across an entire planet. We were built to deal with the problems in our own backyard.

Virtual globalism explains much of the bizarreness currently going on in my own neighborhood. #BlackLivesMatter has a wildly disproportionate presence in my hometown given that blacks make up 3% of the population here as opposed to 20% in the U.S., and considerably more in major U.S. cities. That is not to say Christians should be indifferent to the value of the lives of the unsaved across the world, but we should care about them in proportion to the other issues God has laid at our doorstep, as part of an approach to Christian service that begins where we live and where we can be most effective. Wringing our hands about wrongs committed by other nations in other times and places can become a source of stress and a distraction from the actual needs in front of us. To the extent we allow ourselves to be pulled into arguments about abstractions and political battles we are absolutely unequipped to resolve, we are wasting valuable mental energy for which I believe the Lord has better purposes.

In short, the sense of omnipresence we get from the internet is a false one. We are not there. These are not our issues. We do not understand them and we cannot resolve them. They can only drag us down.

Arguing and Dividing

Shlemon goes on to point out that the sense of omniscience we get from watching HD video of events halfway across our world is equally phony. He says:
“Because we ‘witness’ these events, we’re expected to know the truth about what happened, make an immediate evaluation, and then say the right thing about it. Finite humans can’t be perfectly accurate, though. Even still, we comment, post, and emote. We argue and then divide.”
I marvel at the absolute certainty some Christians express about events in which they have invested a whole fifteen or twenty minutes. If I could encourage anything among believers in our current environment, it would be a healthy sense of the limitations of what we can know and say with certainty from the Web. More than ever today, we are being wound up and pointed in various directions by men and women with agendas that are not the Lord’s. That’s not paranoia. I don’t believe for a second that there is some grand human conspiracy at work involving government, the media and esteemed Christian leaders, even if that’s what it looks like. Many of these human agendas are mutually contradictory and perpetually in conflict. The Right is incoherent and the Left eats its own. All are pawns in service of the spiritual forces of darkness, but not in the same way, and certainly not all together.

So then, our sense of omniscience is false too. If we are going to insist upon weighing in on other people’s grievances, we need to inform our opinions with something more authoritative than a few carefully-edited YouTube videos.

The Church Unplugged

What’s a Christian to do about all this? Alan Shlemon strongly recommends regular unplugging and a return to nature. These are not bad ideas if all you’re concerned about is refreshing your spirit and dispelling that ominous cloud of impending doom. Better still, expose what you see and read online to the sword of the Spirit. If we want to avoid being emotionally, intellectually and spiritually manipulated, we need to spend more time in the word of God than we spend on CNN.

Finally, we need to learn when to say “I don’t know” or “There might just be another side to that.” There almost always is.

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