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Untangling Theology from Digital Technology

December 5th, 2022 | 13 min read

By Samuel James

A few years ago I received an advance copy of a book on the end times by a well-loved and influential pastor. Most of the book was standard, biblically faithful reflections. The most interesting section, however, argued that the European Union was an instrument of Satan that would eventually unite all the countries in Europe into a one-world conglomerate. This prediction was alarming, but short-lived. Just a few months after the book was published, voters in the U.K. stunned the world by opting to leave the EU. Satan, it seems, had simply not seen Brexit coming.

This pastor is hardly the first Christian to see history poke a few leaky holes into his theological framework. In fact, I was reminded of this story because a few days ago I saw a similarly leaky prediction. A Christian writer and podcaster argued that social media networks like Twitter and Facebook are invaluable channels of resistance against “the elites,” and that the future of theological discourse looks less like the exclusive, dusty gatekeeping of years past and more like the populist landscape of social media.

Alas, so much for predictions.

As Mark Zuckerberg’s empire hemorrhages money and Twitter’s Elon Musk era looks more and more like its last, writers such as The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost are declaring that “The Age of Social Media Is Ending.” In short, the profitability of free social media networks has plummeted, political pressure on these companies has skyrocketed, and the data on how these technologies affect developing minds is terrifying. People are leaving and will continue to leave. The commercial potential of having a lot of followers is now miniscule (as people in the publishing industry know). Meanwhile, the idea of using these apps to cultivate and continue friendships seems almost laughably quaint. Could the age of social media really be ending?

Obviously, it’s impossible to know for certain what the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will bring to Big Tech. There’s good reason to believe that the current landscape will shift dramatically. Regardless, the volatile state of our technological overlords is reason enough to ask some serious questions about how these apps may have muscled their way into a place in our Christian lives — and damaged our institutions and souls in the process.

Technology and Evangelical Decadence

The prediction that our techno-optimist friend above made about the future of theology was not a silly one. It’s perfectly understandable. The Internet, particularly the blogosphere and social media, have played a genuinely formative role in what we might call the Reformed evangelical space. Thanks to the Web, sermon audio can reach anywhere in the world, constructing the phenomenon of “celebrity pastors.” Many theological debates over the past decade-plus have been conspicuously carried out online; consider Tony Jones’s response to John Piper on the atonement, or the Trinity debates, or the various volleys over racism and political theology more recently. Twitter especially seems to have evolved into a preferred vehicle for evangelicals to ruminate and litigate about theology. I don’t think there’s anything specific about evangelical culture or belief that has resulted in these technologies’ presence in much of our institutional life; rather, it seems to me that American evangelicalism has responded to social media much like American journalism has. Online technology makes exchange of ideas easier, convenient, and absent the barriers of credentialism and geography. It makes sense that Christians who take their doctrine seriously would gravitate toward it.

There also seems to be a strong sense that these digital tools have become important for the way evangelicals “do theology.” The late Rachel Held Evans valued her online work and following for the same reason, often juxtaposing it against the “gatekeepers” of professional, credentialed evangelicalism. More negatively, Carl Trueman has criticized online evangelicalism’s “economy of power, people, and indeed money which is non-ecclesiastical but highly influential within evangelical churches.” Trueman’s term for this economy, “Big Eva,” has become a popular term among critics of large evangelical networks and institutions, many of which supposedly operate as Big Eva through the things they will and won’t post online.

Whether someone believes that evangelicalism’s “Very Online” side is a good thing or bad thing, the point is that people on opposite sides of ideology both agree that it is a thing, that it has power, and that it matters to the shape and content of evangelical faith. Insofar as this digital persona of evangelicalism has existed, it has existed through specific technologies that facilitate it: first blogs, then podcasts, then eventually platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We may then ask two questions. First, what has been the net effect of the digitizing of evangelical discourse? Second, what is the future of interdenominational, inter-ecclesiological conversation if the current social media economy collapses?

One significant aspect of this digitization has been a general decadence in evangelical life. In an April 2022 essay for The Gospel Coalition, I repurposed columnist Ross Douthat’s reference to American decadence and applied it to evangelicalism. Douthat describes American culture and politics as stuck in a kind of paralytic repetition: moral, economic, and societal atrophy that results from too little success and too much comfort. Something similar could be said of American evangelicalism. Many evangelical institutions are struggling, both to stay afloat and to stay relevant. Big-picture theological disagreements — say, over the extent of the atonement, or the inerrancy of the Bible — have all but disappeared. Instead, tribes are splintering into smaller and smaller sub-groups, often defined by their posture toward various political controversies. While some denominations are still wrestling with major questions about sexuality, quadrants of Reformed evangelicalism are mapping themselves onto much smaller grids.

Should we be “winsome” or not? Should pastors who advised their people to use masks and get vaccinated apologize, or even be removed from leadership? Should Christians and churches use therapeutic and psychological terms in counseling? These questions are important, but they are much different kinds of questions than inerrancy, the Virgin Birth, or even homosexuality. Whereas the latter set strikes at the core of evangelical faith and practice, the former set of questions has arisen almost entirely out of tertiary controversies that are being litigated in online spaces, often in response to items in the news or Twitter cycle that create what Scott Alexander has called a “scissor” effect.

As Douthat’s book points out, decadence is partially a symptom of victory. Reformed evangelicalism has often triumphed on the theological battlefield. Complementarianism, while always a volatile topic, is the norm for nearly all the major evangelical seminaries. Networks like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God are considerably larger and more affluent than mainline or progressive competitors. While liberal evangelicalism does make appearances in national media outlets, it has nowhere near the power and influence over denominations and churches that conservative evangelicalism does.

Nevertheless, Reformed evangelicalism seems to be fracturing, not over issues that clearly differentiate it from mainline or liberal Protestantism, but on issues that splice along more nakedly political lines. In the absence of a clear theological foil, many evangelical subcultures are turning their polemical energies inward, finding the Internet an efficient vehicle for it. Christian nationalism, winsomeness, COVID — each of these has explosive potential online that far outpaces their relevance to core evangelical doctrine and practice. Yet precisely because of evangelicalism’s investment in digital discourse, these issues loom large in how many evangelical Christians are shaping their beliefs and alliances.

Theoretically, Reformed evangelicalism’s online culture should help people and institutions broaden their networks and cultivate meaningful connection at least as much as it amplifies disagreement. But this hasn’t quite been so. While some might point to conservative Protestantism itself as a pugilistic culture (“Machen’s warrior children”), the reality is that the Internet itself, especially in its current, ambient, smartphone-mediated state, tends toward dissent. In his book In the Swarm, German philosopher Byung-Chul Han traces this fact back to the Internet’s destruction of the private/public distinction. “Waves of outrage mobilize and bundle attention very efficiently,” he writes. The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost puts the matter more simply:

As I’ve written before on this subject, people just aren’t meant to talk to one another this much. They shouldn’t have that much to say, they shouldn’t expect to receive such a large audience for that expression, and they shouldn’t suppose a right to comment or rejoinder for every thought or notion either. From being asked to review every product you buy to believing that every tweet or Instagram image warrants likes or comments or follows, social media produced a positively unhinged, sociopathic rendition of human sociality.

The point is that evangelicalism’s current fractured state may not be an accident; there is good reason to believe that it reflects the nature of the Web on which it is so active. Both Kevin DeYoung and Michael Graham have introduced taxonomies for sorting out the various factions within contemporary evangelicalism, and it is worth asking how much of this sorting is happening organically at a theological level, and how much it is happening as a result of the dynamics that Bogost describes above. The Internet’s disembodied nature, its rewiring of our minds to comprehend less and react more, its economy of personality and opinion: all these factors are almost certainly playing a huge role in the formation of these evangelical factions.

Doing Theology Digitally

While the changing winds of the tech economy do not prove that we are headed back to an analog way of life, they are an opportunity to think more critically about the role these tools have had in shaping theological method and the current evangelical landscape. In his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr presented compelling evidence that digital reading leaves a particular imprint on our cognitive faculties. The Internet trains us to read less like humans and more like computer programs, skimming and parsing language to maximize input efficiency. As we learn how to think via digital platforms, we become bent toward distraction and impressionism, often unable to distinguish between the meaning of language and the “noise” that surrounds digital language.

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.)

If, however, most of our theological and political conversation is happening online, then the logic of the Internet will shape it. And on the Internet, the power of a user to closely curate his environment — to say whatever he wants to say, and to delete, mute, or block whatever he does not want to hear — is bundled up with the medium itself. Thus, in a digital epistemology, “winsomeness” can plausibly be viewed as cowardice: the unwillingness to post controversial parts, the choice to unnecessarily aggrandize an opponent (often by harshly criticizing one’s own tradition or tribe). The Web’s disembodied character transforms the norms of discourse, but the rhetoric itself does not acknowledge this. Instead, a situation wrought almost entirely by the Internet is being ported into the analog world (“Winsomeness is cowardice”), and the results are confusing at best.

A good number of the most intense disagreements within evangelical culture today wield a completely absurd amount of power over people’s ideas and friendships, precisely for this reason. “Always punching right” is a criticism that can make someone feel like they’re about to be labeled a stealth liberal or traitor. It’s almost always a descriptor of their social media posting. Our real-time Internet existence has even led to an ethic that demands instant reaction; “Why aren’t you talking about this,” “Did you say anything when XYZ did that,” etc., define both orthodoxy and decency down to mean little more than being extremely online.

It’s easy to realize how silly this all is. It’s another to live accordingly. Particularly with young pastors and evangelical students who are eager to find a place to belong and a people to do theology and ministry with, the exhausting and often punishing culture of social media stands to do much damage. Pastors are right now burning out at extremely distressing rates, and this tells us nothing at all about potential pastors who may abandon ministry ambition out of fear that there are simply too many enemies and not enough friends.

A Post-Posting Evangelicalism

During the 2018 TGC national conference, Collin Hansen delivered a breakout lecture reflecting on the ten year anniversary of his book Young, Restless, and Reformed. Hansen perceptively characterized the three stages of New Calvinism as focused on three distinct theological areas. In the beginning of the New Calvinism, the main topic was soteriology, as pastors, churches, theologians, and networks began finding one another and establishing solidarity around commitment to doctrines like election. The second stage emphasized ecclesiology; questions around seeker sensitivity, style of preaching, church governance, and evangelistic methods created more borders around like-minded networks, but also allowed people across denominational lines to partner together on defining and defending the core of the faith. The third and current state, according to Hansen, is centered around public theology. How should Christians relate to the culture? What is the Christian position on politics, racial tension, and sexuality? Hansen observed:

Coalitions don’t last forever. President Obama was elected after I wrote Young, Restless, Reformed. Can the YRR movement survive the disagreement that persists regarding Black Lives Matter and President Trump? I see today on both sides of our debates over public theology that some Reformed folks find more in common with even non-Christians than with other Reformed folks. In other words, there’s hardly a unified view on how justice and justification relate. No unified view on the role of the church in leading the cause against injustice in a fallen world.

What’s most interesting about Hansen’s observations is that, while the first two phases of YRR movement were centered around historically very controversial doctrines, both phases ultimately culminated in greater unity among the Reformed evangelicals most active in this movement. The third phase, however, has had the opposite effect. The coalitions, affinity groups, and partnerships that were formed and refined through evangelical attention to soteriology and ecclesiology are being disintegrated in the era of public theology.

Much of this is surely the age-old potency of politics to divide people. But the fact that this third phase has overlapped with the peak of social media cannot be ignored. What is supposed to happen when the emotional stakes of politics are combined with immersive technology that collapses the normal distance between fleeting thought and iron-clad belief? Moreover, the architects of our current digital technology know very well how lucrative feelings of wrath can be for their platforms. For the past few years, Reformed evangelicals have been relating to these technologies not very differently from the rest of the Western world, and in the process, both our reason and our relationships have been caught up in the maelstrom of polarization.

The present situation, however, seems to indicate that the platforms that have heretofore shaped evangelical discourse will not continue to do so, at least in the same way. Facebook is still one of the biggest and most populated places on the entire Internet, but its future is pinned between technological stagnation on one hand and political scrutiny on the other. Twitter’s future is arguably even murkier; its owner and CEO suggested in his first month that the company’s financial outlook is apocalyptic. TikTok has become a haven for those raised in Christianity and currently “deconstructing,” but the platform is also facing intense controversy over its proximity to the Chinese government and some distressing facts about its algorithm. Perhaps most importantly, as the first digital natives become parents, the mental health effects of these technologies become an urgent question. It’s easier than ever to imagine a world without many of these apps.

To close this essay, I’d like to offer one prediction and two encouragements. My prediction is that the future of online evangelical discourse is smaller than bigger, closer than national, and personal rather than viral. I believe the jungle of the Internet has grown too wild for many, and that the days of billions of dollars pouring in to fund unleashed algorithms are over. Instead, the Internet is about to get smaller. Affinity groups will find and communicate with each other directly rather than over the open web, either via email or closed systems like Discord or Slack. “Big Eva” will look less like an inter-denominational, conference-fueled power chamber, and more like regional cells that are funded directly by churches in the zip code. The Internet is not going away, but “Internet culture” will look radically different.

Finally, my two encouragements. First, younger Christians eager to dive into the fray should do so with the aim of building something that will last even when their favorite social media platform has gone the way of MySpace. Burning bridges with other Christians because of controversies that are impossible to explain to anyone not logged in is a recipe for disaster. Take seriously the fact that the ground can and will change beneath your feet, and post as if there will come a day when you need the people you disagree with to hire you, to partner with you, or even just to welcome you. Because that day will probably come.

Second, try very hard to unbundle your theology from digital. Shape your convictions in the best possible ways. Take two months off from Twitter and read great books that will help you think about the biggest questions. Flee the temptation to determine what you believe about Scripture based on what the people you like or dislike are saying. Pursue friendship, not just peerage, because your best insights will likely come from the former and almost never from the latter. Above all, be a Christian. Don’t try to change the world before you ask for daily bread and forgive those who have trespassed against you. Belong to a church. Be faithful in the small things. Live in reality. You will never look back with regret at doing so.

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