Wednesday, May 16, 2012

facebook & the culture war (part two)

Earlier today I wrote a post on why I personally abstain from having a Facebook account. Now here's Part Two of that previous post - here are my thoughts on using Facebook fruitfully.

Off the top of my head, I think there is one basic principle a Christian can bear in mind when communicating on Facebook: Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.  I'm going to say "Facebook" a lot from here on out, but in using that particular example, I include social media like blogs, websites and other forums in which Christians are creating media (whether they realize they are doing so or not).

Being wise as serpents has more implications than I can tackle in this small space. In part it means thinking through what I intend to accomplish with my Facebook page. One approach is to use this media form to provide inspiration and encouragement and fellowship for fellow believers. That's awesome. The virtual world needs that. In my Facebooking days, I benefitted from pages such as these. If my intention, on the other hand, is to try to reach out beyond my fellow believers, a FB page consisting only of beautiful moral posts and deep quotes may be largely ignored. If my intent is to reach that wider audience, it may be more fruitful to create a dynamic page with broad appeal, a personal page, a page to which a wide circle of friends is naturally attracted. In this case, consider the manner in which peers use Facebook. Ask: Who is my intended audience? In other words, who are my friends? Who is actually seeing my Facebook? What are they most interested in? What do they write about? How can I most effectively engage them, attract their interest, spark conversation or thought? What kind of wholesome images and articles would they like? The answers to these questions will vary depending on my own age and the age of my Facebook friends. It will vary according to my personality and the personalities & beliefs of my friends. But chances are that my friends primarily come to my Facebook to learn about and connect with me - therefore, making myself accessible and human on my Facebook increases the chances that others will read my page when I post links and status updates that express my faith and morals. Facebook is not primarily a tool for evangelization - it is primarily a tool for connecting human beings. By that I mean that most people, when they sign in to Facebook, are seeking human connection, not ideology. That's not a bad primary purpose. We have to understand the purpose and power of the tool in our hands. We have to "speak the language" of those to whom we are trying to bring the Gospel. Many people do not speak the richly nuanced language of Church documents, Scripture passages and gorgeous religious art. How can I engage those people in a way that they can "hear" - in such a way that they will want to listen, to look, to click the link? That's not an easy question, but it's not impossible to answer either. Spending a few hours really looking at the Facebook accounts of those we wish to reach with the Gospel will provide some helpful clues. Ditto for scanning the Facebook accounts of Christians who are evangelizing well through their own Facebook accounts. The more "normal" and natural we are, the more people will take us seriously and hear us out. The more fanatical and "out there" we seem to be, the more we will be written off and the more unable to exert an influence on the general culture around us.

Being gentle as doves means that when we use media in the culture war, we do so in the spirit of Christ. We can't defend the King's honor or the Kingdom's in a way that inherently dishonors either. I can't urge others to obey the King by disobeying Him myself. There are two blogs I have regretfully unsubscribed from in the past six months - both are created by brilliant writers ingeniously defending the faith....but doing so with such frequent and intense uncharity that I was completely disappointed and uninspired. I don't see how a Christian blog that defends the teachings of Christ while violating the spirit of Christ (through intentional insults, barbed sarcasm, self righteous judgments and unkindness) is actually a Christian blog at all. It seems to me a Pharisee's blog, urging others to obey strict laws while ignoring the Spirit that those laws serve. The same would go for uncharitable Facebook dialogue.  I have enough uncharitable thoughts of my own to battle without having them fed from media sources meant to strengthen me in my Christian journey. Some people will protest that rants and cutting sarcasm are just about keeping things "real". Maybe. Maybe "real lukewarm". Or "real mediocre". But not real Christianity. Uncharity gives scandal and confirms for unbelievers those negative stereotypes they've heard about Christians. It hardens hearts and creates anger. It feeds self-righteousness and destroys humility. Christians who wish to fight for the Lord must strive for ever-greater discipline, virtue and self-control. We must become perfect in using the Ultimate Strategy of the Ultimate Chief General; we must become adept at adopting the tactic which is most effective and powerful: Love. Charity. We must 'adopt' it because it certainly doesn't seem to bubble up naturally from within us! This does not mean that we never take a firm stance or use strong language. Both are often necessary. But there is an enormous difference between boldly stating a shocking truth in unyielding language and engaging in the nasty mud-slinging hostility that marks much of the political and religious conflict that takes place on Facebook.

Jesus's most important, most central, most crucial teachings are not about health care or religious freedom or marriage. Those are very very important, but they are not the overarching essential truths for which He lived and died so as to teach us. They are these:

Love God above everything else. Everything.
Do nothing to another person that you would not want done to you. 
Be merciful. Forgive. Know you will be forgiven anything - if you forgive. 
Stop judging. 
Stop acting in anger. 
Be humble. Be kind.
Don't live with the emphasis on this passing world - live for the world to come. 

I could go on, but the point is that living these tenets is more important - and harder - than winning arguments and politics. In Jesus' day, those who were urging perfect universal orthodoxy while ignoring the points above got slammed with the whole brood of vipers thing. Ouch. It's not either-or, it's both-and. I need to vigorously defend the truths and morals being attacked or destroyed in the culture while at the same time not violating any of the above points. Man, is that hard. Nearly impossible. Sometimes I seriously just want to give up altogether because of how much I stink at it. But God's power is made perfect in my weakness. His grace is enough.  

Which brings me to my last (and longest) point. We do have to know our weaknesses. We do have to discern wisely where we serve best, what we are most suited for. There is a war going on, but we are not all Navy Seals, Special Forces. Some of us are just best at driving the trucks of food rations. Some are sewing tents. Some are fighter pilots. Some are ground troops. Some are generals. Some are by sea and some are by air. NONE OF US IS ASSIGNED TO BE A BOMBER PILOT. ALL of us are wounded badly and ALL of us are tending to the wounded.

This brings me back to my personal decision to avoid the Facebook front. I'm not gifted for it. In fact, I'm really bad at it. I'm better at hand-to-hand combat. I have much better emotional intelligence face-to-face. I'm both choleric and melancholic (the two most intense personalities) and a writer. Once I try to fight these fights in writing, I know no other way but to dive in with all my intensity, handling the issue at hand as directly, clearly, thoroughly, efficiently and idealistically as possible. It's too much. I'm far gentler and more effective in person. I need to see the other person's face. I need to hear their tone of voice and I need them to hear and see mine. In human interactions, it's far more prudent and efficient to bide time - to be more indirect - to be even a little vague and then gently build to the specifics. It's also necessary to know when to drop it. I seem unable to do so through faceless media. I need the cues of the human body. That's a simple truth I have come to see about myself. 

On the other hand, I know many people who are gifted at going gently and slowly through the process, even over media, but who perhaps struggle to make their thoughts clear - either through a lack of formation and understanding - or through the inability to communicate with clarity. Perhaps they leave the other person more confused and muddled then they were prior to the discussion. We need to know our strengths and weakness - and in which situations we tend to succeed, verses where we tend to fail. Obviously, on the spot, each of us must do our best to give a reason for our hope, despite whatever weakness we know ourselves to have. Once I've seen or heard something that is seriously blasphemous or immoral, my silence is assent and I must speak. Nevertheless, if I know I tend to flub things up on Facebook, it makes no sense to go courting those situations. 

Besides knowing my own strengths and weaknesses, I think it's essential to recognize the possibilities and limitations of Facebook as a tool for winning hearts or saving souls. The soldier need not pour everything into a skirmish that doesn't contribute much to the war. In this war, most victories are won face-to face, person-to-person, in the flesh. Most victories are the fruit of real friendship and testimony and prayer and timely conversations held in private - away from the noise and confusion of battle. In contrast, Facebook skirmishes are often fought very publically between parties who have no ability or intention of actually listening to each other. There is nothing an atheist can write on Facebook, no article he can link to, no argument he can offer, that for the slightest moment will open my heart to the idea that there is not a good God. None. He might as well use Facebook to try to convince me not to love and serve my children. I know God to be true, good and beautiful - worthy of my love - despite never having seen Him - in the same way that I know each child of mine to be good and beautiful and worthy of my love - and I know that to be true from the womb, even before the child is first laid in my arms and beheld by my eyes. The atheist's heart and mind are equally as closed to my arguments as I am to his. There is nothing I will say that is likely to make him question his most basic assumptions about the universe. There is very little I can say that resonates with the the atheist's faith in empiricism, his measure of all things - just as there is nothing in his arguments that resonates with my experiential knowledge of ultimate goodness - my measure of all things. We do not speak a common language. But we still ought to speak. Often. Respectfully. Trying to lisp words the other comprehends. And we must understand and accept the most likely outcome of our dialogue, and the limits of our given forum, or else we shall both be very frustrated indeed. 

Defending the faith on Facebook is the equivalent sometimes of trying to fight against something like guerilla warfare. It's very hard to make any real progress, but we can keep from losing the ground that is still in our possession. On Facebook, we are not going to beat the other army directly in any given battle, but we may influence a whole lot of "undecideds" who are passively watching these battles unfold. If we fight with honor and skill and grace, there may be some neutrals who decide not to join the other army - maybe they consider being our quiet allies - maybe they even start thinking about actively fighting alongside us.

In any case, charity is the winning strategy. And the victory is already won. 

(For further reading on this topic, 
Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media
 by Eugene Gan
 is a worthwhile book!)

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