Time flies, when you are having fun.
When John Paine first invited me to write an article for the Veracity blog seven years ago today, I never would have thought it would become a regular thing that would last more that a few weeks, and a couple of blog posts. Nearly seven years, and hundreds of posts later, I would like to offer a few reflections over what I have learned during that time period.
A lot has happened during these past seven years. Think about it….
- A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints became a major contender for the office of President of the United States. Who would have thought?
- A fundamentalist Islamic State took over a large portion of the Middle East, triggering a massive emigration of some 4 million Syrians towards other countries of the world, including some of the most violent executions of Christians, ever witnessed in the history of the Christian church.
- While the overall percentage of evangelical Christians in the United States has remained fairly much the same, the number of “religiously unaffiliated,” otherwise known as the “Nones;” that is, those who say, “None,” when asked if they have some “religious preference,” has grown to be the highest it has ever been in American history. In 2019, the number of “Nones” now roughly equals the number of professing evangelical, “Bible-believing” Christians. Meanwhile, the number of mainline Protestants continues to shrink and shrink. The number of adherents to other groups, such as Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews, has remained pretty much the same. In other words, a large number of mainline Protestants are simply leaving Christianity altogether.
- While Protestant evangelical, Bible-believing scholars and seminaries continue to be divided, as has been the case since the 1970s, over the question of having women serve as elders in local churches, the number of local churches that have declared themselves to be “complementarian” (against women as elders) vs. “egalitarian” (for women as elders) continues to threaten to split the evangelical movement, at the local level.
- Two of the world’s most visible figures, in matters of faith and science, debated one another: Young Earth Creationist leader, Ken Ham, and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, a popular educator, with agnostic/atheistic leanings.
- Liberal Protestant Christians started confessing their sins…. to plants.
- Social media took over the world, as more and more people gained immediate access to the Internet, through affordable SmartPhones.
- Evangelist Billy Graham died.
- While Americans have become more electronically connected with one another, than ever before, American society has become more divided than ever. Same-sex marriage became acceptable as the “Law of the Land,” in the U.S., and countries all over the Western world followed suit. The topic of transgendered identity has people wondering what type of personal pronouns are acceptable, in school and workplace conversations.
- A reality television star became the President of the United States.
- The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
Me? I started writing on a Christian apologetics blog.
What on earth was I thinking?
Why Write For a Blog, Anyway??
John Paine urged me to start writing, partly because John and I both have a passion for teaching, and this would be something fun we could do together. We also both believed in the importance of providing excellence in content, that upholds the authority of Scripture and an openness to the evidence, both mutually affirming ideas. Nearly 800 blog posts later, that tradition continues.
My other personal thought was that blogging would be a good way to publish material I could use in Adult Bible Classes, to get content easily out to students, without having to waste countless hours, trying to print stuff off on our church’s Xerox machine.
I do not need any more paper… and neither do you. That’s one good thing about the Internet.
I still find the blog useful for that purpose, but it has become something more than that. It has become partly a vehicle for discussion, and partly a form of spiritual discipline, kind of like keeping an on-line “spiritual journal.” There is a great community of faithful readers here, though most of them are occasional lurkers, who rarely comment. But when they do, the interaction is always edifying and encouraging…. and I really mean that. Thank you, folks!
What It Is Like Writing For A Blog
Some ask me, “Where do you find the time?” What most people do not know, is that over the past 30 years of online computing, and in pursuing a degree at a theological seminary, I have amassed a large collection of notes, research papers, and half-finished emails. Seriously. What was I going to do with all of this stuff?
Thankfully, I can cut-and-paste like nobody’s business. Now, I finally got rid of a lot of those printed out notes, and other old digital clutter, and have organized it better, which benefits me, and hopefully, you, the reader.
I confess that I will cut some corners, to save time, on a number of blog posts. I try to link to and footnote references where I can, but they do not always make it into the final draft. The proofreading gets shortchanged a lot, and as my wife has told me (gently) on numerous occasions, it is clearly evident that I am a computer engineer and not an English major!!
I need an editor.
I know that.
But frankly, this is the nature of blogging. The goal here is to informally stimulate thought and discussion, and not to write formal journal articles or books for publication.
Let the professionals have at it. They do a much better job with it anyway.
The most successful bloggers, like Tim Challies and Justin Taylor, spend countless hours honing their craft. Me? I have a day job.
But let me get back to the question: Why blog in the first place?
Well, believe it not, the Internet is here to stay.
The Internet, Digital Revolution and Its Lasting, Deep Impact on Christian Faith
The Internet has done for the theological chaos of the 21st century what the printing press did for the Reformation in the 16th century. While blogging platforms will not completely replace the printed book, the sheer convenience of online media is causing other forms of information sharing to decline. But just as movable type broke the hegemony that the official medieval church enjoyed for so long, technology from Google, Apple and Facebook will continue to spread information around, chopping ideas up in bits and pieces, making it increasingly difficult to maintain consensus among believing Christians (Some think that the Internet is making us more stupid, but that is another topic, for another time).
Furthermore, it seems like the digital world keeps shifting all of the time. Blogging has not gone away, but it has less appeal seven years since I started writing, now that the novelty of quick, easy Internet access to information has worn off. These days, even parents are issuing SmartPhones to their kids, sort of like a right of passage, on the way towards adulthood, kind of like how it was when my parents allowed me to get a driver’s learning permit, back some years ago. Teenagers today are more likely to use phone texting and Instagram, and less likely to use email, on a regular basis. They only read blogs, if they subscribe to them, or if someone links them to a blog article, if cited on a social media platform.
In fact, for “GenZ” folks, young people who have grown up in the online era, following 9/11, platforms like Snapchat and Instagram have become the primary means of communication for this age group.
It makes it really difficult to keep up with all of the changes.
I should know about these things, as my day job is that of working as an Internet Service Provider, at an American university. “Looking up things online” was once a novel curiosity. Now, it is a fundamental part of modern day communication, an essential for many in corporate and personal life.
I keep imagining what it would have been like if Martin Luther had the Internet at his disposal. Mmmm…. Would he have posted his Ninety-Five Theses on his Facebook page? Would he have tweeted out his view of “sola gracia“; that is, salvation by grace alone, on his Twitter account? Would the Protestant Reformation have turned out a bit differently?
The impact of social media, and the Internet in general, has had the greatest negative impact on young people. When I started doing youth ministry in the late 1980’s, surveys in those days suggested that 85% of all Christians made commitments to Christ before the age of 18. According to apologist J. Warner Wallace, some 30 years later now, that percentage has dropped to 12%.
Think about that for a moment.
Less and less young people, growing up in evangelical churches today, are making commitments to Christ, before they leave high school.
Skepticism about Christianity some 30 years ago, generally started to kick in when young people went off to college. Now, skepticism about Christianity starts to kick in somewhere between the ages of 10 and 17, for most kids growing up in Christian homes.
That is bad news for sure, for Christian parents, as by the time kids enter the age of middle school, they have learned how to use Google. The good news is that Christian parents and church leaders still have at least some influence on children, while these young people are at home. Parents are still the number one bulwark against the acidic corrosion of those elements that seek to undermine Christian faith, in the lives of their children. Yet sadly, most Christian parents are woefully unprepared to help their kids to learn how to defend their faith, in an online world.
Evangelical Christians have both an opportunity and a serious problem, in the digital era.
Our insatiable interest in gathering information, in an Internet age, has yielded two, major significant results. The first is really good. The second is really bad: First, it has given Christians access to the best research, scholarship, and quality Bible teaching, at the click of a mouse. What was once the domain of stuffy Bible scholars and nerdy theologians, locked up in seminaries, is within reach from your SmartPhone.
A plentiful wealth of educational helps is readily available to the average Christian, more than any previous generation, in the history of the church, all right at our fingertips. Such excellent Christian content, all made possible by the worldwide access to Internet, is allowing believers to reach more and more people than ever before, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We can praise God for that!
Secondly, … and this is the downside, … the average Christian’s ability to discern truth from error, in the era of the Internet age, has increasingly gone downhill, as unvetted information continues to come across daily on our phones, and other computer screen devices…. and most local churches do not have much of a clue, as to how to help their local flock of believers navigate the mess.
As a result, less and less evangelical, church going people read their Bibles, and therefore, know less and less of what the Bible actually teaches.
The contemporary chaos of social media is particularly difficult for an evangelical Protestant, such as myself, as Protestants have no teaching magisterium to appeal to, in order to try to resolve theological disputes and controversies. In this sense, I do envy my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends, who do not have this problem. Well, perhaps the problem is lessened in those traditions, as they have a stronger sense of community authority, as compared to the relatively free-for-all world of Protestantism.
For us evangelical Protestants, it often comes down a preacher’s ability to take the Word of God, and make their best case towards an audience who might listen, trusting that the Holy Spirit will make things clear to them, and move their consciences towards thinking, saying, and doing the right things.
This was once done through sermons, in front of a live audience, supplemented by books, and radio, and perhaps television. Those rules have drastically changed in the post-Christian era of the Internet. Today, it really helps to have a Twitter account, and some means to propagate compelling content to a reading, listening and viewing audience, through podcasts and online video.
Will “Internet Blogging” Continue to Flourish, In the Coming Years?
Here is my approach: I am an advocate of what some might call the “longform” blog, best represented and championed by the folks at Mere Orthodoxy. I get more out of one, well-articulated article, than a bunch of quick reads, that you can easily forget in 5 minutes. As a supplement to reading Scripture, I much prefer reading a thoughtful, challenging essay at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, or First Things, as opposed to reading a daily entry from Our Daily Bread, or a page from My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers.
Let me explain this: I do acknowledge that these more pithy resources help other Christians immensely. Short devotional readings are very good at establishing regular, spiritual disciplined habits, but they are not very helpful in terms of forming a Christian perspective on reality, or what the Bible calls, having “the mind of Christ.”
…However, I do make an exception for what I believe is the UK’s best short form blog, Think. Nuggets to chew on for weeks….
I have averaged roughly one blog post a week, or else I have tried to break up longer posts into smaller, more digestible posts, but I confess that brevity is not always my strong point. I realize this, as I will often get a lot of “TL;DR,” which stands for “Too Long, Did Not Read,” for reasons why some readers quickly move on to something else.
Part of that is my weakness, but it is also partly because our fast-paced society has very little patience for sustained thought and argumentation. We love “sound bite” theology, but frankly, biblical truth does not operate like that. Sometimes, you just have to block out some time to read and study the Scriptures, for several hours at a time. There is no substitute for doing this. There is only so much coherence and clarity to be embedded in a 280-character Twitter tweet.
Me? I very much like books on Kindle. Audiobooks and podcasts work great on a commute, or while working out in the yard. But there is just something about have a printed book in my hand, like a good study Bible, that keeps me grounded in a reality that is more tangible.
Nevertheless, the drive to make things more accessible puts pressure on blogger-types, like me, to try to find more creative ways to get really good content out there, and keep it short and crisp. In many ways, the excitement of blogging, that really captivated people, when blogging first became popular, has worn off on a lot people. People have less intellectual bandwidth for “longform” blogging, than they did a few years ago, when John Paine convinced me to start writing.
For example, in 2019, the most popular form of engaging important conversations is now the threaded tweet, whereby Twitter users can link multiple Twitter messages into a single thread. This makes it really easier to get thoughts out there, to a wide audience. When Twitter increased the Twitter message length from 140 to 280 characters, it really did not change the length of individual tweets, whereas the threaded tweet has really taken off. Apparently, we humans like our information in short chunks.
But the popularity of threaded tweets might change next week. The pace of change is unrelenting.
Such brevity, in the world of social media, comes at the cost of increasing information chaos, a lot of unbridled emotion, and less human face-to-face interaction. As a result, a large portion of information on the Internet is simply mistaken, what has now become known, in today’s jargon, as “fake news.” Just about every heterodox opinion is available on the Internet, and then some new stuff, that no one has ever heard before…. and it is all available from your teenager’s SmartPhone.
Come to think of it…. If Martin Luther was alive on this planet to see this day, he might have thought twice about posting his Ninety-Five Theses online.
Communicating the Good News in an Era of “Fake News”
First and foremost, Veracity is a Christian apologetics blog. That being the case, a lot of what has been written over the past seven years has led to some very fruitful interactions with critics. Normally, skeptics and critics do not flock to reading Christian apologetics blogs, but of those who do, who really want to interact, who are all over the world, most of these dialogue partners, have been very cordial, even when we are unable to work past our disagreements.
Sadly, some of the most difficult interactions have been with other Christians, who seem less inclined towards respectful conversation. A lot of what ends up online is more of an indicator of people in process, as opposed to a presentation of informed, mature thought. Reaching prematurely for the keyboard is often driven by the flash of emotion, and not a desire to promote edifying discussion.
What still amazes me is how much junk (dis)information is floating around in Christian circles, and how easy it is for us as believers to give this type of stuff an unwarranted pass.
Time for a true confession: The first time I read an article on the Babylon Bee, a good three years ago, I truly thought it was a true story. It was that believable. But upon reading a bit more, I quickly learned that the Babylon Bee was a Christian satire site, kind of like the evangelical version of The Onion. So, I am just as guilty as the next person, when it comes to being gullible as to what you can read online.
Nevertheless, this is no excuse for failing to employ adequate fact-checking measures, before you relink some bogus story on your Facebook page. Your skeptical neighbor or co-worker will judge you harshly, if you re-post something online that reveals that you have not done your homework, and this damages the credibility of our Christian witness.
Some twenty to twenty-five years ago, I would constantly receive bogus emails from otherwise well-meaning Christians, that had zero quality of credibility. I can not tell you how many emails I collected, from otherwise well-meaning believers, still claiming:
- that the “man in the moon” logo for Proctor and Gamble was a Satanic symbol…. (I first heard this nonsense back in 1981…. by 1995, Proctor and Gamble got sick of the letters from Christians, and changed the logo), but the emails kept coming….);
- that friends knew of others who picked up “Vanishing Hitchikers” off the side of the road;
- that the old Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was secretly a Roman Catholic catechism, during the years of Puritan-influenced Protestant rule in England;
- that NASA had discovered a “lost day,” in ancient Israel’s history, by running computer searches in the astronomical record, that perfectly explains how the “sun stood still,” in the book of Joshua.
- that Charles Darwin confessed that evolution was a hoax on his death bed;
- that the popularity of Harry Potter has led some 14 million children to become Satanists;
- or perhaps, the most bizarre of all, that atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was continuing to circulate a petition to the FCC, to ban all Christian radio from the public airwaves…. even years AFTER she died.
That type of stuff has largely stopped, but that was before the era of pervasive social media. Things have only gotten worse. I had never even heard of the Flat Earth movement or the anti-vaccine movement, among Christians, until the age of social media. I get depressed every time I read comments on YouTube videos, authored by so-called professing Christians.
This may sound like I am grumpy, let us be honest: We have exchanged the diligent study of the Scriptures, under the authority of the Word of God, with half-truths, unverified rumors, and just plain bad thinking. I still have a lot of my thinking that needs correction, too, but as Dr. Michael S. Heiser, an Old Testament scholar with Logos Bible Software has noted, there is still a large amount of incredibly useful material that never makes it into local churches, as well-trained godly men and women wrestle with how best to deliver meaningful, accurate content to everyday Christians.
Most academics write for other academics, and not for “normal” people. Furthermore, a lot of otherwise sincere and gifted pastors are clueless as to what is out there, that can really help their people. My belief is that Christian intellectuals need to do a better job in getting good content out to the “people in the pews,” so my small, meager effort here at Veracity is just my limited attempt to help that process along.
God meant for the Scriptures to be read and understood by unlearned people, but not to be used as a club to beat up others, thereby displaying one’s own ignorance. Sadly, the massive influx of online information tends to take advantage of the latter.
In saying this, I must be careful to add that I am not picking on my fellow Christians. There is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that crazy thinking does not discriminate, on the basis of one’s worldview. There are plenty of Mormons, who believe the Book of Mormon to be the inspired Word of God, despite the lack of archaeological evidence, supporting the claim of ancient Israelite migration to the Americas, over 2,500 years ago, as put forward by Joseph Smith. Likewise, a large number of atheists continue to insist that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, despite the abundant historical evidence to the contrary.
It is just that Christians, above all people, need to be people of the Truth. So, it really hurts the integrity of the Christian message, when otherwise sincere believers continue to propagate debunked or speculative interpretations of the Bible, that lack evidential warrant. At the very least, Christians should make a concerted effort to verify suspect pieces of information, before blasting nonsense out on their Facebook pages. Christians should be models for displaying critical thinking skills, and, at the very least, make a concerted effort to apologize to others, when such misinformation gets propagated.
The Critical Need for Evangelical Churches to Engage in Christian Apologetics
Some forty years ago, you could get away with not being exposed to much serious content as an American Christian. But nowadays, we are constantly being bombarded by information through traditional and social media, much of it that is hostile to the Gospel. It has become an imperative for believers today to become more conversant with the culture, and to the objections to our faith.
- ” We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 ESV)
The future of the church depends on this type of informed engagement with ideas that would seek to undermine the Gospel. Yet, I should note a word of caution here: Christians do not need to know the answer to every question. But Christians do need to know where to go to find the right answers. It is best to say, “I do not know the answer to your question, but let me get back to you once I have done some research on that, and we can discuss it further.”
The amount of pushback Christians can get, when sharing their faith, can indeed be overwhelming. But typically, a basic understanding of some of the most popular criticisms against Christianity is sufficient for most.
Previous generations of young people would look up to authority figures, like their parents or pastors, to find answers to life’s questions. However, today’s young people look more to the Internet and social media to find answers, and this is just as true for young people in the church as well as outside of the church.
The average teenage kid today, armed with a cell phone, can “fact check” a pastor’s sermon in less than thirty seconds, something that kids growing up previously in my generation could only do by spending hours, taking multiple trips to the local library (in the 1980s), or Barnes and Nobles (in the 1990s), and fussing around through clunky card catalog systems to find that information. But how does a kid today know the difference between “fake news” and really good content when they go and “google” for something, in a matter of seconds?
Do You Feed the Trolls? : Internet Rage as Barriers to Healthy, Constructive Discussion
There have been a few other noticeable shifts since I started blogging some seven years ago. For example, fewer people comment on the blog than they once did. At other times, comments just go off on irrelevant rabbit trails, having nothing to do with the topic at hand.
Commenting on a blog can be intimidating, as Internet blogs get regularly trolled by “drive-by” commenters, who have no desire to engage in discussion. Rather, they just want to promote their message, and vitriol in online communication has apparently become the new normal. Without exception, every time I have tried to engage thoughtfully with an online troll, who leaves abrasive, inflammatory, or self-righteous comments, they never respond back.
The blog trollers pretty much ruin it for everyone else. People online will say things that they would never dare say to someone in a face-to-face conversation. This is part of the reason why Internet search providers, like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Microsoft (Bing), are self-censoring a lot of their data results now, due to all of the complaints. But this raises serious concerns regarding free speech. What is mostly upsetting to me is that some of the worst offenders at this negative form of communication are so-called professing Christians.
Sadly, there is a growing breed of commenters who really have not done the hard work of study, who simply parrot the responses of others, but who have very little understanding of what they are saying. The democratization of ideas in an online world has largely placed the voices of shallow thinkers on the same level as that of well-trained scholars, who actually know what they are talking about. The cause of truth suffers as a result.
In response, the growing trend among many bloggers, is to shut down their comments section, as it is just no longer worth the time to parse through the utter rudeness that passes for an overwhelming percentage of online discussion. We have become a technological culture that largely SHOUTS AT ONE ANOTHER…. IN ALL CAPS, OF COURSE!! The discussion has shifted more towards organized discussion boards (like Reddit), but most significantly towards dedicated social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter.
Who knows? It is possible that people will get sick of sites like Facebook and Twitter, and turn back to reading and engaging more with blogs again. These trends tend to be cyclical. But my objection to shutting down comments sections in blogs is that it shuts down conversations too much. I do not want to put up with nonsense, but on the other hand, we need to meet people where they are at, and take serious ideas seriously. Perhaps we can all find a “sweet spot” where polite discussion can still take place, without descending into mayhem. I do not know how all of this will play out.
The Future of Platforms, Like Veracity: A Lesson From History
The rise of social media has made this problem in how we engage one another in online mediums, only more challenging. As someone who works professionally in the area of information technology, and who appreciates its benefits, it has become quite clear to me that the advances in technology have not led to advances in ethics. As followers of Jesus, we need to seriously re-think how we engage and use information technology.
With the decline of traditional authority, established within the local church, and the proliferation of “fake news” and alternative media sources, through Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, etc., that are not guaranteed to be reliable, many of my fellow Christians have fallen into this morass.
The problem is exacerbated by sincere, yet misguided Christians, who lack any substantial theological training, who think that because they have a keyboard and an Internet connection, that somehow makes them an expert on the Bible.
Dr. Michael Heiser refers to this world of Christians gone wacky as “Christian Middle Earth“, a realm marked by good intentions, but driven by cranky scholarship, and its influence is growing. Gone are the days when we could look to a Walter Cronkite to give us the news, or to a spiritual leader, like a Billy Graham, who could rally Christians together for the common cause of the Gospel. We need spiritual discernment now more than ever.
Blogs, like Veracity, can be very useful tools to get good content out to people. But even blogs have shortcomings by their very nature. There is simply no substitute for the local church. By far, the greatest opportunity for the Gospel comes in the form of believers, united together in community, in fellowship with one another, looking past their differences on non-essential matters of faith, seeking that the name of Jesus be held in the highest esteem, for the glory of God alone.
It is really hard to imagine how much crazier it can get, when it comes to the absolute erosion of truth, that passes for communication, in our online world. I knows this all sounds pessimistic, but I actually suggest the opposite!
I believe that God has a way of doing remarkable things, when we least expect it. In many ways, the current cultural situation reminds me of the period of the early church, when the Christian message had to compete with a myriad of mystery religions, and an untold number of Roman and Greek pagan gods and goddesses, and even bizarre speculations among marginal Christian groups, like the Gnostics.
But within a few hundred years, the clear, consistent voice of orthodox Christian witness rose above the din of intellectual and spiritual chaos. The advancement of the Christian gospel completely took over the Roman empire. In this type of atmosphere, such a “revival” of Christian faith in our day could be unleashed at any time…. and that is exciting!
With respect to the cultural moment we current live in, it is imperative that Christians learn how to use technology, including social media, in a manner that respectfully honors the Lord and Savior we serve. It is not simply the message that we seek to communicate that matters. It is also includes the manner in which we share that message. If we approach those with whom we disagree with charity and grace, this will go a long way towards winning skeptical non-believers to the Truth of Christ.
So despite the challenges, I am hopeful. We are called to faithfulness to the Truth, but this does not always mean that the message of the Gospel will permeate the heart of every person we meet. But if the Veracity blog helps to enable even one person to better love and have a face-to-face conversation with another human being, about the true reality of Jesus Christ, resulting in a transformed life, set free from sin and experiencing the hope of eternal life, then it is all worth it.