by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | November 16, 2017Hi friends, as many of you know, I’m from Alabama. My home state has had a rough week in the news. I’ll spare you the details, but a special election to fill Alabama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat started the trouble. My task today isn’t to write about Roy Moore or Doug Jones. (I trust that those of you who are interested can arrive at your own conclusions.) Instead, I want to write about one of the spiritual dangers of living in a 24-hour, multimedia information culture. As I was keeping tabs on events in my home state, I read a tweet by a prominent religious leader. I agreed with the Tweet—but then I made the mistake of reading the comments.
It’s hard to explain exactly what happened next. As I read, the comments became smugger, angrier, and more anxious. Inevitably, posts started including CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE NOW WE’RE SHOUTING SO YOU KNOW IT’S SERIOUS. Commenters introduced new, unrelated issues with “Oh yeah? But what about XYZ?” as a way of trying to reclaim moral high ground. This would hook another commenter, and soon they were spiraling downward like birds grappling mid-flight. This happened with everyone, including folks with whom I basically agreed. One by one, each fell from the sky.
When we get locked into a fight like that, the fall is inevitable because we lose sight of anything and anyone who isn’t an opponent. We no longer pursue the truth, which might entail conceding a point here and there; we simply try to shout down any voice that isn’t our own. What’s so sinister about this is that the more we shout, the more power we yield to opposing voices. Even when we put the iPhone down, or step away from the laptop, we’re still fighting in our heads, plotting the end-all, be-all post to put one over on @WhoeverYouAre. We imagine ourselves hitting the “Reply” button, dropping the proverbial microphone, and walking away.
But of course, we can’t walk away. We’re not having a real argument with a real person about real ideas. We’ve imagined for ourselves the semblance of an opponent, an ignorant and immoral character who desperately needs our forceful but ultimately benevolent correction. We build a debate podium in our minds and give this invented shadow persona the other microphone. We keep running through our position, point after point, and before long we’re no longer sure exactly who it is against whom we’re defending ourselves.
That’s how the Accuser gets in: an iPhone screen becomes a debate stage; the debate stage becomes a courtroom—and we’re the defendant. It’s a subtle descent. It leaves us anxious and on edge. We roil like tea kettles on the inside. All that we say and do shrieks out like steam. Why? Because we’re afraid of…well, we can’t say exactly, but something bad will happen if we don’t justify ourselves.
I believe in the power of argument. It’s how we pursue truth together. But in the data-static of our current political climate, it’s a fine line between practicing the pursuit of God’s truth in community and practicing accusation, which will always leave us feeling panicked and alone on the Accuser’s witness stand.
As I read the comments section, I remembered a scene from Paradise Lost. The poem opens with Satan’s falling into hell after rebelling against God. Soon after, Satan holds a great consultation with all the demons about how they’re going to get revenge on the Almighty. Demons named Moloch, Belial, Mammon, and Beelzebub give speeches advocating different ideas. They’re erudite, elegant, and entertaining. Reading these characters’ speeches, it’s easy to forget how absurd they are. They’re hatching a scheme to get back at God?! If Satan and his demons think this is going to work, they’ve clearly lost touch with reality.
A classmate of mine in college once said of this scene, “Isn’t it possible that all these demons are just voices in Satan’s own head? He just tried to overthrow the Creator of the Universe, which is basically like saying he just tried to force God into not being God. He’s got no sense of reality. Aren’t these demons basically just broken pieces of his own mind?”
Reading the comments section was like stepping into Satan’s mind and hearing all the broken voices, as though one of America’s better angels had fallen and turned on itself. Free Speech, Democracy, Connectedness—I’m not sure what angel it was I saw falling, but @Moloch, @Belial, and the rest were the voices left over. Each wanted to be king of the comments section, not to better understand the truth. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, apparently.
I don’t want that for us. We’re Christian people. The Truth is true whether or not we understand all of it, whether or not we defend it on the anonymous marches of the internet. Argument is good, but it’s a practice best undertaken over time, amongst people who love each other. The internet is also good, but it’s a medium best used to connect people who already have a foundational affection for each other. If the Truth God articulates is a man from Nazareth, who ate and walked and wept and got sunburns and met people face to face, then I think we must admit the limits of what 140 Twitter characters can accomplish.