Editor's note: Our earlier coverage of Rob Bell's Love Wins book included a look at the early responses and the historical context of his views on unbelievers' eternal destiny. Monday, the day Bell unveils the book in New York City, we will post our review of the book. In the meantime, in this guest column John Dyer revisits a topic Christianity Today examined a decade ago: how the internet is shaping theological debate.
Do you think it is wrong for Rob Bell to question traditional views of heaven and hell?
Answer: I don't care.
Do you think it is wrong for traditionalist writers to label Rob Bell a universalist?
Answer: I don't care.
Do you think it is wrong for every Christian with an iPhone to tweet their answers to the above questions from restaurant bathrooms and then go home and blog about it?
Answer: Now there's an interesting question.
Of course, I certainly do care about the doctrines of heaven and hell because, as Bell reminds us, what we think about them informs what we believe about God and how we understand major Christian themes like love, justice, and holiness.
So why do I say, "I don't care"? First, because this particular debate is a very old one going back to the earliest days of the church. But second, and more importantly, because theological debate in general is nothing new.
While it may appear as though theological debate today is more polarized than ever, in fact it is perhaps as civil as it's ever been. There are still charges of heresy here and there, but at least we're no longer burning each other at the stake. There is occasional name-calling, but as Luther famously pointed out even Jesus and Paul were fond of coming up with clever names for false teachers.
I'm not attempting to defend mean-spirited, polemical debate. I'm just saying that it's old news. The debates are still important, but what is even more important is how social media has changed the way those debates take place among everyday Christians.
Theology Before Facebook, Theology After Facebook
Throughout the history of public theological debate, there was one constant—those debates only took place between a few select people—Moses, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on—who gained respect through a lifetime of scholarship.
But the invention of social media, like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, created a radical departure in communication. In pre-2004 Christianity (that is, Christianity before Facebook was invented), only a small group of Christian leaders and teachers had access to the printing press—but today everyone has WordPress. In pre-2004 Christianity it was difficult to become a published author, but today everyone is surrounded by dozens of "Publish" buttons.
Every time we log into Facebook it asks us, "What's on your mind?" Twitter wants to know, "What's happening?" When controversies large and small erupt, there are devices in every direction begging us to not just take a side, but to declare our position on the largest publishing platform ever constructed by humanity.
Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers
What few of us realize is that when we press those "Publish," "Post," "Comment," and "Send" buttons, we are making the shift away from merely "believing" truth and stepping into the arena of publishing that belief. In doing so we are effectively assuming a position of leadership and teaching that prior to 2004 was not available to us.
James warned us, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1, NIV1984). James goes on to graphically portray the incredible power that our tongues have both to praise and to curse especially in the context of teaching. He then says, "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life." (James 3:13). Solomon echoes similar wisdom, "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent" (Prov. 17:28).
Yet Facebook and Twitter do not encourage this kind of self-restraint. In fact, they encourage an opposing value system. Social media relentlessly asks us to publish our personal opinions on anything and everything that happens. There is no time for reflection in prayer, no place for discussion with other flesh and blood image bearers, and no incentive to remain silent.
You must declare your position, and you must declare it now.
We convince ourselves that by answering the questions social media asks us we are standing for truth alongside the great leaders of the church, but slowly and subtly as we respond to the prompts of our phones rather than our Bibles we begin to worship the false gods of immediacy, distraction, and celebrity in the Temple of Lord Zuckerberg. If you don't think the value system of technology affects you, ask yourself, If it was 2003 and some author wrote some book questioning some doctrine would I have felt compelled to publish my thoughts?
The result is that a million heresy charges isn't cool any more. You know what's cool? A billion heresy charges.
Again, I don't mean to imply that our views on heaven and hell (or whatever the next great Christian controversy is) are not important. And I'm not taking sides with any teacher or doctrinal position in this particular case. What I am doing is taking a side against all of us regular average Joe and Jane Christians who have given into the value system of modern technology which tells us that if we don't publish we don't exist.
I say, let the teachers teach and let them be judged more strictly.
As for the rest of the priesthood of believers, let's believe what we believe and then, as James advised, "show it by [our] good life," sharing our beliefs with those embodied souls in our immediate vicinity—just like Christians before 2004 used to do.
John Dyer is the web development director at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, which will be published by Kregel in August. He blogs at Don't Eat the Fruit.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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See our 2001 article, "Open Debate in the Openness Debate," which discussed how the internet changed the discussion in an earlier theological dispute.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of Love Wins includes a look at the early responses and the historical context of his views on unbelievers' eternal destiny. Monday, the day Bell unveils the book in New York City, we will post our review of the book.