If your social media feeds are anything like mine right now, you could end up in an ideological whiplash. Ten years ago, Facebook was a place that displayed poorly lit pictures of friends’ birthday parties, vacations, and pets. Today it is an ideological war zone. A friend may post a meme full of COVID-19 stats which will be directly disproved by the next meme you see on your feed. Or maybe two friends publish the same message, but the perspectives are so different that the story is almost unrecognizable. Even more disturbing could be those posts that convey a message that is on the surface true (“sex trafficking is wrong”) but, on closer inspection, has a source linked to QAnon, the cult conspiracy theorist ring to which religious people are particularly vulnerable.
It’s easy to feel nostalgic for a simpler time when social media was about getting in touch with distant relatives and people from high school who you didn’t really want to meet in real life before they did manipulated by corrupt powers for political purposes. But social media has always been a politicized space, simply because it is a social space. It is a sphere of our life together, and as such, our communication routes have never been practically harmless. Social media contributes to our joint creation of values, ideas and knowledge.
The suspicion that knowledge is collaborative is ingrained in the DNA of the modern West, dating back at least a few centuries when the Enlightenment radically shifted the sources of authority over knowledge. Traditional sources of authority such as church hierarchies and existing social structures have been replaced by new scientific methods and an understanding of knowledge as something that must be obtained for oneself. The Protestant Reformation further emphasized this shift, as the faith centered on individual choices rather than the communal, sacramental life of the church.
When friends on Facebook ask you to “Investigate!” or “Think for yourself!” As they publish the latest conspiracy theories or news from their preferred ideological perspective, they draw on centuries of individualistic, self-authenticating ideals of knowledge. But none of the ideas shared on social media posts were created in a vacuum. They are created socially in common spaces, with prejudices inherent in these spaces. And the mistakes / information and ideas we share continue to affect our lives together.
Separating the true from the false is not a new problem. The author of the Letters of St.John feared that false information and harmful ideas would mislead the communities of believers to whom he wrote. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit,” he writes, “but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world ”(1 John 4: 1, NRSV). He also gives his criteria for distinguishing false from true: “This is how you recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is of God.” –1 John 4: 2, NRSV ). .
If you’re like me, this might not be quite what you’d expect. “Any spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ came in the flesh”? Confirm the incarnation? If you are a Christian believer, do so anyway. The incarnation is a large part of the apostolic faith. How can confirmation help us distinguish true from false? What does it say about our navigation of communal knowledge, ideas and values?
What does it really mean to affirm the Incarnation and to believe that God assumed a human body in the person of Jesus Christ? It means, among other things, that human persons, including their bodies, are of enormous importance to God. And that other people and their bodies should be just as important to us.
If our theology makes another person’s body violent, it is not Christian theology. If our theology perpetuates systemic damage, it is not Christian theology. If our theology is racist, it is not Christian theology.
As you wade through the volatile terrain of social media in 2020, I encourage you to keep the words of 1 John 4 in mind. Test the spirits. And ask yourself: whose bodies are at stake?
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