Did you hear about the cretinous YouTube superstar Logan Paul, who filmed the remains of a Japanese suicide victim, and broadcast it on his YouTube channel? He’s gotten in a world of trouble from many of his fans — and he has a YouTuber brother who is reportedly about as awful as he is. Richard Lawson reflects on what this kind of thing means for us as a society. Excerpt:
Every time there is some hue and cry about something like Logan Paul callously filming a dead man hanging from a tree, it’s a pushback that seems totally ineffectual—and ignorant of the scope of what is actually happening with YouTube, which is viewed by many, many young people in a way that is more obsessive and more internalized than probably anything any of us experienced in our own youths. And it has a deviously effective defense system built right in: all that internality suggests that anyone who criticizes it simply doesn’t understand, reifying that sense of belonging for both creator and fan, and pushing everything else further away.
Of course, we’ve seen versions of that same mechanism before. In my teen years, for example, anyone who didn’t like Rent was a real square—or, quite possibly, a homophobe. But Rent was less totalizing; it wasn’t immediately and constantly available in ever-increasing permutations. Rent, or the Beatles, or Pokémon, or whatever, were much easier to put into perspective—and to grow out of—because they were single, fixed entities. So are the Paul brothers and their ilk, who will eventually fade from prominence same as all things. But they are only products of a large and looming factory, one that’s the true subject of all this insulated, recursive devotion. And that’s what should probably worry us. The discrete idiots may come and go, but the idiot machine will still keep churning, loud and autonomous and impervious enough to drown out everything else, until it’s all there is.
People often make the elementary mistake of believing that technology is a neutral tool. It’s not. Technology frames the way we think about things, the way we frame the world. This is what McLuhan meant by his famous epigram, “the medium is the message.”
Last year, theologian Alastair Roberts wrote a long, meaty essay on the danger to Christian orthodoxy of the rise of Internet lay teachers. Excerpts:
We need to beware of blaming individual agents for what is in large measure a structural problem. As I have arguedat length in the past, the very structure of the currently existing Internet encourages dysfunctional discourse and modes of ‘community’. Many of the barriers to speech that the Internet has removed were necessary protective barriers. Ironically, the removal of these barriers has often not led to liberation, but to the loss of freedoms that healthy boundaries can give us.
The Internet causes problems by bringing us all too close together, in ways that encourage confusion, conflict, impulsivity, and reactivity. It also obscures the healthy social functioning of authority, by making such things as age, context, community, and office invisible and by obscuring the reality of sexual difference. On the Internet we all have egalitarian ‘accounts’, we are not bound to any particular community, and are caught up in a spectacle of our own virtual identities that makes virtue- and identity-signalling practically unavoidable. Again, this is not something that we choose to do (or can simply choose not to do), it is just the way that the Internet is and how it shapes us.
Evangelicalism has always had populist, democratic, anti-hierarchical, and egalitarian instincts within it. However, these instincts have typically existed alongside many other instincts that served to correct, counterbalance, or check them. The rise of modern media, especially the Internet, has removed many of the limits to these instincts, radically empowering egalitarian and anti-hierarchical instincts over others.
The Internet weakens the pull of locality and the power of context more generally, while empowering movements that are dislodged from physical context and reality, more fully congruent with its tendencies. This radically shifts the balance of power between parachurch or non-ecclesial agencies and those of the local church. Evangelicalism was always going to be in trouble when the means of self-publication were spread to the masses and the general monopoly of the pulpit upon the public dispensing of theological opinion started to crumble. At least as long as the pulpit held sway, some general standards of theological training could—rather unevenly—be maintained as prerequisites for access to it and there was more hope of a mature conversation. The publishing industry would also primarily discover potential writers among trained pastors and academics, rather than among people who had obtained prominence largely independent of such institutions online.
Roberts talks about how the Internet trains us to regard as “authorities” those figures who tell us what we like to hear. In a later post, he talks about the Jen Hatmaker phenomenon, and how the structure of our information environment grants de facto theological authority to figures like Hatmaker, who has not been theologically trained or ordained. Excerpt:
Jen Hatmaker is a good illustration of some of these dynamics. Hatmaker isn’t a trained theologian, yet her changed position on same-sex marriage has recently received an immense amount of discussion among Christians. In some respects, there isn’t a huge difference between Hatmaker on same-sex marriage and a celebrity anti-vaxxer who has claimed to have extensively ‘researched’ the issue. In both cases, even supposing they were correct, the person’s position is of little academic worth (because they only have very limited ability to engage in first-hand research themselves). Nevertheless, it is of deep social consequence and danger. The opinions of such persons hold weight on account of their popularity, likeability, and people’s instinctive trust of them, whereas the official authority figures challenging them are distrusted, despite their greater learning.
To understand the future of evangelicalism, there are few things more important than attending to currently shifting networks of trust. If people are confident that evangelicalism will generally be opposed to same-sex marriage in twenty-five years’ time, for instance, I wonder whether they have been paying close attention to the movements that have been taking place. The most prominent voices that have opposed same-sex marriage are now regarded with deep distrust from many quarters, especially by the younger generations, not least on account of their politics and the abuse scandals that have tarnished their reputation. People no longer trust them as leaders, so their position on same-sex marriage is now thrown into greater question. Although they may officially have authority, practically they have little authority over the younger generations. Most of us have LGBT persons in our families and friendship groups and many of us have a much closer bond with them than with an older generation of Christian leaders. Many people’s trust in Scripture’s power to speak to issues of gender and sexuality has also been damaged through the influence of purity culture and the often hateful extremism and callousness that they associate with traditional evangelicals’ opposition to homosexual practice and same-sex marriage.
Again, younger generations have grown up and live in a context of overwhelming information and competing gatekeepers. As a result, they have learned to function more as independent theological and religious consumers, assembling their own faith through picking and choosing among authorities. As much biblical and theological reasoning lies beyond the power of their independent understanding, yet they must now determine what positions to hold based on their own research, they are increasingly inclined to treat theological positions whose truth lies beyond their power to determine as adiaphora [issues that are not essential to the faith]. Alternatively, they introduce different criteria for assessing truthfulness, criteria more amenable to minds without rigorous theological education, privileging impressions or their sense of what is most ‘loving’. In such a context, a heavily contested view such as the legitimacy of same-sex marriage is likely to come to be regarded as optional by many.
As with the social crisis of truth, thought, and knowledge facing America, the crisis facing the Church will only be addressed as it is addressed precisely as a social problem. Where trust has broken down, a crisis of truth will soon follow in its wake.
If you’re a progressive sort of religious believer, you might say, “Good! It’s about time these stodgy old white men and their rigid institutions were disrupted.” You should be aware, though, that you will have nothing to appeal to when, say, racialists start preaching a racialized pseudo-Gospel. To which authorities will you turn for help in countering it, having rejected their authority when it contradicted what you preferred to believe?
This is not a post about Jen Hatmaker, not really. It’s about the “idiot machine,” and how it grinds on, relentlessly shredding the conditions under which truth may be discovered, proclaimed, and defended.
Recently a cleric put to me the possibility that we may be in the Great Apostasy that many Christians believe will happen in the Last Days, as mentioned by St. Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians. Christians have been vigilant about the Great Apostasy for many centuries. Depending on your definition of Christian orthodoxy, there have been great apostasies within the global church for a long time.
This time is different, explained my interlocutor. Because of the way the Internet, including social media, works, we have entered a time in which it may not be possible to speak of Christian orthodoxy, because hundreds of millions of people will have been conditioned to believe that theological truth is whatever they find on the Internet that seems right to them. This is by no means a strictly Evangelical phenomenon. I have been present for conversations among Catholic scholars who talked about how young Catholics today are blank slates, knowing little to nothing about what their Church teaches, or why it matters. And please note: this is not a “conservative/liberal” thing. We should expect to see “right-wing” apostasies as well as “left-wing” apostasies.
What does it mean to speak of “apostasy” in a world in which the idea of orthodoxy is denied? Understand, I’m not talking about whether this or that teaching is orthodoxy — that is, faithful to what the Bible teaches. I’m talking about a condition in which people do not perceive that determining orthodoxy is possible.
The church universal has always had doctrinal disputes, some of them severe. Has there ever been a time in which the church has had to face the very real possibility that people were unable to believe in the concept of objective theological truth (as distinct from what those truths are)? In that world, what is Reason?