The commenting thread according to Proverbs

Anyone who spends just a reasonable amount of time online knows that internet comment boards tend to be the roughest neighborhoods of cyberspace. A toxic combination of anonymity, inflated sense of intellect and outrage culture results in so many of our public online forums being intolerably cruel and ignorant. What has discouraged me lately is that this trend seems to apply just as well to Christian sites and forums. Two recent news stories within the Christian blogosphere speak to this point.

First there was the recent episode involving Mark Driscoll and his incendiary posts on an internet forum several years ago. I’m not here to comment on Driscoll himself or give any sort of perspective on the issue at large. Rather I want to bring attention to a fact so basic it’s being almost completely overlooked. Driscoll’s puerile rants were not exceptional. The words are shocking because of who Driscoll is—a pastor and respected evangelical leader—not because of what they said. Anyone who has perused a lightly moderated and heavily trafficked message board has seen what Driscoll said and much, much worse.  Driscoll said last week that the comments continue to “embarrass him.” What I wonder is how many men of Driscoll’s age and (worse still) occupation are posting similarly vitriolic content anonymously and are not in the least embarrassed by it.

The second story was the announcement by Christianity Today that they were closing comment sections across their site, preserving them only in some individual writers’ blogs. CT’s editors wrote that,

“At their best, online comments sections sustain vibrant, respectful, and diverse conversations. That’s true on some of our own blogs and channels, we’re happy to say. But too often, our efforts to carefully and thoughtfully report on controversial subjects have been swamped by comments that do not reflect the mutual respect and civil conversation we want to promote.”

Consider for a moment the context into which these out of control commenters were spewing. CT is a respect evangelical magazine that features relevant stories and quality journalism. This isn’t a site dedicated to hardline partisan politics, conspiracy theories or tribalistic wagon-circling. What does this mean? For one thing, it means there’s a good chance that the commenters who played a part in the untertang of CT’s comment boards are not fringe fanatics but normal people who subscribe to the magazine. This means that the problem of vitriolic communication is more mainstream than we might like to believe.

It’s not just Christianity Today’s commenters or Mark Driscoll that have problems watching their digital language. A few years ago Jon Acuff wrote a piece for CNN entitled “Why Christians Are Jerks Online.” Acuff wrote that for many Christians the internet does not feel like real life, and so normal inhibitions and rules of common courtesy do not seem relevant.  More recently Russell Moore highlighted my generation’s omnipresent wrath on social media and its defaulting to outrage culture rather than empathy and humility.

Scorched-earth commenting might be on the verge of epidemic status. That it involves those who take on the name of Christ is a fact that should cause us shame. In times where the cultural tide is turning against orthodox Christian belief, the last thing believers should be doing is supplying critics of the faith with legitimate grounds for decrying Christian practice. So what should we say to these things?

In Solomon’s day there were no blogs, tweets or message boards. Yet in Proverbs 10:19, the Teacher speaks to the church a word that wonderfully guides our online communication: “When words are many, transgression is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.” As a Christian blogger who feels called every day to participate in the public marketplace of ideas, this verse is crucial for me. I write thousands of words every week. I try to embrace the discipline of writing and produce as much as I can, whenever I can. Taking the Bible seriously at this point means I need to have a working theology of communication to guide me in what I say, write, and post.

The first principle in Proverbs 10:19 is brevity. The goal for the Christ-representing communicator must be to avoid unnecessary or distracting language. According to this passage brevity is not just good communication, its good ethics.  First Lady Abigail Adams once humorously told President Adams that he tended to “overburden [his] argument with ostentatious erudition.”  Lack of brevity is almost always a result of the desire to appear intelligent. Speaking simply and directly brings our attention off ourselves and onto our words. In his classic book On Writing Well, Howard Zinsser says “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” Proverbs says that clutter can be a moral disease as well. Speaking what you mean as simply as you can is a way to avoid saying what you might regret.

Brevity is important for another reason: It gives us more time to listen to what others are saying. “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason” might be cliché but it still makes a worthy point. Hearing what others are saying allows me to contribute rather than lecture. Most of my biggest regrets in speech and writing have come from trying to talk about what I did not fully understand. Often that leads to logical fallacies, presumption of bad faith and just plain embarrassing myself. Holding my tongue (or my pen/keyboard) until I better understand what someone else means takes humility—the humility to admit that I did not wake up this morning with everything figured out.

Ultimately, the Bible directs us here, as it does everywhere, back to the heart. The verse that immediately follows Proverbs 10:19 says “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little value.” Why does Solomon contrast the “tongue” of the godly with the “heart” of the ungodly? I think it’s because of what Jesus said in Matthew 12:34: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” What goes on in the soul is deeply connected to what happens with the lips. It’s this principle that makes us the most uncomfortable because we do not want to believe that the avatar that posted those rude and unfeeling comments was really us. We want existential distance between what we type and who we are, enough to empower us to heap shame and ridicule on our online opponents but not enough to interfere with our sleep. 

Every time I post something callous or cruel or unfair, I’m saying something about what is going on inside. Whether it is anger due to bitterness, envy, spite or unbelief, every idle word I type is connected to what I am inside. Don’t get me wrong: The disinhibiting effect of online communication is real, and many of us have said things to a blank form that we would not have spoken in real life. But the sentiment is still there and Jesus sees us for who we really are, even in silence.

The next time you and I want to participate in the online Aeropagus, let us keep Proverbs 10:19 close to heart. Let us strive to be meek and clear, listening more than we speak and prayerfully seeking understanding and seasoning in our words. Most of all let us be guard our hearts against anger which “does not achieve the righteousness that God requires.” This might mean remaining silent when we really want to speak out. In the end, if we use wisdom and not just passion, our graceful words will land with much greater impact on a world in desperate need to hear.

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