The internet is such a strange phenomenon and one we are really only beginning to understand, at least in terms of its impact on society and faith and family and just about everything else. What passes for entertainment on the internet would, at most other times in history, be regarded as shocking or wasteful or disgusting or maybe just plain absurd. Witness the web sites that offer video after video of people cracking bones doing stupid skateboard tricks. You can search YouTube for videos of people breaking bones and spend hours in senseless entertainment, guffawing at the stupidity and wincing at the pain. Or witness the sites that specialize in the macabre, displaying lineups of dead or dismembered bodies or photographic evidence of brutal accidents. Or witness the almost limitless amounts of pornography which is a contemporary form of entertainment for boys and men (and, increasingly, girls and women) of all ages. So much of the entertainment the internet offers is entertainment at its very worst. Evil has become entertainment.
I want to say a word today about watchblogs or discernment blogs or whatever you want to call them. I am referring to blogs that specialize in sharing bad news. They share stories and videos and anecdotes about Christians and churches and supposed Christians and supposed churches. Day after day they offer examples of all that is wrong in the church. They may vary what they offer a little bit, but what is true of them is that they offer a steady diet of negative content related to the church in general or perhaps related to just one person or one ministry. You know of some of these sites, I am sure.
I was thinking about such blogs a few days ago and arrived at a conclusion about them that actually rather surprised me. This is what I realized: these blogs are really little more than entertainment. And once I had these blogs filed in that way in my mind, their popularity and their draw began to make much more sense to me. They are really just a spiritualized form of YouTube or any other site that entertains by sharing what is gross and base and negative and that does so for the sake of entertainment. There is really no value in watching boys do stupid things on skateboards and laughing when they crack their ankle bones in half; there is really no value in watching the worst pastors in America preach to the worst churches in America. Such sites offer evil as entertainment.
Watchblogs offers what I think is a classic case of what Neil Postman referred to as context-free information. He once asked this: “How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?” It is worth thinking about, isn’t it? How often do you see something on the news and actually do something about it? How often is that even the remotest possibility? “Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principle legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the ‘information-action ratio.'”
That information-action ratio is what is so out-of-whack in the world of the watchblogs. They provide information about churches and Christians–information that may be important to certain people in certain contexts. After all, if I went to a church where the pastor had been involved in an outrageous scandal, I would want to know about it. But if a pastor of a church in Kalamazoo preaches a sermon in which he says something scandalous, it has no effect on my life and, beyond its draw as entertainment, I can think of few good reasons for me to even know about it. Multiply this by hundreds of new stories a week (or even just tens of stories a week) and I end up with a huge amount of negative information that stays in my head and heart, but which has no bearing on my life.
What is the problem with this? Again, Postman answers, “In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.” Telegraphy, television and other forms of electronic media have made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. We hear more news than ever which elicits more opinions than ever, but which leave us increasingly impotent, unable to do anything more than offer opinions and bluster about what we might do if we could. And I am left asking, do I really need to read and to know so much of what passes as news today? Do I really need to read and to know about the seedy underbelly of the church, when such things happen thousands of miles away, among people I will never meet and in places I will never be? Such news is plenty entertaining, but it is useless to me. It does nothing to further my faith or to cause me to grow in godliness. In fact, I suspect just the opposite may well be true. I think of Paul’s words near the close of the book of Romans where he says, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19b). He wants these Christians to invest their time studying not what is evil, but what is good. When they have confidence in all that is good, the evil will become ever-more apparent.
This is not the first or only time Paul has given this exhortation. In 1 Corinthians 14:20 he wrote “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” And in saying this he echoes the words of Jesus who exhorted His disciples and warned them of the persecution that would come, saying “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
We are to focus much more on what is good than what is evil. This is one of the lessons I sought to teach in The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. “Our efforts in discernment should revolve around knowing the truth so that we might see the evil in contrast to what is true. The reason it is better to focus on what is true is simple: error is constantly changing, shifting and morphing into new forms, always seeking to imitate what is true in new and creative ways. Truth, however, is constant. When we know what is true we will more easily be able to identify what is error.”
Filling our minds, our hearts, our computer screens, our blogs with all that is wrong in the church will do little to conform us into the image of the Savior. It can do little. My encouragement to you, whether you are a regular visitor to one of these sites or whether you simply visit them occasionally, is to examine your heart and to examine your motives. Do you visit such sites because they have information that you truly need to know? Or do you visit as a means of entertainment? Are you delighting in what is good and true and pure and lovely, or are you finding a strange, sick delight in all that is evil and ugly?