Books often arrive in topical waves as an event or emphasis within the church or within wider society sparks many writers to address a common concern. This is the case right now with a whole crop of new books that have significant thematic overlap: Scott Saul’s A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us Against Them, Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers , Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage and Ben Sasse’s Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How To Heal. New to the field is Daniel Darling’s A Way with Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good . It is a[nother] book that is meant to address the incivility that has become one of the defining attributes of our modern age and, sadly, even the contemporary church. His particular focus is the incivility of our online discourse and his encouragement to use these high-tech tools for good instead of evil, to use them to pursue unity instead of division. It’s a timely and much-needed book.
He begins with a brief examination of the power of words. Made to speak words that are as perfect and undefiled as the God who created humanity and gave us the ability to communicate, our fall into sin twisted our hearts which then twisted our tongues. Both death and life are in the power of the tongue and we often use our words to do great harm. This reality extends a warning to all human beings, but perhaps especially those of us who live in this age of instant access to worldwide communications. “If Solomon saw fit to warn the people of God in the Old Testament of the power of words, and if James saw fit to warn the early church of the power of words, how much more today should God’s people heed what God is speaking to us about how we speak? We live in a world with a vast and seemingly unlimited economy of words. There are more ways to communicate today than at any time in human history.” The particular concern of Darling’s book is not first the technologies that enable such communication, but rather “asking questions about the way we conduct ourselves in this new reality, the way we behave online. The internet is not going away anytime soon. Platforms may change, but the call for Christians to steward their words well is the same as it was in the beginning. May we see a kind of revolution of kindness, so that we may pray with Paul, ‘Let our speech always be gracious’ (Col. 4:6).”
Each of the book’s chapters addresses one of the major challenges of online communications: listening carefully and responding wisely (i.e. slowly); loving what is good and pure rather than what is shocking and scandalous; faithfully stewarding influence; using social media to present an idealized and inauthentic version of ourselves; the urgent need for humility to counter virtue-signaling; resisting conspiracy theories and refusing to spread rumors and lies; living at peace with others; pursuing authentic real-world relationships rather than allowing them to be displaced by online relationships. A final chapter focuses briefly on the innumerable ways the internet can be used for good, if only we will stop using it for evil.
Even this brief overview should be enough to make it clear to all of us that A Way with Words is a much-needed book. It’s no doubt easy enough to think of all the other people who need to read it, but some self-reflection should show that all of us will benefit from considering the ways we speak and, particularly, the ways we communicate online. Certainly none of us have perfectly arrived here. Yet at the same time we can hope that it finds its way into the hands of those who cause such great harm to others through their careless or full-out malicious blogs, tweets, videos, and podcasts.
Among the most intimidating words Jesus ever spoke are these: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak…” Each one of us is responsible for our every word. In an age of ubiquitous and lightning-fast communication, we need to hear and heed this warning like never before, and for that reason, I’m thankful for Daniel Darling’s call for both responsibility and civility in every word we speak—not to mention every word we write, blog, or tweet.