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Ultra-Orthodox Jews take in the view from Citi Field at a meeting to discuss the risks of using the Internet on May 20, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City.
The Mets might not be selling out Citi Field, but the Orthodox Jews did. Just a few days ago, more than 40,000 Orthodox Jewish men and boys filled the stadium for a gathering intended to consider the dangers of the Internet – dangers to their souls.
That gathering is just one indicator of the concerns many people have about the Internet. Like the Orthodox Jews at Citi Field, most evangelical Christians see real and present dangers on the Internet, ranging from pornography to a loss of authentic communication and human relatedness. Thanks to the Internet, a toxic dump of pornography is just a click away, destroying lives and souls. Even for those who resist and escape pornography, the Internet has tempted many people to substitute online relationships and conversations for the old fashioned kind – face-to-face.
The Internet offers endless chatter and distraction. It sometimes seems that the entire population is suffering from a shared case of attention deficit syndrome. On the Web, irresponsible voices are just as accessible as trustworthy voices. Often, it seems that the voices of reason and truth are drowned out by the swarm of the reckless, the vulgar, and the ridiculous.
At the same time, the Internet has been one of the greatest gifts to the church, offering unprecedented opportunities to communicate, share content, establish contact, and deliver our message.
How can the Internet be both bane and blessing? In truth, virtually every technology offers the same mix of blessing and curse. The Internet offers great gifts, but it also threatens with its dangers. The same could be said of television, radio, and the printing press.
In any event, the Internet is now a fact – one of the most significant realities of our times. Christians have learned to use the Internet to deliver content on a global scale. The Bible can now be read online, even as sermons, messages, and other Christian content is available everywhere and all the time. The Internet allows the Christian message to penetrate where it has never been heard before and to overcome political barriers – even the Great “Firewall” of China.
Still, there are huge concerns. The dark side of the Internet has facilitated the retreat of some people into a virtual world, leaving the real world behind. Some even participate in so-called “digital churches,” but Christians need the fellowship and accountability that can only be found in the local church. Christians can learn much from on-line preachers, but we need to hear sermons preached by flesh-and-blood preachers in the real-time experience of Christian worship.
As the late French theologian-philosopher Jacques Ellul would remind us, every technology comes with its own imperatives. Teenagers now feel guilty if they are not constantly connected to friends. Increasingly, their parents feel the same guilt. The Internet can produce a radical sense of information overload and mental distraction, harming our ability to read, to listen, and to reflect.
The Internet is not the enemy of faith. It is, however, one of the most significant technological and social developments in human history. To most younger people, a church without a Web address simply does not exist. As a Christian leader, I invest a great deal of my time and energy on the Internet, producing content, delivering a message, engaging in discussion, and observing the cultural conversation.
The Internet is now the first and most immediate source of news, the most accessible form of information, and the most efficient way of reaching people. To be absent from the Internet is to be absent from many of the most important conversations and debates of our times.
Of course, the dark side is always close at hand. Christians have known for 2,000 years that we are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” The same holds true for the Internet. There is no way to avoid the Internet and remain relevant to the cultural conversation. And yet, a digital preacher is not going to preach your funeral, nor visit you in the hospital.
The online world turns out to be much like the world we knew before the Internet – a world of great blessings and grave dangers. Acknowledging this dual reality is a first step toward achieving digital sanity.
I fully sympathize with those Orthodox Jews who assembled in City Field to consider the dangers of the Internet. They are right to be concerned that the Internet can do grave damage to our souls. But, even as we know this, we need also to know that the gathering in City Field was streamed on the Internet so that people could watch at home. We need the Internet to facilitate our discussions of the Internet’s dangers. That just about says it all.
You might say that Christians are called to be on the Internet, but not of it. As a matter of fact, you are probably reading this on the Internet. Thanks for reading. Case closed.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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