by Rachel Bomberger
Throughout my work on the January issue of The Lutheran Witness (“Digital Technology and the Church”) one question continued to nag at me:
Is the internet ultimately good, bad or neutral for Christians?
(By “internet” here, I am referring generally to screen-based social interaction, entertainment and ecommerce — all of which have become so closely interrelated in recent years that it seems impossible to draw clear distinctions between them.)
For weeks, I chatted about this “good, bad or neutral?” question with my family, my friends, my coworkers — really, anyone who seemed remotely interested — but I’m not sure I ever came to any clear resolution.
Some have told me that the internet is mostly good — a gift of God that can help us poor humans better build and maintain relationships, especially over long distances.
I can see and understand this point of view. Thanks to the internet, I can easily connect with online communities of like-minded believers. With just a couple of clicks, I can find and order quality Christian books, products and resources that might never be available in my local stores or libraries. I can instantly send prayer requests to my sisters in Michigan, share photos and news with my in-laws in Oregon, offer encouragement to a grade-school classmate in Maryland and be blessed by sermons preached hundreds of miles away.
Then again, others have told me that the internet is mostly bad, and I can sympathize with this perspective, too.
Thanks to the internet, I can waste untold hours (time that might otherwise be spent serving my neighbor or in the Word) scrolling through mindless clickbait content. I can devote more attention to cyber-gossip half a world away than I do to real needs right outside my door. I can (and to my shame, I do) take voyeuristic pleasure in gobbling up the flame wars that pass for civil discourse. I can watch, say, do or buy just about anything I want, whenever I want, in complete privacy and anonymity, without one ounce of accountability whatsoever — and if I’m honest, “whatever I want” usually isn’t all that edifying.
Still others have told me that the internet isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s a neutral tool, they say — an abstract construct devoid of any inherent spiritual or moral significance. It’s only what we do with it that matters.
Calling the internet “neutral,” though, seems like the easy way out to me. A little too easy, perhaps: an argument born in cowardice or denial, made by someone who would very much like the conversation to wrap up quickly so they can get back to binge-watching Netflix, untroubled by such pesky moral dilemmas.
“Food will not commend us to God,” I’ve heard those supporting this neutral position contend, as they quote the Apostle Paul in his discourse on consuming meat sacrificed to idols. “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:8-9).
Internet use is thus a matter of Christian liberty, these folks on “team neutral” tell me.
Others on “team good” chime in, arguing that Christians have almost a moral duty to spend large chunks of time on the internet.
“I have become all things to all people,” these folks say, quoting Paul again, “that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:19, 22).
Everyone we know is on social media, they argue, so that’s where Christians ought to be, too — posting inspirational Instagram selfies and demonstrating to all their friends and followers that they, too, can find theological meaning in the latest season of Game of Thrones.
Sadly, though, at the end of the day, I can find no passage of Scripture that offers clear and explicit guidance for how Christians are to use the internet. (Wouldn’t this conversation be so much simpler if only there were?)
If we are going to try to use Scripture to help us tackle this thorny question, however, here’s one other passage that may bear considering:
“Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. … Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16-20).
This passage admittedly isn’t talking about the internet. It’s talking about false teachers. Yet considering how spiritually formative online content can be (and routinely is) — and that those who moderate our online experiences for us have immense power to shape public thinking — applying Jesus’s words in this way may not be as big a stretch as one might think.
Unfortunately, when I think about my screen-junkie habits in light of these verses, I am led to wonder whether the internet may actually, on the whole, be more bad than good. Why do I say this? Just look at the fruit! For every sweet grape of Christian charity or Gospel proclamation I find online, I see dozens of dusty, dried up raisins — raisins of discord and discontent, vanity and violence, profanity, pornography and even outright blasphemy. No matter how good my intentions are when I log on each time, I always find that it takes a lot of effort to use the internet in a way that truly glorifies God.
What, then, is a Christian to do? The internet is a minefield of temptation and debauchery — that seems obvious. Smut abounds. Some social media developers now even admit that programs like Facebook were intentionally created to exploit weaknesses in the human psyche.
Yet even so, should Christians not press every communications tool at our disposal into service for the sake of the Gospel? Should we not seek to to avoid the bad, enjoy the good and shine the light of Christ into every dark corner of the web?
Or should we instead practice greater discernment and more careful discipline in our use of digital technologies? Should we move to limit our online activities altogether and focus instead on real-world relationships and experiences — remembering always that we worship a God of flesh and blood, not of bytes and data?
In short: Should we as Christians engage more online? Or less?
I’m asking these questions honestly and earnestly, because despite all my conversations (and they have been many), I’m still not sure I’ve found satisfying theological answers to them.
One thing I do feel certain of is this: whatever the answers to these questions do turn out to be, they will have profound implications for the life of the Church.
So I put the question to you, internet — good, bad or neutral?
Rachel Bomberger is managing editor for The Lutheran Witness.