Promise Keepers has a Web site, but so does Penthouse. A New Jersey pastor evangelizes a young man in Finland by E-mail exchanges, but one of the 39 Heaven's Gate suicides turns out to be a Cincinnati postal worker recruited online. The Internet is cause for both joy and concern. How should Christians view the Internet—as today's Roman roads that promise immense potential for spreading the gospel? Or as a Vanity Fair that must be bypassed?
Douglas Groothuis, assistant professor of religion and ethics at Denver Seminary, offers compelling answers and cautions in his new book, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997). He talked with Mark A. Kellner, editor of PC Portables magazine.
In your book, you warn about the danger of Internet involvement, yet you have a Web site for your work. Are you a compromised Luddite?
I set up two extremes in the book. One extreme is a digitopian—a Bill Gates who believes that machines will only enhance the economy and society. The other is the Luddite who wants to destroy machines. While machines can dehumanize us and destabilize good patterns of life, to say the answer is to destroy the technology is wrong.
At the same time, technologies are not neutral. Machines are created by humans who bear the image of God but who also live "east of Eden." As "deposed royalty" (as Pascal put it), our technologies will bear the marks of both our greatness and our sinfulness. Christians should determine how the Internet shapes the messages it conveys, where it serves us well, where it doesn't, and how to tell the difference. We must always ask if the medium is appropriate for our Christian message. How much truth can be communicated in a chat room?
How does the Internet dehumanize us?
Through lack of personal presence. An important theological question is: How disembodied should our communication be?
The Internet distributes information widely and quickly, but in a merely electronic form, which lacks the personal presence at the heart of biblical discipleship, fellowship, and worship. When cyberspace begins to replace embodied interactions, we fail to honor the incarnational nature of Christianity. We may be "connected" to people around the world through the Internet while we neglect our spouses, neighbors, and churches. This is wrong.
You write of cyberspace's "ecological effect." What do you mean by that?
This is a concept from Neil Postman, who writes that major technological innovations don't just add something new to an environment, but change the whole environment ecologically or structurally. For instance, the printing press didn't just add more books to European culture, it transformed how people acquired knowledge, how they thought, how they viewed authority, and so on.
Similarly, cyberspace technologies are having an ecological effect on the culture as a whole. When everyone gets "wired," nothing remains the same. The sensibilities that tend to be created or reinforced by cyberspace interactions—a desire for more and more immediate information, a superficial surfing mentality, an impatience with ambiguity, and so forth—will spill over into other areas of life.
One of your concerns is the way we conceive of God's Word.
I am afraid hypertext technologies—which give us the ability to rearrange texts and connect with other texts almost effortlessly—may corrode our sense of authorial intent, fixed meaning, and intellectual coherence. Some postmodernist thinkers revel in this. They claim that the intrusive authority of the author is being overthrown through these hypertext technologies. We are all authors and have the right to create our own meanings and truths. This kind of cyber-relativism re-fuses to admit any determinative and authoritative meaning—either in Scripture or anywhere else. It is really high-tech nihilism and poison to the soul.
Christians may innocently fall into this error by using Bible software in a manner that divorces Scripture from its literary genre and contextual meaning. I can run a program that gives me a host of texts on, say, "righteousness," but the program cannot present the meaning of each text in its context, nor can it give me a theology of righteousness. The ability to move around biblical texts at will and find references instantly may end up lessening our understanding of what God has communicated in the Bible. Nevertheless, if we remain rooted to God's Word as it was originally given, we may use these technologies wisely.
In what ways does the Internet challenge the Christian perspective of the person and the physical world?
Some contemporary thinkers, such as Sherry Turkle, believe that cyberspace is the perfect medium to illustrate the postmodernist view that the self is entirely constructed—that there is no given human nature and no normative self. Given the anonymity of much online communication, and the artificial environments that can be created, one can experiment with various identities, even crossing genders or assuming mythical personae in online fantasy role-playing games.
Yet, from a biblical point of view, this is deception and is unhealthy for the soul. Although Christians each express the grace of Christ individually and uniquely, there is a basic pattern of godliness laid out in Scripture and made real through the Holy Spirit. Endless experimentation with identities in cyberspace is not the way of edification or sanctification. It may well be the way of madness. We are already fragmented enough as individuals and as a culture. Cyberspace may only make this worse.
How much of a problem do you see cybersex posing for Christians?
If there's already a significant problem mostly with pornography with Christian men—as I hear from counselors and pastors—then the temptations will multiply in cyberspace because of the potential for anonymity and easier access. You're only a few points and clicks away from very hard-core pornography on the Internet. You don't have to go to the seedy side of town to buy a magazine or risk being discovered at a video store. We have to exercise a lot of self-control to avoid temptation.
I was doing research on Heaven's Gate, and I went to a newsmagazine's home page. It contained a solicitation for pornography: "Photos of women" and "Click here for a full body shot." I didn't click, but this is an example. You also receive unsolicited E-mail for pornographic photos and promiscuous chat rooms. You just have to resolve that you're not going to take the first step, and you have be careful that your kids don't get hooked into it.
In protecting our children, are you simply saying parents should be parents, or is there more that needs to be done?
I do think there's a role for the state here to criminalize the distribution of pornography, especially to minors. It may be asking too much to ask parents to control completely what is on their end. The ultimate issue, however, is not governmental restrictions or blocking programs, but instilling our children with the proper principles and a Christian world-view so kids have a biblically informed conscience. They have to learn how to say no for themselves and say yes to what's holy and what's wholesome.
Is the church as aware and savvy about cyberspace as it needs to be?
It's not even close. I think people in the church tend to slip into three categories, all of which are unacceptable. The first is just oblivion; they don't know anything about it. The second is the digitopian temptation, seeing the Internet as an unmitigated good, a way to communicate the gospel broadly without seeing the dark side. The other extreme is the Christian Luddite. I talked with a man on a call-in radio show who said the Internet is so dangerous we should have nothing to do with it.
What are practical ways Christians can make use of the Internet—would you as a professor welcome cyber-space seminaries?
There are a variety of useful Web pages—Christian and non-Christian. My wife and I have a Web page (www.gospelcom.net/ ivpress/groothuis), and I use E-mail to keep in touch with people I could not otherwise easily contact. I have profitably used the Internet to research treatments for certain rare health problems.
I would, however, fear putting seminary education entirely online, because this eliminates the uniquely and irreducibly personal element of teaching and learning. The spontaneity and serendipity of the classroom cannot be replaced by any online forum or CD-ROM technology. To think otherwise is to fall for the digitopian deception that learning is no more than information acquisition. People learn best in supportive educational communities, not sitting alone before computer screens.
By Mark A. Kellner, editor of PC Portables magazine, author of God on the Internet (IDG), and computer columnist for the Washington Times.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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