Ed: Why did you write this book? What inspired you to write this book?
Daniel: I wrote this book for a few reasons. First, as someone who has been working with words my whole life, it just seemed natural to write about the shape of our words. Second, it strikes me that we pay too little attention to the way we use words in public, especially online.
The Bible talks a lot about the words we use. And it strikes me that Christians often (correctly) prioritize getting the truth right, but pay little attention to the way we communicate. It is as if being right is the only thing that matters. Scripture is pretty clear that the people of God should be distinguished by the way we speak. This is especially important for the way we speak online, where it is so easy to let our opinions or our anger get ahead of our faith.
I also think that the internet is here to stay as a regular fixture in our lives. We won’t go back to a world where there is no Twitter and no Instagram and no Facebook. We just won’t. So the question is: How do we live in this world? How do we steward our time online? How do we represent Christ online?
Ed: For whom did you write this book?
Daniel: I wrote this book for ordinary Christians who are genuinely wondering about how to think about our online engagement. I wrote it for pastors and church leaders who are trying to lead well with their online engagement. And I wrote it for those seeking, who wonder if there is a distinctly different way to engage online.
Ed: What are Christians’ biggest challenges in navigating the digital world with grace?
Daniel: I think the biggest challenge Christians face online is the temptation to forget we are Christians when we are online. We have this sense that if we are championing the right causes or we are communicating truth, it doesn’t really matter how we speak. In some quarters, the tougher and meaner you sound, the more you appear to be “fighting for truth.” But the Bible is concerned not just with what we say, but how we say it.
First Peter 3:15 reminds us that we should be both courageous and civil. We should “have an answer for the hope that lies within you,” and we should speak with “gentleness and kindness.” We have this mistaken idea that courage and civility are incompatible. But they are not enemies; they are friends. The loudest person in the room isn’t the most courageous, and the nastiest person online isn’t necessarily the toughest.
Lastly, we are tempted to sort ourselves into tribal categories, joining groups so we can collectively hate the other. But we should be people who resist elevating tribal identity above our identity as a citizen of the kingdom of God.
Ed: What are Christians’ greatest opportunities as we participate in the digital world through a biblical lens?
Daniel: I think the internet provides us with great opportunities to communicate the beauty of the gospel to the world. I think of the ways that during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, the church was not able to meet in person but was able to gather online. I’m hearing so many stories of unbelievers turning into live-streams and reading Christian content that they may have never explored. Just like in every age, we can harness today’s innovations to obey the Great Commission and Great Commandment.
I think there is also a great opportunity to show the world a distinctly Christian way of seeing the world and a distinctly Christian way of communicating truth. Even as we stand up for the vulnerable and speak out against injustice, we can do it in a way that respects and views others as image-bearers of the Almighty and doesn’t demonize those with whom we disagree, nor tries to see other people online as mere avatars to be crushed.
Ed: Why is this an important topic right now?
Daniel: This is especially important this unusual year where we have both the pandemic and a divisive national election.
First, the pandemic has centered our concern, worry, and fear in one spot at a time unlike anyone in our generation has ever experienced. In many ways this crisis has brought people together in awe-inspiring ways, as social media live-streaming and our digital world have helped us get through this.
Yet we’ve also seen a kind of incivility, anger and disagreement as we’ve navigated this crisis, including spreading false information, shaming people who might not have socially distanced as well as others and a kind of unhelpful back-and-forth blame game. Unfortunately, Christians have been drawn into some of these fights.
This topic is also important in this moment because we are in the midst of a brutal national election. Christians are on all sides, in both parties, and some are with no party at all. Politics are important as we seek to love our neighbor by participating in shaping the society in which our neighbor will live. Yet it can be all-consuming as we rush to our sides and engage in unhelpful ways.
Hopefully this book will give some parameters and guidelines to help us speak out and engage, but do it in a distinctly Christian way. I think it’s important for Christians to be engaged in the political process and even advocate for issues and candidates, but we should always remember that we are first citizens of the kingdom of God, so our faith should shape the way we speak online about politics rather than our politics shaping the way we speak.
Ed: Talk about responsible journalism vs. “fake news” and how Christians should respond to the issue.
Daniel: It is so important for Christians to get their news from responsible news sources and a variety of perspectives. We too often let our biases color our view of what is true. We should support and follow news sources that do good, solid reporting. After all, Christians are in pursuit of what is true (Philippians 4:8).
We should also resist spreading, believing and sharing stories that are half-truths from questionable places. I’m amazed at how often Christians will believe and spread content from places that exist to tear down other Christians. There is a tabloid journalism that seeks to find new and salacious information about Christian leaders. Spreading lies and half-truths is not just “going too far”; it’s a sin and we should resist it. Discernment is vital. Discernment blogs are quite often something different, trafficking in half-truths and sensationalism.
At the same time we should not be afraid of good journalism, even if it shines a light on the faults of our own institutions or if it makes our preferred political leaders look bad. Truth and transparency are important for Christians. Sometimes we have a tendency to label news that makes our tribe look bad as “fake news.” We should resist that tendency.
Ed: Talk about what the Bible says about our speech and how that relates to the way we use social media.
Daniel: I’m amazed at how often the Bible talks about speech. In many ways, the Christian story is a story about words. The Bible opens up with a God who speaks and Jesus is described by John as the “logos,” the “Word” of God and by the author of Hebrews as the way God has chosen to speak to us in these times.
What’s more, we meet God by reading the Bible, God’s written, inspired, inerrant Word. We are communicating, speaking beings because we image a communicating, speaking Creator. What separates us from the rest of Creation, in part, is the fact that we communicate in words and sentences. Apes might be able to learn some rudimentary hand signals, and parrots may be able to mimic their owner’s words at times, but the rest of the creation isn’t writing books and making speeches. This is a distinctly human thing as a reflection of a speaking God.
So if speaking and words are so integral to the Christian story, then it makes sense that God would care about the shape of our words. And over and over again on the pages of Scripture we see large chunks devoted not just to what we say—truth and beauty—but how we say it.
The psalmist asks that the words of his mouth glorify God (Psalm 19:14), and the Proverbs are overrun with admonitions to wise and gentle and truthful speech. In the New Testament, we see over and over again exhortations toward Christlike speech (Colossians 4:6; Ephesians 4:29; James 3). A redeemed people should demonstrate redemptive speech.
Ed: What is your goal for this book? What do you hope readers glean from it?
Daniel: I have three goals really. I’d love for readers first to come away with an appreciation for words and speech and the way God can use them in our online interactions. It’s not a coincidence that God has placed us in this moment, where communication is so easy and so public. So we should be stewarding these opportunities well, speaking truth, beauty and grace into the world through our social media platforms.
Second, I pray this helps Christians understand that courage and civility are not at odds; we can be bold truth-tellers, advocates for the vulnerable and unflinching gospel warriors while also being civil, kind and gracious. The gospel demands we do both.
Lastly, I pray this helps us get underneath the reasons we sometimes behave the way we do online by asking ourselves penetrating questions. Why do we post words and images? What are we trying to do? And can we find our satisfaction and joy in our status as children of God, accepted and beloved in Christ and reject the urge to project a version of ourselves on the screen that we think will bring us acceptance?