Social Media Is Ruining Theologians

By Bob Hiller

I was a great basketball player when I was younger. I was famous for hitting clutch shots when the clock was running out. I could make incredible behind-the-back layups, making my opponents look like fools. Michael Jordan would have been jealous of my fall-away jumper. I was basically unstoppable.

Well, “unstoppable” until I started playing with other people. It turns out I wasn’t that great. Watching highlight reels and attempting to copy amazing players, hours and hours spent playing basketball by myself in my driveway, envisioning myself as the next Magic Johnson while falling asleep at night, none of it was enough to help me make me very good. The proof was when I was cut from my high school JV squad. I’ll never forget what the coach said to me when he called me into the office to tell me I had been cut: “Shooting free throws alone in your driveway isn’t going to be enough. You need to go down to the local YMCA or find some pick-up games at the park if you want to learn how to be better. Real competition is what is going to make you better.” All that time spent by myself wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to play the real thing.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the nature of our theological dialogue in the sink-hole of social media. The way “discussions” take place, the way assertions are assumed to be right simply because they are made, and an overabundance of ad hominem attacks all mix together to create one putrid cocktail that we all can’t seem to stop drinking. The more time I spend on social media, the more I am convinced that Facebook and Twitter are making us (and I certainly include myself in this accusation) into worse theologians. Social media is ruining theologians. (Actually, I am convinced that social media is making us into worse people, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog).

Doing theology on social media is a lot like me taking solo shots in my driveway and thinking that was going to make me an NBA great. Anything I was accomplishing was really just in my head. There was no real game, no real opponents, no real teammates. It was just me. On social media, we make ourselves out to be accomplishing great things by correcting this post or schooling that theologian’s weaknesses and sins. In our minds, we are Augustine conquering Pelagius, when in reality, we are just sitting behind our computer screens and not really doing anything to help the Church or serve our neighbor. Instead, we’re just reacting against whatever causes us a momentary sense of outrage. We look great in our own eyes, but so did I in my driveway.

Becoming better theologians doesn’t happen by posting snarky insults and proving our own theological prowess. As John Kleinig (channeling Luther) points out in his marvelous journal article Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: What Makes a Theologian, “A theologian is not made by ‘understanding, reading, or speculating, [let alone Tweeting…ha!],’ but by “living, no rather by dying and being damned.’” (256) What Kleinig (and Luther) are getting at is that the forming of a theologian “involves the interplay between three powers, the Holy Spirit, God’s word, and Satan” (257). Theologians are formed as the Holy Spirit delivers the Word of God in the Divine Service, as they chew on that Word in prayerful meditation, and as the devil attacks in all his wicked ways. It’s the Holy Spirit working on the Christian by means of the Word that forms theologians. The devil attacks the Christian, which only serves to drive the Christian back to the Word for more work by the Spirit.

Better theologians are formed and shaped, not by self-aggrandizement, social media, or nit-picking, but by receiving God’s Word. They are formed when attacked by the Law and redeemed by the Gospel in worship on Sunday morning. Receiving the body and blood in the bread and wine, receiving the absolution on the lips of another, this is where theology begins. Then, meditating on that Word with brothers and sisters in the faith, wrestling against your sins, praying against the devil, and “singing, saying, and praying the Psalter” (257) are all used by the Holy Spirit to slay the old Adam and raise us as new men and women in Christ. And, we do this together, as a church, in the body for God is at work through the mutual conversation and consolation of our brothers and sisters. We don’t become theologians alone on the internet. We need to get down to the gym and get in the game with others. There the Spirit drives us to Christ, teaches us to pray, and shows us how to love.

Next time you sit down to react against this week’s social media heretic (or before you react against my ham-fisted, driveway basketball analogy), ask yourself: Have I prayed for this person I’m about to shame? Is my response formed by the liturgy I received on Sunday, or am I just emoting to make myself feel better? Will this post actually save the Church, or could my time be better spent memorizing Psalm 119 and praying for the sick and homebound? (Hey, maybe you should get off the internet and go pray for the sick and homebound!) Am I loving my neighbor, or am I just a noisy gong and clanging symbol? What sort of theologian does participating in this media make me? Maybe we need to spend less time playing alone in the driveway and get down to the local congregation to study and pray with the saints who are in the game.