Monday, 6 March 2023

A Theology of Blocking People on Twitter. With a bit of Punk Rawk for Fun.

There are few things more absent from the Holy Scriptures, than Twitter. And it was like that, way way way before Musk showed up with a kitchen sink. But, to be fair, saying what's on your mind isn't foreign to the Bible. Just saying them on Twitter and the various and wonderful tools that come along with it. 

Tools like the block function. It seems odd that you would have a block function at all when you think about it. The purpose of the little blue bird is to let people say what's on their minds. And besides. If you don't like them, don't subscribe to them. That's a function too. So why let a person have an account if there is a chance they might be blocked by another person. Why have the megaphone if you are handing out ear muffs? But therein lies the error in our thinking. Twitter isn't just a public megaphone for all to holler through, though it is a megaphone for the public. The purpose of Twitter isn't information projection, but rather, audience curation. Twitter is a place to say something that's been on your mind and make sure you have like minds to hear it. 

You'll hear the online church crowd talk about having a pulpit in our pockets. It's a fun little metaphor, but what they get wrong is which way that pulpit is preaching. When you go to church in person you know what it looks like for the pastor to preach to the choir. Or at least what it used to mean when we had choirs. But the online church thinks that since it has a pulpit in its pocket, it's preaching to a congregation from that pulpit. Preaching to an audience that's somewhere else through the magic of the internet. But it's not. At least not just. It's preaching to itself also. And this is what Twitter is all about, and why there is a block function. 

So here's a first crack at having a theology about blocking people. With a bit of punk rawk for fun.

Because everything on the web requires active or passive searching, there are no passers-by on the internet. Online, you do not have a congregation made of members and, at the very least possibly, new people. What you have is people who were already going to be there or were already looking to get there. Subscriptions and search terms if you will. Except there is no "there" to get to. Their "there" is actually just "they". All by themselves looking for preaching that they want to hear because they already agree with what's being preached.

This church metaphor is a bit sloppy but stick with me.

That's not the kind of preaching that happened before we decided church could exist online arbitrarily. When you when to a church you heard what the pastor wanted to preach. You could leave and find another church but the same problem would be there too. You were either disciplined by that sermon or you were at odds with it. You had no choice in the content of the sermon before the sermon started, and the pastor had no real control over the congregation unless he wanted to limit who could come to church in the first place.

Things like Twitter, reverse this dynamic like a mirror. Exactly like a mirror to be sure.

On Twitter, those with something to say are only found by people who already want to find them because of what they say. They can tag along in the comments but unless someone likes the meme they post under another person's tweet, what happens on Twitter is pre-selection of content not a proliferation of content. The role of Twitter is to get a one-sided view of the things you want to see. The kind of view a pulpit gives a pastor who wants to see his congregation. To be able to say what you want and receive responses you want for that speech. Because every pastor does that. They want their sermon to affect their congregation, the same way we want to be affected by the people we follow on Twitter. The pulpit turns around and the megaphone becomes deafening to the reality that actually exists in the world. You don't subscribe to a church you are a member of, you attend. You don't seek out the voice and content of a pastor, you submit to his leadership and spiritual gift of teaching. It's a fundamentally Christian relationship and that's the rub we feel when Christians collide online. Because online Christian anything it's not a fundamentally Christian relationship. It's a technologically Christian relationship. 

This is what happens when the lens of what "can be online" gets viewed as a place. We simply switch perspectives as if we are in a room we never paid the rent for. And for the most part, this works, when it works, because it has no reason not to work. Until it stops working, we take the stated nature of online spaces and try to treat them like what we say they are. Digital spaces. But that's not what they are. 

They're digital things.

When you post something theological on Twitter you enter into a "space" where all you can do is provide a preselection of content like that which you have posted. But take one small step outside that worldview and you see that there are what would have been debated in the real world. Trapped to one side of a pulpit we curate, those theological posts seem perfectly in place. But when the congregation realizes what's up, the problems start to show up with them.

The problem with preaching to the choir from your pocket pulpit is that the choir is on the stage too and can drown you out in an instant. They are louder in a group than your single microphone will ever be and are well-practiced at all saying the same thing. Which is only a problem if the guy behind the pulpit wanted to use the stage to say bad things about the choir currently singing over him.

All of a sudden the choir is blocked by the pulpit and its preacher. It's no longer on his stage. Still on a stage to be sure, but not his. The choir gets blocked for interrupting the preacher, for singing a tune that distracts the pastor's congregation from the sermon he wanted to preach. The choir retains their congregation via their stage, and the pastor his. By curating the audience everyone gets a congregation that wants to be there and that they want to be there. 

The block button becomes a personal denomination. Making sure what a baptist thinks and what a reformed baptist thinks don't have to mingle as if they belonged to the same body of Christ.

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

1 Corinthians 12:15-26 English Standard Version

The block button can only divide this church when it's used for individuals and not for the group. Because it's not about how Twitter is used for hosting online worship services, because it really doesn't do that. 

When a pastor blocks a model on Twitter, whose sole source of content is the exposure of her body for the sexual attention of men, he maintains control of the digital pulpit and also the digital pew. Used against active sin, the block button becomes a rod to protect a flock and the shepherd from the wolf instead of a barn to hide both in. This is still very much part of the audience curation feature of Twitter. If there were a button that could ban every Twitter account from Twitter that posted porn, why wouldn't a pastor push it? 

But we know what the Bible says about things like porn posting Twitter accounts, even when the bible doesn't mention Twitter or things like Twitter. We take the principles of righteous living and apply them. Easy peasy. But the Bible has plenty to say about unity between Christians too.

You do not get to have a platform that can host all the Christians without the same troubles that got us into denominationalism in the first place. And the block feature knows this. That's why it exists. To separate people. But Christians aren't meant to be separate from one another, are we? We're supposed to be in conflict. 

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17 English Standard Version

The romantic notions of personal discipleship and healthy dialogue go out the window with Christian Twitter. Not because the place is filled with sinners, which it is, but because it's filled with saved sinners. Before anything like Twitter existed, you did the same back-and-forth debating, now quite cowardly called trolling, in person with your pastor or bible study group. To leave that group over theological differences that you thought were heretical meant effectively saying to the hand, this foot doesn't need you.

Now make that body of Christian unity something where a single Twitter account leaving, is like losing a hair, or since we're blocking things, covering up a pimple. That's the scale of having as many Christians together in a place that's still sinful, this world. The sinful place isn't Twitter, Twitter is a thing remember not a place. 

Christian Twitter isn't the sit-down coffee-fueled discipleship class your group's pastor holds in their four-level spit suburban house. It's a theological mosh pit. Blink182 best put this concept in a line from their song "Parking lot" and I quote "10 bucks to get into a fight you can't win." Though, apparently, Elon thinks that $8.00 gets you your cover charge for a blue check mark.

That violence and passion and pain and grind of the mosh pit is a feature, not a bug. And I would argue it's a feature Christians need to take seriously or not take at all. You don't get to be an honest Christian on Twitter while you block other Christians for a second-tier theological disagreement. There are no denominations online just believers trying to figure it all out. So when you block Beth Moore because you think women can't be pastors and they block you back for being toxically masculine, both of you are trying to amputate the other digitally and will enjoy the pleasant surprise of who greets who in heaven. 

This isn't a plea for theological homogeneity, it's a plea for iron to sharpen iron when two or more pieces of iron are present. There will be no catechism of online Christianity to inform us when to block what we would call a heretic because they stopped being Christian. Or what terms we've just decided aren't Christian because we've said so with enough followers or re-tweets. That's because a singular worldview and theology isn't the point of Twitter, the point is to give everyone a chance to hop in and connect with people via their posts. The more naive of us saw the excitement and thought it was just fun and not fun mixed with said connecting. Like the way, a body hits you in the fray of a good punk concert. Or in other words, don't jump off the stage you set up if you don't know what jumping in entails. 

There are no Christian trolls on the internet because trolls are fictional and the internet is not a place they could live in anyway. Its the philosophically stained floor of a dive bar, where MXPX is playing "The Darkest Places"--- (Lyrics here for the uninitiated)

Do yourself a favour and listen to that one before you block someone from Big Eva, or a Theobro who likes J-Mac more than being winsome.

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