Shelter in the Shame Storm

We who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers embedded in the technology we put in our pockets.

Helen Andrews’s essay on online shaming, featuring in the forthcoming January issue of First Things, is the kind of piece that can genuinely change readers. It is a stunningly powerful meditation that is simultaneously personal and sweeping. I can’t even choose a passage to excerpt without feeling like I’m under-representing the quality of writing, so please; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go read Helen’s essay.

I’ve been trying to figure out why, beyond the exceptional literary beauty on display in the writing, this essay has left such a strong impression on me. Perhaps one reason is that more and more of my thinking and writing has been taken up with trying to understand what technology, especially social media, is doing to me and my generation. I know some friends roll their eyes whenever they read another sentence like that one, but I wonder if they roll their eyes only because they haven’t allowed themselves to really listen to what’s going on—which, ironically, is one of the most aggressive symptoms of the social media contagion. There are probably only two kinds of people whose online habits aren’t at least challenged by phenomenons like online shaming: the people who stop reading essays like Helen’s because they don’t want them to be challenged, or the people for whom online shaming is not a problem but a bonus. Four years ago I would have said the latter group didn’t exist. Four years and too much time on Twitter later, I know for a fact it does.

This is a point Helen brings up to devastating effect. “The more online shame cycles you observe,” she writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.” In other words, people Twitter-shame not (ultimately) because they feel duty-bound to, but because they want to, because doing so is pleasurable and brings, however fleeting, satisfaction.

Not long ago it was common to hear that the internet doesn’t really “form” us, it simply removes analog inhibitions and frees up the true self. There’s probably some truth there, but all it takes is a little digital presence to quickly realize just how easy it is to become something online that bears little or no resemblance to your life offscreen. Put another way: If the tech is neutral and the only problem are the preexisting moral conditions of the users, online mobs should only be constituted of noxious people going after truly innocent targets. Alas, that’s not what happens.

At some point people like me who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers that are embedded into the technology we put in our pocket. We’re going to have to determine to understand (a dangerous resolution!) how and why it is that the avatar-ization of our thoughts and names creates on-ramps in our hearts for delighting in the suffering of people whose only crime is disagreeing with us, or being friends with somebody who does. Why does mitigating our experience of the world through screens push us toward cruelty and resentment? Is it because we’re bored? Because our dopamine receptors are so calloused by notifications and we need a bigger hit? Is it because we are created to feel the very things social media is designed to prevent us from feeling? And after all these questions: Why is it that the fear of losing “connection” or “platform” is so strong that we shrug, pray for our broken world, and then check Instagram again?

I’ll confess to living out my own anathemas. As I was reading through Helen’s piece the first time, I stopped halfway and went immediately to YouTube to look up the fateful clip she describes. It was an eminently forgivable curiosity; how many of us can read an essay about such a moment without wondering where we can access it? So I watched the clip, then resumed Helen’s essay. And then a funny thing happened. I went back to the clip and watched it again, and then another time. Even right after reading about the man who grabs his phone and unwittingly invites Helen’s now-husband to watch a moment of profound humiliation, and wagging my head at such a clueless guy, here I was, basking in someone’s lowest public moment, because I found the “cringeworthiness”….well, what did I find it? Entertaining? Funny? Educational? To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know why I watched that video 3 times. But I did all the same.

Let’s say that YouTube didn’t exist, and that the only way such footage was accessible to me was through an exhaustive combing of C-SPAN files. Would I have made the effort to watch it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think the better question is whether, in a world where YouTube didn’t exist, and there wasn’t a multi-million dollar sub-industry that feasted on attention spans with “content,” there would have even been an extant clip to find. Perhaps one reason I went looking for the clip was that I knew I would find it. Perhaps another reason was that I had never stopped myself from viewing someone’s lowest professional moment before; why stop now? I don’t dislike Helen, and my guess is that we would agree on 98% of important matters. I didn’t relish her embarrassment while reading her testimony. I wasn’t piling-on. I just…watched.

I’m not sure where the shelter is from the shame storm. Today it feels as if anybody who has ever written or done anything in public is liable to be ridden out of civilization on a rail (or thread). But I’m hopeful that the same offline existence that can relieve anxiety and heal relationships can also re-calibrate our desires so as not to crave the saltiness of shame. Lord, grant me serenity to accept the Tweets I cannot change, the courage to log off, and the wisdom to know which comes first.

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When Re-Conversion Is Easier Than Repentance

Many evangelical church cultures make it safer to deny last year’s Christianity than to admit you are a struggling believer.

Let me tell you a familiar story from my days in evangelical youth ministry.

A teenager with roots in the church would make semi-regular appearances throughout the year, be respectful during Bible study/church, but otherwise seem non-cognizant of Christianity the rest of the year. Then one year, the teenager goes with the youth group on a week-long “mission trip” to a Christian camp. At one point during the week, the teenager has an emotional (possibly tearful) experience and tells their youth leader they need to be truly saved. This joyous announcement follows the teenager home where she stands in front of the whole congregation a couple Sundays later and shares her story of “realizing for the first time” that she “actually needed Jesus in her life.”

Fast forward 12 months or so. Around winter the teenager had largely dropped out of the Bible studies and fellowship nights she had been regularly attending. Everyone knows this teen is a Christian—they were there at the camp—but nobody really knows where she’s been for the past few months.

Now the youth group is taking another week-long summer trip, and she’s coming too. And just like last year, at some point in the week, she gets emotional about Jesus. Also like last year, she asks to talk to her youth minister, and yet again like last year, she comes to realize that she wasn’t “really” a Christian after all. Through tears and hugs she announces her newfound authentic faith, and again brings her testimony home to the church. But like last time, summer doesn’t last forever. By February people are asking where she’s been, and some are already becoming cynical: “Just wait til she gets saved this summer.”

***

In my evangelical church experience, “re-conversions” were as common as conversions, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged church events, such as youth camps, revivals, etc, would almost always be the occasion for a re-conversion. Sometimes the re-conversion seemed less than authentic, but sometimes it stuck, too. At one point in my life these occasions became so common that we looked forward to the annual church camp trip simply because the trip represented a high point for the youth group that we knew wasn’t going to be repeated or even sustained throughout the year.

No matter who it was that “re-converted” at a given summer, those of us in the group generally knew what had been going on for this person. They liked church, liked their Christian friends, and enjoyed studying the Bible, but for whatever reason the person they were at youth group was not the same person they were at school, work, or online. In a lot of cases we even knew the sins our friend was confessing to the youth minister in the corner. We didn’t know why last year’s trip didn’t stick. We only knew to pray that this one would.

Looking back, youth camp trips were the practical expression of our muddled Southern Baptist ideas about “once saved, always saved.” We believed that. We also believed each tear that fell from the usual suspects each summer. If we sensed a tension between our group’s annual ritual of “really getting saved” and what we said we believed about not losing one’s salvation, we didn’t lose sleep over it. After all, one can be genuinely mistaken about their own soul, and that more than once. Right?

But here’s what has bothered me for a while now. I’m beginning to think that the summer re-conversion ritual said more about our church culture than it said about the tearful teens. I’m beginning to think that the church camp re-conversions were really about how insecure, ashamed teenagers felt safer in the group denying last year’s Christianity than admitting that they were believers who were struggling. Confessing you were a bad Christian last year was a significant social risk that could be met with suspicion and shaming. Confessing that you weren’t actually a Christian at all, but you are now, was just good news.

I’m not saying that these friends were definitely Christians or were definitely not. I don’t know that and I’m glad I don’t know. But as I’ve encountered more evangelical culture as an adult, I’ve seen and heard enough to convince me that many church-going evangelicals have a far more vibrant theology of “getting saved” than they have of ongoing repentance in the life of a believer. Evangelicalism’s mentality seems to be that “repentance” is what non-Christians do when the Holy Spirit tells them they’ve been living a phony life. What do Christians do when they’re convicted of sin? Well, we’re not really sure, because we’re not really sure what to think of Christians and sin.

Re-conversion offers many evangelicals the emotional catharsis of acknowledging sin without the social shaming or awkwardness that comes when people who claim to be Christians acknowledge sin. If you weren’t really a Christian but you are now, wonderful! Enter into our joy. But if you actually are a Christian and you have to talk about sin that you’re not entirely sure how to address, well, how close should we stand next to you? How contagious is it?

Perhaps what was happening every summer is that teens who really did have a sensitive heart toward Christ and the church were just utterly confused as to what being a Christian meant for people like them…people who wanted to be liked by the coolest kids in school, people who wanted to be invited to the best things, people who actually had a life beyond Bible studies. They knew intuitively something was off between the Sunday morning testimony in July and the missed gatherings and neglected devotions in February, but they didn’t know why it was off. They just knew they felt differently during those church trips. What was it they felt? The Holy Spirit, which is what they’ve been told shows up when we’re about to repen…erm, get saved.

One of biggest tragedies of evangelical spirituality is that we’ve neglected the Bible’s tender, compassionate words to Christians. We’ve reduced Christian practice to avoiding the non-respectable sins and presenting the gospel to sinful unbelievers, trying to get them to convert and leave all that sin behind. But we’ve missed so much of the immense patience, lovingkindness, mercy, and encouragement in the Bible toward real believers who are struggling against the sin that so easily entangles. Maybe it’s because we don’t know our Bibles. Or maybe it’s because our vision of God is too much like ourselves: We think of him not as a Father who picks up our falls but as the gatekeeper to an exclusive club that demands that old, imperfect members buy a whole new membership to keep the club tidy.

I wish my church experience had seen more repentance and fewer re-conversions. Jesus promises, after all, to forgive and cleanse the unrighteousness we confess to him. Better to be who we really are in front of our loving Father than to just find a new mask to wear. That’s the gospel. Is it evangelicalism?