Andrew MacDonald on Conspiracy Theories, Engaging Online, and Wisdom: The Intersection of the Three and How to Respond Biblically

Image: Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplash

Andrew MacDonald is associate director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Institute.


One of the things I love about living in a major city like Chicago is that if I miss the train into the city I don’t have to wait long for the next one. Unfortunately, the same is true of examples of bad behavior on social media. While social media offers amazing opportunities to connect and learn, it seems that every new day brings new stories of awfulness. Baptizing the quote often ascribed to Churchill: the greatest argument against humanity’s inherent goodness is five minutes scrolling through the average social media feed.

In recent months this tendency has only increased. Since Ed and I wrote an editorial for the Dallas Morning News on the importance of church leaders’ discipling their people on social media habits, multiple controversies have erupted. Most often these have revolved around conspiracy theories being promoted about the motivations and actions of the protests.

Given the enduring importance of conspiracy theories, I want to circle back to some of the criticism of the DNS article before focusing on few preliminary suggestions on how Christians can begin to think through healthy online habits.

The Problem of the Media

Several responses to my article in the Dallas Morning News pointed out that their suspicion of mainstream media outlets often arises from clear incidents of bias in their reporting. This is fair criticism.

The reality is that the state of reporting on religion—and particularly in reporting on evangelicalism—is quite poor. Major outlets get obvious facts wrong about simple beliefs that betrays both a lack of knowledge about the material they’re reporting on and a laziness to not search out the answer.

Google examples of where outlets have tried to define “Calvinism” and you’ll find answers that range from simplistic to malicious caricatures. It is not hard to pick up the phone and call a pastor or seminary professor for help, but this is somehow deemed not important.

More distressingly, some outlets seem intent upon pointing to outliers as examples of evangelical behavior while ignoring the wide majority. This was evident in March when outlets focused on churches and pastors who defied shelter-at-home orders and tried to pawn miracle cures for the virus.

Literally thousands of pastors led the way on closing their churches and serving their communities, often at significant personal loss, but these were obscured.

Going Too Far

What becomes problematic is when critics of the mainstream media use these examples to push Christians to dismiss all journalism. This is often to the benefit of fringe, sometimes religiously-informed news outlets who feed a narrative that Christians are victims of a conspiracy and only they hold the truth.

Having acknowledged the failures in journalism, it is critical that Christians resist the temptation to reject mainstream reporting altogether. This is a critical mistake that leads us down the pathway to isolation whereby we invalidate any news article we find unfavorable.

Moreover, there are good journalists in major outlets, even religion journalists who strive to understand and report on evangelicalism in all fairness. At times, this leads them to our failures, but in other cases they want to detail the nuance and complexity within the movement. I might not always agree with them, but I respect their integrity and desire to report honestly.

This all-or-nothing mentality also suggests a poor understanding of Christian engagement. Our goal should be a maturity to engage the new reporting of our time with a critical eye rather than to shout bias upon seeing the outlet logo. We need to read critically across a wide range, accepting hard truths that are well supported rather than if they support our political or cultural narrative. We need to resist our temptations to echo chambers; a temptation that is common to many other subcultures across the globe.

Taking Steps

One of the frustrating takeaways from articles on social media is how they can often have great data or insights on to why and how our online platforms are useful and/or destructive but they can leave the reader at a dead end. After outlining the problem, they can often leave people with little insight into how to respond.

Even as they seem indispensable, social media platforms are new and healthy habits remain unclear. In this respect, I believe that the book of James offers a few preliminary insights in thinking through our online presence.

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Source: Christianity Today