Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Christian View of the Internet and New Media

June 2015 Feature Article

The world of communication has changed irrevocably. With the founding and rapid expansion of the Internet, the transnational flows of information, media and applications have never been so open and free. For most of us, we are only a few mouse clicks away from a wealth of knowledge and materials online. We also have the means at our fingertips to produce, publish and distribute through social networks, our own texts, images and viewpoints.

But there is also a darker side of the Internet and new media[1] to consider. The availability and prevalence of questionable material (pornography, political and religious extremism, and violence etc.) is both a negative influence and constant temptation. Where, we might ask, are the moral and ethical digital gatekeepers when we need them the most?

Rather than rejecting or avoiding technology and media because they are sometimes put to disreputable uses, we could accept them cautiously and simply hope for the best in the name of liberty. But arguably, this exposes us, for example, to attacks on our privacy through spam (unwanted bulk email), phishing (email disguised as official correspondence in an attempt to trick us into revealing personal information) and surveillance (tracking our online activities without our knowledge or consent). We need to be more careful and proactive.

A different approach involves direct engagement. Crucially, from a Christian perspective, this requires discernment—knowing with assurance and following the will of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 16:21-23) and propriety—acting in ways that are “… worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Consequently, instead of prohibition, discerning Christian Internet users would prefer to talk through differences believing this helps them defend and apply their faith. Further, they would advocate giving children media literacy skills, teaching them to evaluate and interpret popular culture (and its tools) within a Christian compass.

Given the rate of technological advancement, there is probably no best or optimal time to begin with Information Technology. If we Christians do not act, the ungodly will. I believe God’s purposes are best served on the Internet and with new media when we act in love and with distinctiveness. Above all, these are eternal truths relating to excellence in all spiritual things (cf. Philippians 4:8) and require taking on the mantle of servant-leadership (Mark 10:42-45).

To illustrate, there are several ways Christians can be a positive influence online by personally demonstrating certain principles.[2]

  1. Be astute and observe the world with critical, God-fearing eyes. It is important for us to be mindful of the potential unintended consequences of our postings, status updates and other published material on social media. In this respect, we need to ask ourselves: Are we serving Christ or building up our own personal kingdom?
  2. Be a bold witness for God. In every respect, our online presence should be clear and explicit about who we are and how we are being continually transformed by the Holy Spirit. One way we can do this is to give our testimony online to glorify God and encourage others. Another way is to share our Christian resources and materials freely.
  3. Be available and communicate promptly. In the spirit of community building, we should strive to be accessible to others. It would also be useful to acknowledge and reply to email and other electronic correspondence within a set time. These actions show respect to others.
  4. Be a blessing. Our online presence should, whenever appropriate, minister to others’ needs.
  5. Be graceful. Harsh words are harmful and terseness on-line can often come across as rudeness. We need, therefore, not to be judgemental or critical in our viewpoints.
  6. Be prayerful and act with integrity. We would be well-advised to think carefully and prayerfully about the topics we address online. In addition, a wise move would be to consult with others frequently before acting in sensitive or important matters. Raise awareness not alarm. Make defensible claims.
  7. Be humble. Rather than being out front or above, an Internet and new media leader places him/herself in the midst of people and leads from within. This does not mean being weak or susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm. Rather, it requires confidence and looking forward in faith (Hebrews 11:8).

Clearly, using the Internet and new media is not just a question about what we do and how we do it. It seems inevitable that our actions, in many respects, define who we are and what we are prepared to stand up for.

In closing, the effective communication of ideas and knowledge are as important and common today as they were 2,000 years ago. So too are the temptations we face (see 1 Cor. 10:13). Ultimately, I believe the problems that arise from technology relate to our misplaced and poorly understood values.

In contrast, my preference is to edify God’s Church; to embrace and engage technological and new media innovations rather than prohibit or restrict them. But this course of action requires knowing God’s will intimately and acting purposively to glorify Him. It also involves a very keen awareness of where we are situated and what we are up against. Let us be mindful that what we profess as Christians does not sit comfortably within the often competitive and individualistic environment of secular life where gaining the approval of one’s peers and superiors is crucial to gaining status, promotion and a good job. Alternatively, we are called to be channels of God’s blessings and love in an attitude that leaves a legacy for others to build on and follow. And so, our Internet and new media use are important and necessary sites for ministry action today.


Dr Phillip Towndrow

Dr. Phillip A. Towndrow (Ed.D., Durham) is a church lay leader with extensive experience in small group work, discipling and Christian education. He is currently a teacher, teacher-educator, and educational researcher at a tertiary-level institution in Singapore where he specialises in New Media Literacies, Teacher Professional Learning, and Pedagogy and Classroom Practices. Phillip is also the author of the ETHOS Engagement Series booklet, ‘Education and Society: A Christian View of Education in Singapore‘. These are his personal views.


Notes:

[1] New media represents any material in digital format that can be easily accessed, distributed, manipulated and consumed. For example, YouTube.

[2] For more information see Reynolds, J. M., & Overton, R. (Eds.) (2008). The new media frontier: Blogging, vlogging, and podcasting for Christ. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.

Religion and Violence

June 2015 Pulse

The beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the British aid worker David Haines by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 have not only shocked and outraged the world, but they have also revived the debate about religious violence.

Both President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were determined to stress the distinction between the IS and Islam as a religion. In an address in Parliament, Cameron categorically asserted that the “IS is not Islamic” and that “they are not Muslims; they are monsters”.

In the past 15 years, numerous books have been written on the contentious issue of religion and violence. For example, in When Religion Becomes Evil, published just one year after the horrific events of 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001), Charles Kimball argues that “it is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil, perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”

Apart from the fact that Kimball does not identify these rival institutions or provide evidence for his claim (perhaps he thought it too trite to require evidence), scholars have also criticised him for naively bracketing religion away from political ideologies. Such separation is artificial and contrived. As Jonathan Smith has rightly put it, “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study … Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy”.

Be that as it may, are there religions that promote violence by their doctrines or attitude towards unbelievers? Many would argue that all religious traditions have at their centre the commitment to peace and non-violence. Konrad Raiser writes that from the religious perspective, violence “is a manifestation of evil and all religions are struggling with the question where this evil comes from and how it can be overcome”.

From the Christian theological perspective, however, because of human sin it is difficult to think of any form of organised human activity or institution that could not be corrupted or perverted.

Take democracy for example. A broad and popular way of describing democracy is a ‘government by the people for the people’. Many people would no doubt maintain that democracy is a good form of government, with its commitment to human dignity and freedom.

Yet democracy not only can go terribly wrong, it can also be dangerous. Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And even though democracy is said to prevent oppressive governments, in Germany and South Africa it produced, for a period, extremely racist societies.

For many Muslims, jihad (a term that is often brandished unexplained by the media) refers fundamentally to striving for moral goodness and justice for society. And although this concept has four meanings, one of which is associated with just war, it does not in principle encourage acquiescence to violence.

However, since the 1970s under the influence of the Egyptian Umar Abd ar-Rahman and the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam, the ideologist for the Hamas movement, this concept has been radicalised by extremist groups, including those associated with Wahhabism. Al Qaeda and IS have commandeered the radical meaning of jihad in promoting their violent campaigns against the West and fellow Muslims who do not embrace their political convictions.

That Islam itself does not promote violence is evidenced by the fact that the Quran does not describe Allah as the ‘lord of war’ but rather as compassionate and merciful, and as the loving one and the forgiver.

Etymologically, islam, which refers to the surrender or submission that human beings must show to Allah, is derived from salam, which means peace – hence the Muslim greeting, “Peace be with you” (Salàm Ualaikum). In fact, in Surah 41:33-35 we read the injunction: “Requisite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend.”

Although religious beliefs in themselves are not causes of violence, it is important to note that religion – like ethnicity and language – is a significant marker of identity. And as a marker of identity, religion can be subtly used to fan the flames of social and political conflicts. When religious sentiments are combined with political ideologies in a certain way, even a peaceful religion can be conscripted in the exercise of violence.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Secularism and Social Peace

June 2015 Pulse

It seems that it is quite impossible to read the papers or watch the news on television without encountering stories of unconscionable atrocities committed in the name of religion, whether by ISIS in the Middle East or by Boko Haram in Nigeria. These instantiations of religious violence seem to lend credence to the view, advanced by a good number of prominent atheist writers, that religion is the cause of much of the violence we see in our world.

Sam Harris, for instance, has insisted relentlessly that ‘most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith’. Harris feels compelled to arrive at the extremely vexed conclusion that ‘religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut’. This chorus of voices blaming religion for violence is of course directed by Richard Dawkins, who in The God Delusion declares quite categorically that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’.

The proponents of this theory – that religion causes violence – often point to the Thirty Years War as perhaps the example par excellence of the kind of chaos and carnage that religiously motivated violence can unleash. The senseless war that caused millions of deaths and the outbreak of diseases and plagues was brought to an end by the Treaties of Westphalia (1648), which these theorists see not only as the genesis of modern state but also as a triumph of secularism.

This is an astonishingly simplistic reading of both the complex confluence of factors and ambitions that fuelled the Thirty Years War and the accomplishments of Westphalia. It is, however, repeatedly used as the undisputable example of the serious disruption to social peace that religion can cause. It promotes the unexamined secularist mantra that asserts that religion produces violence because it is divisive. Which leads to the corollary that in a religiously diverse world, secularism is the only guarantor of social peace.

Such rhetoric often directs attention away from the violence and atrocities for which secular and atheist regimes and governments are responsible in recent memory.

For example, according to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the Mao Zedong regime is responsible for the deaths of seventy million. In his classic, The Rise and Fall of Communism, Archie Brown estimated that Mao’s mass mobilisation programme called The Great Leap Forward alone had caused thirty million deaths.

In Stalin’s Russia, millions of people were either killed or starved to death as the result of the industrialisation programme of their new autocrat. The historian J. M. Roberts reports starkly that seven years after the programme for the ‘collectivization’ of land and the development of heavy industries began in 1928, ‘5 million families disappeared from European Russia’.

To this list, we must add Pol Pot, the secretary general of the Cambodian communist party in 1963 and leader of the ‘Khmer Rouge’ faction. According to Roberts, Pol Pot ‘presided over the killing of as many as 2 million (out of 7 million) of his countrymen and countrywomen in the name of radical Maoist and fanatically xenophobic (anti-Vietnamese) ideology’.

The list could easily be expanded to include Hitler, Fidel Castro, Lenin, Nicolae Ceausescu and Kim Jong-il. In fact, the deaths caused by Christian emperors and rulers in the five hundred period of the history of the Church which encompasses the Crusades and the Inquisition amounted to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Hitler, Stalin and Mao in just a few decades.

What makes the crimes of Mao and Stalin more horrific than the deaths caused by the Thirty Years War, argues Dinesh D’Souza, is that the atrocities of these atheist regimes were committed in peacetime and against their own countrymen and countrywomen.

Now, of course statistics alone cannot settle the matter. It would be quite ludicrous to argue that religion is superior to secularism because the statistics show that it has been responsible for lesser deaths. In supplying this data, I merely wish to show that secularism also has a history of violence.

These historical facts dispel the smoke screen generated by the rhetoric of religious violence. They expose as false the myth that secularism is more tolerant and peaceful and that it alone is the reasonable arbiter and guarantor of social peace.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively put it: ‘Secularism tells a story about its differences with religion that are not necessarily true. For instance, one frequently hears about Christian failures such as the Inquisition, but we are led to believe that secularism represents cooler heads, rationality and common ground. What often goes unacknowledged is that secularism has itself often been associated with the coercive, the unjust, the violent, and the undemocratic’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.