“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith …”Hebrews 12:1-2a
My family and I were returning to our home near Chicago after a visit downstate to see our family. As we were driving up I-55, we hit a heavy rainstorm. Visibility went close to zero. The cars that didn’t pull into the shoulder slowed to a crawl and flipped on their hazard lights. I’ve always been a pretty good bad weather driver. Snow and rain don’t really worry me too much, so when the rainstorm hit, I kept going. Because of the low visibility, I couldn’t see the cars in front of or to the side of me clearly. I could only see their lights blinking through the rain. I slowed down, backed up from the car I’d been following, began watching for stopped cars on the shoulder, and turned down the radio. In the absence of a clear picture, I had to minimize anything that might distract me.
When you are driving in a heavy rain storm, the rain is a distraction. It obscures our normal field of vision and forces us to look for new signs that cars are in front of us. The rain creates “noise” that makes it more challenging for us to use the normal “signals” that would allow us, for instance, to drive the speed limit, pass other cars, or read those bumper stickers that say “If you can read this bumper sticker, you are too close.”
A similar dynamic occurs when we are flooded with information (as in the digital age). We need to refocus our attention when driving in a rainstorm, and we need to learn to identify “signals” amongst the “noise” in the Information Age. The outpouring of outrage, opinion, misinformation, accusations, or overly simple and sensationalized stories diminish visibility. They are distractions that limit our perspectives and threaten to drown out the “signals” (like hazard lights that offer us a sign that another car is ahead of us in a rainstorm) that have the capacity to guide us despite the rain.
It seems to me that we are living in a moment in which we need to find signals in the midst of the noise. We need to look for the signals ahead that will keep us from speeding recklessly into another car or too cautiously pulling off on the shoulder and assuming that by not moving our safety is secured. We need to master the art of driving in the rain.
What might such a mastery look like for the body of Christ in the polarizing world of cyber-opinion with its oversimplifications, “cancel culture,” totalizing labels with all-or-nothing implications, and “influencers” whose popularity has been mistaken for wisdom? I’ll offer three thoughts.
Three Tips for Navigating the Noise of Social Media
1. Learn to be uncomfortable by having your understanding of the world challenged (or “Don’t create your own noise“)
Many of the notions that Christian culture holds are not unassailable. Christians make practical judgments on a variety of matters and those judgments may well be informed by the Scriptures, but they are not necessarily demanded by the Scriptures. Despite the fact that we are making judgment calls on practical matters, we can have a tendency to allow matters of discernment to become matters of orthodoxy. Practical action is seldom that clear cut because there are generally a multiplicity of factors that make it difficult to know just what to do in a given moment of decision.
For example, in other posts and in Thinking Christian, I’ve suggested that Christian journalists and bloggers that write about scandals within organizations operate with too little accountability. Having come to that perspective, I’ve chosen to be highly selective in my use of names, opting instead to try to explain concepts and ideas rather than “calling out” one blogger or journalist in particular. That’s a choice … a matter of discernment and personal conviction. I’d like to think it is a biblically and theologically informed perspective, but I would readily admit that there are other choices that could be just as biblically and theologically informed as the one I’ve made. I remain open to the possibility that I’m missing something and considering ways that I might need to learn, grow, and change. I’m happy to have my ideas challenged.
2. Ask some questions about the questions you are being asked (or “Don’t let others create noise that keeps you from hearing signals”)
Recently, I’ve seen more and more friends buying into what I would consider a sucker’s choice. Those choices that require “either this or that” rather than a more robust consideration of arguments and options. Learning to ask questions about questions is important. It gives you the ability to reframe situations and to challenge the beliefs of others in a softer manner. It also allows you to demonstrate interest and a willingness to engage a given issue. Ultimately, learning to ask questions about the questions you are asked is one of the best ways to get to root causes and motivations.
Take, for instance, a question that will (I’m sure) become relatively “hot” in the coming months: who do you think the next president should be? Now, you may say that this question feels like a sucker’s choice since there are only two parties, thus creating an “either / or” scenario, but that is not the case. For example, you always have the option of not voting or voting for an independent. You also have the ability to reframe the question by saying something like: “Rather than talking about who I think should be president, maybe we could discuss what the best way of making that decision might be.” That’s not evasive … it’s just a way to have a deeper conversation about values, issues, and decision processes rather than getting into a debate about which candidate is better before establishing any underlying criteria that might be used to make that decision. Asking questions about questions makes room amidst the noise to identify signals.
3. Consume content that will help you grow, not just content that seems interesting
I’m not anti-entertainment. I like a good Netflix documentary or Marvel movie as much as the next guy. The point is not that we should never be entertained but that some content seems interesting because the people who depend on you to consume that content know how to make it seem interesting. BE DISCERNING!
Take, for example, the process I go through when choosing whether or not to buy a book on amazon.com. First, I see a citation or hear an author on a podcast and pull the book up on amazon.com or Google Books to see if there is a table of contents or an excerpt I can preview before purchasing the book. Second, if I decide it is something I‘d like to read, I put it in my wish list. Third, I review my wish list to see if there are similar titles and to “rank” the latest book against the titles already in my wish list. If it is worth keeping on the list, I leave it. If not, I delete it. Either way, I don’t actually purchase the book until I’m ready to read it. Not only does that keep my ever-expanding library from overtaking the house, it also helps me to avoid the Kindle impulse buy.
Consuming other content can take on a similar process. Think about all the time you spend scrolling social media. Would you have been better off reading something of substance instead of the latest post from someone who is indignant about the relatively minor inconvenience of wearing a mask in public? Could you be working through the Psalms rather than getting frustrated over the latest misstep by some celebrity or the under-informed opinions of many of those posting on social media? Being selective in what you put in your brain and what you give your emotional energy to is a means of minimizing the noise and looking for signals.
In the end, there is no amount of ”tips” that can be given if we are unwilling to fight for the space we need to minimize the noise and find the signals. If we are determined to surrender to the noise, we will miss opportunities to witness to the gospel. We will find it harder for Christians to be strange in the right way because we will have adopted not only the world’s stories, but because we will have released our grip on the reality of God. At some point, when we go the way of the world and get caught up in the anxieties around us, we are denying God His proper position as our sovereign, unencumbered by the problems we face in this life. We give ourselves over to the noise and miss the signals that God is sending to prompt us to follow the Holy Spirit.
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JAMES SPENCER, PHD is Vice President and COO of Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind. He also writes a regular blog at nextgenchristians.com.
Photo credit: Ave Calvar Martinez