How to Put Out a Dumpster Fire

A dumpster fire is like porn: it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Fortunately, Merriam-Webster is here to help. Its lexicographers added the term to the dictionary this year:

Dumpster fire (noun, US informal): “an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence: disaster.”

Depending on who you follow on Twitter, you may not have needed anyone to define it for you. Dumpster fires spread like wildfire through social networks. Whether it’s your beloved sports team’s abysmal season, another campaign nightmare, or a public official’s latest gaffe, you’ve surely witnessed a dumpster fire burning across your social media feeds. This is true even of “Christian Twitter,” where it’s not uncommon to see prominent figures sparring over a blog post or deleted tweet.

If Christians want to present a winsome gospel in this cultural moment (and I hope we do), we can’t get bogged down in the muck and mire. We have to find another way to engage the public square and bring the love of Christ to our neighbors. Fortunately, the book of Proverbs is full of countercultural wisdom for putting out dumpster fires.

Stop Heaping Trash

Everyone’s first reaction to hearing about a dumpster fire is to add their take. Fires need fuel to burn, and all too often, we’re happy to provide the fuel. Our negative reactions and hot-takes might seem clever, but all they’re really doing is heaping trash on already flaming dumpsters. Is this not what social media and infotainment sound like today?

The only way out of a world of dumpster fires is to stop fueling them. Proverbs 26:20 says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.”

John Stonestreet, when asked about the negative tone of public discourse in a recent Q&A, said, “Our ability to not escalate our emotions even when our opponents are is going to be the only way we can really obey Jesus in a cultural moment where our views have gone from being considered wrong or outdated to being considered wrong and evil” (emphasis mine).

If Christians choose not to add opinions and retweets to arguments that are clearly going nowhere, the quarreling would cease, at least in our spheres of influence. But as it is now, we are too often drawn into dumpster fires and come out looking just as foolish as everyone else. Proverbs 26:4 tells us, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” The more we answer a fool (especially online), the more foolish we become, and the more foolish we make the Church look.

The best way to extinguish a dumpster fire is to stop feeding it. After all, “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (Prov. 29:9). And it’s only in the quiet that we can learn to read the signs of the times. It might feel good at the moment to vent your anger, but as millions of deleted tweets testify, you’ll regret broadcasting those unguarded thoughts soon enough. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov. 29:11).

The reality is, the more we talk or type, the more we sin. There’s wisdom in keeping quiet at the right times. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent”  (Prov. 10:19). Stop heaping trash on dumpster fires. Quietly hold back whatever you feel compelled to say. Wait 24 hours and ask yourself if it’s still worth it.

Be Slow to Anger

It would be great if we learned to stop stoking dumpster fires, but the real issue is in our quick-to-anger hearts. James writes, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:19-20). The calamity of a situation dubbed a dumpster fire beckons us to be quick to anger, quick to speak, and slow to listen—the opposite of James’ command.

Christians’ refusal to heed the Holy Spirit’s instruction in James puts our folly on display. Proverbs 14:29 says, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” When we jump into a dumpster fire, we show a lack of understanding.

But when we control our emotions and exercise self-control, we demonstrate good sense. “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). It’s good sense to be slow to anger. Those who are slow to anger guard themselves from saying something they’ll regret, and, for Christians, they guard the witness and integrity of the church they represent.

Believer, be slow to anger. Not only does this reflect the character of God (see Ex. 34:6), but it makes good sense. What a witness it would be to have churches filled with men and women who gave measured responses and weren’t driven and tossed by the cultural winds.

Give a Soft Answer

There are times when a response to a dumpster fire is called for, times where conscience or faith compels a reply. In these times, believers can dampen the flames with a gracious word. Proverbs 15:1 counsels, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Before Gideon led Israel into battle with Midian, God whittled down Israel’s army to just 300 men so it would be clear that God won the battle. The men of Ephraim confronted Gideon afterwards, demanding he explain why he hadn’t called them into battle. Gideon thought quickly and gave a soft reply: “What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t even the leftover grapes of Ephraim’s harvest better than the entire crop of my little clan … ? God gave you victory over Oreb and Zeeb, the commanders of the Midianite army. What have I accomplished compared to that?” (Judg. 8:2-3). The Ephraimites’ response? “Then their anger against [Gideon] subsided when he said this” (Judg. 8:3).

Our words can bring peace or pain. This was highlighted by a recent Washington Post article on Kristen Waggoner, the public face of Alliance Defending Freedom, the nonprofit behind high-profile religious liberty cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop. The author doesn’t appear to share Waggoner’s views, but she can’t help but be taken by Waggoner’s joy:

“Waggoner answers all questions about her work, even on the most contentious of issues, with a smile. Her colleagues say she is always, always smiling. Her incessant pleasantness can come off as strategic, a way of dismantling those trying to paint her as cruel or intolerant. She says joy is just the mark of a person of faith.”

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians—if you—were marked by “incessant pleasantness” instead of backbiting and infighting?

Standing Out in a World Gone Mad

In a world gone mad, Christians have an opportunity to stand out in a good way. Instead of adding fuel to the dumpster fires around us, we can douse the flames with the grace of Christ.

There will never be a shortage of calamities and mismanaged situations. But if we stop heaping trash on dumpster fires, start being slow to anger, and learn to give a soft answer, we can put the grace of Jesus on display and show the world that there’s a better way to have a conversation—one that doesn’t involve shouting louder and louder.

On Reading, Food-Borne Allergies, and (Potentially) Ruining the Next Generation

Alan Jacobs:

“Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter. One could argue that social media are not an extension of the public sphere but the antithesis of it. … You can’t have genuine public intellectuals if you don’t have a sizable class of people who are able to read—who can understand arguments and assess them shrewdly and fairly. But anyone has been on social media knows how rare such ability is, how regularly (almost unerringly) people respond to what others have written without having, in any meaningful sense, read it.

So maybe one of the most important questions we who are concerned about our common culture can ask ourselves is this: How do we bring reading back?”

Reading, at least the deep reading Jacobs is referring to, won’t make a comeback until we learn to curb our voracious media diets. The internet makes it possible for people to create more distractions than ever, but really, we’ve always been good at distracting ourselves. The difference in today’s world is that our devices give us easy-everywhere access to those distractions. On top of that, hardware and software companies are leveraging their vast reserves to engineer products that take advantage of our physiology and keep us glued to our screens.

My wife and I were talking about my son’s peanut allergy, and we agreed that the number of food-borne allergies these days must (at least in part) be a result of the tidal wave of marketing that swept over America in our parents’ generation (I’m a millennial). There has been a slow but steady reaction against processed foods as we’ve seen the detrimental effects of eating lasagna from a box—diabetes, food allergies, heart disease, etc. Those reactions include things like the slow food movement, the rise of farmer’s markets, grocers like Whole Foods and Earthfare, and a focus on organic and non-GMO foods.

I wonder if something similar will happen with our devices. We’re in the widespread adoption phase where everyone is mystified and captivated by the newfound power their screens give them. Instead of a trip to the library, a phone call to a friend, or waiting for something (I know, the horror!), we can reach into our pocket and have what we want in a few seconds. Of course we’re excited about that! Of course we’re going to binge Netflix and keep up with old buddies from school on Facebook. Because we can! And because it used to be so hard, or, in some cases, impossible.

But once the euphoria fades and we realize we’ve ceded too much of our humanity to a room full of engineers with very different ideas about what it means to be human, we might just wake up and start to change how we “eat” information and entertainment. To some extent, I think this is happening now.

What worries me, though, are the consequences our children will face because of our ridiculous digital habits. Will iGen/Gen. Z have digital-borne allergies? Impaired social skills that take years to address? What will constant connection, a documentable online history, and egos heavily influenced by what others think and say do to our children?

We’re starting to find out—and it ain’t pretty.

If we want to bring reading back, we have to start by reclaiming our time and attention. Critical thinking simply cannot happen without both.

We won’t reclaim our time and attention until we decide that the cost of a life lived through and for screens is too high. Unfortunately, that time might not come until the next generation says it cost them dearly.

How Should the Church Use Technology?

Most of us don’t think twice about adopting technology in our lives and churches. But should we? That’s the kind of question this article asked. These are important questions, and ones we should be asking more often.

I wrote the comment below in response to that article:

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, too. No technology is neutral. Each technology is imbued with its own set of values (your cell phone, for instance, values constant connection and interruptibility). So yes, the medium matters a great deal.

While I’ve benefitted enormously from online resources like sermons and classes, I think we’ve got to do a better job of determining what should be online and what shouldn’t. For instance, a midday theology class that only 20 people can attend is a great resource to put online and allow more people to access it. But a worship service that includes communion and prayer requires presence (physical, mental, and spiritual) and would make less sense to put online.

Every technological advance requires a tradeoff, usually in the form of personal interaction or interaction with the elements of nature. The thing is, we were made to experience those things. The problem is less that we have technological advances and more that we don’t consider the tradeoffs, then adjust our lives accordingly.

Video preaching loses a personal connection to the speaker (regardless of gifting). That connection is worth something. This is especially significant to consider given the rise of VR and the soon-to-be normal VR worship experience (see http://churchonlineplatform.com/vr and https://live.life.church/?experimental=vr). If we take away all the friction of meeting together, a lot of us are going to be fine with that. The problem is, friction forms us. The friction of meeting in the flesh and having to look someone in the eye is what we were made for.

None of what I wrote above means I’m necessarily against the things mentioned, only that we should be thinking about the implications instead of passively accepting every technological advance.

What I’m most concerned about is the point I made about friction forming us. We call it spiritual formation for a reason—it requires forming our hearts, minds, and souls. Specifically, forming them into the image of Christ.

We were made for face-to-face, in the flesh interactions. These kinds of relationships leave us the most vulnerable, but it is precisely for this reason that they are so critical to spiritual formation. The greater the friction of meeting with other people, the greater the opportunity for sanctification (or being conformed into the image of Christ).

Our digital relationships and advances remove much of this friction. At the same time, tools like smartphones and social media can supplement and even complement in-person relationships, but they should never fully replace them. When we do so, we will remove some of the friction and vulnerability required to relate to others, but we also lose something of what it means to be human.

Five Steps for Assessing and Applying Technology

Since the dawn of man, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. Each societal, cultural, and technological change requires wisdom for how to navigate the new, more complex world. Complexity requires wisdom.

We used to have decades, or even centuries, to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply. But that world no longer exists.

Remarking on this in the preface to his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch writes, “the pace of technological change has surpassed anyone’s capacity to develop enough wisdom to handle it.” His point is that technological change is coming much faster than we’re able to develop wisdom about how to assess and apply it to our lives.

Fortunately, believers like Crouch, John Dyer, Tony Reinke, and Albert Borgmann, among others, have laid the groundwork for us to begin developing wisdom about the technology we’re surrounded by.

Based on my survey of Christian and secular literature on the topic of technology and how it’s affecting us, I suggest five steps for assessing and applying it to our lives, which can be summarized with the acrostic LEDER:

  1. Learn broadly
  2. Evaluate biblically
  3. Discuss communally
  4. Engage skeptically
  5. Revisit regularly

I’ll walk through each of these in more detail below.

Step 1: Learn broadly

When beginning to think through any form or application of technology, the first step is to learn broadly. To learn broadly about a subject is to study it generally and widely. This means Christians should be well-informed about new and old forms of technology.

Learning broadly can help keep us from jumping to incorrect conclusions or beginning with false assumptions. For instance, many Christians make assumptions about technology because of their personal views. When they do this, they make uninformed decisions that are either isolationist (no tech at all) or overly accepting (no tech is bad)—neither of which is healthy.

What, then, should Christians be aware of when learning broadly about a form of technology?

We cannot think well about technology without understanding its purpose, use, values, and tradeoffs. If understood, these four areas will give one a broad enough knowledge of the subject, leaving them well-informed to make decisions. (For more on these four areas, read this.)

In his seminal book Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann, a Catholic philosopher doing great thinking on the subject, suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, people should determine their values first and attempt to use their tools in service of those values.

This should be what Christians are after—to use technology in the service of their values. But to do so, we will have to learn broadly about the tools and devices of our day.

After you’ve learned broadly about technology, step two is to then biblically evaluate a specific form or application.

Step 2: Evaluate biblically

As believers in the God of the Bible, Christians must submit all of their thinking and behavior to that described in the Bible. This means returning again and again to the Scriptures to see what Christian doctrine teaches us about our identity and values.

The Bible has much to say about who Christians are supposed to be and what is supposed to mark them, from compassion for the poor to those who hold marriage to be sacred, and much, much more.

God is not silent on his values, either. Most notably, he handed down Ten Commandments written in stone to reflect their never-changing nature (Exodus 20). So while the Bible is seemingly silent on virtual reality or artificial intelligence, it is not silent on values, morality, and identity.

Technology brings with it its own morals and values that have the power to shape our identity. The Christian’s job is to see where there are areas of overlap or incongruence with their biblical worldview, then act accordingly.

John Dyer sums this up well:

“Our task as believers is to work against the tendencies built into our devices, and to in effect become a predator of the media in the ecosystem of our lives. . . . Christians who live God-honoring lives in the digital world are those who can discern the tendencies built into all technology and then decide when those tendencies are in line with godly values, and then those tendencies are damaging to the soul.”

Step 3: Discuss communally

God’s people were never meant to exist alone. They were always meant to live in a loving, sacrificial, and social community. When it comes to evaluating technology, that community can be a source of wisdom, insight, and discernment that proves valuable to a Christ-follower seeking to live faithfully in the digital age.

This can take the form of simple conversations with one’s small group or fellow believers, more formal conversations with pastors or denominational leaders, or trial and error within the context of one’s own family.

Technology is too complicated and its implications too broad to try and come to conclusions on our own. God’s people must consult the best of familial, ecclesial, denominational, and historical wisdom to help them navigate technological considerations. (John Dyer has rounded up a helpful list of resources on technology. His site Don’t Eat the Fruit is also worth following.)

Step 4: Engage skeptically

Once you’ve learned broadly about a technology, evaluated it biblically, and discussed it within your community, you should have the information needed to determine how, when, and how often you will engage with it. But regardless what conclusion you arrive at, it would be wise to engage the technology skeptically.

The reason for skepticism is because technology’s values are usually opposed to Christian values. While this does not always have to be the case, the reality is that humanity is sinful. Dyer explains,

“What the Scriptures call our ‘flesh’ is that part of us that is always bent towards self, at the expense of others and the exclusion of God. Our flesh, then, will always gravitate towards technology that favors the individual over the group.”

Just as Jesus did not entrust himself to men because he knew what was in their hearts (John 2:24), Christians should not entrust themselves to technology because they know its natural bent. We should engage it skeptically, asking questions along the way about how it affects us, including how it affects our family, community, and society.

This doesn’t mean we can’t find true joy in using technology but that we should be wise and realistic about its uses and effects.

Step 5: Revisit regularly

If steps one through four above were followed, you would have entered into (or continued) a relationship with a specific technology skeptically, questioning its use along the way. Such questioning should be revisited regularly.

Once you’ve adopted a technology, you have ample experience to reflect on its positive and negative effects. For example, you can reflect on how it has affected you emotionally, mentally, relationally, physically, and spiritually.

One way to help sort out a technology’s effect is by limiting or abstaining from the use of it for a time. Removal of the device or tool will highlight the value assigned to it. A healthy way to start is by building a practice of Sabbath into your life, resting from work and technology.

If you follow the five steps of LEDER (learn broadly, evaluate biblically, discuss communally, engage skeptically, and revisit regularly), you will no longer be driven and tossed in the wind by the powers-that-be in Silicon Valley.

As people of the Word, Christians should be LEDERs when it comes to discussing, innovating, and engaging with technology. But unless we do so with wisdom, we’re bound to create idols which work against our values.

[Interview] A Long Obedience in an Instagram Age

I was recently interviewed by Bill Feltner for the show His People on Pilgrim Radio. It was a great conversation based on an article I wrote a few weeks ago called “A Long Obedience in an Instagram Age.” Bill and I discuss how to approach discipleship in a distracted age.

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(Interview length: 27 minutes)