Christian Clickbait and the Lost Art of Using Our Brains Online

christian clickbait online discernment

This must be a joke.

Confusion, shock, and other unpleasant emotions smoldered under my skin when I first read a recent viral post featuring a graphic and title that you’d expect to see on the Christian parody site The Babylon Bee.

“Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins Without Tattoos” blew up on social media last week, generating a flood of commentary that you’d expect to result from a post headlined that provocatively.

As soon as I heard about it, I began gratuitously liking the many social media posts denouncing the piece and its author. I joined the ranks of those who publicly criticized her for espousing legalistic ideas that could lead her followers astray and heap shame upon those believers whose pasts included impure choices – none of which are beyond redemption – and lifestyle choices irrelevant to a life of faith. (Condemning tattoos? Really?!?)

After further reflection on the original post and ensuing backlash, I developed a few more thoughts that went beyond pure gut reaction. Rather than dismantle the flawed theological suppositions point by point as others already have done, I wanted to zoom out from the specific arguments and expand to a broader discussion about discernment.

This situation illustrates how easy it is for anyone of us to mislead and malign on social media. Though it’s inevitable that we’ll make mistakes, we can still make an effort to walk out our faith in a manner worthy of Christ by activating our minds and filtering our words. With love and humility, we can exercise good judgment with how engage with others online, according to the grace he gives to all his undeserving children.

Baiting clicks by provoking reaction
As connected technologies have shaped our culture and changed the ways we communicate, we tend to value emotional stimulation more so than mental exertion. We’re drawn to whatever makes us feel happy, sad, or mad and react accordingly with little to no deeper thought. Bloggers and other media producers capitalize on this impulse and churn out content they expect to gain visits to their sites, hence the term clickbait.

Whether the author intended it or not, the title “Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins Without Tattoos” is a prime example of this. It bears little relevance to the post’s content, which presents the author’s argument that Christian women should focus on homemaking instead of pursuing an expensive college education, which she loosely ties to the passage in 1 Peter 3:4 calling for women to have meek and quiet spirits.

[For a thorough analysis of these theological claims weighed against Scripture, I recommend reading Phylicia Masonheimer’s recent post.]

Besides misapplying biblical concepts, the post fails to substantiate its claim with data or sound logical reasoning. The author offers no statistics, no interviews, no references to credible outside sources, only conjecture and opinion. It reads like an uninformed dating advice column billed as biblical wisdom – a dangerous type of post to go viral. Yet it makes sense why it would.

In a reactive culture, we rely on our feelings to guide the information we seek and engage with. So a post written by someone who isn’t a verified authority on the subject matter can gain widespread attention by publishing material that elicits extreme emotional responses – positive or negative.

People not only share what they love, but also what they hate in order to shore up support within their comfortable echo chambers.

Understanding with discernment
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with posts that evoke feelings (at least I hope not, as I often write about emotional topics), it’s important to exercise discernment with content we read online, especially when biblical claims are made.

For Christians trying to determine what’s biblically accurate, we should approach online content with a filter. What someone states as “my truth” is likely his or her experience or opinion, and might not be rooted in Scripture or reality. As we consume media, we should question the veracity of messages touted as truth and process them according to the litmus test of Phil 4:8: think on what is true, good, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise.

In an age of fake news and blatant political affiliations, this is becoming harder to accomplish. How do we know what’s really going when we hear conflicting reports with differing statistics presented through biased viewpoints?

However difficult it might be to distinguish between fact and fiction, we can still use our God-given brains to think critically about the information presented to us online. Whether the messages are coming from a famous author with a huge platform or a hobbyist blogger with a small audience, we have a responsibility to go to the Word and check for accuracy and merit. We’re called to take every thought captive in obedience (2 Cor 10:5) and to test the spirits to determine sound doctrine (1 Jo 4:1).

As we consider how to digest media, we can ask the Lord for discernment in testing the ideas laid before us. Using our minds renewed by the Spirit, we can conduct research, apply logic, and discuss ideas with trusted peers and mentors so that we don’t merely feel and react, but pause to think and assess.

These same principles that guide how we read and process online media should also govern how we respond to others in an online forum – even or especially if we disagree with them. 

Communicating with humility
In the uproar over this controversial blog post, certain Christian bloggers and writers blasted it all over social media, some in ways that came across as harsh and disparaging toward the author, who professes to be a believer. As the post made the rounds across different platforms, commenters swamped her Facebook page with vicious insults and hateful messages.

Amidst my own righteous indignation over this post, God reminded me through conversations with my wise and discerning husband to consider this blogger’s worth and dignity as a person, and possibly, a fellow sister in Christ.

She demonstrated flawed thinking – but so have I at various times. She communicated a message that hurt others – as I have done and likely will do so again, much as I hope won’t happen.

None of us is above reproach with what we’ve posted online. We’ve all made poor decisions, had to remove or delete a post, and if and when necessary, apologized for it.

As important as it is to reject false teaching, God’s Word calls for us to correct others in a gracious manner using words that build up, rather than tear down. Scripture prescribes a process for handling these types of disputes in 2 Timothy 2:23-25:

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,

Whether online or face-to-face, Christians are to clothe ourselves in humility, speak the truth in love, and correct others with gentleness, striving to maintain unity with our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Yes, we should address wrong teaching and shine the light of the gospel to portray a clearer picture of who Jesus is and how we can reflect him. The burden on his followers is to do so in a way that imitates his character – his patience, his long-suffering, his self-sacrificing humility.

This might not be possible to accomplish in the context of a tweet. It might require reaching out personally, going beyond the highly visible realm of social media where we can form a bandwagon or jump on someone else’s, to invest the time and effort in developing a relationship and engaging in deeper conversations for the betterment of the whole body.

Engaging with grace
We can’t believe everything we read on the Internet, nor should we act like we’re better than everyone else using it. For it’s by grace we are saved, and by grace we are called to live in harmony with one another.

God has given us minds to discern what’s good and true, both in what we perceive and how we communicate. Recognizing that every good thing we have is an undeserved gift given freely in and through Jesus, we can engage graciously with others online, thinking critically and speaking kindly to glorify him and edify others.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph 2:29).

Resources for further study:
God’s Not Looking for Debt-Free Virgins by Phylicia Masonheimer
The Five Tests of False Doctrine by Tim Challies
9 Ways to Make Social Media More Christian by Karen Swallow Prior
My Wife Has Tattoos: Marriage and New Birth by Spencer Harmon

[Image courtesy Jesus Kiteque on Unsplash]

Whose platform is it anyway?

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[Photo: Oscar Keys via Unsplash]
I was born during the Jennifer Era of U.S. history. Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Garner, JLo, and I joined more than half a million of our moniker sisters in dominating the baby name charts from 1970 to 1984, until those scheming Jessicas hijacked our reign.

Whether this trend can be attributed to the name of the doomed heroine in the acclaimed 1970 film “Love Story,” or to random cycling mass phenomena in accordance with mathematical processes, we all know it was a massively popular name back in the day and are wondering which hippie/hipster fad will produce another generation of Jens, Emmas, and Bellas.

My name is thoroughly unoriginal, and I’ve come to accept that. What’s more difficult to swallow is the apparent requirement in this digital age for writers to leverage their names as their brand.

Sure, it makes sense. If you want to reach an audience with your message, you have to get your name out there so people can find you and read your work. To build a successful author platform, you must create a social persona to which fans will flock and publishers will beckon for book deals.

It’s DIY marketing with an egotistical spin, and it seems if you ever want to go anywhere in the publishing world, you’ve got push yourself to promote yourself.

An inner conflict

In case you didn’t pick up on it, I was cringing between the preceding lines. I strongly dislike the concept of self-made publicity for many different reasons, including the aforementioned ordinariness of my name. The world has plenty of Jennifers; it doesn’t need another one running around tooting her own horn.

Also repelling me from the “be your own brand” strategy: my tendency toward shyness, lack of knowledge and desire to market like a boss, and fear – fear that others won’t like me, or that they will like me and expect a standard of excellence I can’t always (or ever) deliver, and fear that I’ll care way too much about others’ perception and evaluation of the person I project myself to be.

Aside from these unpleasant factors, the most stomach-turning aspect of self-marketing is its very nature. Count how many times I dropped an “I, me my” in the preceding paragraph. I sound as conceited as a 2-year-old.

I know there are millions of people out there pounding the social pavement to develop online personalities as a means to spread an important message or advance a worthwhile movement or simply make money as a business venture, and that’s fine. However, I think there’s a tension that can and should arise for Christian authors writing Christian books, a vocation and niche I aspire to pursue.

If you’re ostensibly writing to proclaim the gospel and convey the truth of God’s saving grace, how do you justify throwing your time, energy, and resources into promoting yourself? How can you reconcile God’s command for His people to be like Christ – humble, submissive to His will, seeking His exaltation above all else – with your endless striving for people to like you and follow your words?

He must increase

Prominent Christian authors addressed these and other concerns regarding platform building during an online discussion earlier this year. Beth Moore, Margaret Feinberg, and Karen Swallow Prior shared honest thoughts from their experiences in the Christian publishing industry, warning of the perils of social media ladder climbing and admonishing believers to fight the fleshly temptation to make ourselves known under the guise of making Jesus known.

I followed these conversations with rapt attention, as I respect these women and want to heed their guidance in venturing out into this field. Yet for all the wisdom I gleaned, the klaxon of prideful posturing alarmed and discouraged me, especially after researching the platform strategy and confirming it as the new norm for author best practices.

This brought me to a crisis of writing about faith: Accept the necessary evil of self-promotion to move forward with my publishing aspirations, or refuse to undertake this sinful endeavor and scrap the whole dang author idea.

Dismayed as I was, I kept thinking and researching and praying, and then came upon this article by a not-yet widely known writer contemplating “The Social Media Strategy of John the Baptist.” Reflecting on John’s gospel, she describes how the outspoken forerunner of Christ grew a following as he proclaimed the coming Messiah, and then once Jesus appeared on the scene, directed his followers to the incarnate Savior:

“God had given John a platform – he had become famous and influential in his own right. But John used his platform to draw attention to the only One who could satisfy and save their souls.”

John used the platform God had given him to draw attention to Jesus, not himself, and made this outrageously meek statement that should be the motto of every follower of Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

John 3 30

I read this article, and pondered this verse, and thanked the author and John the Baptist for this critical reminder.

Serving purely

Any platform I have is God’s, not mine. He gives and takes away gifts, skills, relationships, email subscribers, Twitter followers, and “tribe” members for whatever purposes He intends – most specifically, to exalt His name and shower goodness on His people.

Knowing this, I can publish a blog under my name, post content designed to encourage others, even seek out new readers to engage and connect with, and do so with a clean conscience IF my heart’s desire is to increase Jesus’ fanbase, not my own.

With whatever my hands find to write, I pray that the efforts involved – from production to publicity – will point others to the King of Kings, the Word of Life, my Blessed Redeemer.

Hands write point to Redeemer

As the pastor at my church stated during a recent sermon on Daniel’s rise to prominence in the Babylonian Empire, all due to God’s divine appointment and his humble obedience: “The greatness that the Scripture teaches is best described by you moving through the world and leaving a wake of the Kingdom of God behind you.”

I will not do this perfectly. The Spirit will inevitably need to convict me, on a repeated basis, and I petition Him to have at it. He knows how much I struggle with craving approval.

I also don’t plan to write exclusively about issues of deep spiritual significance, and occasionally cover more lighthearted subject matter – particularly that of the deprecating, keepin’ it real variety. This is fun for me, and I hope my enjoyment of pouring out some creative juices edifies others and honors God, as much as any mocking commentary about a TV show can accomplish that.

In stepping out on this precarious limb, setting up a platform for my writing work, I ask God to help me make wise choices in His strength, to value His truth above any other opinion or striving for “likes,” and to help me follow Beth Moore’s advice on navigating social media branding:

The answer will be found in serving God as faithfully and as purely as human hearts and souls know how and let Him build His own following and determine who listens to what voice and when.

Serving God with a pure heart isn’t ever easy, and the way forward isn’t entirely clear. Marketing as an author in the Christian publishing industry is risky business, with a danger involving soul-devastating consequences. The uncertainty weighs on me, and I expect to feel apprehension about this platform racket for however long the Lord allows me to write about Him.

But by His grace, I will forge ahead, trusting Him to send forth His Word either through or in spite of me, as I write under my humdrum, exceptionally unremarkable name, aiming to lift high the greatest Name in all the world.

Blast those pesky words of the year

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As an achievement-driven checklist junkie, I’ve long since punted on making New Year’s resolutions. These unnervingly eager declarations are a death trap for those of us planners who’re strong on the start-up and weak on the follow-through. January gets me bursting with fresh ideas and gleaming ideals, then by March I’ve melted into a puddle of guttered expectations. So I’ve learned to take a hard pass on any annual pledges for self-improvement and opted to live my life free from additional regrets and pressures beyond the standard Perfectionist Anxiety Quota.

A newish New Year’s practice buzzed about within Christian subculture today is upping the ante on spiritual weightiness while minimizing the verbiage of gushing “The Best Me I Can Be” resolutions. Face value, the activity sounds appealing, but it carries the potential for guilt infliction as well as a high annoyance factor that predisposes me to poke a little fun at it.

I’m talking about those infernal words of the year people have been posting effusively about ever since January 1st. Also known as #oneword, and not to be confused with the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year (which for 2016 was “Dumpster fire” – how awesome/accurate is that?), this exercise involves asking God to give you a word that will help you grow in your faith and awaken to His presence during the next 365 days.

Considering that I’m a writer, editor, and self-avowed word nerd, I should be all over this trend. People are getting excited about the English language? Huzzah! Better yet, the whole goal of this practice is to know Jesus more, so it’s gotta be golden, right? No chance of exaggeration or misapplication here. *stated with a holy wink*

Notwithstanding these positives, the cynic in me burns to point out the pitfalls of the word of the year undertaking. For starters, how does one petition the Lord for their one word? Is it predestined? Do you receive a prophetic vision? Must you complete a mystical 12-step process to unveil it? If so, count me out; ain’t got time for that when there’re so many “snow day fun” pics to like on Instagram.

What if you ask, but do not receive a word from God? Is it because you lacked faith? Or could He have a higher purpose in withholding a word – perhaps to instead give you AN ENTIRE SENTENCE? And might other believers shun you for this glaring deficiency in your walk? Imagine having to confess this as you join a new Christian ladies’ group: “Hello, and welcome! What is your word of the year? You don’t have one?! Oh, that’s fine, you can go have a seat over there.”

What if you ask and do receive a word, and it’s kinda bizarre? For example, “bumfuzzled.” Or, what if your word was “think”? Would you honestly think about “think” all year long? How meta of you. My concern is that the verbal barrage of two little boys’ separate nonstop monologues might drown out the Lord’s still, small voice and cause me to mistakenly choose a word deriving from the potty vernacular.

All joking and making light of spiritual matters aside, I have several friends whom I respect who participate in this custom and find great value in doing so. As another plus, one of the foremost proponents of one word selection is Margaret Feinberg, an author I enjoy and appreciate for her concept of God’s “Sacred Echo” reverberating throughout the everyday moments of our lives.

So truthfully, I don’t have any legitimate problem with identifying and focusing on a word of the year, and commend others for their commitment to enlivening their faith and seeking Jesus in a specific, thoughtful way.

As I mentioned at the outset, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions because I struggle seeing them through to the end. With the word of the year ritual, I struggle narrowing my scope to a single word and contemplating such a wide swath of time as the calendar year. I’m not a big picture person, so please never ask me to vision cast my life beyond my kid’s next soccer practice.

If I forced myself to condense the past year into a couple major themes God highlighted and repeated at varying times, I’d make a short list: wisdom, joy, surrender, humility.

I don’t know what words or themes He has in store for me in 2017, nor do I feel compelled to spend awhile figuring that out. In my 30ish years of life, He has proven time and time again that He will make known whatever new ideas or renewed perspectives or convicting truths He wants me to realize according to His schedule, not mine – which, to my unending surprise, turns out to be the right way to go, every time.

Maybe the Lord will further surprise/tease me by doing some marvelous work that I’ve previously scoffed at – in this case, giving me one word for the whole year. I just hope He doesn’t call me to make a resolution to throw out my checklists.

My Pinterest party is better than yours

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I had a sobering revelation the other day. While texting a friend about planning speakers and activities for our moms’ group, I discovered a major shortcoming in my life, and perhaps fatal flaw in my involvement helping lead this group:

I have no marketable skills to offer other moms.

Fellow mamas have come and shared their expertise in cooking, couponing, photography, fitness, and DIY home décor. Massively talented women have given us tutorials on floral design, taught us about learning styles, and straight up preached to us about Scriptural truths for nurturing relationships.

And what do I bring to this well-endowed table?

My current list of qualifications includes proficiency in cleaning toilets, experience baking “healthy” and “tasty” treats, and aptitude for completing complex tasks such as driving. Before becoming a full-time stay-at-home mom, I worked as an editor for a company that publishes magazines covering everyone’s favorite subject matter: electrical engineering. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism.

20somethings-be-like

Given the general population’s concern with grammar and spelling, I’m confident I could enthrall an audience with a presentation on verb tense consistency, dangling modifiers, and improper apostrophe placement. Or, I could talk about my infrequently updated blog. I’d call it, How to Write a Melancholy Post on a Serious, Intensely Personal Issue. That’d be a winner, for sure.

There’s another gift I could share with the group, though I hesitate to mention it due to the level of difficulty involved. Out of the generosity of my heart, I’m going to reveal the secrets behind my flair for throwing an epic kids’ birthday party. Don’t fret if you can’t follow this complicated process:

Step 1: Log into Pinterest, search a party theme, and pin your favorite ideas.

Step 2: Execute those copied ideas.

I just know you can’t even.

pinterestparty2

Obviously, I’m joking here. Merely using a little sarcasm, self-deprecating humor, and silly modern colloquialisms to illustrate a point.

We are continually comparing ourselves to others as a frame of reference to evaluate our talents, abilities, and even self-worth. We all do it, all the time. Us moms are particularly susceptible to this temptation, though it applies to any person who falls under the category of Someone Who Is Alive.

Psychologists describe this process through social comparison theory, which suggests that people have an innate drive to analyze themselves in relation to others. Engaging in these comparisons helps us establish benchmarks by which we can make accurate assessments of ourselves.

You don’t need a PhD in Psychology to realize the danger here. Looking at it in the context of motherhood, you can readily find another mom who’s having a bad day and congratulate yourself for having your crap together better than she does. Conversely, you can see another mama who appears to be crushing this parenting gig and walk away thinking you’re a total loser. Problem is, neither of these conclusions necessarily provides an accurate representation of you or your counterparts.

Thus blooms the potential for a person’s descent into insidious introspection, relationship-damaging resentment, and joy-sucking discontentment.

A while ago I was reading about this topic in a Christian self-help book (gotta admit, not my fave genre). To deter unhealthy comparisons, the author proposed several useful strategies and one pretty ridiculous one. These included asking God to show you areas of vulnerability (great), responding with humility and gratitude (awesome), and ignoring everyone around you (huh?).

While I agree that you shouldn’t let comparisons run wild and wreck your life, it seems too simplistic to prescribe a “just say no” treatment to an instinctive cognitive process. It would require shutting down part of your brain, a feat equivalent to getting my energetic 5-year-old to sit at the dinner table for more than five minutes without squirming, fidgeting, or flopping around. Good luck with that.

I think there’s a more effective strategy available for managing the ill effects of upward social comparisons (i.e., you’re better than me).

Let’s face reality and accept that we can’t win at everything. When someone is truly better than us in some way, instead of allowing our deficiency to tear us down, let’s acknowledge their strength and build them up through respectful admiration and earnest imitation.

This radical view on comparisons dawned on me the summer we moved from Missouri to Oregon. As we waited to close on our house, my husband lived at a hotel so he could start work while our sons and I stayed with my brother- and sister-in-law and their two sons. Caring for four boys ages 2 and younger under the same roof was absolute crazy town. Just try to imagine the amount of poop we cleaned and the number of tears we all shed.

My sister-in-law, Kim, and I were a great team, tossing each other diapers when we were in a bind, initiating story time when meltdowns reached critical mass, and high-fiving each other on our way to house-wide naptime. We had ample opportunity to witness each other’s ups and downs and see how the other person handled the stress of raising littles.

The main takeaway from my period of observation? The fact that Kim had a million times infinity more patience than I did. She had a knack for handling conflicts with remarkable composure and on many occasions calmed her kids and mine by maintaining a level head. Then there was me – flipping out whenever my toddler darted off on his own and muttering obscenities every time my infant refused to eat his pureed peas. Compared to my long-suffering sister-in-law, I was a People of Walmart-level Mom Fail.

During a rare moment of logical lucidity, I considered some options for how I could respond:

Option 1: Be pissed at myself for being a terrible mother.

Option 2: Be pissed at my sister-in-law for making me look like a terrible mother.

Option 3: Be impressed by her strength, give her credit for being an awesome mother, and aspire to be like her in this regard.

Recognizing Option #3 was a game-changer for me. I discovered I could skip right over the rabbit hole of self-incrimination leading to the Land of Resentment and jump onboard the Affirmation Bandwagon, cheering others on as they use their talents and emulating their example to become a better person.

Later that summer, when encountering moments of child-induced duress, I tried to pause and ask myself, What Would Kim Do? Would she diffuse the situation by making silly faces or starting a tickle fight? Or would she get down to toddler eye level and ask simple questions to determine the best course of action from the child’s point of view? The bag of tricks didn’t work every time, but it helped me remain calm and act in a more loving manner.

I agree that it is important to “stay in your lane” and keep your eyes focused on the race God set before you (Hebrews 12:1). However, I believe there is value in observing others, not in the spirit of competition, but to appreciate the gifts God has given the whole body of Christ and to spur one another on in the areas where God made you shine (1 Corinthians 12, Hebrews 10:24).

So maybe I use a search engine like a boss and throw a better kids’ birthday party than you do. But I’m certain you have many other fine qualities that I’d love to commend and copy as freely as I do other pins.

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