What Would Jesus Tweet?

Toby Sumpter has answered some of my recent arguments (and those of others) about the pastoral use of social media here.

The gist of his argument is that Twitter is in fact a particularly Christ-like mode of communication, since Jesus had no hesitation in dropping bewildering, provocative one-liners like “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22), and “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34).  And indeed, we are given to understand in Scripture that Jesus did this intentionally to provoke, bewilder, and offend people, so that “hearing they might not understand, and seeing they might not perceive.”  Toby summarizes, “The point is that Jesus frequently said things in short, pointy ways that not only could be misunderstood, but which frequently were and were meant to be.”  He also points out that while there are problems with a sound-bite culture, humans are called to name the world, as God does, packing massive truths into short, pregnant utterances.

From this he concludes,

But ultimately, it is not a pastor’s job (or any Christian’s for that matter) to make sure everyone understands. Sometimes, God sends pastors and prophets to preach in such a way as to make sure the people don’t understand, to tell parables, and perform prophetic charades until the people are deaf, dumb, and blind (Is. 6:9-10, Mk. 4:11-12). It is not necessarily a failure for the truth to be told in a way that stirs up discussion, demands clarification, and confuses people.”

I have raised some concerns about this argument in a lengthy comment, which you can read in full there; the bullet-point version is this:

  • Jesus generally knew who he was talking to when he made these utterances; indeed, they were usually to an individual or small group.  The tweeter has no idea who is listening in and taking offence.
  • Jesus had the advantage of tone of voice and body language to communicate to his hearers; the tweeter doesn’t, which suggests greater caution is needed.
  • The spoken word carries much more authority than the pixels in a Twitter feed; people are much more likely to stop in their tracks and think hard about a provocative utterance they hear, whereas they are more likely to scoff at something they see on social media (at any rate, I am; maybe I’m just weird that way).
  • Jesus was the Son of God and history’s greatest teacher; at the very least, humility demands a rather large dose of prudence when trying to imitate his boldest teaching techniques.
  • Are we really called to imitate His practice of intentionally inciting the antagonism of his hearers, given that his ministry came as a unique moment of eschatological judgment?

 I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that, while Toby has suggested that this is a question of being willing to “tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” of being willing to be offensive for the sake of the Gospel, I don’t think that’s what’s at issue.  I think that preaching the Gospel will often prove offensive in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.  Telling the truth will get you shunned, accused of intolerance, or burned in effigy.  But it’s because I want to preserve the offensiveness of the message that I don’t want the messenger to be unnecessarily offensive, lest scandal become our daily fare and lose its force.  I want us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, so when we do rile the world up, it’s simply because that’s what the Gospel does, not because we have been wantonly provocative.  If we take too much pleasure in being provocative, the world will have long since dismissed us as chronic cranks before it even hears the scandalous word of the Gospel.  

6 thoughts on “What Would Jesus Tweet?

  1. Bradley

    "It's because I want to preserve the offensiveness of the message that I don't want the messenger to be unnecessarily offensive, lest scandal become our daily fare and lose its force. I want us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, so when we do rile the world up, it's simply because that's what the Gospel does, not because we have been wantonly provocative."Good quote. You should tweet that! 😉

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  2. Matthew N. Petersen

    "I want the offensiveness of the Gospel: I dont want an unnecessarily offensive messenger, lest scandal be our daily fare and lose its force."140 characters.

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  3. Ryan

    You say"Jesus generally knew who he was talking to when he made these utterances; indeed, they were usually to an individual or small group. The tweeter has no idea who is listening in and taking offence."and"Jesus had the advantage of tone of voice and body language to communicate to his hearers; the tweeter doesn't, which suggests greater caution is needed."It seems to me that these objections could equally apply to the Bible. ergo: Matthew should not have written down the words of Jesus, it could be read by anyone, he has no idea who will read it. And by writing down words, he has divorced words from voice and body language, therefore he should have toned Jesus' words down a little more.Obviously, these need to be embodied with people to be understood and interpreted. So the same should be true of Twitter. But for people who take it out of context (Bible or Twitter), that is their fault, and not the speakers. It is not Matthew, or Jesus' fault that they feel unduly offended.

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Matt,Thanks, I'll think about using that if I ever join Twitter. ;-)Ryan,I thought someone might raise that objection—this is of course part of Socrates's problem with writing. The problem using that objection here is that whereas someone can take Matthew 10:34 out of context, because there *is a context*, that is not usually the case with Twitter. Sure, there are some people who tweet a whole series of 140-character snippets that are meant to be read together, but that's not really what the medium is for, or what it lends itself to. Each tweet is, more often than not, an isolated utterance, and one which, by the nature of the medium, is likely to be re-tweeted or Facebooked or whatever in such a way that it will lose even the tenuous context that it had as part of the particular author's Twitter feed. Matthew 10:34, on the other hand, is intended to be read as part of Matthew 10, and that as part of the whole Gospel of Matthew. Most early readers would've encountered it that way; indeed, they would've encountered it as read aloud in the assembly, with all the interpretive context that provides. To be sure, it is possible to tear Mt. 10:34 out of context and fling it about on its own, but we clearly recognize this as an abuse of the medium, and one that can be readily corrected by returning to the original context. With Twitter, there is little or no original context to be abusively ripped out of, or to return to for clarification.Speaking of clarification, I should make sure it is clear that I am not opposing Twitter for any use whatsoever, or even for any pastoral use. I'd just like to see a lot more caution, and a lot more serious attention to the problems with the medium. We Reformed folks are all over the problems with televangelism, or using electric guitars and projector screens as a medium for worship. So why not a similar attention to the pitfalls of social media?

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