Heresy in headlines: Raising questions about our social-media addiction and online buzz

They say most American Christians have little interest in doctrine. Perhaps the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will briefly change that. Yet theological debates can produce lively news stories, and lately heresy has been in the headlines.

Emily McFarlan Miller, a Protestant-beat specialist with Religion News Service, proposed the “Top 5 ‘heresies’ of 2016” in an interesting December 29 piece. Then a January 3 Washington Post article by theologian Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary-California associated the H-word with President-elect Donald Trump because he favors Paula White and other “prosperity evangelists who cheerfully attack basic Christian doctrines.”

Miller’s list has two items that got considerable mainstream media ink:( 1) The ruckus over ousted Wheaton College Professor Larycia Hawkins and whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. (2) Contentions that an ambiguous 2016 decree from Pope Francis means Catholics who remarry without annulments can receive Communion.

The other three debates were mostly limited to evangelical Protestant circles. Philadelphia Pastor Liam Goligher accused theologian Wayne Grudem and other “complementarians” who see wives as subordinate to husbands of heresy in also subordinating Jesus the divine Son to God the Father. The two other disputes involve Georgia Southern Baptist Andy Stanley, said to undercut the Bible’s unique authority and the centrality of Jesus’ Virgin Birth.

Horton spurns the “word of faith” or “prosperity gospel” movement as a merger between the “new thought” typified by Christian Science and Norman Vincent Peale’s “positive thinking.” In addition to White, Horton targets Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen. (White, who will pray at Trump’s inauguration -- see this recent Julia Duin post here at GetReligion -- rejects the “prosperity” label for herself.)

This theological news causes the Religion Guy to contemplate our omnipresent social media.

The incoming U.S. President floats his designs less by white papers and pressers than 140-word tweets, while psychologists warn that youths are dangerously addicted to their devices and many of us spend more hours onscreen than we should.

One plus for the Internet, at least in theory, is the ease of posting Vox Pop comments that could enrich consideration of important matters like religious beliefs. But judging from the 115 comments on Miller’s effort, all too many responses enrich nothing and are incredibly prolix, off-point, or abusive toward those holding different opinions.

“Kangaroo52” bemoans “spiritual bullies.” “Sinner88”  babbles that  believers are “babbling about irrelevant ‘theological’ B.S.” “PsiCop” contends that “Not. One. Single. Freaking. Thing” about any religion can be verifiable, but “Boydlee” thinks “PsiCop” has created “your own homegrown (and half-baked) philosophy.” Inevitably, “Ben” trots out  the “angels that dance on the head of a pin” cliché. “Damien” mocks Christianity’s “three for the price of one” God. “Fast Eddie” joins those veering off into a side issue, and one skeptic offers a repellent depiction of gay sex.

There’s a bit more reason for optimism in the 34 comments about attorney David French of National Review, who on January 2 opined about Democrats’ weak appeal to religious voters. French was analyzing Emma Green’s December 29 Atlantic interview with Michael Wear, former religion specialist in the Obama White House. In that case the 7,059 posted comments were more than The Guy (or anyone else) would possibly plow through.

Regarding French, Charles observes that “secular leftism is a very jealous god and demands universal worship” while Philip says the “progressive cabal” has twisted “free exercise of religion” into limited freedom of “worship” only. On the opposite side, Jason admonishes “judge not that ye be not judged,” but Ronnie trots out a tired slur, accusing French of “Hitler-inspired Mania.”

There’s no way to elevate online discourse except through censorship, but generally that’s a bad idea.

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