The Like Culture

Derek Rishmawy wrote a thoughtful article about our online identity, something that has always been of interest to me. I began writing about the like culture in 2011, when I first started blogging an interacting on social media. I was one of those strange housewives who entered the Facebook world pretty late. I didn’t open up an account until I began blogging, and was even more timid about joining Twitter. Now, as a mom of teenagers, I’ve opened up Instagram and Snapchat accounts, not so much for my own interests, but to enter the world that they are living in.

The like button was such a mystery to me in the beginning, and I have to say that it is still something that makes me pause to ponder what it really means and why I would use it. At first, “liking” posts was very tacky to me. Could you imagine if we had a tool like this for actual conversation? Rather than commenting on the truth or value of what is said, just say like. It’s interesting how we use a positive word for an action that is so reductive. 

As we become more and more accustomed to the like culture, we begin to forget to ask important, discerning questions in our online interactions. The value is in the response, or so often in the popularity person who said it, while pause and reflection is like the tree that falls in the woods when no one is there. 

Likes have also become a way of dividing into online alliances. I see this with my teenagers, and I see it in the Christian bubble of social media. Instead of pursuing truth, we are often feeding into our sinful tendency to compare ourselves with others. We can easily begin to calculate the value of what we say by the number of likes we receive rather than the actual content of the post.

Additionally, the more we push that like button, the more we may feed our own illusion of power. “Aimee likes this, along with 13 other people.” Well, if Aimee likes it, it must be good. In endorsing someone else’s published material, we can create our own amateur social media status on what is cool to like. But the joke is on us. What’s really going on beneath all our playful, self-indulgent, liking banter ruse is the fact that it’s all a marketing ploy. Is it a coincidence that I liked a fitness website and now I get ads run on my page for losing weight and breast implants? I don’t know how this whole thing works with spiders and cookies and smart people who put tape over their cameras, but the market clearly gets the value of a like. Our likes are beautiful noise for companies to target us with customized ads.

The Cash Value of a Like:

My teenagers first made me hip to the fact that some people actually buy likes, or pay for apps that will accumulate more likes for them. My heart sunk to think of teenagers objectifying their selves in such a way. Something as trivial as a like or a retweet is turned into a commodity of status. Three years ago I wrote about how likes have become a teenager’s source of validation. Is it just teenagers? I’m afraid not.

I pointed out then that the debacle in which we have pastors using church money to hire a service to manipulate the system and guarantee their books will make the NY Times best seller’s list suggests we’ve reached a whole new sophisticated like. This is what I thought about as my daughters were sharing the reality of the superficial relationships they find themselves in. Where is the hope when we have to wonder about the character of the best-selling pastor?

What’s the integrity in a like? What’s the worth of a 14-year-old with 236 likes? What is the real value of a book on the best seller’s list? And the character of the pastor who wrote it? Or the people buying into the hype? Because there is a message being sold, but it isn’t the gospel.

I told my girls that their meaningfulness will not be measured in likes. As they were walking away, I reminded them, “Smiles are still free!” There’s a simple human gesture that communicates so much more.

And to those who think that deceiving the public by paying for likes is okay if it gets the gospel into more hands, I would like to remind you that the gospel is still free too. God doesn’t need our help to boost his status. Those of us who do write to encourage and instruct in the Christian faith should know that the value of our work won’t be measured in likes and retweets. Much of it will be offensive to the popular notions of spiritual health.

I’ve always believed smart people don’t have to tell others they’re smart, and beautiful people don’t need to advertise. They just are. Exploitation is ugly, and usually used by those lacking in the very thing they are trying to sell. Well-liked people don’t need to brag about how many friends they have, and besides, it’s not always a good thing to be well-liked. And followers are not the same a friends. So, like me or not, I’m going to say what I say. I might not attract the big guns, but I encourage the readers I do have to leave thoughtful comments, be more engaging, and even dislike in your feedback if you think I need some sharpening.  And if you really do like what I have to say, please use the share button, which I think is much more helpful.

I’m still going to like things. I try to equate them with a smile, something I am generous with. I’m still going to retweet. I just want to continue to think deeper about liking motives. Be that tree that falls in the woods when no one is there and take a moment for some reflective questions. It doesn’t matter if no one hears you do it. 

Can I be more engaging in this conversation?  Am I just being lazy in my relationships?  Is this statement true?  Is it propaganda? 

It’s not wrong for websites and bloggers to promote themselves. We need to if we want to bring people to our work. But I do think that sometimes we sacrifice our own classiness by feeding this whole celebrity-obsessed cultural hunger. There has to be some better ways.

*This article is an updated editing and combining of two articles I wrote in 2011 and 2014.

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Renee of France and John Calvin—Friends to the End

The thing I really appreciate about Simonetta Carr is that she likes to hang out a little in the uncomfortable spots when writing about history. Her whole book on Renée of France is about a Reformation figure who was “difficult to categorize”:

For some, she was a devoted daughter of the Church of Rome, misled and deceived by John Calvin and other reformers. For others, a heroine of the Reformation, who kept her faith—with the exception of one painful lapse—in spite of fierce persecution. Some, emphasizing her complaints to Calvin in her last letters, have described her as a fierce ecumenical spirit. (14)

In answering this question of who Renée of France really was, Simonetta Carr gives a bite-sized biography, a “brief look at the life of a woman who made difficult choices and asked stimulating questions—someone like most of us, often baffled by uncertainties, resisting changes, stubborn, and frustrated” (16). It is a great little read which I recommend. But rather than give you a summary or review, as it’s a short book that I encourage you to read for yourself, I just wanted to reflect on something that stood out to me in Renée’s story. And that is my take-aways from the intimate correspondence between Renée and John Calvin.

One reason it stood out to me so much is because all of the sexual tension in the contemporary church. I’m constantly seeing articles about whether women and men should text one another or have a business lunch in public. Renée was in a difficult marriage, so that one could even say she was vulnerable. Duke Ercole II was not happy with his duchess. She was continually stirring up political controversy as the infamous “patroness of banned or endangered Protestants, who were often employed in her service in different capacities”(45). She wasn’t exactly what the church would uphold as a submissive wife.

There isn’t a lot of information of Calvin’s visit to Ferrara, Italy. There isn’t a precise date or duration of his stay or an account of his purposes for his first visit with Renée. He did use a different name, Charles d’Esperville. And he made quite an impact on Renée and her court. Carr points out just how much they had in common, separated by only a year in age and both struggling to live away from their homeland of France. This visit was the beginning of a fruitful friendship of correspondence for the rest of their lives. There’s no romantic scandal here. There is pastoral guidance. But even more than that, Calvin opens up about his personal life with Renée in ways that are uncharacteristic of him. They were friends.

Calvin knew Renée’s influence to advance the true gospel as a French princess and Italian duchess. But Renee stood out to Calvin, and he shares personal reasons for his correspondence:

I have observed in you such fear of God and faithful disposition to obey him, that even without considering the high rank he has given you among men, I have been able to appreciate the virtues he has conferred on you and would consider myself accursed if I did not take advantage of those opportunities to serve you. (35)

He took great care to present Renée with clear teaching on the essential doctrines, as she was up against false teachers in the Este court. As she was going through persecution brought on by her own husband, wavering in her faith, Calvin continues to strengthen and encourage her with gospel truth. He spoke graciously to her in her weakest moments. He was a constant source of counsel for her, in the influence she had and the choices she was making regarding her personal life. Renée didn’t always take Calvin’s advice. She pushed back quite a bit. But there was a mutual respect creating a friendship comfortable with open disagreement and growth. It wasn’t one-dimensional. Calvin also listened to Renée’s concerns and gained from her perspective.

This correspondence lasted all the way to Calvin’s death. Less than a month before he died, Calvin wrote Renée affirming his high admiration for her virtues, asking forgiveness for dictating the letter to his brother “because of my weakness and the pain caused by several illnesses: breathing impediments, [kidney] stones, gout, and an ulcer of the haemorrhoidal veins, preventing every movement with the potential to give some relief” (96). Carr pointed out how uncharacteristic it was for Calvin to talk about himself in such a detailed way. This ended 27 years of correspondence between the two, “the longest and most pastoral correspondence the Reformer ever kept with a noblewoman” (107). Carr points out how Calvin communicated to Renée as he would to a dear friend. 

This is because Renée was more than auxiliary support to men. Calvin didn’t reduce her to one role as the Duke’s wife. She was a sister in Christ with a soul and a mind of her own. She wasn’t even an easy friend, but one who asked hard questions, openly disagreed, and took risks. They were sharpening friends for one another, which produced fruit lasting longer than their lives on this earth. Carr’s book telling their story is one of those fruits.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Only Half of Our Friends Actually Like Us

How many friends would you say you have? I read an article by Bec Crew a while back ago that challenged whether our friendships were as reciprocal as we think they are. He highlights a From The Odyssey Onlinestudy revealing that the feeling is mutual with only about half of the people we think of as friends:

Led by researchers from MIT, the study analysed friendship ties in 84 subjects aged 23 to 38, who were taking part in a business management class.

The subjects were asked to rank how close they were with each person in the class on a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 means “I do not know this person,” 3 means “Friend,” and 5 means “One of my best friends.”

The researchers found that while 94 percent of the subjects expected their feelings to be reciprocated, only 53 percent of them actually were. 

The study is of course limited because of its tiny sample size, but as Kate Murphy reports for The New York Times, the results are consistent with data from several other friendship studies from the past decade, comprising more than 92,000 subjects, that put reciprocity rates at 34 to 53 percent.

This perception gap when it comes to friendship hints at a number of pretty significant problems, from our inability to clearly define friendship and the impact this could have on our own self-image, to us having the wrong idea about the kind of people who could actually affect social change.

While one of the team, computational social science researcher Alex Pentland, suggests that this inability to read people is largely due to us desperately trying to maintain a favourable self image – “We like them, they must like us.” – the concept of friendship is actually really difficult to define.

I would hope that the older people in the study faired better in the perception gap. My teenage daughters have been learning a lot about this very issue. After reading the article I asked myself who I thought my friends were, and began to write down some names. It was interesting to see how many married couples I wrote down together. I was trying to only write down names of people I thought would mutually write my name down on their list. I have to say that I quit because the act of writing my friends names on paper felt very cheapening to our relationship. But it became clear to me that the size of the list would change dramatically depending on the way I defined friendship. I wonder how the study above would have been affected if the categories were more clearly defined between 0 and 5.

For instance, I have a decent amount of people for whom I have affection for and enjoy their presence. But the amount would be reduced by other factors like, people I would share private concerns with, or people I would ask for an inconvenient favor from. Notice I said would there, and not could. That may say more about me than them, but still affects the amount.

The article went on to quote from some friendship professionals for a definition friendship, the problems with our perceptions of it in our culture, and an opinion of how many friends would be good to have:

“Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship,” Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship, told Murphy. “It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”

“People are so eager to maximise efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend,” he says.

But hey, it’s not all bad news. If you cut your friends by half and end up with five true pals who really do love you back, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, says renowned British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar.

According to a recent study led by Dunbar, while 150 is the maximum number of social relationships the average human can maintain with any degree of stability, we’re only able to maintain a mere five close friendships at a time. 

“People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships,” he told The Times.

I imagine friendship as a commodity has always been an issue, but it is so much more apparent with the advent of social media. One thing is for sure: high-quality friendships are a blessing. And they are something worth investing in. How would you define that? We learn a lot about friendship in Scripture. Here are just a few excerpts of the more imperative kind:

A man of too many friends comes to ruin,

But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Prov. 18:24

Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend,

But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.

Prov. 27:5-6

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.  

For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. 

But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.

Eccl. 4:9-10

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

James 4:4

Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.”

 1 Cor. 15:33

I came across an enriching definition of friendship while reading this week from Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, by Dan Brennan:

A friend is one whose presence is joy, ever-deepening relationship and love, ever available in direct address, in communion and presence. A friend is one who remains fundamentally a mystery, inexhaustible, never fully known, always surprising. Yet a friend is familiar, comforting at home. A friend is one who urges human freedom and autonomy in decision, yet one who is present in the community of interdependence. —Anne E Carr

Christians are called to a friendship of the highest quality:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:12-15

So we have the greatest friendship one could imagine. And this makes a strong case for why our perception gap matters. What matters more, how many people we can call a friend, or how many people can call us one?

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

A Needed Perspective on Race and the Church

In a helpful post, Dr. Gabriel Williams addresses certain challenges in the current discussions regarding race and reconciliation. With so much noise and tension and knee-jerk assumptions filling our conversations on race, a calm voice shaped by biblical categories is desperately needed. Dr. Williams is proving to be that sort of voice. You may be familiar with Dr. Williams from the excellent podcast responding to the notion of “gender apartheid” that erupted a few weeks back.

Williams points out that repentence is both necessary and slow. Just as repentance is often a progressive work in the lives of individual believers, so too will the fruit of repentance be rather plodding when it comes to groups of people (churches and denominations).

When a denomination or local church has failed to address pertinent social evils within its ranks in the past, it should not be expected that the full fruits of repentance will occur immediately. Rather, we should expect that the work of the gospel within the church will be slow but steady.

This is a call for forbearance and love, with a long-term view of growing in holiness. Whether we are correcting sins towards minorities or towards women, we should expect that it will take many years (perhaps multiple generations) to fully see the fruits of repentance. Courage is required to stand against long-standing sins, but patience is needed to see God gradually produce the fruits of repentance. May we work through these issues with godly sincerity and with assurance that God will complete this work within his church.
 

Dr. Williams also addresses the problem of applying categories of thought borrowed from secular academics to issues related to race and racial reconciliation within the church. One of the things that has caused concern among many who are reading the material on race being written within the neo-reformed community is that much of it seems to be shaped by secular social theories. Many of these constructs, having arisen from 19th century liberalism and Marxism, are antithetical to Christianity. They simply cannot be zipped onto the gospel and made Christian.

We ought to look to the Scriptures which provide the church with a peculiar vocabulary with which to discuss matters of sin, division, and strife. Dr. Williams makes the following helpful observation:

Although we can learn much from non-Christian researchers (thanks to God’s common grace), we must never assume that academic language and/or theory is morally neutral. In reality, many of the interpretations of sociological phenomena stem from either a non-Christian or even an anti-Christian framework.

It is my experience that Christians can naturally discern this when applied to other academic fields. For example, when Christians speak about the historicity of the Scriptures, we don’t use the naturalistic presuppositions of critical historians and treat the Scriptures as mythology. The same type of discernment should be applied when discussing sociological concepts within the church. When Christians speak about social interactions within the church through the lens of power dynamics, social stratification, and intersectionality, we are not invoking sociological categories that are amoral. The social conflicts of the 20th century demonstrate that it is naïve to believe that academic research is purely objective when interpreting social phenomena; rather, it’s often used as a tool to re-order societal norms.

When these sociological categories are applied to the church, we often invoke tendentious perceptions that see the institutional church itself as being inherently oppressive to minorities and to women.
 

May we continue to pray for the unity and witness of the church. May the Lord grant us grace and wisdom in our dealings with one another. And may we not depart from the mission and the means which our Lord has given us to make disciples of the nations.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.