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Oh yeah? Well, tweet this!

May 23, 2013

“If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.”  Osmo Wiio

That is one of the accurate but hilarious laws of communication formulated by Professor Wiio back in 1978.  I am sure today that John Piper is nodding his head in agreement.  Earlier this week, apparently in response to the Oklahoma tornado, Piper tweeted the following :

“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.”  Job 1:19

I’ve typed it rather than inserted a copy so you don’t have to see Piper’s smiling face alongside the words.  You can’t go look at that tweet because, wisely enough, he has since taken it down.  To be perfectly fair he also made some follow-up tweets that expressed considerably more compassion.  Nevertheless, the damage was done.  The internet is alive with responses, the vast majority of which express outrage.  You will have no problem finding them and don’t need hundreds of links from me.  I do want to pass on the best one I’ve read, Nate Pyle’s message entitled John Piper’s Incomprehensible Tweet.  It is worth a look and careful reflection.

I will start by saying that I have no idea whatsoever what Piper was trying to communicate via his tweet.  I’d also go on record that my first reaction to the tweet was disgust.  I’d like to believe that, in spite of how I and others took his message, Piper meant well.  Grace compels me to try my best to believe that he is not callous and unfeeling.  On the other hand, his message struck so many as so appalling that I will leave it up to him to deal with the reaction and will not excuse it.

It seems to me that Piper stumbled into the perfect storm at the intersection of theology, technology, and Wiio’s law.  He took a shot, in less than 140 characters, to say something he thought was meaningful and it went horribly wrong.  I suspect that his harshest critic is his own conscience.

I read recently that those in charge of policing religious thought in Saudi Arabia condemn Twitter.  Apparently all users are condemned too.  While eternal damnation seems a bit extreme as a punishment for using Twitter it has an unfortunate history of being the vehicle for thousands of idiotic, nasty, hilarious or incomprehensible attempts at communication.  Piper is not the first to experience this; this isn’t even the first time he’s suffered it.  You would think he’d have learned by now that Twitter is not the ideal home for sound, or unsound, theology.

As I said before, I will leave condemning/defending/explaining Piper’s words to those more qualified.  But what can I learn from this fiasco?

–          The first is that Wiio is right, communication is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding.  This is particularly true when it is written and when it is read by those who don’t know us.  Whenever we tweet (or blog) we assume the risk.  Those who attack Piper will surely be attacked themselves.

–          The second is that theology is always poor comfort.  People who are hurting don’t want or need our theological explanations, even if they ask questions that sound as if they want it.  (Why did God let this happen?)

–          Theology needs to be humble.  At its core, theology is an attempt to systematically understand God, a clearly impossible task.  The result is that competing theologies muddy the water.  Fred Phelps said that homosexuality is to blame.  Pat Robertson is sure that not enough praying is the problem.  Even non-religious “theologies” sound off.  How many atheists say this proves there is no God?  The Daily Show’s producer said God is angry at red states.

–          The desire to understand and explain tragic circumstances is a natural human trait.  Christians add the desire to defend God to that mix.  To live in a world that is unexplained and unexplainable is terrifying.  Events like the Moore tornado disturb us because they burst the illusion of control we try to maintain in our lives.

–          Being “slow to speak” is a good idea, even for those who are critical of others who were not slow to speak.

There is a story about C.S. Lewis (called Jack by his friends) that was dramatized by the BBC some years ago.  In it, Lewis is leaving the funeral of his wife and his priest is walking with him.  The discussion goes like this:

“Faith, Jack.  It is faith that sustains us in times like this.”

“No, Harry.” says Lewis.  “This is all one big mess, and that is all there is to it.”

All I can do for the folks in Moore or for the dozens of smaller tragedies that impinge on my life is cry, comfort, pray and do whatever I can to alleviate the suffering.

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