In 2018, the popular movie Ready Player One attempted to take cyber space imagination to its fullest expression. The real world was hard. And cruel. And pointless. But online, one could be whomever or whatever he or she wanted, with infinite variation, even between online communities. Baked into the plot of the movie is a palpable tension between in-person reality and virtual reality. In one particularly illuminative narrative, while romanticizing the appeal of the social cyber space (called “The Oasis”), main character Wade/Parzival explained, “People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.”
There is an imaginative appeal to the online space. Indeed, people come for all they can do—interaction with friends, debates with strangers, self-expression, self-actualization, self-indulgence. The list goes on. But there is a dark, hidden plot twist in the real cyber world that, if we are not careful, can bring out the worst versions of ourselves. Having come for all we can do, we may be deceived into staying for all that we, seemingly, can be. A new identity. A more actualized and more fulfilling version of myself. The question needs to be asked: Is the online space a safe and appropriate place to be the real me? And perhaps those of us who are in Christ should probe even more deeply: What is the real me like, and is that identity accurately projected in the cyber space?
Not long ago I read Paul Barnett’s Paul: Missionary of Jesus. Among the many invaluable insights I garnered from Barnett’s treatment of the life, ministry and writings of the apostle Paul was a simple passing phrase that I have not been able to shake in the time since I read it. As Barnett explained how the Damascus Road experience affected Paul’s life, he suggested that “Paul had a specific identity, a theology of himself.” From the moment of his Damascus Road experience, Paul’s theology of himself was completely wrapped up in his relationship to and calling in Christ Jesus.
Do I have a proper theology of myself?
A question deserving of honest self-reflection, no doubt. Most Christ followers, especially those who are grounded in the faith, will answer in the affirmative. They are confident in their Christian hope and calling. As they should be. After all, Paul’s contemporary, the Apostle John, insisted that he wrote for this very purpose: “that you may know…” (1 John 5:13). A confident and accurate theology of oneself becomes both the pleasure of those who walk with God in Christ and a driving force for their ongoing engagement in his mission.
But what about online? Do I have a proper theology of my cyber-self?
Not that there are two different selfs. That’s crazy talk. But the perception of such is convincing, especially in our increasingly digitized culture. For example, have you noticed, of late, any particular Christian or church leader who seems to be more vitriolic online than he or she normally is in person? More involved? Less restrained? More malicious? Less controlled? More vocal? Less inhibited? Someone you would say normally exhibits the fruits of the Spirit, but on social media or other online spaces seems to be losing his or her cool, or acting differently in some way?
Why do some Christians act so repulsively un-Christlike in the digital space?
“Why do some Christians act so repulsively un-Christlike in the digital space?”Tweet
In 2004, CyberPsychology & Behavior ran an article by John Suler, Ph.D. entitled, “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” It has been a topic of continued professional study and interaction for almost two decades, especially in the fields of psychology and sociology. In it, Suler identifies six factors that compound to reveal a tension, of sorts, between one’s true self and a “toxic” online variant. He argues that such disinhibition is not necessarily “the revealing of an underlying ‘true self’” as much as it is a “constellation within self-structure.” That is to say, a variance between one’s in-person self and one’s cyber-self is not necessarily the revealing of one’s true nature; rather, it is a revealing of a more complex self-understanding and of one’s expression of that self-understanding.
While I agree that there are not two actual selfs (one in-person and the other online), the biblical Christian worldview does not give a pass to one whose actions, attitudes and words are Christlike in person but divisive or vile online. The Bible has something important to say about one’s self and one’s voluntary and involuntary expression of self:
“The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
“Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)
“But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a person. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, slander.” (Matthew 15:18-19)
Is your online engagement defiling you? If you were to take an honest assessment of your online engagement and hold it up next to what you believe to be true of your self in-person, would the two agree? Or would there be a subtle (or maybe even shocking) duplicity?
Do you have a proper theology of your cyber-self?
What follows is a brief interaction, from a biblical Christian worldview, with Suler’s six factors which compound to facilitate “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” These are meant to be Christian reflections, if you will, on those psychological and psychosocial dynamics that seem to be evident in increasing measure in Christian online interaction. The applications are many, I’m sure. My objective is to give brief and helpful thoughts on how the Bible addresses each of these, and any combination of them, toward the development of a healthy and realistic theology of oneself – including a theology of one’s cyber-self.
1. DISSASSOCIATIVE ANONYMITY
Suler writes, “When people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out… In a process of disassociation, they don’t have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of an integrated online/offline identity.” Basically, online anonymity can feed self-expression with a self-indulged courage that in-person interaction does not often afford. The rules of engagement, so to speak, for in-person interaction are often “temporarily suspended” during anonymous online interaction.
Proverbs 18:1 is helpful here. “One who isolates himself pursues selfish desires; he rebels against all sound wisdom.” There is often a sinful audacity in the dark corners of cyber-social anonymity. Whether the cyber account is technically anonymous or the user simply perceives dissociative anonymity, isolation is the playground of self-indulgence. A biblical theology of one’s cyber-self will not allow the Christian to hide in the dark corners of malicious anonymity.
“There is often a sinful audacity in the dark corners of cyber-social anonymity… isolation is the playground of self-indulgence.”Tweet
I remember, as a young music minister, reviewing a mid-90’s musical for production value in our church. It projected a futuristic theme in which people would eventually be able to see each other on devices while they talked to them in real-time thousands of miles removed. Ridiculous, I thought. That’ll never happen. And here we are, not many years later, with a plethora of videoconferencing and live-streaming options at our fingertips. To see someone’s face while interacting with them in real-time (when possible) is of great importance to interpersonal communication. But where communication is couched in invisibility, there is the real possibility of increased interpersonal complication. Facial expressions, eye contact and body language are removed from the communicative equation. “Even with everyone’s identity known,” explains Suler, “the opportunity to be physically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect.”
When Peter and John heard the lame beggar’s appeal for money, “they looked straight at him,” (Acts 3:4). Ironically, the man was positioned at “the gate called Beautiful” in the temple complex where worshippers were literally to be a kingdom of priests for God. But one by one, worshippers walked right by the man, for decades, and never even looked at him. Peter and John looked the man in the eyes. In that powerful moment he felt seen, valued and known there at the Beautiful gate. A proper biblical theology of oneself cannot be divorced from a proper biblical theology of others. Online engagement is always engagement with real live people, even if they are not seen in the moment. Those cyber-social outlets that rely on written communication alone are ripe for disassociation. Be aware. Christians must guard against the tendency to reduce unseen people to valueless people.
I post something then walk away. You respond. I, in turn, get to it when I’m good and ready. Minutes, hours, sometimes days or weeks pass as a conversation unfolds. This is asynchronous communication. We are talking about the same thing, with one another, but not at the same time. Suler explains, “In e-mail and message boards, where there are delays” in the feedback loop, “people’s train of thought may progress more steadily and quickly toward deeper expressions of benign and toxic disinhibition that avert social norms.” When I can walk away from a conversation then walk back in at my pleasure, I can disassociate myself from the idiosyncrasies of realtime self-expression. I have plenty of time to stew over that comment or to formulate a rebuttal to that challenge. If I am communicating from a position of defensiveness through asynchronous communication, I have the freedom to either take the time to genuinely process what you are trying to communicate or to completely ignore what you are trying to communicate while deepening my own preconceptions and confutations. It becomes a conversational hit-and-run. No one is listening. We’re just talking at and over one another.
“A fool does not delight in understanding,” wrote the wise king, “but only wants to show off his opinions,” (Proverbs 18:2). Asynchroneity in online communication opens wide the door for saying things without ever actually communicating. It is the pursuit of fools, in conversation, to express opinions with no regard for seeking understanding. A biblical theology of one’s cyber-self will keep in mind not only the spatial distance in online conversation, but the temporal distance as well.
” It is the pursuit of fools, in conversation, to express opinions with no regard for seeking understanding.”Tweet
4. SOLIPSISTIC INTROJECTION
A potpourri of historic philosophical idealists contribute to the not-so-modern notion of solipsism in which an advocate would argue that only oneself (or one’s mind) truly exists; the only self of which one can be ontologically sure is one’s own. In the world of cyber communication, as Suler explains it, this might take the form of reading another’s message with an internalized voice or visualizing a conception of the other’s features based on what you think is true or want to be true of the other person. This is solipsistic introjection. “The online companion then becomes a character within one’s intrapsychic world, a character shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by one’s internal representational system based on expectations, wishes, and needs.” Sounds strange, I know. But we all do this regularly when we have conversations with imaginary people in our heads (or is that just me and me?). We work out issues and rebuttal conjectures while conversing, internally, with a figment of our imagination. The other person doesn’t really exist (solipsism), but we have internalized his or her thoughts, feelings and features based on what we imagine would be true of a real version of him or her (solipsistic introjection).
In a theology of one’s cyber-self, it is important to remember that people are real, even online. Every person you interact with in the digital space is a real person, made in the image of God, bearing incalculable intrinsic value as such. God formed them uniquely and wonderfully in their mothers’ wombs; every one of their days is written in his book before a single one begins (Psalm 139:13-16). Online, even when you can’t see them, they are real people with real value to God and to the world he created. Treat them with the respect, dignity, and charity that an image-bearer of God deserves.
“Every person you interact with in the digital space is a real person, made in the image of God, bearing incalculable intrinsic value as such.”Tweet
5. DISSASOCIATIVE IMAGINATION
Some individuals may have difficulty, explains Suler, “in distinguishing personal fantasy from social reality,” even in online social spaces. He offers up for example those who engulf themselves in online fantasy games then interact in other online social spaces without embracing the social differences between the two. An online avatar can become one’s perceived online identity, blurring the digital lines between spaces where that avatar (or persona) is created for fantasy and where the user’s account is created for real connection. In the Christian blogosphere and Twittersphere, this is not uncommon for those who have created an online persona that is in some way different from their in-person reality. Online, however, they are the same, disassociated avatar/persona whether they are commenting on a YouTube gaming demonstration, posting on their personal blog, or interacting on Facebook or Twitter. They have an online image to uphold. Their followers have expectations of their avatar, wherever and whenever they find it on the digital space.
The Lord Jesus had harsh words for such hypocrisy: “They do everything to be seen by others… They love the place of honor at banquets, the front seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people… But you… The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” (Matthew 23:1-12). The Christian with a biblical theology of cyber-self will (1) be the same person online as he or she is in-person, and (2) understand the nuances of different digital spaces and act appropriately within them.
6. MINIMIZATION OF STATUS AND AUTHORITY
Online, “everyone has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself,” explains Suler. “Even if people know something about an authority figure’s offline status and power, that elevated position may have less of an effect on the person’s online presence and influence.” “People are reluctant to say what they really think as they stand before an authority figure,” he goes on. “But online, in what feels more like a peer relationship—with the appearances of authority minimized—people are much more willing to speak out and misbehave.”
Need we delineate the actual examples in our day? How many disparaging tweets regularly target political leaders, community leaders, and others who have perceived relational status? How many Christians feel more empowered to criticize or mischaracterize church leaders or social/political figures online before they even attempt to reach out to them personally for understanding?
Jesus insisted that even the hypocrites above mentioned were to be obeyed because of their position of spiritual authority (Matthew 23:1-2). “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “for there is no authority except from God,” (Romans 13:1). “Honor the king,” Peter instructed, and “be submissive to your masters, with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable,” (1 Peter 2:17-18). In the cyber space, a Christian with a proper theology of his or her cyber-self will not disparage those in authority, even though it may seem a more available place to readily do so.
There is no biblical separation of Christian duty or of Christian morality when the self is expressed online versus when it is expressed in-person. A Christlike attitude and a biblical worldview simply will not allow for such a divergence of expressed reality. Be who you are in Christ – the best version of yourself – whether you are connecting with someone face-to-face or in the digital space. You have come because of all the things you can do. Don’t let the allure of the cyber-space convince you that you can be something you are not intended to be. You came for meaningful connection. Don’t sell your soul for reimagined identity.
“You came [to the digital space] for meaningful connection. Don’t sell your soul for reimagined identity.”Tweet
Have you noticed it too, or am I the only one? Is there an increasing un-Christlike interaction in online spaces among those who are followers of the Lord Jesus? The online space, whether easily perceptible or not, is full of real people who are image bearers of God in need of the redemption and grace that you have found through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus. Treat them as such. And treat fellow believers with the kindness of the Lord there, too.
In the most hostile environments, where it is tempting to disassociate your cyber-self from your in-person self, resist the fleshly pull toward self-gratification and self-exaltation. I leave you with the Apostle Paul’s closing thoughts to a church full of faithful saints who were his cooperating partners in ministry and in grace over the course of many years:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy – dwell on these things,” (Philippians 4:8).
Grace and Peace (in person and online),
 Paul Barnett, Paul: Missionary of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 119.
 John Suler, “The Online Disinhibition Effect” in CyberPsychology & Behavior (Vol. 7, Num. 3, 2004), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8451443_The_Online_Disinhibition_Effect.