The biggest “Christian” internet event of the year so far was the prediction that the world was going to end on 21st May 2011 at 6pm in each time-zone. The reaction by Christians has been either to ignore it, to join in lampooning it as extremely stupid, to protest loudly that they have nothing to do with the speculations of Harold Camping or to grow increasingly depressed at the amount of media interest that such an example of a group of Christians being extremely (and publicly) foolish has generated.
Religions are developing an interesting relationship with the internet. It is now possible for any deviant trait within them to find a global expression which can attract the attention and following of others. This is so, not just in the case of Christianity (and the antics of the likes of Camping) but also for Islam, which has struggled with the way Islamists seem to have “grabbed the microphone” for the whole faith and have extended their appeal to young, impressionable Muslims searching for a way to construct their lives around a passionate expression of their faith, whilst only having an early, developing understanding of its theological subtleties. For both fundamentalist Christians and Islamists, it would appear that the internet is like an unguarded, very powerful public address system where the microphone can be grabbed by those who have the most high-impact (if untruthful) message.
This is an uncomfortable experience for Christianity. From the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century up to the Reformation (in the West), the Church had a sufficiently central role in society, with its own internal authority structure, to ensure that deviant voices claiming to speak on behalf of the whole faith could be marginalized and silenced. Even after the Reformation, the churches of Protestantism had a close enough relationship to the secular arm that, again, the most eccentric voices could not get much hearing or public credibility. After the Enlightenment, although freedom of religious practice and speech steadily grew, the mainstream churches had sufficiently allied themselves with the dominant power structures to qualify them as sources of a “rational” religion, as distinct from “irrational” enthusiasm. It was only in America, where traditional social structures were stretched at the margins of western expansion, that marginal, deviant approaches to Christianity could gain a significant hearing. For this reason American Christianity has never had anything like a social or intellectual elite, controlling the significance of which religious discourse was to be taken seriously and which was not. (Americans may wish to point to the constitution which enshrines religious liberty and freedom of speech, but similar constitutions have operated in Europe for almost as long, yet our religious discourses have usually been constrained by a social elite which have severely limited the extent to which deviant discourses have attained public credibility.) With the internet, however, everyone is equally mainstream, everyone equally marginalised. Privileged discourses are under significant threat, especially in the domain of religion. Even the Vatican and the Queen of England have websites which exist alongside those of religious fanatics and political extremists. The public address system is open to absolutely everyone and the microphone is unguarded, ready to be grabbed by the person with the most attention-demanding message. So, in this case, a message that THE WORLD IS GOING TO END AT 6PM ON SATURDAY understandably grabs the microphone of world attention.
There is only one previous situation where Christianity, as a whole faith, has been seriously challenged by eccentric discourses in this kind of way. In the century immediately following the death of the first apostles, the Christian communities, which were small yet globally-dispersed, had to cope with the fact that their faith was expanding into the Graeco-Roman world. That world was one where religious discourses were multiple and where diversity was unlimited. Before very long, the Christian community itself was struggling with the fact that divergent interpretations of its teaching were abounding within its communities. The teachings of those whom the Church came to regard as “heretics” – people like the Gnostics, Docetists and Marcionites – were sitting alongside more traditional interpretations. It was difficult for local Christians to know for certain whether the understanding of the faith held by their local community was the same as that which was held by Christians elsewhere, let alone that which was held by Jesus and the first apostles. Although the New Testament itself recognized that false teachers would emerge (and indeed were emerging) to lead people astray, it did not provide a thoroughgoing way of structuring the discourse of the Church in such a way as to prevent deviant interpretations of the faith of Jesus from eclipsing, or drowning out, authentic interpretations. This came to be a problem in the following century. The Christian concept of “heresy” grew alongside its key response to the problem, which was to develop an understanding of the Church as a structured community, with authorized ministers in each locality (bishops) who represented the local church to the wider community and the wider community to the local church. These bishops acted as points of accountability. They could be identified as sources of either authentic or inauthentic teaching by reference to other bishops elsewhere. Similarly, they could be trusted (by reference to their relationship with other bishops) by the local community as trustworthy teachers, thus inspiring confidence among local Christians that they were not being led astray.
This, of course, is the root of the Catholic vision of the Christian church and indicates that the Roman Catholic (and Easter Orthodox) churches may have less to fear from the internet than do the churches of Protestantism. Ultimately, the Catholic model was originally designed to cope with exactly the problem presented by the internet. Protestants have broken with this model as they believe it has gradually led the Church to a point where its authority is functionally (if not theoretically) independent of the original apostolic teaching which it was designed to serve and protect. Protestants point back to the Bible as the source of authentic Christian teaching. All other sources are second-order to it. However, the Protestant approach comes at the cost of allowing deviant interpretations of the Bible to thrive without any internal mechanism to marginalise them, except through forming allegiances with social and rational validators mentioned above. Yet it is precisely these “meta-validators” which are being systematically removed by the internet. In short, Protestantism has no functional validation mechanisms left to rule out deviant interpretations of the Bible from claiming that they represent the whole of authentic Christian faith. This is exactly what we had with Camping, whereby all that the rest of Protestantism could do was individually and privately to dissociate themselves from Camping’s claims.
What has worried most Christians is the way Camping’s obvious and crass stupidity has lent support to the claim by opponents of Christianity (such as Richard Dawkins) that Christianity is somehow inherently less “intelligent” than atheism. The existence of atheist parties celebrating Camping’s “prophecy” denoument shows that the point is not lost on Christianity’s detractors. Camping and his ilk are a massive impediment to Christianity’s credibility, and hence do severe damage to its mission. The question of validation – of whether a person is genuinely representing mainstream Christian belief – is therefore of considerable importance to all Christians, and especially to Protestant Christians in the age of the internet. It is easy for the Catholic Church to dissociate itself from Camping – after all, he isn’t a Catholic bishop – he doesn’t speak with the Catholic church’s authority. But few non-Christians on the internet are likely to be sufficiently motivated to engage with the only alternative Protestant Christians have in the validation stakes – to listen to a point-by-point rebuttal of Camping with reference to the Bible.
I am left with the conclusion that unless Protestants are able to come up with some kind of global system of validation – or, its converse, dissociation – then the widespread image of Christianity they are going to have to work with in their mission will be a random collection of absurd and less-than-absurd beliefs about what “Christianity” actually is about. Even if one Christian is able to make a coherent argument commending their faith to another person (either by teaching or practice), who is to say if that really is what Christianity is, or whether it’s about – say – a rapture which didn’t happen on 21st May 2011 at 6pm local time.