(This is the unedited manuscript for “SA-3: “On Esther, Daniel, and Exile in Digital Babylon”, which was released on 9/27/21. Like all the other manuscripts I’ve published, it does not contain off-the-cuff additions or spontaneous changes in wording/phrasing during recording. You can listen to this episode wherever you get your podcasts or download the episode directly here)
0: If you saw the length of this episode and freaked out, don’t worry, you’re not alone. This is far and away the longest and most exhausting episode I’ve ever done and, realistically, will likely ever do – this has not been the norm nor will it be the norm going forward! To help you out with this episode, I have divided this episode into parts, and depending on where or how you’re listening to this you may be able to see those divisions, but if not, I’ve listed them in the show notes as well. While I haven’t done this for the prior two standalone episodes released so far, I will also make this manuscript available on my website, which you can find the link for in the show notes as well. Whether you listen to this episode all at once, or in chunks, I hope you enjoy “Esther, Daniel, and Exile in Digital Babylon”
Part One: The Top of the Rabbit Hole
1.1: When Covid-19 exploded in the middle of March, society quickly began moving or relocating as much to the Internet space as they could. Within a month, the then-relatively unknown video conference company Zoom would become our lifeline for meetings, family visits, Bible studies, and more, propping the company to become a multi-generational household name. Restaurants and other businesses that didn’t have an online order infrastructure of some type scrambled to adopt one to keep their workers away from the public as much as possible. Perhaps the biggest transition was the sudden and rapid shift of the entire US education system to online formats, from elementary school all the way to graduate school and anything else in between. For the vast majority of people, especially for those in grade school, this shift was painful and confusing, and we are just now beginning to assess the damage and the loss brought by this necessary and critical, but thoroughly inadequate, educational shift. If you were in college, chances were your adoption of online education went a little more smoothly, especially if you were already an online student in part. If your education was fully online – like mine was – this transition was likely not even a bump in the road, and while others were struggling to adapt to this new learning methodology and context, online students were already prepared and able to keep moving forward.
1.2: For the past two years I have been a full-time student at Reformed Theological Seminary’s Global campus, pursuing a Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies. Before that, I was at West Texas A&M University pursuing the back half of my undergrad, and with the exception of one class, I was entirely online then as well. My thoughts on online education are mixed at best, and once I graduate from seminary I plan on doing an episode or two about online education, but thankfully, when Covid hit, it didn’t disrupt my studies at all, and I was able to keep moving forward without missing a beat. My time at RTS has been absolutely wonderful; they’ve been doing online seminary for quite a while now and their infrastructure and processes are excellent. I’ve yet to have a “bad” class or a class that I haven’t enjoyed or found beneficial in some way, but like every degree plan, there are some classes that impact you more than others and whose lessons will stay with you longer than others. I recently just completed one of those classes, and it was a class I wasn’t expecting to be one of my favorite seminary classes to date: Joshua-Esther, taught by Dr. Mark Futato. I cannot describe how much I loved this class, and how much I was surprised by how much I loved this class. Studying Old Testament history was one of the most exciting and riveting areas of study I’ve had in some time and, unlike most other classes I’ve taken so far, I was sad when it was over. But one of the biggest reasons why I loved that class so much because of a single lecture – a lecture that flipped my world upside down and created a paradigm shift for me in multiple ways, a lecture I even showed to a bunch of my friends because I thought they needed to see it too! This lecture was on the Hebrew Old Testament Canon, and what follows in this episode is how one particular facet of the Hebrew canon led me to connect some dots about a major event in Old Testament history and how that can be a helpful framework for thinking about Christian engagement in the digital world – and if that sounds like a massive and radical leap, I understand. It’s going to take a bit before I can get there, but once I lay the groundwork, I hope the connection will seem more plausible and helpful than not.
1.3: For the majority of this section of the podcast, I need to give credit to Dr. Futato for teaching me this material and for supplying the material that you’re about to hear. I need to give him credit up front because if I didn’t, I would be referencing him nearly every other sentence, and that would be annoying. I also need to make clear that this section is purely a Cliffnotes version of this topic and that there is quite a bit that I am intentionally leaving out – if you’re interested in this subject, I’ll recommend a couple of books in the show notes for you to check out. But let’s start with the idea of “canon” – what does that mean? Simply put, the “canon” is “the books of the Bible recognized by the church as inspired and authoritative for faith and life”(1). All three major branches of Christianity – Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox – share the same NT canon – that is, they contain the same list of books. For the Old Testament, the Catholic and Orthodox church recognize more books in the OT than Protestants do, and in the Protestant Reformation the Protestant canon reverted back to the list of books found in the original Jewish canon of the Old Testament.
1.4: The Jewish Old Testament, or properly known as the Tanak, contains the same books that we would find in our Old Testaments today. But, if you picked up a Tanak, you’d notice that they books aren’t listed in the same order as our modern English Bibles are – at least, not all the way. The Tanak starts off with the Pentateuch just as our Bibles do, so you start with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The next major division of the Tanak is the Prophets, and within the Prophets are two sub-divisions known as the “former Prophets” and the “latter Prophets”. The Former Prophets include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings are treated as one text for the most part), and the Latter Prophets includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and then the “Book of the Twelve” minor prophets. Anyone who has ever tried to memorize the Old Testament knows that trying to memorize the Minor Prophets is far and away the biggest memorization headache, and while the Jewish canon treats each book as it’s own text, it collectively refers to them as “the Book of the Twelve” – imagine how much easier your Bible Drill memorization routine would’ve been if you could’ve just said “the Book of the Twelve” and be done with it. Finally, the last major division of the Tanak are the Writings, and this is the division most unlike our English Bibles. The Writings includes Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (treated as one text), and Chronicles. This is where our sense get thrown off because we tend to think of books like Ruth, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles as being historical books, and Daniel is often considered a prophet, so why is he not with the rest of the Prophets?
1.5: This is where a comparison to our English Bibles will hopefully help us to begin making sense of the differences. Our English Old Testaments are not divided according to Law/Prophets/Writings, but according to Law/History/Poetry/Prophets – there are four divisions instead of three. I’m not going to go through the list of the books of the Old Testament a second time around but if you’ll notice that the English divisions of Law/History/Poetry/Prophets are based on a particular kind of division; a division of genre. All of the books relative to the establishment of the Mosaic Covenant and the Law remain grouped together in the Pentateuch, just as it is in the Tanak, but the similarities end there: in the English Old Testament, all the History books are grouped together, all the Poetry books are grouped together, and all the Prophetic texts are grouped together. From there, you can subdivide those divisions by chronology and authorship, but the primary rationale for the division is based on genre. The history behind how the English canon changed to what it is today is pretty fascinating, but not really relevant here: the main thing you need to know is that the English canon puts a different emphasis on the books than the emphasis they originally had. So if the emphasis of the English divisions of the OT was to emphasize genre, what is the emphasis of the divisions and ordering of the Tanak? This is where things get awesome, and I genuinely mean that. Simply put, the emphasis of the divisions of the Tanak is based not on genre or literary features, but on the purpose of each set of books relative to the story of the entire Old Testament. In the Pentateuch, of course, you have the Law. In the Prophets, you have the account of Israel’s descent into apostasy and exile in the former prophets, and you have the theological explanation for why Israel went into exile in the latter prophets. In the Writings, you have all of the books pertaining to how to live as the people of God wherever you are at, whether before the exile, during the exile, and how to hope in the promised Messiah after the exile. The emphasis on the divisions of the Tanak is to highlight the “forest” of the story and flow of the Old Testament. Dr. Futato, in his lecture, gives this outstanding hypothetical scenario where you get on an elevator ride with someone and they ask you “what is the point of the Old Testament?” If you opened up to the table of contents of your English Bible and tried to explain the point of the Old Testament based on how the books are divided and arranged, you’d have a pretty difficult time! But, with the Jewish order in the Tanak, you would be able to point to the Law, Prophets, and Writings and show the big picture and flow of the Old Testament story. As Jewish scholar Marvin Sweeney describes it, the Law show the ideal established, the Prophets show the ideal unrealized as the people of God are sent into exile, and the Writings show the ideal restored as the people of God return from exile and wait for the coming Messiah. Thus, within the divisions of the Tanak, the books are grouped together not according to authorship or genre, but according to purpose, because the divisions of the Tanak are according to a particular purpose in telling the story of the Old Testament.
1.6: Let’s use the book of Chronicles as an example. Who among us actually enjoys reading 1-2 Chronicles? When it comes to reading through the Old Testament, the books of Leviticus and the first half or so of 1 Chronicles are often the two hardest books to get through. In our English Bibles, 1-2 Chronicles comes after 1-2 Kings, and based on that placement, 1-2 Chronicles feels like a redundant re-telling of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings that we don’t necessarily need. Yet in the Tanak, Chronicles is the very last book of the Old Testament – why in the world is it placed there? Well, if the primary emphasis of the Tanak is on the overarching story of the Old Testament, then the order of the books themselves must be more concerned with prioritizing it’s role within the canon more than its genre or other literary features. For Chronicles, the role is twofold: the book of Chronicles presents an idealized re-telling of the history of the kingdom of Israel as a nation experiencing the grace of God in being restored from exile, and it sets the stage for the coming Messiah who will build the true house of the Lord and bring about the restoration of all things(2). Chronicles essentially closes out the Old Testament by speaking a eulogy, or “good word”, over everything that has happened – just like a eulogy at a funeral, the audience doesn’t need to be reminded of all the terrible things someone may have done or experienced in their life, and that information is in their minds even as the preacher or loved one explains all the good things about the deceased. The original audience of Chronicles didn’t need to be reminded of all the bad things that led up to their exile and return – they knew full well the history of the sins of their people, and yet as the people of God, Chronicles speaks a eulogy of grace, forgiveness, and confirmation that God has not abandoned his people, and that God will fulfill all his promises to his people to bring a Messiah through the lineage of David to build a house and kingdom that will never be destroyed. I don’t know about you, but that is not what I think about when I think about the book of Chronicles – or at least, that’s not how I thought about before hearing this! The placement of Chronicles shapes the interpretation of Chronicles, because the primary emphasis of where Chronicles is placed is because of the purpose Chronicles is supposed to serve in telling the story of the Old Testament.
1.7: This principle also extends to groups of books as well, especially in the Writings. Greg Goswell, in a JETS article covering the Hebrew canon and it’s purposes and themes, notes that “where a biblical book is placed relative to other books influences a reader’s view of the book and so influences interpretation. The reader naturally assumes that the placement of books in close physical proximity implies that they are in some way related in meaning (3).” For the English canon, that relation is that books grouped together share the same genre, but what about books that are grouped together for a similar purpose? Let’s use Proverbs and Ruth as an example – in the English canon, both books belong to fundamentally different genres, but in the Tanak, Ruth immediately follows Proverbs. What is the purpose of putting these two books together? To start, let’s look at the book of Proverbs – what is in the last chapter of the book of Proverbs? The Proverbs 31 woman, or the “woman of noble character”. What if I told you that the only other place in the Old Testament where the phrase “woman of noble character” or “excellent wife” or however your Bible translate it is found in the book of Ruth – and what if I told you that the reason why Ruth appears immediately after Proverbs is to provide a real flesh-and-blood example of what the Proverbs 31 woman looked like? Of course, there is more to the book of Ruth itself than it’s connection to Proverbs 31, but it’s placement in the Jewish canon is primarily based on the surrounding material – the chapter immediately preceding the book of Ruth details what a “woman of noble character” looks like, and then Ruth enters the scene to demonstrate what the Triune God and Author of the Sacred and Holy Scriptures considers a “woman of noble character” to be. In our English Bibles, Ruth appears in between Judges and Samuel as a chronological bridge between “the time of the judges” at the beginning of Ruth and the birth of David, Ruth’s eventual descendant; essentially, Ruth is the prequel or backstory to the coming of David. In the Jewish canon, Ruth is the woman of noble virtue, an example for how the people of God are to live.
1.8: Proverbs and Ruth aren’t the only example of this – at last, we finally arrive at Esther and Daniel. To refresh your memory, after Proverbs and Ruth comes Song of Song, Ecclesiastes, Lamentation, Esther, and Daniel, then the OT closes out with Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. Dr. Futato hypothesizes there are two divisions within the Writings with Psalms serving as an introduction to both of them: Job through Ecclesiastes are about life in the land pre-exile, and Lamentation through Chronicles is about life in the land after the exile. Within the post-exilic half of the division, you have three books – Lamentation, Esther, and Daniel – covering life during the exile, and then the latter two books – Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles – covering life immediately after the exile, with Ezra-Nehemiah detailing the history of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and the temple and Chronicles written, as previously mentioned, as a “eulogy” of sorts over the entire Old Testament as the people wait for God to fulfill his promise for a Messiah. The laments comprising Lamentations take place from the point of view of someone who was not taken off into captivity after Jerusalem was destroyed – these are the divinely inspired laments of the people who either stayed behind (or more accurately, were left behind) in a condition of ruin, devastation, and destruction so unimaginable that lament is the only appropriate response to the horrors one would’ve witnessed. But for those who were taken off into exile – by the Babylonians and later ruled by the Persians – what would be the appropriate response to living in exile? The examples of Esther and Daniel in their respective books. Just as Ruth is placed next to Proverbs as being (among other things) an example of the Proverbs 31 woman, Esther and Daniel are placed after Lamentations and before Ezra-Nehemiah as examples of what faithful obedience to God in exile looks like, with Daniel as a reference for men and Esther as a reference for women. Esther and Daniel both were courageous individuals who found themselves forcibly uprooted and planted in a context they did not choose to be in and rather than running away and hunkering down in their exilic communities, they worked with wisdom, graciousness, and humility within pagan and wicked systems to glorify God, and God worked through their faithfulness to secure provision and blessing for his people, especially in Esther’s context, where her courageous obedience and boldness saved the Jewish people from certain annihilation. Esther and Daniel’s purpose in the Jewish canon of the Old Testament is to highlight what obedience to God in exile looked like, and provide examples of how the people of God today might live in exile wherever they’re scattered in the world today. When you think about Esther and Daniel in the context of your English Bibles, is that what you think about? Or do you think about Daniel in terms of his status as a prophet, or Esther as being simply the story of a princess who saves her people? What if they’re more than that?
1.9: Now, at this point, I think I need to make a couple things clear before we move on further here, because I have thrown out quite a bit here so far. First and most importantly, more theologically astute listeners will likely be frustrated (and understandably so) that I took a very long and awkward detour towards arriving at an idea that Scriptures make pretty clearly, namely the idea that the exile is a prominent framework in both the OT and the NT for understanding how Christians should engage with the world. This is far from a new or novel idea, and there is no shortage of work at the academic and popular level detailing how the exile plays a significant part in shaping Christian ethics, and often those works include plenty of references to Esther and Daniel as being examples and references for Christians today. In fact, I debated delaying this episode a month in order to completely re-write everything you just heard and give a more straightforward introduction to the topic of the exile and how it might relate to us today. Ultimately, I decided against that for several reasons, and the biggest reason being that I want to highlight the value that biblical studies can bring to understanding the world we live in today, especially Old Testament biblical studies. Theological studies are critical and vital to understanding our world and understanding how Christians are called to live in it, but theological studies tend to dominate the landscape in Christian publishing and even more so in current Christian publishing regarding social media engagement. While I don’t think this is intentional at all, the impression one may get is that biblical studies may get too deep into the weeds of the text of Scripture itself to be of any use to us today, and I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I think biblical studies excels at taking lofty or abstract ideas contained in Scripture and grounding them in the lives and experiences of the individuals we read about in Scripture, and can help localize a “big picture” idea like exilic Christian ethics in the lives of actual people who lived in exile and their experiences – in this case, Esther and Daniel. There are limitations to this, of course, but I don’t think those limitations make this an unfruitful or dangerous line of thought and may connect to people in ways that talking about the big-picture idea may not. We may live in the New-Testament church, but as Paul tells us in Romans 15, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Old Testament has plenty to say to us today, and in some surprising ways.
1.10: Now, having said that, I need to make clear that while I think biblical studies is helpful here, not every topic under the biblical studies umbrella is as clear or necessary for the Christian life. Specifically, the topic of the placement of certain books in the Jewish Tanak is an incredibly niche topic and one that is not required to be believed in order to understand the Bible correctly. I do think the contrast between the two canon orderings, with the English canon ordering’s emphasis on genre and literary features and the Jewish canon ordering’s emphasis on canonical purpose, does lend itself to being able to see this idea more clearly than if I had tried to argue for it just from the text itself. But make no mistake – this is not something that is required to be believed or taught to be a mature Christian who rightly handles the word. I find this subject absolutely fascinating, and in my term paper for that class I argued that teaching the Jewish order of the Old Testament may be a potentially fruitful strategy for helping Christians understand the point and purpose of the Old Testament. At the same time, though, I do want to take Greg Goswell’s warning regarding this topic seriously: In some quarters there is a lack of recognition that the (differing) order of the biblical books is a paratextual phenomenon that cannot be put on the same level as the text itself. Whatever order is adopted as a starting point, it is a reading strategy and must be viewed as such. A prescribed order of reading the biblical books is in effect an interpretation of the text. Sometimes this is lost sight of in the enthusiasm for erecting a theology of the OT based on the Hebrew Scriptures structured as Tanak, with the threefold canonical structure made determinative for OT theology (4). If you’ve ever gone through seminary or have a friend or loved one who has been through seminary and at some point in their studies they get fixated on this obscure idea or teaching or individual and become convinced that this is the lost and missing key to fixing all the problems in the church, you might be hearing the same level of enthusiasm here, and I am fully aware that this topic is, for me, a “seminary lightbulb”, and I need to keep my enthusiasm for this topic in context to my circumstances. The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is also a helpful guide here as well: the most important truths of Scripture necessary for saving faith in Jesus and obedience to God are the clearest things taught in Scripture, and while secondary and peripheral topics in Scripture are important by virtue of being the inspired words of God, the lack of clarity and increased obscurity or difficulty in understanding those topics should help guard our desire to make these things the primary or principle focus of Scripture, since Scripture clearly doesn’t treat them that way. This topic is, without at doubt, a peripheral topic, and one that countless faithful saints have never heard or thought about and still lived lives of faithful and holy obedience to Christ as elect exiles journeying towards the heavenly city.
Part Two: Introducing Digital Babylon
2.1: Which, at this point, it’s time to start connecting some dots and get into the point of this episode. I think the Old Testament exile and all that goes with it – including Esther and Daniel in the context of the Babylonian and Persian exiles and the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, can give us a helpful framework or model for thinking about Christian engagement in digital spaces, specifically social media spaces. If Esther and Daniel are given as examples for how to live godly and obedience lives in exile in Babylon and Persia, does their example have anything helpful for those of us who are currently called to exile in Digital Babylon – that is, for those of us forced, to some degree or another, to participate in the oppressive and destructive media ecosystems of social media empires? We are at the point in this social media experiment where most of us have likely attempted to “escape” social media at some point, only to be required by God’s providential circumstance to return to participating in it in some way. “Going off the grid” or living a life of pure “digital minimalism” is a luxury very few people are able to enjoy. Just as Judah could not go back to a time before Babylon showed up on their doorstep and destroyed the city walls and the temple and ended the Israelite theocratic monarchy for all time, we cannot go back to a time before Facebook and Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, SnapChat, TikTok, and all of these other platforms came into our lives and destroyed the relational and social walls of our society. There may come a point someday in the future where those walls are able to be rebuilt, but in the meantime, what do we do once we are finished weeping by the shores of digital Babylon at the destruction wrecked by social media in our world?
2.2: Obviously, when we are talking about the exile of the people of God in the Old Testament, we are talking about two fundamentally different groups of people: those that were carried off to Babylon, and those that remained in the land after the destruction of Jerusalem. I am waiting until the next section to define and flesh out what I mean by “social media ecosystems” in the next section, but for now, if participation in social media ecosystems is the equivalent of being carted off to Babylon, remaining “off the grid” or living a meaningful life of digital minimalism is the equivalent of remaining in the land – except those two parallels could not be any more different from each other. For context, the fall of Jerusalem did not happen overnight – the first deportation to Babylon came from the siege of Jerusalem in 605 after Egypt was defeated by Babylon in the Battle of Carcimesh, the second deportation was eight years later in 597, and the final one came roughly a decade later in 587 after another Babylonian siege of the city. By the time the third deportation occurred, a good number of the “important” or prominent people of Judah had already been taken into exile – for example, when we read at the beginning of Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem and besieged it and the Lord gave King Jehoiakim into his hand, we are reading about the first Babylonian deportation, not the final one. In the second deportation, it’s generally believed that Ezekiel and Jehoiakim’s son, King Jehoiachim (not the same person), were taken into exile in that time as well. By the time you get to the final deportation in the destruction of the city, Judah’s population is a fraction of what it once was, and those that are left to remain in the land are the elderly, the poor, the sick – people that the Babylonian empire doesn’t want to take care of, or who wouldn’t survive the journey. What follows for those who remain in the land is powerfully and graphically captured in the book of Lamentations, and it is among the most horrifying and disturbing words breathed out by God in the divine inspiration of his sacred Word. By contrast, those who “remain in the land” with respect to Digital Babylon are often considered blessed and joyful that they are able to enjoy life in the “real world” to a high degree. Those that are able to live “off the grid” are usually able to do so because of strong family and community commitments to stay off the grid, or have the privilege that allows them to outsource certain professional responsibilities and obligations to others that enable them to live to a high degree of digital minimalism, which allows them to make the most of hobbies, traveling, silence and solitude, in-person networking and professional development opportunities, and more. Those of us who are in exile in Digital Babylon often wish we weren’t, and that we were able to enjoy life in the land to its fullest extent. However, this healthy and blissful conception of “life in the land” is the polar opposite of what “life in the land” was like for those not carried off in the Babylonian exile, and I need to make that disconnect clear up front because that is a significant and critical point where this framework or analogy breaks down.
2.3: But even though the “life in the land” imagery does not match the Biblical description of “life in the land” post-exile, I think the description of social media ecosystems as “digital Babylon” actually holds up quite strongly. The historic Assyrian empire had long been a major terror to Israel and considered Israel’s biggest threat, but Assyria would be nothing compared to Babylon. The historic Babylonian empire had a rapid and meteoric rise to power and quickly overshadowed the nation of Assyria and destroyed it; if Assyria was terrifying to the imagination of the average Israelite, how much more so the nation that comes out of nowhere and demolishes Assyria? As an evangelical youth ministry kid in the mid 20s I remember my two wonderful youth ministers trying to navigate the perilous waters of MySpace with us students and how it was such an annoying thorn in their side, but MySpace would be nothing to the Facebook and their rapid and meteoric rise to power that quickly overshadowed MySpace and destroyed it. After a prolonged period of rule and power over, the historic Babylonian empire would eventually be conquered by the Persian empire, just as Facebook enjoyed a prolonged period of rule and power and, while it remains the largest social media ecosystem today (especially if you include Instagram and WhatsApp), the TikTok empire now threatens to conquer everything – or at least, force every one of it’s competitors to play on its own terms. When I talk about social media ecosystems, I am primarily referring to three things: the social media platforms themselves, the companies responsible for designing and controlling those platforms, and the effects those platforms have on our environment. If we were to stretch the analogy to their historical counterparts, the platforms themselves are the land and territory of these empires, the companies are obviously the government and ruling elite of the empires, and the effects of the platforms are the same as the effects of these empires on the environment. In speaking of social media ecosystems, you can speak of a particular individual ecosystem, such as Facebook the platform, Facebook the company, and Facebook’s effects on society, or you could tap into another dimension of Bablyon’s portrayal in Scripture and speak of social media ecosystems collectively as one unified force. In the Old Testament, references to Babylon are references either to the nation state of Babylon or its prototype in the tower of Babel. In the New Testament, the nation state of Babylon no longer exists, but the New Testament church uses the historic nation-state of Babylon and its historic oppression, subjugation, and wickedness as a “pattern” or “example” for the global world and it’s oppression and wickedness that will be destroyed in the coming of New Jerusalem. This technical term for this is “typology”, and I really appreciate Michael Lawrence’s description of typology in his book “Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church”: “God not only speaks, he is also the Lord of history. This means that God providentially orders events and individual lives so that they serve to prefigure what is to come. The Scriptures therefore record the lives of real people and events that serve as historical analogies that correspond to future fulfillment.’ . One of the best examples of this is found in the closing address of 1 Peter, where Peter writes in 5:13a that “She who is in Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings…” Peter is using Babylon is a stand-in for the nation of Rome, whose wickedness and oppression of the church in the New Testament is comparable to Babylon’s wickedness and oppression of the people of God in the Old Testament. Later on in Revelation, Babylon will be used to represent not just a single nation, but the entire collective force of the kingdoms of the world under the rule of Satan, the total culmination of the offspring of the serpent whose collective wickedness and oppression of the offspring of the promise will be destroyed once and for all as the total culmination of the offspring of the promise is freed from Babylon’s grip once and for all as they enter New Jerusalem and participate in the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come. “Digital Babylon” can refer to both realities and uses of Babylon in Scripture; it can refer to individual social media ecosystems of Facebook, YouTube, or TikTok as the parallel to the individual nation state of Babylon, Assyria, or Egypt, or it can refer to Babylon as the composite and total social media ecosystem whose wickedness and oppression of the world – and yet destined and doomed to destruction. And if this comparison seems absurd or ludicrous, listen to how Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang report Facebook’s own description of themselves in July’s recently published “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination”: “As a private global company, Facebook did not want to engage in geopolitical skirmishes, and it certainly didn’t want to be in the middle of contentious national elections. Facebook was, above all, a business. It was a line of thinking that came directly from Zuckerberg. In Facebook’s earliest days, when their office was still a glorified loft space, “Company over country” was a mantra the CEO repeated to his employees. His earliest speechwriter, Kate Losse, wrote that Zuckerberg felt that his company had more potential to change history than any country – with 1.7 billion users, it was now in reality already larger than any single nation.  If Zuckerberg, from the earliest days of Facebook, saw his company as being comparable to a nation – not just in terms of population but in terms of the scale of impact Facebook could have on world history and the kind of geopolitical and national skirmishes they could potentially be dragged into – is it too much of a stretch to identify Babylon as the nation Facebook and it’s rivals embody?
Part Three: Application One – The Reality of Exile
3.1: So, having said all this, let’s get practical. For the rest of this episode, I want to outline three potential applications that I think arise from this framework of seeing social media ecosystems – both individually and collectively – as embodying Digital Babylon, and how the Old Testament exile, including the lives of Esther and Daniel, can give us helpful examples of how Christians can live and navigate their lives within their exile in Digital Babylon. The first application seems a little obvious, but is perhaps the most personal out of all the applications here: just as the Babylonian exile was unavoidable (past a certain point), being sent to exile in Digital Babylon is also unavoidable, which means you shouldn’t blame yourself if you can’t escape it. The seeds of the Babylonian exile can be seen all the way back in the covenant stipulations of Deuteronomy, and after the Lord sends numerous prophets to Israel and Judah and warns them of what might happen to them if they don’t repent, eventually the Lord says that exile to Babylon is no longer avoidable. In fact, in Jeremiah especially, the Lord tells the people of Judah that if you surrender to Babylon and don’t resist them, you’ll actually live and escape with your lives. There came a point in time in the nation’s history where resistance was futile, and it was better to submit to the plans and purposes of the Lord than it was to try to fight back against his appointed destroyer. The parallels for us today are in that we are really past the point where the threat of Digital Babylon is a threat we could potentially avoid if we got our collective act together, not only in society in general but especially in the church as a whole. As I mentioned earlier, we can’t go back to the world that existed prior to this world shaped by the social media ecosystems of Digital Babylon, and in the world that exists now, it is very difficult to leave Digital Babylon completely. Unless you are blessed with the kind of tight knit family or social communities that collectively commit to resist participating in Digital Babylon together, or you’re privileged enough that you have status, connections, influence, or support systems in place to where you personally do not have to participate in Digital Babylon, chances are that you’re likely participating in some corner of the empire. Now, to be clear, not all forms of participation are created “equal”, and there is a very wide spectrum where some types of participation are more justified than others. However, the one thing that’s common on every point of that spectrum – whether you simply maintain a LinkedIn or Facebook account for professional networking or you’re uncontrollably spending hours a day on TikTok or YouTube – is that you can’t fully leave even if you really want to. Whether by necessity or compulsion, you’re stuck in these ecosystems – you’ve been sent to exile in Digital Babylon. And yes, it is true that you do have agency and choice in what you do while your in Digital Babylon, and in many senses, these applications are meant to help you figure out what you do while in Digital Babylon, but unless your circumstances change, participation in Digital Babylon is where the Lord has placed you in his providence – if you’ve tried to leave Digital Babylon completely and get off social media completely but ultimately returned to it after a while, there’s a reason why. Or, if you’re like me and the Lord has blessed you with the wisdom, understanding, and skill necessary to navigate Digital Babylon well and utilize it’s resources for the benefit of the church, leaving Digital Babylon would be direct disobedience to the Lord in fulfilling the calling he has given you. This particular application is the most personal to me because, despite how much I talk negatively about social media and genuinely believe it is a wicked and cancerous blight on our world, I have been a social media manager for a church for five years now – and that’s not a path I chose for myself. As a ministry intern, I was given responsibility over our social media and happened to fall down a rabbit hole where it quickly became apparent that I was good at this, and the majority of my work over these past five years have been in the realm of social media management, and this was a source of confusion and pain for me for a long time. Prior to my internship, I had several years as the head audio engineer at a Christian camp and had a degree in radio and TV production – if I wanted to get into the media industry, I didn’t need to be a ministry intern! I didn’t quite realize this at the time and can only see it now with the benefit of hindsight, but one of the major motivations for season one of this podcast was a desire to escape and run away from exile in Digital Babylon – I had recognized that God had prepared me and equipped me uniquely for this, and I did not want to go there, and I wrote 100,000+ words trying to argue my way out of it. I long for the day when I no longer have to participate in these awful environments, and don’t have to witness firsthand the disgusting debauchery and degrading decadence of Digital Babylon on my world and especially on the church. I long for life in the land, where I don’t feel the addictive pull towards refreshing a feed or have the clarity of mind that comes from a lack of Twitter Brain (not my term) or the grief that comes from watching people I know and love in real life conduct themselves with godless shame online, or the horror of watching people I know who used to be smart, kind, and compassionate be swallowed up in the principalities and powers of misinformation and disinformation. I long to see the destruction of Facebook, whose wickedness we recently learned reaches even more awful and unimaginable heights than previously thought, as the Wall Street Journal recently revealed in their “Facebook Files” expose series. I long for a life where I am able to fully enjoy my Father’s world and all the blessings and wonder it contains with my wife, family, and friends, free from Digital Babylon’s corrosive influence. That day has not yet come, and I suspect that for many people, there is a longing to see that day come in their own lives as well, and yet no matter how much they try to hasten that day, they find themselves being brought back into captivity.
Part Four: Application Two – Engagement in Exile
4.1: The second application builds off the first, and is easily the most comprehensive and multifaceted: biblical engagement in Digital Babylon is not a call to make Babylon into Jerusalem. if exile to Digital Babylon is unavoidable, what do we do? How do we live? For those who were carried off into biblical exile, they only had three options: on one extreme, they could be physically present in Babylon, but isolated and clustered around their own communities and only step outside those communities when absolutely necessary, and on the other extreme, they could seek to assimilate completely into Babylonian culture and society and discard their Jewish identity altogether. Neither of those options – total cultural isolationism or total cultural assimilation – were what the Lord commanded for the exiles. Instead, the Lord commanded a third option: ordinary engagement. Listen to what Jeremiah wrote in his letter to the Babylonian exiles: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” . Notice what God does not call the exiles to do here: God does not call the exiles to do anything spectacular or extraordinary in an attempt to transform the city of Babylon into Jerusalem. Everything the Lord commands here – building houses, planting gardens, getting married and starting families, and prayer – are all ordinary, common, and regular actions and experiences. The Lord calls them not to reform or transform the city, but only to seek its genuine welfare and wellbeing through obedience in ordinary, everyday obedience to God, and God promises to provide for the welfare of his people in their obedience in seeking the city’s welfare. Notice the difference here: the kind of engagement the Lord commands the exiles here is not the same thing as seeking to “transform” the city into something completely different. The bar is significantly lower; every member of the exilic community could participate; there is no pressure that if they don’t try hard enough or work hard enough that they will fail in what God has called them to do. God has not called them to transform Babylon into Jerusalem; he has simply called them to engage in it with their ordinary obedience to him, and for those of us in exile in Digital Babylon, this is our calling as well.
4.2: I think it’s worth spending some time talking about the idea of “engagement” vs “transformation” because so much of American evangelicalism is steeped in the language and idea of “transformation” and, despite the best of intentions, this idea is ultimately not the best reflection of what God has actually called us to do in Scripture. Yes, it should be said up front that we do see the language of “transformation” in Scripture, such as in Romans 12:2, where we are called to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” I am not saying that the idea of “transformation” is not found in Scripture, because it certainly is, but it’s important to see where that the language of “transformation” is and is not applied to: specifically, God has not called Christians to transform their cultures and their societies and make the city of man into the city of God. Now, I know that as soon as I say that, you may be tempted to hear what I am not saying: I am absolutely not saying that Christians shouldn’t try to make their world a better place. In the passage we just read a few minutes ago, Jeremiah told the exiles explicitly to seek the welfare of the city, and it goes without saying that “seeking the welfare of the city” includes confronting injustice, or oppression, or corruption, or any other sinful system that erodes or compromises the holistic and total health of the city, and in both Esther and Daniel we see them both do this. Ordinary, faithful, everyday Christians should be doing those things in the ordinary course of walking in obedience to Christ, who has commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves and consider the interest and well-being of others before our own. The difference between the idea of “engagement” and the idea of “transformation” is that one of those ideas sets the bar for “success” at the level of faithfulness, and the other sets the bar for “success” at the level of outcomes. For engagement, obedience looks like ordinary, everyday faithfulness to steward the gifts and callings God has given you in living holy lives of obedience to Christ. For transformation, obedience looks like everything included in “engagement”, plus successfully completing the task of actually making society a Christian society, with the laws of the land reflecting the laws of Scripture in some way, and where the worship of the Lord and the governance of society are one and the same task.
4.3: Now you may hear this and think “that sounds awesome, why are you against that?” And truthfully, I’m not. A society that collectively worships the Lord and a government that rules with faithfulness and righteousness sounds wonderful! But here’s the problem: that society has never existed, and it never will exist, no matter how hard we may try to bring it about ourselves. If it were to have successfully existed at any point in history, it would’ve been under the theocratic Israel of the Old Testament, where the Lord, through Moses, built a nation from the ground up with his law as the supreme law of the land, where the worship of the Lord and the governance of society were quite literally one and the same task – and I don’t think I need to go into too much detail of whether or not that actually resulted in a transformed society or not. I think we all know how that actually played out, and it didn’t play out all that well. It doesn’t take much study of church history to see that even on the handful of moments where the church came pretty dang close to transforming a society or culture that those successes did not last very long and often resulted in a corruption much worse than the way things were before it. But while looking at the Old Testament or church history is helpful, probably the definitive place to look would be at Jesus, and his life and his ministry – after all, if our sanctification as Christians means conforming to the image and likeliness of Christ, it would make sense that Jesus would demonstrate the obedience he desires of his disciples. When we examine Christ in the Gospels, which framework best explains both his actions and his impact: in his incarnation and first coming, did Jesus engage the world in his obedience to the Father, or did he transform the world by remaking society? This may sound controversial and provocative, but Jesus Christ did not transform the world in his incarnation and his first coming – because that is what he has promised to do the second time he comes. Jesus Christ, in his ministry, did not seek to make Rome into Israel; in fact, the people repeatedly try to crown him as king to directly spite their Roman oppressors, and Jesus explicitly refuses this! Instead, Jesus fulfilled the ministry given to him by his Father in the context and space he was placed in, and it is his perfect, ordinary obedience to the Father that is the source of our righteousness in the Gospel that now goes out into all creation. The transformation of society by the church, no matter how sincere or well intentioned it usually is, is not something that Jesus has commanded us to do, because not only is it something that he didn’t do, it’s something that he is going to do better than we could possibly imagine. Our best attempts at transforming society into a Christian society will be fragile, brief, and incomplete at best; when Jesus Christ returns, he isn’t going to just make a marginally better world, he is going to make an entirely new one. As the church has confessed for centuries in the Nicene Creed, we look forward not to the world that we could potentially bring about ourselves if the church worked hard enough, but we look forward to when Jesus Christ comes again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom in the life in the world to come will never end.
4.4: When it comes to engaging with Digital Babylon, we need to set some reasonable expectations here, and those expectations are given to us in Scripture. The Babylonian exiles were not called to transform Babylon into the city of God, but to engage their pagan neighbors in a pagan empire through their ordinary lives of obedience to the Lord as his people. With transformation, the emphasis is on the desired outcome you’re working towards; with engagement, the emphasis is on faithfulness, leaving any desired outcome in the hands of God who rewards faithful obedience. And if that sounds like I’m saying that God just wants Christians to live comfortable lives without any risk or challenge, I think you underestimate how difficult faithful and ordinary obedience actually is. Faithful obedience is rarely flashy or exciting. It involves moment to moment decisions to love the Lord and keep his commandments in your everyday rhythms and routines of your life. You won’t be remembered for it, or get credit for, and nobody will write a book about it – but the Lord sees it and is glorified by it. In Michael Horton’s outstanding book “Ordinary”, he tells the story of author and writer Tish Harrison Warren (who would later go on to write a book on this topic as well called “Liturgy of the Ordinary”) and her experiences with her desire to transform the world and how ordinary faithfulness ended up being the harder calling. It’s a lengthy story but I think it’s worth quoting in full: I was nearly 22 years old and had just returned to my college town from a part of Africa that had missed the last three centuries. As I walked to church in my weathered, worn-in Chaco’s, I bumped into our new associate pastor and introduced myself. He smiled warmly and said, “Oh, you. I’ve heard about you. You’re the radical who wants to give your life away for Jesus.” It was meant as a compliment and I took it as one, but it also felt like a lot of pressure because, in a new way, I was torturously uncertain about what being a radical and living for Jesus was supposed to mean for me. Here I was, back in America, needing a job and health insurance, toying with dating this law student intellectual (who wasn’t all that radical), and unsure about how to be faithful to Jesus in an ordinary life. I’m not sure I even knew if that was possible. . . . Now, I’m a thirty-something with two kids living a more or less ordinary life. And what I’m slowly realizing is that, for me, being in the house all day with a baby and a two-year-old is a lot more scary and a lot harder than being in a war-torn African village. What I need courage for is the ordinary, the daily every-dayness of life. Caring for a homeless kid is a lot more thrilling to me than listening well to the people in my home. Giving away clothes and seeking out edgy Christian communities requires less of me than being kind to my husband on an average Wednesday morning or calling my mother back when I don’t feel like it (8)”. Biblical engagement, as opposed to transformation, may seem like settling or taking it easy, but it’s much closer to what Jesus had in mind in the Gospel of Luke when he tells us that whoever would follow him must deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow Jesus wherever he leads.
4.5: The reason why I went on this digression, apart from clearing up some potential misunderstandings at the onset, is because the nitty-gritty details of what it means to engage in Digital Babylon is going to require wisdom and perspective that can very easily be lost in the mire of social media culture. Simply put, engagement in Digital Babylon is not going to be uniform, and it’s going to look different for different people based on their gifts, callings, stations of life, or more. Given the nature of this medium, it can be very easy to pursue higher callings or levels of influence or exposure and baptize that desire in the name of Jesus, when in actuality it’s our narcissistic or vain desire for the approval and spotlight of man that drives this desire. Engaging in Digital Babylon is not shorthand for trying to make a career as an influencer on social media; instead, engaging in Digital Babylon means engaging in social media relative to where God has placed you and what God has allowed you to do. While we can look to Esther and Daniel as God-given examples for how to navigate life in Digital Babylon, we need to acknowledge that Esther and Daniel’s station in the context of exile was unique and not like the vast majority of people who were taken into captivity. While Esther and Daniel both arrived at their positions in power and influence in different ways, both of them would accomplish their most significant and effective work in some of the highest positions they could occupy, Esther as queen of Persia and Daniel as the governor of the providence of Babylon and then later the third most powerful man in the nation. For them, ordinary and faithful obedience and engagement looked differently than it may have looked for the average exile, and for us today, ordinary and faithful obedience and engagement for individuals with large social media followings or who work in the field is going to be different for those whom the Lord has not given either of those things. Not that I think that any of them will be listening to this, but I think it is important for us who don’t work at Facebook or these social media companies to recognize that, just as the exilic community had Daniel and Esther in the highest places of the government, we have brothers and sisters in Christ who work at these companies, because that is where the Lord has placed them. When we criticize these companies, we need to take care to not assign the total weight of the company’s faults to single individuals, especially if they are lower on the totem pole. You can do that to the Board of Directors of the C-Suite, because that’s their job and they’re the ones most responsible for these decisions, but we cannot and should not blame an individual engineer or developer for the whole company’s faults.
4.6: But my goal here is not to speak to how the influencers or industry workers conduct themselves, because I think we can glean instruction and insight from Esther and Daniel that is applicable for everyone in every corner of Digital Babylon. First and foremost, engagement in Digital Babylon requires understanding what Digital Babylon is and how it impacts our lives. In order to engage in social media ecosystems, we first need to understand those ecosystems; we need to be able to interpret them; we need to be able to describe their influence and impact; we need to be able to respond to their effects. This is essentially what media literacy education does, and like I talked about in the previous episode of this podcast and intend to talk much more on in the future, media literacy is the biggest gaping hole in our discipleship. Teaching media literacy in the church is functionally teaching our people how to live faithfully in Digital Babylon and is a mandatory extension of exilic Christian ethics; media literacy helps us navigate social media ecosystems without getting swallowed up in them and their effects. Understanding Digital Babylon will help us know how and where we can subvert it and where we can participate freely in it – the exilic community was called to engage Babylon and seek the welfare of the city, but obviously this did not include doing everything Babylon ordered them to. There was a time and a place to subvert Babylon, and there was a time to freely participate in Babylon according to the laws of the land. Media literacy shows us where those boundaries are. Second, engagement in Digital Babylon requires criticizing Digital Babylon itself. If you think that I am suggesting that we stop talking about how wicked and awful and evil Facebook and other social media companies are just because we may be called to engage and work in them, you couldn’t be more wrong! As I mentioned earlier, recently the Wall Street Journal published a series of absolutely brutal and damning articles against Facebook based on a recent cache of previously-unavailable internal documents, and when stories like that break, we ought to amplify these stories and educate ourselves and others about how wicked and evil these companies are (and again, we need to keep our criticisms focused on the company and their key leaders and not lay the blame for a company’s faults on any lower level individual). In the Bible, we couldn’t ask for a better example of this than the prophet Daniel himself, who spoke against both Babylon and Persia and foretold their fall and destruction while being one of the most powerful men in the land. And granted, there is a difference between Daniel speaking Spirit-given prophecies and us speaking prophetically today, but we need to dispense with this notion that we cannot criticize the spaces and cultures that we participate in – if anything, our world needs more of that, not less. Participating in social media ecosystems should absolutely include criticizing and condemning what should be criticized and condemned even as we work and engage in these ecosystems. Third, engagement in Digital Babylon requires testifying in Digital Babylon that though we are in Digital Babylon, we are not of Digital Babylon. I am not calling for participation in toxic and destructive social media culture wars; I am calling for testifying to the goodness of God in the Gospel and our love for Christ and his Word in our ordinary use of social media. There may be a time and a place for public debate or discussion; I think that does come with the territory at times. However, there is a difference between debating the Gospel and declaring the Gospel with our words and displaying the Gospel with our lives, and we should strive to declare and display the Gospel first and foremost and debate the Gospel when necessary. It also goes without saying that we should conduct ourselves with holiness out of fear and reverence for the Lord; Christians on social media should be known for their gracious reasonableness and pure conduct towards one another, and the fact that Christians are not known for that is an indictment of Digital Babylon’s influence among Christians today. That’s going to have to be a podcast for another time. Fourth, engaging in Digital Babylon requires circumventing Digital Babylon and engaging Digital Babylon through intentionally and strategically withdrawing from it. The exilic community was not called to withdraw from society and live life in a bunker, but that didn’t mean they didn’t function as a community within a larger society that resisted that larger society in certain ways. Engagement in Digital Babylon requires understanding, criticizing, and testifying in Digital Babylon as a means of understanding how to circumvent it when necessary. Churches and ministries should intentionally build communication structures and systems that do not require a Facebook account, for example, and small groups or Bible studies should intentionally discourage, as much as possible, using phones or screens during meetings or study sessions. Christians should build one another up by expecting and encouraging one another to be present and in-the-moment with one another as much as possible, and to take “digital Sabbaths” or other intentional breaks as much as they are able. Just as the exilic community tried to retain the rhythms and practices of “life in the land” as much as they could while in exile, those in exile in Digital Babylon should try to retain or engage in the rhythms and practices of “life in the land” as much as they are able to as well. Lastly, engaging in Digital Babylon requires praying for our brothers and sisters who are involved in Digital Babylon in some way, whether as high-level users or employees for these companies. One thing that the previously mentioned “Facebook Files” from the Wall Street Journal and Kang and Frenkel’s “An Ugly Truth” do a really good job of highlighting is how often the understanding and awareness of the problems within these social media companies often originate from within the companies themselves, often from rank-and-file engineers or researchers who raise the alarms internally only to have the Zuckerbergs and Sandbergs of the company choose to bury the problem in the name of profitability. Many of these engineers, programmers, and researchers care deeply about the consequences about the work they do and are likely just as dismayed or discouraged as we are when they see their companies implement features or ignore problems based on their work. For those of us not in the tech world, we should pray that our brothers and sisters in Christ who work in these spaces are able to effectively work change within the companies they are at, just as Esther instructed the exilic community to pray for her while she waited for the right opportunity to intervene on their behalf.
Part Five: Application Three – Providence in Exile
5.1: The third application is true of life as a whole, but often doesn’t get applied to discussions about engaging on social media. That application is simply this: God’s providential care for his people follows wherever he sends them, and promises to bless them in ordinary ways through their ordinary obedience. Now, I know that the word “providence” is a word that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I know that not only are there some really bad definitions of “the providence of God” out there, I also know that there are many people who have been wounded or hurt through the doctrine of providence being taught or applied in callous or insensitive ways. I am not going to give a full and complete outline and defense of the Reformed doctrine of providence here, but if I could just ask as a favor: please do not hear me say things that I am not saying, whatever that may be. If you think that by advocating for the doctrine of providence that I am advocating for belief X or application Y, I ask you give me the benefit of the doubt if I don’t address that particular belief or application here – there is a good chance I may not agree with it! But not only do I believe and take great comfort in the providence of God, I actually think the best place to look for understanding God’s providence is not in the New Testament, but the Old Testament. Yes, some of the strongest doctrinal statements of God’s providence are found in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament we get to see the providence of God in action in its fullest sense – we can talk about the doctrine in abstract, or we can look at the life of Joseph in Genesis and his declaration to the brothers that sold him into slavery that “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph is only able to save the nation of Egypt – and his family – because the Lord, in his providential ordering and through the sinful agency of his brothers, put Joseph in Egypt, which led to Joseph being put in a prison where a king’s official would later tell Pharaoh of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, which would put Joseph in charge of preparing Egypt for a famine that would devastate the whole world. We could look at the life of David, and how the Lord raised him up to be king not through supernatural acts, but through guiding five smooth stones to slay a giant, and keeping David and his companions safe from Saul as he hunted them. We can look at Ruth, and how her initial misfortune is reversed and turned to fortune and blessing through circumstance and the providential placement of Boaz. We can look at the life of Esther – “God” is not mentioned once in the entire book of Esther, and yet it is impossible to read the book without seeing the hand of God involved in arranging and orchestrating details that ultimately lead to the protection and deliverance of his people. The amount of “coincidences” and “it just so happened that” instances cannot be chalked up to chance or luck – it just so happens that Esther is chosen to be queen, that Mordecai happens to overhear a plot to assassinate the king, that Esther is in the perfect position to aid the Jews once Haman commanded their destruction, that the King recognizes he never honored Mordecai for saving his life and honors Mordecai over Haman, that Haman builds gallows that he will later be hung with, that the King walks in on Haman appearing to assault Esther in his palace, and that the Jews, through ordinary warfare, totally defeat their enemies. There is no better book in Scripture than Esther that show that how God providentially accomplishes his purposes through the ordinary agency of creation. The relationship to divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a mystery, but as Scripture teaches both, we are to confess both as well even if we do not always understand it fully.
5.2: The Westminster Confession of Faith’s description of the providence of God remains, I think, the best and most helpful description of God’s providence out there. Chapter 5, article 3 reads that “God, in his ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.” God accomplishes his purposes through everyday, ordinary cause and effect, circumstance, or situations, but is powerful enough to work without needing to use ordinary means, work above circumstances or situations, or even accomplish his purposes in direct opposition to the effects of ordinary means. And it’s this little nugget that has captivated my thinking the most recently, because while there is no shortage of understanding of how the providence of God relates to the ordinary life of the believer, there is little (that I am aware of) that asks the question about how the doctrine of providence practically plays out in the context of social media ecosystems. Most of the material available right now is unrestrained technological optimism baptized in the name of evangelism or missions, often equating social media data with the worth and impact of real world evangelistic or missional encounters. That is not at all what I am talking about here – what I am talking about here is something that bypasses the need for “best practices” or being “data driven” in order for it to be worthwhile. If the Lord has providentially placed many of us in Digital Babylon to some degree or another, and the Lord has called us not to transform the world, but to engage the world in ordinary obedience, and if God, through his providence, uses that ordinary engagement to accomplish his purposes, then I think we should not be afraid to engage in Digital Babylon and trust that the Lord will use our obedience as a means to accomplish his purposes in the lives of others. This doesn’t require us to become social media influencers, or engage in sinful, tribalistic, and scorched earth culture wars, but through our ordinary lives understand Digital Babylon and criticize Digital Babylon while testifying to the goodness and grace of God in the midst of Digital Babylon, trusting that the Lord is omniscient over the complex and mysterious systems of Digital Babylon and uses them with perfect knowledge for his purposes.
5.3: With that comes plenty of risk. To get this out of the way up front: the vast majority of Christians who engage in Digital Babylon do so in ways that are sinful, counterproductive, and reap consequences entirely unrelated to the offense of the Gospel and entirely to the offense of their character and conduct. Most Christians who suffer on social media do not suffer, as 1 Peter describes, according to righteousness’ sake, but suffer as a fruit of their sinful and ignorant engagement in Digital Babylon. That being said, not all suffering or opposition is a result of sin or disobedience; it is possible, in fact it is likely, to faithfully engage in Digital Babylon in ways that are wise and yet still bring criticism and condemnation. Sometimes this will come through the ordinary preaching and teaching of the word of the Lord. Sometimes this will come through applying the word of the Lord to cultural or social situations. Sometimes this will come through the prophetic dimension of the ministry of the Word, where the Lord burdens us to speak towards a topic or issue even though we know in advance that people will not listen and our speech, like the speech of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, becomes a means by which God hardens people’s hearts – not because of our sin, but because of their sin. In an age that measures value or worth by pragmatic outcomes or results, faithful and ordinary engagement in Digital Babylon may seem like a waste of time at best or actively counterproductive at worst. But, if God has placed us here in the day and age of Digital Babylon, and commanded this ordinary and faithful engagement while in exile in Digital Babylon, and providentially works through this ordinary engagement in Digital Babylon, our confidence should not be in our tangible or visible results or outcomes, but that God will use our obedience for his glory – even if we can’t always see how or what he is doing.
5.4: Part of this entails engaging with people we know or may not know in conversations, and often uncivil or unpleasant conversations as tends to be the norm for these mediums. Yet one strategy that we should consider is using those opportunities not to try to reason with people who have no interest in being persuaded, but reasoning with the people who may be listening in the background and could potentially be persuaded. Ask yourself: is there anyone who has influenced your beliefs or opinions about a topic or issue on social media just through reading their interactions with others? I can say that, over the years, some of the most influential people who have contributed to my thinking have been through reading interactions with others, not through engaging in active conversation. Not every instance of that was an instance where someone was using their conversation with someone to speak to the room, but there have been plenty of instances where I have seen people engage with others in a way where their primary goal wasn’t to persuade the other person, but the other people who were watching. And here’s the thing – that data can’t be tracked. There are no metrics to evaluate that effectiveness. But what if God, in his providence, uses the features of social mediums as a means to accomplish his purposes? What if, one day, a saint tells you that the Lord used your engagement in Digital Babylon as a means to plant or water a seed for the Gospel, or as a means of conviction of sin or sanctification, or as a means of influencing and changing someone’s mind about a controversial situation or topic? Is that possibility worth it even if you never or rarely saw that fruit in this life?
5.5: Part of this entails creating content for people to consume. Nobody is more aware than I am at how repulsive that idea and that language sounds, but we cannot fully ignore it either. It is not possible to push back hard enough against the present trend of viewing humans as being brains-on-a-stick, whose bodies are merely optional or disposable containers for their minds and who are governed primarily through their minds and not through their hearts and their loves. There is no sector of society which is not plagued with this malformed anthropology, including within the church, which has often reduced discipleship to being little more than the transfer of content or information. And yet – the correct response to this malformed anthropology is not to overcorrect in the opposite direction and anathamatize the idea of people consuming content. That idea should not be discarded; it should be re-contextualized and put in it’s proper place. We were not created for the sole purpose of intellectual consumption, but intellectual consumption is an aspect of our creation, and intellectual consumption does influence and shape other aspects of our embodied existence just as our embodied existence ought to influence and shape our intellectual consumption. For Christians with the talent and means of creating quality content for social media (including YouTube and TikTok), all of the previously discussed applications apply here as well. And, just like speaking to listeners in the room, we may not know or be able to see how the Lord uses our content in his providence and for his purposes, but we may not see or know that in this life – but is the possibility of what God can do worth it?
5.6: I am leaving a lot of these questions and suggestions vague because, to be honest, I have not exhaustively thought through these things myself. To my knowledge, the exilic framework of engagement has yet to be applied to the topic of social media in a comprehensive sense, and while I hope that I am wrong and that others have already tread this ground and I am just unaware of it, I think this could potentially be the most biblically-informed framework for Christians can navigate this present reality. I want to make clear that am open to pushback and criticism here. There are likely questions I haven’t thought through or other perspectives I’ve not considered that may challenge what I am doing here. But, I am convinced that I am on to something here, and so this is an idea I am committed to studying and developing over time. And again, just to reiterate and make this abundantly clear, this is not a one-sized-fits-all model here. There are Christians who will be able to “live life in the land” without being involved in Digital Babylon. There are Christians who will try to “live life in the land” as much as possible without being able to totally escape Digital Babylon. There are Christians who will be ordinary exiles in Digital Babylon. There are Christians who will be extraordinary exiles in Digital Babylon. There are Christians who will sin and compromise themselves or their faith while living in Digital Babylon. There are Christians who will become Christians through the obedient and faithful testimony of Christians in Digital Babylon. I cannot tell you which category you personally fall in, nor what category your family or church should be in. What I hope to accomplish here is to give you a framework for understanding your relationship to Digital Babylon and these massive and pervasive social media ecosystems. Where has God placed you? What has God gifted you with? What does it look like to use those gifts where you are at? That is not a question that I can answer, but I can at least maybe give you a starting point for thinking through this topic. I intend to explore this topic and idea further because I am convinced that whether God calls us to participate in Digital Babylon or not, media literacy is the biggest gaping hole in our discipleship. For pastors and ministry leaders, we continue to ignore this issue to our own peril. If our people are held in exile by Digital Babylon, we must teach them what Scripture teaches about the time when the people of God were in exile in physical Babylon – and we must also teach them about the power of God to save his people, and glorify his name, and advance his kingdom, and proclaim his gospel, through the ordinary engagement of the elect exiles wherever the Lord has sent them.
6: If you’ve made it to this point of the episode, I genuinely cannot thank you enough. The fact that you’ve put up with my borderline incoherent ramblings for this long truly means a lot to me, and I cannot describe how much I appreciate it. As I mentioned in the beginning, this was far and away the longest and most challenging episode I’ve ever done and I won’t be doing an episode like this again for quite some time! For October’s episode, you can look forward to a regular length episode, but I am going to do something a little different for the next several episodes: I am going to go through Chris Bail’s excellent new book, “Breaking the Social Media Prism”. I plan on covering the first three chapters for the October episode and so if you want to grab a copy and read along, I encourage you to do so! Breaking the Digital Spell is produced by me, Austin Gravley, with production assistance from Andrew Akins. Quotes and part divisions are read by my wife, Melissa Gravley. If you enjoyed this episode I ask you to consider subscribing wherever you listen to your podcasts, leave a review wherever you can (especially in the iTunes store), and share it with anyone you think would enjoy it. If you have questions about anything I’ve said or want to reach out to me directly, you can follow me on Twitter @gravley_austin or send in an email to email@example.com. My name is Austin, and together, we are breaking the digital spell.
1: RTS lecture outline.
2: Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty
3: Greg Goswell, Greek paper
4: Goswell, Hebrew paper
5: Lawrence, BTitLotC, 75
6: Frenkel and Kang, 123-124
7: Jeremiah 29:4-7
8: Michael Horton, Ordinary,