Lots of Christians question the Internet as a source of reliable information, but an historical perspective can help us understand its potential.
In biblical times, lots of people had rudimentary reading ability, but only a small portion of the population could read and write well. These were the priests, scribes, educators, historians, and lawyers—the ruling class in general. One of the reasons few people couldn’t write well was the relative scarcity of writing materials. Documents were handwritten on parchment made from animal skins, in soft clay or wax tablets, or on paper (made from papyrus in the Mediterranean world). If someone wrote something important, the only way it could be propagated was by painstaking hand-copying.
This was the state of the ancient “media”: People relied on what they heard by word of mouth, and their worldview was shaped by religious, political, and family leaders who were ultimately dependent on a small number of handwritten sources. Until the invention of the printing press, the consensus reality of the masses was based on a small group of scholars and scribes with access to hand-copied documents.
Even though many other significant social, cultural, and technological changes occurred by the 15th century, there was no important advance in “media” technology. False reports and mistaken viewpoints from respected sources still had tremendous influence. Although millions of people had been exposed to the gospel, under medieval conditions the gospel was badly distorted and corrupted.
The Gutenberg printing press (1440) confronted the ignorance and corruption of the political and religious hierarchy with printed books that a much larger portion of the population could afford. With relatively inexpensive printed material available in unprecedented quantities,1important new ideas spread rapidly. Of course, just because something was printed in a book didn’t mean it could be trusted. Pamphlets and books were circulated by wild-eyed fanatics as well as by conscientious thinkers, and even conscientious thinkers made mistakes. Nevertheless, the overall impact of printing technology was an advance in knowledge. It is hard to see how the Enlightenment or the development of modern science could have occurred without this means of rapidly disseminating (and comparing) ideas.
In the centuries following the Reformation, pamphlets, broadsides, and books became commonplace, along with tremendously popular new forms of literature (the novel, the newspaper, the magazine, etc.), and most people in countries under the influence of Western civilization learned to read and look to printed material as a main source of information about reality. The effects of the Gutenberg press traveled around the world.
In recent history, 20th-century technological progress introduced other new forms of media, including recordings, motion pictures, radio, and television. In the midst of world wars and tumultuous cultural changes, these forms of media also began to shape the worldview of a now mostly literate population.
Because of the importance of printed material as a source of information, most people consider freedom of the press and related media an essential foundation for a healthy society. In some countries, freedom of speech and press are constitutionally protected.2But the scale of society is much greater today than in the early years of representative democracy. Even though freedom of expression still exists and offers some residual cultural and political protection, it has diminishing influence as mass communication has become monopolized. The costs of producing and distributing ideas through the mainstream media are now much too high for most individuals and groups to compete. Corporations, governments, and other groups with very deep pockets control much of what the masses (i.e., you, me, and other evangelical Christians) are permitted to know.
The control of today’s “principalities and powers” over information is similar to the power the ruling elite held over information in the 15th century, but the means of control and manipulation today are more sophisticated and done on a much larger scale. In fact, the control of information is so extensive that we are generally unaware of how much our worldview is shaped and how badly our consensus view of reality has been distorted. We have been trained to rely on “experts” to tell us what is “true” (or sociably acceptable) to the degree that we have almost forgotten that the “experts” promoted in the mass media have been selected on the basis of their willingness to tell us what the “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12) want us to hear.
This is why the Internet is so important. It is the Gutenberg press of the 21st century. It offers the potential for true and unbiased information to be propagated to an ultimately limitless audience without the backing of great wealth and power, and it gives conscientious people and truth seekers the opportunity to network directly with each other without elite control or censorship. At the same time, like other forms of media, it can be used to corrupt and mislead as well as to educate and edify.
Christians should “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21; Romans 12:2). Evangelicals today need to be just as skeptical about the consensus reality propagated by the mainstream media as the Reformers, Christian humanists, and scientists of the 15th were about the worldview and “consensus reality” dictated by the ruling elite of their day. The kingdom of God is just as revolutionary today as it was when Jesus proclaimed it to the multitudes in Galilee and Jerusalem.
1. There were possibly “upward of 10,000 titles” published in pamphlet (Flugschrift) form during the first half of the 16th century (Kenneth E. Strand, “A Note on Reformation-Era Flugschriften”).
2. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights) guarantees freedom of the press, along with other basic rights pertaining to freedom of expression and association, to United States citizens.