On Internet Conspiracies and Doomsday Prophets

THE END IS NEAR - pennlive.com

Last summer, a couple of friends sent me a video made by a pastor in another state. In this viral video, recorded on a smartphone, he talked about a dream he had recently had, in which the nation was in turmoil. He wasn’t specific about details, but made it sound like he was expecting a total breakdown in our society: Unchecked violence, limited resources. He said that he had previously had a dream about the pandemic in 2019, months before any of us had heard about COVID 19. This made him believe that perhaps God was using him to warn us of the coming devastation in our country. According to his dream, all of this was going to happen in November of 2020. He urged us all to make sure we had provisions, weapons, and an escape plan.

Yesterday, another friend sent me another video, made by a completely different pastor, two days ago. This pastor, unlike the previous one, didn’t claim that God had spoken to him through any supernatural means. Instead, he said that he had contacts in the military who had insider knowledge of government workings. These contacts were telling him beyond a doubt that martial law in this country is “imminent.” There would be a complete government takeover of our nation’s transportation, businesses, and communications network that would last for about a month. He didn’t say when this would begin, only that we needed to be ready. By “ready,” he meant we needed to have enough food for at least two weeks, enough medications to last a month, and to make sure our cars were full of fuel.

What are we to make of these things? Although the first preacher’s predictions were clearly wrong, what if this second guy is right? Should we be stocking up for a government siege? Keep in mind, there have always been people eager to shout their predictions of upcoming woes. Some have been preachers; Baptist clergyman William Miller published tracts that predicted the exact date the world would end…in October 1843. When that didn’t happen, he revised his doomsday date to October, 1844. Followers gathered on hilltops and in church buildings, waiting to hear the Lord’s trumpet. When it didn’t happen, many abandoned Christianity entirely. Others continued to follow the teachings of Miller and his successors, despite The Great Disappointment of 1844. In addition to would-be prophets, there have always been conspiracy theories. Remember the theory that spread throughout Israel after Jesus rose from the dead? They said the body had been stolen by His disciples, and the soldiers had been paid to keep quiet. Conspiracy theories are attractive to us because the sense of “insider knowledge” makes us feel better about ourselves. We feel smarter than those other people, those naïve “sheep” who buy into the party line. But there is another, deeper reason: It helps us make sense of an uncertain world. For people who didn’t want to believe the man who they crucified was actually Lord of all, it was comforting to think that there was another explanation, one involving dark, sinister forces and secret corruption. It’s the same reason some still believe that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated by the Bush administration; it’s more comforting than accepting the reality that there are evil forces in the world capable of creating mayhem in our nation. It has the added benefit of pointing a finger of accusation at “the other side.”

Today, would-be-prophets and conspiracy theories flourish like never before, thanks to the internet. If the preacher I mentioned in the first paragraph would have had his dream thirty years ago, he would have shared it with his church, and that would have been the extent of it. But thanks to smartphones and social media, thousands of people heard his prediction. Online conspiracy chatter is far from harmless; in December of 2016, a devout Christian and father of two entered a Washington DC pizzeria armed with an AR-15. Edgar Welch believed the restaurant was a haven for child sex slaves being held by operatives from the Democratic party. He fired his weapon three times. Thankfully, no one was injured, but Welch received a four-year jail sentence. The lore behind “Pizzagate,” as it came to be known, eventually became part of the larger Q-anon conspiracy theory. This theory, spread online by an anonymous source who claims to have inside government knowledge, is followed by millions of Americans. Lately, “Q” has co-opted language from prophetic passages in the Bible, hoping to draw more evangelical followers.

Some of you may be thinking, “Okay, but what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with sharing these kinds of articles and videos on social media? After all, what if one turns out to be true?” I’ve had friends say to me, “I’m not trying to tell anyone what to think. I’m just passing along information, and letting people make up their own minds.” What you don’t seem to realize is that when we share things on the internet, our endorsement of them is implied. People who see that we posted an article speculating that Senator X is actually a Russian asset assume that is what we actually believe. We all know this, by the way. Otherwise, we would post conspiracy theories and wild accusations against even the politicians and causes we agree with, and “let people make up their own minds.” But we don’t. We don’t want to take the chance that anyone who reads it would think we agree.

This is important because we represent Christ. People look to us to judge what Jesus is all about. Sadly, thanks to our behavior on social media, some in our culture assume that Jesus is about paranoia and hysteria. We’re known as the fools who rush to HEB and buy up all the toilet paper and bottled water because we believe The End is Near. Or worse, we’re the ones who inspire mentally unstable people like Edgar Welch to acts of violence. Yet there’s an even greater danger…yes, greater even than random, senseless acts of violence. Our calling as Jesus-followers is to spread a message known as the Gospel, a word that literally means Good News. Throughout history, this message has been one that is so countercultural, people have a difficult time embracing it at first. “How could it be that a God I don’t even believe in loves me enough to die for me? How could embracing and following a crucified carpenter who lived 2000 years ago be the actual answer to the deepest longings of my soul?” Anyone who is paying attention would agree that it’s never been harder to convince Americans of the truth of that message than it is today. We have to work hard to establish credibility in the eyes of unbelievers, or they will never give the Gospel a chance. However, if our social media feeds feature wild conspiracy theories and hysterical rants along with Scripture passages, why should any unbeliever listen to us?

(By the way, the friends who sent me the videos I mentioned in the first two paragraphs did not post them to their social media feeds. They sent them, asking what I thought. That’s a completely different matter. That’s the Body of Christ coming together to seek discernment, which is a very biblical thing.)

Back to my original question: What do we do with scary viral videos like the ones I mentioned in the first two paragraphs? I would advise you to do three things:

First, Consider the source. I didn’t know either of the preachers in the videos. I had never heard of them. In other words, I had no way of knowing the character of either man. I am not in the habit of criticizing fellow preachers, by the way. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. And in both cases, they seemed sincere. What they were saying wasn’t hateful in any way. If I had to guess, they really believed that what they were saying was true. But I don’t know that. Perhaps they were simply hoping to gain a bigger following. If so, it certainly worked…at least for a time. My point is, if you don’t know the heart of a preacher who is sending out a dire warning, why believe him? Especially when you consider the hundreds of William Millers, preachers who became famous by predicting doom, only to end up wrong.

By the way, it’s very popular today to bash the Mainstream Media. I do it myself, for their tendency to focus on the worst in the world, their rush to judgment in order to be the first to issue “Breaking News,” and for essentially flooding our lives with negativity. But at least professional journalists have a reason to be as accurate as possible. They get stories wrong, of course, and they sometimes let their biases creep into their reporting. But professional journalists know that being caught in an outright lie would end their career. See Brian Williams. See Dan Rather. But your anonymous internet conspiracy monger, your so-called “expert,” or your preacher who has a “revelation,” they have nothing to lose. When they are wrong, they face no consequences at all. And they never apologize. In fact, they find ways to show that, actually, they were right…just not in the way we first interpreted their “predictions.” People go on believing them, in spite of everything, because to admit they were wrong would be to admit we’re wrong. Our pride won’t allow it. Christians, pray for discernment. Be careful who you choose to believe. Just because someone is a pastor, or uses biblical language, or says something that agrees with your own thinking, it doesn’t mean their message is true. And if you don’t KNOW that it’s true, don’t share it with others.

Second, Know the Word. In both of the videos my friends sent me, the advice was the same: Take care of yourself. Get ready for hard times by buying lots of supplies and stocking up on weapons. That’s a huge contrast to what we see in the prophets of Scripture. When they predicted hard times for God’s people, their message was always the same: Repent. They weren’t blaming the pagans for their problems. They were saying, “We as God’s people have wandered away from Him. As a result, we’re going to experience the consequences of life outside of God’s protection and guidance. He’s giving us a chance to get right with Him. Don’t waste it.” Sometimes the people listened, often they did not. IF you hear one of these videos and believe that it’s God’s warning of difficult times, don’t rush to the grocery store. Get down on your knees and allow God’s Spirit to show you how we have failed to represent Him well. Pray for a revival of the love of Christ in our churches.

When we move on to the New Testament, we see another biblical way to confront hard times: By thinking of others first. The Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire against all odds, because those early Christians lived like no one else. They were mostly poor, yet they shared their goods with one another, so that no one went without. They even took care of the pagan poor. When epidemics raged, they stayed in the plague-ridden cities, taking care of the sick. Why should they be afraid of death, after all? What they looked forward to was better than anything this world offered. Why hoard wealth down here, when there was treasure waiting for them in the next life? Again, that’s a long way from what I hear in these internet prophets. I can’t imagine Jesus or any of the apostles saying, “Trouble is coming. Better head to the grocery store!” Instead, they would say, “Now is the time to love your neighbors like never before. They will be seeking for hope, and we have it!” Let me put it to you this way: If the preacher in that second video is right (which I highly doubt), and martial law in our country really is imminent, we’d better respond by loving our neighbor even more fervently than we did before, not by locking ourselves in our homes, safe with our supplies and stockpiles of ammo.

Third, Trust the Lord. As I said earlier, these sorts of articles and videos are so appealing because they help us make sense of a chaotic world. We feel like we know why things went so wrong, what’s going to happen next, and what needs to occur to fix things. Yet as Christians, we already have that information. We don’t need some viral video or written rant to make things plain. The message of Scripture tells us what went wrong: Humanity has rebelled against God. Not “them,” but “us.” All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6) We know what needs to occur to fix things: Reconciliation with God. Jesus took care of that Himself, as that Isaiah passage predicted: But the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all. Or as Colossians 1:20 puts it, through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. We don’t know what will happen next, and that’s where faith comes in. We trust that a God who loved us enough to die for us will do what is best. Like kids in the back seat of a car on a long trip, we know that since our Father is at the wheel, the final destination is secure. Even if the trip takes longer than we thought, and there are some unforeseen troubles along the way (and there will be), we know He had a reason for taking us in that direction, and we can trust Him to get us home.

So let’s enjoy the journey, instead of demanding to know the exact road map. Let’s represent Him well, not latch on to the latest social media message that gets our blood up. Let’s love our neighbors, not blame them for our problems. Let’s trust that the Gospel has the answers the world is looking for, not internet scare-mongers. Pray for discernment, my friends…and put it to good use!

My Favorite Books of the Year

I’ll say this for 2020: It sure encouraged me to read more than usual. And I read some really great books in the year that just ended. Here’s my list of favorites…I’ll try and describe them well enough that you’ll know whether you’ll be interested too.

Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. Rebecca McLaughlin

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For years, my go-to book for anyone who thinks Christianity is intellectually ridiculous–or any Christian who struggles with doubts about our faith–has been The Reason for God, by Tim Keller. I now have a second book for that situation. McLaughlin is a terrific writer, and does not shy away from the core objections people have about biblical Christianity–in other words, she delivers on her title. The fact that she was born in England (a substantially less religious country than our own) combined with her relative youth makes this book a great companion piece to Keller’s masterpiece. Bonus: If you buy the audiobook, McLaughlin narrates herself, and her accent is lovely. The chapter titles reveal the twelve questions at the heart of the book:

Chapter 1: Aren’t we better off without religion?

Chapter 2: Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?

Chapter 3: How can you say there is only one true faith?

Chapter 4: Doesn’t religion hinder morality?

Chapter 5: Doesn’t religion cause violence?

Chapter 6: How can you take the Bible literally?

Chapter 7: Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?

Chapter 8: Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?

Chapter 9: Isn’t Christianity homophobic?

Chapter 10: Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?

Chapter 11: How could a loving God allow so much suffering?

Chapter 12: How could a loving God send people to hell?

The chapter on homophobia is especially insightful, as McLaughlin shares her experiences as a same-sex attracted woman who has chosen to live according to biblical sexual ethics. I would recommend this highly to if you want to think through the intellectual objections to Christianity, or if you’re trying to engage someone who is skeptical of our faith. Follow her at @RebeccaMcLaugh or check her website: https://www.rebeccamclaughlin.org/

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by [Erik Larson]

Imagine being a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Your beloved father has just reached his lifelong goal of becoming your nation’s Prime Minister…just as World War II begins. For teenager Mary Churchill, that was reality in 1940. There have been countless books written about the War, and almost as many written about Winston Churchill. But Larson, an author who writes nonfiction that reads like a novel (my favorite Larson books are Isaac’s Storm and Devil in the White City), stays focused on the personalities of Churchill, his family and close friends, and what life was like for them in that pivotal year. They lived in a city that was bombed every night for months on end. They faced excruciatingly difficult decisions every day. They grieved the deaths of friends and neighbors that seemed to mount with each passing day. They wondered when the United States would join the war effort; and whether their tiny island nation could hold out against the Nazi onslaught until then. But they also had dinner parties and dances, fell in and out of love, dreamed, hoped and prayed. Larson makes us participants in the story. I finished the book feeling immensely grateful to the Churchills and all of the English people for standing up against tyranny alone for as long as they did. This is a gripping read even for people who don’t love history.

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Tara Isabella Burton

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World: Burton, Tara Isabella:  9781541762534: Amazon.com: Books

This is not a Christian book (although its author is a fairly new Christian herself). But its subject is of great interest to Christians: We all know the polls say Americans are becoming less religious than ever, but Burton says that’s not necessarily true. They’re simply finding meaning, purpose, community and ritual in new places. Those are the four things Burton says Americans traditionally found in organized faith–and her book does a great job of recounting the religious history of our nation in a way I hadn’t seen it presented before. But today, the “spiritually remixed” (who include “spiritual but not religious” types as well as “nones”) are finding meaning, purpose, community, and ritual in the strangest places: Alternative religions like wicca, non-religious entities like self-care and fitness companies, and especially politics. Toward the end of her book, Burton names the three fastest-growing religious movements in America today, and two of them are political: The Social Justice Movement on the Left, and Atavism on the Right. Sad to say, most churchgoing Christians don’t know many of these people, and they know few of us beyond what they see on cable news or social media. Burton’s book is an interesting read, but more importantly, it helps people like us understand those who are drifting (or, in some cases, galloping) away from our faith.

The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christians with the Gospel. Dean Inserra

The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel:  Inserra, Dean: 9780802418807: Amazon.com: Books

Strange Rites and The Unsaved Christian made an interesting combo for me. One gave me insight into the minds of thousands of my neighbors who want nothing to do with organized religion. The other was a reminder that thousands more of my neighbors remain “religious,” without any real relationship with Christ. That is especially true in the Southern United States, and Inserra, who pastors a church in Florida, helps us see the different types of “Unsaved Christians.” They range from the CEO (Christmas and Easter only) types, to people who attend churches where the Gospel is not preached, to cultural Christians for whom Christianity is all rolled up in citizenship and patriotism. You will recognize many of your friends, neighbors and relatives in this book. It will make you uncomfortable at times, but it will expand the number of people you begin to pray for. And Inserra has some great conversation starters and other tips to help us reach people who think they don’t need the Gospel.

Peace Like a River and Virgil Wander. Leif Enger

Peace Like a River: A Novel: Enger, Leif: 9780802139252: Amazon.com: Books

I have a new favorite novelist. For several years, I have heard about this book, had intentions to read it, but this year, I finally did it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Enger’s first novel, written in 2002, is narrated by 11 year old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy in 1950s Minnesota. When his older brother becomes the focus of a criminal manhunt, Reuben, his father and younger sister strike out on a cross-country journey to try to find him before the authorities can. This is not a “Christian book,” in the sense that it’s not written specifically for a Christian audience. But it is a book about people of profound and authentic Christian faith, and that is something I haven’t seen in any other literary novel since Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. The father, Jeremiah Land, is especially memorable. A man of such powerful faith, he can literally work miracles, he nevertheless lives as a simple high school janitor. Little Reuben adores his dad, but has to wonder sometimes why he can heal a local bully, but not his own son. Of course, God’s people have been asking questions like that about our Heavenly Father since the Garden.

Peace Like a River reads at times like a pulse-pounding thriller, and at other times like a sweet family memoir. It has moments of tenderness, and gritty images of life’s deepest evils. Enger has that rare ability to write beautifully without seeming like he’s showing off. When I finished this book, I was immediately sad that it was over.

Virgil Wander was written just two years ago (Enger has only written three novels; I picked up his middle book, So Brave Young and Handsome, at the library yesterday). It’s quite different from his first book. Whereas Peace Like a River had a central question that drove the plot along (Will the Lands find Davy before the authorities do, and what will happen to him?), Virgil Wander has a plot that is much harder to define. It is also set in the present day, and the faith of its characters isn’t nearly as key to the story as in Peace. Still, I enjoyed it just as much. Virgil Wander is the name of the book’s narrator, a middle-aged movie theater owner in a one-stoplight town in northern Minnesota. The book starts with Virgil surviving a terrible car crash, an event that leaves him with some strange after-effects; he can speak, but can’t remember adjectives. His memory is mostly fine, but some of his friends and surroundings seem strange to him. He refers to his former life as “the previous tenant.” In other words, this is a man who has a second chance at life.

That summary makes the book sound like countless other plots, from A Christmas Carol to the movie Family Man. In reality, the book is more focused on the forsaken town where he lives, a place so known for heartache that their local festival is called “Hard Luck Days.” As Virgil tries to renew his own life, we get to know other people who live there–the widow of the baseball star who mysteriously disappeared, the former banker who got elected sheriff and wishes he hadn’t, the mayor who is obsessed with Bob Dylan, the teenager who starts surfing the icy waters of Lake Superior, the loser who wants to win his wife back, and the little boy determined to catch the huge fish he is convinced killed his dad. There’s also a scandalous local celebrity who has recently come home, and a mysterious kite-flying stranger who seems to draw people like a pied piper. I know “quirky small town” has been done an infinite number of times before, too. But Enger makes each of these characters so real, you find yourself yearning to know what happens to them, and to their community. In the process, you might feel inspired to seek a little renewal of your own.

The Chosen

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Okay, this isn’t a book. I just have to share my experience with this series. Let me start with this: I don’t enjoy most “faith-based” movies. I confess I am a bit of a movie snob. Faith-based movies tend to be made with the best of intentions, but they just aren’t made well. So when I heard about a series about the life of Jesus that is entirely funded by donations, that would only be available on an app on one’s phone, tablet or computer, I figured it wasn’t worth my time. After numerous friends–some of whom are movie snobs too–kept telling me how good it was, I relented and gave it a try. Man, am I glad I did.

Most movies about the Bible fall into one of two categories: 1) The Hollywood approach, that changes the story to fit a particular agenda, or 2) The devout approach, in which the characters only say and do the things mentioned in Scripture. It’s hard to criticize this second category; The Jesus Film is a good example. These films have their purpose, but they don’t really work as movies. The Chosen is different. It presents the people of the Gospels in a realistic way. They speak in contemporary language. This takes some getting used to, but it works because it makes the viewer feel a part of the drama. These aren’t just characters in an old story, they are real people. The series presents things that aren’t mentioned in Scripture, but which are plausible: Simon and Andrew being worried they will lose their fishing boat because of debt; Matthew hiring a man to pull him in a wagon through the marketplace so that the people won’t spit on him; the woman at the well asking her latest husband for a divorce so that she can get remarried. Because these ideas aren’t in the Bible, we don’t know exactly how they will turn out. And since the characters are well-written and exceptionally well-acted (This is the best portrayal of Jesus I have ever seen), we care deeply about their stories. Every episode featured at least one moment that moved me deeply, but there is also genuinely funny humor.

I highly recommend The Chosen. Season Two should be out soon, and I can’t wait. Check out their website here: The Chosen.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Dane Ortlund

What can I say about Gentle and Lowly? If you only read one book on this list, read this book. If you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, or you fear that your life is disappointing to God, read this book. If you know someone who thinks of the God of the Bible as angry and vengeful, read this book…and then share it with them. If you just want to know Jesus better (trust me, you do), read this book.

The title is based on Matthew 11:28-30. Ortlund’s premise is that to really know someone is to discover their heart; Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 reveals that His heart is “gentle and lowly.” The rest of the book shows that this truth is not a fluke; it’s found throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. Over and over again, in simple, memorable prose, he shows us that God doesn’t just tolerate us…His heart is for us. He delights in us. Ortlund is not following the path of some authors who ignore or downplay the passages about God’s wrath and our sin. Instead, He shows how the entire Bible points to a God who is unfailingly on our side. Let me say it again: Read this book. Thank me later.