I recently listened to Boney M.’s catchy 70s hit Rivers of Babylon. It is an infectious sing-along song, which helps to explain why it’s the 5th most sold single of all time in the UK, but there is something unnerving about their version. The tone is all wrong. The song features words from Psalm 137 which is a bitter lament at a brutal foreign conquest and exile, but the tune bounces along with all the joy of daffodils in a breeze on a spring day. The whole point of the psalm is that they cannot sing – they have hung up their harps (v.2) – because of the sadness of their condition.
In one of the most difficult verses of the Bible for us to hear, the writer goes on to call for retribution for the people’s oppressors:
…happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.Psalm 137:8b-9
This isn’t the stuff of jovial bestselling singles. In context, the lament is tragic. Out of context, the sentiment of the song just seems cheap.
‘Doing a Boney M.’
I fear that Christians too often fall into this trap when speaking about our faith online. When we communicate God-revealed, life-giving truths in 140 characters or less, we necessarily lose some of the context or nuance of what we want to say. Without realising it, the way we say things often communicates something quite unlike what we hope people will hear.
- Blanket bombing your friends and followers with Bible verses can come across as preachy.
- Pithy comments like ‘Jesus loves you’ can come across as trite or tacky.
- Using ‘Christianese’ language can come across as haughty and can erect cultural barriers between Christians and non-Christians.
- Halves of Bible verses, roughly quoted, are easily divorced from their meaning in the context of the passage.
- Constant complaints about PCC meetings or legislation making its way to General Synod can prompt questions about the value of the church when it seems to cause endless bother to its members. (And it’s not just Anglicans who are guilty of this kind of thing.)
If your Twitter feed is anything like mine, you will probably see examples of these every day. They are almost always meant well and almost always say something worthwhile and true – but they are often poorly-received. The problem is that the context that the ‘sharer’ has in mind while tweeting or commenting online is rarely met by the context of the ‘hearer’.
A real-life example
I saw this in action last month on Facebook. A friend of mine (who works for a church) posted a quote from Thomas Cranmer, the leading English Reformer and author of the Book of Common Prayer. Somebody commented along the lines of ‘how many ordinary people are able to understand that language?’ The context of the ‘sharer’ here was completely different to that of the ‘hearer’, so the quote was received very differently to the way it had been intended. My friend had been studying one of Cranmer’s sermons on justification and shared a line which he found particularly striking. Meanwhile, the person commenting had just come back, frustrated, from a very ‘churchy’ meeting only to be met with 16th Century jargon about justification on Facebook.
To his credit my friend was gracious about the complaint and very grateful for the challenge about using Christian jargon. Once they had both explained the context to their comments, they both understood where the other was coming from and appreciated what he had to say. A ‘Boney M. situation’ of context clash turned into an opportunity to encourage and challenge one another, itself a fantastic lesson in digital discipleship. Few of us are mature enough or thoughtful enough to discuss things like that, so it is all the more important that we think before we share things online.
Some questions to ask before sharing
Is this comment designed to build people up or knock them down? Can I say it with integrity, or would it not stand up to scrutiny? Will people understand it or will they be puzzled by its impenetrable language? How would I feel if I read this at the end of a difficult day or the start of a brand new one? What would I add if I had the space or time to say more?
This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.