The New Tower of Babel
The social internet is our shared language of selfish pursuit.
In 2013 I graduated from college with a biblical literature degree from a well-respected Christian liberal arts school, got married, and entered into a social media role at a large Christian organization. A family member remarked to my wife, “Are you sure Chris should be getting a job in social media? It seems like a fad that may be gone in a few years.”
That year Facebook boasted about 1.23 billion monthly active users around the world and 73% of anyone using the internet was using social media.
Social media wasn’t a fad in 2013, but it’s understandable why it may have felt that way for some onlookers. Social media did not occupy the same sort of mental and social prominence that it does today. World leaders weren’t using social media as an official line of communication in 2013 like they do today, social justice movements were still primarily organized off of social media, not on it, and plenty of social media platforms have been created and dismantled since our family member expressed some skepticism.
For good or for ill (mostly for ill), social media is here to stay. The social internet—all of the different ways in which we communicate with others online—is an unprecedented institution of socialization whose only comparable innovation in recorded history is the Tower of Babel.
In Genesis 11, we are told that the whole world shared the same language. With this same language came a form of corrupted cooperation that could only be the natural offspring of the conspiratory couple banished from the Garden of Eden. What did people do with their newfound shared lexicon? Genesis 11:4-6 tells us:
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Yahweh recognized the tremendous power in this communicative innovation of the people and decided the godhead must descend and confuse the language of the builders lest they continue to build their tower and find other ways to pretend they are powerful apart from God.
The people of the world gathered together and deployed their novel communication capabilities to embark on an endeavor that would demonstrate their self-sufficiency, independence, and ingenuity.
Today, on the social internet and through the varieties of media we consume online, we have gathered together with the people of the world and engaged our own novel communication capability in order to fiddle with our own frivolities in an attempt to demonstrate our own self-sufficiency, independence, and ingenuity.
The social internet is a tool that, in its earliest days, had a magical feel of unity and progress that created the illusion of impossible innovation and cooperation. In more recent years, God has used our own folly to introduce the same kind of frustration that the Tower of Babel constructors felt. But despite growing negative sentiment toward different aspects of the social media experience, many of us are still trying to lay bricks and build our virtual towers. We are so consumed by our relationship with the social internet that it has begun to transform how we think, feel, and believe.
Leading Is Difficult Today
Our relationship with the social internet is profoundly changing us, more often away from Christlikeness, not toward it. The stories I have heard from pastors, parents, and other Christian leaders are heartbreaking. Pastors are watching church members turn into different, unrecognizable people. Parents weep as their children slide into addiction and distress, watching their time with their children slowly slip away.
Leading people to follow Christ has never been an easy calling; countless stories from church history and the Scriptures themselves make this clear. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard today, too, and that matters. Unlike what we read amid the construction of the Tower of Babel, God has not stopped the corrupted cooperation we witness on the social internet. Pastors, parents, and other Christian leaders today are trying to figure out how to lead the people they love to put down their hammers and chisels and abandon the selfish social shrine of which they are so proud.
In the midst of all of this, we must remember that God is faithful. Second Peter 1:3 says that he has given us everything we need for life and godliness. With much prayer and Christ-centered cooperation, we can push back the darkness of our modern Babel.
I suspect they were saying the Tower of Babel was here to stay, too.
Chris- incredible article. I am so glad I stumbled across your newsletter. That said, I have a question. There are several Christian writers, such as Brett McCracken and Tony Reinke, whose opinions I value greatly, but I seem to separate with them when it comes to the extent one should or should not immerse themselves into the world of social media. Namely- it seems like their arguments would be to simply be "wiser" about social media and smartphones than to remove oneself from their influence. However, when I read articles like yours, or I spend time reading thinkers such as Sherry Turkle, Cal Newport, Adam Alter, etc., I realize: whether we want to use the word addiction or not, we *are* addicted to social media and smartphones. We've allowed ourselves to sign up for these changes without considering what was happening to us as a result. So I can't agree that if we are being *deformed* by this technology, our answer is to just...step away for a few weeks and come back? To me, that seems irresponsible at best. Am I wrong for feeling so strongly about this? I'm not a pastor, but when I look at addicts in any other context, the advice feels lacking at best.