Twitter still gets no respect — just 500 million users and counting. Its enforced brevity and the sheer volume of messages posted there daily have made it an easy target for ridicule for as long as it’s been a household word. There’s no disputing the presence of vapidity, echo chambers, and misrepresentation on Twitter. Despite all that, I fell in love with the service pretty quickly on this, my second go-round (I had an account for about a year in 2009 and then quit, but I rejoined in August 2011). The trick, for me, was to find a good, smart, entertaining group of people to follow, people in all the fields that interest me. I also needed to discover new uses for my own tweets. What got me stuck the first time around was the assumption that I needed to tweet about what I was doing at the moment, and little else. I’ve since been liberated from the belief that my real life has to be interesting twenty-four hours a day for my Twitter account to work. Even so, my favorite part is the reading. The influence that Twitter has had on my life is not as an outlet for self-expression, but as a window to the thoughts of a diverse group of people. That window has contributed to making me more open-minded, in (I hope) the best sense of the word, than I’ve ever been in my life.
The word “sheltered” describes my childhood pretty well. I was home-schooled through eighth grade, attended a Christian high school of fewer than 100 students, then went to a Christian college of around 1,000 students. Each of these steps was important in my development as an adult, and I want to be clear from the start that I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything, but yes, it was about as homogeneous as you’d imagine. I haven’t spent any part of my life outside the American Evangelical subculture. (I’ve never even been on a mission trip; that’s how ridiculous I am.) Consequently, in my worldview as a child, the following groups were essentially real-life villains: liberals (either politically, theologically, or both), homosexuals, feminists, and people who believe in evolution.
My intention isn’t to bash my parents or teachers. If my conviction at a young age was that the above-mentioned groups must be stupid and/or evil and not to be taken up with, this was simply because I took my parents’ opinions on everything for the gospel truth. How could anyone disagree with them and be right? It would have been difficult for me to recognize this myopia as a home-schooler, but high school revealed it to me, if mostly in retrospect. My parents had so successfully drilled into me that teenage rebellion was a bad idea, that I basically didn’t rebel. Given the emotional upheavals of puberty, this was probably the smoothest route to take, but that doesn’t change the fact that the peers with whom I was allowed to associate never challenged my basic worldview. College was another small step outward, but the most world-shaking notion to which I was introduced there was Dispensational premillennialism. (Horrors!) My paradigm was still political, cultural and theological conservatism.
It would be dramatic to say that with Twitter, everything changed. Of course, that’s nonsense. First of all, not everything changed; I’m still quite comfortable calling myself a conservative Christian, although I’m not sure I’m still conservative in all the ways I once was. The beliefs essential to my faith have not been toppled, and if my position has wavered slightly on less important issues, I’m not necessarily ready to change sides on those either. Second, the process has been gradual, extending back even to that “sheltered” childhood. Without a doubt, the most important event was my mom teaching me to read. In high school, I was exposed for the first time to people who had problems with the theology of Calvinism. In debates and persuasive speeches both in high school and college, I sometimes willingly took the unpopular side, for the challenge. Through that experience, I began to see the reasoning of people who support abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research. I grew socially during these years also, although I imagine watching that growth probably felt like watching grass grow. College exposed for me how little experience I had spending time with people of any minority whatsoever. It taught me to appreciate diversity for the first time.
So, the foundation for who I am today had already been laid. Even so, I think of my experience with Twitter as a watershed.
Twitter has been two things for me. The first is pretty self-evident: it’s a virtual room where people of diverse worldviews and backgrounds can gather to share their thoughts on the issues and events of the day — in addition to sharing jokes, stories, and pictures. The juxtaposition of different thoughts has always been interesting. But the second purpose of Twitter has been much more important and, not coincidentally, more substantial. Twitter is a portal. It’s a way of discovering new people, blogs, and magazines on the Internet. I’ve sometimes become frustrated with trying to keep up with my Twitter feed because links to longer articles that I want to read are always showing up. If “meeting” people on Twitter can be compared to meeting people in real life, then reading someone’s tweets is an introduction. Moving on to another website allows me to really get to know the people I meet on Twitter.
This act of “meeting” has been the main difference for me between Twitter and Facebook. With Facebook, my connections are to people I’ve met before. I haven’t aggressively sought more connections and a larger network. Facebook has been a great tool for self-expression (and, at times, self-mythologizing). Twitter, on the other hand, has been a place for discovery. On my first try, it was a blow to find that not many people I knew were on Twitter. Now, I don’t mind that at all. It’s not about maintaining a circle, like Facebook is for me; it’s about expanding a web of connections.
Now, how exactly has that web opened my mind, or helped that opening along? Three words: reading kills prejudices. I refuse to let myself be prejudiced again, because I’ve seen some of the people who disagree with my upbringing on political, social, or religious issues. They’re not my enemy (Ephesians 6:12; see also verse 20 — Paul was a soldier against the devil and his schemes, but he considered himself an ambassador in relation to people). Even if some of them choose to be my enemies, I’m still called to love them. And as I read their words, I find much in our common humanity to share and celebrate. They are not all out to get me. On some things, it’s even possible that they’re right and I’m wrong. I don’t mean to take on a hectoring tone here; I’m trying to keep this in the genre of autobiography and not write a lecture. Or if anything, I’m lecturing myself. I’ve always been more prejudiced than I realize at the time. If wisdom is knowing how little I know, then even now I’m only beginning to be wise.
I wanted to share a little bit specifically about the people I’ve discovered on Twitter. If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’ll have some idea what’s coming next, but I’ll take this opportunity to address a few general topics and show how certain things fit together. The ideas I’ve learned the most about, each considered taboo to my childhood mind, are liberalism and feminism. Since movies are my passion, I’ll close by also mentioning how my views on film have changed somewhat since I joined Twitter.
I’m tempted to get snarky when discussing liberalism, because politics invites snark these days. Suffice it to say that I’ve found things to respect and admire in liberals, and ten or fifteen years ago I never would have imagined that to be possible. The conviction that to be a committed Christian requires neither right wing nor left wing ideology has grown within me over time. I’ve seen more and more how it’s possible for both sides to get things right, to emphasize the right things. It’s equally possible for both sides to get things wrong and to emphasize the wrong things. Previously, some people had led me to believe that acknowledging this or identifying oneself as a “moderate” or “centrist” was a sign of cowardice, intellectual confusion, or laziness. I reject that viewpoint now. Before Twitter, I had read some liberal columnists and publications occasionally, but for the past year the doors have been opened in new ways. Most important, though, have been the Christians — people whose faith I’ve found to be genuine even as they express views that don’t fit in the conservative framework. I hesitate to label them as “liberal,” because I haven’t always read enough to be sure they would accept that label, and some have even referred to themselves as moderate. But they are not as far right as what I was previously used to. The people and websites include: Eugene Cho, Rachel Held Evans, Think Christian, Sojourners, Urban Faith, and A Deeper Story.
In the cases of feminism and egalitarianism, I think Twitter deserves the bulk of the credit for getting me to dip my toe into those streams of thought. For most of my life, the writers I’ve been familiar with have almost all been white men. In literature, I’d read Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and Flannery O’Connor. But when it came to nonfiction, there was as little diversity of race or gender as there was of worldview. Along comes Twitter into my life, and I’m introduced to an abundance of wonderful, passionate writing by women. Through this experience, I’ve become a feminist in at least the softest possible definition of the term: I’m firmly in favor of treating women as human beings. They haven’t always been treated that way, and in many places in the world today they still aren’t. I’m also beginning to lean toward egalitarianism as opposed to complementarianism. This dispute is about the interpretation of Scripture. I’m quite certain there are good Christians on both sides, and that they have a lot more common ground than they are sometimes willing to admit.
Some of the intelligent, wise and funny women I’ve found on Twitter, both Christian and non-Christian, include: Rachel Held Evans, Enuma Okoro, Sarah Bessey, Julieanne Smolinski, Lena Dunham, Lauren Wilford, S.E. Cupp, the writers of Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog, and many of the writers at A Deeper Story. I’ll also mention Ann Voskamp, even though Twitter didn’t introduce me to her or her book, One Thousand Gifts. It’s just one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years, so…
I’ve been watching and reading about movies for a long time, and I’ve been acquainted with at least several different critics for years. But again, Twitter helped me broaden my horizons. (A few of my friends on Facebook deserve credit also for introducing me to the A.V. Club, by way of the Onion, around two years ago. The A.V. Club has since become my favorite place to read movie news, and one of my favorite places to read reviews.) By starting to follow a few critics on Twitter, I got to see which other critics they interacted with on a regular basis, leading up to today, with me following about thirty of them directly. My understanding of the range of well-informed opinions has deepened considerably.
But most important, again, have been the Christians. Until very recently, Christians’ interactions with film that I had witnessed were mostly about what is or isn’t safe to watch. College gave me my first experience with an understanding of art and storytelling that transcends that. But even then, when I would think, “Christian movie critic,” my mind automatically went to WORLD Magazine. Some of the movie reviews there are quite good, but others quite blatantly push the perspective of the Christian Right. Also, one of their main purposes is to help families know what to watch. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with either of those goals. I do understand their value. However, I had yet to meet a Christian critic who could engage with a film in as complete and fulfilling a manner as many of the “secular” critics I knew. Because of Twitter I discovered Jeffrey Overstreet, Steven Greydanus, Josh Larsen, David Roark, Rebecca Cusey (specifically her blog, which has revealed a lot more about her than her reviews published in WORLD) and Lauren Wilford. I found websites like Think Christian, Christ and Pop Culture, and the web versions of Christianity Today and RELEVANT Magazine — each of which addresses film, among other things. Some of these people have confirmed beliefs I’d already held, and I have to fight confirmation bias every time I read them. See, I’d had it on good authority for years that some R-rated movies were among the best films ever made, and that I simply had to see them. But it was tempting to coast on my sense of freedom and not bother to connect my enjoyment of movies with my Christianity. Now I’m overjoyed to say that I can, and in fact must, connect them.
To bring it all home, let me reiterate that I haven’t abandoned my previous worldview at all. On Twitter I also follow the Gospel Coalition, Grace to You, Ligonier Ministries, WORLD Magazine, John Piper, Eric Metaxas, and several political conservatives. They are among my favorite people to follow. Part of what makes Twitter work for me is seeing that interplay among conflicting ideas. When I say I’ve become more open-minded, I don’t want to mean that I’ve become a relativist or nihilist. But God is firmly above all human opinion, and if I really believe in “common grace,” then I need to live like it by finding the image of God in a greater variety of people. I acknowledge that every single person I’ve named in this post is fallible and can be seriously wrong. One might even call some of them “dangerous.” As a child, I would have taken that as a reason to avoid them. Not anymore. Finally, while I can pat myself on the back for bursting out of my cultural bubble thanks to Twitter, that would only really be true if I actually lived in the Internet. Back in the physical world, I’m about as sheltered as I’ve been since I was home-schooled — living with and working for my parents, in a “Christian store.” I’m inching towards full adulthood, though, when I will finally be able to live out all the things I believe.