Once upon a time, when the world was smaller, it used to be harder to meet one another.
The middle and upper classes held tightly to their social boundaries by guarding the connections they would admit. As every Jane Austen fan knows, it was the height of vulgarity for one to presume upon an opportunity by addressing a person without a formal introduction. Even though someone might be in the physical presence of others, etiquette still required a mutual acquaintance to make an introduction, primarily to establish reputation, family ties and social rank.
This practice was even more pronounced between single men and women, especially in the age when marriage was considered an economic alliance first and foremost. Any single man hoping to make the acquaintance of a single woman needed to become known to her connections first. Along with making his character and reputation known, he was also expected to make his intentions known.
But not necessarily to the object of his intentions.
No, a young man had to make known his intentions to the woman’s emotionally-detached-but-still-highly-motivated connections. In other words, those who have a vested interest in seeing her thrive and flourish, but who are less likely to be swept off their feet by his sweet talk. While difficult to do, it caused suitors to man up and think through the impact of their words and deeds. And it also provided concrete ballast for a young woman’s flights of romantic fancy.
Spam, Predators and Poseurs
Fast forward two or three centuries, and we run into the thicket of New World social media. A young man no longer needs to run the gauntlet of a local village’s stern gaze. Everyone he could possibly desire to meet is at the other end of a Facebook account or a Twitter address. In the unblinking blue gaze of his computer screen, he can be anybody he wants to be, connecting to anyone he seeks. And he never even has to dress up.
Seems a lot better, right?
You could argue that we are better connected, but the thicket of electronic relationships could hardly be called a best practice. Even in a highly wired world, intimacy is still a byproduct of face time. You can trade text messages or e-mails all day long and still not really know who is @ the other end.
Therefore, when the whole world can access you digitally, discernment becomes a highly prized quality. Is that new comment on your blog a spambot or a real person? Is that person who winked at your profile trolling you from an Internet café halfway around the world or a credible potential date in your own town? Is that new Facebook friend a sexual predator or truly a random friend-of-a-friend?
It would be helpful at these moments to have omniscience, wouldn’t it? Well, you don’t have to wish-list it as a desired superpower in your online profile. In a sense, if you know the only One who is omniscient, your wish is granted. Your identity as a redeemed child of God means you have the promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the eternal wisdom of His Word. All of which is still ginormously relevant in a wired world.
Let’s be honest: All of these devices mean that it has become easier to indulge our fig-leaf tendencies. Since sin entered the world, we have a reflexive tendency to hide from one another and from God. We don’t want to be accountable for our words and actions. Though it looks slicker to wield an iPhone than a fig leaf, it can be the same thing to hide behind our screen names.
Scripture tells us that evil deeds are done in the dark, but children of the light walk in the light (Ephesians 5:7–14). In other words, accountability and transparency are timeless qualities. We don’t need Bible 2.0 to update the Lord’s precepts. He transcends our gadgets.
Therefore, the core of who we are is still what we think and do in the real world. We are who we are in community, not in isolation. It means very little if a man proclaims he is a “people person” in his various online bios. You’ll know it for sure when you watch how he handles the interruptions of real life that come through family needs, neighborly interactions, church service opportunities and so forth.
In fact, Scripture directly addresses this problem with one succinct proverb: “Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” (Proverbs 20:6, ESV). This is a verse that needs to be on every laptop lid. Faithfulness and steadfastness are proven over the long haul. These qualities simply can’t be reduced to electronic blips.
I have a friend who encountered the living example of this proverb a few years ago when she signed up for an online dating service. This woman was a successful professional, responsible for training many other colleagues, but her discernment in this context was clouded by her desire for romance. She ended up “meeting” someone online, a man who wooed her with his words and electronic ardor. They were soon entangled in a passionate relationship online. I carried a low-grade concern, but my alarms went off when one day she confided her latest happiness: He had told her he loved her. But they had not yet met. So I candidly told her I distrusted anyone who would make such a statement prior to meeting in person. Either he’s a scammer or immature — both of which lead to heartache.
Unfortunately, he was a scammer, an enterprising man working his online opportunities from an Internet café in a nation halfway around the world. He was not the profile he created. But the thing is, for as many people interacting online with dishonorable intentions, there are exponentially more who are not. So how do you sort out the noble digital blobs from the ignoble ones?
You go back to the concept of community.
Let’s look at the context of the proverb of a faithful man. It says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out. Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find? The righteous who walks in his integrity — blessed are his children after him” (Proverbs 20:5–7, ESV).
These verses address motivations and deeds, both of which are revealed in relationship. Integrity is revealed in the walk, the trajectory of a lifestyle revealed over time. Motive is revealed in conversation, the trajectory of the heart revealed in words. Neither of these things is adequately assessed in the monologue of social media.
So what does it look like to be considered faithful and righteous in cyberspace? I think the answer is found in thinking about the person on the other end of the digital blob. The righteous will not hide behind anonymity to issue sinful speech online. Nor does he or she selfishly solicit and discard relationships. The standards of God-glorifying behavior don’t change just because there’s a computer delivering the messages.
But I think there are also some ideas from the past that could be helpful to revive today, for example, the practice of establishing connections and stating intent when initiating a relationship. Yes, even online. This is what I remind all of my younger brothers in Christ: You trust God by risking rejection. Every time you battle the passivity of Adam, standing wordlessly by Eve as she was deceived, you build your muscles of godly masculinity. Every time you sow toward leadership and clarity by stating what you want and not trying to slide in the back door of any context, you are going to reap good fruit — even if you aren’t immediately rewarded with what you seek. Every time you consider the interests and perspectives of others, you are cultivating benevolent masculinity, the kind of manliness that adorns the gospel.
In practice, this means becoming a known quantity whenever you want romantic attention. You may want to get to know a girl without any strings, but there is absolutely no way you are going to be slick about it. What you think is low-key attention is nearly always a red alert on her radar screen. So man up. State what you want. And if you have no context for carbon-based connections, then make them. Tell her how you can be checked out — who knows you and how to contact them. Offer to speak to her father or pastor, if that would be helpful.
Be willing to become known. Yeah, it’s risky. Yeah, it can come off weird. But it doesn’t have to. You can be charming, low-key and reassuring in offering this information. Tell her why you are making the connection (“I have heard a lot about you from our mutual friends, and then I saw your profile on Facebook”). Tell her why you want to be in contact (“You sound like a lot of fun, so I’d like to get to know you a little better”). Offer information that will make you legitimate in a cesspool of spambots and viruses (“I’m sure you’d like to check me out, and that’s cool. Here’s the contact info of some people we know in common/my pastor/my family, etc. Or if you prefer I first talk to someone you know, I’d be glad to do that. Whatever makes you comfortable”).
And keep in mind that if the online pursuit loses steam, you should also be clear about that, too. Close the loop and thank her for the time she’s spent responding to your initiative. Even if you have never met, you are still accountable for that relationship before the Lord. If you are both redeemed by the blood of Christ, you are siblings in Christ and will spend eternity together. And there we won’t be illuminated by the glow of our computer screens; we will be made radiant by the light of the Lamb (Revelation 21:23), the One who is truly faithful.
The fine folks of Jane Austen’s world might strike us today as being a bit rigid in their manners. But they demanded character and accountability even among the limited relationships of a small town. How much wiser would we be to honor the same practices in a world without boundaries.
Copyright 2011 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.