When you hear yourself or others speak of hope for this world, what’s your first reaction? When you read of some effort of an individual or group trying to make things better, what thought first shows up in your head? When you see people actually doing something in the church, the community, the world, what words fall out of your mouth easily?
Would you make Statler and Waldorf proud?
Depending on your age or your exposure to pop culture, you may not know them by name. You may not even recognize this description, for the origin of this dyspeptic duo reaches all the way back to the almost-ancient era known as the 1970s.
For starters, they’re Muppets.
They were a part of the original Muppets show and since then have found their way into everything from movies to a Marvel comic book appearance[i] to doing commercials for a Facebook product.
They are the two old guys up in the balcony.
Cranky, sarcastic, and never satisfied, these two never have anything good to say. Laughing, mocking, and generally lobbing one-liners at everyone else, they comment on how the show is going.
But they are always spectators.
It’s funny to watch—until we see it in real life. Our world has developed quite the habit for critiquing anyone trying to get things done in this world. Still learning how to steward our newish connectivity on the planet, many eagerly jump on a bigger soapbox sharing all that they see everyone else doing . . . wrong.
Is it fair to say each of us is a snarky comment or two away from being a Muppet in the balcony?
To be sure, these decidedly hope-starved times lure many to these harsher tones. They cannot see or name one good thing God has done, such is their spiritual blindness. To hope (or wait) for him to do the next good thing is beyond their tired imaginations. For those of us who are beginning to say out loud that God is not finished with us or the rest of creation, what’s our excuse?
Cynical thoughts still tease out our ugly words far too easily.
The writer of Proverbs has a thought that might help (or offend):
Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.[ii]
Let’s memorize this one together, shall we?
We live in an age that delights in the airing of opinions. We also run the risk of being molded by this delight. The dangerous blend of big data and small vision has lulled the followers of Jesus into a trap. We have become addicted to the sound of our voices and the sight of our own words.
Along the way, we settle for a lukewarminess that leads to grumpiness.
“Yes,” the more vocal will say, “but how could our hearts not stir with righteous indignation when we read the latest headline from our newsfeed or see a clip on Youtube about that political party?” Should we not be upset when we are updated on Facebook on a particular issue? To put it more personally, what I often hear is something like this:
“I get so angry when I see and hear what is happening in our world, what do you expect me to do—nothing?”
“When I post something, it’s my way of pushing back on ________ (fill in the blank with whomever sits on the other side of whatever divide).”
“If we stay silent, they will win.”
And so we fling our opinions into cyberspace. Does this accomplish much good in God’s world? Does it do our insides as much good as we might assume? Do we even understand what is happening when we scream from the balcony?
Ushered into the Trap
First, like Statler and Waldorf, it is important to know we are mostly screaming to other angry Muppets. We tend to seek out information and viewpoints that line up with our own. Researchers refer to this as “selective exposure.”[iii] We avoid that which challenges our thinking. Some of this is intentional, but some of it is happening without our knowledge. Professor C Thi Nguyen summarizes this phenomenon well with an example of what happens when we get our news from Facebook feeds and other social media:
Our Facebook feed consists mostly of our friends and colleagues, the majority of whom share our own political and cultural views. We visit our favourite like-minded blogs and websites. At the same time, various algorithms behind the scenes, such as those inside Google search, invisibly personalise our searches, making it more likely that we’ll see only what we want to see.[iv]
For the sake of our convenience and not drowning in the overflow of information that is the Internet, we now allow a form of artificial intelligence (say, Google and Facebook’s algorithms) to filter out all those things we either might not be interested in or—and here’s the real point—we might not agree with. In these “bubbles,” as they are called,[v] we “encounter exaggerated amounts of agreement and suppressed levels of disagreement.”[vi]
What’s wrong with that?
We tend to like being around people who like what we like. And why not? It’s easier and more enjoyable, so we think. But in the age of interconnectivity and massive-data collection, it becomes more than who we hang out with on the weekend. This is no longer a conversation across the backyard fence, in the lobby at church, or, for that matter, at the corner pub. Our interactions are being carefully and quietly sculpted, even as we’re steered toward articles (and other people) we might like.
Without even knowing it, we’ve been led into a box in the balcony to sit with those who think like us.
From here, we blast out our sentiments just to hear them echo back from others in this chamber who think like us. Learning something from a different perspective becomes secondary to having the people in my box agree with me. Along the way, we become emboldened with these exaggerated levels of agreement and are increasingly convinced of how right we are. We are now in a cycle. The uglier the tone, the more “atta boys” (or “atta girls”) we hear only leads to more ugliness. Couple that with the outrage focused at anyone who dares to voice a disagreement in that bubble and the trap is set. Disagreement is mostly muted in this bubble created around us. Soon we cannot imagine any sane—or Jesus loving person—not agreeing with us.
And before you know it, we’re Muppets in a balcony.
This accomplishes so very little. To be clear, the state of our world is worth our concern—and, at times, indignation. The great challenge for the followers of Christ is the question: What shall we do? Merely offer more scathing critiques? No. Impelled less by our outrage and more by the outreach of God’s love, it is time to take action. Our love (if it is that) must now move from word to deed.
The great British pastor John Stott said it quite forcefully:
When society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not rather reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat for going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is: where is the salt?[vii]
Let’s stay with our original example just a bit longer. If you find yourself caught in a closed loop of anger, lobbing one grenade of hate after another, try this:
Jump out of the balcony. Or at least excuse yourself from it and find your way down to where the real action is.
You’ve been reading from Greg Holder’s book, Never Settle. Want to be a difference-maker? Becoming one starts with choices—big and small. You are invited to be part of the restoration
[i] Marvel Team-Up 74, October 1978, https://muppet.fandom.com/wiki/Marvel_Comics?file=Marvel_Team-Up_74.jpg.
[ii] Proverbs 18:2.
[iii] Dave D’Alessio and Mike Allen, “The Selective Exposure Hypothesis and Media Choice Processes,” in Mass Media Effects Research: Advances through Meta-Analysis, ed. Raymond W. Preiss et al. (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2007), 103–19.
[iv] C Thi Nguyen, “Escape the Echo Chamber,” Aeon Magazine, April 9, 2018, https://aeon.co/essays/why-its-as-hard-to-escape-an-echo-chamber-as-it-is-to-flee-a-cult.
[v] See Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think (New York: Penguin, 2011) and Cass Sunstein, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
[vi] C Thi Nguyen, “Escape the Echo Chamber,” Aeon Magazine, April 9, 2018, https://aeon.co/essays/why-its-as-hard-to-escape-an-echo-chamber-as-it-is-to-flee-a-cult.
[vii] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount: Christian Counter-Culture (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 65, quoted in Michael Wear, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017), 211.