If there was ever a social experiment that defined the beginning of the twenty first century, it would be Wikipedia, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week. Whether you like the broadminded enlightenment rationale that logical humans can join together and answer any and all questions, or the postmodern notion that truth is found within the stories of the community, the anybody-can-edit-any-entry-encyclopedia scratches your itch. And in an article over at Slate, we have a relevant retrospection for us here at Mockingbird – a history of the Wikipedia entry on Jesus. An excerpt from the Slate article:

Wikipedia Jesus was vandalized for the first time on Nov. 6, 2002, when an anonymous user replaced the entire page with the repeated phrase “bla bla is all I hear.” Jesus existed in such a state for five minutes before another user rescued him. In the new year, he got a photo. It was removed three days later. By his second birthday, he had a seven-chapter entry covering his teachings, roles in various denominations and other religions, and historical footprint. By this point, he was gathering disciples, with a small number of Wikipedians emerging as the primary scribes of Jesus’ teachings and legacy. (Some made edits to the page six or seven times a day.)

The whole article is fun and lighthearted, and the author wants us to view the development of Wikipedia through the Jesus article. But we also find a few insights in the article worth discussing here on Mockingbird:
  • 2000 years later, the world still can’t figure out how to deal with Jesus. Is he, as the Slate article describes, “a” central figure in Christianity, or “the” central figure in Christianity? Should we link him to Jews for Jesus or list him as an adviser to President Bush?
  • Wikipedia, though an open source anybody-can-edit encyclopedia, has put in place a “security detail” for Wiki-Jesus, to keep his page away from vandals and trolls (trolls: an internet term for users who post inflammatory, offensive, off-topic, or extraneous messages for the purpose of exciting an emotional response in an online community). Does it speak to the flawed nature of Wikipedia’s view on human reason or cooperation that such a security detail needs to exist?
  • The last line of the article says it all: Meanwhile, the vandals circle, waiting for the moment when that protection comes down. Is it anachronistic to think that after 2000 years, people are still looking to shut Jesus up? I imagine that efforts to discredit his Wikipedia page are more closely tied to hurtful church experiences or arrogant exercises in self-importance. Changing the page to “blah blah blah is all I hear,” or replacing the article with a link to the now defunct tubegirl.com isn’t much better than the witness he got at his trial before the Sanhedrin either.
Perhaps most distressing about the situation is the lack of grace and forgiveness in the actual Wikipedia article of Jesus. The Slate article notes that the current edits to Wiki-Jesus are smoothing rough edges instead of paradigm shifting vandalism. There’s a lot of talk about Jesus and table fellowship, Jesus and his moral teaching, and Jesus vs. the “historical Jesus.” But notably, ideas like “grace” and “forgiveness of sins” are barely mentioned in relation to Jesus’s purpose. Instead, ideas like “eternal life” and “going to heaven” permeate the article, which are of course true, but are the devoid of meaning when separated from the atonement and reconciling work of Jesus.

Wikipedia, like much of the rest of the American Church, can explain to you in great detail what Jesus did, but cannot seem to fathom why Jesus might do it. Wikipedia gives you a theology of glory where Jesus inaugurates the theology of the cross. So much, then, for crowd-sourced truth.

And this, my friends, is why you shouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source on your seminary papers.