What are NFTs and Should Christians Care?
[This piece by Stephen McCaskell and Patrick Miller was originally published on Christianity Today on January 12, 2022]
“Why would I buy a jpeg I can copy and paste for free?”
That is how most conversations about NFTs (non-fungible tokens) begin. And it makes perfect sense. People are purchasing NBA clips for thousands of dollars—which can be streamed without cost on YouTube.
“Crypto degens” are changing their Twitter profile pictures to pixelated cryptopunks to signal their membership in a new libertarian world order. As the NFT market soars to a value of $7 billion, it’s been compared to the dot com bubble, where speculation-fueled investment flooded the market.
However, before you write off NFTs, revisit David Letterman speaking to Bill Gates about the internet in 1995. Letterman poked fun at Gates, mocking people who were excited about the internet’s ability to broadcast baseball games. Letterman smiled and asked, “Does radio ring a bell?” Gates tried to explain the difference between radio and the internet by pointing out that baseball fans could listen to the game whenever they want, not just live. But Letterman wasn’t impressed—“Do tape recorders ring a bell?” he asked.
Or recall the time when Katie Couric and the entire Today Show crew made fun of “@” symbols and asked, “Can you explain what internet is?” Or remember Newsweek’s notorious 1995 editorial headline that read, “The internet? Bah!”
Christians especially did not begin to think seriously about the internet (or its successor, social media), until well after they were adopted at a popular level. Pastors did not prepare their congregations for the promises and pitfalls of the web. This left Christians caught up in the cultural tide, lacking discernment and wisdom with how to engage.
Perhaps that’s why 19 of the top 20 “Christian” Facebook pages are actually run by nefarious, foreign troll farms, and millions of believers sharing their posts are totally unaware. The internet can be a powerful discipleship tool, but without a serious understanding of the technology and its ethical and theological implications, Christians are likely to be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).
So let’s avoid past errors, and start with two basic questions: What are NFTs, and how will they be used in the future?
What are NFTs?
Five hundred years after it was painted, the Mona Lisa still captivates crowds of tourists who travel to Paris every year. There are no doubt hundreds of thousands of replicas, but the small painting that hangs in the Louvre is the original. And how do we know that? Because it’s been thoroughly authenticated by professionals.
Now imagine if Leonardo da Vinci were alive today. How would someone know that a piece of his art was authentic? How could da Vinci make a living from his artwork?
An NFT is proof of ownership that is verifiable by a public ledger of transactions—they make it possible to spot when something is real and when it is a forgery, such as a knockoff Mona Lisa. This public ledger, referred to as the blockchain, is the best method we’ve developed to prove whether something online is authentic—based on publisher source or the publication’s time stamp.
Consider the music industry—and more specifically how musicians are paid. Musicians have long been at the mercy of large record labels, both for how well and how often they are compensated. When a record is created and the digital masters are made, they are not owned by the musician, but by the record label. And the record label determines the rules the musician must play by.
The record labels then work with third parties who can encrypt their music to protect them from theft and distribute them on proprietary marketplaces. Those who “own” the songs cannot sell or transfer them to another digital platform. For example, if you buy a Taylor Swift album on Apple Music, you can’t listen to it on Amazon.
In today’s era of the web, you do not own anything. That is, until now, we could not attach proof of ownership to anything online. Which is why NFTs have the potential to change the future of digital ownership. They change the artists’ contract with the record label. They change the record label’s partnership with third-party marketplaces. They change the consumer’s relationship with the art—which can now be owned anywhere and everywhere they exist digitally.
The Future of NFTs
It’s helpful to look at the future of NFTs (digital ownership) in three different categories:
(1) digital art (think of an original artist creating art similar to the Mona Lisa but on a computer or a musician releasing an album)
(2) collectibles (think of Sports or Pokémon cards)
(3) digital property/utility (examples below).
This technology will replace the complex and difficult-to-use systems that we currently rely on. Let me give you a brief list of real-world use cases in which you’ll see NFTs in the coming months and years:
- Musicians can now own their own music, prove they own it, and earn income in a matter of seconds based on sales instead of waiting 2+ years based on a standard 36-month record deal.
- Your airline ticket, your conference pass, and your seat at the NFL game will all be NFTs. And if something magical or record-breaking happens at that event, you can now prove you were there and sell that NFT on a secondary market to collectors.
- Brands will create NFTs as digital representations of their physical assets for the metaverse; some already are (e.g. Adidas, Budweiser, Pepsi, Zara, and the list goes on).
- Location-based NFTs or POAP’s (proof of attendance protocol) can prove that you were somewhere, like a concert ticket or pictures of a special event.
- If you buy a car, the contract will be an NFT. Similarly, real estate titles will be NFTs. Traditional real estate and vehicle transfers require complex systems that NFTs solve.
- University and College degrees will be NFTs. Right now, the process is complicated: Someone graduates from a school and needs proof of their graduation to get a job or apply for more schooling. They might have to email admissions, try to find a file in their old school login, or, worse yet, request a paper copy. With NFTs, all you need to do is log in with your web3 wallet (your online profile that interacts with the blockchain). Instantly it verifies that you are a grad from whatever school, and associated with that is all the metadata necessary that shows your degree, grades, year you finished, etc.
- If you’re a parent of a young kid, I’m sure you’ve been asked at least once if you could purchase Robux for a new Roblox skin or V-Bucks to purchase the latest Fortnite outfit. This now becomes an NFT that can then carry over into other applications. Again, these gaming NFTs are verifiable because of the blockchain.
In short, we’ve had 25 years of an internet where people couldn’t own things digitally. With the invention of the blockchain and NFTs, that changes. Almost ex nihilo digital scarcity becomes a reality, upending the landscape of digital economics.
In the current era of platform-based digital economics, digital goods have limited value because ownership and property are non-transferable. I cannot easily move my Kindle purchases to Apple Books, nor can I resell or give away my digital property. Owning a first printing of Harry Potter is valuable, but owning a first digital copy is useless. NFTs reduce the need for complex platforms by automating complex contractual agreements, and tracking ownership. As digital property (think clothing, avatars, house decorations, and real estate) becomes desirable in the metaverse, NFTs ensure they have value.
This technology will create a new world of possibilities for creatives, content creators, businesses, churches, and parachurch organizations,which means now is the time to ask serious questions: How do we think ethically and theologically about digital ownership? What are the promises? What are the pitfalls?
On the frontiers of theological thinking, queuing the right questions is an important task. So what questions should Christian theologians and ethicists wrestle with today regarding cryptocurrency? Here are a few:
- What are the unique dangers of digital consumerism? Sneakerheads joyfully stay up until midnight, madly refreshing their browsers to get the perfect pair of Air Jordans. Why? Because owning a pair is a status symbol and promises membership in a niche community. The same can be said about designer clothes, luxury vehicles, Apple devices, and much more. But Jesus warned us that “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). He taught his disciples that worrying about possessions was the path to anxiety, not freedom (Matt. 6:25).
Perhaps consumerism leads to anxiety because of the human tendency to identify with what we have rather than who we are in Christ. Or perhaps owning stuff produces anxiety because it soaks up our most scarce resource: time. It takes countless hours to research, purchase, use, and upkeep all the things we buy, and NFTs are no exception. You could spend hours researching the next big NFT drop, browsing OpenSea, or figuring out the perfect way to display your NFT artwork online. This will only increase in the metaverse, as digital property becomes increasingly associated with social class and group membership. In light of this, Christians will need to form practices that help them resist the allure of digital consumerism—knowing that, in the end, amassing more stuff on earth is “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecc. 2:11).
- What unique risks accompany digital identity creation? Many NFT investors are purchasing PFPs (NFTs that function as profile pictures) as a way of signifying their place in the community. But at what point does a PFP move from a fun, community-forming asset into full-blown identity confusion? Daniel Maegaard, an investor making millions trading crypto and NFTs, declined a $1 million offer for a Cryptopunk that resembles Breaking Bad’s Walter White. He explained to Time magazine, “People almost now tie that character to me. It’s almost like I’d be selling a part of myself if I ever sold him.”
Social media platforms already allow people to craft curated versions of themselves, but NFTs will expand this trend by making digital identities and their avatar accoutrements discrete, ownable (or salable) digital property. And yet self-creation runs against the grain of God’s created order. The prophet Isaiah warned, “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’? (Isa. 45:9). The gospel is a gift precisely because in it, we receive our true God-given identity, “So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Rom. 12:5).
Roman Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor argues that modern people reject the gift of an external, God-given identity. Instead, they look inward—hoping that through self-discovery the authentic me might become a fully realized, self-expressing individual. Choosing the right PFP becomes another tool in the self-definition toolbox distracting us from fully enjoying the gracious gift of our externally received, God-given identity.
- What unique creative opportunities does digital ownership unlock? The creator God made man in his image (Gen. 1:27). We all share a calling to create new things, produce new value, and serve our communities with creativity. Perhaps this is why one of Adam’s first tasks was creative: to name all the animals (Gen. 2:19). Increasingly, much of the culture-making is happening online. Most of the art we consume is now digital: TV shows, movies, photos, music, audiobooks, podcasts, ebooks, online articles, and newsletters. NFTs allow digital intellectual property to become verifiable property.
The possibilities here are promising.
For example, I love to browse bookshelves. In the future, we can browse NFT bookshelves. Maybe a friend can sell, loan, or give you a digital book—all of which range from inconvenient to impossible right now. If you’re a digital visual artist, you can finally sell your work to art collectors. And digital works could even correspond to physical pieces. Damien Hirst, a world-renowned physical artist, recently dropped “The Currency,” a digitized collection of his artwork, as NFTs. Each NFT includes a high-resolution image of the front and back of each piece. Collectively, the 10,000 NFTs are valued at $500 million. Musicians may benefit the most, as NFTs promise a way to bypass streaming services (which requires millions of streams per year for the artist to make minimum wage) and instead let artists sell their work directly to fans. For example, Kings of Leon released their latest album as an NFT and made $2 million.
NFTs may rebalance the economic scales back in favor of creators rather than platforms, such that those doing the creative work can reap the rewards of their labor (2 Thess. 3:11–12) instead of those distributing the work. Christians, who affirm the goodness of creativity and economic fairness, should celebrate this.
- How does evangelism change in the digital era? NFTs already function as the cost of entry to various online communities. Occasionally, they even gather in person. NFT lovers descended on Manhattan for Ape Fest, a weekend-long party open exclusively to Bored Ape Yacht Club owners. They weren’t alone. World of Women, Cool Cats and others all scheduled in-person hangouts in Miami. It’s not hard to imagine a future where shared interest in real estate NFTs, clothing NFTs, gaming NFTs, or music NFTs can form on- and offline communities.
The question is whether Christians will be present in those spaces, building relationships for the sake of the gospel (Matt. 28:19). As more people live more of their lives online, Christians should start re-imagining the internet as a missionary space. In the first century, the apostle Paul saw the Roman roads, which were initially designed for an imperial war machine, in terms of their potential for church planting. Likewise, Christians should see the internet—while often used for consumption, advertisement, and self-expression—as presenting greater opportunities for evangelism.
We’ve only scratched the surface of NFTs and their potential, but now is the time for believers to start thinking, programming, developing, and creating in that space. The kingdom of God produces flourishing wherever it reaches, and Christians must make sure the future of the internet is no exception.
Want to learn even more about NFTs? Listen to this week's episode where we further break breakdown what NFTs are and why Christians should care.
Stephen McCaskell is an award-winning filmmaker and Web3 enthusiast. He purchased his first bitcoin in 2013, unfortunately he hadn’t yet learned the principle of hodl. He resides with his wife and four sons in Orlando, Florida.
Patrick Miller is a cultural commentator on the podcast Truth Over Tribe and the author of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe. He's also a pastor at The Crossing, where he oversees digital ministries, pioneering next-generation strategies to reach people online.
Posted by Patrick Miller