The fine print

Photo by "shho"Who reads the fine print?

Recently, while logging into our Netflix account, I was confronted by a banner informing me that I needed to review their Terms of Use policy before continuing.  Subtle links to the actual policies were provided in the message itself–far more subtle than the large and user-friendly “I accept” button at the bottom.  Apparently, they expect the vast majority of users to simply click the button without bothering to slog through the policy.  It’s like signing mortgage papers: does anybody really read all those documents first?

Sometimes I do.

Years ago, when my son started graduate school, I helped him move into his student apartment.  At the housing office, they asked him to sign a contract.  I read it first.  Everything sounded reasonable–except for that clause that suggested they could stick another person in his apartment any time they wanted.

I pointed it out to the person who was helping us: “Does this mean what I think it means?”  She read the paragraph blankly, as if she had never seen it before.  Then she conferred with her supervisor, who also seemed surprised.  Their answer was simply, “We’re not gonna do that.”  Loose translation: We have no idea why it says that, and can’t imagine ever doing such a thing.  But we can’t amend the contract either, so you’re just going to have to trust us and sign.

I sighed; we signed.

The deepest and most enduring relationships are built on a foundation of trust.  But contractual relationships are designed to protect our interests, and assume a certain degree of mistrust.

The Netflix policy, for example, contained this sweeping unilateral statement: “We reserve the right to terminate or restrict your use of our service, without notice, for any or no reason whatsoever.”  That’s verbatim.  I can just imagine contacting customer service about that one.  The answer would probably be about the same as the one from student housing: Listen, we’re not gonna do that.  But we reserve the right to, just in case you turn out to be some kind of crackpotSo sign or walk awayOh, and have a nice day.

It’s not as if Netflix is some Evil Empire out to burn and pillage.  They make money by providing a service, and want to protect themselves in the process.  From their standpoint, it’s a question of whether the customers can be trusted.

I understand.  I recently started a whimsical little photoblog in which I invite visitors to submit their own images for posting.  But as soon as I made that decision, I had to consider policy.  I wouldn’t post just anything sent to me; how would I decide what was appropriate, and what was not?  Any policy, any wording, could die the death of a thousand qualifications.  So in the end, I posted a statement that basically says: I reserve the right to decide.  Unilaterally. 

We swim in a sea of contractual agreements.  Read the fine print: you may actually be agreeing to conditions to which you would object if you knew.  But much of the legalese boils down to the need to protect oneself in a world in which people do in fact act in exploitive and untrustworthy ways.

What, then, does it mean to worship a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God in a world that thinks contractually?  What does it mean as Christians, as a church, to be a covenant people?

More on that in the next post.