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Seeking an Ecclesial Ethos Online

July 12, 2011

The evangelical corner of the internet is abuzz once again with a debate over something one of its (in)famous pastors said or did. A few months ago it was Rob Bell’s Love Wins and the follow-up tweet from John Piper, and now it is something as simple as a facebook status from Mark Driscoll. Responses in either case will range from over-the-top appeals for banal tolerance to downright mean and nasty defamations and demonizations in the supposed name of “absolute truth” or a “high view of Scripture”. In between you get lots of good stuff, but it tends to get lost in the mêlée and leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

I don’t know if we can help that, although I do think that any of us who take part in this online evangelical subculture can at least be reflective about our part in it. (I actually have other things I want to talk about on this blog, but I guess for now I’ll start out as the guy who talks about “gospel conversations” themselves. I’m okay with that, since it has some points of connectivity with my dissertation topic, and also since I’ve been wrestling for a while now with whether I want to be a theo-blogger at all. Consider this a conversation opener, and help me out, won’t you?)

The question is: Is there a Christian online ethos to be pursued, or is it simply a neutral medium for the transmission of ideas and the one-way proclamation of the gospel as we conceive it? (Obviously from the way I’ve framed that question you can see I think it is the former. I can’t think of a better way to represent the latter alternative.)

To broach this question I’m going to post a good video from the Gospel Coalition website which I think gets a whole bunch of stuff right, and yet I’m going to point out what more needs saying (and in the process suggest that some of the Gospel Coalition blogs in particular need to think about this long and hard).

 

First of all, Tim Keller introduces this discussion by calling for disagreements that are both “winsome and Christian.” Matt Chandler follows up by saying that there “has to be a way to do it,” and makes the excellent observation that “it works best in the context of relationship” (1st min). That’s all well and good, but I’d just like to point out that this is from the start geared as a sort of functional approach to the question rather than a theological one. I’m not sure I’ll transcend that here, but it is worth bearing in mind that our real question ought to be whether there is a “Christian” ethos and manner of speech to be pursued online, and not just a vaguely “winsome” or operable one.

Thankfully, even though none of it is really substantiated by explicit biblical or theological appeals, I think Chandler gets to the theological point in the comments that follow, when he says that one simply has to have “genuine concern” for the person one is debating. Exactly. Loving your neighbour and loving your enemy and considering other better than yourselves have to mean something online. This “genuine concern” in the “context of relationship” may be tougher to maintain on the internet, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. And that’s where I draw out constructive proposal number one:

  • For us, the context is Christianity, and in particular the online venue itself. So let the blog-host take responsibility for the conversational ethos that plays out. I don’t think this needs to be done by rigid censoring. I think it can actually be done by holding oneself accountable to one’s readership and also by holding them accountable to an expectation of “speaking the truth in love”. Where this needs to be specified in a “comments policy” appropriate to the blogger and intended audience, so be it. For now our blog has the luxury of letting it go without saying.

When this video promote relational concern in the course of debate, our tendency might be to render it as  a matter of tone alone. But I want to suggest that merely sounding humble does not make it so, nor does it cover a multitude of sins. One can sound really loving and yet still be totally doing violence to the other person in a passive-aggressive manner.

Credit where it is due: that is what the video talks about next. Michael Horton insists that “you have to state the position in terms that the person would recognize, before you earn the right to critique it” (2nd min). (Justin is probably going to tell you that Horton goes on to break his own rule by side-lining and slandering the great name of Schleiermacher, but I’ll leave that battle to him.) What I want to point out is that when we go about a caricature-and-dismiss approach we not only misinform our readers but we hedge out a niche for ourselves at the expense of the larger Christian community to which we belong. Not only that but we short-circuit theological sharpening and create divisions where they may not exist (or at least make them deeper than they really are).

This was especially prevalent in many responses to Rob Bell. As much as Bell’s book merits critique, I’m still unsure whether it has been critiques in the right places. But let’s get away from that issue and use a different example. In the case of one recent Gospel Coalition guest-blog, the author totally misrepresented Karl Barth and thus turned a whole slew of readers off of this theologian without warrant. To the comments section some of us went, and our objections fell on deaf ears. Unfortunately, the one’s who lose in this case are those who will never read Barth for himself, and perhaps never talk to those of us who have. But we lose something in that scenario too, I might add, because we end up only talking to like-minded folk ourselves.

But let’s move on. Keller goes on from there to identify another form of the same error when he points out that we all too often turn discussions to slipper slopes, thus pinning people to our perceived trajectories for their point of view (4th-5th min). Great point. We have to be able to ask about ramifications without pigeon-holing people to our perceived opinion of the trajectories of their view. Another frequent problem in evangelical theology debates today. I can’t tell you how often I have felt cornered into views I don’t hold, simply because people have not paused to consider that I actually think I hold a “high view” of the authority of Scripture or the sovereignty of God myself.

Chandler is right about relationships helping conversation, but that’s not always the luxury. And I don’t see why I need to be in a relationship with someone to avoid “categorizing someone too quickly”. Horton adds the excellent observation that “we are more impatient with other Christians” because we tend to be more invested in the issues at stake (6th min), but that doesn’t mean we need to try to be all bunnies and flowers. In fact it may be the sentimental and pious sounding tones which can hide the real violences being done. So we do well to take proposal number two in part from the lips of Horton himself:

  • Try to “state the position in terms that the person would recognize, before you earn the right to critique it,” and where you are unable to do so, open yourself up to feedback so you can sharpen (or rescind) your critique based on the clarifications offered by your opponent.

From here we move on to some more specific reflection on the online medium itself. Chandler is right that part of the problem today is that “pastors get judged based on a 5 minute sound-byte” (7th min). Keller adds that “the trouble with the internet is, its like lightning” (8th min).

These are very important observations and should give us a sense of perspective. But we are not mere victims of our medium. I think we should try to do better with the internet! Let’s remember that it is either in its infancy or its adolescence, and as such it has undoubtedly been a platform for some of the worst social dynamics possible. It will probably continue to do so, but let’s not kid ourselves — these social dynamics exist in “real life” too. The point is we have a hand in the ethos we promote. So I ask you: What is the Christian way to proceed online?

I’m not actually convinced that this is the forum where we should spend most of our time (I am more and more interested in having my theological debates in personal conversation and local contexts), but it is inevitably a forum that we are going to engage in, so let’s pay attention to what we want it to be. I’m talking about theo-blogging, website coalitioning, and social networking too.  They may expose the bad tendencies we have elsewhere and make it easier to commit those social sins, but we can’t just blame the medium. Hence my third constructive proposal (which is a variation on the first):

  • This is precisely why you have to be willing to follow-up in your comment pages. Either disable commenting or take responsibility for what you have said and the ethos you create. If you don’t want to do this, then don’t wade into this medium. The publishing industry and the local congregation both have contexts in which accountability and feedback can be garnered and honoured. If the internet has no such means, then either don’t go into that context or take responsibility for the context you create! Don’t put stuff out in this context and then hide behind the argument that critics ought not to take you out of context!

Chandler makes another interesting point in the 9th minute, when he observes that “the internet makes quiet people incredibly brave … you can’t read tone … it changes the game.” I agree that this is something we have to try to overcome (and I see some of us like to use emoticons in that regard, whereas others like myself just try to assume that we’ll try to assume the best about each other’s tone, and then address it later if we come off wrong).

Chandler has a point that this is indeed a negative in some senses. One can hide behind anonymity and make one’s opinions and interpretations look more credible than they actually are. But can’t this problem be remedied by holding people to what they say and by asking them to take responsibility for their claims, as I’ve argued for above?

What should not be missed is the positive of the internet’s equalized playing field as well. This is exactly why we’re here, isn’t it? I mean, here is an opportunity for the quiet and the marginalized or simply inexperienced to ask a question on an equal playing field, perhaps even proposing another perspective, without having to wade through political processes or hierarchical juries to get into the conversation.

Horton is right to point out the benefit of “juried” conversations (11th min). That’s why there needs to be those other contexts for discussion such as peer-reviewed journals, higher education, and local congregational and denominational committees and so on. But the online world can also create an ethos in that regard! So let me make a fourth proposal, also somewhat repetitive:

  • If you aren’t willing to meet the public on their terms (something I would challenge us to be intentional about on our own blog) and then also usher forward into another kind of medium-appropriate “juried” conversation yourself, then you should just not bother with the medium or should specify clearly who your intentionally narrowed readership is.  I prefer the term “hosting” to “jurying”, since it steers away from the connotations of censoring, but either way, as Keller suggests, we can self-edit our blogs. And where we fail at that we can let our readers’ feedback help us out. If a reader catches you on something, get over yourself and own up to it. Don’t pretend you can throw stuff on the internet and then blame the medium or the readers for making the worst of it.

Now this brings me to my closing comments, and her I am going to issue a challenge.  I think this Gospel Coalition video raised some very good points. But I think the answer is that we have to let the word “gospel” define the nature and manner of the “coalition” (and not vice versa) or else we are losing our very grip on the gospel we intend to promote in the first place. If you have an online presence typified more by the word “coalition” (a purely neutral or worse power-laden word that is susceptible to all sorts of uses) than the word “gospel” (a totally loaded word which actually has ramification for the type of community you promote, be it online or in the neighbourhood).

We have to think about the online culture which corresponds to the message we intend to transmit, and we have to question whether this message can merely be thought of in terms of transmission at all. This video is onto something because it asks whether our disagreements are conducted Christianly. The medium is all wrapped up in the message, let’s not just split them into means and ends and pretend they don’t inform each other. Let’s not let our comment pages and our theo-blogs and social networks simply be echo chambers for the worst parts of ourselves.  Obviously no blog or website is itself The Church, and so can’t claim to be the community that the gospel intends to create. But it can look to have an ethos that corresponds and testifies to what the church is about, in both its message and its manner of discourse.

It is becoming more and more difficult to wade into the online evangelical debates without appearing to contribute to this echo chamber. It is totally possible that this medium calls out some of the worst parts of ourselves. So I contend that we either try to get this online thing right, and by that I mean Christian, or we don’t bother at all. And in the process of trying, let there be grace and peace in the give and take.

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31 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2011 12:31 pm

    Let me begin by publicly apologizing to my co-authors for vastly exceeding our informally set word-limit, and also for committing what admittedly might be the first deadly sin of theo-blogging, which is the topical opportunism that can so easily be merely reactionary. In my defense, we had talked about discussing this video here before, and since we are in our early stages as a blog I thought I’d go for it now. I also hope that where this post does not transcend that reactionary tendency you will help it to be constructive, and also not get too bogged into the immediate controversies at hand.

  2. July 12, 2011 12:55 pm

    absolvo te

  3. July 12, 2011 2:04 pm

    Very nice and thoughtful post, Jon. Forgive me for being a newbie to this blog and already weighing in, but I think your instincts are spot on here (I love sounding like a Brit, even though I’m from Kansas).

    In addition to humility, two explicitly theological virtues that I think are absolutely necessary – and I know from having screwed up myself a number of times in their regard – are patience and gentleness (Gal 5). Patience means in this context that we need to ask enough questions to make sure we understand our interlocutor’s points and point of view before we critique. So we may have a profound response just itching to be uttered in public, but we might need to wait a few posts before we utter it (or nix it altogether) in order to ensure we properly understand our interlocutor. This doesn’t mean we can’t ask sharp questions, but they need to be honest inquiries and not simply slams in the form of a question.

    Gentleness, meanwhile, is in very short supply in the blogosphere, from what I’ve seen. Even those blogs committed to Anabaptist peacemaking, not to mention ones that aren’t, tend to be rather less peaceable in conversation. I think that’s tragic. There’s such concern for safeguarding oneself and one’s own projects rather than having frank and open dialogue for the sake of learning. Of course, this is not to say that one shouldn’t argue or defend or safeguard what is important, but rather that we should always be mindful of the interlocutor as neighbor and treat her or him accordingly.

    As tempted as I am to comment on Driscoll, or to point out the strangeness of Matt Chandler’s comment of ineractive via blog with “the other guy” (no women for the neo-Calvs?), I’d just like to nuance one other thing they mention early on. Are personal relationships helpful when blogging? Sure, if you know the person and know how to take some of their comments, that’s always beneficial. However, being strict about that is problematic because then the blog becomes a clique – which I’ve seen in a number of contexts – and there is little hospitality to the stranger and to the possibility of new friendships.

    Thanks for a good post.

  4. July 12, 2011 2:12 pm

    Amen on all your points and thanks for them. Each of them is much needed and I can only hope will be well taken here in the future. Glad you have walked on in, whether we’ve been all that hospitable or not.

  5. July 12, 2011 2:18 pm

    Oh, you’ve certainly been hospitable. No worries here. <>

  6. July 12, 2011 2:29 pm

    (phew)

  7. July 12, 2011 2:39 pm

    You said: “we have to let the word “gospel” define the nature and manner of the “coalition” (and not vice versa) or else we are losing our very grip on the gospel we intend to promote in the first place. If you have an online presence typified more by the word “coalition” (a purely neutral or worse power-laden word that is susceptible to all sorts of uses) than the word “gospel” (a totally loaded word which actually has ramification for the type of community you promote, be it online or in the neighbourhood).”

    Agreed – what would that look like? How would we know if we did that? What would be true about how our conversation partner experiences us? What would the fruit of this ethos be?

    To me this is the crux of your comment – but to anticipate the push back, reframing Keller, Chandler, et. al. would give you – you seem to believe (rightly in my opinion) that how we discuss is a gospel issue. That the manner we engage demonstrates our embodied gospel politic. But you’re now in a language game with the Coalitionites. They will say that the gospel is one thing…and the implications of that gospel are another. And you are speaking of implications. Implications have to do with everything that doesn’t have to do with the atonement. So – you see – you are setting the table with a different place setting and asking (assuming?) everyone to eat the same meal. This is where I experience a talking past one other and people retreating to defend reactionary ideologies. Agree? What am I missing here? Do you see a way forward that doesn’t devolve into: “your gospel is too small” “well, you’re just a dirty liberal” kind of rhetoric?

    Appreciated your post, Jon.

  8. July 12, 2011 2:57 pm

    That’s definitely where this leads Matt, thanks for pointing out the very place at which this thing may end up being a ‘talking past one another’. I certainly don’t mean to set a different table subversively, but if that’s happening I guess the only way to argue it might be in the details. In other words, I hope I’m at least beginning to make clear why I think the video doesn’t go far enough in rooting its answers in the gospel itself. Instead, it kind of seems to assume that the questions of means are a step removed from the question of message. I don’t think that’s necessarily awful, but in this case I think it keeps a good video from being an awesome one. Hopefully I’m making clear why I think that in the details, for now.

    Basically, yes, I would argue that in the online manifestations of our gospel ’embodiment’ there needs to be a closer connection between atonement and implications. I would venture to suggest that many of my points in this post could be taken to heart in either case, and that we aren’t at completely different tables.

    As for your larger ecclesial questions, I am not trying to avoid them (I hope!), since they are very good ones, and also since you are on to exactly the issues which I am trying to work on at present. Maybe aside from the particulars of the present post I can hint at my meta-answers by saying that in my own thesis work I’m going to come down on something that is likely somewhere between Hauerwas and Barth. And since that’s probably horribly vague, even to me, I’ll just say that “what would that look like?” and “How would we know if we did that?” gets filled in (in part) not only by the sacraments but by the the dynamics Christ brings to the ‘table’, and “What would the fruit of this ethos be?” ends up being something like the church we see described in Acts 4 and Matthew 5-7 and 18. I think the ethos which lies behind the Pauline epistles is a bunch of communities-seeking-understanding and faithfulness together in the Peace that transcends them but stoops to guide them along by enabling a self-giving love in their midst that corresponds to that which is given them everyday in Christ.

    But I’m still forming my opinions in that regard. If I’m copping out too much here feel free to push harder.)

  9. July 12, 2011 3:30 pm

    I don’t think you’re copping out – but deconstruction is easier to than reconstruction. I’m intrigued by the Barth Hauerwas thesis. I’m a fan of both but too often they’re seen as foils…should be a great conversation.

    As for “what the fruit looks like” – I guess that’s where I see a disconnect. You point out Acts 4, Matt 5-7, 18 (i would include Phil 2, Rom 12, Eph 5, etc)…but I think there is other fruit to focus on. Too often the fruit of dialogue is Gal 1 sort of rhetoric; it’s the rhetoric that sees Philemon 22 as the ultimate power play, an undoing of the entire logic of submission that punctuates the rest of the letter. The fruit that takes the metaphor of Eph 6 (sword of spirit) and divorces it from the ethic of Epjh 2.11-22. The fruit that uses rhetoric of Phil 3.2 w/o the posture of Phil 2.3ff – you understand where I’m coming from, no doubt. This schizophrenic separation of ethics from belief – what got in McIntyre’s crawl way back when – continues today. I came to faith as a schizophrenic Christian and have been recovering ever since. It’s just in dialogue with other people I find it hard to make any headway.

    may your tribe increase. cheers.

  10. July 12, 2011 3:46 pm

    I was taking those passages off the tip of my tongue, but you definitely point to the next three in the list. That is a great Bible-flipping exercise you just sent me on, and I totally agree with your assessment of the ways this often ends up playing out (that bit about Galatians 1, Philemon v. Philemon 22, and the Philippians 3:2 v. Philippians 2:3 is brillliant.) I have almost no McIntyre in my background but I definitely share the allergy to a separation of ethics from belief, and Barth has been formative for me in this regard. My work is on the ministry of reconciliation that is becoming the Christian community, and I hope it gets to lots of what you are getting at here. Thanks for chiming in, you’ll be very good to have around.

  11. July 12, 2011 6:41 pm

    Great post, Jon. Long too, but great!

  12. July 12, 2011 7:43 pm

    Jon,

    I do have a question: while I agree with the whole sentiment of your post–how could any Christian not?–do you think there is a place (online, or in person) for jousting, provoking, and even getting heated within the constraints of Christian love? I realize that the “Christian love” qualification is often abused (but all things being equal).

  13. July 12, 2011 10:12 pm

    That’s a good question. I guess one wants to carefully consider the extent to which one can help the other person listen, and can check ones motives to see if the desire really is to, in the end, find some kind of consensus. ANd lacking that, to stay in some kind of communion. If the rhetoric is self-serving or impatient then it is probably a bad sign.

    Which I guess gets to what I’d want to say, which is that 1 Corinthians 10 and Romans 14 give us a good bit of detail to what it means to speak the truth in love, wherein they show us that our concern should be for the person involved, and our trust should be in the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, rather than ourselves, to guide into truth. If we feel that our provocation is in service of that and offers the audience or intended dialogue partner enough handles to grab onto and hands up into the fray then I suppose it could be justifiable. That’d be something worth being careful about, and probably the intended audience and the severity of the issue at hand would play into the decision.

    Of course, you are always provoking whenever you are putting ideas and proposals into the mix. I guess you get a sense of what people can handle and also of the amount of grace there might be for you in return if you are doing a bit of ‘friendly jousting’. You also probably need to get a sense of other’s fluency in forms of rhetoric too. All that to say, whatever is beneficial is a pretty good rule of thumb, but it still pushes us to discern in each situation what that is. And even then we have to hope that people are going to be willing to meet us with an eye to actually sorting it out together, or the whole thing might be shot from the get go. We do have a rather unique ethos in the ecclesia in that regard though, I should think and hope.

    Just some initial thoughts in response. For now I aim to catch some shut-eye. Thanks for the responses today.

  14. July 13, 2011 12:50 am

    Hey Jon,

    Sweet dreams, and thanks!

    I think you are right, ultimately, there is a lot of understanding that needs to be had between parties prior to getting too hot and heavy. Of course this medium only fosters the opposite; which is why there needs to be a real doubling down in the Spirit before we ever log on so to speak.

    I like your response on speaking the truth in love. I think the motive that drives our conversation ultimately will end up shaping the kind of conversation we will end up having. I.e. either one that is shaped by self-promotion (and “winning the argument”), or one that is truly reflective of a I Cor 13 ethic that seeks to put the other first (even when we might vehemently disagree with their position, and believe that it is in fact a destructive position, theologically). As I recall, this was what distinguished the Christian Humanists from the Scholastics; the former were more concerned with the person, the latter with the “truth”. I think, theologically, that anthropology has much to do with this as well; i.e. if someone follows a more Thomist intellectualist anthropology, it seems to follow that this kind of person will be attracted to a theological posture that emphasizes the mind and knowledge; if someone follows a more Augustinian Affective anthropology, it seems to follow that this person will have a conversation in life that seeks to reflect the love of God towards others. Of course, I generalize.

    Anyway, thanks Jon, I think you’ve written a fine post here! Keep the Gospel Conversations going; I like the premise of that!

  15. July 13, 2011 8:33 am

    Interesting bit about the anthropologies, Bobby. And the point about self-promotion, even when one thinks the other’s position destructive, is well made.

    I think I went to bed happy enough to give a ‘soft’ answer, but now I’ll come back with a bit more ‘edge’. I had dreams of my childhood and on into adulthood where I have debated a great many things with my brother and my friends and probably the most common form of rhetoric has been sarcasm and satire. Somehow when you have a trust-built long-term relationship where you can count on grace coming back at you and yet also feel committed enough to actually try not to hurt the person you end up being freer to debate harder, and to even enjoy it and make light of your own position as well as the others. Often I’ve gone into conversations with strangers or even with friends and family who are “less versed” (shall we say) in the arts of Stewart and Colbert (and this surely has its advantages as well) and I’ve assumed that my satirical jabs at their position will be taken as a ground-clearing perspective-opener, and might perhaps be returned in kind — but it has gone over like the proverbial Hindenburg. That’s just a case of not paying enough attention to the person you are arguing with, and also overestimating perhaps the amount of short-hand you use between friends.

    In some ways, however, I think such an provocative, humour-laced approach still worth trying, provided there is some discernment of one’s dialogue partner and ultimately a concern for their well-being and ultimately for the reconcilation of your views. But underneath that, at least while we’re talking about the ecclesial ethos, there just has to be a commitment to a peace which is grounded on something other than your consensus on any given matter. In many cases it may be a friendship or a working environment that grounds the civility. But I think the Spirit-filled ecclesia is something deeper and more far-reaching, even across generations and nations. There needs to be a commitment to that common communion as it goes before you, but also a commitment to it as it stands hopeful in front of you. In other words, your use of provocative rhetoric (as any rhetoric) has to come from that place and at least be striving or open to that place as well.

    I actually think that when I make some light friendly jabs at someone I can possibly find a way to do it in an inviting rather than a biting way. And where that fails I can at least apologize for how I came across, explain my manner of speech, and then restate in a new way (now with a better idea of where they are coming from too by the way). Sadly it will often stop at the misunderstanding or the polemic will only crank higher, and the prior motivations will be exposed for all their power-laden selfishness and insecurity, and the trustful ethos will not be furthered or lived from as it can be in the church. This is where I think the ecclesial ethos can really be a great location for discussion and debate, and am saddened that so often we settle for the false peace of conflict avoidance or the self-contented peace of forceful manipulation.

    I’d kind of rather have someone in my face but open to me and actually ready to embrace me than have someone speaking to me in hush conciliatory tones and then passive aggressively or even slanderously “handing me over to the devil”. The internet’s probably a good place to make it clear up front that we aren’t just coming for the jugular with not intention of sorting anything out together.

    By the way, I think one could examine the cases mentioned in my two posts on this topic (i.e. Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Mark Coppenger at GC, and Francis Chan) and analyze them for their degree of appropriate provocation and success in that regard. I was going to do that here but I’ll just back off and suggest it as a thought exercise. Let’s just say I think a lot has to do with whether one is attacking ideas or people, but that sometimes these are tough to tease apart. Pious tone will not cover up for you if you are slaughtering your opponent without hearing them.

    Ha! You thought my original post was long! Thanks for tracking with me!

  16. July 13, 2011 11:01 am

    By the way, with all this talk of rhetoric I want to be clear that I think the effort is to correspond with rather than sidestep the truth that Bonhoeffer is talking about when he says:

    “All our attempts to bridge the gulf between our neighbours and ourselves by means of natural or spiritual affinities are bound to come to grief… However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behaviour, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get in touch with our neigbhours through Him.” (Cost of Discipleship, 1948, p. 81-82.)

    I think this chastens our attempts to bridge the gap via frankness or openness while also emboldening us to not to fear such things anymore than we trust them. In the face of all the ways conversation can go wrong ours is a spirit of neither paralysis nor propaganda.

  17. July 13, 2011 1:00 pm

    Jon,

    Why is the ultimate goal ‘consensus’, or a ‘reconciliation of our views’? Can people not hold legitimately different positions, with the goal of argument/conversation being to make one’s own perspective more-articulate or -clear, or more challenged/informed by a different standpoint?

    It seems to me pinning the ‘Christianness’ of a conversation on the motive of intellectual unity means that, at the end of the day, someone has to win (i.e., abandon their viewpoint and ‘be reconciled’ to the other’s), or else genuine exchange will be short-changed whenever one party feels like the other conforms enough to their view (okay, you’ve said “Jesus” or “grace” enough now, we obviously agree). Worse — it seems this motive ends up writing off people who don’t share your confessional framework, because at the end of the day, if ‘agreement’ is the goal, you’re only going to be interested in non-Christian or different confessional perspectives so far as they’re ripe converts.

    Not trying to be harsh — I recognize and wholeheartedly concur with your desire to foster a form of conversation that reflects a gospel sensibilitiy, and is at root motivated by concern for the other’s well-being. But I was trying to put my finger on why this all still sounded too pious for me, and when I picked up on your (now, I see, quite central) claim that the ultimate motive was ‘reconciled’ views, it became somewhat clearer.

    Hope that makes some sense and is not seen as an heretical detraction from an otherwise gospel conversation! 😉

  18. July 13, 2011 1:56 pm

    Thanks, Jon, for the post and the discussion. As you well know I’ve had the same experience (on the same thread) at the Gospel Coalition blog, and it was flooring. When I go online I expect to come across entrenched hyper-conservatives who aren’t willing to converse with me and consider what I bring to the table. What I didn’t expect, based on my vague impression of the GC “brand,” was that this is all that I would find there. To date I’ve found no evidence whatsoever that the bloggers there wish to foster Christian dialogue. They simply post their words ex cathedra and let the plebes have at one another over it.

    Your choice of the word “ethos” is exactly right. The way that something as simple and mundane as blog comments are run creates an ethos, where brothers and sisters in Christ are either going to feel heard and therefore loved, or belittled and marginalized. My experience completely changed my perspective on the GC brand.

    Now contrast that with a site that seems to be doing it right, Rachel Held Evans’ blog. This week I lept into a thread there that is fraught with personal and theological landmines: a Q&A with a Catholic guest blogger. Not only did the author stick around to engage questions and conversations, the other regulars actually seem to be able to share their disagreements in a loving and reasonable way and learn from one another. This sort of community doesn’t just happen; it is the result of the ethos that the authors establish.

  19. July 13, 2011 2:16 pm

    Darren, yeah, its refreshing to find those places online. She seems to be hosting one of them, and I think one of the keys is she actually will amend her views and apologize along the way.

    Scott, I think that’s a fair critique of my probably optimistic sounding diatribe. And your push-back serves to underline the importance of the “ultimate” in the statement that the “ultimate goal is reconciled views” or “consensus”. (I’m not even sure if I’m quoting myself, but let’s assume I remembered to say “ultimate”.) On one hand I just mean something as simple as, yeah, we go into a discussion hoping to find agreement, to either convince someone or even be convinced, or more likely to find a position that kind of umbrellas our varied positions, or what have you. On the other hand I’d agree that we need to have a provisional goal as well, which is mutual understanding and sharpening. And one has to be okay with a sustained lack of consensus and certainty. I wouldn’t want to throw away the goal of agreement (especially when real life ‘pressing’ judgements need to be made, albeit not wanting to overestimate how pressing something really is), but it definitely has to be qualified immensely and also chastened precisely by the warnings you’ve given. Hurried agreement or feigned agreement or even enforced agreement will often be the product of an overzealous (triumphalistic) idealizing of the goal of consensus.

    This is where I’d like to think more about ecclesial ethos and the ministry of reconciliation in the future. I think Wannenwetsch’s chapter on Forgiveness and Consensus in his Political Worship was really good and I kind of left it wanting to emphasize that there is always going to be a lack of total consensus in the church and so our communion has to be rallied around something other than that which we might legitimately seeking. I’d like to think there is a dynamic at play around the Table and a prayer for peace and grace in Christ that enables a lot of arguing to take place within a unity that is not relegated to the visible but seeks it nonetheless. (Ugh I wish I was saying that more artfully. Hope it gives a sense of where I want to take this).

    I think Brad A (in the comments above) might have given a more “pious” version of your remarks when he brought out the importance of Patience. Especially if one takes it in the strongest sense (don’t hurry toward consensus and miss the learning that can be had) and not simply the most trivial sense (don’t bud in before someone is done their point). Anyway, I think he gave a good rejoinder to my optimistic tone then as you are now. I surprise myself with that tone because I’m often not really that optimistic.

  20. July 13, 2011 3:11 pm

    That all makes sense; I guess we just have a different sense for where Christian unity should (or does) lie. I agree that reaching a certain kind of agreement in judgments (or, more basically, sympathies in *how* to think or, perhaps more importantly, not to think about particular issues) might be required to speak or act with a unified voice about certain issues. But I just don’t think intellectual consensus — people who ‘agree’ with one another at the formal level of “belief” — is a precondition or requisite for having that kind of unified witness. And I guess I don’t have an eschatology that would make the ‘ultimate’ need for engaging others’ opinion some kind of intellectual uniformity, because to me the gospel is only ever here and now or then and there, and its inherent translatability means the ‘message’ is only ever heard in multiple tongues.

    Part of where this is coming from is having felt the consensus-card played on me in several recent family discussions about faith — to hold a different view on belief X (usually, the nature of salvation or scripture’s authority) is to give up on ‘Christianity’ itself. It’s also happened with evangelical colleagues in the homosexuality discussion — to not share this hermeneutic is to remove oneself from ‘the Christian tradition’.

    It seems whatever ‘ethos’ we (attempt to) inhabit and foster will depend on the nature of the unity we think Christ’s body represents. I guess I worry that a dialogical goal of consensus always harbors the threat of triumphalism. Why is intellectual consensus necessary or good, even in the most ‘ultimate’ sense?

  21. July 13, 2011 4:06 pm

    I’m enough of an academic that I like a variety of opinion and appreciate solid argument. I appreciate it when I find that in a congregation, too. At the same time, Paul tells us to be of one mind, so I don’t think the pursuit of consensus (at least in the Mennonite sense of not standing in the way of a decision, rather than blanket and complete uniformity) is a bad thing. However, it should not paralyze conversation, and I don’t see any biblical basis for it breaking fellowship (especially around the Lord’s Table) unless it works itself out in injustice, violence, and/or immorality. And even then, restoration of fellowship should be sought.

  22. July 13, 2011 4:34 pm

    Scott, I’m not thinking primarily of intellectual consensus when I talk about ultimately being reconciled. I actually have in mind the fuller knowledge of truth and the good which presumably is on the other side of the glass through which we see darkly. I actually think I am agreeing with you that Christian unity lies elsewhere than in mere consensus (although I think there is a mutual confession of some things, certainly, such as “Jesus is Lord”).

    I hear your worries and yet I guess I have in my mind not only the theological discussions around the blogosphere but also and maybe moreso the local contexts where congregations end up having to make theological judgements pertaining to concrete actions in the here and now. There are times when agreeing to disagree also involves a consensus to act a certain way, even in the midst of a variety of opinions (which hopefully have had the time and freedom to mutually sharpen each other to a point where the decision can be owned by all even where a certain intellectual consensus has not been reached).

    I don’t know that a disagreement of hermeneutics (over homosexuality for example) necessarily means removal from the Christian tradition, although there may be a parting of the ways in a local context where a decision at some point is made regarding how to proceed on that issue.

    I do think Brad A. has a good point about seeking to be of one mind, even though I agree that there are dangers in how one gets to that oneness (which Matt Tebbe flagged above in his raised eyebrow over the possibility of heavyhandedness in Philemon 22. But that raises the issue of a legit use of authority in a church context…)

    Let me know if I am missing some of the brunt of what you are saying….

  23. July 13, 2011 5:58 pm

    Jon,

    Thank you. I have a long history, now, in the sphere; and much of my history has been to engage our friends, who I call, ‘Classic Calvinists’ etc. (as I’m sure you’re probably aware of). I’ve been banned from at least one prominent person’s blog, R. Scott Clark’s, which no longer exists; and this, for simply challenging the basic suppositions that lay underneath his theological belief system. My mode really was not intended to be snarky, but that is how I was treated for simply disagreeing; which I know you and Darren can relate to (with TGC folk). I have definitely crossed the line myself, esp. in the past, in honestly trying to bait in order to provoke discussion. Discussions sometimes were given birth that way, but since the tone I used to provoke the discussion wasn’t with grace, then usually neither did the ensuing discussion take on gracious interaction. That said, when I have crossed that line, I ask for forgiveness (genuinely) from my interlocutors; and often that has had the effect of converting an ungracious discussion into a more gracious one (or, my interlocutors just leave, because asking for forgiveness moves the “debate” out of the cold intellectual into a warm ‘pious’ relational dialogical experience; which I’ve found many intellectualist types [so my reference to an intellectualist anthropology earlier] don’t know how to handle).

    Thanks for sharing more of your own background in your comment to me. I do think relationship is the key, and of course the sphere doesn’t necessarily require or foster that; so I think it will continue to be a place, in general, that is somewhat dysfunctional — for other reasons too, reasons inherent to the flat medium itself. But that’s no excuse for not attempting to be real, relational, and gracious in our conversation (or even jousting).

    Good provocative post, Jon!

  24. July 13, 2011 7:59 pm

    Interesting backstory Bobby, sounds like we’re wrestling with similar passions, doubts, tensions, and hopes…

    Another thought springing from Scott’s comments, not sure whether it is worth anything. I do feel like the prayer of Jesus in John 17 and the stuff in Ephesians 4 (along with other passages on the theme) all push me to value unity, even manifest visible unity here and now, even while chastened in my over-optimistic efforts to seize onto it too presumptuously or reduce it to mere agreement over certain intellectual statements.

    But I do get the sense (and I suspect you are pointing in this direction Scott) from Pentecost to the healing of the nations in Revelation (not to mention the original promise to Abram) that this is to be a unity in diversity. It is grounded in the Truth (very God and very human), but not on our knowledge of it, per se. It is a union more deeply and justly and communally focussed than simple consensus or enlightenment to the whole truth all at once.

    In other words, I could see a unity being more important than consensus, a unity wherein the person of Jesus Christ has not only brought about the liberation proclaimed in Luke 4 in Himself but complete the realization of it in creaturely experience. There could be a growing realization of all that that entails, intellectually speaking, in the new creation, for all I care. The communion would be there and not be reliant on a sudden “aha” moment where everyone is suddenly on the same page. All that to illustrate that in the here and now also we have a communion that is grounded in something other than a mutual eureka moment of some kind, even though it is a community of faith seeking understanding, and doing it together.

    And I don’t think that disallows me from going along with what Brad A. was suggesting in his last comment, which is that we ought to and can seek to be in agreement in our churches when we make decisions about things, and as we believe the Word alive and addressing us we also believe we can arrive at that decision with a union of mind (which may not be the same as homogeneity of opinion). This often does not happen, and in this case I’d still point to a unity deeper than is manifest in that moment, even as we wrestle it out and live in the provisional best of our separate paths.

    Not sure if that clarifies where I’m at at all, or still even if it gets to where you are pushing Scott.

  25. July 14, 2011 6:35 am

    Too much of a case in point for me to avoid commenting: Mark Driscoll has issued a blog-statement about his facebook thread. See here: http://ht.ly/5DTZo

    While he admits it was “flippant” he does not apologize and basically blames the medium (proceeding thus to promise a website). Besides that, the blog basically spends most of its time painting the gender debate in extreme either/ors that dispense caricatured extremes on mainly one side.

    The blog is complete with a backstory about why he made the facebook status in the first place, and mainly it has to do with a guy not wanting to worship at church because the worship leader was “effeminate” (which is actually Driscoll’s softer translation). Driscoll took the apologetic move of pointing to the warrior David, but he might have done the whole world a favour by telling the guy David played the harp too rather than furthering his campaign to make a certain form of manliness normative for Christianity.

    Add it up and you’ve got even more reason to be disturbed by Driscoll’s facebook comment, I think, because it is the symptom, not the disease.

    And while Rachel Held Evans’ blog points out the encouraging sign that Driscoll’s elders were able to get to him, I am slighly more cynical because the blog seems like a pretty evasive failure to take full responsibility for the ethos created. Not only that but it just seems like a “reload”. (I’m echoing Sarah Palin there, but frankly, with his easy “mainstream media” shot and his pseudo-apology/reload Driscoll sounds just like her).

    I actually was willing to give Driscoll a pass on this one, but I am more disturbed than ever.

  26. July 14, 2011 7:06 am

    It seems like we already know Marc Driscoll by now. Oh yeah … “reload.” So what would you say is “the issue under so many other issues” for Driscoll’s informing theological paradigm, Jon? Do you see a necessary correlation between his trad Calvinism, and “cultural” points; or do you think the latter is really more of a reflection of simply being a youngish White American Male (but draped in Christianese)?

  27. July 14, 2011 7:31 am

    My issue is with his complementarianism and his view of culture and his basic ecclesiology and approach to pastoring and the use of power (okay, that’s a lot of things). I don’t know if I could trace it to his particular brand of Calvinism, although I suppose I’d be curious if there are fruitful gains to be made from making such connections.

  28. July 14, 2011 12:31 pm

    I think there are fruitful connections — and that they’d have to be gotten at by tracing out how the post-Bavinck and -Kuyper Reformed guys conceived the Christian life as constituted by various ‘spheres’ of authority and power. Each sphere is to be lived in ‘Christianly’ (as seen in that ‘church and culture’ GC video), but the make-up of each sphere itself is determined by a power/authority that is not itself the power of the cross — because politics requires coercion, families need a ‘head’, etc. I think once you have this logic up and running, it is easy for even the ‘religious sphere’ (i.e., the church) to become infected by perverse forms of power and authority, because you’re already so used to thinking of your life and this world as really determined by forms of power/authority that don’t look like the cross.

  29. July 14, 2011 1:05 pm

    I think what Scott says here is both accurate and helpful.

  30. July 14, 2011 1:55 pm

    thanks, yeah, that makes some sense.

  31. July 14, 2011 6:27 pm

    Thanks, Jon. Just curious. I would say that its, not for me, even Driscoll’s complentarianism–I’m one myself–but it’s his tone. I know plenty of complentarians who don’t communicate or take the posture that Driscoll does (myself included, I hope!). I think a case could be made that following a God who is defined more by his power instead of his love, more by Law than by Grace; could be made in connection with Driscoll’s attitude, as it may provide an ethos (a culture or ‘sphere’ as Scott highlights pace Kuyper-Bavinck) that serves to reinforce the machismo that seems to ripple through the life-blood of our brother, Driscoll.

    And I do think that what Scott has said is helpful as well.

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