Seeking an Ecclesial Ethos Online
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.