Nearly three years ago, Alan Jacobs wrote in Books and Culture, "Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought." First drawn to blogs for news, Jacobs hoped the blogosphere could become a forum for developing and exchanging ideas. Yet like so many bloggers who start with big hopes, his enthusiasm waned after he became better acquainted with the medium.
Every other week, this column aims to introduce you to theology stories and theological angles on stories in the news. Thus, I regularly scour theology blogs to see what professors, pastors, students, and laypeople are saying about the latest books and current events. I value the indispensable work of bloggers who direct readers to good content and theologians who popularize work that otherwise would never have escaped libraries. Two blogs, Out of Ur and Christian History, even allow me to share my thoughts on pastoral ministry and the great cloud of witnesses.
But when friends ask me about blogging, I usually discourage them from taking on this responsibility. If you run your own blog, there is constant pressure to post so you won't lose regular readers. The Internet never shuts off. Then when you post, you frequently check the comments, worried what "Bob" thinks of you. And you better believe Bob won't hold back. He doesn't know you, and you don't know him, so anonymity emboldens him to state opinions, however uninformed, boldly. Afterward you wonder why, again, you care what Bob thinks. If this is the future of theological discourse, then we have entered the worst of times. Can you imagine Martin Luther hiding in Wartburg Castle, distracted from translating the Bible because "Chuck5" didn't like his post on the virtues of ale-aided exegesis?
On second thought, Luther was exactly the kind of personality who might have thrived on the Internet. He wasn't afraid to wield his wit against theological opponents in popular writing. The closest comparison I can conjure today is Douglas Wilson's Blog and Mablog. To pull off a blog like this, you need guts, smarts, and a wicked sense of humor. All three are on display in his recent series of posts about N. T. Wright's forthcoming response to John Piper on justification. Wilson even manages to moderate an insightful comments section.
"Just as we don't have stopwatches that are up to nanosecond justification timing, so we don't have minds that can follow all the logical issues involved," Wilson recently reminded his blog's readers. "So discussion of these issues should always be characterized by us walking through these discussions in all humility. Do justice, love mercy, and walk gingerly."
Another example of gracious if pointed critique came in 2007 when Asbury Seminary's Ben Witherington questioned Rob Bell's hermeneutical approach following an appearance in Lexington. The comments unfortunately devolved into a predictable debate over homosexuality. But it's not just anonymous readers who bear the blame for blogs' limited utility. Due to their personal nature, blogs facilitate the literary genre of ranting. One week after his article criticizing worship bands for playing too loudly generated 156 comments on Christianity Today's site, Regent College professor John Stackhouse took on worship superstar Chris Tomlin. Stackhouse's critique of Tomlin has merit both musically and lyrically. Indeed, who can disagree Stackhouse's observation that "we are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears—the people who sang lyrics by Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts"? The body of Christ can and must exhort one another to pursue quality in all areas of life, especially in the language we use to honor God.
But for many who commented on Stackhouse's blog, the rant was a little too personal. Certainly it was a little unusual for a well-respected theologian whose books and journal articles undergo rigorous peer scrutiny. After admitting he does not know Tomlin, Stackhouse wrote, "My suspicion, in fact, is that these songs 'come to him' and he then records them with little or no alteration. Surely he can't be crafting them with the diligence of a serious poet. For if these are the best he can do after working and reworking them, he simply needs to get someone else to write the words. They're just that bad." Unbowed by pushback in the comments section, Stackhouse closed it down three days later on February 12. On February 13, he extolled the virtue of silence.
Then there was North Park professor Scot McKnight's two-part salvo against a group he dubbed the "NeoReformed." Who is this nefarious-sounding group? McKnight explained, "When gospel is equated with double predestination, often said in harsh terms, we are seeing a good example of the spirit of a NeoReformed approach." He summed up his complaint of the NeoReformed by labeling them "America's newest religious zealots" who "are wounding, perhaps for a generation or two, evangelicalism." These comments recalled his blurb for Wright's book on justification. For that, McKnight wrote, "Wright reveals that the neo-Reformed are more committed to tradition than to the sacred text." Tradition over Scripture on the doctrine of justification? These are fighting words for evangelicals.
Between Two Worlds blogger Justin Taylor wondered in response what names McKnight would match with the "NeoReformed" label. Since Wright responded to Piper, does that mean Piper is a religious zealot who cares more about the Westminster Confession than he does about the Bible? Without naming names, McKnight responded that those who were riled up by his blurb are the "NeoReformed." "I thought that was obvious," McKnight wrote.
McKnight is the rare scholar whose ability to connect with laypeople is on display through his blog. With so many voices deriding theology, even in evangelical congregations, we need scholars like McKnight who can bring the academy's insights to popular audiences. That said, I can't help but wonder whether any academic editor would allow McKnight to label and critique a so-called movement without naming or citing sources. I suspect not, because such accusations only inflame sensitive debates. If McKnight is right about the "NeoReformed," then the last thing they need is someone daring them to pounce. If he is wrong, then he has encouraged others to behave toward the "NeoReformed" the way he says they marginalize fellow evangelicals.
Ever since the Internet made itself indispensable, experts have observed its unmatched potential for facilitating good and evil. When we desperately need teachers who relate biblical truth to current thoughts and trends, the Internet provides them with an effective and efficient forum. Yet the Internet also demolishes safeguards that formerly suppressed our sin nature.
"I think first of the extraordinary anger that seems to be more present in the blogosphere than in everyday life," Jacobs wrote. "Debate after debate—on almost every site I visit, including the ones devoted to Christianity—either escalates from rational discourse into sneering and name-calling or just bypasses reason altogether and starts with the abuse."
Even so, not even Jacobs could stay away from blogging. Since we can't ignore the Internet's opportunities, we must learn to minimize its vices. That starts with asking whether our Internet personalities reveal more about ourselves than we'd like to admit.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other recent Christianity Today articles on blogging and related media include:
An Entertaining Saboteur | Facebook promises to connect us to one another. Is that what you are doing right now? By Mark Galli (February 5, 2009)
Abandoning the Outpost | Joe Carter wonders about the future of standalone blogs. From the Christianity Today Liveblog (September 11, 2008)
Censured Southern Baptist Critic Resigns | Wade Burleson resigned Tuesday after International Mission Board suspended him over blog's criticism. (February 1, 2008)
The Death of Blogs | Well, some of them, anyway. By Ted Olsen (September 25, 2007)
Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.
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