Yesterday I shared ten blogs I think are brilliant. Tomorrow I will explain why I spend so much time spending little time tracking the news. Today I want to more generally write about the way Christian discourse sometimes seems to be dominated by conversations that happen in the realm of blogs.
I have a friend who keeps a private blog. They notify their readership by email when they write something and we use passwords to access it. The reason for doing things this way is that what they write about is incredibly sensitive. It is almost always gruelling to read what they write. Gruelling, but enriching.
They wrote in a recent piece about reading things online that were so insensitive and horrible that they broke out in tears. They weren’t down a rabbit hole of links that ended up with pro-Ana tumblrs or white-supremacist bulletin boards. They were moved to tears by the casual, off-hand and widely read ramblings of one of the most famous bloggers in Western Christianity. When I read the link, I remembered why I have such a byzantine system of tracking stories that interest me. There is so much shit out there that you have to wear HAZMAT suits if you are just going exploring. Blogs make sharing your opinions incredibly easy. The polite way to describe the value of those opinions is to share some economics: things that aren’t scarce aren’t valuable.
English speaking evangelicalism was blessed in the late Twentieth Century with a series of leaders of unusual learning, sophistication and humanity. F.F. Bruce and Carl Henry, Billy Graham and Martin Lloyd Jones, J.I. Packer and most especially John Stott were men (not without fault) who were trustworthy leaders. They wrote out of down-to-earth devotion and what that means is that they led out of prayer. Stott lived a life of ascetic single-mindedness to show people the love of Christ. I never got a chance to meet him, but by all accounts, he couldn’t care less that he was JOHN STOTT.
This is no longer the case. Friends of mine who are gifted writers find that not having a “personal brand” is a barrier to getting books published. Christian leaders get trained in social media management but cannot explain what the filioque clause is and why it matters. Strategic personal promotion is a necessary step on the path to influence, election by actual parishes to speak as Teacher for them is not.
The problem with this isn’t that some people have a lot of influence. After all, John Stott had almost Papal authority in Anglo-evangelicalism. The problem is that the influence accrues through the personal manipulation of techniques of promotion. The church is having its opinions formed, not by the local leaders that embodied communities of Christians call “pastor” but by the folk who have managed by luck or providence or skill to have the biggest loudspeaker. As a Christian who believes in the church, I should care more what Rev. Elsie Fortune of St. Mary’s Church of Scotland on King Street in Aberdeen has to say on a topic than what Al Mohler has to say. And I do. After all, I can go worship with Elsie on Sunday. As much as I love and respect Tim Keller, he isn’t on hand to go for a walk with me the next time I really fuck things up.
So while blogs are brilliant and wonderful and Scot McKnight is a gift to the church etcetera, etcetera… let me tentatively propose that we shouldn’t let the untethered words of distant teachers be the primary shaping influence on the conversations we have. Let me make this more pointed: people like Trevin Wax and Rachel Held Evans that consistently court controversy for the sake of attracting clicks to a website that sells advertising space for profit… these are not voices that we should pay vast heed to. Or at least, the way they transmit their voices (both in terms of medium and tone) is something we should be tentative about. The church is global only because it is first local. The conversation that bubbles up in Tennessee shouldn’t be the conversation that is continued in Tyrone or Teeside. The role of “talking head” might be well established in society, but it is super-dubious in the church.
Your Correspondent, Writes this for his friends