I’m not a member of the Organization of American Historians and so wasn’t in Atlanta last week for its annual meeting. Fortunately, John Fea was, and not only lit up Twitter but shared some reflections on panels he attended or participated in. I was especially interested in his reports on two sessions: “Is Blogging Scholarship?” and “Historians and Their Publics.”
Not surprisingly, I tended to agree with John’s take on the former question — if we adopt a broader understanding of scholarship (like the four-part typology advanced by Ernest Boyer in Scholarship Reconsidered), blogging should be considered — particularly at smaller colleges and universities like Messiah and Bethel. (I’m also intrigued by Michael O’Malley’s suggestion that blogging “integrates the glowing personal reflections of a book’s ‘acknowledgements’ page(s) with the detached scholarly analysis found in the rest of the book,” creating a “way for historians to share their personal struggles to make meaning out of the past.”)
Blogging also can serve as a way for scholars to connect with a broader public (the subject of a well-attended plenary session), but here I have to confess that I’ve been more hesitant than usual to engage in which Sean Wilentz calls “historically informed punditry.”
Let’s go back three weeks…
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On March 24 Christianity Today broke the story that the U.S. chapter of World Vision, the world’s leading Christian relief organization, would employ those in same-sex marriages, prompting an outcry from conservative evangelicals. Two days later, WVUS reversed its decision, prompting an outcry from progressive evangelicals.
Faithful readers might have noticed that I’ve said almost nothing about the original decision or its reversal…
Now, I was glad to have had the chance to interview a historian like David King, who could provide context and complexity. David helpfully problematized the knee-jerk reactions of the first wave of bloggers — e.g., I hope that everyone (on either side) who wanted to wield child sponsorship as a symbolic weapon paid heed to David’s analysis of the “tensions inherent” in that program. (Even more, that his comments helped them realize that they were focusing all their attention on one chapter of a global organization not run by Americans for decades.)
But since I’m not actually a historian of religion, I realized pretty quickly that whenever I tried to blog in my own words about the meaning of the World Vision controversy for evangelicalism, I would inevitably write more prescriptively (as an evangelical) than descriptively (about them). And while I’m not averse to speaking as a kind of “public intellectual” (or “historically informed pundit”) and I do have opinions about World Vision and evangelical responses to same-sex marriage…
It didn’t work. In the last three weeks, I’ve started and stopped at least half a dozen posts sharing my own take. None got very far.
(“What’s wrong with you?”, asked my wife as I agonized over the earliest version of the post. “Now, what’s wrong with you?”, she asked yesterday as I tried again…)
Why was this so hard? (To the point that it made writing any other posts difficult.) Here’s what I realized yesterday, as I tried again:
Whatever little useful I have to say, I not sure it’s possible to say it well.
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Particularly in the heat of the controversy, self-righteousness seemed to ooze out of almost every post, tweet, and Facebook status written on either side of the controversy. In the middle of Lent, the season when Christians should be most aware of the logs in their own eyes and least attentive to the specks in others’, too many were too prone to thinking uncharitably of their opponents and too charitably of themselves.
(A couple of noteworthy exceptions: Christena Cleveland sought to explain why “A humble appreciation for different perspectives is conspicuously absent from the conversation”; and Dave Kludt drew on research by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham to try to help conservatives and progressives understand “why the long conversations, posturing, narrowing of terms and tightening of grasps seems to not produce any real dialogue or middle ground.”)
Then the dust settled and the verdicts on what this all meant for evangelicalism came in. To the conservatives who wanted to define progressives (and moderates) out of the evangelical fold, and to the progressives who wanted to make sure we knew that they’d already shed the label, I only wanted to scream, “Get over yourselves!”
It crystallized something I’ve been thinking for a while: we have far, far too many self-appointed prophets and apostles in the Christian blogosphere.
Those in the first group may think they’re speaking truth to power; much more likely, they’re just feeding the confirmation bias of the like-minded. Worse, the sheer proliferation of such speech risks silencing actual prophecy, as Ken Wytsma warned last year:
When all we do is speak with ready opinions, sound bites and conclusions, it dampens our ability to hear the truly prophetic voice — the voice that compels us toward justice and truth. Prophets, as they are called in the Old Testament and still can be today, are the God-given devices for bending society back when it veers from where it should be.
The prophetic voice speaks fast, hard and clear and is unyielding.
What happens, however, when everyone throws around conclusions and every voice sounds prophetic?
Put simply, when everybody speaks with a prophetic tone, it dilutes the value of the prophetic voice.
We need the ability to sustain dialog with others. And we need the ability to clearly spot God’s true prophets among the masses of us armed only with opinions, sharp words and a social media profile.
But just as problematic is the tendency of others to speak as if anointed by Jesus or Paul himself to hold back the tides of heresy. As if absent their (for lack of a better word) apostolic guidance, Christians would find it impossible to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” they’d been taught. As if the security of the Kingdom depended on its having a spiritual Homeland Security or INS office whose agents patrol doctrinal boundaries to keep out asylum-seekers and bid farewell to deportees.
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This, of course, is a cartoon. At times, we do need to be startled out of complacency and warned against error. But even if we need more such voices right now, I’m quite sure that mine isn’t one of them.
(And given the way this happens in the biblical narrative, I strongly suspect that those who are truly called to speak prophetically or apostolically will not come from the privileged ranks of hypereducated Euro-Americans with WordPress accounts. No, they’ll probably speak from the margins of global society, emerging from wildernesses Americans can’t even place on a map and speaking in languages we’ll struggle to find on Google Translate.)
In the end, I couldn’t find the wherewithal to speak as a historian or a pundit, a prophet or an apostle. I’m not even sure this post makes much sense.
At most, I come out of these three weeks chastened: the very fact that I assumed that the world needs to hear what I thought about this controversy reveals a great deal about the way that daily blogging exacerbates the narcissism of one who already gets to be the center of attention for several hours each week as the teacher of classes like the Western Civ survey I’m about to lecture.
I still think that I have something to offer a variety of publics as an evangelical historian who teaches, writes, and blogs. But the post that I will actually write about the controversy (coming
tomorrow or Wednesday Thursday) will instead reflect a different kind of blogging voice: that of a teacher with enough knowledge to ask questions, but not enough wisdom to answer them.