Back in my very first post, I looked forward to using this blog to engage in “intellectual spring cleaning… to clear out some stray thoughts taking up mental space, expose them to the harsh light of day, and see if they look as profound on screen as they can sound in my mind at 1am.” I’ve learned not to do that too much: it’s helpful for me, but not always that meaningful for readers. So be warned: this is a spring cleaning post.
I’m back to blogging today after dropping off the map for the better part of two weeks. I didn’t have much choice but to take a hiatus: in addition to teaching an overload, I was preparing for Bethel to host an undergraduate research symposium and running the final stage of what hopefully will be a successful job search for our department. But taking time off also helped me complete a few months of soul-searching about what it means to blog, to add my voice to a digital cacophony made all the noisier by the peculiarities of this year’s election cycle.
To a significant degree, I’ve been wrestling with what might seem like an odd problem: newfound readership. (I’ll leave out this past February and March, which both saw me blogging about half as often as usual.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited and honored to have had some significant spikes in readership since last summer. But I’m troubled that those numbers have mostly come from my attempts to wade into significant controversies in Christian higher ed (the CCCU debate over sexuality in August-September; #DocHawk controversy at Wheaton College since mid-December) and from posts that were overtly critical of leading figures in that world (Oklahoma Wesleyan president Everett Piper and Liberty president Jerry Falwell, Jr.). I don’t regret wading into such waters — in some ways, I’m glad I took the risk — but they’ve prompted me to revisit and recommit to my principles as a Christian scholar (specifically, a Pietist and a historian) writing for a general audience.
I want to be thoughtful, civil, and irenic — but not “nice”
It was fascinating to watch reaction to some of my most popular posts in late 2015. Regular readers who shared the Wheaton, Piper, and Falwell posts described them with the same kinds of words that I most hope to see attached to my writing: “thoughtful” and “irenic.” But it was striking to notice a few people use quite different adjectives: “angry,” “self-righteous,” and… well, not “arrogant,” but not “humble.”
My discomfort at those comments bubbled to the surface here enough that a couple of you even wrote in to reassure me that I needn’t worry. And in large measure I don’t: those posts attracted first-time visitors who knew nothing of how I think and write beyond those few paragraphs; most of you have been coming here long enough that you can put any individual post into the context of long-running conversations.
If they stuck around long enough to dig into my archives, I hope newer readers would find me adhering to the principles of civil discourse that my friend Christian Collins Winn gleaned from the writings of Pietist founding father Philipp Spener: (from a 2012 convocation address published here and then adapted into a chapter in our book on Pietism and higher education)
- Arguing in a spirit of good faith: “…at base the Pietist is concerned with understanding not only him or herself, and not only the opposing side, but the truth of the matter. In this search for the truth, one must make every effort to think through one’s own position, to express it clearly, and to listen to one’s dialogue partner in good faith, trying to understand where they are coming from.”
- Humility, or “a genuine openness to being taught”: “Engagement of any kind, but especially in the fields of theological and political discourse, requires the humility to realize that we are not God, that we ourselves are also pilgrims on the way. Perhaps another way of saying this is that we need each other, that the pursuit of truth is a fundamentally communal endeavor. The Pietist twist on this, which was certainly novel in its day, was the willingness to countenance the possibility that God speaks the truth not only through my friends, but also through my adversaries, and that therefore I must be willing to be taught even by those with whom I disagree.”
- Love of neighbor: “From the Pietist point of view, to practice good faith and humility when engaged in controversy or argument is itself the practice of love of neighbor. For in both the practioner assumes, affirms, and embraces the humanity of the other, and sees their adversary as loved by God, and deserving of respect, care and hospitality.”
- A “hopeful commitment to God’s peace”: “Pietistic work for the revitalization of Christianity was not rooted in optimism, but in the conviction and hope that the work of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was continuing to unfold in history in the power of the Spirit, and that this work was a work of healing. More specifically, it was the work of the healing of the nations, or what the Bible calls God’s peace or shalom.”
That last point is Christian’s gloss on the “irenic spirit” so often associated with Swedish Pietism. But he also warned against a common misunderstanding: being a Pietist is not simply a matter of “being nice to one another.” Christian’s words remind me to beware my Scandinavian-Midwestern propensity to confuse peace with avoiding conflict.
And that leads me to one newer principle — meant for my own eyes, if no one else’s.
Readers will disagree with me — and that’s okay.
Late last year, actress/writer Tina Fey, in response to critics who detected racism in an episode of her generally acclaimed show, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, declared that she was done apologizing for her work:
I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.
Fey’s comments came in passing (as part of a photo spread), but they spurred Alyssa Rosenberg to share some interesting insights about the nature of what it means to create for an audience:
[Public apologies] preserve a highly profitable illusion that artists and their fans agree on everything, that they’re part of the same team, when in fact they’re nothing of the sort.
…Fey’s decision not to apologize for her jokes doesn’t prevent [Vox writer Caroline] Framke or anyone else from holding opinions about Fey’s work. What it does deny them is the satisfaction of hearing that Fey agrees with them. It might be uncomfortable to reckon with the full range of Fey’s opinions. But it’s more sophisticated and interesting to do that than to try to make some of Fey’s opinions disappear, blurring her into a more politically compliant but less interesting artist.
Now, what I do here is even less like “art” than a Netflix sitcom. But I think the underlying principle holds. I reflect on complicated topics and so I strive for an irenic, humble tone. But my task here is not to maximize audience agreement: to be thoughtful is also to be thought-provoking, which means that there must be something potentially provocative about what I’m doing.
I don’t need to say something about everything — and I never need to write out of anger.
But while I may write more often in the expectation that I’ll receive criticism — and have a thicker skin when it comes — I’ll also continue to heed what’s passed for my blogging mantra over the past half-decade: the format tempts you into thinking that there are thoughts that will never be thought unless you think them, and words that will never be said unless you say them.
The temptation is easier to resist when hardly anyone is reading you. But once you start to let yourself believe that yours is a significant voice, that it speaks for others, then you’ll be even more prone to write when you should be listening, or at least before you’ve really had time to decide what you think.
It’s rare that anyone’s initial reaction is all that helpful to anyone, especially if it’s motivated by frustration or anger. And 99% of the time, what impact it would lose from being postponed by a day or two would be offset by the benefits of having spent the additional time in thought. Alan Jacobs had a really good piece on this in early January, reflecting on the “pernicious” view — exacerbated by social media — that “rapidity of response is a virtue.”
(That’s especially true for me. My wife has learned in our years of marriage that it takes a long time to figure out what’s bothering me — since even I don’t understand it at first. I often find on Monday that whatever I was complaining about on Sunday wasn’t the real issue… which itself doesn’t become clear till Tuesday, or later.)
As Jacobs recognized, “If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.” That seems like a good rule for this blog, too.