Thinking about God in Public: Some Reflections on Being a Christian Blogger

I wrote last week about Tish Harrison Warren’s much discussed piece, “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” Since then Warren herself has offered a humble, thoughtful follow-up that engages seriously and charitably with her critics. And her efforts have prompted reflections by everyone from Ann Voskamp to Scot McKnight.

I don’t want to revisit the question of an evangelical “crisis of authority,” but instead, I’d like to use this as a moment to reflect on what it means to be part of the “Christian blogosphere.”

Blogging for DummiesEven if we could bracket off gender, I’m not sure how much I resemble the Christian bloggers Warren has in mind. I’ve never felt much like a “cyber-age equivalent to megachurch pastors,” writers whose “authority comes not from the church or the academic guild but from popularity.” After all, I’m a college history professor whose readership, while respectable, is nowhere near as large as that of someone like Jen Hatmaker (the example Warren chose to set up her questions).

Still, I am a Christian who blogs.

From time to time, I step back from particular topics and muse about the meaning of what I do at The Pietist Schoolman and other blogs. (Here and here and here, for example.) But as seriously as I take what I do as a blogger, I’m not sure I’d treat it, as Warren seems to do, as being roughly equivalent to the teaching ministry of the clergy:

Where do bloggers and speakers like Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders?

Now, I do tend to use this blog for something like pre-teaching. As I wrote yesterday at The Anxious Bench, I “wonder in” this virtual space before I take my pedagogical ideas into the physical space of a classroom. At the very least, I’m asking readers the kinds of questions I would ask students in my courses.

But given that one of her next questions is “Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy?”, it sounds like Warren is concerned about teaching as a kind of catechesis. That kind of teaching is certainly important — and helps explain why she connects blogging to questions of authority — but it’s not what I do as a history professor at a Christian liberal arts college. (More like paideia than en-doctrine-ating believers in the orthodoxies of the faith, even though I affirm those beliefs.)

And in any case, I’ve come to think of blogging in a way that is both as serious as teaching but even less authoritative:

As a Christian blogger, I’m thinking in public about God.

This notion is as old as this blog, whose first post declared that one of my goals was 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.” Then in 2012 I wrote a post that cited Ta-Nehisi Coates’ self-description as a blogger (in the days before he was a best-selling author): “My thoughts are still raw here and I’m trying to pull together a lot. Please forgive me for the messiness of the logic here. This is public thinking.”

Of course, Coates is not writing as a believer in God, but themes of rawness and messiness are not inappropriate to the Christian blogosphere. Public thinking is not the same as catechesis or preaching. In that same 2012 post, I quoted Roger Olson’s description of his own blog, where what he writes

are not necessarily my firm beliefs. I don’t have firm beliefs about everything…. This blog is not meant to be read as gospel truth or dogmatic affirmations. Sometimes I play the devil’s advocate. Sometimes what I write is tongue-in-cheek. I hope you don’t come here expecting to find out my timeless, unalterable truths, carved in stone, by which I will stand come what may.

That’s still how I’d describe what I do here at The Pietist Schoolman.

More recently, I’ve taken some inspiration from what might seem like an unlikely source: the wildly popular Christian hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper, who claims on his Coloring Book mixtape that “I speak to God in public.”

And about all sorts of topics that may not seem like “public theology.” As theologian David Dark explained to MTV News readers last year,

With Coloring Book, there’s a vibe to be had that blissfully overcomes the cordoning off of God’s righteous demands from the rest of human experience. Chance’s faith won’t be reduced to a side issue that comes and goes. Because the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s, it’s all God’s loving business.

I don’t think of myself as speaking to God in this way, but I’m at least thinking about God — and “the earth and everything in it,” which is indeed God’s — in public.

I don’t mean this as license for me to write whatever I like, however ridiculous or untruthful. If I have a public, it’s because that thinking is thoughtful.

That probably won’t reassure Christians who are worried that new modes of communication are reviving or exacerbating an old crisis of authority. (I am accountable to an institution whose affirmation of faith I sign every year, though tenure gives me considerable, valuable freedom.) But at the end of the day, blogging should be both serious — if the answers are not timeless, the questions often are — and playful. Indeed, I’ve previously thought in public that my particular religious tradition might take a more playful, or at least eclectic, approach to thinking about God.

Dark discerns both “perseverance” and a “spirit of mirth” in Chance’s “talking in public to God,” qualities that I would do well to recover as I try to blog well in the midst of political and religious conflicts that tempt me to despair and self-importance.