The Internet Monk on the spiritual state of the blogosphere

I happened to be reading through the Internet Monk archives this morning, in search of the post that inspired me to start my series of posts on tradition and innovation, and I came across a post where Michael Spencer surprised me by making four novel (to me, anyway) but accurate observations about discussions of Christianity on the internet. [Emphasis added.]

7. The deep influence of the culture war model of discipleship is everywhere. In fact, the pervasive presence of political rhetoric and opinion is a constant intrusion into the Christian blogosphere, at times obscuring all other discussions. As in several other things, the meaning seems to be found mostly in identification, not in participation or practice. This shapes us toward the belief that political conviction is the fruit of spiritual growth. I would disagree.

I’d long ago noticed that, at least for the noisiest people, the quest for spiritual growth boiled down to a quest to join the correct group, spiritual formation reduced to a matter of hanging around with the right people, behaving like they behave, reacting like they react, opining what they opine, assuming that growth will naturally follow. It hadn’t occurred to me that this has been turned from the usual cliquishness to a full-blown approach to discipling believers. But I think Spencer is right that the cultural warriors have sanctified this particular human weakness and now actively prey on it to build their ranks.

What surprises me the most is that holding certain specific, detailed political convictions has become so important as a test of one’s Christian maturity—because it is only important that we hold them, not that we arrive at them through study and reflection. In fact, now that I think about it I will differ with Spencer’s last statement; I don’t think modern Christians believe that political conviction is the fruit of spiritual growth, I think they see it as an alternative to spiritual growth, a way of cutting to the chase.

8. There is a deep involvement by those in the blogosphere with media, and this is integrated into their spirituality. This is especially true regarding movies and television, which are the preferred narrative modes as opposed to reading fiction. Issues regarding the secondary and spiritual influences of media are rarely heard. Being “up to date” with the latest media events is mandatory. How does this fit into my spirituality? Are we underestimating its formative effects?

I think it is a major embarrassment that Christians have so unquestioningly embraced mass media, and in particular its techniques of shaping a message. We are in deep denial about how much those techniques can end up shaping our own thinking. For example, let me pick on Spencer the internet personality for a moment. This particular post of his opens with these words:

I’m writing about spirituality these days. Yeah, I know how a lot of you feel about that word. So deal. We’re going to use it. We’re also going to use another word some of you don’t like: formation. Now that we’re good and grumpy, let’s go for a ride.

These words are brimming with attitude, an attitude that permeates the blogosphere. But if you read on, after a couple more sentences the attitude has evaporated and the tone is nearly neutral. Why would Spencer open with such an attitude when it isn’t pertinent to the point being made, and in fact he drops it completely a few sentences in? Because that is how people write these days. Because it what people have been trained to expect lively writing to be: blunt, brash, rude, ironic, choppy, contemptuous, casual, idiomatic.

But when it comes to writing these characteristics are not good, just fashionable. And, to risk being overly pious, I think they exemplify an unloving attitude towards the reader. Now, I understand that much of this kind of writing takes an ironic stance, something like teasing—you know I’m not really being rude and contemptuous towards you, because you aren’t really like the guy I’m talking about, and that’s part of what makes my rude and contemptuous words funny—but it still ends up sharpening our skills in some questionable areas, and it reinforces an unloving attitude towards those guys, the not-so-imaginary ones who really are the target of my rudeness and contempt.

There’s a lot more that could be said about the dangers of media, but I think we could make a lot of progress if we would just think for a bit about how fraught with danger it is to adopt attitudes that were crafted by ungodly people for purposes of their own.

9. One sees very little that is of a really radical nature in the discipleship or community exemplified in the Christian blogosphere. Despite a lot of adjectives suggesting radicalism, the Christian spirituality of the blogosphere appears to be quite conventional, especially in regard to issues of comfort, finances, lifestyle, children, community, mission, etc.

Ouch. We are good at making fun of things like the Goth subculture, where middle-class suburban white kids have taken a truly transgressive vision and reduced it to a collection of suggestive but ultimately harmless quirks in dress, makeup, and music. Can we put our own markers of radicalness—large families, homeschooling—to the test, distinguishing those which really are different and difficult, from those which we’ve merely agreed to call radical?

10. I see little evidence that the spirituality of the blogosphere has made Christians more informed about and congenial toward those with whom they disagree or differ. Instead, stereotypes and extreme examples are more easily created and brought into what are often “cut and paste” conversations. There is much to learn from those with whom we differ, but I rarely see any evidence that opposing sides are using the net to learn from one another. It is overwhelmingly about being reinforced in our own positions.

This may be the single best reason for Christians to be wary of the blogosphere. Groups do not form in the blogosphere based on shared interests, but rather based on like-mindedness. Online community thrives not on shared purpose or goals, but on the joy of joining together in opposition to someone else. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in Life Together, Christians are already especially prone to temptations in this area; the blogosphere provides myriad new ways to sanctify such wickedness, and should probably be avoided on that basis alone.

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7 thoughts on “The Internet Monk on the spiritual state of the blogosphere

  1. I think your point that Christians are seeing political conviction as an alternative to spiritual growth is an excellent insight, and I think you are precisely right. Part of the problem, I think, is that there is little to no content about spiritual growth, only practices. Without a real theology driving them, these practices evaporate into easier more concrete practices – and the political these days is where it is at.

    Thanks for your thoughts! kyle

  2. Two thoughts:

    One is that the Internet Monk says there are no women in the Christian blogosphere. I don’t know quite what his definition is, but there are certainly plenty of Christian women who blog. It’s just that they mostly blog about their daily lives, or how faith relates to their daily lives, and don’t care much about being pundits. There’s a good bit of concern for mercy ministries and missions on some of these blogs. And some are blogging as a way to connect with others who are truly trying to live a quieter life. But they don’t call them Christian blogs, so far as I know.

    The other is that he says bloggers are deeply imbedded in the culture war model of discipleship, and that it is expressed through identification, not practice. May I suggest that the problem is much deeper than that? Anthony Esolen has said that we don’t have culture wars; we have Mass Entertainment Wars and Education Wars. To have culture wars would require a culture, which we no longer have because we are too practical, too busy for its own sake, too tied to outcomes.

    Maybe part of what Michael Spencer is lamenting about blogs that identify with the culture wars is that such blogging isn’t really about culture at all. It’s not even really about politics, at least not as our nation’s founders intended it. It’s about cheerleading, and it was a problem in Evangelicalism long before the internet. But of course it doesn’t help that the medium doesn’t really lend itself to deep discussion.

  3. Since Byzantium, there is always an element of the church that wants to identify with poitical power. I have also seen, and try to avoid the bloggers with attitudes you mention, though I may at times be one of them (Simil eustace et peccator I guess). One thing I do like about the blogosphere is the effect it has had in uniting dispersed, formerly marginalized confessional voices in mainline denominations. I sincerely beliive that my denomination, the Anglican Church in North America would not exist without the ability of orthodox Anglicans to communicate with each other so freely. We call it a re-reformation, and like the printing press and Luther, it is fueled by electronic media.

    You are 100% right on the media shaping the message. I have a friend, T David Gordon, who recently wrote a book on this called “Why Johnny can’t Preach: The media shapes the messangers” Gordon picks up where Neil Postman left off and notes media effects in the Church. You might enjoy the book .

  4. Laura,

    There are certainly plenty of Christian women who blog. It’s just that they mostly blog about their daily lives, or how faith relates to their daily lives, and don’t care much about being pundits.

    Ouch! I suppose what Spencer meant by “Christian blogosphere” is “collection of blogs that write on the Christian topics I’m interested in.” But that isn’t completely self-centered; there is a kind of blogging that focuses on the aspects of Christian life that are amenable to geeky analysis and discussion, where the active participants are mostly men, and Spencer’s work falls squarely into this category.

    More interesting to me is that the blogosphere encourages, or at least reflects, a split in our understanding of the Christian life between areas of interest to men and areas of interest to women. Wendell Berry once wrote that Americans have a genius for taking a solution and splitting it into two problems. Christian punditry on the internet is very much out of balance, due mostly to its lack of interest in faith in daily practice.

    Maybe part of what Michael Spencer is lamenting about blogs that identify with the culture wars is that such blogging isn’t really about culture at all. It’s not even really about politics, at least not as our nation’s founders intended it. It’s about cheerleading.

    Agreed. Once we collaborated on a minimal structure within which we can all co-exist peacefully. Now each group champions its own legalistic vision which, if it triumphs, would provide the group with exactly the license they think they ought to have. We now seek to be the rich in the Anatole France quote: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

  5. Oops, I wasn’t aiming that at you, Rick. In fact, I wasn’t taking aim at all. It just seemed like an obvious point. I think your blog discusses issues while making note of the daily. That’s one reason I read it. We never know for sure what bloggers are really doing when they get up from their computers, but the blogs I like best at least acknowledge the need for correspondence between intellectual belief and daily life.

    About men and women separating: Hasn’t it always been a little like this, even, or perhaps especially, in the old times? I don’t think that men and women gathering into their own little groups is always such a bad thing, as long as there’s some interaction and each side at least appreciates what the other is doing. I remember a certain Lewis passage where he bemoans always having to invite the women to every party, because the men can’t discuss their meaty issues for trying to make polite conversation. Even from the other side of the gender divide, I can sympathize!

    Your Anatole France quote is particularly interesting in light of the Atticus Finch story quoted above. I’m re-thinking about the South lately, partly because I’m reading Henry Adams.

    I thought the stadium-rock spirituality article was interesting, too. I’ve never been to that sort of church, but reading the article, at least, I’m almost as mystified as the author. Obviously he’s prejudiced, and I think he’s exaggerating for effect as well, but it does point out the difficulty of being comprehensible while at the same time catering to an adolescent style of emoting. I think Paul addressed the issue pretty well when he said that every person speaking in tongues should have an interpreter.

  6. Laura,

    The “Ouch!” was on Michael Spencer’s behalf, one I expect he’d have the good grace to utter himself if he came across your observation. I consider myself only marginally part of the blogosphere as a whole, much less the “Christian blogosphere.”

    I enjoy the manly discussion of meaty issues just as much as Lewis did—and I see that as at least a danger, if not a problem. For years I was part of a community where social gatherings immediately split into two groups, men and women, and I think in the end both sides ended up unbalanced. The inhibitions imposed by mixed company can sometimes be good. And perhaps I’m dreaming, but I like to think that any group of Christians, whatever the mixture of ages and genders and interests and backgrounds, can find enough common ground to have an edifying time together—even though it might some work, and especially some concern for others.

    As for the Atticus Finch story, you might also want to look at this post by one of the Atlantic bloggers, Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ve thought a lot about the South, and Southern slavery, and states’ rights, and Northern aggression. Mostly I’ve been sympathetic to the South—in the abstract. But this post made a point that evaded my defenses and struck home in a way that the usual reviling of slaveholders never has. Coates writes:

    What occurs to me is that some time around the early 19th, late 18th century, a portion of this country decided to make themselves into Gods. They were not the first. And they aren’t the last. But I can’t get past the simple thrill, the utter charge man gets from dominating man. Southerners referred to white supremacy not just in economic terms, but as a lifestyle. Slavery did not just mean the right to exploit another man’s labor, it meant utter and complete dominion over him, his wives, his children and all of his friends.

    I’ll have to spend some time thinking and studying about whether this is accurate. But it immediately summoned visions of Heart of Darkness and its portrayal of the Belgian exploitation of the Congo, with its logical conclusion in the person of Kurtz. And Kurtz is someone I’ve come to understand very well over the past twenty years.

  7. I’ve visited churches where the after service meal was like that. Mealtime is one place where I think it should never be sex-segregated. Mixed-sex conversations are so much more interesting.

    But otoh, there’s a time and place for single-sex conversations, too. I remember the Lewis passage y’all mentioned and I think he’s right. He wasn’t saying all convos should be that way, just that there should be a time and place for it.

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