Once again as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it is my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Some years a theme emerges, and this year it is the passing of old friends and mentors. Three of my professors from seminary died within a few weeks of each other early in the year, and my tributes to and remembrances of them were among the most popular posts.
Here in order are the most visited new posts from 2016:
As in previous years certain posts have had real staying power. Many of these are sermons that desperate preachers found on search engines. For example, my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent was the number one entry if you Googled “Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.” Consequently, I saw extraordinary spikes in traffic the week before.
So here are my all-time top ten posts since I started “When I Survey . . .” in 2009:
And desperate preachers (of whom there seem to be many) and other net surfers brought in a surprising number of hits to my archived material from other years (“Ten Highly Effective Strategies . . .” for example, had a three-day run with over 9,000 hits, which speaks well either of people’s appreciation for satire or for the poor morale of the clergy.) In either case here are the ten most visited posts from previous years on this blog in 2015, which I began in 2009:
I want students to take someone else’s wisdom for a serious test drive. I want them to rent with an option to buy; to suspend suspicion and develop a bias toward faith in the considered opinions of others; to respect the authority of authorities instead of keeping up the fiction that all ideas have equal value and that all opinions count the same.
But the more I thought about it (new Boston mayor Marty Walsh’s openly talking about his recovery during the campaign), the more I felt sad for the church. If an admission of being in recovery can actually help someone in the hardball world of politics, why is it so feared in the very place where redemption should be celebrated? Why aren’t we, people who talk about grace and forgiveness and new life, in the business of teaching people what to do when they fall? Why don’t we acknowledge these things so that we can help people know where to turn when they need help to get back up?
There are mountains of ephemera in the blogosphere, but well-written wisdom, like gold, is where you find it.
I am working on a book that I hope will be published this coming year with the tentative title of “Prepare Three Envelopes” (and other ruminations on pastoral ministry). It will collect many of the posts from this blog, and from my former blog “Retired Pastor Ruminates” plus some other previously unpublished pieces of mine. I will keep you posted about it. In the meantime thank you all for you support this year. I hope you will continue to visit here in 2013.
Last week I was thrilled that one of my blogposts got picked up and reposted by a big institutional blog. And so, in a fever of hubris and self-promotion, I fired off a bunch of e-mails with the link to anybody that I thought might be even remotely interested.
One of these people was an old college friend who is a defense attorney, and he wrote back the following:
“This morning, I attended a seminar on jury selection in death penalty cases. The point applies when defense counsel is deciding who to “thank and excuse” from juror duty.
A jury consultant spoke and told us she would always recommend kicking off from the jury panel anyone who blogs. “They’re angry people,” was her explanation. “Unless they blog about gardening or the symphony, get rid of them.”
I wonder if she thinks theology and ministry are safe subjects? So now you know how to get out of jury duty. Just start a blog!
Ironically, I have been called to jury duty a number of times, but have never been chosen. When the prosecution finds out that I am clergy they “thank and excuse” me. I am guessing they imagine that my mercy might temper (or subvert) their justice. The funny thing is I have always thought it would be interesting to be on a jury and witness a trial. So the blogging ploy has no utility for me. Besides, I think it is my duty as a citizen to serve on a jury.
But maybe she is right about the anger. I’ve noticed that even facebookhas been getting a little testy lately over the health care bill. Any of you other bloggers out there feel like you might be an angry person?
Sometimes a topic is just suddenly “in the air,” and the one that is currently preoccupying me is how people behave in Cyperspace. The medium of blogging is now old enough for us all to see fairly consistent patterns emerging, and one of them, sadly, is the pervasiveness of bad manners, boorishness, and a general tendency toward a reflexive mean-spiritedness.
This really shouldn’t surprise any of us who have an adequately robust view of human sin, for after all, Cyberspace is just a reflection of the “real world,” where the wheat and the tares grow together. Over the years I have had some really disturbing comments on my blogs. There are remedies one can take for this. One can choose to moderate comments (I don’t), or delete them (I usually don’t), but still it can be unsettling to have someone you don’t know flame you, call you nasty names, impugn your faith, or blaspheme your God. It happens all the time.
Lately some thoughtful people have been calling it out. First, Tom Wright, someone I once briefly studied with thirty years ago and greatly respect, had rather pointedly addressed the issue in a recent book, from which an excerpt was posted on Theology Forum, a thoughtful theo-blog. Wright said,
“It really is high time we developed a Christian ethic of blogging. Bad temper is bad temper even in the apparent privacy of your own hard drive, and harsh and unjust words, when released into the wild, rampage around and do real damage. And as for the practice of saying mean and untrue things while hiding behind a pseudonym – well if I get a letter like that it goes straight in the bin … I have a pastoral concern for such people. (And, for that matter, a pastoral concern for anyone who spends more than a few minutes a day taking part in blogsite discussions, especially when they all use code names: was it for this that the creator of God made human beings?” (Justification , 27)
This was the beginning on that site of a lively discussion on the issue, and another post, focused mostly on the practice of anonymous commenting, which I find to be a dubious practice.
Then my friend David Anderegg, a noted child psychologist and professor at Bennington College, wrote a blogpost for Psychology Today, describing how he was repeatedly flamed and castigated on his blog after the New York Times, in a brief article about his new book Nerds, quoted him as saying that terms like nerds and geeks should be banned. The free speech crowd ate him alive, without bothering to read the book, or attend to the context of his comment, which was that such terms of derogation are keeping talented boys from pursuing studies in math and science at a critical time in their development because of the stigma of such terms.
David hasn’t given up his blog, but some have gone as far as to say that Cyberspace is intrinsically evil, and should be avoided by Christians, and maybe by everyone. Even Tom Wright, in the quote above, questions whether any of us should be spending more than a few minutes in blogsite discussions. I am guilty as charged.
So should we just avoid Cyberspace? Is it evil? My response to that, which I posted as a comment on Theology Forum is:
The whole discussion of whether blogging is an appropriate vehicle for Christian expression is one that must take place, but missing in much of what I read is the whole notion of moderation. I enjoy and learn from blogs like this one and others of its ilk, of which there are many. Do I do other things? Yes. Do I interface with actual people in real life? Yes.
Some of the overheated talk against blogging reminds me of some of the arguments I have heard against the use of alcohol. True, some people should never touch it. But many others are able to partake of it in a healthy and profitable way. It is not evil.
So I cannot accept the argument that this new medium is intrinsically harmful. When Christians start labeling things evil, they often would do better to examine their own hearts and souls, where the problem often is located.
Now I am generally a defender of blogging, and I find the access to information and to far-flung colleagues that one wouldn’t otherwise have as interlocutors invaluable. But I have been on blogs and list-serv conversations for years and recognize that there are genuine problems.
So I am all in favor of an ongoing discussion that helps us be kinder and more civil to each other on-line. Here are some random thoughts about it:
My own first rule on-line is to try to remember that there is a real person at the other end of the communication, and to write as if one was speaking in person, that is face to face. That won’t entirely eliminate the bad behavior, to be sure, but it is a start. I have witnessed rude, mean-spirited interactions in universities in both Britain and America, some of the worst ones by theologians (and certain ethicists.) My teacher James Luther Adams once said to me, “The average divinity faculty makes the average congregation look like the communion of saints!” I was young then and took him at his word, but after being ordained for thirty-five years ( and serving in both contexts) I suspect he was just more familiar with the former.
One of the roughest interchanges I ever witnessed was at a 1989 Society for the Study of Theology lecture at Exeter College, Oxford, where the young paper presenter, who remained gracious and calm throughout, was subject to a grueling Q and A that slipped outside the bounds of propriety. That speaker is now the Archbishop of Canterbury, so perhaps that was good training for the vitriol that he is now routinely subject to. But we should all do better than that, both in person and on-line.
One of the ugly truths about blogging is that controversy gets you viewers, and one of the temptations for us bloggers is to intentionally get a kerfuffle going to attract eyeballs to our sites. To succumb to this temptation is not tending to “the better angels of our nature,” and is, as we Christians like to say, the work of the devil.
I speak from experience, for I confess that I have a fairly high snark factor in both my speech and my writing, and need to constantly keep it in check. I admonish my brothers and sisters to do likewise. But there is a fine line between hurtful snarkiness and dry humor, and one needs to be aware that we can’t see each other’s faces to catch the nuances, so some care with our words is in order. Remember that people who don’t know you, don’t know you! Your friends may get you, but don’t expect that unknown others will. This suggests comments be kept brief and to the point, and as free of horns and teeth as you can possibly make them.The Christian practices that keep order in actual (as opposed to virtual) communities should be in place on-line as well. “Tell the truth in love,” “do unto others as you would them do unto you,” “be not conformed to this world,” are just a few that leap to mind. And gentleness and kindness are included in everybody’s list of gifts of the Spirit.
One of the practices that my Confessing Christ open forum conversation has is a sort of quiet shunning. If someone is consistently provocative and trying to pick a fight we just don’t respond, a kind of Cyber turning the other cheek. In this way we don’t embarrass the person, and typically he or she (usually he, for some reason) just gets bored and goes away, or repents and gets back in the flow.
Just some thoughts. I’d be interested in yours about this, as long as you are nice about it.