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.
As 2009 wanes I took advantage of Google Analytics to find the ten most popular posts of the year. I learned that Retired Pastor Ruminates, which was launched on March 23, has 10,467 page-views, of which 6,928 were unique page-views, and the average time spent on the page was 3:19. They came from 53 countries, with the US being first, and all but two of its states represented. The other countries with the most visitors are in order of visits: the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, India, South Africa, Ireland and Singapore.
To make his case he employs Neil Postman’s classic diatribe against TV, Amusing Ourselves To Death, where Postman makes the McCluhanesque charge that what is wrong with TV isn’t that we need better programming (more Ken Burns and Sesame Street) but the medium of TV itself. I read the Postman book nearly twenty years ago and found its thesis persuasive. But I don’t think it is useful in the case of the blogosphere. It’s a different medium and has different issues and challenges.
“Reading Postman for the first time last month gave me clearer language to explain my rage against the rise of blogging. For what he says about media can be said about literary forms—they are biased toward certain kinds of content. The blogpost is biased toward speed, brevity, and cleverness. It thus hands the public square over to bullies, sophists, and clowns.”
Now McDaniel has a point that the blogpost as a literary form is biased toward speed, brevity, and cleverness, but not all blogposts observe that bias. And if we acknowledge the blogpost as a literary form it is certainly an emerging one. We can no more imagine what it will become than Gutenberg could have imagined the novel.
So I don’t think the Postman thesis is an apt one for the blogosphere chiefly because watching TV is a passive activity whereas blogging is interactive. It is true that many blogs are trite and entertainment-driven, but many are not. I have found on numerous, mostly theological blogs, access to great literature from old friends and new ones.
For example, on Jason Goroncy’s substantial site, Per Crucem ad Lucem, he has posted the corpus of the seminal British theologian P.T. Forsyth. Twenty years ago I had to travel to Oxford to find some of the more obscure writings of this important figure. Now I can read him in my pajamas, and converse with clever, knowledgeable people around the world about him.
I would argue that blogging has opened up a vast new global public space for serious discourse. As an author and book reviewer my creations in the past reached a small audience. Some of those same works, now archived on my blog, get regular visits. I wrote a review of Scott Paeth’s book on Christology, Who Do You Say that I Am? for Joy in the Word, a small journal of the Confessing Christ movement in the United Church of Christ, whose distribution is limited to a smallish mailing list. By re-posting this, I have made the review available to a global audience of people interested in Christology, and some of them may find their way to that book. In the past this wouldn’t happen.
McDaniel acknowledges some of this. He writes,
“Some of my very astute pro-blog friends have argued that, whatever their drawbacks, blogs create a democratic public space whose occupants are minimally beholden to state and corporate interests. For the discerning reader, entering the blogosphere is just like listening in on a fascinating conversation among free, brilliant interlocutors. The incompleteness, electicism, and so on are characteristic of good conversation.”
But then he complains that the good blogs aren’t popular. But since when did popularity become the criterion for judging any literary form? Some good literature became popular (I’m thinking Dickens) but most popular literature isn’t good.
So what if a good blog isn’t popular? The blogosphere allows bloggers to find their audience, even if the audience is small. I don’t expect Retired Pastor Ruminates to ever rival the Huffington Post in popularity, but I enjoy interacting with people from all over the world who also enjoy P.T. Forsyth, Karl Barth, atonement theology, the Boston Red Sox, home cooking, poetry, and Single Malt Scotch, to name but a few of my pre-oocupations.
And there is a freedom about blogging that is different than writing for print. For example, I have written articles and book reviews for journals, and there is a kind of self-censorship that goes into preparing something for, say Theology Today. You know they have a certain style and point of view, and you try to conform as much as possible to it. And after you submit your piece, it can be edited in ways over which you have no say. For example, a review I wrote of Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified for Theology Today was edited to remove all the masculine personal pronouns for deity, a practice neither Richard Bauckham nor I follow. I was able to put the review up on my blog the way I wrote it.
Now blogging may lack the discipline that McDaniel values in print, but it is free from the constraints that one is subject to in dealing with editors and publishers, which means fresh and new writings now have a place to flourish. This may threaten journals and publishers, but it may be a good thing for the world to have unfettered access to many points of view.
And in a strange way, blogging makes people focus more on words. Because the blogpost is a literary medium, people who blog spend time at keyboards and have to think abou the best way to express themselves with words. Unlike Postman’s catatonic TV watchers, bloggers minds are active as they think about what to blog and then use their creativity to produce the post. And there are many very creative blogs out there, engaging, interesting, funny, and informative, and there are more and more all the time.
And, finally, let me offer a personal confession of how important blogging has become for me. I am a retired pastor with a disability that prohibits me from working anymore. I was an active pastor for thirty years and for the last five I have been missing my work and the creative outlets it provided. Blogging lets me express my thoughts and ideas, and I have come to view it as a ministry. I have had commenters e-mail me to thank me for what I have written. And though the audience is small, it is world-wide.
So I defend blogging. I think some of McDaniel’s concerns are legitimate, but at the end of the day I don’t believe the blogpost is either good or evil, but neutral, and it is the way it is used that will be decisive. Like every other human enterprise it is subject to the pull of temptation and sin. It remains to be seen just how it will be used. Therefore, it is hasty to condemn this new literary form and the communication technology that makes it possible. Gutenberg was so condemned in his day. But the wheat and the tares grow together, and on the Day they will be sorted out.
Like my blog itself my Blogroll of favorites is pretty eclectic. I have some heavy-hitting theology blogs, such as Jason Goroncy’s magisterial Per Crucem ad Lucem. Jason teaches theology in New Zealand and started this blog when he was a graduate student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where I did one of my sabbaticals. He is also a P.T. Forsyth scholar and has done the world a great service by making that great man’s corpus available on the web. I have described this as a theology site on steroids. Jason posts almost every day, has a faithful cadre of insightful commentors, and for theologs and ministers it is well worth visiting.
To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, I just love Princess Lolly (aka Keely Flynn Schoeny)’s eccentric Lollgag Blog, whose sub-head wisely asks “Is this truly the best use of your time?”
In the interest of full disclosure I have known Keely since she was a young girl. I baptized and confirmed her. She is one of four very sharp and talented sisters, but Keely was always the really funny one. She is now a nanny, sometimes actor, and aspiring screen writer in Chicago, and about to have her first baby any day now. Her adventures as a newlywed, with pregnancy and looming motherhood are a hoot. Her class observations about some of the other mothers’ attitudes toward her as a nanny are poignant, but she finds humor even there. Imagine a younger, hipper, Erma Bombeck.
Finally Janet Batchler, the gal who brought you the Church History in Four Minutes video, which I recently posted, has a very cool blog called Quoth the Maven (echoes of William Safire.) I discovered her by way of the church history video, and knew that the quality of that work indicated some professional expertise. Sure enough, she teaches film writing at USC. She is also a churchperson and a mom, and, like Keely, mines the quotidian for humor and insight. Check out this post on her son missing the bus for his school retreat and her driving all day to get him there. Talk about going the extra mile.
In any case these are just three of my favorites, and I will feature others from time to time.
>I started this blog back on March 23 and, frankly, I didn’t know what I was doing. My friend Martin Langeveld, who has a popular blog at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, encouraged me to give it a try. He told me how easy it was to set up a blog on Blogger as indeed it is.
Martin had just created a blog for The Monday Evening Club, a group you could call an old boy’s club, except none of us are boys anymore. The club goes back to 1869, and Martin was lamenting that the papers club members had delivered over the years were mostly lost. He had suggested that we start archiving them on-line, and he began doing that as members made current and older papers available to him.
So archiving was part of my first model for blogging, and since I have written quite a lot over the years, I began to archive some of my writings, mostly on theology and ministry, onto my blog. None of these have been very popular, but they get a steady stream of hits, and it feels gratifying to have them available in this new format. Since my retirement in 2004 I have been casting about for something that feels like ministry, and blogging seems like it may be that. Since I have a disability (Traumatic Brain Injury) that limits my activity, blogging is good for me in that I can do it when I feel like it, and not do it when I don’t.
Due to the wonders of Google Analytics one can see how many hits each post gets, along with way more information than anybody needs to know about it. Its fun to begin the day with a visit to Analytics to see how many hits you’ve got, and where from all over the world they have come. There is a map of the world that shows you where and how many hits you get. Most of my hits come from the USA, with a number of others from English-speaking countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
I have to confess that watching Analytics brings out the competitor in me, and some days watching my blog’s progress feels less like a ministry and more like a game, like World of Warcraft without the killing part.
So my blog has a heavy theology/ministry focus, but Analytics reminds me this is not a world-beating formula to get a popular blog. My most popular single post was an interview of Martin I did on the future of newspapers. He referred to it on his NiemanLab blog, and the traffic spiked up, as well as the international diversity of the hits, including many from Europe. Of course, not everybody who is interested in the future of newspapers is interested in theology (the soteriology of P.T. Forsyth, for example). And so I wonder if some of these visitors wonder if they had landed on the blog of some strange Christian cult.
Likewise, my Facebook “friends,” many of whom are not Christian or even religious, and who get a notice of any new posts on their wall, must wonder just what Floyd is up to. Now that Facebook has put us back in touch with friends from High School and University that we may not have seen in thirty or forty years, I sometimes get messages such as, “You’re a minister?” Yup, for 34 years! And they may have trouble equating that with the basketball player, beer-guzzling frat boy, or hippie mystic they remember, depending on when they knew me.
So the blog is there each day to post or not to post, and some days it feels good to do it and other days it feels like a job.
And then some days I feel constrained by the theology focus and want to post about other interests in my life, such as cycling, food and wine, music, TBI, and the like.
So it’s been fun blogging and I’m going to keep at it. It has put me in touch with some people around the world. The coolest connection was when I blogged on my love of books, and mentioned that my mother, who died in 1967, had been a middle school librarian, and one of her former students made this comment: “If your mother was the Mrs. Floyd who was the Wandell (Middle School) librarian in the ’60s, I remember her! She was wonderful. In fact, I use FLOYD as a password on book-related websites (what greater homage?)” That comment means a lot to me.
So if anybody is actually reading this, I hope to continue the theology and ministry focus, and archive some more of my published and unpublished articles, book reviews, hymn texts, lectures, etc. But I also hope to blog some recipes (I’ve been working on a cookbook for several decades), and touch on wine and whisky, Van Morrison, traumatic brain injury, and other various and sundry topics. As one of my friends likes to say about some preachers: “When you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know when you’ve done it!”
After about a month of blogging it has occurred to me that keeping a blog is like maintaining sourdough starter. Let me explain. Thirty years ago in our newlywed Maine days our friend Alison gave us a small batch of sourdough starter, which is a fermented batter of flour and water. This particular starter, Alison told us with reverence, was reputedly more than a hundred years old. The starter is used, in lieu of other yeast, to make sourdough bread.
Martha and I were young and countercultural and this sounded very cool, and it was kinda cool for a time, but there was a problem. You have to feed the starter! If you don’t feed the starter it gets funkier and sourer by the week and eventually turns dark brown and poisons your refrigerator (did I mention it takes up room there?)
You have to feed the starter every week. First you drain off the alcoholic liquid that has accumulated on the top (it’s called, appropriately enough, “hooch.”) Then you put in some flour for the living colony of organisms that is your starter to munch on.
So as time goes on the thing in the refrigerator grows, which is fine if you are a professional baker or an avid amateur that makes bread several times a week. But we were neither.
We made sourdough bread a couple times, and found the feeding to be a chore, but still somehow felt loyalty to this heirloom starter in the fridge, so it just took up residence there.
The starter wasn’t really useful to us anymore, but we had been feeding it for so long we were invested in its survival.
Finally, two things happened that led us to abandon the starter. First, we had a child, who actually really needed to be fed regularly, which took away some of the starter’s leverage. And, secondly, we each admitted to the other that we didn’t really like sourdough bread. “Those who have ears let them hear.”