5.19.2017

Who's In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere? No One, and Everyone: A Response to Tish Harrison Warren

Eg, Map of the U.S. Political Blogospere
A Christianity Today article which came out near the end of April, posed this question; "Who's In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?". It's author, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, believes that social media is at the center of a crisis of authority in Christianity, and that measures should be taken to clarify who legitimately speaks for the church. She states,
The rise of the blogosphere in the early 2000s yielded the genre of the “spiritual blogger.” From the comfort of their living rooms, lay people suddenly became household names, wielding influence over tens of thousands of followers. A new kind of Christian celebrity—and authority—was born: the speaker and author who comes to us (often virtually) as a seemingly autonomous voice, disembedded from any larger institution or ecclesial structure. (CT).
To illustrate Warren invokes the recent case of Jen Hatmaker, a Christian blogger with several published books, who has recently come out stating that her views on homosexuality have changed. Warren asks,
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? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we as listeners decide whom to trust as a Christian leader and teacher? (CT)
Warren goes on to propose that bloggers need supervision beyond the private informal accountability one has with their home church. Bloggers
need overt institutional superintendence (to match a huge national stage) and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power. Otherwise, they can teach any doctrine on earth under the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy.
Warren's concern for Orthodoxy is obvious, but I disagree with her solution for at least three reasons.

First: I think a strong top down management of the Christian blogosphere would only suppress activity of the people willing to submit to ecclesial authority, and do nothing to restrict the activity of people who are not. The Anglican parishioner who is excited to share her traditions with the world though her blog, suddenly finds she must get her church's permission. This may require a type of certification which presents barriers, limiting the number of people who are willing to make the effort. By reducing the number of bloggers from traditional church backgrounds - you inadvertently amplifying the non-traditional voice present in social media.

Second: I believe that any attempt to manage the blogosphere is doomed to fail, just as it did during the Renaissance. That's because the power technology unleashes comes from outside the church - the church has no power to restrict access. Consequently, ecclesiastical authorization or endorsement simply becomes "another voice" - though it lends some greater weight to one's opinion - it cannot control who writes, or what people read.

Third:  I think the long standing appeal to tradition and hierarchy as a defense of orthodoxy was a mistake Christians have made since the early days. The Vincentian Canon for instance, which proposes as a standard of orthodoxy, we ought to believe what was believed everywhere, by everyone, at all times, tells people what to believe, but not why. Warren has this great spot in her article where she says
When Christian writers or speakers make theological statements, we have a responsibility to give a specific argument, show our rigorous theological work, elevate the conversation, welcome strong criticism and debate.
But the solution she proposes seems to forget this. Paul's approach to confronting false teaching, in Philippians 3, on the other hand, exemplifies this same principal. "It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you." Church tradition, or hierarchy provide heuristics for decision making, but they do not in themselves prove the truth or falsehood of doctrine. They do not satisfy the skeptics, nor do they help develop discernment, rather, they encourage dependency. For that reason they are dis-empowering rather than empowering.

The situation today is a lot like that of the first century. voices offering differing views on a common source - the scriptures: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, along with several messianic figures, then along comes Jesus. Who spoke for the God of Israel? In this diverse landscape, an appeal to tradition is valuable, but not conclusive. There are many traditions, and that competition opens the door for disruptive independent voices to challenge the status quo. This is a good thing because the status quo might be wrong. As Luther points out councils can err.

We can learn something from the New Testament about living in a culture with competing authorities. About the importance of not trying to control what people can say, or hear, but simply playing your part and believing that Truth will ultimately rise to the top because it just has more going for it.

When the disciples expect Jesus to rebuke a man who is healing people in Jesus' name - without being a part of their group, Jesus says "whoever is not against us is for us." (LK 9:50)

When Paul's missionary activity is restricted while he sits in prison. He commends those who see his misfortune as an opportunity to make a name for themselves. "So long as Christ is preached." (Phil 1:15-18)

The wise rabbi Gamaliel the Council of Jerusalem not to oppose the followers of Jesus because " if their purpose or endeavor is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God.”(Acts 5:33-39)

Just like the printing press allowed one person to communicate with the masses, now the internet and social media allow the masses to communicate. We should embrace the diversity of voices in the public square, and welcome the opportunity to join the discussion. Rather than expect people to defer to tradition, make the case for it. The democratization of media if anything, has brought religion close to center stage again. That is something to be thankful for. So my answer to the question, "Who is in charge of the Christian Blogosphere?" is this, "Everybody" and "Nobody". Like all complex systems no one authority determines its form, structure, or content, those properties emerge when each person playing their part contributes to the whole. Popular opinion is an emergent property of the chaotic media system. Chaotic because it can't be controlled directly, from the top down. It can however, be influenced from the bottom up. Orthodoxy cannot insist that people embrace tradition, but if you can get people to love Jesus the will naturally gravitate toward tradition out of a desire for authentic intimacy.

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