A recent article at Christianity Today sent the Christian Internet into a momentary frenzy – and rightfully so.
The article, written by an Anglican priest who is a woman, was concerned primarily with questions around the accountability of Christian women who write, speak, and teach on the basis of their successful Internet platforms. In short, the author asks, “Where do bloggers and speakers like (Jen) Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach?” And, since the author’s rhetorical point is that they are not deriving their authority from legitimate ecclesial structures, “What is needed to respond to this current crisis of authority in the church, particularly among women?”
I don’t think it’s my place to offer a detailed take on this article and issue, but I do want to offer two brief points before panning out to what I perceive to be a much broader (and more positive) prompt. First, despite the author’s and her defenders’ assertions in follow-up conversation that this article is totally not about popular author and speaker Jen Hatmaker, it totally is. It is, because Hatmaker’s recent public statement of affirmation regarding LGBT Christians sparked controversy and outrage among evangelicals, including evangelical women. It is, because the author of this article herself repeatedly references this moment, implicitly if not explicitly, until she reaches the article’s true crescendo:
If we don’t respond to this current crisis of authority institutionally, we are allowing Christian doctrine to be highjacked by whomever has the loudest voice or biggest platform.
What Christian doctrine, pray tell? The Trinity? Funny, I haven’t seen Arianism picking up much steam in the Christian blogosphere lately. In other words, in the opinion of this blogger it would have been much more honest and forthright for the author to simply say she has a theological and ethical disagreement with LGBT-affirming Christian writers, rather than belabor an ecclesiological argument with thin circumstantial evidence.
Second, ecclesial accountability is a funny thing, especially if the threat supposedly held at bay by such accountability is doctrine. That is, unless the context of conversation is a one true church kind of deal (Catholicism probably being our closest version of that in the modern age), there can be no monolithic appeal to church authority on many doctrinal issues. The author of the article may get her accountability from the conservative splinter Anglican denomination, but an LGBT-affirming Christian writer would be right as rain in her accountability to an Episcopal diocese.
The more likely meaning, then, behind all this accountability and authority talk is really the age-old one of who gets to be considered an evangelical writer, blogger, speaker, teacher, etc. And that, friends, is a gatekeeper question that these days seems to rise and fall on the prominent issue of what to do with Christians in gay relationships.
Namely, if one is to be evangelical, these relationships must be firmly delegitimized.
The problem is, it’s simply a fact that Christians of all stripes are transitioning to more nuanced views on this issue, and that is increasingly making the evangelical gatekeeping task a touchier and more vexing one.
The Spiritual Blogger
I took something else away from this article though, something that I find super timely since I’m participating in the #May1Reboot of this very website, and since this reboot is marking a significant moment in my own writing life. This takeaway comes from the opening of the article, where the author rightly recounts how the early aughts witnessed the rise of the “spiritual blogger” – a new medium, genre, and cultural expression of Christian thought and teaching to be sure.
But lack of accountability and legitimate authority is not the defining trait of the emergence of this spiritual blogger phenomenon – an increase in access is. Access to the information with which these writers were able to do their work, and access to an audience that was ready to receive and celebrate their work. Surely, this access has ramifications that impact structures of authority or status quo notions of accountability, but, really, access in itself precipitates cultural shift and change that inadvertently bypass those structures for sheer speed. It’s not a subversive or rebellious thing at the outset; but it may indeed result in a rebellion.
And on that point it’s probably good to remember: every institution started as a rebellion.
This particular article offers as good an opportunity as any to reflect on this first phase of Christian writing and blogging in the Internet age – and a prompt to consider what Phase Two might look like.
One thing I will say is this: I believe in bloggers. I believe in this medium and I believe in this work. I believe in it not only because I participate in it but because, as an extension of the deeply human and creative and artful act of writing, it is utterly necessary in the context of the modern digital age. And, I might add, in the age of Trump especially, I balk heavily at the notion that the Internet-as-free-press is anything less than a gift, as fraught with fake news challenges as it may also be.
My Phase Two
I have a book coming out next month, my first with a major publisher (Zondervan), which truly is the culmination of a long season of both real-life ministry and Internet writing and blogging. In fact, my birthday is coming up this week, and it stands as the decade marker from when my wife and I first planted a church. That decision to plant a church altered the course of our lives, both for good and for ill. It’s been a decade of much change, much pain, and much joy.
And in the five years since closing the church plant, it’s writing that has both sustained and directed me and my family toward a hopeful and flourishing future.
Have I learned from these years of living in that general vocation of “spiritual blogger”? Yes I have. The access offered by the Internet has also led to digital overwhelm and a cycle of cynicism and outrage that has deeply affected me at times. In the last two years especially I’ve been forced to ask the hard questions of whether certain practices and habits as a writer online are making my life better or worse; and how all of it may, perhaps, be changing me in ways I don’t always fully perceive.
But the lessons and questions are not leading me to a point of abandonment or rejection of the work, because that’s exactly what it is – work. It is worthy, important, meaningful work. It is valid and legitimate in and of itself, writing is; and often, its deepest legitimacy and accountability comes from the response of readers and colleagues who are the arbiters of a consensus-based validation and licensing of what people like me do. That, by the way, is nothing new.
And, in the midst of it all, on the precipice of my first big book release, and at the ten year mark of starting the ministry journey that has led me to this moment, I feel a strong, inexorable pull to the small, to the local, to the rooted and liturgical and sacramental. I don’t see myself as a lone ranger on the digital prairie, roping cattle my way and living by my own set of rules. I don’t want or need that kind of autonomy. Really, I’m no rebel, no convention-hater for hate’s sake. Honestly, I just want to belong.
Accountability to the local church? Sure. But it goes even deeper than that. I want to be tethered to the Tradition that gives me Jesus, rooted in the religion that centers on him alone, because without him I can do nothing. Only he can give me life for what’s to come; only he can resurrect me.
So, initiate phase two.
Also published on Medium.