It was a not-uncommon snowy day in Cedar Rapids a decade ago. Several inches had piled up on the streets and the snow plows had not yet cleared First Avenue. I am a legend in my own mind at snow-driving, loving to slip-slide my way through snowy streets. I drove a small, rear-wheel-drive truck, which is about as bad as it gets in the snow. But I’d learned to handle it and I seldom let snow slow me down. I got frustrated when I got behind a real slow-poke. I mean, this lady was going no more than 10 to 15 MPH. The right lane had been informally plowed by the cars driving down the street, but the left lane was still pretty deep, making a pass nearly impossible, so I was forced to follow her block after block. I was getting increasingly frustrated and was giving her verbal instructions. “Lady, it is that pedal on the right.” Finally, there was a section on the road clear enough to allow me to pass. As I went by her I found myself wishing I was allowed to use certain obscene gestures. I planned to at least give her an angry stare to let her know I didn’t appreciate the fact that she had wasted a minute or two of my valuable time.
I pulled up beside her and realized it was Madilyn, a faithful, hardworking member of my church and one of the sweetest ladies I have ever known. I grew up in Cedar Rapids and Madilyn and her twin sister had been my favorite babysitters.
Suddenly, my attitude changed. I knew her and I waved at her in a friendly way. She didn’t even notice me. Madilyn, who has lived in CR all her life, is a terrified driver in snow and never took her gaze away from the road ahead. I shared this story at church the next time I saw her and we had a good laugh about it.
Relationship tends to change attitude, doesn’t it?
It is not a secret that I have come to believe that blogging discussions of Calvinism are nearly pointless. We’ve been having the same discussions now for years and the only change I’ve seen is that they have become more accusatory, more angry, and more insulting. I am through discussing Calvinism on blogs (unless we figure out a way to change the tone.)
But it is clear that productive and collegial debates are possible. The recent conference on Calvinism sponsored by the Kentucky Baptist Convention was encouraging. We can, in fact, discuss the issue. I’ve had productive discussions about Calvinism with friends and fellow pastors, and those never seem to descend to the depths that blogging discussions have. So, that has me asking a question.
Why is it that we can discuss Calvinism productively in person but not on blogs?
Of course, that is a generalization. I’ve had discussions with people on the topic that I felt were productive. When posts go up here on Calvinism-related topics, I usually regret publishing them within about 50 comments. Why is that?
Is there something about the nature of blogging that makes it harder to have productive discussions?
I would suggest several things.
1) Ultimately, I think the problem is the anonymous, impersonal aspect of blogging.
One of the highlights of going to the convention is meeting in person those people whom I have only encountered online. Simply put, we treat real people nicer than we treat gravatars. When I was following an unnamed slow poke up First Ave, I was angry and venting loudly (in my empty car). As soon as I realized that this was a dear, lifelong friend, my attitude changed.
That is why conferences like the Kentucky convention held are more productive than blogs. Even though my name and identity is behind every comment I make, there is certainly still an aura of unreality attached to this forum. That lack of personal contact allows us to believe the worst of people, and sometimes to see the worst in them.
2) There is no emotional context in blogging.
You look so good today. Words on a page. But did I say them kindly? Leeringly? Sarcastically? It is impossible to tell. If we were face to face, you could probably tell easily by my body language and tone of voice. There is still a possibility to misinterpret someone in person, but it is much more of a problem in online conversations.
This, of course, has given rise to one of the truly great evils in the world today – emoticons. They are an attempt at some sort of internet body language. My problem with them is simple. I think they are used deceptively too often. Someone says something hurtful or unkind and then attaches a passive-aggressive emoticon. (Sorry, rant over).
It is just too easy to misstate an idea or to misinterpret an idea when it is communicated electronically.
3) Ultimately, there is little accountability in blogging.
There are really no penalties for sinful blogging, are there? Someone might call me on the carpet? Lose respect? Call me a name? But really, there are not many consequences to bad blogging. And any forum in which we can sin without consequences opens the door to the display of the worst within us. I have have said things to people on blogs that I would never say to people in real life, for fear of the consequences.
Why is it that internet “affairs” have become rampant? Because lonely men and women think they can do online what they would be scared to do in real life, without fear of consequences. So, hiding behind the secrecy and lack of accountability of the internet, they do what they could not do in real life.
Blogging, like any other internet activity, is dangerous because of its lack of accountability.
This is also why I’m not a big fan of anonymous (or real-identity-hidden) blogging. But that’s another discussion.
4) In fact, blogging sometimes rewards the worst in us!
I’m a statistics guy. When I coached, I kept extensive stats and records. I check the statistics here. I do not understand the Technorati rankings, but I used to follow them pretty often. I check our stats here on a daily basis (usually, more than once a day).
Here is what I know. Controversy sells. I could write an article today criticizing Mohler, or Patterson, or Ezell or some other leader and our stats would hit the roof. Articles on Calvinism drive our stats. In fact, as a blog editor, I ought to be riding the wave of controversy, not looking to diffuse it – if stats were what mattered.
And I think that we bloggers have a role in dealing with controversial issues. The SBC apparatus often doesn’t want to deal with these issues – there is a natural, human tendency to sweep things under the rug or keep them quiet. We can shine a light on certain things. Blogging has had a positive effect on the transparency of SBC dealings.
But it is easy to let yourself become hit-driven and to become a controversy-monger. You can build a bigger following by rumor, innuendo, slander and controversy than you can by addressing theological, devotional or encouraging topics.
We have a lot of readers here. But many of our readers, by and large, want us to autopsy the Calvinism issue ad nauseum. People say they are tired of the topic, but if you look at our stats, you will see that there is an almost insatiable appetite for picking the bones of the Calvinism debate.
I think that blogging tends to reward controversy and fleshly approaches. Take that as an opinion, but one informed by studying the stats at one of the more active sites in Baptist blogging.
Can we make things better? Of course we can. Each of us has to fight our fleshly compulsions. We have to guard our hearts and our words. Take spiritual accountability of every word, every comment. If we are upset, walk away and cool down a little before you respond. Read Romans 12 often. These are simple solutions. Here are some other suggestions.
1) More real-life discussions are warranted.
I was so struck with the difference in tone of the Kentucky debate and the online debates. Those kinds of things are profitable. Talk with other pastors. Have associational or statewide discussions following the Kentucky model.
2) If you are a blogger, get to know bloggers.
CB Scott is someone I consider a dear friend. We hung out (with some fella named Bob Cleveland) at the convention. He is someone I love and respect. But in my 7 years of blogging, I have had some of my most intense online fights with him. Harsh. But we started out by talking on the phone, then we met in real life. That tended to change things.
When you build a relationship, it makes petty or mean blog quarreling more difficult.
Make an intentional effort to build relationships with people you have previously only met online.
3) If things get intense, don’t fight online.
When things get intense with someone, I refuse to fight online. Discussion is public. Conflict resolution is a private matter. If I need to apologize publicly, I will do so. But I refuse to take my fights public. I try not to even take them public in a subtle way. I wrote a post recently, and it was funny. Two or three people contacted me thinking I had pointed that against them. Some bloggers are so vain, they probably think this post is about them.
Is God honored when we publicly air our grievances with others instead of talking privately to them?
I have to issue a warning here. When you do this, you will find that people will often use your private communications against you. That is one of the hazards of trying to do things the right way. But conflict ought to be resolved privately (followed by public apology or restitution if necessary). I still think that personal issues should be resolved in private, not online.
4) I would suggest we back off of blogging debates of Calvinism, for a time.
This is one man’s opinion. And, for clarity, I am not forbidding the contributors here from writing what they want to write about. If you are a contributor, you write what you think is right. But this one man’s opinion is that the well is so poisoned that productive, blogging discussions of Calvinism-related issues are close to impossible.
Beside, I think it would be healthy for us to stop fighting about who is doing the work and get about doing the work.
I was struck, during my 2 weeks in Taiwan, at the fact that these missionaries had no time for the discussions and debates that we find so riveting. They are wearing themselves out in preaching Christ and penetrating darkness to be interested in these things.
I think our issues matter. But I think that we need to call a time-out for six months or so. We’ve just gotten to the point where our discussions do more harm than good.
5) Let’s wait for Frank Page’s Unity task force (whatever it will be called) to do its work and consider its suggestions.
As I understand it, Dr. Page is assembling a task force to deal with this “elephant in the room” issue that has been raised. Why don’t we just back off and let them work. I don’t know much about the details of this task force, but I hope it will have some productive discussions and bring us some useful suggestions.
Honestly, what good are our verbal autopsies until we know the path for the future that they set going forward? Obviously, once this panel speaks, this issue will be at the forefront again.
Here’s some opinions. Tell me what you think.