“Someone asked me recently what I see in American religion and culture. My answer? I’m seeing more vibrancy, questioning, energy, and risk than ever at the grassroots and more anxiety, panic, and authoritarianism than ever in upper level structures and institutions. I think the two are related.”
~ Diana Butler Bass (quoted on FB)
Think [Everything is] Different
30 years ago in 1984, Apple came out with their best commercial of all time: a woman running with a sledgehammer to break the projection screen of a dystopian Orwellian future, concluding with the Apple tagline “Think Different.” Since that time and with the rise of the Internet, many different genres have thought differently and been significantly disrupted. Music and movies and books that used to have centralized publishing centers are now more decentralized thanks to music sites like Pure Volume, fan-funded films like Veronica Mars, fan-edited videos like Star Wars Uncut, and self-published books.
With so many genres shifting (often dramatically), it stands to reason that the genre of Christian conversation would shift. And in recent weeks in my niche of the Internet, it could not be more clear: Christian discourse is changing–and it is changing dramatically.
Up until 20 years ago, religious conversation primarily happened in the academic halls where rhetoric could be evaluated, fallacies pointed out, and people played by the rules of debate. Conversation also happened in church halls where cultural niceties and face-to-face community gave a framework for the hottest of topics (mostly). While there were obviously side conversations by minority parties, rarely did the majority and minority groups find common arenas for discourse.
But then the Internet happened and the conversation moved from the halls to the home. No longer was religious conversation held under the authorities’ watchful eye, but could be fully experienced by anyone. Doctrines were critiqued online, answers to religious questions were found online, and safe places to question authority were anonymously engaged in–and this is key–by both majority and minority voices in the same arenas. I know because I’ve engaged in spirited online religious debate anonymously and by name since 1999.
We are in the middle of the most radical shift since Gutenberg’s press moved reading the Bible from the pews to the homes in the people’s language. But this is not without risk: moving the religious conversation outside of the gates (academic and ecclesial) threatens those who have not only dominated the discourse but also defined it through rules, customs, and etiquette.
Rules for Debate as Power Strategies
Our recent blog post alleging majority blindness to a minority need brought forth many reactions (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) and responses to the reactions (1 2). At the risk of a false generalization, the reactions all have to do with violations of what they believe is the proper method for proper discourse. Because we were depicted as having broken varied rules of engagement, our argument was invalidated–and thus almost universally ignored.
Such calls remind me of dismissing a person because they broke a rule in formatting MLA/APA style (ie. “Sally’s paper on white privilege is invalid because she mis-structured a footnote”). As exhibited above (and in some of the comments), the majority culture expects you to conform to their terms as prerequisites to engaging your argument. As the Frost/Nixon movie depicted, determining the rules of discourse is a power strategy for people to craft discourse to their advantage.
Now that the academics, the church authorities, and the people are in the same arenas online, the relative value of these rules has shifted. One of my Facebook friends noted that if someone makes a point in an Internet debate and the person replies “that’s a fallacy” and drops the mic…well, they don’t often find the other side is convinced. To use a sports metaphor, you can throw yellow flags on the football field all you want, but it doesn’t stop the play. Likewise, you can allege process errors all you want, but ultimately you have to address the substance of the argument, not shame it into silence.
I think that we recognize that we do need etiquette in our online discussions, especially in the arenas of plagiarism, citing sources, public quoting of private statements, personal attacks, and many others–including fallacies and errors in logic. But to view them as checklists of requirements before those accustomed to policing religious discussion will respond is a power-play that I don’t believe is helpful in the Internet Age. And even more unhelpful would be if persons of privilege pledge to converse only with other signers of “conversation covenants” so they can create digital Hauerwasian colonies away from the rabble. Don’t laugh: it could happen, either overtly or by silent agreement.
Conversation Beyond the Power Discourse
There is a better way. I believe to best engage in religious discussions online is not to impose a set of rules authored by the power structure but rather to embody a radical way of discourse that simultaneously negates both the power structures and the lawless rabble.
- The tendency to enforce debate norms and rules is a manifestation of what Peter Rollins calls “power discourses” or a form of Christian apologetics that convinces by word or wonder that their understanding of Christianity is compelling (examined here). By structuring the debate and discrediting arguments that don’t follow the structure, the power is maintained by those who curate the structure but who claim to just be playing “by the rules.”
- The contrary form of power discourses is powerless discourses, or ones that do not seek to force the other to conform but instead carry the desired ethics in our own selves. In the face of the checklists of the Pharisees, Jesus spoke in parables and language that was looked down upon by the authorities but was ultimately more authentic to the people’s experience. Like a kenotic Christ, our power is in powerlessness, not in imposition of assumed authority.
Our power is in exhibiting in our persons and our personas online in a way of being that people are attracted to. In today’s decentralized world, the best way to converse online is to be the person who you want to converse with—that’s it. Engage how you want to engage, consistently on other blogs as your own, and develop your own voice. Be a light on a hill. You may even gather a community who converses in the same way–but through choice rather than coercion.
Far from being combative or throwing in the towel, I believe this is a missional position: it allows us to be better missionaries to a digital culture embedded alongside our own. And instead of giving people the Bible and teaching them to read it in our language, we learn the people’s language and speak the Bible with respect to their norms and in their town halls and internet rancor pits. Those of us who can get over ourselves and wade in and carry the candle of Christ above the fray (and occasionally in the thick of it) can be examples of the living Christ–and if it is important, one can win more hearts and minds than power narratives reliant on unrecognized authority could ever do. I’ll write more on this in the future.
This was a long post so here’s the “too long; didn’t read” version:
- Disregarding/ignoring the substance of a person’s argument because they did not meet your terms of engagement is not often a shared value in the Internet arena.
- As conversation moves from the pews and the academy to the digital streets, those who consider themselves missionaries to digital culture must carry their own values and norms with them rather than impose rules and regulations for debate that those outside of the power structure do not recognize.