The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

Interacting with Tim Challies on the future of Christian blogging

A few days ago Tim Challies published a helpful article that described three different kinds of blogging. The upshot of his piece was that Christian blogging, especially the evangelical kind, has to a great extent been reduced to one variety: The large, multi-authored “ministry blog.” Tim’s observation is that, whereas a decade ago there were lots of individual bloggers publishing regularly on their own platforms, today most of those bloggers have given up writing in their own space and are instead pitching and being published by the large ministry blogs. Interestingly, Tim then makes a case that this trend actually constitutes a decline of blogging and the ascent of something (resembling a traditional journalism industry) to replace it:

What is essential to those ministry sites (the ability to solicit, accept, reject, and edit articles) contradicts an essential element of a blog (the ability to write without editorial control). Where blogging is a medium by and for amateurs, ministry blogs have a paradigm that is far more professional. Again, they have their place but, while they may displace blogs, they don’t quite replace them.

Tim’s concern is that the decline of personal blogging signals the loss of what blogging empowers among writers: The ability to freely and quickly exchange ideas without editors or publications’s “filtering” the work. So then, the displacement of personal blogging spaces by large ministry blogs brings us full circle back to the days of traditional periodicals, where editors and Boards of Directors and a handful of professional people dictate the writing agenda, select and edit pieces, and condemn most voices to obscurity.

Let me submit a qualified agreement with Tim’s concern. I think Tim’s right to believe that what made blogging useful in its heyday is precisely what’s being undermined by the proliferation of larger, edited blogs. If we think of the Christian blogosphere like an industry, with individual, personal blogs as small businesses, then the ministry blogs are the Wal-Marts and Speedways and shopping malls; they exist, in a sense, to get as big as possible and (in the process) put the other guys out of business.

Further, in the ascendancy of Wal-Marts and shopping malls individuals lose something more than a feeling of smallish intimacy and familiarity—we lose a significant amount of control over the industry itself. Thus, ten years ago, if you wanted to get people in your slice of conservative evangelicalism to talk about something, you could write a blog about it. Nowadays, the best way to get someone to talk about it is to convince an editor at TGC or Desiring God or Christianity Today to publish your 1,000 word article—something that most Christians (even articulate ones) won’t do and many can’t do. Tim’s point, if I’m reading him correctly, is that having a small number of paid editors basically regulate what the online evangelical world is saying is both an intellectual and literary downgrade from the days when blogs were a rule unto themselves.

Interestingly, this argument is not unlike what Alan Jacobs has written in defense of personal websites over and against social media accounts. Jacobs has privacy and ownership in mind moreso than the free flow of discourse, but it’s not difficult to see how his and Tim’s points might converge. In both cases, the impulse is against what we might call digital landlords and for a kind of cultivation of online space in ways that are personal and, thus, more responsible.

I said above I was going to offer a “qualified” agreement with Tim. In short, I agree with him that the decline of personal blogging is a net loss for Christian writers, and that there are problems to inherit with the rise and growth of larger ministry sites. Here’s my qualification: I think the proliferation of large, professionally edited sites, while a net loss for bloggers, is probably a net gain for readers.

As I see it, Tim is right in articulating the problems that come when evangelical online writing is heavily filtered toward these large sites. But I think we could add  that there are problems to deal with when it is not filtered, and that these problems are, for most Christian readers (not writers), trickier to deal with than the other kind. I’ll mention 3 of them:

i) The problem of theological authority. Tish Harrison Warren got right to the heart of the matter a while back ago when she asked, “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” As personal online platforms grow and grow, and as those platforms become a de facto source of authority in other people’s lives (most of these platforms call it being an “influencer” rather than an authority, but it’s really the same), a serious question emerges: How do we navigate the competing claims of dozens of bloggers whose voices are both equally present and equally ephemeral through the internet?

The proliferation of large ministry blogs is, I think, a partial answer to that question. You might think TGC publishes the wrong perspective on a given topic, but the point is that TGC publishes such a perspective only after a leadership group that coheres theologically (to a great extent) decides to publish it. This is part of what gives TGC’s platform a kind of spiritual authority to many people. It’s certainly an imperfect spiritual authority, as any earthly spiritual authority will be and any online spiritual authority will doubly be. But readers can locate these imperfections much more specifically and cogently because of TGC’s centralization than they could in the wild west of individual blogs.

ii) The problem of social media and online “presence.” I think it’s Tim himself who has pointed out that in the evangelical blogosphere’s golden days, the blog served the same role as Twitter now does.  Today, the only way to thrive as a blogger is to maintain an online presence through social media. For better or worse, social media is to blogging what a WiFi connection is to browsing the web: You don’t strictly have to have it, but you’re not going anywhere fast without it. Social media is by far the #1 driver of traffic to individual blogs.

Now of course, the same is probably true for the large ministry sites. But the consolidation of the evangelical blogosphere into professionally edited publications ameliorates this dynamic, especially for readers who want to become writers. One of the biggest reasons I don’t encourage more people to blog is that I know that doing so is encouraging them to cultivate a heavier presence on social media—which, I’m convinced, is something we all should be doing less of. Large ministry sites that review unsolicited pitches are a bulwark against this. You don’t have to have a bazillion Instagram followers and a gnawing sense of FOMO and despair in order to be taken seriously in your pitch.

iii) The problem of literary excellence. Near the end of his article, Tim writes that “we will develop better writing and writers when we can write substantially and freely.” I wonder if he has perhaps confused writing with blogging. While I absolutely agree that the best way to cultivate a healthy evangelical writing world is to encourage more of it, I think Tim’s formulation leaves out the integral role that editing plays in the development of literary excellence.

Blogging has always had a catch-22: It promotes writing growth through constant access to the craft, but such access is purchased by eliminating some of the things that most help develop writers. Editing, both at the conceptual and copy level, grows writers. To the degree that bloggers learn how to write underneath the process and principles of editing, you will almost certainly see writing habits that express emotivism and logical fallacies. I would argue that in the some of the darker corners of both the conservative and progressive Christian blogosphere, you can see stark examples of bloggers who have rarely, if ever, surrendered their work to someone who could evaluate their approach. I think professional editors are a welcome antidote to this. Their growing presence in the evangelical writing world has borne good fruit.

As I said above, I think these three problems with an expansive Christian blogosphere are different problems for writers than they are for readers. Writers will always want more space to write. Writers can devote chunks of time to thinking through issues and shaping their ideas. Most readers, though, are at the mercy of social media and the level of theological confidence that online writers can project onto their own personal platforms. To the degree that large “ministry blogs” have pushed Christian bloggers to the margins, we should lament. But to the degree that they have reached more Christian readers with trustworthy content that takes form and message equally seriously, we ought to celebrate.

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Why Blogging Still Matters

Why dedicated online writing spaces might be the cure for our social media ills.

Blogging is dead, right? At least among the folks in a position to say so, this seems to be the consensus. Many of blogging’s most important early practitioners have either abandoned it (Andrew Sullivan) or else transformed their writing spaces into storefronts that offer “promoted” content in exchange for patronage. The thinking goes like this: Before Mark Zuckerberg and Tweet threads, blogging was a viable way of sharing ideas online. Now, though, social media has streamlined and mobilized both content and community. Reading a blog when you could be reading what your friends are Tweeting about is like attending a lecture completely alone. It’s boring and lonely for you, and a waste of time for the lecturer.

For pay-per-click advertising models, this logic has worked well. For everybody else, though, the diminishing of the blog and the ascendance of social media has hardly been a blessing.

For one thing, traditional journalism has suffered, and not just in trivial ways. As Franklin Foer writes in his recent book World Without Mind, the power of social media to control people’s access to news and information—and to leverage this control into more profit for the platforms themselves—has radically reshaped how the journalism industry values certain kinds of news. While sensationalist journalism has always been a problem, clickbait is uniquely powerful in an age where the vast majority of visitors to a news or opinion site arrive at the page through social media, which, in turn, employs algorithms to target readers with content that the system knows the reader is likely to click. Thus, Facebook rigs the relationship between reader and content in such a way so that the reader’s habits become more self-repeating, more predictable, more dependent on Facebook, and thus, more profitable to the people who pay money for Facebook’s user data.

The internet has introduced an entirely new concept into the world of ideas: Content. Content is a shadowy netherworld between the written word and television, between intellectualism and entertainment, between thinking and watching. By being consumed by social media, the digital writing economy has been transformed into the digital content economy. Videos that aren’t quite television or film, written pieces that aren’t quite essays or reporting—this is the lifeblood of the internet in the age of social media.

Social media’s conquering of the online writing economy has forced writers to rethink not just their how, but their why. If your goal with your online writing is to build as big a daily readership as possible, you are much better off spending 40 hours a week mastering the ins-and-outs of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram than actually writing. In the content race, the quality of your writing has almost no connection to the health of your digital publishing business. In fact, when considering the role that social media visibility plays, it’s often the case that the relationship between good business and quality of writing is inverse: The better the writing, the fewer clicks. Digital content creators have to constantly ask themselves why they’re doing what they’re doing. Is it to share an idea, or to sell a product? Both?

Contrasting against all of this is the pure experience of blogging. Blogging—regularly writing on the internet in a self-contained space—is an act of relocation. As Alan Jacobs has written, one of the most pressing reasons that digital writers should rethink their dependence on social media is that each of these platforms are corporations that own everybody’s content in a legal sense. Because they own the content, Facebook and Twitter also own the experience of that content, which means, as Jacobs argues, that social media companies represent a real threat to an intellectually free internet:

…users [of social media] should realize that everything they find desirable and beneficial about those sites could disappear tomorrow and leave them with absolutely no recourse, no one to whom to protest, no claim that they could make to anyone. When George Orwell was a scholarship boy at an English prep school, his headmaster, when angry, would tell him, “You are living on my bounty.” If you’re on Facebook, you are living on Mark Zuckerberg’s bounty.

This is of course a choice you are free to make. The problem comes when, by living in conditions of such dependence, you forget that there’s any other way to live—and therefore cannot teach another way to those who come after you. Your present-day social-media ecology eclipses the future social-media ecology of others. What if they don’t want their social lives to be bought and sold? What if they don’t want to live on the bounty of the factory owners of Silicon Valley?

The answer, Jacobs concludes, is to teach young students the fundamentals of internet work: Basic coding, domains, photography, etc. By equipping young people with these tools, the felt dependence on the mediation of social media corporations can be broken, and individuals can be empowered to really “own” their digital spaces, away from the financial interests and epistemological problems of Big Tech.

I would submit that blogging is part of the solution here. I’m old enough to remember a time when blogging was considered a regrettable phenomenon, one that invited non-credentialed nobodies to pretentiously pontificate about any issue under the sun. Of course, that’s still a problem, but in the Facebook era, it’s almost a quaint problem compared to the issue of politicians and corporations purchasing the power to shove their ideas in the faces of millions of souls who are dependent on the seller of that power for their information. The answer to what Tom Nichols refers to as the death of expertise is to make the experience of the internet more centered around localized creative control and the free exchange of ideas that such localization fosters.

Not only that, but blogging matters because it is an intellectual exercise in a passive, “content”-absorbed internet culture. On social media, even writing itself tends to be transformed into an unthinking spectacle rather than a careful expression of ideas. Twitter is notorious for this. The  most effective Tweeters—and by effective I mean the people who seem most able to take advantage of Twitter’s algorithms to get their tweets in front of people who do not ask for them and would not know they exist any other way—are people who are good at snark, GIFs, and gainsaying. Even worse, the unmitigated immediacy of Twitter’s ecosystem encourages a hive mentality. I’ve watched as people I respect have shifted in their beliefs for no better reason than the punishing experiences they’ve had after saying something that offended the wrong people online. Trolling has authentic power, and Twitter makes it a point of business to put trolls and their targets as closely together as possible.

Blogging, on the other hand, allows writers to think. Good bloggers use their spaces to both publish and practice. Thinking and writing are not purely sequential events. Writing is thinking, and thinking shapes itself through writing. Blogging is still, by far, the best option for non-professional writers to expand their gifts and sharpen their habits. Blogging is also a slice of personalism in a fragmented online age. Because social media and the online content industry demand maximum mobility and applicability over as many platforms as possible,  much of what you see is thoroughly generic (and most of the generic-ness is either generically progressive and identity-obsessed or generically conservative and angrily conspiratorial). Blogging brings out a more holistic vision from the author for both form and function.

This is not even to mention the benefits of moving our information economy away from the emotionally toxic effects of social media. There is good reason to believe that apps like Facebook and Instagram make people feel lonelier and less satisfied with their life. An information economy that requires aspiring writers to heavily invest in technologies that promote FOMO and cultivate tribal resentments is probably not an information economy that is making a lot of honest writers. By slowing down the pace of online life, blogging enables a more genuine interaction between people. Good social media managers need to win the rat race; good bloggers want to connect with readers in a meaningful way beyond analytics.

Blogging still matters, because it’s still the medium that most ably combines the best aspects of online writing. If we want to escape the echo chambers that dominate our online lives; if we want something other than the hottest takes and the pithiest putdowns; if we have any aspiration for exchange and debate that goes beyond outrage or mindlessness, we should reinvest our time, resources, and attention in the humble blog.

A Brief Word to Book Reviewers

-Sneering dismissal of an author is acceptable to the degree that his book likewise is sneering and dismissive. What works marvelously well in a review of Richard Dawkins doesn’t in a review of Mitch Albom. You might have the same opinion of both writers, and that’s fine! But responding to Mitch Albom as if he’s Richard Dawkins is not only misleading and disingenuous, it’s obnoxious, like the preacher who screams from the pulpit “He leads me beside still waters.” If a meek and mild book is silly and false, then, as meekly and mildly as you can manage, call it silly and false. Don’t use a machine gun to rid the garden of squirrels.

-If you find yourself editing a citation from the book in a way that’s advantageous to your point but that wouldn’t be advantageous if you were to cite it more fully, you are in the process of misrepresenting the book. What you think the author really wants to say is not the same as what s/he said. Acknowledge the words that are really there and then make a case why your interpretation is valid. “Here’s what I think they mean” is perfectly defensible. “Look at what they said” is not.

-Write the review for the benefit of people who don’t necessarily have presuppositions about the author or the subject. Write something that would be helpful for the people who don’t subscribe to your Twitter feed or blog newsletter. If that’s difficult, declare what you’re writing a thinkpiece instead of a review. There’s no shame in it.

-If you can’t think of anything positive to say about the book, look at the cover. In my experience a suspiciously large percentage of the books that I couldn’t think of any redeeming qualities for had excellent outer designs. Work goes into that too, y’know.

The Bible Is Not a Slideshow For Your Hot Take

The suicide of a public figure almost invariably triggers a cringe-worthy season in the evangelical blogosphere. Time after time, Christian writers succumb to the temptation to wring a tragedy for its newsworthiness, then smash out a 700-word blog about it. At that point it almost doesn’t matter what the blog says. Meaning is irrelevant. The point of cranking out #content in the immediate aftermath of a celebrity suicide is that social media analytics make it more likely you’ll get clicks. On the one hand, this kind of base motivation is almost a relief, because in the majority of cases what goes into these hot takes is simply copy–perhaps a brief recitation of why this celebrity was a celebrity, a 1 paragraph personal appreciation, and then a quick tour of creation-fall-redemption, with a post script about the fleeting pleasures of fame and fortune. Perhaps banal, but all harmless, and most of it true.

On the other hand, though, there is often something pernicious in all this, even if unintended. And one particular example stands out.

Three years ago, Robin Williams’ suicide was a shocking cultural moment. For weeks social media reeled under the news, and Christians were no exception. Williams was beloved by many in my generation, and it seemed he was omnipresent in the movies and media we grew up loving (and then became nostalgic for). There’s no question that we would talk about his death, no dispute that the circumstances of it put the topic of depression and self-harm into our conversation. This was good, and normal.

What wasn’t normal, what still isn’t normal and what must never be taken as normal, is the way some Christian writers responded to it. Yet again, many Christian bloggers succumbed to the pull for easy “reflections” on Williams, and even worse, on depression and suicide. I saw blog after blog, article after article, about why Williams’ death was a “reminder” that only Jesus could satisfy us, that the fame and fortune and prescription drugs Williams took refuge in is never enough, and that self-hatred and suicide were the inevitable fate of those who missed the gospel. (“Like what you see? Please click share!”)

Let me explain briefly why Christians should never, ever write like this.

Three years after Robin Williams’ death, I am reading an editorial that his widow wrote in Neurology magazine. It’s a lengthy read, so I’ll summarize the most important part. Robin Williams suffered from an aggressive form of dementia known as “Lewy body dementia,” or LBD. While this is not an uncommon disease, doctors who studied Williams’ brain tissue after his death concluded that his was an uncommonly advanced case. From the article:

Not until the coroner’s report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem.

Dopamine, you may recall, is the chemical created by the brain that helps us rest and feel at peace. Williams’ LBD literally robbed his brain of its ability to naturally rest and feel calm. This was not an effect of Williams’ being a Hollywood actor or not being “gospel-centered.” This was the effect of a brain illness.

Hear me: I’m not saying that spiritual issues are irrelevant when it comes depression and mental issues. I’m not saying there’s nothing distinctively Christian to say about Robin Williams or about other public figures, like Chester Bennington, who commit suicide. What I am saying is that cheaply thought, cheaply written responses to these events by definition betray the Christian commitment to the centrality of truth. As Christians, we believe in objective truth, and that means objective truth exists both in the soul and the body. We are not disembodied spirits whose only problems are sin and lostness. We are enfleshed creatures whose bodies, under the degenerative curse of a cosmos waiting for its redemption, can wage war against our spirits.

To ignore this, to draw straight lines from suicide and self-harm to theological cliches, is to foully disrespect the Bible. The Bible is not a PowerPoint slideshow in our hot takes. It doesn’t exist so that we can have answers to current events that come quick enough to get hot blog traffic. Turning the Scriptures into slogans devalues both the Bible and the people to whom we would proclaim it. Admitting our fallibility, our lack of comprehensive knowledge, and even our inability to perfectly apply the truths of Scripture doesn’t make for good platforming, but it does make for more honest, more effective, and more Christ-like people.

I realize there are intense debates amongst Christians about how to think and talk about issues of mental illness and the sufficiency of Scripture. That’s a discussion worth having. But wrestling with these deep questions is not the same as presuming to know how it all works, and cranking out Tweetable aphorisms that would make you look like an utter fool if someone with more knowledge read them. The Christian blogosphere can do better than that.

Policing the Purity Police

As someone who is generally sympathetic to the ideological quadrant from whence arguments like this one come, I am slow, usually, to critique writers who call for more purity, more clarity, and more protection for men and women in the church. That said, I think telling brothers and sisters in the local church that they ought not communicate ever over text message is an unhelpful burden that probably causes more issues with church unity (which is as just as much a command as sexual purity) than it solves.

But let me say one thing. Every time a piece like this one makes waves on social media, I honestly can’t figure out which is more discouraging: The original, misguided argument, or the patronizing, vaguely antinomian response. No, I don’t believe a wholesale prohibition of texting is wise or helpful. But I also don’t believe that such an idea is inherently worse than its opposite, or that the so-called “purity culture” which it represents is actually a more live threat to the lives and marriages of believers than adultery is.

I’ve said this before, but it bears saying again. It just feels like whenever the same anti-purity culture personalities pile on a sentiment like the one in the article, what they are really protesting is far more than just the article, or tweet, or policy in question. It feels like they are protesting the motivation behind it. It feels like what is really offensive in this scenario is the notion that men and women have moral obligations of sexual purity on them and that these obligations might actually matter more–for them, their families, and for the church–than convenience or fun. I’ve never been able to shake this suspicion when I see conversation about how harmful the “purity culture” can be. I absolutely agree that virginity and chastity aren’t the chief values of the Christian life, and that a person without either is no further from the gospel than a person without kindness or patience. 100% correct. But the Christian faith demands holiness in our sexuality, and it’s not shy about suggesting drastic measures to pursue it–such as, say, excluding a person from the fellowship because of who he is sleeping with.

Is there a point to be made about unnecessary sexualization of male-female friendships in the church? You better believe it. A church body that looks like a middle school dance, with boys on one side and the girls on the other and awkwardness in the middle, is a deeply sad sight. When the Bible says to love, serve, prefer, forgive, bear with, rejoice with, admonish, and care for one another, it is not addressing only males or females. And evangelicals have often failed to grasp this. I heard a man once advise single guys in the church not to date the girls there because a breakup would cause awkwardness on Sunday morning. That kind of advice reinforces all kinds of bad ideas about how men and women should relate to one another in the body. We can, must, do better.

But I’ll be honest. I don’t think we’ll get there if we make critiquing purity culture a priority. The article about texting was written by a man who sounds like has some ill-formed notions of what the church community should look like. But that doesn’t mean all of his notions are wrong. He is absolutely right that 1) adultery is wicked, 2) sexual sin begins way before the clothes come off, and 3) preventing sin, abuse, and devastated families requires active obedience, not just passive. Do many of the people calling his article “outrageous” and “sexist” and “ridiculous” agree with these 3 points? If so, why the outrage? Why the scorn? Why can’t we admonish someone for following his noble intentions to an ignoble end? Why is the reaction to an article like this so fervent, so incandescent in its sarcastic dismissal of the very idea that we ought to fight for sexual purity, rather than merely hope for it?

Perhaps you think things like the Billy Graham rule are too far and not helpful. You could be right. But if such a rule makes you angry, perhaps you should ask yourself why. Does it make you angry because it seems to get in the way of sexual obedience? Does it make you angry because it seems to undermine faithfulness to the covenants we make with our husbands, wives, children, and church members? Or, is it possible that it makes you angry because it cuts at your sense of freedom, happiness, autonomy, and fun? Is it possible that your resentment of “purity culture” is rooted less in the (real) damage that it does to the cause of Christ and the kingdom, and rooted more in resistance to the idea that God could make counter-cultural demands of us?

If your right arm offends you, cut it off, even if you’re holding your phone.

Kill the Comments Section

Online trolling has obliterated the value of allowing anonymous comments.

Once upon a time, open, anonymous commenting sections were a staple of online journalism. The vast majority of digital publications made allowance for readers to respond to content directly on-site. This had multiple benefits for the sites themselves; traffic increased as users engaged not only with the author but with each other, and authors developed “followings” of particular commenters who practically guaranteed that no piece would perform poorly.

One notable exception to this trend was Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, who pioneered blogging in the early 2000s and has since retired from it, was well-known for his refusal to host comment threads directly on his site. Sullivan invited readers to contact him directly and would regularly publish the best emails. But he believed firmly in not making his own site a place for users to spar publicly.

In 2016, Sullivan’s thinking appears prescient. More and more publications, blogs and news sites are either scrapping commenting altogether or, in the recent case of Tablet magazine, charging readers a fee for the ability to leave comments on posts. Reasoning for each of this closures vary as much as the sites themselves, but one reason comes up in virtually every case: Trolls are killing online forums. Continue reading “Kill the Comments Section”