Can we crowdsource theology?

This is more or less what I said in my session on social media and theology at the Christian New Media Conference:

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This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the American Southern Baptists held a large conference on the subject of marriage.

This commission isn’t some minor technical meeting but one of the most significant Christian pressure groups in the states – their endorsement can make or break the fortunes of political candidates.

And as is the norm with most conferences these days many outside the room were following along through the hashtag, and on this occasion able to watch a livestream as well.

There were two different conversations going on. What was spoken on the stage and received by the audience. And what was being discussed on twitter. The conversations were different, and often seem detached from one another.

The ERLC takes a position on marriage which angered many viewing online, who made clear their dissent and opposition. This was not a discussion nor a debate of the position, it was a broadcast of one position from the stage, and the broadcast of opposition from the internet.

This is not to comment on the validity of either position, but to point out that debating points of theology and doctrine via social media is rarely a productive exercise and more often an excuse for restating entrenched positions to those who view things differently.

Even when the lines of opposition are less clear cut social media can still aggravate rather than unify. On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at my church, he was funny and winsome, and at one point quoted from Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire, reflecting on the comment that all religions are equally useful he stated that “we’re not to be useful, we’re to be transformed and transforming”.

Someone tweeted that, and almost immediately got the response: “hashtag false dichotomy patrol”. To his credit, upon clarification the reply was removed.

In reducing the comment, and removing the context of the sermon the archbishop’s words were easy to misunderstand.

Too often social media stimulates dissent as if it was the oxygen that gives it breath.

Dissent is healthy, it is essential, and in social media we find opportunities to explore different views and opinions that were never previously open. Where previously ideas were not questioned, they are now relentlessly scrutinised. There has been a democratisation of ideas that enables new voices to be heard.

This has transformed the context in which we talk about theology, and that’s what I want to explore briefly.

There is a responsibility upon Christians to understand what they believe and why they believe it, and breaking down the walls of traditional authority enable an exploration of theology and the doctrine of the Church.

Social media offers a opportunities for new voices to examine beliefs, and to do so in new contexts without the traditions and orthodoxies that can sometimes silence questions.

My concern is that we run the risk of moving from a priesthood of all believers to a priesthood of the loudest voices. And we end up having conversations, debates and arguments online about theology without thinking about the framework that we’re working within, or that those we’re talking to are working from.

There’s something in Christian identity that sees opposition as a validation of belief: if people are disagreeing with me, it means I’m standing for something worth standing for. This entrenches disagreement where it doesn’t need to be entrenched and it builds walls between Christians and everyone else, and between different groups of Christians,

The problem with the democratisation of ideas on the internet is that someone somewhere will take just about every possible position. It means that if you want support for a point of view you will find it. If you want to go into bat on one side of an argument you can find reinforcements. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

As Thorin says in The Hobbit: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Christians cannot isolate themselves from critics, or people who think differently, but we should think about the frame within which we’re having a conversation. If I’m going to debate theology online first of all the ground rules need establishing. Are we talking about the meaning of scripture, or its pastoral implications, are we trying to work out what our sources of authority are in the first place?

These questions matter, because while there is nothing intrinsically valuable in being opposed there can also be a false goal of seeking agreement where that just isn’t possible. Sometimes we will disagree.

Because there are opportunities for new voices on the internet does not mean all new voices are equal. There are gatekeepers on the internet, and they marshal their authority very differently than traditional sources of church teaching, but they are still powerful.

In the online discussion surrounding the ERLC’s conference two key gatekeepers were Rachel Held Evans and Justin Lee. They both strongly disagreed with what was being spoken and curated a lot of the opposition being voiced. But their postures were different. Justin Lee was at the conference, and while tweeting comments was also having conversations. He was trying to move beyond the broadcast opposition.

Just this week Philip Yancey wrote in an article on the Huffington Post: “Writing for the Internet, I’ve learned, is a bit like taking on the hecklers at the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. The normal rules of civil dialogue do not apply. Especially if the topic is religion – any religion – you’ll likely provoke a reflexive verbal blast.”

Many of the conversations we have online about theology and doctrine aren’t new. That’s why although I think it’s transformed the context in which we discuss it I don’t think it transforms our doctrine. When we wade into an argument about how we read the Bible think about the arguments that have gone on throughout history on this very point. Most of the internet’s controversialists are not original.

Christian doctrine may not have been formed in the crucible of social media, but the arguments have frequently been battled through time and time again. In the novelty of fresh discussion we cannot forget the centuries of conversation the church has gone through.

When we talk about theology online what do we take our cue from? Are we looking to the Bible, are we looking to creeds and church leaders, to favourite bloggers and authors, are we weighing what they say carefully?

And are there some things we opt not to write about? Are some topics too controversial, too likely to be opposed or misunderstood? When thinking about theology and the internet we often look to the States and see the debates that take place online there. We forget that our context is different even if we read their posts and they read ours.

The internet is open and accessible it also operates in circles. I can write something popular and approved of because of who is reading what I write. Someone else can write the very same words and it is viewed as outrageous.

A couple of years ago when the General Synod didn’t vote for women bishops I asked a friend to write a piece for Threads about the vote. She takes a traditional complementarian position and views church leadership as reserved for men. Her article wasn’t inflammatory, and the comments were fairly kind even if mostly disagreeing. But it was a bruising experience. A school of thought held by many in the church had become hard to speak in support of online.

I don’t want everyone to agree with her, I don’t myself and she knows that. But when the internet is a hard place to talk about certain issues we have to question its value as a forum for debating and determining church doctrine.

That’s because we simply don’t know the perspective and background that many we discuss with come from. We don’t know the frame from which they’re arguing, and we very rarely are able to take time to establish some ground rules.

If I’m going to talk about the role of women in church leadership I not inclined to do it with someone who takes David Cameron’s view that the church simply needs to get with the programme.

I’ll do my best to articulate a biblical position for those who don’t hold to the authority of scripture but I’m not going to get too worried about trying to convince them to come over to my side, our frameworks are different.

And this is the problem with the priesthood of all. And it means we can’t just crowd source our doctrine. Or at least we can’t unless we’re able to agree the ground rules first. And that raises the question of who gets to decide what those ground rules are. There’s an infinite loop of complexity here that ends up with someone always having authority, power and influence over other people.

There’s an important caveat to all this. When we talk about doctrine I want scripture to be central, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we should listen to. I want to use my reason, I want to see what it means in real life, and I want to hear from people’s experience.

The church has to have its eyes open to the world it is walking through, it does not exist in isolation. It is also the reality of our situation that discussion about doctrine and theology take place in the open – just look at the Catholic Church’s recent synod on the family. Even a meeting that was supposedly taking place behind closed doors had the full glare of the media exposing its twists and turns.

The daylight built into our social media infused world is healthy, it gives us a scepticism that causes us to re-evaluate and debate the things we believe. That’s a good thing. But it can also lead to a level of doubt and uncertainty that means everything is always up for grabs. And that’s not a healthy thing. We can be so bewildered by alternatives that we end up not having a clue what we believe.

I firmly believe that some things are true and other things are not. Some of those things we can know clearly, others we will struggle with, and yet more we will know but find difficult to apply.

Christian doctrine isn’t easy. It’s not the conclusion of what’s popular at any point in time. It’s determined neither by what’s trending, nor what we’ve always believed. Doctrine shouldn’t be inflexible, but social media increases the complexities of how it flexes.

Social media prioritises polarisation, and when it comes to working through doctrine we need less polarisation and more patience. And social media isn’t very good at patience.

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Hitting the pause button

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I thought it would be good to write a spectacularly emotive piece today. I wanted to conjure up sentences that flowed smoothly together building up into a powerful picture.

But actually, the fact I cannot illustrates my point far better than they would.

I am tired. I am exhausted. I am doing too much. I am stopping blogging.

Yesterday was an abnormally busy day. I started writing that day’s post, on why I was giving up on my fundraising drive. And ended it writing a guest post for the God and Politics blog on the ludicrous new report out from the National Secular Society. And in between worked flat out.

That’s one day, and an unusual one at that. But I have realised I need space. I read yesterday on a slightly feminine blog about the need to keep the margins of life clear. My life has no margins.

I have tried, in these last few weeks, to find some smidgen of space to assess my busyness and what I can do about it. Except I haven’t had the time to

I have found I have not given to my relationships what I would like to give to them. I have avoided entanglement opting instead to keep things simple, superficial and easier to withdraw from. That’s why I wrote on Wednesday about the challenges I find with blogging and tweeting and the social side of social media. I don’t want to make claims that are too wide or accuse others where it is me at fault, but I have found it oppressive.

Sometimes I want the world to stop. Sometimes I want to pause the internet. I want time to think, work out how to respond, what to say and how to say it sensitively and clearly. Unfortunately I don’t have that power.

I need to spend time with people building relationships, not spend time writing about relationships.

I find it hard to know when to engage, when to step back, when to fight with all my might and when to ignore the latest controversy that would barely break the surface if it wasn’t for the response it generated.

The pressure to write a few times a week to keep the traffic levels up, to mix in stuff I know will get hits with the mellow thoughtful pieces read by 17 people. The challenge to be the spokesperson for Christian guys on relationships issues (next Sunday I think you’ll be able to hear my thoughts on singleness and the church for various local BBC stations).

It all became too much.

So I am walking away. This blog is officially on hiatus. I don’t have the power to pause the internet but I can pause writing and responding. And when I say officially I mean I have decided not to blog for a while. There’s really nothing official about it, I haven’t asked anyone’s permission. For how long I do not know, probably at least a few months, probably six. (But may change my mind if there’s something I really really must write about…)

I am taking the self imposed burden to write off my shoulders. And I hope to free up some space both in my mind and in my diary.

I’ll carry on writing, I owe a couple of people guest posts I promised months ago. And if you want me to write something I’m happy to consider it. But I have assessed my priorities, and I have decided that right now, this blog is not one of them.

I’m also contemplating a medium term break from twitter, but not quite ready to go cold turkey on that one yet!

When I fall out of love with social media

Church pews in Tuscany

I

Are there ever days when you can’t face getting out of bed, when the trauma seems too much, when people seem difficult, circumstances challenging and it all just a little bit too much.

I have those days.

I have the days when crowds are claustrophobic and friends seem faux.

I have days when I am not very sociable, nights when I skip the party and times after church when I walk out the door without talking to anyone.

I have the good days too. Not just those when everything goes easy, when friendships are smooth when fun is effortless. But also those where it is hard.

When eye looks into eye. When words spoken meet ears listening. When hearts opened meet arms stretched.

II

I’ve been blogging for just over two years, tweeting for nearly five.

I’m neither a philistine or a fanatic of the social media variety. I like being social and sometimes I think I do a pretty good job of it.

Do a pretty good job of it? What kind of way of talking is that?!

It’s instinctive I tell people, it’s like a language, you just have to find your voice. Don’t listen to those who tell you rules on who to follow, how to tweet, the etiquette of engagement.

Social media is a world many people don’t know. I tried to explain tweeting to my sister last year and all I got was a blank stare.

Social media is a world some people claim to own. Not in a legal possession sort of way, but in a these are the ways you should engage and you’re welcome regardless, but really, if you’re going to do social media properly, then this is how you should do it. I’ve always reacted against that sort of thing.

Sometimes it is oppressive. I found myself defending myself for not following more people on twitter recently. I’ve tried to keep it to a realistic number, and my excuse is I’m pretty good at engaging beyond that, I’ll almost always reply, I’ll jump into amusing conversations, hilarious memes.

I felt it necessary to defend that I was doing twitter right. Or at least acceptably. Or maybe that my way was right.

III

I chose to blog about relationships.

I chose to write about emotions and feelings, and the way they find their way like water into the recesses of our life.

I chose to make honesty and openness the hallmarks of my writing. I chose to make myself vulnerable, to make myself known across the ether to those who do not know me.

And people read what I wrote. Not loads, but enough. My family, my friends. The odd influential blogger who might tweet about my writing. Retweets that generated traffic, comments from journalists and those the subject of my posts. Attention that I never felt I deserved but started to crave.

The shock finding that according to some algorithm this blog is ranked 5th out of all religion and belief blogs in the UK. Nice but weird. And unsustainable, at some point the new rankings will come and I’ll tumble off that perch.

The cost of my hallmarks was each post got harder to write. Vulnerability cuts deep. I had exposed each layer and to take the next off was painful. Writing about fear, about shame, about doubt, about past experiences or lack thereof. Writing about hopes and dreams and fears and anxiety. And fears.

IV

Walking into church after one of those posts was always hard. When I say I find going to church hard. And then walking through the doors the next day.

I tell myself if I’ve helped some people grapple a bit better with their own struggles with church, if I’ve provided an ounce of hope to those unable to see the light, then that’s worth it.

V

I never hesitate before opening up twitter to share my latest thoughts, join in whatever conversation is the topic of the day, tweet links to my latest post. I only pause a moment before making my most vulnerable statements.

I’ll spend evenings when I don’t feel like going out browsing twitter jumping into and out of conversations, commentating on the latest TV, on whether or not I should watch another episode of Breaking Bad. When I leave church early I’ll banter with people I do not know. I joke in ways I wouldn’t normally. Not in real life.

It’s not like real life.

Yes I said it. Shoot me down. I don’t think social media is real life. It’s a construct, it’s a facade. It has elements of reality mediated through technology and distance that can be great.

I enjoy it, sometimes I love it. I’ve met people I would never have otherwise, and kept up friendships that might have waned. I’ve learnt and I have grown. I’ve had in depth conversations with people I’ve never met.

But I think we ask of it too much.

It is not the same as the person sat before you. The eyes that look into eyes, the words and the silence that speak compassion. The hug at the end of a conversation. Social media hasn’t learnt how to transmute a hug.

I’ve jumped the shark. Any suggestion I might know what I’m on about gone. Any social media credibility abandoned. I don’t think my Klout score will ever recover.

VI

It’s not only the how but the what. Not only how you engage in social media or blogging that is focused through an informal never quite agreed on set of norms. But also what views are valid. What is acceptable, what will be met with nods of approval, affirming responses.

I know I can write that stuff.

Sometimes I’ve shied away from topics because it might lose me credibility. The people I want to like what I write might not like me if I said this about that, or that about this.

The feeling that my words need to speak for themselves. Because they are what I leave.

VII

When I think about the people I love the most. Those closest to me. My family and my best friends.

It is not their words that I value. It’s not their clever phrases or ability to find humorous words to add into Christian book titles.

I have a friend who is annoyingly good at cutting to the heart of situations, of getting to grips with what’s really going on. But that only works when I’m looking into their eyes.

When I think about a community that cares I think of people around me. Those I see and know and am able to touch. Those in real life. Sure social media can give me a boost. It can be loving, it can be kind, it can be compassionate.

But I don’t think it will ever be more than a bolt on to the community of people I call my friends. And if it becomes more than that maybe I’m not giving enough to my friends. Those who I can give a hug to.

My love/hate relationship with social media

At the end of church, after meetings, when I surface from the tube, the first thing I do is check my phone. Sometimes I’ve felt it buzzing away while I’ve sat politely ignoring it’s vibrating clarion call, but even if I haven’t, I might have missed it so I check anyway. And those times I exile myself from communication for minutes or even hours, I fervently check as soon as I can. I don’t want to be out of the loop.

Plenty of the communicative stimuli are not even directed at me. I graze through twitter browsing the frequently inane or irrelevant things others have to say. And those I do care about only occasionally have any true connection to the rest of my life.

I am at the same time connected to everyone but connecting with no one.

There’s a growing commentariat on the affect of new media on our lives: how we spend our time together huddled over our individual phones, ignoring the people we are supposedly with.

There are the critics, highlighted this week through a column in the New York Times, and then followed up in the Guardian, who make the case that the advent and avalanche of communication is making us more lonely and less able to converse.

And then there are the passionate defenders of the cause, who emphasise the social of social media. Just because it is different does not mean it is bad. It is just a new form of communicating, the telephone was not the death knell of social interaction and neither will twitter. In fact, they would argue, because of it’s scale it enables community that is not restricted by physical location.

For me, I’m stuck in the middle. I love the information that social media, particularly twitter, feed to me through a personally audited set of sources. And the fact I connect with people I otherwise wouldn’t is a bonus. But it’s not community.

The ideas behind this post would never have surfaced without social media, I first saw Simon Jenkin’s Guardian piece on twitter, then the New York Times one on facebook, and then a tweet sent my mind into overdrive. Vicky Beeching, worship leader and twitter supremo, had thrown out a couple of questions to her legion of followers (20,000 or so), and then summed it up with “Thanks for all the advice on cameras & on your favourite WordPress themes…I love the way this community works! #HoorayForSocialMedia”. (Caveat: I think Vicky Beeching is great, her tweet just got me thinking, and I guess having a big following poses many challenges of its own.)

First reaction: if I had 20,000 followers I’d get pretty good feedback to questions I asked. It’s not social media winning here, it’s celebrity.

Second reaction: this isn’t community, it’s a bunch of people who for short moments of time alight on topics of shared interest.

Third reaction: if I had 20,000 followers I’d have to put in a tonne of effort to maintain engagement with them.

If I assess my use of social media as a source of media then I judge it with one set of criteria, and if I see it as a social forum I use another. They come out with two quite different results.

And that got me thinking even deeper. Maybe I do social media wrong, maybe if I’m to really get the social part of it I need to engage more with it, talk to people more, respond more, build connections, give and not just take. But really, as much as I enjoy the eclectic range of conversations that I can become absorbed in, the question I am reaching to bring to some sort of conclusion, is: to what end am I working? Am I deepening relationships or avoiding them?

I hear stories of people striking up conversation with someone, asking about some aspect of their life they recall from prior interaction only to realise they have never spoken before and the information has only been gleaned through loitering on their facebook page.

I said that the telephone has not killed social interaction. But I don’t really like the telephone. I use it, and I think it is hugely useful, but if I never had to have another telephone call I wouldn’t be upset. And having proper conversations on the phone in public just seems odd to me, I’ll sit down with a cup of tea on the sofa if I’ve got to maintain contact with those I otherwise would not see.

Before I go searching out more relationships I want to prioritise those that I am already engaged in. I will always opt for time spent with people, because time matters. It gives the room for silence, the space for posture to convey meaning, the scope for openness and vulnerability. When you spend time with people it’s not just the things that you say that matter, it is your presence. It is the fact that you cared enough to trail through the rain to see them. It’s not just the bottle of wine you share but the words that flow from stoic compassion. In the immediacy of twitter a moment is all you have. The movement of interactions that form a relationship are lost among myriad competing claims.

For me at least, social media is about me. I’m in it for the information it will give me. I’m in it for the followers and the retweets. The flattening of access that benefits those of us on the ground floor. And that means I’ve got to be very cautious about how I use it. I have to censor myself to prevent the nefarious elements coming to the fore.

But hey, as we so often fall back to, we’re all different: what’s a challenge for me does not mean it is a challenge for you.

And maybe that is true. Yet too often it is a convenient excuse to avoid having to address hard truths. I think it’s the contemporary introvert/extrovert debate. If you’re an introvert that doesn’t give you an excuse from avoiding making new friends. And if you’re an extrovert that’s not a reason to avoid finding depth with a few people. We’re all different, but the challenges we face are frequently the same.

How do we balance the growth of community, in any form – online or in person, with ensuring that we’re going deeper?