Blogging critique part 2: Mixed witness?

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I've just finished the bulk of some web site development work for a Christian organisation, so I've finally found time to carry on my series on criticisms of blogging. In my previous post, I wondered whether the Christian blogosphere is really going to be an effective way to change Christian's minds about things. In this one, I'm developing those thoughts, and looking a bit more outward.

Blogging is often touted as an effective evangelistic tool. As I see it, the sad truth is that the Christian sector of the blogosphere has a fairly mixed witness to the rest of the world. Take Phillip Johnson's opening post, for instance. I do not mean to criticise the post at all, as I in fact agree with most of it and intend to pick up on some of the things he says in a later post. What interests me most, however, is the discussion in the comments afterwards. While parts of it are fine, it gets pretty ugly in places – one party mis-judges, another retaliates, and name-calling abounds. This is by no means the only place I've seen things like this – the discussion after Tim Challies review of The Purpose Driven Life ends with Tim closing the discussion with the words If we are Christians, let us not behave as unbelievers., and those words could do some heeding in many boards and blogs I've seen.

There are a few things to say about these 'debates'. First, often those who get worked up aren't the major players, but then again, an outsider probably wouldn't notice who was who, and probably everyone who participates is at least naming the name of Christ. Second, in some ways it is good that people feel strongly about these things – if we don't get worked up about theology, there is something wrong with our theology, or our piety. Third, I think there is a large degree of mis-understanding about the nature of the discussion, so people quickly take offence when none was intended. For example, in the afore-mentioned book review at Challies, one commenter took offence and described the post as an attack on what he obviously considered to be a work of God and a man of God, despite the fact the review was far from inflamatory in style.

But these aren't just unfortunate accidents. The medium itself seems to bring out all these things in people. I doubt that few people who have used the internet for long will have failed to notice how a completely innocent comment on a in an e-mail can come across as sarcastic, grumpy, beligerent or worse, even to people you know. Add to this the fact that you are complete strangers to most of the people you 'meet' on the internet, even those you think you know well, and so will not have to deal with any fallout from a harsh comment, and then add the strong feelings I mentioned earlier, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

It's become a policy of mine that in any discussions with Christian brothers and sisters, as far as it depends on me, I ought to ensure they understand that I love them before I criticise them. When it comes to criticising their theology rather than them personally, this is even more important, not less, because it concerns what they believe about God, who, you must assume, is more dear to them than life itself. With that rule, I just don't know how to engage in any serious debate through blogging, apart from with people I already know. I should point out that this rule doesn't in any way preclude public debate – I can imagine how to obey it even in public preaching to strangers, or in authoring a book. Nor am I saying that no bloggers achieve it – many do so admirably. But somehow things still seem to get out of hand in blogs and message boards, and with relatively little positive fruit.

So to conclude, I'm inclined to suspect that blogosphere debate of theology is doomed to be a poor witness to any unbelieving onlookers, as well as being very ineffective in changing Christians' minds.

I've got a lot more reasons coming, so I suspect I may have convinced myself to quit this sphere before I get through them. I'll try to finish the series anyway, in order to crystallise my thoughts and make a more decisive break.

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