A Conversation on Christian Social & Cultural Commentary

Preface: Admittedly this is bit of a unique post for me to make. Not because it is a conversation between me and other people. But namely because of it’s transparency.

Below is a conversation I had with a couple of my friends via email, Douglas, Edward, and myself (Curt). We are all Christians.

There are two main things we discuss: 1. A general critique of the social and cultural commentary provided on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blogs and 2. Ideas on how TGC blogs could improve.

One of the ironic things you’ll find about this post is that we discuss the perceptions of TGC blogs’ intended audience and non-intended audience. There is a tension with these two different audiences. Because of the general population’s access to the Internet, virtually anyone can read anything that is published. Thus making it more difficult to write or speak in a specific way toward a specific audience. Bloggers may have a specific audience in mind; but their thoughts and opinions can be overheard by anyone. Naturally, these different audiences are going to interpret what a blogger says differently because one audience will share a common vernacular, and the other will not. Because of this, it can be quite easy for a blogger’s words to carry the opposite meaning of what they intended because their non-intended audience is not familiar with the blogger’s presuppositions.

Surely, that same dynamic exists here. For the most part, we wrestled with this tension as far as it pertains to TGC. And while we may not have asked this question explicitly; I think we are all asking “How should Christians with positions of authority in the Church speak and write on social and cultural issues in light of mass global communication?”

In the end, all three of us agreed that Christians would be wise to consider not only their intended audience, but also consider their non-intended audience; especially when commenting on cultural or social issues at large. None of us would say that we should change what we believe the Bible claims as Truth. Instead, we would all say that we should take great care and sensitivity on how we say what the Bible claims as Truth within in our current social and cultural context.

I have redacted and edited our original conversation, and given pseudonyms for my friends, so that our conversation would read more smoothly and with greater clarity.

As always, feel free to continue the conversation by offering your opinion on the matter.

Edward: Regardless if you agree with this guy’s editorial, it’s a simple example of what I wish TGC would do more often.  Have a Christian who is at least some kind of authority/expert on the subject write about said subject, not Kevin DeYoung (or some other big personality mega-church pastor with a lot of blog hits).  Anyhow, just my two cents and it’s a good example of something I’ve failed to articulate well in the past (e.g. my comments on the Batman TGC blog post).

And yes, I do know that there are a few somewhat experienced critics on TGC.  Good for them

Douglas: It seems that the main issue with TGC is, What Is TGC?  Until you know the answer to that question, interpretation of why they do, or allow, this or that won’t have much context.

Edward: Well, that can’t be it because I’ve watched the videos stating who they are and what their purpose is. I’ve also skimmed their lengthy founding documents.

I should also clarify that when I say “TGC” I mean their bloggers. I’ll say “TGC Bloggers” in the future.

For the most part, I’m down with all the unity stuff that TGC represents. It’s their commentary on culture that I find wanting in expertise, clarity, and relevance. Since they see themselves as representative of me, I comment on it from time to time.

Douglas: But is the TGC blogger audience the same audience that Jordan Lorence is trying to reach through USA Today?  I think they’re entirely different readerships, so to expect TGC to do what Lorence is doing seems a bit…incorrect.  My question is, “Is TGC’s blog meant to engage the culture directly or merely to be a commentator for believers?  Is it holding hands facing outward or inward?”

If outward, then yeah, I agree with you.  They aren’t doing a very good job of that.  But if, as I think, it’s designed to be an inward-facing conversation (“amongst family”), then I don’t think you can compare USA Today and TGC as platforms for engaging culture.

Edward: Great point! I will now read over some blog posts as “discussions between family” and see if they seem legit. However, not to be cynical, I don’t see how I will come across things any differently. One of the things I dislike about TGC blog posts is how under-informed they tend to be. Lack of information has the same effect whether you are talking with your wife or with your coworkers. But I am open to your suggestion, Douglas, and I definitely haven’t thought of that before.

Me: Douglas,

I think the distinctions you’ve said are important. But to me it’s irrelevant who the intended audience is (‘among family’ or ‘Non-Christians’). Namely because these blog posts are and can be read by anybody, not just believers. The fact of the matter is that anyone can read a blog post. And more often than not it never crosses a reader’s mind to consider who the intended audience is. That level of critical thinking, unfortunately, I believe does not exist in our society at large.

That being said, I think the onus is on the blog writers of the TGC to be wise like serpents and innocent like doves when they articulate their opinions on TGC blogs. I do not think you can readily say something on TGC the same way you would say it to your congregation. Why? Because the whole world is watching and looking to devour your words.

And while you may disagree with me on this, I think it’s extremely important (especially in our day) for Christians to be mindful of how their words (especially on the internet) could be perceived by anyone. That isn’t to say you should try to please everyone. That’s ridiculous. Of course you can’t. But it is to say that we should give no reason for anyone to revile us. If they revile us because of the factual basis of our argument, then so be it. But if they revile us because we lack humility, then we have surely lost.

In particular I am thinking about the debacle of a communication breakdown that happened with a blog that Jared Wilson posted on manhood and womanhood a few months ago. With quite an opposite intention, he said something in a way that implied it was okay for husbands to rape their wives. He quickly said this is not what he meant. He even condemned such an action. But at first, he refused to back down on the words he chose to use in a way that had a strong appearance of pride and haughtiness. Eventually, he did end up taking down the blog post. Which was a good thing.

As Christians I think it is important for us to hold loosely to our methods (especially in communication styles) and to hold firm to our core beliefs. Being understood rightly is more important than saying something in a particular way because that’s the way I like to say it.

The amazing thing about Jesus Christ is that he condescended to us in a way that we could understand him. He chooses to speak a language with us that we already understand. More often than not it appears to me that TGC expects their audience, and broader audience, to have a prerequisite understanding of the topic before they can engage it. Which ultimately leads to a lot of backbiting and name-calling.

While it may be the case that TGC is writing for reformed Christians; anyone can read their blogs. And they would be wise to consider the unintended audience that overhears our conversations.

Douglas: So just to be clear, I wasn’t defending the TGC’s blog “strategy,” whatever it might be.  I don’t actually mean to make a value statement of any kind.  I simply mean to respond to the contrast of Jordan’s article and what is posted on TGC.

Curt, I am curious about this statement: “I do not think you can readily say something on TGC the same way you would say it to your congregation.” What about the Desiring God (DG) blog?

John Piper uses it to communicate directly to his congregation all the time.  In those instances, Piper is directly calling Bethlehem to something that he isn’t calling the rest of his readership to. And yet it is visible to every reader no matter his or her church or geography.

Furthermore, if I were a pastor-blogger, I would hope that I would be able to say 99% of the same things to my congregation that I put on my blog.  The remaining 1% would be strictly family stuff.  I think we need to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves at all times, especially in preaching and teaching in a local congregation.

However, it is indeed critical for a pastor to address his congregation specifically.  Matt Chandler does a great job of this.  So do [Mark] Driscoll and [Tim] Keller.  I love it when a preacher shares an inside joke with his congregation that I, as a distant gleaner, don’t understand.  It means that there is relationship going on at the church that doesn’t involve those not at the church.

This highlights the need to know who your audience is.  And that doesn’t change if you’re blogging.  What you say and what you write, in today’s world, are always available to be read or heard by whomever, provided they know how to get their hands on the information.  So be responsible.  But to direct a blog towards a specific readership is not a problem.  Or would you disagree?

Furthermore Curt, in response to your comment, “While it may be the case that TGC is writing for reformed Christians; anyone can read their blogs.”

Everybody that I know who reads TGC is involved in the local church and has a Reformed Theological background.  I can’t imagine that any of my Non-Christian coworkers, neighbors, or friends read TGC.

My second point is this:  Did Martin Lloyd Jones write Spiritual Depression for believers or Non-Christians?  Believers.  Non-Christians should therefore be aware of that when they pick up his book.  And of course, books are in the public domain and Non-Christians have access.  How is writing a book any different than publishing a blog in this respect?

Third point:  Your point on the incarnation is brilliant. And that’s exactly my point.  TGC is not an incarnational exercise.  Writing an op-ed for USA Today is.

Edward: A lot of these thoughts are half-baked, if not all of them.  So don’t jump on any of them too heartily.  This is me mostly thinking out loud.

This is a great discussion. As I texted you, I’ve never even considered that something posted on the Internet could be for any “family” or people.  The effectiveness of the ideas written about is at the mercy of the reader’s education on said topics.  So, yeah, it would be unusual to find a Non-Christian who faithfully read TGC.

However, I’m just coming to realize that I have this presupposition about the Internet.  I could see it as being a generational or personality thing.  But I tend to think of everything I speak or think in relation to an audience of “people”… although I couldn’t tell you who I think they are.  I just think and speak… circumspectly (if that’s the right word).

If others don’t share this presupposition, then that is a major change in the whole discussion, let alone how I even think about these things.  I mean, this whole topic is multi-multi-layered, it’s like Inception.

All of that to say; I don’t think Douglas is correct in saying “[TGC] is only speaking in-house.”  I think they probably are speaking in-house but I’m also afraid that they feel they are speaking to Non-Christians as well.

Me: Douglas,

Your comparison of the DG blog and TGC blog is a good point, but I do think it is a false comparison.

The DG blog has a specific focus and mission and clearly defined leadership and direction. This is clearly a Christian organization with a distinct Christian focus. Their audience cannot be mistaken. Why? Because it’s a Christian ministry and it’s very narrow about the kind of things it will speak on and endorse. And while DG may engage in cultural commentary (like TGC) it does not endorse civil actions. Maybe what I am saying is, for example, there is a clear separation of ‘Church and State’ in the DG blogs.

TGC blogs, however, do not make a hardline separation and focus. They write with opinions on society that often times influence/direct civil actions. They dive into a sphere of public discourse that DG wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. And while I’ll give you that they are both writing to Christians; they are clearly not writing and speaking in the same way or about the same things toward Christians.

If you don’t go to church then you’re most likely not going to understand Piper. But if you’re Joe Schmo Non-Christian, you might come across some TGC blog while doing some Google search on same-sex marriage. And you read it and you might be like “Hey! These Christians are ignorant bigots on civil rights.” And, while Piper also wrote a blog supporting traditional marriage, he wasn’t advocating civil action. And I think he did it in a very respectful way. He was merely extolling a Biblical view of what marriage looks like. You are left to decide what action you should take; even if the action point is obvious. With Piper you can either take it or leave it. With TGC, you’re put at a cross roads to do something about it because of the social action it condones.

Now condoning social action is fine. But when you talk about social action in an authoritative way you cannot talk about it only with a normative or Biblical perspective. It must involve experience and facts and statistics. We are talking about condoning actions that shape the way people live. You can’t merely spout out Truth and think people will submit to it because it is the Truth. It’s like geometry. You may know that those two angles equal each other, but your teacher will ask to see the theorem or proof. In the same way we Christians move too quickly to the “Truth” or to the answer without demonstrating the proof or the theorem. We must become better at the art of persuasion.

And while you’re right that anyone can read anything including Martin-Lloyd Jones – and he specifically wrote to believers – the Good Doctor was clear about who his audience was/is. And for the most part, I think DG does a good job at defining who their audience is also.

TGC blogs on the other hand, I think, could do a better job defining the audience they are writing to within each article. On the whole the TGC blogs would do well to write in an apologetic style similar to CS Lewis.

Finally, I think what I am really discussing is how we Christians should discuss our conversations in front of Non-Chrisitians. Whether we like it or not; the world is watching. Because of this “I do not think you can readily say something on TGC the same way you would say it to your congregation.”

Edward: Clarification (I might be wrong about this): Good Doctor rarely wrote.  His books are collections of sermons.  Spiritual Depression is definitely a collection of sermons.

Douglas: These are helpful points, thanks.  I agree with all of it, even if I might nuance a few things for my own liking.

The following points seems to be crystallizing:

1. TGC has a bit of an identity crisis going on.  Carson, Keller, et al are faced with figuring out what TGC is. I would suggest that the crisis is prompted by the speed at which our technological age moves. Ideas and information flow so rapidly!  I don’t think Carson and the other TGC leaders were quite prepared for it.  TGC is so democratic (from appearances) that it is difficult to truly analyze it as a unified body.  The Episcopals (Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans) have something on us here.  It’s a real problem for Protestantism and evangelicalism in particular.

2. It is going to be absolutely critical for the new wave of evangelical leaders to speak ‘tri-perspectivally’ to the world.  Truth Claims as such have little power anymore.  This doesn’t make them bad or unnecessary (quite the opposite); rather, we need to find creative ways to bring Truth claims to bear in this particular generation (and future ones).  This is why you all need to read the book To Change the World!!!!!   Hahaha. But seriously.

3. In today’s world, anything you say can become public news.  (e.g. Romney and the 47%.)  Therefore, be very careful of what you say.  Don’t shoot from the hip unless you are prepared to answer for the bullets.

Me: Man Douglas! This may be the most brilliant thing I have ever heard you say, “Don’t shoot from the hip unless you are prepared to answer for the bullets.

I couldn’t agree more.

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