5 Tips on How To Read Stuff on the Internet

computerThe internet is a funny place–particularly the blogosphere. Having been in it for a short while now, I’ve been forced to reflect on the way that people read things the internet–about the way I read things on the internet–and I thought it worthwhile to share a few of the tips I’ve been learning to work on.

  1. The words “A” and “The” are different words. – Seriously, read carefully. Pay attention to whether an author is making broad or specific claims. Is it an absolute or conditional statement? It’s good to be careful about those sorts of things. 
  2. Don’t always assume the author knows you personally and is obviously writing about your experience. There have been a number of instances where I have misread an author’s intent by immediately connecting whatever they’re writing about with my personal history. In other words, don’t be narcissistic in your reading. Obviously, you will always come to the text with your own personal history. It’s important to stop and realize that your life does not and can not encompass the sum total of human wisdom and experience. The author might have a whole different set of experiences that they’re drawing on and addressing that have nothing to do with you.* 
  3. Read the whole article, not just particular paragraphs. This point should be obvious as well, but I can’t tell you how many times I have had to come back to an article and realize that the author wasn’t saying what I thought they were saying because I, with my myopic tendencies, had fixated on some particular phrase instead of catching the whole shape of the argument. Instead, it’s good to make sure and read the whole thing before coming to a firm judgement simply because you don’t know the way that the author might balance or correct for your concerns later on.
  4. Calm down and read it again. This one is implied in the last one, but sometimes it pays to read an article more than once. I know that for myself, I’ve approached certain authors or articles with controversial titles with a grid in place that skewed even a thorough first reading. It pays to read it again and again to make sure you’re hearing properly.
  5. Read as you’d like to be read. This is simply the golden rule in practice. If you’d like others to pay attention to what you say, give you grace for linguistic infelicities, and ask for clarifications before making final judgments the go ahead and do the same for others.

*If you’re offended right now because you think I’m writing this post about you, please refer back to #2.

Somebody Stop Me If I Start Doing This (A Thought on Blogging)

In a fascinating recent blog post on Rob Bell and the nature of advertising rhetoric, Alastair Roberts managed to describe one of my least favorite styles of blogging:

If you read many blogs, especially from a certain brand of progressive evangelical, you will notice similar styles of writing and thinking in operation. Sentences are brief, there are numerous single sentence paragraphs, sentences in bold, or fragmented statements. Anecdotes and engaging narratives are consistently employed. Rhetorical questions, potent images, and controlling metaphors are used extensively. Such writing typically persuades by getting the reader to feel something. The responses to such pieces are almost always emotive and affirming, very seldom critical (and critical responses are hardly ever interacted with carefully).

Now, to my mind there’s nothing inherently wrong with narratives with emotional hooks, bolding and italicizing things occasionally, metaphors, potent images, rhetorical questions, and so forth. All of them have their place at that right time and the right moment. Indeed, some writers could stand to use a little more of that. (Although, let’s be honest, the UNDERLINE, BOLD, AND ITALICIZE EVERYTHING INCESSANTLY THING IS KIND OF ANNOYING AND CHEAP.)  Scripture itself is soaked in varying modes of discourse, especially narrative and potent image. That said, the over-saturation of these modes of communication in blogs of this sort is kind of like the difference between a packet of Sweet & Low saccharine or a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee; one seems like a counterfeit designed to mask the quality of the substance, while the other enhances it.

Roberts goes on:

In an age dominated by advertising and the manipulation of feelings for the purpose of persuasion, the proliferation of conversational and self-revelatory styles of discourse, designed to capture people’s feelings, where logical argumentation once prevailed, shouldn’t surprise us. Where persuasion occurs through feeling, truth becomes bound up in the authentic communication of the ‘self’ and its passion, rather than in the more objective criteria of traditional discourses, where truth was tested by realities and practices outside of ourselves. This is truth in the mode of sharing one’s personal ‘sacred story’.

It is for this reason that narrative, anecdote, metaphor, and potent images are so important for such approaches. All of these are non-argumentative ways of drawing and inviting you, the reader, into the feelings of the text. They also serve as ways of avoiding direct ideological confrontation and engagement. By couching what would otherwise have to be presented as a theological argument in an impressionistic narrative they make it very difficult to frame disagreements. The most effective communicators of this type tend to be those who elicit and direct feelings most consistently. It can almost be as hard to have reasonable argument with such people than it would be to argue with an advert.

While Roberts might be guilty of over-privileging rational, logical modes of reasoning and argumentation in his criticism, there is a real danger when the church over-corrects and plays into the postmodern fragmentation and evasion of thought. Testimony is an inherently biblical mode of discourse, but testimony is susceptible to cross-examination. Biblical testimony is not intended to subvert the intellect, but engage it, as well as the more affective dimensions of our souls. Paul gave his own testimony to be sure, creatively used potent imagery, and so forth, but then gave a sustained biblical argument that can be followed, disputed, and wrestled with. (cf. Galatians)

Alright, this whole thing was quick and off-the-cuff. The point is, if ya’ll spot me drifting into land of advert blogging, you have my permission to call me out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Victory

christ-on-the-cross-1587This is another of my college poems. It’s one of the only ones I thought was half-way decent and meant anything:

Victory

Victory, I think, was never so bloody,

or the victor so broken—like a rag doll really.

He kind of hung there, limp.

Too much blood to look at;

I think he was more like a clump of

tenderized meat than a man.

The only thing that kept him upright

were a couple of grimy nails the size of

cigars forced through his hands.

I couldn’t bear to look at him.

(Odd, to think the man who saved my life

couldn’t stand up straight.)

Ironic, to think of His enemies’ smug smiles,

gloating over their handiwork.

The crowds mocking, laughing even, at this

Champion, even as he begged his Father

For their forgiveness.

They didn’t understand, each drop of blood,

each sigh, each groan brought Him one step

closer to His ambition, one step closer

to their lives.

They didn’t remember, no one took

His life from Him, He gave it freely.

That is why, I think, so much that day

went on unnoticed.

Nobody saw the beggar

whose sight was restored,

weeping softly.

Or the father of a girl

who was “only sleeping”, staring on

in disbelief.

The crowds weren’t listening when

Institutions fell and kingdoms were

laid low with every

lash and hammerfall.

As Laws established long before their fathers

were swept away by the blood

pouring from his torn brow.

But nobody saw it.

He killed Death before their very eyes!

And almost

no one heard

His ragged words of triumph, “It is finished”,

dragged from cracked and bloody lips,

stating his conquest.

Almost nobody saw it, besides a few friends

and a dirty thief hanging next to Him.

Still, it happened. And in the end,

Victory, poured out in blood and water that day,

like a broken fountain.

Soli Deo Gloria

C.S. Lewis and Pascal on the Problem of “Being Original”

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

I’ll admit, I suffer from creative constipation from time to time. You know what I’m talking about: feeling like you want to write, you have to write, but you simply can’t. I had a severe bout of it for a few years between my last blog, back in the Myspace days, and starting this one. I had a lot of fun with my old blog until I started reading good writers and deep thinkers. At that point I realized most of what I had to say had already been said by someone smarter, funnier, wiser, and generally in every way better than I ever could. (90% of the time it was C.S. Lewis.) With that, I kind of lost my will to write. It’s not so much that I didn’t like writing, but that I had trouble seeing the point–I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who’s been troubled by that thought.

Two of my intellectual and literary heroes have some wisdom for those of us struggling with the problem of “being original”:

Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better. -Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

Pascal was writing an apologetic for the Christian faith. He readily acknowledged that the content, the point, the truth of what he was speaking was nothing new. In fact, that was the point–he was trying to convince his skeptical, intellectual friends to re-engage, to accept the very old truth of Christianity. At the same time his apologetic method, his style, the questions he asked, were different, and “original” in that sense. He had produced a new “arrangement” of the material.

Lewis makes the same point with even less of an emphasis on being consciously original. He simply advises that we ought to “try and tell the truth” as best we know how and the odds are, given our unique wiring and design, it will end up being original. In fact, that’s one of the interesting things I’ve come to see about Lewis himself.

The first time I read Mere Christianity, I thought it was amazing simply because it was so new–Lewis was pointing me to insights and truths I had never encountered, in ways I couldn’t have imagined for myself. As the years past though, the more and more theology I read, I came to recognize a great deal of other authors, thinkers, theologians, and presentations peeking through the edges of what Lewis was doing. Lewis’ originality lay, not so much in the newness of his ideas–he would have denied any originality for himself at that point–but, like Pascal, in his peculiar talent at making the old seem new and the difficult, accessible to the men and women of his own day. He didn’t do it by changing anything for them, but rather by both listening and speaking to them.

If you’re having trouble “being original”, take a lesson from Pascal and Lewis: find something you believe in, a truth you’re passionate about and strive to communicate it as best you can to those around you. If you do that, originality will take care of itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #4 – Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell…(Or, Some Learnings on Blogging)

Well, I’ve been blogging for nearly 3 months now and it’s been an interesting experience so far. Writing out some of my thoughts, re-learning how to craft a sentence for print, rather than preaching, and trying out arguments I’ve previously only sketched out in my head has given me some real joy. It’s also been a learning experience, so I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve been finding out about myself and the craft of blogging general, in no particular order:

Finding your own style is hard. I had read this before, and I’ve thought about this issue quite a bit, but still, it’s been amazing to see how hard it really is. I still don’t know what my “voice” is. Half the time I’m just trying not to botch the English language too much, let alone find my own, unique way of expressing myself. I think a lot about C.S. Lewis’ comments in Mere Christianity about the people who struggle to be original–that the most original people were those who were simply trying to speak the truth as best they could without bothering too much about how original they are.

I’m going to start tagging all of my articles with either Rob Bell or Mark Driscoll. Seriously, names drive searches and views. I wrote one post just quoting N.T. Wright on penal substitutionary atonement and it was my most popular post to date. Seriously, just quotes and a couple of comments. It still gets hits off of random searches. On the other hand, my piece on the doctrine of Impassibility, one that I seriously put some time into…meh, not so much.  Still, I can see how easy it’d be to get sucked into the attack and critique game simply by picking big names and going after them. I’m sure I’ll end up criticizing a popular figure at some point on this blog, but I pray I never do it just to drive up views.

Be careful who you write about. I recently included my wife in a discussion of a controversial theological conversation and after the post hit, I realized that somebody could potentially read it the wrong way, comment rudely and then things would get, well–not pretty. From now on, controversy + family = no.

Writing is vulnerable. As a rule, I care way too much about what people think of me. By blogging, I’m taking my thoughts, my words, my creation and placing out there for all to see and judge. It’s hilariously easy for me to get wrapped up in whether or not people “like” my posts, write encouraging or attacking comments. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’ll be to be more sensitive to others whose blogs I’m commenting on. It’s fine to disagree, but I gotta remember that there’s someone on the other end of the article.

I have so much time to pray. Let’s be honest, if you can blog, you can pray. It’s as simple as that.

I need grace, so much grace. God has an ability to reveal my sin to me in just about any situation. Blogging is no different, apparently. My insecurities, pride, weakness, sin-driven anxieties have come out to play in some of the most surprising ways through this blog. Thankfully where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. God has come to meet me, to comfort, correct, and work with me in this in a number of very fun and humbling ways.

There’s probably more, but this is supposed to be a quick-blog. I look forward to more blogging and more learning in the coming months.

Soli Deo Gloria

Playful, Passionate, Principled, but never Putrid Polemics (Or, Don’t Forget Jesus in an Argument)

If you’ve ever had an “intensely engaged” discussion with a friend in person, a facebook comment, a blog, etc. the odds are that you’ve engaged in polemics. The Webster definition of polemics is “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another” or “the art or practice of disputation or controversy.” Basically it’s a form of reasoned argumentation against a position with which you disagree.

Having spent a couple of years in a philosophy program, then seminary, as well as far too much time on the blogosphere, I’ve observed and participated in quite of bit of polemics myself. I have what you might call a “polemical bent”,  which is probably why I like thinkers like Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Plantinga. Brothers can argue.

In that time, I’ve had some time to think about  some of the basic attitudes and approaches to polemics, some of which are consistent with Christian life and some of which are not. I’d like to offer up some reflections three qualities or attitudes that should define your approach to whatever discussion you engage in, and one that shouldn’t. These aren’t comprehensive, exhaustive, or entirely correct, but, for what it’s worth, here they are.

Playful- The first quality that I think should be cultivated within our discussions with others  is playfulness, a certain amount of mirth and good humor. It’s that kind of light-hearted reasonableness that G.K. Chesterton seems to embody in his works like Orthodoxy and Heretics. To say that his arguments are playful is not to say that they aren’t “serious”, or aren’t dealing with serious issues, but that they are clearly not driven by fear or pride but rather a humble self-forgetfulness and joy deeply rooted in the Gospel. His ability to sport and laugh at, and with, his interlocutors managed to communicate both disagreement with and real fondness for them. This is not an excuse for being flippant, disrespectful, or condescending. When your heart is filled with confidence in God, it allows you to speak with humor and grace knowing that whatever the outcome of the argument, you’re securely held in the arms of your Father because of the Son. One of the benefits of engaging your intellectual “opponents” with this attitude is that it is attractive. So often people are used to dealing with Christians arguing out of their insecurities or pride which drives them to be snippy, harsh, humorless, and retaliatory. Nobody wants to listen to someone like that, or end up believing whatever they’re arguing for. The Gospel should lead to a confident, good-naturedness that, on the one hand, respects the other person, and at the same time allows you to take yourself less seriously.

Passionate- The second quality that ought to characterize our polemics is passion.  Like the first, it is deeply rooted in the truth of the Gospel and a deep love for people. You can see this is all over Paul’s letters. Paul is nothing but passionate in his polemics for the sake of the Gospel. Galatians, anybody? Paul goes aggro in that letter because of his great gospel-fear that they might be abandoning Christ, and so he forcefully makes his points at times, giving voice to his real concern in order to communicate just how important the issue was. Sometimes people might know you disagree, but really have no idea how important an issue is until they hear the concern or passion in your voice. Paul’s letter not only communicated truth, but the way he communicated it gave it an emotional tenor, an urgency, that was just as vital as the content. A lot of us may be scared of passionate engagement with our neighbors and friends over the truth. We’re scared of offending, or coming off as pushy or unloving. In a world like ours where our radios, TVs, and blogs are full of people just yelling and trying to brow-beat people into submission, that’s a real danger. I don’t want to minimize that. We should never argue just to argue. So often that’s what we find ourselves caught up in: meaningless arguments about things that really, nobody should get that agitated over. Still, this shouldn’t stop us from engaging passionately with our friends about things that really matter. Love engages over truth. Apathy or an unwillingness to trouble yourself with have a difficult conversation out of fear is not the loving thing to do. The truth is something to be passionate about because truth is about life.

Principled- The third quality that it ought to possess is that of being principled. (Honestly, I could have used other words like “integrity”, “honesty”, etc, but I’m a sucker for cheap alliteration.) We must always strive in our engagements with others to be principled in our dealings, speaking honestly, actively avoiding unfair caricatures, and cheap shots. Whenever arguing against a position we must strive to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that.  That’s just dishonest. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a place for irony, sarcasm, and the reductio ad absurdum in arguments. There is a place for humorously following someone’s premises out to their surprising conclusions, or creating humorous, sarcastic analogies to bring out a point. Still, there is absolutely no place for a lack of integrity in our communication with others, even those with whom we deeply disagree. This is part of how we love our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus taught us to. Being people who confess the lordship of Jesus, the one who is the Truth, we should never play fast and loose with the truth in order to score a cheap, rhetorical point.

Never Putrid- If we strive for and keep these three qualities in mind as we engage others, they will keep us from descending into the putrid polemics that seems to define our culture’s approach to “rational”discourse. So much of what we hear and read today pours out of corrupted hearts darkened by arrogance, rage, pride, fear, and the rot of our decomposing sin nature. So much of what is popular out there is just straight-up lies, fear-mongering, cynical mockery, caricature, manipulation, gracelessness, straw-manning, cheap shots, and rhetorical bullying. It is simply putrid. For those of us who have been raised in Christ and indwelled by the resurrection Spirit of God, there should be nothing rotten or foul about what we say. Even those words we utter that cut should only cut in the way a doctor’s scalpel does–in order to heal. They should be words of life, not death, because we are made, and are being remade, in the image of the God who, by his Word, speaks life into existence.

Once again, I write all of these things, not as someone who has achieved or arrived. Lord knows I have not even come close in this area. Instead, I write them as one still struggling alongside; still fumbling about trying to become the kind of person who speaks rightly and righteously.

Confessions

I have a confession to make: this is not my first blog. Back in the days when MySpace wasn’t just the punchline to jokes about irrelevance (Irony!), I blogged fairly regularly on faith in the MySpace blog forum. It was a formative experience for me. I was just a 19-year old who knew next to nothing, but for some reason I was getting read. I met a lot of great people and great writers through that blog, some of whom I still keep in touch with. I learned a lot about respectful dialogue with people from various worldviews as well as differing tribes within Christianity. It was a great part of my spiritual and theological development in college that I look back on with much fondness.

At the same time, I’m glad it died.

the rise and fall of my blog

For a while was going well; I was posting on a regular basis, once or twice a week as my school schedule allowed. My blogs were being read and regularly ranked in the top 10 of the Religion and Spirituality section on MySpace in terms of views and comments. (I know that’s not much, but it was pretty good for a 19-year-old with a brain full of mush.) At a certain point though, I began to notice that the posts were slowing down until I eventually found myself unable to write anymore. I mean, I could write, but I couldn’t find the will to write. When I stepped back to think about my writer’s block, I realized that it set in about the time that I started to do serious theological reading. While I have always been a reader, I had not starting reading books relating to Christian theology until my college years, and even then I didn’t start reading what I would call “serious” theology until my last year.

In looking back on the experience, I’ve realized that one thing that came with reading, growing, and learning is that I began to learn how much I had left to read, grow, and learn. I knew next to nothing. I wasn’t even aware of how much I didn’t know. I dare say I’m still just scratching the surface of my ignorance. At the time I came to realize that most of what I could say or write had been said and written long before I started typing by men and women with greater depth, insight, and skill than myself. It was a humbling experience.

In realizing this, I also recognized one my main motivations for blogging: I had been captivated by the feeling of saying something novel and being applauded for it. I loved the feeling of writing something and getting “likes”, seeing comments engaging my thoughts as if they were important insights, and getting acclaim for it. Of course this wasn’t my only motive. I am a natural teacher. I like sharing thoughts. At that point though, the love of being heard was novel and captivating. I don’t say that this is not a temptation even now–it is. At the time it was easy for it to become consuming. When I realized that I wasn’t actually saying anything new, or that people ought to be reading others instead myself, a large portion of my motivation died.

Again, I take this, in many ways, to be a good development. Writing for applause doesn’t do good things for your soul. At the same time, the death of my blog was not an unambiguously positive event. In being humbled, in coming to realize my smallness, relative ignorance and foolishness, I also was struck with a peculiar voicelessness. In coming to know that I knew very little, I fell into a certain of paralysis that robbed me of the ability to try to write about the things that I did know. I just didn’t see the point, or even feel competent to.

the birth pangs

Since that time I have gone to grad school, written a few papers, read a great many books, preached regularly for a couple of years, spent far too much time pontificating in Facebook conversations, and been humbled time and again in various contexts (as I’m sure I’ll continue to be.) In other words, God’s been working on my heart for, knowledge of, and ability to communicate the truth of the Gospel. I’m in a better spot in that respect than I was a few years ago.  After prayer, deliberation, and counsel, I came to the decision to start blogging again.

Surprisingly, this has not been an easy one. For the amount of time that I’ve spent in online forums expressing myself, discussing, debating, as well as preaching on a regular basis, coming to the point of committing my thoughts to print in an intentional and sustained fashion has felt daunting. Temporary disengagement from an activity can become habit that leads to the eventual atrophy of the talents or will required to participate in it. This is true, I am finding, in nearly all areas of life. There’s a part of me that still asks much as I did a few years ago, “Why write? There are much smarter and more valuable things that have already said by more capable writers than myself?”

the hope

I’ve been asking myself this question for a bit and, for the most part, I have not really had any good reasons other than a basic sense that I ought to be writing. It was only until a friend of mine gave me some good advice in personal correspondence that I have been able arrive at any sort of conclusion. In discussing the issue, my friend wrote, “I would say that you should write as a discipline for yourself. If others want to participate in that, awesome, but the goal should be developing to skill of creatively communicating what truths the Lord has revealed. That is, as you know, the task of a theologian.”

This is what I want to be the heart behind my writing. I want it to be an act of discipleship and obedience to my covenant Lord; another area in which to grow in humility and grace; a means by which I can continue to grow in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and share it with others according to the gifts and abilities God has given me; another area of my life in which I can strive to glorify God and enjoy him even now in this life.

This is my hope and my prayer.