Over the last few months Brad Sargent has blogged a bit about survivor blogs and trends in those online communities. While I respect the utility of the usage “survivor blog” I have reservations about the term. These are simple, literal-minded reservations about how unless your life was in mortal peril in some way it’s difficult to avoid a possibly misleading hyperbole when you describe yourself as a “survivor” of anything whose primary and most persistent threat of harm to you has been social and sometimes economic.
Still, terms come into use and they get used whether we wish them to have currency or not and the survivor blog, like the watchblog, is clearly a “thing” to be discussed. Brad has some comments that I want to quote:
“Survivor blogs” are not the same as “discernment blogs.” I’ll be speaking here at the big-picture level, which means there are likely many individual exceptions to the generalizations. But, we’re at a crossroads moment of contentiousness where it seems particularly important to consider categories and patterns that we can compare and contrast.
That said, from what I’ve seen, survivor bloggers seek to provide a redemptive presence that gives victims of abuse an opportunity to share their experiences, be heard, and be validated about what happened to them. They seek to advocate for and protect those who have been harmed, and to activate abuse prevention in organizations so there are fewer victims in the future. While survivor bloggers often address theological issues, it is more from the perspective of identifying inherent tendencies of particular doctrines to end up in harmful practices. This often includes identifying teachers and practitioners of those doctrines, challenging them to see their destructive impact in the lives of real people, and calling out and resisting organizations that promote them.
This seems to be a reasonable observation about what survivor bloggers attempt to do, in general. There’s nothing the least bit wrong with bloggers aspiring to provide a redemptive presence that lets victims of systemically abusive cultures have an opportunity to share their experiences, be heard, and given encouragement that they are not alone.
That said, a broad enough survey of survivor forums conveys a point which individuals and individual survivor bloggers or blogs may not necessarily fully appreciate or accept—if you make a point of observing or assigning abuse to particularly doctrines or dogmas then you’re endeavoring to do something that overlaps with another type of blogging, the watchdog blog or discernment blog. The risk here is that it seems in the wake of Jerry Sandunsky’s conduct coming to light that there is not necessarily any inherently dogmatic explication of how and why power gets abused. To put it another way, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox will all have incentives and temptations to abuse power or seize power and if in the partisanship of this or that team people believe that they are precluded from the possibility of abuse of or seizure of power by dint of proper doctrine these people are deluded. One of the criticisms members of the Frankfurt school had of the New Left was that some of them believed the New Left was threatening to embody the kinds of totalitarian tendencies observable in the fascists. Now, sure, criticisms could be made of the Frankfurt school but the observation that any group can embrace totalitarian means regardless of formal professions of ideology is a worthy observation.
Now, on to what Brad Sargent wrote about watchdog blogs:
Meanwhile, discernment or “watchdog” bloggers typically promote a very specific set of doctrines and their applications as “THE (one-and-only) biblical truth.” Their form of orthodoxy is the standard by which all other bloggers, teachers/preachers, and theological systems get judged. There is often an expectation that all “true” Christians should have perfect doctrine. This doesn’t exactly allow for people to become followers of Christ from different backgrounds, or allow for our showing grace to them as they persevere in a life-long trajectory of transformation. Orthodoxy seems to be all-or-nothing, now-or-never.
If, at the risk of speaking in the broadest possible terms about watchdog blogs and survivor blogs and their respective places in what's colloquially called the Christian blogosphere, we can all agree that a survivor blog and a discernment blog aren't the same thing one of the often tacit criticisms of survivor blogs by institutional Christian groups could be that very often a survivor blog seems to traffic in a set of stories that overlap with the watchdog blog. When a survivor blog provides checklists of what to watch out for that can be constructive in some settings but it can end up becoming the kind of checklist righteousness typical of the movements or scenes survivor blogs emerged to take a stand against. Survivor blog communities and watchdog blog communities have plenty of opportunities to partake of the same vices, vices which are all the more bewildering because they are spurred by aspiration to virtue.
This next observation is a simple one but a necessary one, the survivor blog is still a blog, it’s still an iteration of mass media and people need to understand what defamation is. Christians in Anglo-American contexts seem to have no clear or competent understanding of what “slander” is. A good deal that is described as “slander” would be what some Christians mean to describe as libel or defamation. Some of what is described as libel may well be libel. But among survivor blogs and watchblogs the accusation of “gossip” or “slander” can all too often seem to be a vote of distrust levied by those people whose loyalty to a set of beliefs or a person or institution is all too readily perceived. Sometimes those who would rush to the defense of the pastor or celebrity they wish to defend against gossip traffic so readily in gossip themselves they embody the vice they would purport to condemn. While Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll advocates come to mind it’s best to leave things general for the moment.
The salient observation about watchblogs and survivor blogs is that both can feature what might be called tell-all accounts. To borrow some terminology and discussion from the old Boar's Head Tavern, if there's going to be some form of muckraking journalism in the Christian blogosphere there's got to be some responsible way of going about that.
With this in mind the survivor blog will have two problems that a watchdog or discernment blog will not necessarily (but may very often also) have.
The first problem is in the nature of a question about method and substance. When you set up a blog you can have one of two general approaches to the blog as a mass media platform. This was something Mark Driscoll fielded back around 2013 in a media use address he gave where he described the distinction between content generation and content aggregation. You can generate content yourself or you can aggregate existing content that may or may not be generated by you. You can attempt to favor one while providing for the other but at some point the blog is going to be known chiefly for generation or aggregation.
You are either generating content for consideration or you are providing a platform for the expression of stories. At the risk of using examples from the rise and fall of Mars Hill, a blog like Wenatchee the Hatchet generated content about the history of Mars Hill that preserved and analyzed statements and events from the history of the church. A blog like We Love Mars Hill or Mars Hill Was Us uses an aggregating approach; people get invited to send and share stories they feel comfortable sharing whether under their real name or an abbreviated name or a pseudonym.
Attempts to split the difference between content generation and content aggregation will only go so far and in this a survivor blog will probably be most wisely used as a content-aggregation platform rather than a content generation platform. Give people an opportunity to share their stories with some provisions regarding defamation and mass media, and then let people speak as they feel comfortable. If you believe it is more important for what you’re doing to generate content, analysis and the like then you may find that open access comment marathons are harmful to your goals. What I’ve done with Wenatchee the Hatchet is actually discourage comments in many cases. A great deal will depend on what issues you want to address and in what way. If you want to give people a chance to share stories of stifling church discipline or alienation the aggregation method is best whereas if you want to document historical patterns in which it seems that dangerously unqualified men were given fast track promotions in a church leadership structure because of their role in real estate acquisitions a blog that provides commentaries from anyone will not work.
The second problem is, in key respects, the more profound problem for both the survivor blog and the watchdog blog, but also for religious institutions and brands. The problem is that if you choose to present a personal story, whether yours or another person’s, you must never forget that this is never necessarily the same thing as journalism. This is not just a matter of the problems inherent in what’s been called “the first-person industrial complex”. That’s a tip of the iceberg, the whole iceberg of which has to do with the inherently vague nature of “narrative”. Narrative is not necessarily history nor is it necessarily journalism. Yet emotionally compelling narratives have often been used as a synecdoche for theological argument, journalistic polemic, and as activism.
Listen to my story, if you will, and it will change your mind. Listen to this story and you will take my side. Matthew Paul Turner played this card years ago when reporting on the discipline of Andrew Lamb. There were odd spots in the narrative from the start. For instance, in a culture as obsessed with marriage and engagement as Mars Hill why was there never an observable engagement announcement? That was puzzling and, to date, there has never been any confirmation that Andrew had ever proposed to his then-girlfriend. Maybe he never did. We don’t know, but Turner’s account was largely worded in a way that presupposed an engagement that, as we look back on the sea of internet activity, could not be established independently of the narrative Turner presented. It was possible to establish exactly which parties at Mars Hill were connected to an Andrew at the Ballard campus in the 2011 period but that was not the same thing as a direct confirmation of an engagement. Turner’s story was not really that vague and, in fact, it shared so many details about Andrew’s disciplinary case a few hundred people (at least!) worked out exactly who he was on reading the story at Turner’s blog. If Turner had meant to keep Andrew Lamb anonymous he failed in so epic a fashion that there are hardly words to describe the failure. I was able to reverse-engineer from Mars Hill attender participation on Twitter and blogs who the respective parties were and spent about 20,000 words documenting exactly how it was possible to discover who the parties were.
But Mars Hill presented an exceptional case both in terms of its media-saturated culture and its tech-obsessive scene. People were giving up large swaths of information without always realizing the implications of the information they were dumping on to LinkedIn profiles, Twitter feeds, blog posts, Facebook walls and so on. To keep the 2012 headline stuff relatively brief, the case study of Andrew’s discipline may highlight a situation in which the draconian discipline of a church toward an attender was not necessarily any proof that the person who chose to break his story of church discipline had a story that was to be taken entirely at face value. When Mars Hill members and attenders attempted to explain why they believed they had reason to not take Andrew’s story at face value, however, the reaction to side with Andrew set in. The emotionally manipulative power of a first-person narrative is a double-edged sword. The first-person industrial complex is a weapon of choice in propagandistic campaigns employed by every possible side. It has value but its value should be seen as very limited.
In the last year or so people have proposed we’ve seen a peak reached for the first-person narrative form. Take Jia Tolentino’s recent entry:
There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers. The essays that drew the most attention tended to fall within certain categories. There were the one-off body-horror pieces, such as “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” published by xoJane, or a notorious lost-tampon chronicle published by Jezebel. There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described, like the one about pretending to live in the Victorian era, or Cat Marnell’s oeuvre. There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xoJane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog). Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.
These essays began to proliferate several years ago—precisely when is hard to say, but we can, I think, date the beginning of the boom to 2008, the year that Emily Gould wrote a first-person cover story, called “Exposed,” for the Times Magazine, which was about, as the tagline put it, what she gained and lost from writing about her intimate life on the Web. Blowback followed, and so did an endless supply of imitations. By September, 2015, online first-person writing was so abundant that Laura Bennett, at Slate, could refer to a “first-person industrial complex” in a takedown of the genre. “Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor,” Bennett, who also cited Gould’s Times story as a turning point, wrote. One could “take a safari” through various personal-essay habitats—Gawker, Jezebel, xoJane, Salon, BuzzFeed Ideas—and conclude that they were more or less the same, she argued. While she granted that not all first-person writing on the Internet was undignified, there were far too many “solo acts of sensational disclosure” that read like “reverse-engineered headlines.” [emphases added]
It’s clear, in any case, that the personal-essay boom is over. If it had already peaked by the time Bennett wrote about it, in the fall of 2015, we can locate its hard endpoint about a year later, in November of last year. After the Presidential election, many favored personal-essay subjects—relationships, self-image, intimate struggle—seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance. “I feel like the 2016 election was a reckoning for journalism,” Hepola wrote to me. “We missed the story. Part of why we missed it might have been this over-reliance on ‘how I feel about the day’s news’—and now the journalism world recognizes that we need to re-invest in reporting.” Killingsworth echoed this, talking about her work at the Awl and the Hairpin: “I want to encourage people to talk about mostly anything other than themselves.” [emphasis added]
There’s been a broader shift in attitudes about this sort of writing, which always endured plenty of vitriol. Put simply, the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was. [emphasis added] Many profiles of Trump voters positioned personal stories as explanations for a terrible collective act; meanwhile, Clinton’s purported reliance on identity politics has been heavily criticized. Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject. …
The single most important thing to be said about the first-person narratives just described is that there really isn’t much of a serious case to be made that these personal narratives ever constituted what might be called traditional journalism. Back when I was a journalism student twenty years ago my professor introduced the class to the New Journalism approach to writing. So we got to read Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and some others. When she discussed the style and history of the new journalism, my professor made a point that I have never been able to forget, she said that for all the flash on the surface we should never forget that this was still journalism. The personal narration was there because it established the entry point to how and why the reporter was investigating a particular story, whether as a matter of personal interest or as a matter of geographical contact. A comparable warning she gave was about editorial writing. I recall her saying “Nobody cares what you think. People want to know what the facts are. Editorial writing must still be journalism. It must still give people enough information to make an informed decision about an issue they care about even if you are telling them what you believe the right decision is for them.”
The first-person industrial complex failed as a journalistic enterprise because it simply wasn’t journalism. The vices of the survivor blog were the vices of the first-person industrial complex, reams of personal narrative presented as if it were the equivalent of journalistic enquiry or educational enterprise. I don’t really believe that the personal is the political. It never has been in the last few generations and this is not because the personal isn’t capable of being political, it’s because there are too many people for any one person’s story to justifiably stand in for a political commentary unless that person is so immersed in the power brokers of a society his or her story can be construed as the story of someone who makes history.
The only reason the "personal is political" is because enough American writers decided it was so, so that they could transform their personal inconveniences or laments into emblems of social catastrophe. Yet it’s frankly too easy to merely say that the election of Trump has cast a blistering and unflattering light on the fact that the majority of the first-person industrial complex probably doesn’t qualify as journalism. There’s a very simple problem, literally anybody can play this game. It was, for those familiar with Mark Driscoll’s history of sob stories, one of the preferred plays in his role as a public figure and leader within Mars Hill. The trouble that a survivor blog is going to face is that the weapon of choice, at least the weapon of the emotionally riveting first-person narrative that is meant to seize your heart and mind and command both loyalty and action, is the preferred weapon for just about any partisan side we can look to.
For years Mark Driscoll has winsome (or wince-inducing) stories about himself or his wife or kids as a way to frame any possible discussion of policy, governance, real estate acquisition, or leadership appointments. Years and years of blogs and media attention to Driscoll’s views on gays or women not only accomplished nothing they positively fed Mark Driscoll’s brand. It wasn’t until questions were posed about the integrity of Mark Driscoll’s intellectual property and the propriety of procedure in the promotion of his books or in the ways in which Mars Hill acquired real estate and who got what leadership positions after those acquisitions that began to change minds.
But it seems necessary at this point to say that the worst thing survivor blogs or watchdog blogs could do is take a “follow the money” if by this they mean a Woodward and Bernstein approach as told in films made by Hollywood. The Hollywood account of Watergate should largely be regarded as a self-aggrandizing lie fabricated by the entertainment industry. It’s not that the journalism of the reports played no role; it’s that this kind of self-mythologizing myopia over the last thirty years helped produced an American journalistic culture that was capable of so spectacularly misdiagnosing the outcome of the most recent presidential election. The kind of nation in which Trump can be elected is the kind of nation in which John Oliver or John Stewart or other entertainers can be taken seriously as policy experts, too.
I have made a habit of preventing commenting at the blog for a few simple reasons. You can’t trust anonymous sources to be truthful. Though it has been said in the past by some drive-by commenters that Wenatchee The Hatchet shouldn’t be anonymous those lazy people will probably still choose to not believe that, in fact, I’ve never been anonymous. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have known for quite some time who blogs at Wenatchee The Hatchet. Plenty of people knew that when I wrote about Mars Hill I did so as someone who met all the co-founding elders of the church. To borrow some terms from Walter McDougall, there are two broad approaches to American foreign policy, the promised land for all who would come and find welcome, and the crusader state that goes out to bring the gift of Americanism to the world. There’s plenty of failure in American history to live up to the promised land open to all comers but that’s not the point here, the point is to say that when I began to make a long-form case that Mars Hill began with a “promised land” ideal and became a “crusader state” on behalf of Driscoll’s branding empire, the people of Mars Hill who knew who I was understood that I was around Mars Hill in the early days long enough to know what I was talking about when I began to make a case that Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll had betrayed what we all agreed were its founding ideals. A lot of that work was documenting how Mark Driscoll could be shown to have become most of the things he used to preach against. That was not the power of the first-person narrative, that was the work of journalism.
It would be too easy to keep everything about the flaws of the first-person industrial complex tethered to the election of Trump. This isn’t necessary. It’s worth pointing out that one of the signal dangers of the powerful first-person narrative is that if you stake your presentation on the power of that narrative and that narrative withers under scrutiny it can cost you millions of dollars and the credibility of you and/or your publication. Rolling Stone found out the hard way in the last couple of years.
As my journalism professor warned decades ago, you simply cannot be certain anonymous sources aren’t lying to you. The whistle-blower who is telling you about corruption in a department may have been fired with cause as the person who was one of the key sources of the corruption. Vindictive, retaliatory scoops are not unknown. A survivor blog and a watchdog blog alike must be alert to the dangers of being manipulated by narratives. As we got to see in the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church and of Mark Driscoll’s reputation, the personal narratives were actually not particularly important by themselves. Journalists noticed that there was no one smoking gun scandal that sunk Mark Driscoll’s reputation. One person said stuff about death by a thousand cuts.
I’m still beating the drum of the dangers of a Hollywood fantasy-land version of watchblogging and journalism so let me say this, it’s dangerous and misleading to buy a Spotlight idea about who is best positioned to look into things. You might be thinking of the scene where somebody says in the film that the outsider can see the things other people don’t see. That’s not necessarily true. Plenty of secular/left journalists attempted to “see” into Mars Hill and saw the dog and pony show of Driscoll’s public persona. I think a more plausible account of what can happen in enquiry is that the outsider is often too outside to have insight. The Nixon administration was taken down by the Nixon administration. If there were no one like Felt history might have played out differently.
So let’s float this idea that where watchdog blogs or survivor blogs are concerned the role of the outsider is not inherently important compared to the role of the marginal insider. Not marginalized insider, the marginal insider. This would be someone close enough to the power base, more or less, to accurately see what is going on but not necessarily someone whose bread and butter depends upon being in that inside track itself. For as long as I tended to avoid letting people comment at the blog what I did offline was indicate that I was open to receiving whatever sources might volunteer as information they felt was important about the history of Mars Hill or recent changes in the culture. As I have seen things, the mistake of a survivor blog or a watchdog blog is operating under the illusion that what you write changes anything or even could change anything. You can’t change anything directly. You can give people opportunities to make the most informed decisions possible based on convictions they have but that’s as far as it goes.
Now there are some matters about reception and perception that seem important to mention before I close. One of the problems with survivor blogs and watchdog blogs that some guys have hammered away at is that they lack accountability. Another way to put this is to say there are guys who blog who don’t think bloggers have credibility if the bloggers lack a clearly observable institutional affiliation. The press, on the whole, has the same approach and in the end this may simply be another way of saying something a writer once told me, that the institutional press ultimately only takes itself seriously. We’re witnessing some of the fall out of the problems with that this year, I suppose.
There is a sense in which this criticism of survivor blogs and watchdog blogs is serious and legitimate. When I have blogged about Mars Hill there was not really a point at which advocates within Mars Hill could say I was somehow not accountable to anybody. I’m a member of a church and have been for years. I ended up at one of the two places people tended to go to in the wake of 2007, for that matter. I’m a Presbyterian, I’m still a Calvinist. I’m still the amillenial partial-preterist I said I was back when I was at Mars Hill but I’m more sympathetic to the historic pre-mil position now than I was because I think these two broad positions on eschatology are healthier than the paranoid dispensationalist futurism or the utopian postmillennialism I’ve seen permeating the left and right of American civic religion.
What this meant at a practical level was that Mars Hill leadership couldn’t say I wasn’t a Christian, they couldn’t say I wasn’t accountable to a church, in fact they couldn’t even say I wasn’t able to accurately describe what their beliefs were because I wasn’t Reformed. I could say that there were problems with Driscoll being Amyraldian that only Reformed people would likely understand but the take away here is that I’m trying to illustrate by example that a marginal insider can be better positioned to observe things than the often truly and even shamefully ignorant outsider who, in the fantasy of Hollywood “journalism” is supposedly able to see things insiders don’t notice. If you were a beat reporter, so to speak, you’d go talk to the people responsible for handling all the unsexy boring scut work that keeps the institution running and on that matter Spotlight seemed more plausible, even if in the end I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the media industry selling itself a mash note about its power to change and shape lives.
Which is to say, I don’t exactly want to discourage people from setting up survivor blogs or watchdog blogs if they feel obligated before God and by love of neighbor to document things as truthfully as they can. I do want to discourage people from operating under any illusions about what is likely to happen. It’s only in the power fantasies of Hollywood that somebody saying the right words in front of a camera while “the world watches” that “everything changes.” Journalism is no more about the power of the first-person narrative than it is about characters scripted by Aaron Sorkin saying the right words in front of the rolling camera that supposedly sets the world right. We might have better odds at making the world a better and safer place if we weren’t deluding ourselves as to the necessity and efficacy of our capacity to achieve that aim in mass media.
Blogs as mass media confer upon us the illusory option of believing that what we write can somehow make history. What seems so miserable about this observation is that it seems as true about those media stars that use mass media to refine their brands as it would be about those blogs and bloggers who believe that what they do in off hours can “speak truth to power”. Let me put this in the bluntest possible terms for Christians who would set up survivor blogs or watchblogs because they hope they can play a prophetic role in addressing injustices in the local church or the global Church—Yahweh sent prophet after prophet and ultimately Israel still went into exile after generations of sin and injustice.
There is a difference between playing a potentially prophetic role by speaking up about what you have seen and heard on the one hand and operating under delusions of grandeur on the other; the difference is not subtle, nor is the difference between these two poles something that can only happen on the celebrity or the blogger side of things. If in the pages of The New Yorker we see a grim observation that the personal narrative industry failed as journalism during the election year that gave us Trump, how much more should those who have watchdog or survivor blogs remember that simply sharing a personal story is not the same thing as uncovering failures or goodness in a leadership culture?
Particularly as a blogger who documented the life and times of Mars Hill I think I would be remiss to not mention that one of the things I kept in mind was that the branding and the empire was never the same as those people inside it. Even Mark Driscoll himself used to say that in the worst churches there were still people who loved and served Christ and other believers. There can be a distinction made between a corrupt church culture that needs judgment or death and those faithful Christians who feel obliged to serve in those churches.
There is an Old Testament point of reference for this kind of thing I’ve written about before, an Obadiah who served in the court of King Ahab. Daniel and the other young men were serving in a pagan empire. Esther was one of many girls in a Persian harem. There may be times in which the faithful don’t have a choice about whether or not they serve God and neighbor in a setting where there is, so to speak, blood shed by an empire on their hands. Naaman the Syrian general waged battle against Israelites and when he met Elisha and was healed by the Lord his role as a leader of combat against Israelites didn’t exactly change, did it? There’s still a difference between shedding blood when the job requires it and volunteering to shed blood. While Naaman was healed, Elisha’s servant Gehazi revealed greed that spurred him to lie about what Yahweh did not say, and Gehazi ended up with leprosy.
These were the kinds of stories from Scripture I couldn’t help thinking about as I blogged about Mars Hill. How was I to know that someone inside Mars Hill wasn’t an Obadiah in the court of Ahab? How was I to know that someone at Mars Hill who seemed honest and faithful enough wasn’t secretly a Gehazi corrupted by greed? I couldn’t know for sure but I could be steeped enough in the Scriptures to know these were things to keep in mind. The danger of the first-person industrial aesthetic ends up being much the same whether it’s on the celebrity side or the survivor blog side, we run the risk of wanting everything to conform to the narrative we have already settled upon as the narrative people have to adhere to; then we don’t listen to others and aren’t open to listening to someone who may have truth to tell that comes from an awkward or maybe even possibly compromised place.
Now maybe the personal essay boom is over. Maybe what’s going on with Christians in mass media fretting about bloggers is just another case of Christians hopping on a bandwagon the world just got off over the last seven years. Just as the personal narrative piece presuming that the personal is the political failed to be journalism, perhaps personal narrative in the Christian media and the Christian blogosphere has failed to cohere as useful instruction. Perhaps the failures of the Fourth Estate are pervasive enough that we should reconsider how seriously we take it.
Maybe the hand-wringing by hugely or merely relatively famous Christians with book deals and publishing associations about bloggers is just the belated Christianese crisis of the personal essay boom. How did these often not-fit-to-be-teaching-anybody people get a platform? How did we get to the point where people take Jon Stewart or John Oliver or Stephen Colbert seriously as people sounding off on policy issues? How did we get to the point where a reality TV star became Commander in Chief? If the personal essay boom in what passes for mainstream secular journalism failed to account for the election of Trump then how worried should the Christian media companies and their associates be about the personal essay boom in the Christian scene?
After all, for evangelicals, or people who say they are evangelical, this seems even more peculiar. Don’t we say that we have the Scriptures? Aren’t the Scriptures themselves, in addition to being the inspired word of God, also not gloriously public domain? But are American evangelicals afraid that we’re going to discover that, beneath our formal fealty to the Scriptures, we’re really rife with sophistry and kitsch? Is the crisis of the winsome but manipulative personal narrative used by bloggers that they use this to promote teaching some institutional Christians find troubling?
It can be that, too, but it could also be a crisis in the sense that the ability of the laity to do this at least as well as the clergy might be a warning to the clergy that their vocation is supposed to be founded on other things. A decade ago Mark Driscoll danced through a garbage sermon series on the book of Nehemiah. He’d read a passage from the book, occasionally say “this is just like Mars Hill!” and then proceed to talk about whatever he saw fit to talk about. It’s strange to think of how when I read a sermon by John Donne or Richard Sibbes or John Calvin or even a Charles Spurgeon or a David Martyn Lloyd-Jones I rarely come across the poignant domestic narrative about pets or kids or references to headlines.
If anything the personal narrative industry is potentially more pernicious within Anglo-American evangelicalism than it might be at, say, Jezebel. If the preaching and teaching is anchored in the Scriptures, wonderful, but I have begun to think that a lot of what gets passed off as substantial teaching in evangelicalism (and elsewhere) may really just be a Pavlovian, manipulative form of red state and blue state kitsch that passes itself off as “Jesus”. Our respective teams are so primed to see the manipulative self-congratulatory kitsch in the other team we don’t see how pervasive it is in our own team. The ascent of personalities like Mark Driscoll or Rachel Held Evans could have been a kind of wake-up call for us if we’d let that be but perhaps we did not want eyes to see or ears to hear. The Christian star-making machinery was too busy cashing in to care. In a scene like that there’s still reason to worry that the survivor blog or the watchdog blog may have problems, but I’m at a point in my life where I suspect that the flaws of the mere blog are likely microcosmic iterations of problems in the whole.
I don’t want to discourage the creation of survivor blogs as such but having observed the rise and fall of Mars Hill over a twenty year period I can tell you two things. First, the survivor blogs (for want of a better term) only emerged in the death throes of Mars Hill as a corporate entity. The two that come to mind are here and here. Second, there is no evidence at hand that they accomplished anything at all in either catalyzing effective reform at Mars Hill. They can absolutely provide a valuable cultural cross-sectional history for those who would consult them but this is not the same as an institutional or procedural history. I suppose another way to say it is that the survivor blog will have a role to play that can be valuable if there is an understanding that just as the personal essay boom did not constitute journalism in the mainstream the survivor blog is not necessarily journalism in the Christian blogosphere. That Mark Driscoll has a corporation called a church in Arizona of which he is president and CEO should be warning enough to anyone who would start or curate a survivor blog that there’s absolutely no reason to imagine that simply setting up a survivor blog and giving people an opportunity to share their stories will change how things work for stars in the star system, whether the Christian one or the ostensibly not-Christian one.