Tuesday, May 09, 2017

the Christian blogosphere, who "runs" it, where it's "authority" comes from, and whether there's really a crisis of unaccountable women or in the ethics of the star-making machinery of Christian media

So about a month ago there was this piece in Christianity Today about the question of who is in charge of the Christian blogosphere.  You may have read it.


For reasons that are only partly clear to me this fomented some controversy on the net.  It's not that controversy on the net is really anything new or surprising.  It inspired me to write a haiku a while back that goes like this--

the web glistens with
gnomic condescension and
spluttering fury

So anger on the internet is only the usual.  What may have made this dust up relatively unique seems to have something to do with what's called the Christian blogosphere, i.e. Christians with blogs and specifically women Christians with blogs.  Why, precisely, this has been an issue has something to do with someone named Hatmaker.  I am not entirely convinced that that concerns me.  I'm no stranger to people having questions about what bloggers do and to whom bloggers are accountable or what their respective agendas might be.

Now the blog post on women and blogging that stood out (but not in a good way) at first, was from an unexpected place.  Usually I expect better from Alastair Roberts.  But ...

the stuff about modes of authority and how these relate to a heuristic taxonomy of modes of authority and the extent to which these modes are imaged by whom or whomever, and more specifically how the second mode is overwhelmingly though not exclusively male, seemed like a waste of time.   Roberts seems more apt to think things out for the public record at his blog than Wenatchee The Hatchet.  At this blog things may incubate for months before something finally goes up in the for mof a post.

The other thing is that whatever Roberts' formal training, WtH has an educational background (undergraduate though it is) in journalism.  So theories of the press, concepts of the public and the media, legal concepts pertaining to what is and isn't considered responsible and legally defensible or prosecutable mass media use, these are things Wenatchee The Hatchet has thought about a little over ten years.

But, more specifically, this blog has for better or worse gotten a reputation as a watchdog blog.  I could write thousands more words about sonata forms in early 19th century guitar literature, or maybe write a few thousand more words about the genius of Stevie Wonder, or I could finally write about why Hollywood so utterly failed to adapt Ghost in the Shell.  It wouldn't matter.  The reputation of the blog got cemented through its role as a document of the life and times of what was once Mars Hill.  That probably stereotyped view of the blog won't be shaken.  That's just how people on the internet work.

I don't think that theories about males and females is really all that important compared to a more basic question of who even has access to mass media, of whcih social media is a part, and who is given a platform.  If Jen Hatmaker had not been given a platform and then promoted by the mainstream Christian publishing industry could there even have been any controversy about her changing views on things LGBT?  No, not really.  Nor would it have mattered.  Lay people change their minds about things all the time with no consequence to the publishing and media industries.  If you didn't like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (haven't seen it yet) does Hollywood care if you don't like it?  No.  As the song in the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie put it, if you don't like it, we still have your money.

That bloggers can publish whatever they want and have no accountability but to anyone they choose to be accountable to was the simple theme over at Phoenix Preacher a little while ago.



Wendy Alsup touched on the matter that as she blogged over the years she was under the authority of church leaders.  Of course, as we know here and there, those elders ten years ago were guys at Mars Hill.


And eventually Wendy Alsup's blogging for the record about Mark Driscoll's character and conduct and writing would be a catalyst for other people choosing to go public.  Wenatchee The Hatchet had been writing about Mars Hill for a year or so, off and on, prior to Wendy Alsup writing directly about things Driscoll.  The thing was Wendy Alsup ran the women's ministry at Mars Hill.  Driscoll said great stuff about her.  This was not someone who could be dismissed by Driscoll or his fans as some uppity power-hungry devil woman or a prestige-seeking guy who got kicked off the bus or thrown under the bus.  So Alsup's criticism was impossible to dismiss and also impossible to ignore.

This kind of gets to something the blogger Rachel Miller pointed out, the problem with asking who is in charge of the Christian blogosphere is how easy it is for those people who seem to be rhetorically asking this question to forget that many times these bloggers are already submitting formally to churches that are very happy to endorse their views.


The matter is particularly dicey for Anglicans since, for instance, Bishop John Shelby Spong managed to collected a paycheck from Episcopalian church, was it?  Granting that Warren and Roberts et al are not necessarily the same kinds of Anglican/Episcopal sort as Bishop Spong it does seem tough to see how merely being submitted to a formal church ensures anything by way of accountability for doctrinal purity.

If a blogger that frustrates you is a member of a church that says whatever he or she is writing is okay then aren't we just back at the same old thing?  Someone is wrong on the internet and you can't sleep until it's confronted?

But in the case of women bloggers and the Christian blogosphere I wonder if the people who have concerns are really soft pedaling the nature and scope of the concern.  Janet Mefferd confronted Mark Driscoll on air back in 2013 about what she regarded as evidence that he had plagiarized the work of others in his book.  She didn't stop there, of course.  She had a blog post in which she presented what she regarded as evidence that plagiarism had occurred.  She wasn't even the only blogger who fielded the issue of the integrity of Mark Driscoll's intellectual property.  But her being a woman in the rough and tumble new Calvinist scene may have added a special flavor to the awkward.

A few years down the road Rachel Miller would blog about problems in a book by Douglas Wilson and Randy Booth called A Justice Primer.  That book would get rescinded on account of evidence of plagiarism.  Lest this seem to be a matter merely of popular level (rather than scholarly) books published for Christian studies, Jim West has noted a couple of more academic cases.



So while some would like to make the topic of women blogging about things on the Christian blogosphere into a question about the doctrinal purity of what these women publish it seems that if we look back at the last few years of controversy we need to remember that bloggers don't end up having book deals out of thin air.  If bloggers end up writing traditional books some company has to decide to throw time, money and effort into promoting that author.  A Rachel Held Evans or a Jen Hatmaker can't become a sensation without that corporate investment.  The gatekeepers of the media industry have to either invite you to the party or you have to be enough a member of the gatekeeper set in mass media yourself to host your own party.

It's not that bloggers don't publish things I've found exasperating.  It happens often enough, though much of the time I opt to simply not read those bloggers.  If I regard Rachel Held Evans as a spotlight seeking hack comparable to Mark Driscoll that's something people can agree with or dissent from.  My larger point is that these sorts of hacks get promoted by the publishing industry before they can upset people like, say, Frank Turk when he debated the merits and demerits of Mark Driscoll back in 2009 at Internet Monk.


Funny thing was that iMonk pointed out that Mark Driscoll was not and could not be held accountable by anyone he didn't want to be held accountable to.  No bloggers, no matter how vociferous or prolix, were going to change anything about Mark Driscoll's role as a pastor in Mars Hill.  Now if there have since been those who might say that bloggers somehow "did" change things at Mars Hill there might be a useful point to make about this proposal, those bloggers or that blogger were pretty certainly not Frank Turk nor anyone in any way associated with Team Pyro.  Maybe those guys wanted to imagine their blogging spoke truth to power about the character issues of Mark Driscoll but ...

say ... wait a minute.

Why would guys feel like they should be able to do this but have issues with women doing it?  Did Deborah not serve as a prophet and judge in Israel?  Well, sure, it might be said by some guys that her being a prophet and judge was an implicity judgment on the men of Israel for failing to be godly leaders and ...

okay, so if women blog about men who have forsaken gentleness in church leadership by what alchemy have things changed to the point that women don't get to  blog?  Not quite seeing the connection there.

How about Huldah confirming the veracity and content of the book of the Law for the court of Josiah?  It seems that if men want to say that women having such potent roles of influence and/or authority are exceptional cases in light of system corruption and spiritual incompetence in leadership so disastrous God has to shame them through women it's not clear to me why we aren't at that point now.  This is just a matter of simply taking the axiomatic observation of some Christian guys about how if women are prominent leaders the men have failed and granting them that point to suggest this tells us more about their failure to lead properly than of the women whose influence the men are concerned about.

It does not seem to be for nothing at all that women bloggers have played roles in highlighting plagiarism egregious enough to bring down the books and at times the careers of men who have styled themselves as tough non-nonsense guys.  Driscoll talked like he was doing Mefferd a favor back in 2013 when she confronted him on air.  Now he's all about father wounds and the father heart of God as if he completely transformed into what he would have called "a pansy-ass therapist" back in 1998 when he was being interviewed for an article in Mother Jones.  He's even sharing tales about how while it may be his name on the title President or CEO of the new church it was really his kids' idea to just start a church.  Is there anything more manly than hiding behind stories of your children as the explanation for why you started a church of which you're president and CEO?

I suppose by now you've seen I'm a little bit skeptical about men who are skeptical about the influence of women bloggers.  if the industry of Christian publishing didn't let these women become celebrities to maybe half the level that male bloggers have celebrity then the pivots in public on stuff to do with sex wouldn't even be news.   It's hard not to get the sense that the bloggers that are worrisome have a bottom line somewhere.  You can only get disinvited from conferences if you've been invited and you seem to only get invited to conferences if you have a message or a product to sell.

Do women on the Christian blogosphere write stuff that's heretical?  Sure, I'm sure it happens.  It also happens with male bloggers on the Christian blogosphere.  But at their worst, the most heretical Christian bloggers are not likely to get visitors from the Internal Revenue Service like Hinn's HQ got in the last few weeks.  Bloggers would have to do something really unusual to become defendants in civil RICO suits.  Bloggers only have as much of a platform as the gatekeepers of the publishing industry decide they get to have.  more often than not the mainstream press and institutional media treats blogs like they don't even exist.  It's the flip side of the question as to who is in charge of the blogosphere, who actually takes bloggers to actually be writing stuff that's influenced the public?  is there even a way to measure the influence of blogs?

Perhaps a new way to ask this old question is to ask why the mainstream Christian popular publishing industry has been so quick to throw its money and influence behind promoting people who, as time goes on, say and do things that suggests that maybe they got promoted too quickly?  There may be such a thing as laying hands too quickly on the next monetizable thing.

After Mark Driscoll's years of having controversy swirling around plagiarism and the Result Source promotion of his book in the 2013-2014 news cycle, after Doug Wilson and Randy Booth had their plagiarism scandal, after any number of pastors had marriages fall apart only to have them sprint back up to the pulpit the idea that there's a crisis because women with blogs need to be held accountable when many of these women are probably already bloggign in contexts in which they are at churches that are okay with what they blog (per Rachel Miller's observation) seems to be missing the point.  The graft and venality of the pop Christian media industry seems to be more of the real problem.

We've seen mass media explode in unexpected ways ni the last thirty years.  Conventional media has withered in a lot of ways.  Traditional journalism has been supplanted by electronic journalism.  Social media has exploded and is a form of mass media so pervasive I doubt a majority of Anglo-American Christians have even successfully wrapped their heads around the idea that it's mass media, if a relatively recent form of mass media.  As I think Terry Teachout put it a few years ago, our popular level use of this new form of mass media has vastly outpaced our ability to think through the ethics and constraints of how to responsibly use it.  Teachout has been a professional critic and journalist for decades.  It's hardly a shock if those people with training in how to responsibly participate in the public sphere may have a clearer understanding of what is and isn't appropriate use of a mass media platform.  So, sure, journalists and pastors who decide to use social media such as blogs or twitter or Facebok will have a clearer understanding of what is and isn't likely to be responsible behavior.

I think we should be asking ourselves how a guy like Driscoll managed to publish "Pussified Nation" and successfully scrubbed it from pubic view within months f its publication while a Jen Hatmaker is somehow a new cause for alarm.  Nobody who is just a blogger becomes newsworthy. Its possible to publish material and then have other journalists or even other bloggers scoop it and get coverage in the press for running with a commentary on something you may have published first.  I've seen that happen, yes.  The fascinating thing is that it's possible to publish stuff for which the institutional press makes no nods at all, information that will get reported in the mainstream press as though the mainstream press had access to the information or documents, even if that content may have first been published for public consideration at a blog.

The star-making industry should reconsider who it decides to grant star status to before its participants at the blogging level or the op-ed level get too sure that the problem is which women bloggers have been allowed to become stars.  If there was no star-making machinery they couldn't even become the stars they've become, and that goes the same for male bloggers, too.  Let that blogger who won't parlay his or her blogging into a book deal themselves cast the first stone.


chris e said...

So I read the Tish Warren piece - though crucially read it only after I heard her interviewed by Scott Jones, and so on that level at least it appears that Rachel Miller and others misunderstood slightly what she was trying to say [which was really a point that was just using the actions of a single female blogger as a spring board onto something else - a discussion on how we view blogging in particular, and female authors/writers/'teachers' more generally in the mid to strict (c)onservative world and giving them some kind of formal recognition].

OTOH .. it was ever thus wasn't it? And Warren's reference (in the interview) to evangelical megachurch pastors (I preferred 'evangelical megachurch warlords') is apposite. Though you could go further back through church history.

ISTM that the 'lack of an accountability/authority structure' only became a concern when the boot was on the other foot, and when conservative voices weren't able to drown out the opposition [back in the day people were less likely to have heard Spong, than to hear him used as an illustration of what those 'atheians' out there believe].

On that note it's somewhat ironic and amusing to see authority structures being discussed seriously on the internet by a bunch of people who form a self appointed 'think tank' (itself a concept more driven by patronage than any form of accountability).

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

got a link for the jones interview? That'd be interesting to hear.

chris e said...

First part of this (she's really on to talk about her book):


Cal of Chelcice said...

I do think Alastair is right about sexual difference, but I'm with you, his post bordered on a strange straightjacketed that doesn't do justice to the many points about media authority structures and how they're managed. Isn't strange we're equating women blogging to Deborah, who held an actual 'office' as a Judge? It wasn't that she just had a group of followers, she was elected to some 'thing'.

That 'thing'-ness is precisely what is in chaos. Evangelicalism, and Protestantism more generally, has a crises of offices and authority structure. Since 'what' the Church or, perhaps more epistemically manageable, 'a' church is is not clearly understood, how can one even begin to approach the question of offices? If the Roman church defrocks a priest, even the most lazy and nominal Catholic would cease to consider him a priest and would probably have some 'sense' that if the ex-priest showed up and performed a mass, it'd be somehow hokey, if not invalid. Or, if one runs with the 'indelible mark' theology, if the ex-priest was replaced with a serious layman, it would, again, probably be considered suspect. At least that's my impression.

So it makes sense that a valid concern to fence the 'teaching office' of Scripture from women would be met with the absurd bluster about women blogging. I still here the quaint refrain that the reason people should go to a church on Sundays is because you can't do the Christian life alone. Well, the six Christian old ladies playing bridge at the nursing home, is that a church? What if they listened to a preacher vis. an mp3?

While I can certainly appreciate and understand their frustration, it's amusing to watch Church of England authorities sneer, complain, and throw their shoes at George Whitfield. He let the genie out of the bottle, sort of. If the established church had no power to exercise political restraints (e.g. keep a subject from voting, or fining him), what could they do? Certainly, this inability to restrain created a larger sense of ecumenical management, where there could be social control about not going to the right church. This might be manifest in what social circles a congregation gave access to, or in structural contempt poured on certain types.

But now that this has evaporated, what means of control are left? There are none, so pious platitudes resound in an empty space that is getting emptier. Megachurches continue to fill, but the mechanisms depend on the informal network of publishers, media management, and perceived popularity. Driscoll seems to have taken the heaviest blow when people began to collectively turn away, and other heads, fearful of contamination, fled. But, we might wonder if Driscoll could've maintained a rump empire if his friends stood by him. His resurgence might suggest that he could've, and the rest of his criminal acts would've been swept down the memory hole of our Americana moment.

It seems unless Evangelicals, or Protestants more widely, can find a solid sense of church, then they're doomed to this sort of inane grumbling and attempt to police the unpoliceable. Unless society re-empowers an established church with coercive authority, or that some collective cataclysm turns people away from wanting women to teach, speak, or comment, then this is all a kingdom built of the clouds.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

chris e, thanks for the link

cal, at this point the concern that Americans are LEAST likely to take seriously is one a friend of mine shared with me eleven years ago, that when he's looked at the last century and a half of what are now the Protestant mainlines, budging on the ordination of women inevitably led to budging on pretty much everything else, too. The American mentality seems set on ensuring, in spite of any formal separation between church and state, to insist on a unity. If in the past the trouble seemed to be that many churches expected to wield state power what American churches may be discovering is that now the situation is reversed, they're expected to, not even at length, conform to a practically worked out conformity to an ideological commitment to a brand of individual fulfillment and liberty that is expected of the American lifestyle.

Low church American Protestants probably don't realize how doomed any resistance is likely to be yet because they've spent enough centuries abjecting anything like an appeal to historical continuity as "dead tradition" in polemics against high church/high liturgical traditions that they have sawn off the branch they might otherwise resort to now in their polemics against any "dead tradition" stuff. The techniques of the First or Second Great Awakening "can" be employed by just about anybody with the right technique, right?

Cal of Chelcice said...

Absolutely spot on. I suppose my first comment then needs an amendment. The authority structures and offices have a sense of power when they gain the inertia of tradition. Hence, Roman tradition exerts a structuring effect on how the lazy and nominal Catholic interprets the event of a defrocked priest. Even if he doesn't believe much, he still 'knows' things when he sees them. Thus Roman tradition becomes the grounds upon which offices can function.

Ironically, maybe it's the Baptists that best exemplify something similar and it is the Anglo-Catholics who do the opposite. Baptists, despite complaints to the contrary, still carry about a sense of unspoken tradition that sculpts the form worship takes, the authority "pastor" wields, and determines for congregants what to expect. Anglo-Catholicism did the opposite because a theologically inclined elite tried to remodel, from a whim, the Anglican "tradition". This, ironically again, fit within the same program of Modernization that most mainline Protestants underwent to make the faith more "rational". This set tradition in the wind, and eroded the sense of inertia. If you can reinvent the way we celebrate and perform the faith, why can't I? Can't I shape the way things are to make them more "relevant"? So maybe the Megachurch rock concert and the Anglo-Catholic chant are two strange peas in a pod. Is historical grocery shopping for form substantially different than a contemporary pragmatism?

Thanks for good ideas,

PS. Just to make it clear, I have no desire to have an established church, I only highlight that it worked to enforce a program. In fact, perhaps the current state of affairs is just desserts.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

as nominal Catholicism and megachurch rock concerts go Mark Driscoll may really be the most emblematic celebrity Christian of the era by having fit into both categories--first he was the nominal Catholic and then he became the megachurch rock star pastor. It might be a terrible thing to have a path that is emblematic of the worst of both worlds but it kinda looks like Driscoll's a candidate for that sometimes.

chris e said...

I think you are rather too sanguine about the Baptists. The same trend is visible in the Baptist movement - you just need to look much more closely because there's less of a centralised authority.

It's increasingly common for Baptist churches to belong to several networks that pull them in competing directions, and even when they are ostensibly 'conservative' they deform the Baptist distinctives in the church - to the extent they exist. [btw these days there are large numbers of Anglo Catholics who are definitely not elitist are very much of the people].

Going back to the original post/point, I'm rather suspicious of these kinds of diagnoses emanating from conservative sources, because the taxonomies they use and the remedies they come up with make me think that they haven't got a a particularly good handle on what's happening and are just bloviating.

Take this from a previous Jones' interview with the editor of First Things: https://giveandtake.fireside.fm/14

He talks at length about the "disenhancement of the world" (whatever he means by that), the tragedy that people avoid the humanities because they are 'obsessed with money' (completely void of the economic context). What are the remedies he comes up with? Make catholic mass more obscurantist and thus more mysterious, renew a social contract that includes and excludes (the trans movement seems to be the obvious target given the rest of the interview) oh .. and lower corporation tax.

Really? These are the gripes of a prejudiced uncle, couched in more flowery terms, and with some loose cause and effect joining the two.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

for clarification, chris e, was that recent comment a response to cal?

My impression was that when John Piper said Driscoll's resignation was a victory for Satan/defeat for the Gospel this was skewed by the kind of Baptist he is. It only seemed that particular Baptists were lamenting Driscoll as emblematic of a defeat for Reformed theology while Presbyterians and old Calvinist types seemed to have regarded Driscoll as an Amyraldian showboating cheat.

... ah Reno ... yeah ... not going to comment on that.

chris e said...

The initial two paragraphs were a response to cal. The rest was a response to the original post you linked.

When people claim that they have diagnosed a very complex set of social problems (so complex that it is impossible for any interlocutor to fully understand) and yet their policy prescriptions are so jejune, let's just say I have my doubts.

Eric said...

Before the internet, Christian media orgs, who were not necessarily tied to any "ecclesial authority", had a very big voice into the wider Church. Sometimes these orgs will have boards with sensible Christians, but some of the heterodox preachers on TV had far bigger audiences than bloggers.