What could the ‘priesthood,’ and institutions, look like in Australia’s Christian Blogosphere?

Right. So let me draw together some implications from the last two posts about this new reformation we’re facing because of the internet, and the dangers of reform creating a vacuum that gets occupied by an over-correction against the original establishment, and let me nail some colours to the mast, before positing some ways forward.

First, it’s worth remembering that the online conversation these posts are responding to is one about what authority and teaching look like outside the bricks and mortar and the fleshly embodied reality of the church; and perhaps how those realities inform the virtual space, and are in turn informed by it. They’re questions specifically raised because the internet has given a voice to women where women have previously been excluded from some institutions, and the nature of social media means these women gain authority by virtue of the size of their audience (just as men do in this space too). Platforms in a democratised space are much more obviously individual (personal blogs mean everybody has the capacity to publish and gain an audience); and yet institutions still exist online in the form of joint platforms where the platform itself gives weight and credibility to a speaker, and perhaps has some connection to a real world authority structure. There are also bloggers, those of us who are signed up members and employees of institutional churches, whose online words are held to account in the real world by these same structures (so if I write heresy here I get real world consequences). For some of us it’s not just the market that decides if we’ve crossed a line; but there’s also a degree of authority that comes from these connections.

The people who choose what (or who) a platform will lend its authority to are the people who reveal who that platform considers as part of the ‘priesthood’ — so, for example, Reddit allows anybody with an account to publish, and then the market decides what a published piece is worth; Buzzfeed has staff writers and editors but also allows user generated content that has its value determined by the market, and by a team of ‘community editors’; Medium is a platform where again, anybody can write, but the market dictates what is featured, as do Medium’s team of curators; whereas traditional media outlets maintain a sort of editorial structure and staff writers, while publishing OpEds from reasonable qualified people (and I mean that in terms of ‘people with a relevant sort of expertise that provides value’). In the Christian blogosphere there are lots of people running their own platforms, lots of individual bloggers and social media users (though this is bigger where there’s a bigger market in the US, think perhaps of John Dickson on Facebook, or Stephen McAlpine at his blog). There are some platforms that are multi-contributor platforms tied to physical ‘real world’ institutions (like church websites). There are some online platforms that are more analogous to traditional media like newspapers (Eternity, who, for the record, I think are the best example of what could be, and reformed evangelical types should spend less time throwing rocks at their agenda and more time writing for it) and book publishers (Gotherefor) who are grappling with the tradition to a social media world, and there are some platforms that are virtual platforms in their own right where the platform brings a sort of inherent online authority and credibility to its content (and the writers of that content); and it’s these platforms that are particularly interesting in terms of the conversation about authority online, and these that are the ones that would seem to have most at stake in this sort of technology-led Reformation of the notion of authority and the priesthood. Some of these platforms are set up precisely to bring reform the status quo (FixingHerEyes for example), some are set up to maintain the status quo (Thinking Of God), and some are set up to help us respond to the changing world from fixed theological assumptions (The Gospel Coalition). Each of these sites is, in some part, ‘social’ in its approach to content generation, each is, in some way, operating as an institution, but each have interesting authority structures that reflect certain assumptions about ‘the priesthood’ that mean a technology driven reformation will impact them (and the success or failure of their mission) differently.

So here’s where I’m at:

  • Institutional authority is a good check and balance against individual authority, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
  • Listening to individuals from outside the ‘establishment’ or a diverse establishment built on listening, is necessary to keep reforming practices that have deviated from Scripture and the service of the Lord Jesus.
  • Institutions need to keep being willing to be reformed in the face of individuals and groups who raise concerns, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
  • The relationship between real world authority and accountability and online authority and accountability is an important one, but not fatal to ‘virtual’ properties.
  • Martin Luther was right about the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and that online technology will cause an ongoing reform of our structures and practices beyond the structuring of relationships in the flesh.
  • The internet is a blunt instrument that lends itself to the destruction of institutions and expertise, and to populism under the guise of ‘democracy’ or ‘egalitarianism’  (not in the theological sense). True democracy requires institutions that create platforms big enough for ideas to be shared (like parties) and a place for ideas to be discussed (like parliament and the media), and it requires listening and a generous pluralism where we make space for those we disagree with.
  • Technology as it stands means that establishments that have set up non-democratic ‘priesthoods’ that favour an establishment voice over the marginalised face an uphill battle to keep ‘authority’ and credibility and that this will undermine such platforms.
  • We need to reform or create institutions that reflect a more robust priesthood of all believers such that we do not favour a particular gender, or class, or educational standard, or age, or race, so that we can listen well to voices from the margins who might prompt more necessary reform, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
  • When it comes to the question at the heart of this debate, and the voices of women, if we can’t make space online to hear women what chance is there for those of us who want to maintain a faithful sense of us being one body, a kingdom of priests, co-image bearers, who are different and equal in the flesh where there are particular Biblical principles we should be seeking to apply. The priesthood of all believers has interesting implications for church leadership, eldership, marriage and the arranging of our communities; but websites are neither the ‘church gathered’ nor the family unit, and it’s dangerous to extrapolate Biblical principles about gender differences in particular circumstances to all circumstances in ways that stop us listening to the voices of women.
  • Part of this listening exercise will mean being generous, and making space to hear, voices that challenge us and that say things that are untrue, but the cost of the priesthood of all believers is that the community needs to discern the ‘prophetic’ voices that claim to be speaking in ways that will continue to bring us under the authority of Scripture, in the service of the Lord Jesus.
  • A more important strategy than anything discussed here, is to think about how we operate not in our own media/social media/institutional bubble, but how we contribute to the bigger ‘bubble’ and to other institutions (this is where I think the Centre For Public Christianity is a terrific example).
  • Perhaps an even better and more important strategy than anything being discussed here is how we might, as Christians, be champions of a generous pluralism and a diverse public square beyond the boundaries of the church; one where we aren’t just listening to other Christians, but to other people, so that they might also listen to us.

And here’s the problem. I’m not totally sure that many of our current platforms have the diversity within their institutions or the theological vision/mission to withstand the brunt force of this new technology in flattening structures/institutions. I think our establishments (be they denominations or think tanks) have tended to accidentally marginalise those outside certain norms, and have created a sort of ‘priesthood’ that limits our ability to listen to, and reach, those outside these norms (or those who are marginalised by them).

The Gospel Coalition Australia as a Case Study in this ‘new media reformation’

I said above that those who get to decide who a platform raises up are basically the ultimate ‘priesthood’; and this reveals a lot about how much an institution is listening to people beyond a particular sort of narrow establishment. I don’t want to pick on or shame The Gospel Coalition Australia here, but I do want to use them as an example of an institution that I think is geared up to be smashed by this ‘new reformation’ because of the way it is structured; and I think the way that it is structured should be challenged on the basis of the points above.

The Gospel Coalition Australia is an almost exclusively online entity or network; it produces resources for the church, and according to some members of the council, is an exercise in ‘thought leadership’ for the Australian church. Valuing a certain sort of ‘resource production’ and a certain sort of ‘thought leadership’ has had the unfortunate impact of creating a certain sort of ‘priesthood’ for this platform. The council of TGC Australia all in either vocational ministry or Christian academia; they all have many years of ministry and leadership experience in Australian churches. They’re all men. Now, it may be that this is an expressly complementarian decision; that TGC made a decision that it would be led by men, but I don’t think that’s the most charitable assumption, nor is it borne out by the story of the formation of TGC AU on the site itself:

“… there are significantly different cultural and theological challenges to life and ministry in Australia. In addition, a growing consensus was emerging that we urgently need to form and foster vibrant gospel partnerships on the ground across our cities, States and Territories. And so last August, a group of 13 pastors and leaders from across our Nation met in Sydney for the first time.” — The Gospel Coalition Australia, ‘The Birth of TGC Australia’

If the group was put together with pastors and leaders from churches that share the theological convictions of the Gospel Coalition, then it was only possible for this group to feature men; it’s just perhaps a little short sighted to think that a parachurch organisation designed to help us form vital gospel partnerships to deal with the cultural and theological challenges to life and ministry in Australia need to exclusively draw on the expertise of pastors and leaders.

I’m going to assume these men were genuinely selected on merit and character, and there are many men there who I love and respect; many of them are family friends, or former teachers, or preachers I admire who minister in churches I hope to emulate. Yet. They are all educated men, of a certain age (and older), which creates a certain sort of impression about the ‘priesthood’ here; that it’s about education, and qualification via experience; and these criteria exclude not just women but large swathes of the church population and many of the people we’re trying to reach in Australia. When you make a composite portrait of the council and represent them as one person, who I’m calling Mr Gospel Coalition; you get this:

Now. There’s geographic diversity in the mix here; it’s a truly national group. There’s ethnic diversity. And yet, every one of these blokes is a tertiary educated bloke who is (by my calculations) aged 40+. This is a fairly exclusive sort of priesthood; it’s true that many of the writers who’ve had articles published on the Gospel Coalition are outside these demographics, but the institutional authority here is held in the hands of a relative narrow group who provide an interesting picture of what qualification to be a thought leader looks like; the thoughts published on the platform are given weight by the people creating the platform, not just the author.

Bill Shorten learned this week that if you want to represent a suitably broad church, like the Labor movement, you need to pay attention to diversity because your metacommunication about who is important and included can undermine your communication. Meta-communication matters. But it’s not just a token thing either; diversity at an organisational level ensures we’re hearing multiple perspectives; the same reason that led TGC to be a truly geographically national movement could perhaps have motivated them to be a more diverse movement too.

When setting an editorial agenda for a virtual publication designed to provide thought leadership for Australians dealing with the changing landscape of our mission field, there’s a lot of onus on these guys to be listening to perspectives outside their own experience, and I’m not totally sure that the content I’ve read on The Gospel Coalition provides the sort of thought leadership that the people my church family is hoping to reach are going to follow; it’s not thought leadership that is generally helpful in reaching the modern (or post-modern) Australian landscape; and, it meta-communicates something terrible; exactly the sort of thing this new revolution is seeking to

In terms of media strategy the Gospel Coalition is all very ‘establishment’/traditional media; it’s a site that operates more like the ABC’s Religion and Ethics page for our theological bubble, than like Buzzfeed; it certainly doesn’t seem to feature contributions from people who fall outside (or even particularly close to the edges) of its established orthodoxy (so it’s unlikely to feature genuinely innovative reforming ‘orthopraxy’… You’ve got a site operated by a bunch of mostly middle aged-to-elderly, tertiary educated (normally post-grad), (mostly) white guys; who are predominantly modernist in their outlook, conservative in their approach, responding with a sort of concern rather than optimism to the changing (and admittedly more hostile) world, and apparently interested in preserving the status quo in terms of our media practices, church practices, and leadership when the status quo appears to be failing us (so one appears to need a theological education to contribute, and certainly to be on the council). What does blue collar thought leadership look like? How do we reach the Aussies who don’t have a tertiary education? How do we empower and equip women to shape the life of the church? And how do we allow different experiences of life in Australia to shape how we love Australia and share the good news of Jesus with our neighbours in ways that match their plausibility structures? How would we not be better off with institutions like The Gospel Coalition that were truly diverse in their structure; that truly reflected a priesthood of all believers?

The problem for the Gospel Coalition is that if the thesis I unpacked over the last two posts is correct; and they represent the sort of ‘new media establishment,’ within the Christian blogosphere, that the ‘new media reformation’ is going to overthrow, then those of us who share many theological convictions with the Gospel Coalition are in trouble; because the reformers will become the ‘establishment’ within the church and these sorts of institutions will fail to take hold in the ‘new media reality’… the nature of the internet lends itself to those campaigning for more diverse or democratised platforms and priesthoods than offered by the current Gospel Coalition platform. It lends itself to those who want a priesthood based on populism, or a priesthood that is so broad that questions of authority rest totally in the hands of the audience-as-individuals (or even in the audience-as-a-collective), not in the hands of institutions. Even if that thesis isn’t correct, it seems to me that there’s a problem here in what it communicates about ‘the priesthood’ and its nature in the churches coalescing under the banner; the priesthood is educated, male, and probably ‘experienced’… this marginalises voices that we perhaps need to be listening to in a changing Australian landscape; like indigenous Australians who face an incredible gap in all sorts of living standards and life expectancy, like kids who’ve navigated faithfully following Jesus in schools that are ever more hostile to Christianity, like teens that have remained chaste and avoided drugs (and those who haven’t but have found hope in Jesus), like our same sex attracted brothers and sisters who remain single in a sexular age and need Christian community to make that plausible, like people who are living radically different economic lives, like people coming to Jesus from other cultures with other languages as their primary language, like refugees,  like artists and creatives who don’t have an education but might help us engage better with the people around us, oh yeah, and like women. Women whose experience of life in a pornofied world, a patriarchal world, a world where they are much more likely to be violently abused than I am… maybe we could hear from them for the good of our communities… how do we communicate, in our institutions that believers in these categories are members of the priesthood of all believers with important things to say; and how do we make sure we listen to them, rather than simply trusting our own perspective and expertise (and remember, I’m a white, very educated, almost middle-aged bloke, I’m speaking from experience when I say it’s hard not to simply believe I see the world more accurately than everybody else).

It’s possible that this reformation is actually a good thing; a chance for us to reflect on the sort of institutions we build and their aims (and their audience). It’s possible it might prompt us to create better institutions that truly capitalise on the diversity of experience, expertise, leadership, and examples of faithfully living for, loving, and proclaiming Jesus in our churches. It’s possible that we might build institutions or structures, real or virtual, that provide space for those our society marginalises (the young, the old, the disabled, the uneducated, the poor, the non-english speaker, the refugee, the abuse victim) to voice not just their concerns about how we, the church, operate in the world, but imagination about how we might operate differently to reach the people we currently miss because of our practices and our ‘priesthood of the educated’. It’s possible we might stop thinking that the internet is a place just for writing smart things, and start considering how we might use multimedia, or visuals, to equip people for works of service, and enrich our testimony to the goodness of the Gospel as we produce things that are good and true and beautiful; it’s possible that as we tell stories about the impact of the Gospel in the lives of a diverse range of people, it will become more plausible for our church communities to shape themselves so that a more diverse range of people might be accommodated; it’s possible that we do this first at the leadership level, making a commitment from the top down, rather than waiting for enough ‘bottom up’ growth that we need to provide some sort of ‘representation’ for the clamour of voices of those who’ve been excluded from the priesthood.

Diversity isn’t the answer, it’s a means not an ends in itself; but it’s a start. And if we don’t do it proactively, the market is going to do it for us in a way the ‘establishment’ won’t like…

Maybe we could do a Luther, and be moved by the plight of those being oppressed by our institution — the people lining up to purchase indulgences from the corrupt church, excluded from the life of the church by an exclusive priesthood — and move to make space for their voices to be heard, as we create opportunities for them to hear the Gospel. Maybe this means working really hard to give people other than educated men a voice in our systems; while staying faithful to how we think the Bible shapes our understanding of gender. If we don’t work at creating better institutions, the number of people who care about anything that looks remotely like an institution or an attempt to wield ‘authority’ is going to drop significantly; and we’ll end up with a Christian blogosphere of listicles, how tos, fashion tips, dating advice, click bait and hot takes on current events. We’ll end up looking like an awful digital Koorong where anyone who walks in has to wade through a bunch of dross and exercise huge levels of discernment even when it comes to the best sellers. And nobody wants that…

Successful revolutionaries become the establishment; and that’s why questions of ‘authority’ matter in the ‘Christian blogosphere’

“Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.” — Martin Luther, Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants

 

When Luther, the Reformer, went head to head with the church establishment and won (at least in Germany); he accidentally-on-purpose became the establishment. I’m not totally sure he was ready for the power or responsibility; most of the stuff he’s infamous for, rather than famous for, came after he’d replaced the Catholic Church as the authority.

Luther’s ideas, particularly the ‘priesthood of all believers’ challenged the establishment beyond simply the power of the church; his use of the printing press as a ‘democratising’ platform that gave a ‘priestly’ voice to anybody with an idea, which undermined the power structures within the church filtered out beyond these structures and into the political realm; where power was certainly not democratic. The political power Luther was relying on for the protection of his reforms was not democratic… and the Reformation correlated with (it’s hard to say it directly caused) a peasant revolt in Germany. Luther didn’t want to lose what he had worked to establish, so he wrote pretty vehemently Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants. The irony here is that the same reforming impulse that saw him challenge the established church, was driving these peasants, and in a later justification of the harshness of this first missive, he doubled down, saying “a rebel is not worth rational arguments, for he does not accept them. You have to answer people like that with a fist, until the sweat drips off their noses…

Which is almost precisely what the church wanted to do to him… and here he is backing those who use power, possibly those who abuse power, with a theological justification, saying Christians should “suffer injustice, not to seize the sword and take to violence”… Luther added the authority of his voice against the cause of reform elsewhere… political reform. He was a certain sort of establishment… Then people within the Reformation movement started to disagree with each other and using the mechanisms of the new media technology at their disposal (the printing press) to publish against one another, and things got a bit worse (so Luther called Zwingli his ‘Judas’ after he and a bloke named Carlstadt started publishing pamphlets against him and then things got really ugly) and it was clear that in some ways Luther viewed himself as the new church establishment in Germany. He’d reformed and ‘democratised’ the church; but had maintained some of the institutions and power dynamics of the church establishment he replaced.

Questions of authority are vexing amidst questions of reform; especially when new media technologies give new power to voices that don’t want to conserve the status quo, or establishment, but challenge it. So in all the conversation around questions of authority and the blogosphere; conversations about something like a new technology driven reformation, in conversations about how we, the church, approach publishing/teaching on the web, we need to ask: what are we going to replace the establishment with? What will the new establishment be? How will it be different? Who will it marginalise even as it empowers others who have been marginalised?

Social media is a ‘new media technology’ — and it’s really where the democratising power of the Internet is finally starting to bite into establishments that are less democratic. In the analogy with the peasant’s revolt (or any revolution aimed at democracy) the traditional establishment media represents a concentration of power and influence in the hands of the few; the aristocracy (the company owners) and their nobles (the journalists). While this is a follow up to my last post which is about the state of the Christian blogosphere and the question of ‘authority’ in this new media landscape and the social media lead reformation, there’s an analogy to consider between how social media is changing church power structures, and how it is changing establishments outside the church, particularly in the media. Traditional media empires are falling to pieces (eg Fairfax) because they can no longer profit in this new landscape; they have been disrupted. The establishment is dying. The problem is they haven’t yet been replaced with anything better.

Citizen journalism and social media (a democratised platform) can produce a political movement like the Arab Spring (and that’s being damned with faint praise), and can produce an Obama presidency and then a Trump presidency. Citizen journalism, or the loss of power of ‘establishment authorities’ like the traditional mainstream media (the ‘institution’ or the press as ‘an estate of the realm’), also gives rise to ‘fake news’… because the fragmenting of media companies means that professional standards, regulations, and codes of ethics are out the door, and even the legal protections like defamation laws are less effective because the cost of going after a blogging operation running from a bedroom isn’t really worth it (like it might have been against a media outlet operated by News Ltd). It opens up the ‘publish first seek forgiveness later’ mentality, and removes the burdens of fact checking and source confirmation and all sorts of things that have protected us as an audience, but also given authority to particular established outlets.

Season three of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom grappled with this tension beautifully. Here’s a great clip.

“People don’t read this with the expectation of it being true…”

It’s actually based on a real world example. That’s the line offered by the voice from the margins — the voice seeking to challenge the establishment and the role of authority, the creator of ACNgage. And it’s almost the voice that says ‘the market will decide who is worthy of having authority’ coming from the new reformers.

Here’s the quote that Newsroom quote is built from…

“What the stalker map is is citizen journalism, people don’t read it with the expectation that every word of it will be Gospel, everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all. What they read it for is the immediacy… you get an unfiltered… the way that people perceive celebrities in real time…”

For those of us who are idealists about what role the media might play in transparent and accountable politics, this is diabolical in the sphere of the press; but for those of us wondering about Christian voices and authority in the social media world there’s a word of warning here; can we afford to be so blasé about truth and the idea that it’s ‘people’ as readers who have to do the work of discernment?

Do we really want to, in a rush to democratising the web using egalitarian (in the broadest sense, not the ‘technical’ term within Christian debates about gender) technologies really want to do away with all institutions (and credibility and expertise and accountability and ethics) to let populism rule?

In my idealistic wannabe journalist phase I was schooled to believe that what the public is interested in is not the same as what is in the public interest; the idea that journalists have a gatekeeping role to play when it comes to deciding what qualifies as news. The problem with our modern news institutions is that they’ve become more interested in serving up what we think we’re interested in at the expense of what we should be interested in in order to live in a flourishing society. Here, for example, are some of the stories from the news.com.au homepage last week.

 

 

 

How ‘Police Officer turns to career in stripping’ is a finance story escapes me; but these are stories that are designed primarily to entertain and titillate; not to inform the public about things that are important for the common good. This little picture of a ‘media institution’ in the new media landscape makes a very good case for democratisation and reform; so long as we replace it with something better — not just a thing that gives our itching ears a good scratch.

Reform could be a really good thing for the media; but I’m not so sure the ‘blogosphere’ or ‘citizen journalism’ is the answer to this problem. I’m not sure that bad institutions are a reason to do away with institutions altogether. If the media we consume shapes our common life, and is part of what helps us flourish as societies, then I’m not sure we’ll be richer without institutions. We just need different institutions that are able to harness the good parts of new technology without an overcorrection. Which is harder than it stands; because most revolutionaries are functionally aggressive monotheists (our way is the way), not pluralists (we want to make space for multiple ways held in tension); we want total victory over the other, especially when the other has been oppressive and there’s a sense of justice. The natural tendency of reformers is to replace; to fill the power vacuum you create by overthrowing the old system. That’s why in some revolutions the establishment get beheaded.

A power shift from the few to the many, without considering some of the limits of power that the ‘few’ faced (or ideally faced) that the many won’t, will be dangerous. While institutions can be terrible and corrupt and serve fairly narrow agendas, this does not mean that all authority structures are equally terrible. It’d also be naive to think that no structure but the totally ‘democratised’ audience is the best option; this is already happening in the traditional media; the media that is market driven gives the market what it wants rather than what it needs; it aims for excitement, entertainment and titillation rather than information for formation. The same sort of naivety that leads to the death of expertise in stuff like direct democracy political parties; populism is a terrible master. It’s funny that populism and the rise of fake news gave the US a Trump presidency, but Trump is so keen to be ‘anti-establishment’ that he’s calling the establishment media fake news… In a democratised platform we, the people, are responsible for deciding what behaviour is ethical, acceptable, and in our interest, we, the people, are responsible for deciding what content deserves a wider audience. The power is in our hands; and so questions of how to place limits on the power of the mob are worth staring down. It’s possible Luther was a bit right about the revolting peasants, even if democracy is actually a really great thing, and even if his motives were a bit questionable.

We don’t want the reformers to become the new establishment to wield exactly the same sort of power against their opponents as the previous establishment. We want to, I think, figure out how to create democratic institutions that have a clearly articulated platform, a clear code of ethics, and external (perhaps legal) accountability; but also an understanding of what these democratic platforms must do for the voiceless (they should give them a voice). New mediums lose lots of this stuff by their democratised nature; but they gain the ability to give a voice to those who have otherwise been voiceless (which is why they’re usually quickly adopted, or even developed, by the marginalised who are pushing for systemic reform). New mediums put more control in the hands of the audience/market than ever before; a platform itself isn’t enough; you choose what you read; but then you have the opportunity to become a contributor (by commenting), or a publisher (by sharing to other social media channels, or by publishing your own response elsewhere). The new establishment is fragmented; and authority now comes more from the audience than the platform. Some people are responding to this by producing new media platforms (Gawker, Buzzfeed, etc and Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti’s stuff on new media (linked to in this old post) is worth reading if that stuff interests you).

So here’s my theory; true reform doesn’t change who’s in the establishment but the nature of ‘establishment’ or the system itself (and technology can be part of that). What we’ve got to do here is navigate between media being in the hands of a powerful elite who exclude perspectives outside their own but have some in built accountability, and the media being in the hands of everybody with accountability being totally external (in the hands of the audience). This is true in the secular ‘new media’ landscape when it comes to how institutions function or what the establishment looks like…  but it’s also a thing for us to figure out as Christians. We, in the Christian ‘blogosphere’; have our little parallel institutions, aren’t immune from this stuff either; there’s an establishment (often in the form of the institutional church and its proxies, but also in the form of voices that have a certain amount of authority because of how they’ve been supported by traditional Christian media outlets). And these videos above are a beautiful picture of the current debate online and what’s at stake outside the church and inside it…

This new media is inevitably and inherently democratic, it will, as I suggested in my last post, favour the anti-establishment side where that side has not been perceptively inclusive or democratic; and the side arguing for the equality of all voices (a true ‘priesthood of all believers’) against a narrow priesthood… much as the printing press favoured the reformers and aligned with their framework. If you give everyone a voice with a new technology, it’s those who’ve been marginalised who (historically) who’ll be the quickest to pick up the new technology (if not to develop it in order to serve their agenda).

What would be a terrible idea in the face of this technological upheaval, or disruption, would be to attempt to play the game the way we always have; to be like the Catholic Church in the face of the Reformation, or the traditional print media in the face of the Internet… Those of us who believe there are some good things to conserve in our institutions, in the face of progress, need to grapple with how to make our institutions nimble and rightly progressive; to be better and more compelling than the alternatives. If a democratised, or egalitarian, technology favours those with totally egalitarian theology (be it on gender or just on questions of institutional authority or tradition) then we need to think pretty hard about how to offer a better alternative (possibly a generously ‘pluralistic’ one). The thing that worries me most about the egalitarian stuff isn’t so much the theology (there are many things I agree with as someone who, with Luther, is big on the priesthood of all believers and the equality of all people under God), but the potential that an egalitarian approach to life actually creates a meritocracy; that once there’s no sort of structural control or accountability, it’s the powerfully persuasive voices that actually get favoured and build the biggest platforms; and the message of the cross, I think, should totally undermine anything that looks like a meritocracy or powerfully persuasive human arguments. What an interesting alternative might look like is the sort of vision of a media that the ABC’s Scott Stephens put forward, that I’ve now quoted a couple of times:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference

Maybe rather than being egalitarian we should be those who act to amplify the voices of those the world seeks to silence; even if those voices say things we disagree with, because we recognise the dignity and equality of those people too; this is what real democracy looks like anyway; not populism or a level playing field so that the meritorious can rise via the mechanism of the audience-as-market.

Part of the solution for surviving and thriving in the digital world is good content. Content that is virtuously good in the public interest/geared towards human flourishing sense, but also content that is good because it has credibility, and integrity, and a demonstrable commitment to an ongoing reputation. There’s a degree to which this means good content probably comes with some sort of connection to real world accountability structures rather than with no regard to things like the law and ethics (see the videos above), as Christians it probably means we ought to have some declared connection to a doctrinal framework or church community so that people know where we are coming from as they assess the content. But it’s not enough that the content simply be good; newspapers (apart from News Ltd papers) still produce good content, but they’re dying (so too, the content produced in the newsroom in The Newsroom). This content also needs to be truly social or liquid; part of the new media landscape is the idea that people are publishers not just readers, and publication (be it comments, responses, etc should be as frictionless as possible), and part of being democratised might actually be opening up our platforms to voices we might otherwise naturally exclude (in this case the call is coming from women, who are quite capable of producing their own compelling platforms and gaining a hearing, but perhaps it’s also non-tertiary educated Christians, youth, people from non-english speaking backgrounds etc).

We Christians are pretty good at setting up our own parallel (but lamer) institutions; so where in the past Christian publishing (particularly in Australia) was often closely tied to book publishing arms of denominations, we’ve now embraced the frictionless environment of the web. Where once we had our own newspapers and printed journals now we have websites as well; content portals or platforms that operate as ‘establishments’ that provide a sort of accountability, ethic, and authority to the content they produce. So we have newer properties like The Gospel Coalition, and Thinking Of God, and evolving properties like Eternity and Gotherefor; of these four I think Eternity is the closest to operating with the ‘social’/democratic nature of the web in mind (even as they employ an editor and journalists and maintain a reasonably high standard for their in house production). The Centre for Public Christianity is another interesting beast that seems to aim to contribute to the secular media rather than operate as a parallel institution (which I think is actually a much better model). But none of the other platforms in the Australian Christian blogosphere (coming out of, or seeking to play as, the establishment) are nailing this (in my humble opinion as a reader/writer/social media user with some professional expertise with the media). We’re far too wedded to the little priesthoods we’ve created — the priesthood of the educated; the priesthood of the male preacher; the priesthood of the large platform/personal brand; the priesthood of the polymath-styled genius/public intellectual who we’ll put up to talk about anything and everything because of who they are (and who they know). In my final post in this little mini-series I’ll consider the Gospel Coalition, Thinking of God, and Eternity as little case studies of this theory and show how only one of them seems geared for survival if the reformation the online conversation about women, ‘teaching’ and the Christian blogosphere is as important as it seems to be to me (as a reader of it, but also as a pastor of a church with plenty of women who say things worth hearing). If the revolution is coming, we do actually need to figure out what authority and accountability look like; these aren’t illegitimate questions to ponder.  We need to figure out what the establishment is going to be replaced with.

How to write a Twitter profile that doesn’t make you seem like a self-serving goose…

I’m expanding my presence on Twitter. Which involves getting more followers. This happened by accident. Deliberate accident.

Lots of expert Twitter types have a policy of following back the people who follow them. And I’ve spent the last couple of days tracking down, and following (like a good stalker), people who do church communications stuff. So when I followed 100 new people, I scored about 25 new followers.

One of the questions I’m trying to figure out when it comes to social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is how you be present on these platforms in a way that points people to Jesus. How do you use these platforms with humility shaped by the cross? This is true for St. Eutychus too, and for Facebook (though I have some thoughts on ways to use Facebook in a gospel-promoting way (linked, for ironic self-promotional purposes)).

twitter crown of thorns

 

Reading through a few thousand Twitter biographies has been an interesting exercise.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I’m doing this is that I’m drinking some of the social media kool-aid (also this Kottke piece) that says Facebook is a weird mish-mash of relationships largely made up by incidental people in your life – former colleagues, school friends, and random acquaintances – which is true, with all the caveats about how I love you very much if you are one of those people… while Twitter is fresh and exciting, and you can follow people you share interests with. So I follow the coffee industry, and its various parts, and personalities, and people keen to see the good news of Jesus presented to as many people as possible, in the best ways possible.

I’ve followed lots of people in the last few days, and there are some pretty useful people saying some pretty useful things out there.

But there are some people who I’ll never follow, because their 160 letter bio – which is what Twitter gives you – is too cringeworthy. I have limits.

I should make a slight qualification at this point – I’m particularly interested in what people choose to feature as “individuals” rather than as “professionals” – professional accounts need to be professional. They’ll have a different set of standards – and a different set of communication priorities. And that’s fine. I’m really interested in what individuals, especially Christian individuals, choose to feature in their bio. Because most of the people I’m following are running what essentially amount to mixed accounts – which deal with their professional interests from a personal perspective, or are in vocational ministry – so professionally Christian – some of these quibbles I’m making in this post will apply more or less directly on a case by case basis.

160 letters isn’t a lot. I’d prefer to err on the side of not using all the characters (you can see my profile here). But here is what my blurb said before I started thinking about this:

Christian. Husband. Father. Blogger. Coffee Blogger. Theological Student. PR Mercenary. Coffee snob. http://thebeanstalker.com  | http://st-eutychus.com

Here’s what I’ve changed it to.

A broken human. Bought by God. Following king Jesus. Trying to love people.
Relentlessly curious | Fixated by words | Pursuing coffee perfection

There’s a long and rambling post I’m writing and editing, and writing and editing, about the perils of being a Christian on social media – with its built in tendencies towards default narcism. I’ll post it, somewhat ironically, when I can finally get it to a point where it doesn’t seem to all be about me.

The biography is an interesting, and fixed, part of who you are on Twitter – even if, as Kottke suggests, you are your last six tweets, the bio provides an interpretive framework for how your tweets are read and understood. It’s a big part of your personal brand – in that it shapes how people who don’t know you outside of Twitter perceive you.

So the Twitter bio presents the best, and worst, of this part of social media. This isn’t a post about the content of your feed – but the bio both frames how people perceive you, and provides some indication of what you’re going to post. You can make everything you post about Jesus, and ruin it with a bio that’s all about how great thou art – not how great he is.

Biographies and about pages are the distilled essence of your presence on social media, more than each individual tweet, or post. They’re designed for self-promotion. They’re the billboard that wins you new followers. Your sales pitch. If there’s ever a time to talk about yourself, in a flattering way, it’s the Twitter bio… and maybe this is a cultural thing – maybe my good, old-fashioned, Australian, tall poppy syndrome kicks in here – but if you have to blow your own trumpet, and beat your own drum, it’s not really a tune I’m all that interested in listening to, or a rhythm that gets me tapping my feet along…

It’s hard to be simultaneously “self-promoting,” in line with the expectations of the medium, and self-effacing, in line with the cross-shaped approach to self that Christians are called to adopt.

How do we take up our cross and follow Jesus in this space? How do we imitate Paul, who resolved to know nothing but Christ, getting rid of the eloquence that would focus attention on himself when his Corinthian audience, who couldn’t separate style from substance, forced him to… as he imitates Jesus?

This is one area where I think Mark Driscoll, channeling Luther, does a stellar job. Here’s his bio:

“A nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody”

What I’ve found is that there are certain common elements to Twitter bios that I’d argue are essentially redundant. And a few elements, when individualised and freshened, that I find really appealing, and I’ll be trying to fit into my bio. I’ll do those first.

5 Elements of a Christian Twitter profile that I like

  1. It starts with Jesus. If Jesus isn’t defining who you are, and one of the things you want people to know about you – then why do I want to read about you?
  2. It humanises. It doesn’t just end with Jesus. That’d be boring – and the sort of pietism that, if reflected in your tweets, is a real turn off (I’m looking at you Piper). I like the idea that Twitter isn’t just about being in a Christian-to-Christian love-in. I like Twitter profiles that show me something of a person’s humanity (I’ll get to some short cut ways of doing this that annoy me below) – and acknowledges human limitations.
  3. It’s humble. This is related to the first two, and it’s a genre subverter. And I love people who pull this off in a bio, it often requires a bit of well thought out self-deprecation. It’s part of the reason I like Driscoll’s bio so much (even if the content of his social media presence can occasionally run counter to that).
  4. It uses humour appropriately. Generally this follows being humble, but it can also be a matter of what you choose to focus on, other than yourself.
  5. It gives some idea what sort of content you’ll be tweeting. This goes two ways – it’s a great tool for you, the tweeter, to give you some sort of editorial policy, but it also means if I follow you on the basis of a common interest you highlight in your bio, I’m not going to be inundated by pictures of your cat.

5 Elements of a Twitter Profile that scare me off

Those are the good. Here are the things that irk me…

  1. It’s all about you. Even if you’re sufficiently self-effacing, if you’re a Christian, and you’re not using this 160 characters to give some account of the hope that you have (even using the label “Christian” is better than nothing), then you’re wasting letters.
  2. It’s all about your idea of your qualities. Calling yourself a “leader” or a “genius,” or a “creative,” or anything better demonstrated than claimed – this stuff always reads, to me, a bit like the lame person who tries to give themselves a nickname to fit in somewhere. Nicknames come when you demonstrate that you fit in, or as part of the process. Leaders lead. They can’t just say “I’m a leader”… Creative people demonstrate creativity.
  3. You waste letters on disclaimers. There’s nothing more boring than reading “ideas my own” or “retweets are not endorsements” in your bio. Boring.
  4. You put faux-interesting expressions of humanity in your bio. It’s not ground breaking to tell people you love coffee, or your family (which is why I cut those bits). Nor, I would argue, is being “into coffee” all that interesting – especially because being “into coffee” is so relative. Do you drink instant four times an hour? (I’m guilty of this one – though I’d argue having a coffee blog means referring to coffee in my profile is indicative of the content I’m going to tweet). It’s another shortcut to interestingness to tell me that you like sports, and you support a particular team – I can’t believe how many people put that in their bio (I’m a Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles fan by the way… and a Man Utd fan). If that’s the tribe you want to claim some sort of allegiance to, then that’s fine.
  5. It’s full of doublespeak/weasel words. I read a bio about optimising such and such through creating synergies and blah blah blah. That’s exactly what I thought. Why would you waste 160 characters on words that either mean nothing, or could be explained in less letters in a way that isn’t just designed to make you look smarter than the other guys.

So. Are these the worst? Or am I missing something? And perhaps more importantly – how do you navigate the minefield that is the narcissism inherent in the system, and the humility inherent in recognising that you’re a broken human following the crucified king? Even posting something like this is fraught with the possibility of being a little self-indulgent, so what’s been helpful?