Manufacturing Outrage in the Christian Blogosphere

shortcutNOTE: Since this post was published yesterday, Bobby Grow has written “An Open Apology to Rachel Held Evans and removed the original post referenced in this work. 

I read Rachel Held Evans piece on Abraham, “I would fail Abraham’s test (and I bet you would too)” and, not only was I not scandalized, I enjoyed it. I’ve had many of the same thoughts.

And then I read this piece entitled, “Farewell Rachel Held Evans???” by blogger Bobby Grow. Obviously, the title hearkens back to the Twitter dismissal of Rob Bell by popular pastor John Piper. And my first thought was, “here we go, another attempt to purify a theological framework by threatening exclusion.”

It used to be that heretics were identified and called out by counsels after much thought and deliberation (and they still got it wrong); now it’s done by anyone with access to a free social-media platform and a following.

I glossed over the post and didn’t think that much about it—until I saw that Rachel had responded. It was a good and thoughtful response which included this gem:

“You can’t ‘farewell’ me from the Table because it’s not your Table. It’s not your denomination’s Table. It’s not Calvin’s Table. It’s not my Table. It’s Christ’s Table, and all who are hungry are welcome.”

Grow responded (backpedaled) pretty quickly. Once Rachel showed up and stuck up for herself, Grow wanted to distance himself from some of the more inflammatory tone of his post. I read it and smiled because, I’ve been there. I’ve said harsh things about people online and then was found myself more than a little ashamed when confronted by them.

Establishing your brand

The big problem is that you can cut through the online noise so much more quickly by aggressively going after specific online personalities. A lot of beginning bloggers start by writing some nice personal story pieces that are read by tens of their closest friends and family. But one day they read something about a Mark Driscoll or a Brian McClaren and then write their own, often scathing, post and . . . voilà—all of the sudden, they have 1,000+ views. Wow!

Then they go back to writing in their typical style and the visits start trailing off. It’s not too hard to see that the shortcut to virility is found in pointed, unnuanced, aggressive communication.

If you find some popularity in writing this kind of post, it’s hard not to do it again. Chasing the dragon of high pageviews can be a terrible sort of drug. But once you establish this as your brand, then what? Being that person to court attention can be like striking up the internet’s worst Faustian deal—because it’s hard to stop when posts like this become the brand that keeps people coming back for more.

On top of that, it gets easy to confuse pageviews with deific license.

Seriously, a “Farewell Rachel Held Evans” post is gold. It has everything you need to ensure a hugely popular evangelical post:

  • it calls out a well-known personality
  • it instantly reminds us of another huge evangelical dust up
  • it establishes the author’s credibility as one who can dismiss heretics
  • it appeals to an evangelical base that’s tired of “liberalism”
  • it courts controversy

But it’s hard to maintain that strong, aggressive stance when the subject of the post shows up. Then you’re faced with a choice: do I maintain my post’s posture and go to blows or do I apologize and adopt a more congenial posture?

Making the first choice can make you look like a jerk (and possibly embarrass you if they’re more articulate, thoughtful, and prepared), but the second choice will quickly reveal what’s behind the wizard’s curtain. You’re not an evangelical lion protecting biblical theology: at best, you’re someone who forgets that the person you’re writing about is probably going to read your post, or at worst, you’re just someone trolling for more online attention.

I don’t say this to shame Bobby Grow, mind you. I’ve seen this a million times—and been guilty of it myself.

Don’t take the shortcut

I would encourage anyone starting out to take the long road of honing your craft and writing thought-provoking content. There are ways you can respond to things you read online that aren’t just jockeying for pageviews and controversy.

When Bobby Grow reads this, I won’t have to apologize for the tone. And if he says, “dude, you’re a complete idiot,” we won’t have to fight about it because the point isn’t Bobby Grow is a huge heretic that evangelicalism needs to toss out on his unbiblical ass. The point’s simply this, “what good is it if you gain all the pageviews and lose your own soul?”

I can count on one hand the number of people I know who keep a blog for their own edification. Most of us write because we believe we have something of value to say and we want to be heard. Refuse to take the shortcut of infamy. You’re going to be much happier with your writing when you’re not having to manufacture outrage to keep your readership.

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