I started blogging years ago, early in my career. Over that time, I’ve thought a lot about public discourse, particularly among Christians–what it looks like at its best and worst, how to engage in respectful disagreement, what to do when others attack you publicly, and ways in which to address difficult topics. In the interest of generating some helpful conversation around public discourse, I’ll offer a few suggestions below on that particular form of discourse known as blogging. My comments are directed toward Christian bloggers, though some of them may apply to other bloggers as well.
By MichaelMaggs (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
If you’ve been blogging for a while, you could likely create your own list, and perhaps one that is much better than mine. Take this for what it’s worth. These are simply my reflections after several years of pretty steady blogging. I hope you find them helpful.
To be clear, this is not a post about aesthetics–how to set up your blog, which platform to use, what kinds of images to include. Heck, I didn’t even set this site up myself. Joseph David Graves did (and check out his blog if you haven’t before). This is a post about content. What kind of public voice should we have as Christians? How should we engage in dialogue? What kinds of reactions should we expect when we do?
1. Speak your mind honestly, and maintain your integrity.
Honesty is an important intellectual virtue. We have to be able to have hard conversations and speak truthfully to one another in order to make intellectual and spiritual progress.
When other people become aware of your public voice, they may wish to persuade you–even pressure you–to adopt a certain public perspective with which you may not be entirely comfortable. Remember: you must keep your own counsel. It is important to listen to others and give serious consideration to their positions, but your public voice is your own. You must own what you say. You–and no one else–will be held responsible for your words. Being a Christian, moreover, means being a person of integrity. If you are writing things you don’t really believe, you have sacrificed your integrity.
2. Write more about what you’re for than what you’re against.
As the old saying goes, any old mule can kick down a barn. It’s easy to tear down the ideas of others. It takes much more creativity, imagination, and intellectual horsepower to develop your own constructive proposals. Additionally, there is simply more gained by proposing positive change than simply by sending more and more negativity into the conversations of which you are a part. I’ve written more extensively about this topic here.
3. Count the cost.
In Luke 14:25-33, Jesus tells his followers that they should
count the cost of following him. If you are going to try to follow Jesus in public conversations, there will be a cost. People will attack you, and you may lose friends. It doesn’t really matter if you are a progressive or evangelical or something altogether different than these. Expect blowback. People may say terrible things about you. You have to be ready for this. That is the nature of discourse in our day and age. It is easier on so many levels to attack the person rather than critique his or her ideas. If you can’t handle this, blogging about the life of faith may not be the contribution you are called to make.
If you gain some degree of notoriety or a widely heard public voice, you must be extra careful. Your words will be scrutinized more widely and have more of an effect. The larger your audience, the more good you can do, and, likewise, the more harm you can do. Additionally, you should be ready for people to attack you publicly in order to capitalize on the breadth of your voice.
4. Engage in smaller conversations.
Be sure you have dialogue partners with whom you can discuss ideas that you have. It’s important to think things through before you say them in public, and consulting with thoughtful friends can be an important way of doing this. It is also much better to vent your frustrations in more confined spaces to these dialogue partners than out in the wide world of the blogosphere.
5. Be careful what you write.
Once you put something out there into the blogosphere, you can’t take it back. You can delete the post, but the content may well have been preserved in other places. Someone may already have quoted you, reblogged your post, or saved the page offline. Part of the discipline of public conversation is self-control. Do not blog while you are angry, or, if you do, do not hit “publish” until you’ve had time to calm down.
What James says of the tongue can also be said of the keyboard:
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (3:5-10).
As one of his General Rules, John Wesley instructed his followers to do no harm. Bloggers would do well to heed his wisdom.
6. Avoid personal attack.
One of the most common problems I see in public discourse today is the prevalence of ad hominem attacks, which involve critiquing the person rather than his or her ideas or actions. Ad hominem can be very rhetorically effective, which is probably why it is so common. Nevertheless, it represents a particular type of logical fallacy. If you can cast doubt on the person making a suggestion, people are less likely to take that person’s suggestion seriously. The contested claim itself may never receive any real consideration.
Another problem with personal attack, however, is that Christ warns us explicitly against it:
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matthew 5:21-22).
Ad hominem attacks are not only logically fallacious, they are sinful.
7. Do not be too eager to take up the prophetic mantle.
We use the word “prophetic” pretty loosely in Christian public discourse these days, especially within “mainline” Protestantism. My friend Drew McIntyre has written about the problems with the overuse of this term. Prophecy is something that happens when the Holy Spirit works directly within an individual to speak on behalf of God to the people of God. To say you are prophetic is to say that God is speaking through you. I certainly believe this happens, but it is not a claim anyone should make lightly.
The fact that you feel strongly about a particular issues does not make you prophetic, nor does the fact that you may be entirely right in your critique. You can be right without being prophetic. “Prophetic” is a weighty term that should be used only when there is evidence of divine action.
The other thing about being prophetic is that it will make your life much harder. Biblical prophets went through significant hardships. The sinfulness of humanity means that most often people will not like what they hear from prophets. If you are truly prophetic, may God sustain you through your trials.
8. Focus on content, not on hits.
It’s easy to become fixated on getting more hits. And let’s face it: making sensationalistic or outrageous claims is an easy way to get more hits. Clickbait, however, is irresponsible and will generally create disappointment in your readership. There is nothing wrong with being provocative. In fact, it is difficult to advance new ideas without being provocative. Still, most of us can recognize the difference between a provocative post and clickbait when we see it. The former is fine. The latter looks desperate.
Simply write the best post you can. Do your homework and get the facts straight before you publish your post. Bring generative, clear, and novel ideas into the public conversation. Write things that you can be proud of. You may not generate as many hits in this way, but the people who read your posts will take them more seriously, and your posts will have more of an impact.
9. Pray for Godly wisdom.
As James, tells us, there are two kinds of wisdom:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (3:13-18).
As we engage one another in public conversation, let us seek to reflect the wisdom that comes from heaven, not earthly, unspiritual, or demonic wisdom.
10. Remember that you are an ambassador of Christ.
Finally, and most importantly, remember that if you blog as a Christian, you are representing Christ to your readers. As Paul writes, “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). That is a big responsibility, particularly when it is now possible to reach so many people through the internet. People will judge the faith and form opinions about the significance of Christ for their lives based in part upon what you write. As an ambassador of Christ, you are called to represent Christ faithfully.
I hope you’ve found this list helpful. Did I leave anything out? Let me know!