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Is Blogging Superficial?

Kent has pointed us to a comment made by J.I. Packer about the usefulness of blogging/reading blogs:

I’m amazed at the amount of time people spend on the internet. I’m not against technology, but all tools should be used to their best advantage. We should be spending our time on things that have staying power, instead of on the latest thought of the latest blogger—and then moving on quickly to the next blogger. That makes us more superficial, not more thoughtful.

Now on the one hand I suppose it could be true that there are tons of people out there writing and reading blogs to stroke their own sense of coolness and contemporaneity. However I think Packer’s comment really just reflects little more than the all too familiar phenomenon of cross-generational disgust. So much so that it actually obscures some of the important issues, such as Packer’s claim that we ought to be spending our time on “things that have staying power.” I’m not sure what exactly Packer has in mind by this, but it sounds far too calculating and utilitarian to be virtuous. Rather than seeking “the new” we ought to be seeking more obvious, substantial, and permanent things that have abiding power (Like Packer’s many published books perhaps?).

Might not a more charitable and realistic reading be that what is being pursued by many bloggers is not simply novelty but truth? It seems to me that consciously seeking exposure to new ideas, books, thoughts, and arguments should not be denigrated but encouraged. What seems decidedly less virtuous is Packer’s recommendation of pursuing things having “staying power” over against “the new.” Seems to me that this is nothing more than an encouragement to be satisfied with the familiar rather than allowing one’s thought to be challenged by a wide exposure to ideas. What’s virtuous or radical about that?

58 Comments

  1. Andy wrote:

    Given his take on tradition, one wonders what Packer thinks we should read: nothing old, nothing new, nothing borrowed, nothing blue?

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  2. Brad E. wrote:

    I appreciate your response, Halden, and it’s certainly possible that your reading is correct. However, in the same way you call for a charitable reading of blogging, I think we should be charitable towards Packer’s incredibly brief comments. In general, he’s making an astute and healthy observation. People in their teens and 20s spend an inordinate, often unhealthy, sometimes insane amount of time on the internet, and that time trains them more and more to expect short pockets of content (whether reading, audio, or video), with quick-to-find branches here or there, in a literally endless swirl of information and entertainment. If there is a tyranny of email (as James Smith recently wrote about), there is certainly a broader tyranny of the internet, and thus of blogging. And Packer doesn’t necessarily have to be speaking in utilitarian language here, only of significance and meaning. Should I read Dostoevsky or Gawker? Should I spend time with my wife and clear out my Google Reader? These sorts of considerations are important, and it is helpful to remind ourselves of them.

    Does that mean we need a categorical, sweeping negative judgment of blogging? Of course not. But precisely in order to inculcate the virtues of self-discipline, discernment, and love for matters of substance (human persons, relationships, care for others, art, the land, justice, and so on), we ought to be self-critical and hospitable to critique from the outside. I receive Packer’s comments as a helpful generational reminder that blogging, and more broadly the internet, is inevitably caught up with unhealthy habits that I must not only watch out for as an individual, but must also remember in my life with others in community.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  3. dan wrote:

    Well, based on Packer’s own actions, I’m gonna wager that “spending our time on things that have staying power” might mean helping Conservative Anglican schismatics in their (unsuccessful) efforts to steal millions of dollars of property from the Anglican Church.

    Actually, maybe that isn’t a great example…

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I’m pretty sure Catholics stealing from Anglicans is totally appropriate.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    How can it really be stealing? Aren’t Catholics, by virtue of their communion with the Roman Pontiff, the rightful owners of Christ and thus all things that bear any connection with him?

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Andrew wrote:

    If Packer’s idea of “staying power” is getting published, then he should recall the preparation and time it takes to get published. There are many young blogger’s out there who are master’s and Ph.d. students and don’t necessarily have the time or resources to publish there work. Blogging offers an open forum for discussing significant theological issues and creates a healthy dialogue between many different traditions and world views.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I just mean it’s asinine to complain about Catholics stealing Anglican property since the Anglicans stole literally all of “the Catholic Church’s property” in England, through far more sinister means. Of course, that’s only if you want to invoke a certain notion of property rights and ownership. My point is just that it’s the height of disingenuousness to defend the Anglican Church against “theft” by “schismatics” in this case. My guess is that dan probably realizes this given his qualifier about it not being a great example. It would be funny if I were totally sure he meant it this way.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  8. Ben Myers wrote:

    Plus, it’s worth noting that Christian tradition doesn’t attribute any theological significance to the publication of books. Instead, it’s the sermon that’s regarded as a theological priority — and until the internet came along, the sermon was one of the most ephemeral of all forms of public discourse. Compared to publishing a book, a sermon has no “staying power”, and is utterly “superficial”.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I was just making a joke. I suppose, though it all really shows the ambiguity of what it means for ecclesial structures to own property around the world.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  10. dan wrote:

    Actually, Hill, you don’t know what you’re talking about here. I was referencing Packer’s involvement with Conservative Anglicans in Vancouver who splintered from the Anglican Church in Canada — and joined some sort of new-found Conservative Anglican group — over the issue of gay marriage, and then tried to take their church properties with them (after an ongoing legal battle, the courts have recently decided against the Conservatives). So, just to be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about anybody running off to join the RCs or any of that nonsense.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    I’m mainly joking. I’m just referring to the fact that schismatic Anglicans expropriating stuff is funny, since… that is what schismatic Anglicans do! In general, I feel like the local parish ought to own their local parish property, so I’m less inclined to call it an expropriation unless they intend to destroy it or otherwise corrupt it. In other words, there ought to be some criteria of right use.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  12. Tyler Wittman wrote:

    Halden,

    When I first read Packer’s comment, I gathered the main point was that moving so quickly from snippet to snippet handicaps the reflective process. Perhaps he means that books or other media/interactions afford deeper reflection?

    He’s probably not sympathetic because he hasn’t been diagnosed with ADHD like every last one of us.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  13. Tyler Wittman wrote:

    Ben,

    How could a sermon have staying power, by virtue of what it is? It’s the proclamation of the word of Christ to a rebellious audience distracted by the deceitfulness of their own hearts. People don’t want to hear it, they’re constantly resisting it. It’s an act of spiritual warfare. The reason the proclamation has to happen every week is that the enemy does not cease to war against the kingdom’s advance. The sermon is, in many respects, a weapon used against an obstinate demon that continues to fight from the grave.

    I agree it has no “staying power,” but “superficial”? Let’s hope not.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  14. Nate Kerr wrote:

    So how much time you wanna bet Packer spends trolling blogs?

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  15. Ben Myers wrote:

    Tyler, I agree with you completely — that’s exactly my point. If we take the sermon seriously, then there’s no theological grounds for privileging “staying power” over more ephemeral forms of discourse.

    The problem with Packer’s remarks is that (like many Christian scholars) he seems to be thinking of the published book — instead of the sermon — as the normative mode of Christian discourse.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    I agree that his point is that books are superior. I just think he’s wrong. Or rather he’s making a category mistake. I think blogging (at least theology blogging) helps and pushes people to read more than it distracts from it.

    And as to the point about the reflective process, I’d say the discussions that are often garnered on substantial posts tend to be far more reflective than your average person sitting alone reading a book.

    This isn’t to say that blogging doesn’t have lots of limitations as a medium, in fact I’ve written about that plenty. Only to say that comments like this one by Packer are 1) overblown and 2) tend to want to discourage blogging altogether rather than improve it.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  17. Ben Myers wrote:

    Nate, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard scholars say: “You should see the trivial stuff they talk about on blogs — I would never waste my time reading that…”

    Reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Barney, sitting at the bar, expresses his contempt for alcoholics: “Yesterday a guy came in and sat next to me here all day, from morning till closing time: it’s disgusting!”

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    I believe overblown contempt for blogging among scholars constitutes a form of what my friend Andrew has recently dubbed “fuck the world chic.”

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  19. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Though recognizing the prima facie irony of criticizing blogging in a blog post, I always admired self-immolation. Packer’s status as an Uber-Evangelical Calvinist (the Servetus-killing kind, not the Barth-loving kind), leads me to believe that he isn’t coming from the most contemplative of backgrounds and thus his comments are are at best conservative reactionary and at worst the ravings of an older-than-dirt luddite. That being said, there is a long Christian contemplative tradition (cenobitic, eremitic, Amish, etc.) of fleeing from the dirty, distracting, money-grubbing, war-mongering world. Immediate reception of whatever is au courant as a means of communication can be a kind of what Mauritain called “kneeling before the world.”

    Indeed, some of my own favorite spiritual fathers (and mothers just to PC it up) include Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Merton, Eliot, etc. all of whom had nasty things to say about the pernicious effects of newspapers, journalists, radios, tv, etc. long before any man with a computer could become a journalist in the comfort of his pjs. Thoreau’s quote “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities” still haunts me,” Eliot even prophetically poetizes about “this twittering world” in “Burnt Norton” which seems to have been fulfilled in our hearing.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    I’d take the point even further. The quest for “staying power” is a rejection of authentic theological discourse as such because it is a strategy for conceptual control — a form of methodological constantinianism.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  21. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Of course, one has to then ask which is more chic “fuck the world” or blogging. Haven’t you seen Mt. Athos new internet add campaign: “Come to sunny Mt. Athos! Fucking the World since 726!”

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  22. Ben Myers wrote:

    Holy cow! Henry David Thoreau was your spiritual mother? ;-)

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  23. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Also just to be clear, I’m not for spirituality for spirituality’s sake. One of my favorite Hauerwas interview answers (can you imagine the look on the reporters face):

    ZH – You’re a little bit ahead of the curve in The Peaceable Kingdom,
    and by the curve I mean what people are talking a lot about today as
    spirituality and the spiritual disciplines. You were talking about
    that in 1983, and wanting to relate a Christian ethic to the spiritual
    life. What do you have to say about that today?

    SH – I gave up on the language of spirituality because the assholes
    got it. Spirituality became a way to talk about a universal need that
    we all have that can be expressed through any religion some way or the
    other. This kind of individualistic, getting-myself-right with the
    powers of the world, I’m not sympathetic toward it. I am very
    sympathetic toward exercises that have been well explored through
    centuries of Christian practice that are now embodied in wise people
    that can teach you how to go on. But, never forget, the Devil’s a
    spirit and the Devil can appear as a spirit of discernment, and so you
    have to be very careful with that. I wouldn’t want to be among the
    proponents of spirituality today. I’m more than willing, though, to
    talk about prayer, fasting, obedience, silence. I regard spirituality
    as learning how to talk. What that means is not being afraid of your
    “first order” religious convictions, and that you can just say it. The
    Psalms are “first order” religious convictions, so I take a lot of
    comfort from the Psalms.

    Zion’s Herald interviewed Hauerwas on Nov. 5, 2001, in his
    office overlooking Duke Chapel, Durham, N.C.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  24. Auggie Webster wrote:

    It was a painful labor. I have a head like Stewie Griffin and Bull Hurley’s shoulders.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  25. Halden wrote:

    Its really cool that your name is Auggie.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  26. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Only my nom de guerre. My real name is Richard Cumstein. See my problem.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  27. Marvin wrote:

    We should all read fewer blogs and more books. We should read better books. We should drink imports and eat organic vegetables. We should buy symphony tickets, not football tickets. We should watch less TV.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to clear the Cheetos off my keyboard and post something about a great new Bud Lite commercial I caught during last night’s game…

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  28. Auggie Webster wrote:

    St. Augustine Webster was a Carthusian prior who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. My way of giving the finger to the Constantinians. And any of Thomas Cromwell’s descendants who read this blog.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  29. Halden wrote:

    Having just watched all three seasons of the Tudors I have a new and beloved appreciation for what you just said.

    Though Cromwell was quite the toolbag in my opinion.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  30. Tyler Wittman wrote:

    Gotcha, right on. I couldn’t agree more.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  31. Auggie Webster wrote:

    That James Frain’s no picnic either. He once abandoned a crippled Jacqueline Du Pre.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  32. Tyler Wittman wrote:

    Hmm, perhaps he’s an octogenari-Anglo-Luddite?

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  33. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Crunchy or regular? Crunchy you say? What a superficial pussy! Orthodox only eat the regular, longer-lasting Cheeto.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  34. Halden wrote:

    Ahh typecasting…

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  35. Theophilus wrote:

    Worth noting is that the parish properties in question are legally held by the diocese, but were paid for and are maintained by the individual parishes. Various denominations in Canada hold legal title to properties owned by various parishes and congregations, but many are charitable enough to allow dissenting congregations to leave with their properties, or at least negotiate with them regarding the subject. This did not occur with the dissenting Anglicans. Several dioceses in which parishes were dissenting unilaterally attempted to evict the congregations in question from their properties without prior notice. The recent legal case was an attempt to determine whether the diocese was acting legally.

    While the actions of the dioceses may be legal under Canadian law, given that they are attempting to seize properties paid for by the parishes themselves, it is disingenuous to claim that the parishes are trying to steal millions of dollars’ worth of properties from the dioceses. If anything, the dioceses have broken the trust of the parishes and are stealing millions of dollars’ worth of properties from them.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  36. Theophilus wrote:

    Packer may be conservative, but he’s no luddite. His online courses, in which lectures were distributed as video podcasts via iTunes, was marketed by Regent College in the Vancouver area as “jiPod”.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  37. roger flyer wrote:

    I’ll take the poem or the song over the sermon. Now there’s some staying power…

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  38. roger flyer wrote:

    Some of this is definitely generational!… Packer has never watched the Simpsons. It’s a cartoon for the love of God!

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  39. Auggie Webster wrote:

    I’d like to chime in with Halden on Packer making a category mistake. If we agree with Thoreau’s “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” we must still discern which scriptures, songs, sermons, poems, etc. become the Eternities. Thus, we can perhaps come to a kind of canon of “Eternities” of blogging (this one of course) as opposed to superfluous blogging (whatever or whoever Jenny did last night at the club). This is where the profusion of Facebook and Twitter have benefited the blogosphere in that they have provided a release valve for the mass of men and their idle chatter and need to feel connected or attention-seeking.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  40. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Oh, just want to note that sermons, though brief and occasional, can and have become “Eternities”, i.e. Eckhart, J.H. Newman, Lancelot Andrewes, Kierkegaard, etc.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  41. Ben Myers wrote:

    As a rule of thumb, I never trust a person who has not watched the Simpsons.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  42. So, in the last episode A.J., Tony Soprano’s son comes home and proclaims that he doesn’t believe in God anymore, that life is pointless and is merely divided between “boredom and suffering.” Tony and Carmella freak out, swear at him, threaten to whack him and order him to his room to finish his algebra. “Algebra” AJ whines, “that’s soooo boring.” “Well your other choice is suffering” Tony yells at him “you wanna start now?” Tony confides all this to Dr. Malfi at their next session and she suggests that AJ may simply have stumbled upon ‘existentialism’ as youths often do. “Existentialism?” Tony groans, “that fucking internet.”

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  43. Andrew wrote:

    I honestly think this is a generational issue. I’d imagine Packer wrote his dissertation by hand or typewriter and has very little knowledge about the internet. There is a huge gap between those who have grown up during the “tech boom” and those before it. I have lunch every week with Dale Bruner, a NT scholar in his late 70′s, and he has no clue what is going on when it comes to the internet. I have tried to explain the concept of blogging, but he doesn’t really get it. Unlike Packer, he doesn’t disown it, he just doesn’t understand it and is not going to take the time to figure it out.

    For the last thousand years people have been writing theological treatises to each other and discussing theology over snail mail. All blogging is, is a more proficient way of doing the same things theologians, pastors, and lay people have been doing for the last thousand years. Apparently those treatises, letter’s, and sermons had “staying power,” so why can’t blogging? If I want to see what the popular topics are in theology I go to Ben’s blog, F&T, and I take a look at his archives categorized by theologian or topic. What is not “staying” or “powerful” about that. The internet in itself is a “staying power,” so blogging inevitable has “staying power” merely based on its relationship to the internet.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  44. Geoff Broughton wrote:

    Hauerwas really said “I regard spirituality as learning how to talk”? Now thats funny…

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  45. Kampen wrote:

    A Testimony:
    After just over a year or so of following several theology blogs and being pointed to a number of figures to dialogue with, I agree that blogging can certainly push the thinking cap. It can, of course, do just the opposite. However, today I posted my first essay on my own blog project and received a helpful comment. Not only did the comment bring up several interesting questions, it inaugurated a dialogue. Also, more to my immediate concerns, it required me to bring an essay by Milbank into the conversation and thereby read him more carefully and form an opinion. Not only, then, did the blog post practice what I call “intentional thought community”, it also helped me to write a review paper for my class due Thursday.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 8:47 pm | Permalink
  46. Kampen wrote:

    Also, as a pitch, check out ortusmemoria.wordpress.org
    The only requirements for reading/commenting on the blog are rigor and leniency; rigorous academic critique, and leniency as in karitas.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  47. bruce hamill wrote:

    my quote of the week Halden!

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 2:29 am | Permalink
  48. myles wrote:

    This is a brilliant observation, Ben. Thanks.

    I have some sympathy with Packer’s remarks, to the degree that most folks interested in theology get caught up with novelty or ‘current discourse’ without taking the time to have any idea where the discourse has come from or what water has passed under the bridge. It makes me crazy when I present at AAR regionals and have 50 year old professors asking me who this Barth kid is.

    However, there is something to be said that the best discourse is had in conversation; books represent the final stage of those conversations, not the first. Unless, of course, you’re Descartes by the stove.

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 7:17 am | Permalink
  49. roger flyer wrote:

    “Excellent!” said Mr Burns.

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  50. roger flyer wrote:

    If I want to see what the popular topics are in theology I go to Ben’s blog, F&T, and I take a look at his archives categorized by theologian or topic.

    …like Tom Waits or The Simpsons. ;

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  51. roger flyer wrote:

    See…generation gap.

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  52. andrew wrote:

    That doesn’t negate the fact that he has a large majority of archived theological topics. I’m glad that’s all you got out of my post.

    If there’s one thing that is bad about blogs its that people can make comments about what others have said, just for the sake of saying something. It’s unfortunate that blogs can be used as a vehicle for anonymous criticism

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  53. roger flyer wrote:

    haha

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  54. roger flyer wrote:

    andrew-
    sorry. didn’t mean to offend you. i agree with you…

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  55. andrew wrote:

    Roger, no problem. I am sorry if I misunderstood your comment. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if someone is writing seriously or in jest. I did not mean to be overly serious.

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  56. Andy wrote:

    Having been the first to lay into Packer (who can resist?), I would like to defend the criterion of “staying power” as deeply Pauline. You can’t really read 1 Cor 13 (or a whole host of other Paul texts) without being impressed by the importance of endurance for Paul. Remember to avoid strawiness! Which was, of course, Luther’s criticism of the book of James.

    Thursday, December 3, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  57. mike W wrote:

    We are blessed by having great blogs like this one to read, but there are plenty crap, nutcase, shallow, nauseating waste of time blogs out there. Maybe they are the kind of thing Jim is most accustomed to

    Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 11:54 pm | Permalink
  58. roger flyer wrote:

    Andrew-Sometimes the ; is missed. I am a huge fan of Ben (and Halden, too)

    Saturday, December 12, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

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