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Blogging as theological discourse

Ok, I’m back. After a week in Chicago for EP and then another week vacationing in California with the always-dangerous Andrew Kooy, I am back. Stay tuned to the Valdenkor blog for some forthcoming recountings of the culinary chronicles of Andrew and myself from the past week.

In the meantime, here is a segment from the conclusion to the presentation I gave with Jana Bennett at EP on “blogging as theological discourse”:

So, in conclusion if I were to venture some guesses about how we might best go about this open-ended and uncertain work of “seeing how this will work”, I would offer four guidelines, which I offer no less to myself than to others:

  1. Blogging as a mode of faithful discourse must be open to critique, re-formation, and revision in light of the voices of others. Blogging, by its very nature is open and participatory towards a variety of discursive voices. Moreover, blogging tends to generate a variety of discussions outside of the medium of blogs themselves.
  2. Blogging generates a multi-level discussion. It is precisely in attending to these discussions with care for the voice of the other and allowing them to shape future discussions and explorations of the themes discussed that we blog faithfully. In short, blogging must be shaped by the conversation it generates if it is to be truly fruitful.
  3. Blogging as a mode of faithful discourse must embrace its open-ended and fundamentally itinerant nature. Blogging, if it attempts to accomplish the work of books and journal articles, will simply be a poor exercise. Blogging’s piecemeal, fragmentary, and dynamic nature must be embraced, and precisely so, be discovered as a mode of open and unpredictable discourse. It is a dialogical space for pilgrims, wayfarers, and strangers who are enabled in this space to discover unexpected conversations about the call of God on our lives. In this sort of itinerant space we have the opportunity to allow ourselves to be known, in all our facileness, haste, and vulnerability, and to simply be conversationally present without pretension to over-importance, establishment, or self-validation. This, at least, is what I believe theological blogging must aspire to be.
  4. Blogging as a mode of faithful discourse ought always to be shaped and birthed from a life of lived prayer in the context of the church in its mission to the world. Blogging, at its best should arise from reflection on the concrete life of the church for and in the world, and, precisely as such, it must be grounded in prayer, that is, in the cry for the kingdom which gives the church its shape, life, and calling. To seek any form of faithful theological discussion outside of a common life of prayer for the coming of the Triune God to transfigure, renew, and interrupt us, is to engage in false and futile pursuits. This is not a pious gloss. Prayer is essential for good conversation about God. This applies to blogging no less than to any other mode of theological conversation. Perhaps more so.Blogging as a mode of faithful discourse must, by the Spirit, learn proper patience in the midst of the immediacy of response that blogging tends to generate. Haste is perhaps the greatest temptation of blogging. Only by being given over to patience, the fruit of the Spirit which takes shape in our life together under Christ’s lordship, can we pursue this sort of discussion in a truly fruitful manner.

The discussion in the workshop was, I think, quite good, especially in that it allowed a number of folks who have been involved in the online discussions on this blog to engage in face-to-face conversation about the whole dynamic of theological discussion in the medium of blogs.

18 Comments

  1. Brad A. wrote:

    Nice. I especially like #3.

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  2. I’d be interested, then, to hear your evaluation of the difference and relation between blogosphere conversation and the face-to-face conversation” you note happened at the conference. Do you think there could be an essential relation between the two? E.g., would some of us engage one another in the blogosphere differently if we had regular occasions to meet face-to-face? Or is that just a kind of Luddite nostalgia, a sort of “phonocentrism?”

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Briefly, I think that we are much more disposed to say things online that we would never say in person. This is not simply a negative thing, but it can be. If anything meeting one’s online interlocutors allows a sense of camaraderie and/or sympathy to develop that I take to be different than that which is easily fostered merely by online conversation.

    So yeah, I definitely think we would (probably/possibly) engage one another differently online if we spent more time together in person.

    This actually brings up an interesting point. One of the criticism of blogging as a mode of discussion is its “immediacy”. One can simply leave a comment whenever, without reflection. However I think this is a misperception. It is actually face-to-face conversation that is the most dynamic and immediate form of discussion. In other words, one of the problems of blogging is not that it is too dynamic, quick, or reactive, but that it is not dynamic enough. Certainly its not nearly as fast-paced and reflexive as interpersonal conversation.

    Because of that I think that face-to-face conversation is essential to blog discussion. And I think it can both flow from it and into it in dynamic and different ways.

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  4. That’s kind of where I’m at, too–though I also recognize that the blogosphere allows me to be in “conversation” with folks half-way around the world who I might never encounter face-to-face, which seems to be a plus.

    And I would second your point re: “immediacy.” I have a hunch that some snarky bloggers (and blog commenters) might not actually function too well within the expectations of oral debate. That is, I have this hunch that some blogosphere bullies could be shown up pretty quickly in the context of “live” academic debate. But those youngsters who only know theological discourse from the blogosphere are apt to cower in the face of strident theological bloggers. I think what surprises me most is how much, and how quickly, young theological bloggers want to placate certain loud voices in the blogosphere. Or how often people confuse strident blog commentary with what matters.

    Welcome back, by the way.

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  5. d. stephen long wrote:

    I really enjoyed Halden’s session and would second Jamie and Halden’s sense of the difference between blogging and face to face conversation. We also discussed the generational difference with respect to the ‘codes of civility’ (or lack thereof) in the blogosphere. Although it might appear to be a ‘democratizing’ medium, the fact that many of us do know, or know of, each other, gives a false sense of ‘equality.’ I think Nate Kerr made that observation, or something like it. I found it very helpful. It overlooks the relationship between teacher and students that we would maintain in other settings. I doubt if students would respond to me in a dissertation defense like some have on blogs. Likewise I would not respond to an ‘errant’ student the way I might to an ‘errant blogger. That is descriptive; I assume folk would evaluate differently. Jana Bennet’s presentation with Halden’s was also quite good. I wonder if you and she could post your presentations and respond to each other? If not here, perhaps on the EP website?

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  6. Charlie Collier wrote:

    I think there’s a lot going on in blogging to think about. I agree with Jamie’s hunch about snarky blogging and how the medium might enable shouting more than dialogue at times, but I think that might also be a side effect of the way the medium levels the playing field in a good way for some folks. Some people aren’t as rhetorically gifted as others, quick with their tongues, good with “live” academic debate as Jamie put it, but these same people might be able to hold their own in theological debate if they have a moment to put their thoughts together before joining the conversation. There’s an opening to substantive theological conversation on blogs that arguably wasn’t possible before it—i.e., an alternative to both oral debate/conversation and published academic theological writing.

    Also, the seminar room is no snark-free zone, not by a long shot, and I wonder how many bloggers feel a certain empowerment on the web that they never felt in the classroom. Of course this empowerment can also make possible the stridency that Jamie describes.

    It seems to me that blogging is a form of conversation for which we haven’t yet worked out the etiquette. Should there really be anonymous blog posts? There are probably upsides to conversing not only with faceless others but with nameless ones as well, but what are the downsides? And are there particular conversational safeguards that we need to keep anonymity from enabling the worst sorts of behavior?

    And what do we do about the fact that we cannot pick up on facial and verbal cues? Are emoticons really a substitute?

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  7. When you extend it this way, Charlie, it helpfully reminds me that the dynamics of philosophical debate in my field can be very testosterone-laced exercises–basically ramped up pissing contests (with all the gender issues that image invokes). So you’re right: it’s not like face-to-face conversation is necessarily any better.

    And this does bring us back to some gender-laden issues that have been helpfully discussed around these parts and elsewhere. But what you say here makes me think that the supposed “leveling” nature of the blogosphere should be more hospitable to women than the dynamics of “live” debate. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    That said, I still think it’s easier to appear “smart” on blogs than it is in person. But ultimately I don’t want to reduce the face-to-face conversations to a smartness test, or just another venue for debates which pass for showing off. This is why I’m also skeptical of conferences. For my money, the best academic conversations have been between those between scholars with quite different commitments, meeting behind closed doors, in the context of community and hospitality–where the conversation isn’t being “watched” so none of us have to fall prey to the temptation to score points or look smart. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to fund such meaningful confabs, so instead we get the blogosphere (which is basically free) and academic conferences (which academic institutions will stay for most of us to attend).

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  8. MFB wrote:

    Does Jana keep a blog?

    And on bloggy things, seen this?
    http://memoriadei.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/citing-the-blogosphere/

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 4:41 am | Permalink
  9. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    This article I read yesterday might get at some of the differing dynamics between in-person and online interaction. Especially disturbing is the finding that 40% of a given e-mail is misunderstood — in large part because of the absense of tone, body language, etc. This is a serious problem and may lead to an overdiagnosis of assholishness — people might just have a snarky sense of humor that would work great in person, but you need their whole physical bearing to really see how it works. I feel this happens to me constantly, and I’m sure JKAS falls victim to that tendency as well.

    At the same time, I think that academic discourse can be enhanced by this format. The key, I think, is the potential for comments that are longer than what one would realistically do in a back and forth. The time delay is also crucial. If Nate, Halden, and Ry had delivered their “theses” orally at a conference and then there was a ten-minute Q&A, I doubt much of value would’ve come out of the conversation. But there’s also the opposite effect of TOO MUCH time delay — if they’d appeared in a journal, they (sadly) probably would’ve passed completely unnoticed, or at least would’ve only been cited six months later (at the earliest) and in passing rather than with deep engagement. Instead, we got an overwhelming amount of commentary that simply wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

    Now those theses did focus on some of the idiosyncratic concerns of this corner of the blogosphere, concerns that are not necessarily at the heart of the “debate in the field” more broadly considered, but presumably as more people become involved in the conversation, the engagement will be more representative.

    Overall, I think that instead of having “meta” or normative discussions about theological blogging, the best thing to do is just to “be the change you want to see.” The circles are still small enough that even one commenter really has a chance to change the tone — and, if the person is coming from another perspective or life experience (or, as I’m really trying to say, another gender, race, religious tradition, etc.), they also have a chance to really take the blinders off in the conversation. For instance, it’s made a huge difference at my blog that Bruce Rosenstock, a professor of Jewish studies, started commenting — not only because he holds us accountable to dialogue seriously with Judaism, but because of the depth of his engagement, which brings out the best in others as well.

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink
  10. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    Also, since people always want to criticize me for differing from Zizek’s views since I wrote a book on him — it seems strange that JKAS is privileging speech over writing as the most authentic expression of academic prowess, especially since, realistically speaking, the overwhelming majority of academic work is done in writing. People can bluff on blogs, certainly, but anyone who’s ever been to an academic conference knows that people can bluff in “live” interaction just as easily — if not moreso, since your in-person remarks won’t be floating around the internet indefinitely for people to look at more closely in the future.

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  11. Well, I was already noting my hesitation about this “privileging” by worrying about phonocentrism in my first comment. I wasn’t privileging speech over writing per se, but rather noting that conversation and dialogue are essential to the pursuit of truth (a benighted notion, I know), and that, in my experience, while that has most certainly included books and writings, it has also significantly involved key friendships and “live” conversations of the “closed-door” sort I described above.

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 7:11 am | Permalink
  12. Brad A. wrote:

    On these points, I’d also suggest there’s something to be said for a classroom venue when you know you have to, for all intents and purposes, continue living in community with these people face-to-face for a somewhat lengthy and perhaps indefinite period of time (even if that community is merely a department of the university). Face-to-face community in a sustained fashion might help some to more carefully weigh their words before they utter them. (Of course, in some cases, it prevents people from saying what they should, out of fear of offense or creating strained relations, but once a level of trust is active, that can hopefully be overcome.)

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  13. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    conversation and dialogue are essential to the pursuit of truth (a benighted notion, I know)

    You and your snarky humor!

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  14. tim y wrote:

    @Adam,

    I have a hunch that part of the reason 40% of an e mail (and a blog post) might be misunderstood is because of the rampant multitasking that is done on the internet nowadays. I just heard a story from NPR recently where there was a study conducted on college students who claimed they were great multitaskers. In short, the study showed that they were wrong. Every task suffered because they didn’t give sustained, focused attention to the task at hand. Even as I write this, I have the TV going, a kid pestering me for food, and I am burning a CD.

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  15. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    There are definitely perverse effects to making one of the main learning and working tools be the very same thing that’s also one of the students’ primary social and entertainment tool. For one of my first courses, I naively gave them PDFs for most of the readings so they could print them off rather than having to pay for textbooks, but most of them tried to read it on-screen and comprehension was horrible.

    I think the same thing can definitely be the case for longer posts and comments — sometimes the “straw man argument” isn’t so much a malicious attempt to mischaracterize someone’s argument, but rather reflects the fact that the person got impatient reading the post and decided that it kind of “sounds like” something familiar and so responded to that thing instead. Even if you aren’t “multitasking,” I find that reading on screen can be very difficult and I somehow don’t take it as seriously. You’d think that might be a cultural thing given that I was raised reading paper books and associating screens with lighter TV shows or video games, but the younger kids don’t seem to be any better at reading from screens. Maybe something like Kindle helps?

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Jana has two blogs (now mostly defunct):

    http://massrevelations.blogspot.com/
    http://wateristhickerthanblood.blogspot.com/

    And yeah, seeing that Dula citation was pretty interesting.

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  17. dcl driedger wrote:

    One thing I like about blogging is that for the most part there is rarely a need to work out etiquette. This is a completely voluntary space and both posts and comments are subject to anyone’s interest for further engagement. Only rarely have I seen jerks with the stamina to continue being jerks over the long haul. They are usually ignored or deleted before it becomes an issue (though I recognize it has become an issue at times).
    What I found interesting was the way this worked out in my own experience. I tried for a period of time (though admittedly starting off on entirely the wrong foot) to engage conversation over at AUFS. Time and time again I found that I my approach was not appreciated given the explicit and implicit standards and aims of the site. It became apparent that at least for the time being I was not adding anything to the conversation. This ended up being a very helpful experience that brought a clarity rather than misunderstanding that may not have happened in another context.
    I think in the blogosphere wisdom will be proven right by her children.

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  18. roger flyer wrote:

    At least you aren’t burning the food.

    Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

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