It is a great sadness to me that the word ‘pund’ does not exist. This is no doubt because the English ‘pundit’ is actually a corruption of an ancient Sanskrit work ‘pandit’ which meant ‘learned scholar, master, teacher’ (don’t worry – I didn’t know that until I looked it up in the OED). But I recommend using it – because I’ve noticed that there is an increasing amount of punding going on. And I’m not sure the sight is all that pretty.

Now I’m a huge fan of blogs and tweets. For Q regulars, that will go without saying. “Of course he is”, you say. “He never stops his interminable blogging and tweeting”. But for the most part, I do try to avoid both punditry and polemics – especially on matters of substance. The net has given a voice to anyone who’s online – and that’s got to be great. On the whole…

But let me indulge in a modicum of polemical punditry just for a moment (now, there’s an irony for you). For I do worry that far from being a medium of thoughtful communication and honest engagement, the platform merely serves to deepen divisions and incarcerate us in cliques. I note with interest that Findo has been thinking on similar lines this weekend.

Tweeting Tweologically

Take Twitter. To be really effective, a good tweet needs that punchy one-liner, the nicely crafted zinger to amuse and squash in equal measure. The wittier or punchier, the likelier to go viral. And I do enjoy, and so retweet, nicely turned (m)utterings. People’s ability to communicate well in 140 characters is curiously satisfying. But I’ve noticed a concerning habit. The platform gets used to stoke the fires of controversy in what is actually little more than theological gossiping and ecclesiastical pot-stirring. In other words, did you hear that Pastor X has said … ? and Dr Y has shown her true colours now with… and This is madness: look what Fred Z is calling for NOW!!…

Throw into the mix a wry hashtag with a nice play on the person’s name or alleged crime. And then to finish the job, slide into that playground debating style of name-calling. After all, 140 characters do get used up frighteningly quickly – so it’s much easier to resort to tried and tested insults er … labels.

Fred / Ginger is a total fundie / liberal / chauvinist / feminist / heretic / imperialist / libertine / homophobe / obscurantist / contrarian / literalist / etc … just read what he / she has written now… (delete as appropriate/inclined)

Not all that helpful. We merely vent our spleens, magnify our outrage and massage our twitter profile. We also run an acute risk of Bulverism (on which I’ve blogged before).

Now of course, this is hardly a novel scourge. Human beings have done it for aeons, and Christians for 2 millennia. Labels can justify disengagement (at best), and (?usually) skate over the context, spirit or tone of what is quoted.

For example, it’s interesting now to revisit what John Stott actually wrote when he closed his annihilation comments in the book Essentials. The book is pretty unique – I can’t think of many theologians (of any stripe) who would endure such a detailed and often waspishly critical engagement with their work in as gracious though clear manner as Stott did. But the way he was treated after those 5 pages in particular simply served to prove how little people understood the spirit in which he wrote. For he said:

I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because i have a great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the world-wide Evangelical constituency has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to suppress, and I am grateful to you for challenging me to declare my present mind. I do not dogmatise about this position to which i have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. (Essentials, p320)

That plea fell on many deaf ears. My fear now is that as theological controversies come and go (which they inevitably will), ‘tweological’ discussions will only make matters worse. There is something potent about the instant broadcast within circles of followers who could then pass it on, and thus entrench or scandalise. You can of course prove me wrong – which would be excellent, and in fact the point of writing this…

Blogging Punditry

There are times when disagreement is necessary. And to be fair, some Twitter controversialists of recent months have not resorted to this – and for some, it is used responsibly and carefully. I personally think tweets work best when they link to other stuff – informed decisions and discernment are surely impossible without context. And so it is perfectly legitimate for a tweeter to link to  his/her own blog (well, I would wouldn’t I).

But this is where we need care too. It’s interesting – how does the OED define a pundit in modern usage?

an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called upon to give their opinions to the public

Now – don’t panic. The net has democratised knowledge. There’s no going back, for worse and for better. We’re all experts now. And so we can all be pundits. Which is fine. Unless we really not really experts at all…

So I suppose all I think I’m saying is that whenever we put thoughts to web, we must scan our post with more than just a spell-checker. We should also develop a discipline of pulling any post through other scans. I suggest at least these four:

  • a truth-checker: for when I speak of others
  • an honesty-checker: for when I speak of myself
  • a generosity-checker: for when I disagree with others
  • a humility-checker: for when I assert my point

If you think of others, please add them in.

OK, there we go. Glad that’s off my chest so end of polemical punding. I think I’ll just toddle off and tweet a link to it…

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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Emma

    Great article Mark, and worth bearing in mind your points at the end. I clicked on the link to Keller et al but it referred back to the incomprehensible (to me at any rate) elephant room thingy. As an ordinary Christian how interested should I be in this stuff? I found the Mahaney thing disturbing as I then didn’t know what to think about the books I’d read by them (maybe I should be more critical on my first reading) and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. Or the Mark Driscoll stuff-how do I know if someone is sound or not-do I have to evaluate them all myself, or rely on you, or internet consensus, and if they’re writing a blog-even more so?

    Amusingly I was listening to the Sunday service on radio 4 randomly the other week and heard part of a sermon so I listened and was thinking “well this guy is saying some interesting things and he is making some good points which I agree with, but I’m not sure if I trust him as he’s not quoting chapter and verse” I was somewhat disconcerted to discover it was D A Carson!!!

    1. quaesitor

      hi Emma
      thanks for this – i think on reflection, I’m going to remove the link from the article as it is probably a bit of a distraction…
      There’s too much introspective and circular discussion online as it is – so if one’s not aware of all of these debates, there’s not a lot of worth in getting fully involved for many of them!

  2. Lauri

    I have learned a new word and will certainly have to keep the four questions above in mind. Very helpful those.

    In democratic knowledge, what is private and what is public?

    So do you have a list of questions to ask whether or not you have reached the desired level of democratic knowledge, because I think you give up to easily on anybody saying anything on any given subject. I am also using the term democratic not just as an adjective, but as a measure of how wide the punditry extends. So what is the difference between a conversation amongst friends, which you might have at a pub over a given theological dispute to help clarify what is going on (using robust words to add flavour and spice to the discussion), and when does it become a matter of punditry for the consideration of “the public”.

    Also, while the main thrust of your post isn’t opposing them, polemics and rhetoric are important. Lewis, Chesterton and even Keller when preaching use polemics and rhetorical tools which could crush an opponents position (and dent their pride) when they are used with the rigour of a well developed argument. So I guess what I am asking is, what is the boundary of politeness in the above, if you do write for either “the public” or your circle of friends that you like to chew the cud over?

    1. quaesitor

      Hi Lauri
      you’re absolutely right to pick up on both the democratised knowledge and the polemics points. I have been chewing over the same problems.

      Perhaps we can say this: I guess it is clear that everyone has a right to speak and the net gives everyone online a platform to speak. We mustn’t seek to silence the supposedly non-expert – and indeed it is the non-expert or the outsider who has the willingness, perspective and guts to expose the emperor’s new clothes. But perhaps what I’m calling for is a degree of personal circumspection and integrity as much as anything else. This is not a call to suppress other voices – but for those who do use their voices to listen more and say less, and certainly avoid claiming too high an expertise (as if running a blog automatically confers expertise). Does that make sense? I guess all this arises because of the way the internet completely blurs the line between public and private (and even renders the distinction irrelevant). So the ground rules for neither category quite fits. It is not enough to justify the more strident or cutting by appealing to some sort of private sphere (unless perhaps it is a password protected blog).

      Polemics is fine and does have its place of course. but the problem is ad hominem tactics or the slam-dunk label to silence opposition. For it forces the opponent to spend half their time defending their own integrity rather than their argument. But I’m very conscious of not being a linguistics or philosophy guy, and so have probably committed all kinds of howlers myself even in this response!!

  3. Dan Patterson

    Hi Mark,
    Great post.
    Perhaps the church has yet to get their teaching tentacles around the electronic age.
    What role do our churches and Bible teaching institutions need to play in helping us get a handle on this one? I was wondering the other day if and when Bible colleges and seminaries will introduce some form of internet ethics into their curriculums – Jesus Blogs 101, WWJB or WWJT;) There is clearly a need to learn how to appropriately use social networking tools and the internet in a godly manner for personal and church use, and then there is the church that needs to be taught how to engage with these same tools in a biblically consistent fashion too. Assuming that we’ll all get it, clearly isn’t working.

    1. quaesitor

      I’m sure you’re onto something with that…

  4. wkshank

    Started reading the top of this post over an hour ago, and to illustrate one usefulness of both tweeting & blogging, I have 11 tabs open as a result, having read from or about Rachel Held Evans, Noel Piper, John Piper, scripture via Bible Gateway, Findo, and wikipedia on “Bulverism.” In other words, raising issues online at the very least makes the curious dig and read. That has to be good. (But oh my goodness how CAN it be 2:30 already and I haven’t gotten that drawing done??) On the other hand, how much of what I’m reading is “foolish controversies?” I agree with Emma; somebody trustworthy please hand me the cheat notes, and save me some time!

    YES: far too often the conversation devolves to spleen-venting, and this, as you say, is not a new problem. It is an issue I struggle with not so much in my own (non-controversial) blogging as in reading more provocative blogs/punding and the ensuing comments, and deciding whether to enter into those conversations. I sometimes wonder if the followers of particular blogs ever do themselves the favor of honestly reading the opposing side’s views (hopefully from a writer who can do the “thoughtful communication and honest engagement” you speak of). Doubting that, I feel compelled sometimes to comment, in order to try to clarify an issue for those who might actually want to hear the other side, and ask for the very thing Findo’s article is pleading for: a fair hearing. (The freedom to indulge in posting in such forums is a perk that comes with being a non-cleric, non-celebrity nobody.) But how to do this graciously and winsomely, and still speak truth? There’s the rub.

    All this reminds me of John Stott’s personal principles for dealing with controversy: 1) don’t initiate; only respond, 2) speak of such matters privately, not publicly, 3) avoid saying behind someone’s back what you have not said to him directly, and 4) lead with affirmation before anything negative. Is it even possible, then, that he would have set foot in this brave new world of chatter, where almost anything becomes controversy, where NOTHING is private, where there is little chance of speaking to someone directly?

    If we all followed those guidelines, I doubt blogging would exist or have much following in the Christian world, and I wonder what Uncle John would say now about all this. The same, perhaps. And I realize #1 and #2 may have been particularly needful given his ministry and role. But I think his list is a good example of the working out of Eph 4 and 2 Tim. 2:23-26 that we each have to do. Those same verses certainly could be applied in a forum perhaps not so very different from the temple colonnades of Paul’s day, where God’s people hold family debates, and the whole world can overhear. To me, the single greatest “checker” before posting is, “if Christ were sitting here beside me reading, would he be pleased with my heart and my words?”

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