Carl Trueman’s latest post, The Theatre of the Absurd, in Reformation 21′s e-zine gives a needed kick in the pants to theological bloggers who pose as scholars and draws a parallel between the “blogging attitude” toward expertise and the emerging church.
What’s the Big Deal?
Trueman’s basic beef is this:
To cut to the chase: the danger of the web is this: where everyone has a right to speak, everyone ends up thinking they have a right to be heard; and when everyone in general thinks they have a right to be heard, then you end up with a situation where nobody in particular is listened to.
Basically, since the Web allows anyone to publish their ideas on any area under the sun to a worldwide audience regardless of expertise, many wannabe theologians are posing as experts when they should be sitting in a classroom. These wannabe intellectuals are “self-acclaimed scholars” who boost their egos by hanging out “with mutually-affirming virtual friends all day” and dreaming that they are “real player[s] in the serious scholarly world beyond the blogosphere.” (Hmm, sounds like me sometimes! :-)) They have no real authority or expertise, yet they write as if the church ought to bow to their glorious insights.
For example, such posing “experts” often fail to see their own glaring contradictions, probably due to their lack of rigorous interaction within a community which will honestly critique their ideas:
One was a blogsite which railed against “self-appointed watchdogs” who do nothing but offer negative criticism of others. Well I never. An attack on negative, self-appointed watchdogs launched by–umm–a negative, self-appointed watchdog. Yet the apparent absurdity of the situation was entirely lost on the blogmeister who was engaged in this activity, oblivious to the obvious contradictions of his activity and attitude.
A more direct example highlights a common trend which can lead easily to heresy: People who exalt themselves as experts and authorities who either do not have proper training or do not have enough experience and interaction with their ideas to have true authority. This type of thing can be seen in the case of the “survivalist nutcase out west who gathers with his wife and kids every Sunday and has a webpage entitled ‘The Presbyterian Church in America (Reconstituted).’” This “nutcase” claims equal authority with the true PCA and purports to have an equally authoritative existence. In other words, this guy raises himself to the level of expert and uses his Web site as his bully pulpit. Or to use Truman’s phrase, he asserts his “right to be heard” though he has no true authority to back up what he is saying.
Posing While Writing Papers Too?
Maybe what Trueman is saying relates to writing academic papers in seminary as well. My landlord is a librarian for my seminary. He is no average dude when it comes to theological research. He knows his stuff well, and he knows what it means to snowball bologna in a paper and hope it passes as serious academic writing. What he tells me about the supposedly “academic” papers he grades lines up with a previous comment on Reformation 21′s blog:
Grading term papers and hardly a footnote or primary source in sight here in Mississippi. Ad fontes indeed! Or as Del-boy might say, ad fundum.
What’s my generation’s deal? Have we lost the ability to do true academic research? My librarian landlord tells me that it seems students today would rather Google a few queries and call it good than to spend hours of “dirty work” in the library.
How the Church is Affected (i.e. Emerging Church Movement)
Back to Trueman, the heart of the issue for him is how the current attitude of everybody asserting their own self-proclaimed right to be heard is negatively affecting the church. While not specifically naming the so-called “Emerging Church” in his article, his comments obviously are aimed at this movement:
Let’s conclude by bringing the point home to the church: the danger of an uncritical attitude to the web and to blogging is that it comports very easily with the conversational model of theology which is now gaining currency among the advocates of advanced modernism (aka postmodernism) of the Western church situation, where ‘Thus saith the Lord’ is being displaced by ‘Come in, God, me old pal. Let’s have a cup of coffee and a chat.’ The absolute democratization of knowledge to which an uncritical attitude to blogging etc leads is, after all, inimical to any hierarchical view of truth, and thoroughly comfortable with the ‘this is my truth now tell me yours’ approach which is gaining ground even as I write.
I thought about pointing out that it is a little ironic that Trueman uses the Web to bash on those who are using the Web. But to do so would be to miss his point. It’s not about using the Web, it’s about authority. I myself often use the LOdown as if I’m an expert in theology, Webmastering, or any of the other things I’m writing about. I need to be careful to always keep in front of me that I’m no expert. Thus for me, my writing ought not to come from pretense of expertise.
What Trueman is trying to get us to see is that the irony of blogging involves people speaking as if they are experts when in reality they are plebes posing as scholars. We need to gain wisdom from Truemans’ distinction between the right to speak and the right to be heard. The former is a right given to American citizens which can be freely exercised by all. The latter is an expectation that is normally fulfilled by the process of gaining true authority and expertise in an area prior to proclaiming ideas. Expertise (i.e. the status of “scholar” as used in Trueman’s post) normally is achieved through diligent study, interaction within the academic community, and life experience (all by grace, of course).
For the Emerging Church, I think it needs a serious kick in the pants in this area. Much of the buzz for things such as “Emergent theology,” “missional worship,” etc. is blogger-based. This doesn’t make it bad, but if we apply Trueman’s argument to the Emerging Church, its blogger-based buzz borders on blurring the distinction that Trueman makes between the right to speak and the right to be heard (or true authority and expertise vs. pretense).
From my (admittedly non-expert) observations, it seems to me that many people in the so-called Emergent Church movement (following leaders like Stanley Grenz and John Franke) say things such as: “Truth today is no longer propositional.” (Such a statement is kind of funny since it takes a whole lot of propositional power to make such a claim.)
Furthermore, self-proclaimed leaders in the Emergent movement often give stories of being wounded by the church (especially modernistic mega-churches, legalistic fundamentalist churches, and cold intellectualist churches) as if by merely sharing their stories they are somehow instant experts on ecclesiology. Is this the type of “expertise” we are to embrace for today’s “post-modern” church? (I hope not.)
Other people who resonate with these self-proclaimed emergent experts’ sad stories seem to empathize with them and instantly honor them as experts since they were the first people to put into words what they have felt about the church too. These people get together and swap horror stories about their church experiences on their blogs (here’s the right to free speech). Others join in the conversation. After a good bit of swapping stories, before you know it a movement emerges with self-proclaimed experts who start making proclamations very much like the above self-contradicting proclamations. (Thus the right to be heard is asserted without much true authority and expertise.)
Bottom line: People of God beware of claiming too much expertise for yourself, and beware of following others non-critically who lack the true authority and expertise necessary to lead the church aright.