Part 1: How Did We Get Here from There?
Since 1896, when the Ochs-Sulzberger family took over the ownership of the New York Times, a curious little motto has been printed on the masthead of what is arguably the United States’ most influential daily newspaper. “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is a statement of both arrogance and intent of this historic journalistic medium.
But a lot has changed since 1896. For that matter, a lot has changed since 1996. Enter the Internet, and from the Internet has grown the blogosphere. The blogosphere is a rather crude title for the arena in which citizen journalists now have access to a huge readership that trolls through cyberspace, landing on websites and blogs like bumblebees landing on daisies. Internet visitors scurry from site to site with attention spans that make a hamster look like a three-toed sloth. Often driven to their destinations by the monster search engines owned by Yahoo and Google, some stay for a few seconds. Others perch and hang out for hours. With a few well-placed words in the Google box, we can find history, background, news, gossip, and garbage on anyone or anything in just a few mouse clicks.
The world, from schools of journalism to the legal profession, is still trying to figure out how to respond to this new form of information exchange. The rules aren’t the same for Internet bloggers and sites as they are for print and broadcast media. Spreading a falsehood can be a career-ender in the mainstream media—think Dan Rather. On the Internet, a falsehood just adds to the mystique and interest. Think Matt Drudge.
The mainstream media is nearly apoplectic over the popularity of the blogosphere which has been substantially costing them their own readers and viewership. It isn’t fair that a successful mainstream journalist must go to four or more years of college, serve histime in a backwater position, and climb the ladder through effort and achievement before being able to make a living wage and maybe to get a shot at an anchor chair or editor’s desk. These upstart pseudo-journalists need only a computer and Internet connection, and they can dazzle their readership with their wit and wisdom—sometimes coming off as (if not more) credible than “real” journalists.
Like a communication supernova, the world of Internet information exchange continues to evolve and expand, it is premature to analyze its scope or impact at this time. There are many facets to communication outlets on the Internet: blogs, journals, hard news sites, gossip sites, forums, bulletin boards, and commentary and referral sites. Take just one form of the outlets, like blogs for example, and you will find political blogs, celebrity blogs, Christian blogs, and pagan blogs. You name the topic or genre, and there’s probably a blog covering it, maybe many covering it. Some blogs simply provide links to other blogs, articles, and hard-news stories. Some blogs are masterfully devoted to particular topics and feed their readers a stream of information that is considered irrelevant or inconsequential by larger hard-news outlets. Other blogs provide information streams to constituencies that have operated in information blackout zones throughout history.
Much of the criticism is valid. There is little accountability, if any. The “free speech zone” of the blogosphere is rife with excess and nonsense. Our postmodern world begs for salaciousness and gory details as it searches for feelings rather than facts.
With this background in mind, perhaps it is time for a discussion as to the role of blogs, Internet forums, pseudo-journalistic sites and information dissemination designed for and directed to the evangelical and fundamentalist branches of Christianity. Christian blogs and forums are proliferating and expanding at breakneck speed. The free-wheeling and ridiculously random forum portal known as the Fightin’ Fundamentalist Forums is routinely in the top sites visited on the Baptist 1000 hit counter site and is almost always at the top of the Fundamental 500 sites—sometimes with twice as many hits as the next closest site on the list. Phil Johnson’s website, known originally as Pyromaniac, became so popular that it turned into a personal monster. He regrouped, using a staple of bloggers to populate his new and improved site, Pyromaniacs.
Jason Janz formed SharperIron as a meeting place for conservative fundamentalists. The blog contains forums, a blog aggregator (that links readers to a hall of regular blogs), regular articles, and featured blog articles. Janz regularly conducts interviews of fundamentalist leaders and posts them on the site in a form that characterizes them as making forays into the world of journalism past a simple “portal” site for an exchange of ideas. Janz made national news last year when he revealed that gay activist Chad Allan was cast in the role of evangelical legend Nate Saint in the mainstream movie End of the Spear. As a result, one of the Internet’s leading fundamentalist commentators, Dr. Kevin Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN) felt a spear of a different kind when he made hyperbolic comment on his own blog (Nos Sobrii, later renamed Let’s Be Serious) which some ridiculously tried to construe as a veiled terrorist threat. As a result, he discontinued his blog; and one of the most seasoned and reasoned voices of the fundamentalist blogosphere became silenced, for the most part.
After a site crash left SharperIron disabled for several days, a newer and (what some have considered) edgier SharperIron emerged. The blog has more recently been catching flack from some in the world of fundamentalist Christianity. Recently, SI announced the resignations of Dr. Dave Jaspers from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI) and Pastor Jim Schettler from the Campus Church at Pensacola Christian College (Pensacola, FL). It also announced the arrest of former Independent Baptist mega-pastor and Trinity Baptist College founder Bob Gray for multiple cases of sexual abuse on children who were students at the Christian day school he founded. Each of these “stories” were featured—in most cases, rather starkly—on the SI homepage. The articles contained links to hard news sources or cited released letters or statements from the individuals or institutions involved. The Schettler announcement contained a link to a rather low-quality audio recording of Schettler’s actual resignation statement as well as and a followup statement from PCC president Dr. Arlin Horton, apparently recorded during the actual church service which the announcement was made.
In the case of the Jaspers and Schettler announcements, SI permitted comments and forum discussions that took on a tone that some found offensive due to speculation or opinions expressed by commenters. The Gray announcement was different in that site administrators allowed no comments or discussion of the arrest of the fundamentalist icon but provided on-going links to local and national news reports that followed the story in Jacksonville, Florida. It also provided audio and website links to statements made by the leadership of Trinity Baptist Church and their attorney, David Gibbs, III.
Discussions on various forums have raised the question as to whether it is appropriate for a Christian website to disseminate negative news via the Internet and whether it is appropriate to facilitate discussion of Christian controversies in an open forum. After this lengthy introduction and background, this author and blogging commentator wishes to examine and challenge whether Christians should use the Internet to discuss, inform, and engage readers with stories and events involving public Christian leadership.
Among the arguments against publishing “negative” news about individuals, ministries, leadership and others who gain a few minutes of notoriety include the following:
- It doesn’t follow the Matthew 18 or Galatians 6 models for confronting a brother (or sister) when they are overtaken in sin.
- It leads to speculation and gossip. For example, when Dave Jaspers allowed his resignation to be published on SharperIron, some began analyzing each word to try to figure out the real reason for his resignation. Of course, analysis leads to speculation, and speculation leads to gossip.
- It gives reason for the world to despise us. The world is interested in the failures and peccadilloes of those who purport to be “Christian,” and we supply them with ammunition when we publicize problems.
- It can violate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” and can unnecessarily cast suspicion on someone who might be innocent. Such matters should be handled only within the context of the local church.
- It violates Philippians 4:8, encouraging us to think on things some would consider to be negative or carnal.
While the above list is not exhaustive, it provides some basis of concern for many who deem it inappropriate for Christian Internet sites to disseminate negative news or news that could lead to speculation or gossip regarding individuals or institutions.
Of course, there are substantive counterpoints to be made as well. For example:
- Sin happens, and we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it in the context of a biblical worldview. It reminds us of the depravity of man and also serves as a caution to all of us who “take heed where we stand lest we fall.”
- In recent years, many ministries have chosen to “cover up” failures in spiritual leadership rather than to deal with it openly and biblically. Publication of known facts creates the pressure of accountability since the information is no longer contained to a small inner circle.
- People eventually catch news that there is a problem and gossip anyway in spite of the fact that the facts are unknown or only partially known. By stating the known facts and by giving those involved opportunity to comment, it may reduce the amount of false information and actually reduce speculation and gossip.
- Blogs are a legitimate form of journalism, though the nuances are still being defined, refined, and debated. A growing number of people are getting their information from the Internet. Thus, if Christianity Today or World Magazine can and do post information about individuals and ministries, then blogs are a legitimate outlet for news as well.
- People have a right to know. This is America, after all. Many who cry for censorship are using spiritual terms to cover their own belief that information, like church members, is best when controlled. They assume people will assume the worst, become discouraged, or use the information to try and discredit Christ. Proponents of using the Internet as a way of informing others would counter that openness, transparency, and the accountability of full-disclosure are positive for the body of Christ at large and provide teachable moments.
- Discussion and debate is healthy. Some in conservative Christian circles have feared discussion and debate as negative and an opportunity for discord to arise and control to be lost. Proponents believe that “iron sharpeneth iron” and that reasonable discussion, debate, and intellectual sparring are healthy and produce flows of logic and opportunity to counter unbiblical ideas and attitudes with scriptural rebuttal.
So what conclusions should we reach? Is it appropriate for Christians bloggers and Internet journalists to lay out the “good, bad and ugly” before the prying eyes of the redeemed and nonbelievers alike? Is it even possible to tame the Internet world of free and open expression and exchanges of ideas? Should Christians “separate” from the medium altogether? Is there no biblical standard of responsibility that should govern what is published?
Dan Burrell is senior pastor at Northside Baptist Church (Charlotte, NC). He’s also a commentator for the Evangelical Press News and blogs at Whirled Views with Dan Burrell