Stefan McDaniel thinks blogging is a bad business. In his own recent blog piece, “Reverence for Words: A Case Against Blogging” (First Things on-line) he argues that the blogosphere is cheapening the value of words.
To make his case he employs Neil Postman’s classic diatribe against TV, Amusing Ourselves To Death, where Postman makes the McCluhanesque charge that what is wrong with TV isn’t that we need better programming (more Ken Burns and Sesame Street) but the medium of TV itself. I read the Postman book nearly twenty years ago and found its thesis persuasive. But I don’t think it is useful in the case of the blogosphere. It’s a different medium and has different issues and challenges.
“Reading Postman for the first time last month gave me clearer language to explain my rage against the rise of blogging. For what he says about media can be said about literary forms—they are biased toward certain kinds of content. The blogpost is biased toward speed, brevity, and cleverness. It thus hands the public square over to bullies, sophists, and clowns.”
Now McDaniel has a point that the blogpost as a literary form is biased toward speed, brevity, and cleverness, but not all blogposts observe that bias. And if we acknowledge the blogpost as a literary form it is certainly an emerging one. We can no more imagine what it will become than Gutenberg could have imagined the novel.
So I don’t think the Postman thesis is an apt one for the blogosphere chiefly because watching TV is a passive activity whereas blogging is interactive. It is true that many blogs are trite and entertainment-driven, but many are not. I have found on numerous, mostly theological blogs, access to great literature from old friends and new ones.
For example, on Jason Goroncy's substantial site, Per Crucem ad Lucem, he has posted the corpus of the seminal British theologian P.T. Forsyth. Twenty years ago I had to travel to Oxford to find some of the more obscure writings of this important figure. Now I can read him in my pajamas, and converse with clever, knowledgeable people around the world about him.
I would argue that blogging has opened up a vast new global public space for serious discourse. As an author and book reviewer my creations in the past reached a small audience. Some of those same works, now archived on my blog, get regular visits. I wrote a review of Scott Paeth’s book on Christology, Who Do You Say that I Am? for Joy in the Word, a small journal of the Confessing Christ movement in the United Church of Christ, whose distribution is limited to a smallish mailing list. By re-posting this, I have made the review available to a global audience of people interested in Christology, and some of them may find their way to that book. In the past this wouldn't happen.
McDaniel acknowledges some of this. He writes,
“Some of my very astute pro-blog friends have argued that, whatever their drawbacks, blogs create a democratic public space whose occupants are minimally beholden to state and corporate interests. For the discerning reader, entering the blogosphere is just like listening in on a fascinating conversation among free, brilliant interlocutors. The incompleteness, electicism, and so on are characteristic of good conversation.”
But then he complains that the good blogs aren’t popular. But since when did popularity become the criterion for judging any literary form? Some good literature became popular (I’m thinking Dickens) but most popular literature isn’t good.
So what if a good blog isn't popular? The blogosphere allows bloggers to find their audience, even if the audience is small. I don’t expect Retired Pastor Ruminates to ever rival the Huffington Post in popularity, but I enjoy interacting with people from all over the world who also enjoy P.T. Forsyth, Karl Barth, atonement theology, the Boston Red Sox, home cooking, poetry, and Single Malt Scotch, to name but a few of my preoocupations.
And there is a freedom about blogging that is different than writing for print. For example, I have written articles and book reviews for journals, and there is a kind of self-censorship that goes into preparing something for, say Theology Today. You know they have a certain style and point of view, and you try to conform as much as possible to it. And after you submit your piece, it can be edited in ways over which you have no say. For example, a review I wrote of Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified for Theology Today was edited to remove all the masculine personal pronouns for deity, a practice neither Richard Bauckham nor I follow. I was able to put the review up on my blog the way I wrote it.
Now blogging may lack the discipline that McDaniel values in print, but it is free from the constraints that one is subject to in dealing with editors and publishers, which means fresh and new writings now have a place to flourish. This may threaten journals and publishers, but it may be a good thing for the world to have unfettered access to many points of view.
And in a strange way, blogging makes people focus more on words. Because the blogpost is a literary medium, people who blog spend time at keyboards and have to think abou the best way to express themselves with words. Unlike Postman’s catatonic TV watchers, bloggers minds are active as they think about what to blog and then use their creativity to produce the post. And there are many very creative blogs out there, engaging, interesting, funny, and informative, and there are more and more all the time.
And, finally, let me offer a personal confession of how important blogging has become for me. I am a retired pastor with a disability that prohibits me from working anymore. I was an active pastor for thirty years and for the last five I have been missing my work and the creative outlets it provided. Blogging lets me express my thoughts and ideas, and I have come to view it as a ministry. I have had commenters e-mail me to thank me for what I have written. And though the audience is small, it is world-wide.
So I defend blogging. I think some of McDaniel’s concerns are legitimate, but at the end of the day I don’t believe the blogpost is either good or evil, but neutral, and it is the way it is used that will be decisive. Like every other human enterprise it is subject to the pull of temptation and sin. It remains to be seen just how it will be used.
Therefore, it is hasty to condemn this new literary form and the communication technology that makes it possible. Gutenberg was so condemned in his day. But the wheat and the tares grow together, and on the Day they will be sorted out.
So let a thousand blogs bloom and flourish!