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In the Crosshairs of the Discernment Bloggers
April 03, 2013
The Internet has forever changed the way Christians relate to one another. In giving us a common medium and allowing all of us to participate in it, it has made the church feel so much smaller. Local communities based on common geography have given way to a global community based on common interest. But at the same time, participation requires mediation—the mediation of a screen and a keyboard—and this keeps us relationally distant from one another. As our reach extends, our humanity fades, lost somewhere in the cyberspace between you and me.
Among the realities of this digital world is a whole class of web sites known as discernment blogs or watchblogs. These are sites ostensibly dedicated to keeping out a watchful eye for conflict and heresy. Some take a broad view, tracking a wide range of personalities and controversies; others take a much narrower view, tracking a single theological issue, ministry, or person. There have been times over the years that I have run afoul of discernment bloggers. On a few occasions I have said something, or neglected to say something, that has caused them to write an article about me. But then several weeks ago I wrote something that brought about an explosive reaction. Suddenly these bloggers were picking apart the meaning of my every word, taking stock of my deepest motives, and even writing with confidence about the state of my finances. Some of their commenters were crying out for people to hack my site and destroy it. A few were expressing themselves in profanity and threats of physical violence. It was intimidating, but also very clarifying.
I have sometimes warned about these discernment bloggers that are now all over the Internet, but somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve reserved a place for them. I’ve allowed myself to believe that they may serve a helpful purpose, that even while they go too far at times, a lot of their information is helpful. I’ve occasionally found myself visiting some of the sites, reading their articles, and justifying it all in my mind. After all, it is important that I know the truth about Christian leaders and their ministries, isn’t it?
Then they wrote about me. They wrote about my financial situation. They wrote “shocking” exposes and went rummaging through the digital trash to dig up the smoking guns. They did not just report (supposed) facts but also interpreted them. And then other blogs picked up the stories and carried them as well. And this clarified the situation for me. I wish my teacher here had been something nobler than personal attack, but sadly, and perhaps ironically, it was when I was in their crosshairs that they themselves came into sharper focus.
Because here’s the reality: So much of what they wrote about me had so little basis in reality. These bloggers misinterpreted even what is obvious, stretched what is true, assumed what is dubious, and fabricated the rest. They shared all of this with their readers as if it was based on verifiable facts, as if they were privy to details, as if it was anything more than conjecture.
There is part of me that doesn’t much care that these bloggers are writing about me and that what they are writing is unhinged from reality. If I have learned anything from ten years of blogging, it’s that I’ve got to have thick skin and not be easily offended. I’ve often considered the implications of 1 Peter 2:23 and Proverbs 26:4–5 and other passages that pertain to personal offense. Engagement and self-defense is usually a dead end, and I do not intend to refute those discernment bloggers who have been after me, to meet error with fact. My concern is not first for them but for you and me, the people who read their sites, even if only occasionally.
When I look in a carnival mirror and see my face all stretched and distorted I can say, “That’s not me!” That is what it is like to read their articles; there is a certain resemblance, but it is all distorted, all out of shape and out of perspective. Now that I have meandered into their hall of mirrors I see how they operate and cannot in good conscience trust any information they share. I am forced to assume that their evaluations of other individuals and ministries are equally distorted by error (which is, of course, what their targets have been telling us all along).
Two lessons stand out.
The first is that discernment blogs are too often marked by neither truth nor love. They certainly showed very little rigor in verifying their facts about me. I do not believe the Bible mandates that outside the context of the local church a person must get in touch with another in order to disagree with their theology or their interpretation of facts. However, a Christian who is committed to speaking truth in love will feel at least some obligation to confirm whether details are true. Not one of these writers knows me personally or, to my knowledge, has ever met me. Not one attempted to get in touch with me or anyone connected with me to verify facts—to get, at the very least, a “no comment” (even the worst of the mainstream media would do that as a minimum!)—even though my contact information is publicly available. I am not the exception here—this is their standard operating procedure. And still these bloggers know the dollars and cents of my life, they know who my friends are, they know where my loyalties lie and, in a display of near-omniscience, they even know my motives.
The second lesson is one I am surprised I did not see before: Discernment bloggers often operate by fear. They are intimidating because of their willingness to release information and misinformation, to speculate and fabricate, to share personal details and confidential correspondence and to stretch what doesn’t quite fit. They have the power to destroy a reputation and a history that proves they are willing to do so. Though they immediately discredit any response, they at the same time imply that a non-response is an admission of guilt. It is a classic no-win situation. They are the playground bullies of the Internet, shaking their fists and demanding your lunch money; if you give it to them you go hungry, if you don’t give it to them, you get your head shoved in a toilet. Where the Bible calls us to approach conflict with equal parts truth and love, discernment bloggers operate by lies and fear—or half-truths and fear at the very least. It is an intimidating combination if you are the one who may face their wrath.
There is a paradox in the way they behave and it has been so clarifying for me to see it. They bemoan a leader’s lack of love and respond by defaming him. They act as if they are humble truth-seekers but have a tabloid-level threshold for their own scurrilous accusations. They give an appearance of being engaged in investigative journalism but bear a far closer resemblance to tabloids. Worst of all, you and I are reading and believing them. We participate in their gossip and intimidation tactics every time we read their sites.
I am troubled and ashamed that it has taken me this long to understand how they operate. When this Christian leader or that one makes enemies and they begin to circle like hungry sharks, I tend to believe that they must have access to real facts and that on some level their motives are sound. I’ve allowed what they say to change the way I feel about men and women—brothers and sisters in the Lord—I otherwise respect.
It needs to stop. I need to stop. I support them and their foul “ministry” with every click of my mouse, with every reading of one of their pages, with every fact I choose to digest. They thrive on attention and survive only because we give it to them. When I visit these sites I am keeping company with fools and give up all right to be surprised when I become like them (Proverbs 13:20). If I visit these sites I am compromising my own integrity and my love for other Christians.
There are times for bloggers to comment on pressing issues, even issues that are uncomfortable to address, and certain writers do this well. They express themselves with kindness and grace even as they disagree with people they love. Even more urgently, there are false leaders and ministries that need to be exposed. If a well-known ministry is teaching heresy and leading people to hell or systemically promoting or allowing abuse of children, I am certain we can find someone to do a real and honest investigation, to verify the facts, to talk to the people involved, and to determine if this is the case. If it is, I will join in sounding the alarm.
But I will not read any more shocking exposes built on nothing more than one side’s accusations and angry conjectures. I am not going to read about this person’s finances and that person’s leadership style. I am not going to allow people with so little integrity, with so little concern for truth and love, to violate my conscience, pollute my mind, and disrupt my love for others. And I’d encourage you to join me.
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