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.