I lay in bed for quite a long time this morning, in that strange state that is somewhere between asleep and awake—that place where the mind is working but the body is not. My mind was racing back and forth and eventually settled on an old memory. It’s a memory I hate and one of those I would purge if I could.
It goes back to a conference I attended in 2006. Not long before the conference I had reviewed a book and had taken issue with the theology it taught. The book had showed up at my house unsolicited and, after reading it, I posted a review that pointed out what I considered some significant weaknesses. Here I was now, several weeks later, walking the halls of a convention center. As I moved through the crowd, a little ways ahead of me and coming directly toward me, I saw the author of that book walking, talking and laughing with a friend of mine. They hadn’t yet seen me but were heading straight toward me and I knew that if we were to pass one another, my friend would stop and introduce us.
In that moment I felt a strange flush of shame and conviction. In that moment I realized that this author was a real person. I guess I should have known that, but somehow it hadn’t really occurred to me. It was so easy for me to read a book and post a review on the Internet without thinking of the fact that this author was a real person. He was not just some cleverly-programmed computer who spat out books and he was not a one-dimensional evil heretic who was out to subdue the Christian faith. He was a believer and one much like me, but for some fairly subtle theological differences.
I saw him walking toward me and with my face burning, I turned and fled. I couldn’t face him; I couldn’t bear the thought of having to look him in the eyes. I ended up going all the way back to my hotel room where I pulled open my computer and re-read the review I had written. I felt a new conviction that I had been unfair, that I had treated this book as if it was an entirely abstract entity rather than the labor of a brother in Christ who truly believed that this was a message he ought to share with the church. I still disagreed with much of what he said, but I could see that I had not treated him with love and with respect. I had not even given him the respect I owed to an older man.
I repented in that hotel room, asking God for forgiveness. And I have always regarded this as a bit of a holy moment, a moment of real significance. I vowed that from that time on, I would seek to be fair in my critiques and that I would never forget that the people whose books I receive are real people. This was a moment that shaped my writing and shaped this blog. That’s not to say that I have done perfectly since then, and it’s not to say that I’ve been afraid to call a spade a spade when necessary. But it does mean that I’ve genuinely sought to distinguish between people who are truly sharing evil theology and people whom I may disagree with in the more minor points.
This situation was formative in making me aware of the temptations that come with this kind of electronic communication that tends to dehumanize us. Somehow the distance between us can make us all seem a little bit less than human. I’ve seen this recently when people have mistakenly tagged me on Facebook, making me aware of conversations they did not know I had been invited into. I’ve seen it through what other blogs have said about me or what they’ve assumed to be true of me, my heart or my motives. As difficult as some of these moments have been, I’ve been grateful for them, as they’ve opened my eyes again to the digital temptations and my own tendencies to act as if the people on the other end of a copper wire are not real people. That moment in that hotel room in that city at that conference was probably the genesis of The Next Story.
For the rest of that weekend I kept my eyes open for the man whose book I had unfairly reviewed, but did not see him again. After the conference came to a close I was sitting at the airport, ready to catch my flight home, when I saw him walk by. I paused for a moment and then went after him, hoping to catch him and offer an apology. I chased after him, but he disappeared into the crowd and was gone. I haven’t seen him since, but if I ever do, I know just what I’ll say to him.