Two very different approaches to internet debate

angel and devilI had two very different conversations on my comment threads yesterday with people who disagreed with something I had written. In the first case, I was put on the defensive and became increasingly convinced that I was being judged unfairly. In the second case, I was disarmed and ended up conceding that I had made an irresponsible choice in how I worded something. Since I saw my own natural tendencies in the first approach, I thought it seemed like the opportunity for a teachable moment for me and perhaps you as well.

When I read something that I decide to argue with on the Internet, my default mode of engagement is to try to make the person who said it look as ridiculous as possible by pointing out their hypocrisies and demonstrating how their word choice is disingenuous. This is precisely how the first commenter engaged me on a post I wrote Monday about my experience when friends are converted into a theology that I can’t relate to.

I used the term “fundamentalist,” which was a loaded term that was unnecessary. I described how the theology of these friends (who are actually a real plural set of people that I actually do care about) looked like from my vantage point. The main thrust of my post was to describe the crisis of faith that I personally experience wondering if I’m worshiping a fake God when I see other people whose God seems to address their sin more effectively because He’s a lot “meaner” than the God I have encountered (not just in my personal fantasies but in my reading of scripture).

In any case, the commenter started off by saying (or rather insinuating sarcastically) that I couldn’t possibly be talking about people who were really friends because then I would have attempted to write them directly before saying anything on the Internet. Then he pointed out that the theology I was struggling with was precisely the theology of Methodist founder John Wesley, who must be a “fundamentalist” too by my assessment. He concluded with the following:

In the end, this sounds like a long re-enactment of Luke 18:11 – “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.”

So a post that I’d written in order to be vulnerable about my own uncertainties and say I had always thought I was called to fight fundamentalism but maybe I need to just live and let live ends up being construed as the exact opposite. The commenter felt like this wasn’t enough, so he added a second comment:

The other thing that strikes me about this post, along with many of the comments, is how much is made of one’s *feelings.* Rather than calling for one’s feelings to conform and submit to faith and God’s revelation of God’s self, it is posited that God conforms to our feelings, and His Word changes based on what motivates you.

Feelings? Hmm… I’m not afraid to acknowledge that I have them. And the irony again is that the point of my post had been to name my uncertainty about my own experience of God in light of the vastly different God attested by the “fundamentalist” (ex?) friends I was encountering. I wrote a series on this blog called “Five Verses God has tattooed on my heart.” The scripture that has seized me over the course of my life explains my understanding of who God is, not my “feelings,” even if I write a blog post in which I don’t have chapter, verse citations at the end of every sentence.

In any case, the course of my conversation with this first commenter was determined by a pretty scathing opening assault not just on my ideas but on my character. I call people “friends” whom I obviously don’t really care about since I write about them in the third person without having cleared it with all of them first. I’m not really a Methodist because I’m at odds with the theology of John Wesley. I’m exactly like the Pharisees I purport to be criticizing. And the God I believe in is a projection based on my feelings.

Here’s how the second conversation went differently. It started with a question regarding a phrase I had used in a prior comment, “the heresy of sexual normalcy.” The phrase was a sloppy overreach. I’ve written a lot about the way that sexuality does not function as innocently in suburban Christian culture as it’s purported to. It is ridiculous for those of us who are heterosexual to congratulate ourselves on the “virtue” of being “natural,” and I do think there is an undue moralization of gender complementarity that goes beyond Biblical warrant and reaches its most ridiculous caricature in wife-spanking culture.

But it’s reckless and unfair of me to say that Christians who are grappling with how to be Biblically faithful in a legitimately sexually broken society are nothing more than self-justifying heretics. And the reason I’m better able to admit that I was wrong on this point is because of how the second commenter engaged me. He didn’t once attack my character. He engaged me strictly on my point, which he disputed, while also showing me that he was trying to understand where I was coming from:

My guess is that you see this as a justice issue, with the need to change the church and society to provide acceptance and recognition for persons with same-sex attractions. If that is the case, then it would seem to me to be unfair to label as heretics those who are merely responding, simply because they are bringing “undue emphasis” to one dimension of Christian teaching.

It does a whole lot to show that you’re trying to understand where another person is coming from and it doesn’t require muting your criticism of the point that the other person has made. He could have made me look and feel a whole lot more ridiculous. Because he didn’t, I didn’t get defensive. The conversation continued and though we still disagreed, he was able to name a point of agreement:

I am totally in agreement with you that we need a much deeper, more full-orbed theology of sexuality. I agree that we need to explain what is going on with God creating the good gift of sexuality and how God meant it to be used, along with how our sinful nature corrupts the good gift and we experience brokenness. I have seen snatches of it, and I hear that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is very good, but I haven’t seen a good development of that theology from a Protestant perspective. We as a church need to be working on that.

In the end of the conversation, I felt like despite our disagreement on a very contentious issue that has wrecked so many friendships that this was a brother in Christ whom I could embrace as a friend if the circumstances allowed for it. And this wasn’t just any ordinary guy. He’s a higher up in the United Methodist Good News movement, an evangelical revitalization movement which is perceived as “the enemy” by many who want United Methodism to be LGBT-inclusive (and I’m not saying this perception is entirely unwarranted; I simply don’t know the story). Regardless, he’s still a Christian and he treated me like he thought I was actually a Christian too. And that actually makes all the difference in the world.

So I think what God had to show me in all this is you can express your disagreement with other people without attacking their character and making them look ridiculous. I can’t tell you how often I have argued exactly like the first commenter. It is rare that I have the patience and discipline to try to affirm the legitimate points that my opponent is making. But I know that when people do that with me, it’s way more effective because I feel safe enough to admit my mistakes and concede the legitimacy that I can affirm in the other person’s perspective.

I don’t think I can give up deconstruction entirely. It is prophetically necessary at times to point out hypocrisies and ways that words are being used disingenuously, which is what the first commenter was trying to do with me. But I think problematic dynamics and behaviors can be named without attacking people personally. And I also concede that deconstruction is dangerously vulnerable to a dishonest reductionism. Just because suburbia was initially created by white flight and evangelical purity culture seems like an echo of the paranoia about white womanhood and black male libido that justified segregationism doesn’t mean that the conscious convictions of individual Christians who want to be faithful to God’s teaching about sex can be summarily dismissed by sociological hypotheses.

So yesterday was a good learning experience for me. No hard feelings for anyone involved. God used all of it. I’m still going to call things out that need to be named unless God shows me that I was wrong about what He has called me to do, but I will work on my precision and charity in the claims I make and the labels I use. Mostly, I will try to listen to God more carefully before I claim to speak on His behalf. Romans 14:19 is a verse that I should tape to the top of my computer screen as I type these things: “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification.”

13 thoughts on “Two very different approaches to internet debate

  1. Thanks for the post, Morgan—and postlukecore22’s spot-on comments. I’m a “recovering” fundamentalist, well aware of my tendencies to reduce things to incredulous simplicities out of a deep fear of uncertainty. My journey has been one fraught with many challenges: childhood sexual abuse, bullying, alcoholism, racism, homophobia/heterosexism, sex addiction, etc. I spent 4 years in “reparative therapy” attempting to become straight, for fear of a punitive God who would condemn me to hell. Of course, what I didn’t realize is that I was already in hell!

    What I can tell you, Morgan, is that my fundamentalism was a developmental issue, and there are some fine writers who’ve done a great job detailing faith in a developmental framework. Three that have been particularly helpful to me have been James Fowler (Stages of Faith), Paul R Smith (Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve), and Deepak Chopra (How to Know God). What each of these authors has in common is that they describe beautifully that faith is a journey, that there are features and stages of development, each with its respective strengths, crises, and challenges. What I love most about this framework is that it resists the temptation to simply pathologize lower stages, recognizing that each plays an important part in our journey. Moreover, this framework helps me becoming a lot more aware of my tendency to belittle my past and valorize the present, one of the hallmarks of my fundamentalist mindset.

    Ultimately, then, being delivered has been something utterly different from anything I could have imagined, a process that has resulted in my leaving reparative therapy, coming out as a gay man, and getting married to a kind soul of the same sex; reckoning with my sexual abuse and trauma history in a group of other wounded souls; participating in 12-step recovery for sexual addiction and alcoholism; and re-engaging with my Christianity in ways that never cease to take my breath away (thanks to theologians like James Alison, Peter Rollins, and a whole host of others).

    I like to say that I’m learning to live and love fearlessly, one day at a time. For me, James hit the proverbial nail on the head when he said, “….perfect love casts out fear.” Fear was the absolute hallmark of my fundamentalism, fear of hell, fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, and so on. I am coming to understand that I cannot love a God I fear. However, I can love a God who awes me, and I know that because I am often filled with an awe that brings me to tears, makes me want to be more loving, and brings me peace.

  2. I struggle with replying graciously on the internet as well. I occasionally get into arguments online, and very frequently my comments are rather harsher and more critical than I’d like myself to be characterised by.

    I remember a forumgoer from several years back who was wonderful. Every comment he made was gentle, encouraging, supportive. Even when pointing out someone was wrong he’d only tackle the point not the person, and leave people feeling better about themselves. I always thought I wish I could be like him, I wish that we Christians on this forum could have the reputation he does.

    It’s an ongoing struggle, for you, me, and many others of us. Being aware of our triggers is definitely part of growing here.

  3. On Labor Day, I saw an exchange between 2 Baptist ministers disparaging minimum wage workers and their demands for higher wages and better benefits. They also ridiculed the workers lack of skill and criticized their service. My background as a former Baptist and a daughter of a Baptist minister and as a lifetime labor union member set me up to react viscerally to the injustice and the hypocrisy. I confronted them by email, not publicly, as instructed to do in Matthew. But I let them have it in no uncertain terms. I rewrote a portion of Matthew 25 to include: I was struggling to feed my family on a minimum-wage job at McDonald’s, and you tipped me generously and thanked me kindly for my service, And its counterpoint, I was struggling to feed my family on a minimum-wage job at McDonald’s, and you ridiculed me and criticized my service,

    One of those ministers is a personal acquaintance, in fact pastors the church my father pastored decades ago. The other was an older man, the younger man’s mentor. I reminded them of their responsibility not only for their own behavior, but also for influencing the behavior of others. Several of their church members had chimed in on this uncharitable thread with similar negative comments. One lone voice, a young woman working at a McD’s, begged for their understanding and support. They ridiculed her. Another young woman reminded them of Labor’s advances in the fight for human rights. After about 20 comments the older minister who had posted the original comment conceded that he probably should have kept his opinion to himself. In the email, I told him he may have brought that ugliness out to the light to be redeemed.

    I got not response from the older minister, but he did remove the thread from his page, or maybe he just changed the setting so that I could not see it. The younger minister wrote me a nice apology at 3:17 am, and posted something the next day about the grace and mercy of God and how far short we as humans sometimes fall. I saw true remorse in his note and his subsequent reply.

    I tell all that to say that I believe God still works in mysterious ways. Social media is no mystery to God and God is perfectly capable of using situations like this to intervene and to edify those who have “ears to hear and eyes to see.” And our emotions are often sparked by the Holy Spirit to speak out and make a difference. Ministers who participate in social media as openly as you and others do are a courageous group. I admire you and your efforts and your willingness to question your own motives and methods. It’s holy work you do. Keep it up.

    • Thanks for your witness and for not being afraid to stand up to an un-Christlike display on the part of people who are supposed to representing God.

  4. I didn’t read all the post from monday, but I just want to say that I learn a lot here, even if I don’t always agree with everything. The guy from Monday seemed to want to scare you into place. The bible says that fear involves torment and there is not love in fear (1 John 4:8). I’m pretty sure we don’t all want to stay at the “beginning of knowledge,” for God is not knowledge, but love.

    • I’ve written a series on Biblical fear. It’s not fright; it’s wonder. It’s openness to the infinity of God, not the tight-fisted cowardice of fundamentalism.

  5. As I read about the first commenter’s reply to your Monday post, I couldn’t help but think that the words “Christian” and “Christianity” get tossed around so much an in so many differing contexts that they are rapidly becoming meaningless. Sometimes it seems as if the entire Christian world is engaged in a giant game of religious/moral one-upmanship. Fundamentalists glory in their ability to anticipate and dodge a never-ending barrage of Divine Thunderbolts, while we Episcopalians can be insufferably smug about fact that we are tolerant, welcoming, and inclusive. I really wish we could all just do our best, with guidance from the Bible and our various denominations, to emulate Jesus’ words and actions without passing judgement on whether or not our neighbors’ brand of Christianity measures up to our own.

    By all means, when we see hatred, injustice, and inequity being perpetrated in Jesus’ name we should do everything in our power to combat it. Other than that though, would it be so bad if we all just minded our own business while going about the Lord’s?

  6. As do I. I very likely could be wrong about Mr. Holtz as well. However….I too have participated in a long-term sexual addiction program (albeit a somewhat less conservative one than the one he did), and found that it lends itself to a fundamentalist shift similar to the one you’re describing. Particularly, it essentially demands a pietistic swerve. Sin is personal moral failures. Acting out sexually is a deeper symptom of said “sin” in our life. So the solution is to simply understand the personal, pietistic, morally empowering version of the Gospel that is sold. If you actually understand and apply it, there’s no reason why you should have these same issues any longer.

    I rejected that way of thinking long ago. I’m still not sure what freedom looks like, but I’m positive that the type of thing Mr. Holtz espouses on his blog (post-conservative-conversion) leaves me feeling positively oozed on.

    I’m particularly uncomfortable with the decidedly inhuman notion of “ignoring feelings and believing the written word”, which of course carries with it the connotation that the Bible is one big cohesive univocal ecosystem designed to lead me away from fairly standard human sexuality. I can’t buy the cure because I can’t buy the proposed disease.

    • Thanks for sharing more of where you’re coming from. Yeah playing up some kind of dichotomy between “feelings” and scripture is bullshit. What are called “feelings” are intuitions which are often themselves shaped by scripture in ways that we simply cannot deductively chapter verse. Our hermeneutics of life is a complex integrated system. It’s ludicrous to make false dichotomies like that. I hope that you find freedom in your journey. I am glad you haven’t been straight jacked into putting on a performance of correctness.

  7. Morgan,
    After reading the comments section of your conversation with Mr. Holtz, I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that he hasn’t been delivered from anything at all. Merely replacing one set of addictive behaviors for another is not freedom. I’m fairly certain that the “freedom” subculture of Christianity (the super-Christianized versions of 12-step programs) encourages people to go underground with real issues and replace them with “now my life is the best-ever….thank God for all that pain!” pronouncements. Having followed Mr. Holtz’s highly publicized journey for the last two years, methinks he doth protest too much.

    Just my two cents based on a completely outside opinion. You have some fire, but I’ve never seenyou excoriate anybody defensively. I read you and Micheli because of your “more conservative than conservative” approach to the Bible….don’t change!

    • Thanks for your encouragement. We all need prayer as we try to figure out how to grab hold of the freedom Christ has to offer. I just don’t want anyone to be trapped in a mode of hyper-vigilant performance. And I know that I often call it wrong.

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