Why James K.A. Smith should stay off of twitter

rhe vs jkasThere are few things that make my blood boil more than to see someone take a mean-spirited, unfair swipe against someone else in a public forum like twitter. When this happens, it needs to be named and addressed, especially when the instigator is a popular Christian writer who I’ve promoted on my blog. Rachel Held Evans had expressed support for the student newspaper at Calvin College running a feature piece on LGBT students, which is pretty bold for an evangelical college. And James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin and writer of many books that I’ve blogged about, decided that he needed to “humble” Rachel for voicing her support when it’s none of her damn business.

How is it “playing a savior/martyr” to say you’ve got somebody’s back in a casual internet exchange between strangers? It’s inevitable that a writer and former college newspaper editor with a huge platform like Rachel is going to say something like that casually to encourage a college newspaper editor who has just run a risky piece. It need not be read to insinuate anything about the administration or faculty of that institution. It’s a generic gesture of solidarity from a famous writer to someone who is in the role where she was a decade ago. It doesn’t make you an Al Sharpton outside agitator to say that.

So after that, the exchange continued:

rhe vs jkas 2Again, James K.A. seems to be confused about how the genre of twitter works, which is strange given the depth of literary analysis in his books. It seems pretty obvious to me that if someone says, “I love X… I’m kind of a fan” about something that I think they’re dissing, they’re trying to be conciliatory (which means that I’m invited to pivot to a more pleasant tone of exchange and leave the conversation graciously). So to respond to that by saying, “I wouldn’t claim to know Baylor just because I’ve attended conferences there” shows a dogged determination to stay adversarial. It seems clear that there’s more going on underneath this hostility than what Rachel gave James K.A. to respond to.

Does James K.A. have a personal problem with Rachel? Is he conflicted about his own feelings about the LGBT issue and this is the way it’s coming out? He had tweeted earlier about his openness to walking with LGBT students, knowing he doesn’t have all the answers. It seems like he was hurt that this wasn’t acknowledged. But what would it have cost him to apologize for being rude or even to say something moderately conciliatory?

James K.A. writes about the way that humans aren’t really rational creatures first and foremost. We’re liturgical creatures at our foundation, meaning that our habits of worship are what really shape us. What kind of liturgy forms a man who is snarky and uncharitable in a public social media forum?

Social media is a poisonous place. I’ve certainly sent out ill-advised tweets before when I was steamed over something. And the fact that I did so was evidence of my having been possessed by the demonic liturgy of social media space. So Professor Smith, please stay off social media since it brings out the worst in you. Stick to the writing that you can mull over a long time, and I’ll try to forget that this happened when I see the promos for your next book.

43 thoughts on “Why James K.A. Smith should stay off of twitter

  1. Rachel Held Evans grates against my nerves and often does seem like she’s playing the martyr so I don’t think Smith’s tweet was that unjustified. As a Christian, shouldn’t we offer people (i.e. Jamie Smith) grace and accept that not everyone will appreciate each other and always get along?

      • I should have approached this better.

        What I meant was that I don’t think that Jamie Smith is as unjustified as you think in misreading her intentions because I read her in a similar way.

        Also, I think it is important not to get too wrapped up in judging people’s interaction on social media. All people can be petty and misread each other. Rachel did a good enough job defending and explaining herself. The two worked it out. It’s like putting yourself between two mutual friends and judging them just because they don’t always get along in public settings. All that does is make the situation worse.

        • Okay. I’m glad you restated that.

          But if you don’t mind a bit of critique: You write, “Also, I think it is important not to get too wrapped up in judging people’s interaction on social media,” but then, “Rachel Held Evans grates against my nerves and often does seem like she’s playing the martyr so I don’t think Smith’s tweet was that unjustified.” You judged people’s interaction on social media, and then wrote that it is “important not to get too wrapped up in judging people’s interaction on social media.

          • True. I did make a judgement. We all make judgements and I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t because it’s human and sometimes important. But we should be cautious how far we go with our judgements and how wrapped up we get in judging. I would never say that just because I dislike how Rachel Held Evans uses social media that I think she should stay off all social media. Nor would I publically condemn her for one bad exchange with someone. This is where I see a problem.

            There is a big difference between judging a person off of the accumulation of their interactions and self-representation (which is how I’ve formed my opinion of Rachel) and judging someone off of one instance. Even when you take into account the accumulation of one’s interactions and revealed character, we should all be cautious about publically shaming someone.

            I’m all for calling people out on big things but not a scuffle between two people who were misreading each other in one instances.

          • It wasn’t the first time Dr. Smith has been snippy with someone I knew on twitter. Don’t worry.
            I’ve been sufficiently made fun of for making too big deal about this exchange. I just don’t like it when men are patronizing and disrespectful to women in front of me, regardless of who’s involved. BTW why are you commenting on this now? I thought I posted it a couple of weeks ago. As you said, it’s over and done with.

  2. THANKS for the article. Being a Calvin College graduate, supporter and friend to plenty of people on staff, I love this school. I also like much of what Jamie Smith writes… but not this stuff. Not unlike Rachel, I have the backs of those students writing in the Chimes as well!

    Smith has great intellectual ability, and I appreciate it much. Telling the outside world to ‘stay out of it’ isn’t the way forward for the college either.

        • For one, I see Smith’s concern (assuming I’m interpreting these tiny pieces of texts correctly) that Evan’s ‘solidarity’ insinuates that Calvin will somehow stand against whoever wrote the LGBT article. Perhaps this isn’t what she was after, but Evan’s tweets could very well be interpreted that way. Watching this play live, this was my first reaction.
          BUT, as I said, Smith was a bit over the line, and reacted, presumably, out of passion in the moment.
          Some push-back against Smith is warranted. He’s a public figure and he was harsh in that exchange. The corrective is good- “it [the sort of digital bullying or whatever] needs to be named and addressed, especially when the instigator is a popular Christian writer who I’ve promoted on my blog.” I also like the question of some sort of conciliatory statement or apology…
          The tones of this article, however, seems to react in the same way that Smith did. Some of the questions posed are good, some seem to intentionally cut Smith down to size– other comments, like the ‘calvinist jackass’ one that I can no longer find, don’t really beckon a spirit of reconciliation, but create a bit more contempt amongst folks choosing sides. Now, I’m not a pastor, nor do I intuit well how to foster such an ethos of reconciliation, especially online… but this article strikes me as too much Law, not enough Grace, I suppose.

          I also don’t find this whole exchange to be a huge deal because Smith and Evans are adults. Evans can handle herself just fine. Smith can take the public image hit if he wants… I’m not a personal friend, pastor, or advisor to either them. Thus, I’d prefer them either deal with it, or not, themselves. I don’t like the entire online religious community having a say in one’s actions… BUT, this is the nature of social media, which if I weren’t such a weak and cowardly individual, I’d totally abandon.

          • another quick additive: I am overall rather sympathetic to your ‘christianity against the empire.’ The overall theme of your blog is quite good. I have more affection toward your writing than perhaps I showed above.

  3. Q: What kind of liturgy forms a man who is snarky and presumptuous and utterly without charity in a public social media forum?

    A: The liturgy of philosophical argumentation. Philosophers can be incredibly snarky, even ones so smart and (usually) generously spirited as Jamie.

    Yeah, as an Anabaptist who’s learned a ton from Smith, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen him turn on the snark and argumentative/defensive attitude.

  4. Thanks for addressing this. The tone of smugness and snark is nothing new for JKAS, as several have noted. I don’t really have much of a stake in him or his work either way. I was honestly most dismayed at how some people on twitter and in these blog comments have been addressing concerns to both JKAS and RHE, as if it were the case that *both* simply needed to behave better, rather than that one of them launched an inexplicably and needlessly disrespectful attack on the other. Put simply, Smith needs someone who cares about him to help him see he is embarrassing himself. We all need people who care about us enough to do that.

    And much respect to R.H.E. for declining to accept this sort of disrespect as permissible. Her decision to Storify and make public the exchange has to be viewed in the context of long-standing patterns of disrespectful and dismissive language directed at her. And it certainly isn’t the place of white dudes on the internet, including JKAS and his defenders, to decide for her that those patterns have nothing to do with the complex dynamics of gender, sexism and power. They are not — and I am not — the authority on that. We would’t know. She would.

    • Thanks Matt. Totally agree. False equivalence and pseudo-“moderateness” is so freaking annoying. If it had been me and not her, I would have been a dick back to him. She was actually very composed and congenial for anyone whose culture war loyalties don’t depend in demonizing her.

  5. I don’t know Smith from Adam except to recognize his name but Smith’s comment was snarky and he should have accepted the opportunity to reconcile.

    RHE, however, has a habit of inserting herself into situations and then doing exactly what Smith mentioned (i.e., playing the martyr) when she’s called out on it. Her saying that she was attacked because she is a woman is an example of her methods. Now she can write a blog post in which she points out the injustices done to her and many people will fawn over her in the comments and on Twitter and her ego will be boosted to do it all again tomorrow or next week.

    And as someone noted above, she manages constantly to find herself in situations like this. When this is the case one has to wonder if the problem is with everyone else or just with the one person who seems to attract it.

    • Mmm… I don’t think that’s fair. It’s a meme that people have tried to stick to her. So would you say she shouldn’t have butt her head into the Sovereign Grace situation? Nothing to see here, move along… I think she feels a genuine vocational duty to use her platform to bring light to ugly situations. Of course the powers in play are going to hate that and of course it’s going to involve some lack of “knowing the context” on her part, but when has anyone in the media ever gotten a complex local situation completely right?

      Also, there is a real issue with women being patronized by male professors who treat them like college freshmen when they’re full grown. Whether or not it was JKA’s intent, it’s happened often enough that when you step into a similar communication pattern as a man you’ve “stepped in it.” And to say he “supports women holding office, for the record.” He doesn’t sound like a guy who’s a little older than me. He sounds like my grandpa trying to talk to a 21st century woman.

  6. Just looked at his feed as he has continued to be defensive, to Rachel and others, and I am still completely confused why he thought that Rachel encouraging something his school did was a terrible insult. If somebody from an opposing “tribe” (say YRR) encouraged something my tribe did, I would like to think I could graciously accept the compliment and try to build some bridges based on it. Based on a few of his other tweets he seems to have already had something else against Rachel and it was a matter of being afraid of her influence sneaking in on his turf by way of loving support. That sounds weird, but definitely isn’t unusual (I know I do it sometimes).

  7. The first tweet of his was ill-advised, but this isn’t the whole of the exchange. Nor do you address the issue that he was actually concerned with, Evans’ insertion of herself in a local, community issue with no knowledge of the context. Not to mention the storifying business which is just more drama-creating, narrative-spinning. It ironically reinforces the point about playing the martyr/hero. “Here look at this! I was showing support for some nice kids until the big mean, Calvinist came along and attacked me!”

    I dunno, Smith’s a snark on there, but no one was clean on this fiasco.

    • I know you’ve got to stand up for your tribe, but it’s not inserting yourself into anything to share an article on twitter that somebody else recommended to you and to write to the editor of that article and say “I’ve got your back smiley face.” Twitter is a place for short comments with smiley faces. It’s a farce to use a word like “context” in a forum defined by 140 character limits. This wasn’t the first time Smith has been a snob on twitter to people I know.

  8. He should stay off twitter for other reasons as well. It was fascinating to me that in “Desiring the Kingdom” he didn’t address the formative aspects of facebook or twitter. It’s from 2009, so why not? Although, perhaps this trip into twitter culture is part of his investigation.

    Do you have any books you’d recommend by Smith?

    • It’s just astounding the utter lack of self-insight from somebody who lives in the land of deconstruction. Not sure if I want to recommend his books, but hey as Augustine would say, plunder the Egyptians! Obviously DTK, ITK, and whatever the third one in the trilogy is or will be. And then there’s The Fall of Interpretation and Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

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