There 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:
Again, 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.