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I Have This Thing Where I Grow Older, But Just Never Wiser
On the incentives for evangelical play-acting.
The other day I saw an apparent controversy in one corner of the evangelical Twittersphere, involving a person who had (allegedly) misrepresented their academic credentials online. Before you faint from the sheer shock of something on the Internet not being 100% true, some context is in order. This person (whom I won’t name and will try to obscure important details) presents themselves online very much in the mold of a pastor-theologian; they have elegant photos of themselves in suits, they post very quotable “nuggets” that sound like sermon soundbytes, and of course, they have books linked in their bio. Further, they employ that increasingly familiar asethetic called “anti-woke” or “trad” or “based” or whatever, where probably one out of every three or four posts is aimed directly at feminists, trans activists, men whose wives work outside the home, and any professing Christian deemed insufficiently conservative.
My point in bringing up these details is to establish something from the outset. This person, along with others who are riding the same vibe, has been consciously trying to synthesize two very different personas: the pastor, and the social media pundit. The photos and the sermon clips serve the first persona, the based/trad aesethetic serves the latter. And for the purpose of working and preaching and “influencing” among evangelicals, the presence of the pastoral persona matters a lot. In the secular world, you can usually be as loud and bombastic as you want, and nobody cares or will check to see if you have a master’s degree. The evangelical world is different, precisely because evangelical Christianity places such a high regard on the pastor as a source of authority. To project pastoral qualification is very smart if you aspire to some kind of digital influence among evangelicals.
I know this, for the simple reason that in the almost decade I’ve spent consistently writing for an evangelical audience, I have consciously not projected pastoral qualification. I’ve also encountered numerous instances where evangelical leaders have clearly (though perhaps unintentionally) disparaged what I do. The vice president for an organization I interviewed with told me straight up that unless I took the job, I would be “just another blogger.” Another pastor/institutional leader was trying to be encouraging when he said that he understood I probably felt irrelevant while I was in my room typing, but that I should take heart that my work really is being read (he wasn’t wrong!). These kinds of little comments, these little insinuations that the kind of writing I do is marginal-at-best, have come periodically through the years. I don’t believe they’re meant to make me feel bad. I think they’re honest expressions of a feeling intrinsic to evangelical work: if you’re not pastoring something, what are you even doing?
Through the years, I have steadfastly tried to avoid coming across like I’m a pastor or spiritual authority. To make sure it’s clear: I’m not a pastor, I’m not a lay elder, and neither of those facts will change anytime soon. I have tried very hard in all my writing and speaking to avoid rhetoric that binds people’s consciences. I’ve made some friends frustrated by the ways I don’t talk about certain issues; I’ve gotten annoyed DMs and concerned emails from people who are sure that the fact I didn’t say Christians “must never” or “must always” do X means I am compromising my beliefs. The reason I have generally tried to steer clear of that language is not that I think such strictures don’t exist! It’s that I don’t think people like me should be making them.
One thing I’ve noticed about normal evangelical audiences is that when you say something like that, people will murmur admiration at your self-awareness and humility, but in reality you’ve often just given them a great reason to go read/listen to someone else. In my experience, the average evangelical reader wants someone they like online to project the spiritual authority of a pastor through the screen. They want someone to digitally bind their conscience. Why this dynamic exists could be the subject of an entirely different newsletter. But one thing I suspect at work is this: Many evangelicals struggle to comprehend any kind of authority that is not binding biblical authority.
My sense is that there are many folks for whom there are only two kinds of Christian discourse: the kind that tells you, with the force of the risen Jesus, what to do, and the kind that you’re wasting your time with. Nobody wants to read evangelical intellectual curiosity. Nobody wants to read people who don’t have MDiv’s think out loud about the world. That’s not to say that evangelicals don’t want social and political commentary. They do, perhaps even more than they want expositional preaching! But what they want is social and political commentary that is biblical, by which they do not mean, “shaped by the ideas and commands in the Bible,” but, “commanded.”
This is one reason, in my opinion, we don’t have an evangelical version of First Things. It’s not that evangelicals are intellectually handicapped. It’s that we just don’t really have a category for thinking that is more than banal but less than canonical. Thus, it makes sense that people who aspire to social media influence amongst evangelicals would be sorely tempted to exaggerate ministry credentials. In the world of digital platforms, theological and pastoral qualifications are valuable accessories. This is what I’ve been trying to communicate for years now. People really don’t understand that the Internet is where theological thinking goes to die. It’s a habitat of pure instrumentalization.
People get tired of me talking about this. I get it. I’m a one-trick pony. But it’s not going to get better on its own. Local churches are disappearing. Seminaries and Bible colleges are closing. What’s being left in their wake are virtual pastors whose algorithms are good at reading the room. The incentives for careful, calm, non-clickable study of Christian theology are evaporating into the culture war ether. What many people are looking for are digital shepherds with the biggest rods and staffs. For some, this may be the only shepherds they know of right now. That seems problematic.
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