Tuesday, June 19, 2007

a note to my readers (mostly, to Evangelicals)

I want to take a step back for a moment and do some meta-blogging (blogging about blogging). First, an observation--that monologs are dangerous things. They're a poor substitute for communication, in that one person just rambles on about some topic or concern, while others read or listen and draw their own conclusions. Even worse, a written monolog lacks things like intonation, facial expression, and posture, which are a natural part of oral communication. What the reader is left with is a string of words and a headful of presuppositions. Words intended to convey confusion and frustration may be perceived as bearing animosity and resentment, simply because it never occurred to the writer or the reader that in the absence of intonation, we make up our own. And because monolog generally lacks the countermeasures of normal conversation (a perpetually self-correcting process, if it works the way it should), such misperceptions refuse to go away.

I say this post is mostly for Evangelical readers, because I need to remind myself that I speak and write from an increasingly Orthodox perspective. In some instances, this shift may not matter much, but in others, it can have a radical effect on how words are meant and perceived. I would like to think that I can still write naturally and be understood by my Evangelical readers, but this is perhaps becoming less the case. And the problem is compounded with Evangelical readers in particular (as opposed to other non-Orthodox), because it's obvious that I'm engaged in some sort of departure from their side of things, and it's easy to read negativity into that. Let's be honest--there is negativity in that. But there's negativity and then there's negativity.

Consider the word "critical." It's a single word, but try it in different contexts--really, just different phrases. Think of the phrase, "critical mind," and then, "critical spirit." On the surface, it seems like they should mean roughly the same thing, but do they really? When we say someone has a critical mind, we normally mean it as a good thing. This person thinks carefully about things--doesn't just accept whatever comes along, but weighs the issues and forms educated opinions. On the other hand, when we say someone has a critical spirit, it has a more negative implication. This person is judgmental, never happy with anything, and probably looks down on other people.

Now, an assertion about myself--I am critical of Evangelicalism. What does that mean? Should it be understood in the sense of a critical mind or a critical spirit? Am I trying to be discerning and analytical, or condescending and judgmental? I suppose there's a good reason that the same word can refer to both ideas, and it's easy in most cases for someone who does one to slip into the other. But understand the intent, the spirit, the attitude. Yes, you'll find negative statements about Evangelicalism on this blog. You probably won't have to look very far to find them. If I were completely satisfied with Evangelicalism, I wouldn't be pursuing Orthodoxy. That much should be obvious. Something that might not be quite so obvious is that I've always been critical of Evangelicalism in one way or another. I sometimes forget that criticizing as an outsider (now) is different from criticizing as an insider (then). It will always be perceived differently. I'm not convinced that for that reason I should never say anything about Evangelicalism, or only say positive things about it. (And let's not forget that I do say positive things about it--I think and believe positive things about it as well.) Indeed, I'm not sure how much difference this realization can actually make in what I write. I hope it can help to temper my words, but I do have to draw a line somewhere.

The whole idea of a blog is an odd thing. Journals used to be things that people locked up or hid so others could not read them--places where they would write their intimate thoughts that no one else should see. Now we put anything and everything out on the Web. There's something good about this, because it helps us to connect with others. But it creates a confusion about what exactly it is that we're doing. Should I write academically, objectively, avoiding all real feeling so no one will misinterpret my attitude? In other words, is this public communication, to be treated in every way as such? Or is it more intimate? Should it provide some kind of window into my real thoughts and feelings about things? I honestly want it to be the latter. I don't want to retreat into cold objectivity, because that's not even the point. There are plenty of writings out there to inform people about Orthodoxy. I'm not writing about Orthodoxy, but about myself--about my own experience as I go through this process. If it's interesting to others, great! If not, I hope I don't offend, but in the end each person must make their own choice, whether or not to keep reading.

But please--if you read something that you find offensive or just confusing, use the comments feature. I read all the comments posted and respond to most of them. Blog comments are not a great form of communication either, but at least there's some opportunity for clarification. You might find that my intended tone was nothing like what you perceived, or that you were in a sense listening in on my argument with someone else (a source of confusion in itself). Whatever the outcome, I think the whole thing becomes just a bit more human for the interaction, however limited it might be. I can't offer much more than that.


Roland said...

Since I started my blog, I've felt there's something missing from this form of communication, and I think you put your finger on it: It's a monologue.

Yesterday I was looking through my archived e-mails to the old OrthodoxAnglican list. I was surprised at how good they were, and at how little my views have changed over the past decade. But mostly I realized how much sharper my thinking is when I'm arguing with a community of people who provoke me and question me. Blogs just don't lend themselves to that sort of productive give and take.

That probably explains why I only post to my blog about once a week, whereas I posted to OrthodoxAnglican much more often. I do my best thinking and writing when I'm responding to something provocative that appears in my inbox.

Trevor said...

Yeah, I think my writing was generally better when I was active on discussion lists. You're right about writing more frequently, too, which is actually one of the reasons I've tried to avoid them lately.

This blog serves a distinct purpose--it's a relief valve for whatever internal need I feel to say something about something, so I don't instead bombard the people I love with things they don't want to know or think about. The nice thing about a blog entry is people read it by choice, and no one feels pressured to respond. They're free to ignore it, let it pass without comment, etc. Granted, I would prefer if the people around me cared to discuss these things, but I'm not going to force it on them.

All that's to say that I'd be thinking about this stuff anyway, so the only extra time it consumes is whatever it takes to write it down. In a discussion forum, other people give substantive input, which often means you think about things you wouldn't have otherwise. It's a valuable thing, no doubt, but time-consuming as well. Lately I've had more important things demanding my attention, so I'm trying not to get sucked into anything new.

I've also avoided Orthodox discussion fora in particular, because as a catechumen and generally a newbie, I figure it's my place to listen more than I respond. I've grown used to speaking in contexts where I'm something of an expert, and I don't want to make the mistake of acting like that where Orthodoxy is concerned.

At first glance, it may appear that a blog is an even worse idea, because I'm the only one spouting off whatever pops into my head. But when you blog (assuming anyone reads it), you're subject to everyone else's criticism. No one has to agree with you or even have good reasons for disagreeing. Everyone's free to object, even anonymously. And as I said, I'm writing about myself, not about Orthodoxy. There's probably a lot of messed up thinking here, but I make no pretense that it's the least bit authoritative.