Blogging … as old as the hills (well almost!)
Yesterday, I was involved in a great day organised by Krish Kandiah at the Evangelical Alliance, called GodBlogs. Fantastic – and great fun to meet other bloggers face to face. Krish asked me to give an introductory overview to blogging so i simply tried to put blogging into some sort of historical perspective. One or two asked for my notes, so here is a potted summary of what i said.
HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE CHRISTIAN BLOGOSPHERE
The Urge to Blog: it’s older than you think
The Internet is just a baby. To think that at university, I actually wrote my essays by hand. Can you believe such deprivation? But let’s not forget: the desire to communicate is as old as we are. The only fundamental difference is the medium. Of course that medium affects the message to some extent – we mustn’t be naive about that. And the relative ease that the medium affords us will affect the amount of care that goes into what is said. Hopefully. Perhaps blogging is almost too easy. Before you know it, and before you’ve edited yourself properly – it’s out there.
But in the history of communication, each new medium has provided access to a wider audience for a wider range of communicators. Take printing. In the Middle Ages, books were hand-written, and therefore a luxury, (as was being able to read them). Along comes printing, and suddenly, middle classes with their new-found wealth could afford books and the time to learn to read them. More significantly, pamphlets and books could be widely distributed, disseminating knowledge far beyond the walls of the medieval monastery.
So before printing came to the west, you might have preached a sermon in your local church or university. It would be heard by a handful, and they might talk about it – all by word of mouth. But after printing, Martin Luther could be speaking in a lecture room in Wittenberg – and within weeks, his talk would be translated, printed and distributed – with the result that a few English Christians would find themselves in a pub in Cambridge discussing what he’d said. There is no doubt that printing was a major factor in the spread of the Reformation.
And the internet, and in particular blogging, is just another development in that chain. The only primary difference is that, instead of weeks for your message to extend beyond your locality, it now just takes seconds.
Every medium is of course flawed in some way, and every medium deprives some (so blogs are available only to those online). But what the internet and blogging have done is to democratise speaking and listening more than ever before. Christians are usually way behind the pack when it comes to new media – which is a real shame. Perhaps if we saw blogs in particular as simply a contemporary expression of older forms of communication, I suspect that many our suspicions would be eased. So here is a non-exhaustive and impressionistic list of categories. Of course, one of the beauties and curses of the internet is that nothing particular conforms to anything else – so there is huge overlap. But I guess that if bloggers are methodical and deliberate about their blogging (which many are not!), then they need to decide which of these (or other) categories best suits their style…
The Urge to Blog: it comes in all shapes and sizes
- The Op.-Ed.
An Op-Ed (or opinion editorial – we tend to call them leaders or columns in the UK) was an American journalistic invention, designed to allow senior journalists to voice their opinions, rather than simply report the news. Of course we’re all aware that unbiased reporting is very hard to find, but the great thing about the Op-Ed is that it has no pretence to impartiality. It presents a reflection or argument, designed to stimulate, provoke and challenge. And there are Christian blogs which do this, taking a stimulus from current affairs, national debates or Church events and bringing a Christian perspective to it (especially if that’s being overlooked by the media).
And the best op.-ed. blogs are those that bring a wealth of other knowledge and background to a subject. When I was at university it was said that one of the differences between someone who gets a high 2:1 and who gets a 1st, is that while the 2:1 person really knows their subject, the 1st is able to see links and make connections in the most unexpected way. One fascinating blog does this: a cross between theology and politics – it’s pretty outrageous sometimes, and definitely opinionated: Cranmer. This is an anonymous blogger (and there issues about that) who takes on the name of the great Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury – rather hubristic thing to do I guess! But this blog is nothing if not opinionated, which is the whole point.
- The Commonplace Book
The idea of a commonplace book is centuries-old, especially loved by poets and writers. It is a bit like a verbal version of an artist’s sketchbook. A writer would notice something or hear a pithy line or pick up an unusual argument and jot it down in his book. And sometimes, over the years, these have been published. A few years ago, I was given one by George Lyttleton, a schoolmaster and the father of late, great Jazz man and comedian Humphrey Lyttleton.
The great joy of commonplace books is their randomness – because life is random and you never know what lies around the corner. The Lyttleton one is full of delights and oddities – and ranges from the absurd (like quotes from actual letters written to the Pensions Office) to the erudite (like poems in classical Greek). And that’s how it should be. So a commonplace blog collects everything from the absurd to the quite interesting via the important, with random thoughts and perspectives thrown in. It is a place to collect all those thoughts you get in the shower – good ideas which deserve a hearing – but which don’t have any other more conventional place of expression. There are lots of blogs like that and it’s certainly one of the things I aspire to.
And Christian blogs do this especially when they pass on interesting quotes from books they’ve read or sermons they’ve heard. This is something for example that Adrian Warnock does (amongst many other things) in his blog.
- The Treasure Map
This is one of the most helpful types of blog for regular surfers, since we can feel paralysed by our online choice – and it is impossible to know where to look. Google is great – if you have some idea what to look for. But how do you know where to look for something that you don’t know is there?
So there are a number of blogs that do this (I’ve a number in my RSS reader precisely for this reason): Dave Bish often does on his Blue Fish Project, offering interesting downloads from some of his heroes. Another aspect of this is book & film reviews – and I certainly hope with my reviews to excite people to read things they wouldn’t otherwise touch. Gavin McGrath also often has great and stimulating reviews.
Another more topical version of this is the Faith Central blog that Libby Purves has at The Times – useful for links to various religious things going on in the news and around the world; although I do get a bit frustrated because there seems to be more stories about unfaith than faith! But perhaps that’s just my own hangup.
- The Fanzine
This is the sort of blog that is designed to keep the fan base happy: we all have our heroes – and its great when heroes try to keep in touch with their base. And it seems that ministries are no different. The problem is that there are some blogs out there that are either self-promotion exercises or hero-promotion exercises. Which is fine – especially if you want to find treasure from that particular source. It’s helpful to have it all bunched in one place. But I do sometimes wonder about the wisdom in simply posting about every sermon you ever preach – simply because most of us don’t have the time to download everything on offer. But there is certainly value in informing people of specific things of interest that you have done.
As regular readers know, I’m an obsessive U2 fan, much to the derision of my so-called friends. But one of my favourite fanzine blogs is U2 sermons. It was started to accompany a book of sermons using U2 songs – but has gone on for years since and is full of interesting stuff.
I guess under this heading you could also include the blogs to keep ministry supporters up to speed – especially helpful if you are on the mission field for example. And when we lived in Uganda we had a website which did this, and looking back, it would have been much easier with a blog. There are difficulties; and I do sometimes fear for those who use their blog as a full newsletter, especially when they put all kinds of news about their children and ministries. A blog is just that little bit too public.
- The Pastor’s Study
Abraham Piper, who is John Piper’s son, wrote this fascinating post about why pastor’s should blog. I’ve posted on it before – it’s full of fascinating insights and is a great challenge. And also makes me feel much more justified in being a blogging pastor – so that’s ok then.
But a pastor’s blog allows church members to share in some of the thought processes that go behind their ministry and preaching. That will hopefully enrich their understanding both of the Bible and their pastor, and it will make their pastors seem less remote and cut off. Again it is partly what I aspire to. One great new arrival into the blogosphere is an old friend of mine, Mike Kendall, a pastor in St Neots. He writes regularly on his blog For What It’s Worth engaging with what he’s preaching on and reading. A real encouragement!
- The Scholar’s Tutorial
This gives access to the usually more remote experts. It is great when those who have a profound grasp of a subject, provide access to their understanding to those wider than their immediate circle (such as a seminary). I have a few in my RSS reader – but don’t read them very much because they are often too involved or exhaustive for a cursory glance. But every now and then these will grab me and I’ll want to read more. [Incidentally – and i know i break these rules too often – a good blog post should be more like an After Eight than a 3 course meal; a 3 course meal takes time but is a real treat when you do it; too many After Eights and you feel the effects, but just one or two and you’ve tasted perfection!] So under this category you have David Field, lecturer at Oak Hill or Al Mohler and Ben Witherington in the States.
So that’s my little list. There are undoubtedly many more – and perhaps you can think of some for yourself. Please do add them in comments. From the discussions at the GodBlogs day yesterday, these 3 were suggested:
- Reportage: eg from conferences and events (such as Lambeth or the ELF)
- Agony Aunt/Uncle: providing a forum for people to ask questions and find support
- Network Resource Sharing: designed for people with particular common interests etc