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Essay

A Blogger’s Dilemma/Whine

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It’s about me. It’s all about me. 

The Twelve is supposed to move and work within that great tradition of Reformed cultural commentary. As a friend once said, “All Reformed theology is public theology.” You know—Calvin and the sewer systems of Geneva, and all that.

But cultural commentary seems difficult today. And here is my whine about that, and the various factors that seem to impinge on blogability.

1.)    Expertise and saturation. During my recent brunch with Kathleen Sebelius, our conversation was so cheery, I just didn’t want to bring up HealthCare.gov. When the government shutdown was raging, John Boehner was feeding me all sorts of tasty morsels, but he insisted it be off the record.

I realize I am no expert with inside info on the issues of the day. Do I have opinions about these and other public issues? Of course I do. If you read me even somewhat regularly, you don’t need to be clairvoyant to guess my opinions. My opinion is no better than others, except it is mine. Although, I would assert that my take on public issues is usually firmly rooted in my theology.

The blogosphere is thick with commentary on Obamacare, Syria, Ted Cruz, and other issues du jour. I’m not sure I need to toss my thoughts into that soup.

2.)    Polarization, uncommon decency, fair and balanced.  This Christian thing can be such a drag. I have the burden of being nice. I’m totally for being civil and Christ-like in our debates. It doesn’t feel, however, that we’ve really figured out what that means, or how to do it. If someone disagrees, doesn’t like our tone, takes the slightest umbrage at what we say, then woe upon us. We aren’t Christ-like. We aren’t being civil.

Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement so sharp they parted ways. Jesus called some people a “brood of vipers.” Balaam’s ass conveyed the Word of the living God. I’m not looking for a fight, but in our polarized atmosphere it doesn’t take much to offend someone.

A well-known news outlet has made famous the phrase, “fair and balanced”—despite the fact that everyone can see that they aren’t. But I won’t pick on only the usual suspects. The civic-minded League of Women of Voters, too, has fostered the notion that there are always two sides to every issue that need to be heard. Many years ago, when planning some events to counter the invasion of Iraq (Sigh, sorry about the predictable example, but is it now okay for me to say “I told you so”?), a person on our planning team asked, “Shouldn’t we invite someone who supports the invasion to speak at this event?” No! Let them get their own event. Presenting both sides is not my obligation and does not necessarily make anything better or fairer.

3.)    Recuse. I learned this word in a Perspectives article by Jim Van Hoeven. It seems to be a word you hear more these days, or maybe I was just stupider than I realized back then. To recuse is to disqualify or remove oneself, to step away, usually to avoid a conflict of interest. Judges recuse themselves from a case where prior connections might seem to taint their view.

As I recall, Van Hoeven used recuse differently. He suggested that we Christians recuse ourselves from much that happens in our world. Step away. Don’t fill your mind with the junk. Don’t let banalities into your soul. I recuse myself from Miley Cyrus, the British royals, Grand Theft Auto, Duck Dynasty, and those creepy investigative murder-mystery TV documentaries. My wife recuses herself from almost all spectator sports. Of course, a lot of these things are pretty fun, sort of guilty pleasures.

The more I recuse myself, the less I have to blog about. And as shallow or sick as some of this stuff is, should we engage it, be aware of what is going on around us, see it as indicative of important trends? One person’s banality is another’s significant cultural artifact.

Is recusing a bad habit, a lazy habit? These days I find myself preferring Big Bang reruns to the evening news. I essentially recused myself during the recent government shutdown. Wake me up when it’s over. More troubling, the last couple of mass shootings, I didn’t attend to them—almost like after Newtown I can’t care anymore. Is there a danger of withdrawing, of burying my head in the sand under the banner of recusing? Perhaps.

Somebody once said, “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is wholesome, whatever is good, whatever is gracious, things of excellence and worthy of praise—fill your mind with these things.”

4.)    The Whiff of Christendom.  A few weeks ago, during the government shutdown, Meg Jenista, pastor of the Washington, DC Christian Reformed Church, was a guest blogger here on The Twelve. The gist of her post, it seemed to me, was the disenchantment, the despair, and the anguish that the government shutdown was causing her congregants. Many hardworking, sincere Christians, offering their gifts in the service of cultural transformation, now felt betrayed and broken.

I felt for Meg’s members. In 25 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve learned that there are times for a gentle, pastoral word, and other times for hard-nosed theoretical debates. The hard-nosed side of me wanted to respond, “That’s what you get for drinking the Kuyperian kool-aid!” (If that’s too mean, I apologize preemptively.) Coming of age may be painful, but it is also necessary.

It’s not just Kuyper, of course. It is our Reformed tradition, in general. My own windmill tilting has been more with H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” Oh, the noblesse oblige, the self-congratulating hubris of “shaping culture” that so many Christians are enamored with today. They seem to have learned it from us, Reformed Christians. Through the centuries, too much of what has passed as culture-shaping and transformation has been more about offering our gifts to the Empire, not the crucified one. I don’t want my blogging to do that.

Blogging on culture, engaging the world, pointing toward the Kingdom—you might think, “Nice work if you can get it.” I’m here to tell you, it’s a tough gig!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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