Sometimes I read a critical comment on mine own or another blog, or I look back at something i’ve written, and my heart drops. Sometimes it isn’t even a critical comment directed toward me but a word either “typed in anger” or with a, might i say, less than charitable heart.
The other day, a commenter went off topic on a blog i’ve recently started reading to ask whether is was even possible to have an “authentically Christian” Academic. The question in itself is an interesting one and begged me to ask the commenter to clarify what they mean by “authentically Christian.” But what concerned me was not the question (nay, almost assertion) that it is not possible to be authentically Christian and an academic but that the commenter chose to name a number of blogs and flat out claim that the authors were examples of non-authentically Christian academic. This troubled me; in part, because at least two of the authors he named are authors who have encouraged me in the development of my own voice on Goannatree and in taking steps in my journey as a Christian who is a junior academic.
My first, very raw, reaction was to want to defend those individuals from an accusation i felt was designed to undermine their credibility and to cause them harm. But that isn’t my job and isn’t really the point. The authenticity of their relationship with God and their Christian witness is between them and God.
So, what was it that unsettled me about this comment? Maybe it was that I gleaned that this comment was not exactly charitable and this kind of web based conflict which is argumentative rather than about argument and discussion makes me distinctly uncomfortable. I like people, but sometimes i wonder whether people are meaner, harsher versions of themselves online because many of the social conventions that would inhibit rudeness are not as obvious. Then again, rude is as rude does I guess (whether you are online or not).
Then i began to wonder, what was it that made this person launch such a personal attack? I have to admit that it struck me that while I had a visceral reaction to this attack on someone else It really would bother me if someone said similar things about me – even though I know that my relationship with God, my Christian witness, and my testimony to the work of Jesus in my life is between me and God, there’s a part of me that hopes that people know me as someone who is “real” (another word for authentic) about my faith and my life. I have struggles, I have flaws, I fall short of my own standards and those of my friends and family, let alone falling short of God’s standards. I speak too often and too loud, I say the wrong things at the wrong time, I misspeak, I let my emotions affect me. But, I also have gifts and enjoy sharing the things that interest me – are they always the most important things in life, no. Sometimes they are just pretty, or inspiring, or hopeful (to me). It made me wonder whether I subconsciously seek some kind of “spiritualised” approval from those read my work. It certainly isn’t why I, consciously, write. Right now, I write to hone my skills, to train, in order that I may communicate what I have learned to others in an effective way. Feedback certainly helps me in this development but “approval” or “affirmation” isn’t the point.
It has been perturbing, challenging, vexing, and unsettling of late to think about the way that my interactions on social media and Goannatree have become less intensely personal and revealing over time. I’m not one to give too much information (and mainly because I don’t have children, you will never see an overly revealing birth story on this blog, gosh even if i did have kids, there are places this blog will never go) about my personal life, in part because although Goannatree is about my life. It is about the part of my life that is my work and my research. I’ve shared and will continue to share aspects of my journey as a Graduate student and what it is like to be an expatriate Australia living abroad (this is continent number 3 in 3 years) and you will ocasionally see pictures of family and friends, those posts will never make up the bulk of this blog. I have begun to feel like my vulnerabilities are even clearer online than in person. In a way you are so disembodied as a voice in an online context, because ironically this dynamic medium is incredibly static. I say that it is static because something i wrote 12 months, or even two years ago stands just as it was without much reference to the changes that have taken place in my thinking or in me. In some ways Goannatree functions as a kind of time machine for some good, and let’s be honest, not so good ideas I’ve have over the last 3 years. It is easy to come along and cut someone down, much easier than in the context of a conference presentation when one has the opportunity to respond with the aid of body language and personal interaction along with other people to help mediate the context and parameters of such discussion. It’s certainly difficult to remain a lamb and not be completely ravaged by the wolves. So, i guess one way is to avoid controversial topics. I wouldn’t have thought that I was wimpish about difficult topics but there’s a part of me that has become a little weary of being faced with argumentative people rather than those genuinely interested in a discussion and an argument.
It got me thinking about how I define myself. As a Christian? As an Academic? I realised that, like a South American friend of mine who was for many years so disillusioned with the church he had grown up in refused to call himself a “Christian” because the connotation brought only to mind the hypocritical people and a way of life that he had rejected while still acknowledging Jesus as his Lord and seeking to cling to Truth before all else (especially religion), I hestiate to say that being Christian defines me. Rather:
Being a follower of Jesus defines me.*
I’ve been reminded that it needs to define even my visceral reactions to comments on other blogs. It definitely reminded me that it needs to impact my interactions within social networking and other online contexts. I think I need to focus more on being charitable and asking the question – where is this person coming from? rather than feeling defensive or hurt and hoping or seeking out their approval for my own endeavors or those of my peers and colleagues. After all, this isn’t about me, and it sure isn’t about winning an online argument.
* some might think me splitting hairs, but i make this distinction because I want to get away from other peoples conceptions of what it means to be Christian. I am a Christian (but your definition of that word and all the connotations that it has for may or may not equate to mine, and i choose not to sully my argument by getting embroiled in that kind of discussion).
Anna M Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD candidate in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, University of St Andrews, Scotland.
HT: Reflective Muse on (un)social networking