Naysayers in the public square

Posted Jul 06, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Verity A. Jones

On Monday, July 2, 2012, a blog I wrote for the Huffington Post entitled “Thinking theologically about social media” was featured on the religion page … which of course drew the attention of the commenters.

A huge site like the Huffington Post generates a lot of good traffic and, unfortunately, a lot of trash-talk. It is a perfect of example of how messy and ugly things can get in the public square. If your topic is religion, you’ll most definitely get the nay-sayers nay-saying just about anything you say.

As @UnvirtuousAbbey wrote on Twitter recently, “From those who post electronically what they would never say face to face, Lord deliver us.”

A few of you sent me sympathetic notes via Facebook and email, perhaps to soothe the stings of the comments. One friend from Oklahoma was shocked by the anti-religion vehemence expressed in many of the comments, and indeed there was plenty of vitriol. To you, I say, “Thank you for your kindness, for thinking of me. But no worries; I was prepared for the comments.”

The Huffington Post is now part of the public square of American discourse. If people of faith are to participate in such discourse, then we need to be there, with confidence and with grace, sharing a word that will hopefully be heard by those who yearn for it.

I was reminded of a recent post on Faith & Leadership magazine’s Call & Response blog by Carol Howard Merritt entitled “Taking online criticism as a leader” in which she offers sage advice about responding to the inevitable. I particularly like the section “Don’t forget the other readers” in which she reminds us that it’s not just the nasty commenters out there reading what we write. Perhaps the majority are thoughtful readers who would never comment but appreciated the work. And, she suggests, if you do respond online to the criticism—which she doesn’t recommend doing in all cases—remember that others are reading what you write and watching what you do, so respond with love.

One paragraph in the Huffington Post blog seemed to be particularly irksome to the commenters. I asked how the Word of God (in all the richness of that phrase) might be understood differently in the digital age in terms of the doctrine of salvation. I may not have been as eloquent in my stating of the question as Monica A. Coleman was in her excellent essay on the topic, “New media: a savior for the digital age,” but regardless of the answer, the question is interesting and worth pondering. Even if one concludes that the means of salvation is unchanging, the question requires that we reflect on what we mean by Word of God and salvation.

This is the kind of reflection the New Media Project would like to spark among people of faith and scholars of religion, and also among those of no religion and those of many religions who fill the public square.

While the Huffington Post commenters may be troublesome at times, I will hope and pray for the larger good: a growing and constructive conversation about religion in that part of the new public square.

Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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