Networked individualism and the coming second Reformation

I have a special interest at the intersection of religion and communication, both as a media scholar and as someone with a deep religious background. Yesterday a few folks I follow started buzzing about a piece in the influential Evangelical magazine Christianity Today (“Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?”) and it turned into a tidal wave that made its way into the broader audience I follow.

It’s an important piece in an important time in the realm of religion and politics, even if you aren’t interested in both.

The conflict

First, some backstory.

For those unaware, there is a sector of white Evangelical Christianity in the U.S. that has been in something of a war of words with the rest of the movement, and it centers around one President Donald J. Trump. The story begins for many on Election Day last November after about 80% of white Evangelicals said they voted for Trump, or even after for others as the patience with those who said their vote was more about a dislike for Hillary Clinton has waned in the face of his continued high support from that demographic.

But for those who have followed this story, it begins much earlier than that. Prominent Evangelical leaders such as Wayne Grudem (a legend in the discipline of systematic theology) and James Dobson (who along with Billy Graham is the closest thing many white Evangelicals have to a living saint) came out in support of Trump before the election in spite of Trump’s disturbing comments about women, immigrants and people of color. It’s a particularly distressing story for some white Evangelicals because the movement spent years decrying “unwholesome” behavior in the Democratic Party, and indeed it turned such criticism-into-votes strategies into an art form when Bill Clinton occupied the White House. Now the same movement propelled to the White House a thrice-married man who bragged about sexual assault and openly mused about having sex with his oldest daughter.

Many took this as a betrayal of everything the movement was supposed to stand for and called out leaders’ hypocrisy for either supporting Trump publicly or staying silent so as not to disrupt the flock. This included blogger/authors such as Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans who have become household names in white Evangelical circles. Hatmaker in particular suffered horrible abuses at the hands of her fellow believers both online and offline after she came out in support of LGBT relationships, but she and Evans were both highly critical of Trump and Trump supporters as well. They also have been critical of white Evangelicals who have largely been silent on the #BlackLivesMatter movement, arguing it represents a type of callous indifference inconsistent with the Gospel.

This isn’t to single them out. Hatmaker and Evans are two of the more prominent voices in this arena, but there are more. They are, however, a type of canary in the coal mine for what is happening right now in white Evangelical churches, a movement that has been rocked by division that centers around President Trump himself.

So about that CT piece …

The piece in Christianity Today has a lot of problems with it. First, it unfairly centered on Hatmaker as if she was the reason for the piece, even as it purported to be about a larger discussion about the ability to publish vs. ecclesiastical authority. The larger charge that these writers weren’t credentialed and vetted by a church or denominational body seemed fair on the surface, but it is highly gendered. Women don’t get licensed or go to seminary in the same numbers men do, and it’s beside the point anyhow since men are routinely put into pastoral positions without what is allegedly the proper educational training.

John Pavlovitz has a pretty great perspective on the piece’s larger flaws and I suggest you read it. I wanted to talk about the wrongheaded historical and media-based framing of the piece, because that’s my own area of expertise.

For a second, I thought Tish Harrison Warren was going to get it right. From the second paragraph:

Just as the invention of the printing press helped spark the Protestant Reformation and created a crisis of authority, the advent of social media has catalyzed a new crisis in the church.

Not bad. It’s what I teach in my own classes, in fact. The printing press was a societal-level disruptor, giving people in the pews access to the scriptures for the first time and that caused them to question Catholic church teachings. A bit more than 50 years after Gutenberg unveiled his movable type printing press, the Protestant Reformation began and spread like wildfire throughout Europe.

What people forget is this was not a clean break. It was ugly. People were persecuted and put to death for being Catholic or being Protestant in the wrong community. Families were broken apart and entire communities divided by the Reformation. People fled Europe and eventually England to the U.S. in search of religious freedom, and the Protestant church found a strong foothold here in America.

An inaccurate comparison

Had Warren pulled that thread a bit more in her CT piece, she might have taken it somewhere, but she stopped and instead turned it into a piece about authority. She settled for the too-easy comparison of blogging software to the printing press, and in doing so her argument is a sloppy comparison.

Simply, the printing press was a revolution of distribution, whereas blogging and the Internet in general are a revolution of social creativity, of the ability to publish across forms.

Pre-printing-press, books were hand-copied and enormously expensive, a luxury item rich people could afford but dared not read given how priceless books were. The printing press changed the costs involved in distribution by increasing the speed by which books could be printed, bound, and circulated. By necessity and good old economies of scale, this brought the price of books down enormously. Our printing presses have gotten faster and more efficient, and the result has been cheaper and cheaper books.

The result of the printing press was more literacy, more knowledge. The people who benefited most were the emerging middle class in Europe and then the U.S., as they had access to current and classical ideas that drove revolutions first in the Catholic church and then toward more democratic forms of government in the face of entrenched monarchy.

But the thing is that printing is still expensive for most people. The press critic A.J. Liebling famously said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” and that is less about freedom to speak and more about access to the means of publishing. Presses are expensive. Paper by the truckload and ink by the barrel are expensive. Scale brought down the cost of books, but it still is enormously expensive for the average person to print boxes and boxes of them in an effort to get their ideas out there.

Blogging and the internet have increased the reach and lowered the cost of distribution, absolutely. Online publishing has democratized access to information even as lowering the cost of books has hit a theoretical limit. But Warren missed the bigger picture.

The revolution of the internet is self-publishing. The constraints on having access to the levers of publication inherent in a device that prints with paper and ink are gone. At first you had to know a little HTML, but blogging software, as Clay Shirky famously put it, turned publishing from an industry into a button. More voices in the arena, and we know now that some of the voices who take advantage of this new paradigm tend to be those who are marginalized — in the case of Evangelicalism, women and people of color.

The “Digital Second Reformation”

Warren’s framing around authority is interesting because she assumes that paradigm is still unquestioned. Her central thesis is that bloggers need to be under Church authority so they can be accountable when they go off the rails, as it were. Leaving behind what I said above, that this is a highly gendered given that women often are not allowed to serve in leadership in some white Evangelical churches, the framing is so interesting.

It misunderstands what’s happening online. Warren sees a crisis af authority and misses the bigger picture — these bloggers are talking about a crisis of credibility in Evangelical leadership, one that stains the whole church.

Society is built around communication. We can’t have society without the ability to exchange ideas, argue, give directions, work together through dialogue, pass laws that people comprehend, and so forth. One thing we know about society function is it often mimics the way we communicate.

Think about 10,000 years or so of human history (or 6,000 if you’re a Young Earther). Our communication has been top-down and hierarchical, from the first stone tablets, to scrolls, to books, to radio, to television. A media maker distributes to captive, passive audience — that’s the model. The only critical things that have changed over time are the speed the message goes from sender to receiver and the number of audience members you can reach at once.

The Internet is not that. Self-publishing online definitely is not that. They are networked and social forms of information spreading. You don’t even need an audience to publish and distribute. You build audience over time, person-to-person in this realm, and they are loyal.

Hyperlinks are a subversive act because they can point to ideas or works that aren’t popular, accepted or Approved By Management. Publishing without a publisher is a subversive act; it ignores clear lines of gatekeeping that determine what is valid or valuable. Just as a pastor is an authority for their flock, traditional publishing is a type of authority filter that determines what you can and can’t read. Oh, you can publish on your own — just go buy a press.

The Internet screws all of that up.

Read the Cluetrain Manifesto. It was written in 1999 but it predicts this moment precisely. The internet disrupts the normal top-down order of things and takes away the privilege of prominence, of status, of having a built-in audience for your book before it even rolls off the press.

Hatmaker and Evans gained a following online in ways they likely could not have offline. They are both gifted writers to be sure, but the traditional way is hard. There are so many gatekeepers to stop your writing from getting out there, from publishers to editors to bookstores — it’s just a different ballgame, and it’s not particularly kind to women who aren’t credentialed in the way Warren defines validity. But online publishing is a button, and networked audiences tend to be global. Sure, they expanded to publishing physical books eventually, but the audience was built online and disconnected from any particularly church body.

And now we have a generation of Millennials growing up knowing only a world of networked communication. Those of us in GenX have lived this most of our adult lives. The older folks might resist, but the younger generations are coming up wired differently. Networked individualism, as Barry Wellman calls it, is social and indifferent to the status that comes with being already famous. It is disrupting lines of authority and understandings of what it means to be an expert in something. The coin of the realm in the blogosphere is writing what you know, and if self-publishing has taught me anything it’s that everyone has expertise in something.

We are starting to look like our tools. Pastors and churches that once dominated the theological conversation within their church walls now are competing with bloggers and YouTube and Facebook Live. Self-publishing has opened the conversation to anyone, and it likely feels vulgar to ministers in the same way the King James Version feels vulgar to those who prefer the Bible in Latin. And while pastors have a local flock, these folks online have a following. They are of the same stripe, in my view, these ministers and bloggers. But it represents an intense culture clash.

As I said, Warren’s framing is fascinating. It assumes a world where hierarchy and authority not only matter, but also that the fact they matter is just a given. Increasingly this will not be so, because the core audience being fed that point of view sees it in conflict with how they already are consuming and sharing information. This is not about religion, not about beliefs. It’s about communication and its impact on how we do religion and beliefs, and about how we organize and dialogue around those beliefs.

We are undergoing a Digital Second Reformation. This one is networked and digital, global and intersectional. If the first Refirmation was built on access to ideas, the second is built around conversation and networks rather than top-down forms of power. The upshot is that a change in the way we communicate has a necessary impact on relationship between authority and distribution of power. This is not a theological change; it’s a way in how institutions such as churches organize themselves around theology, and it’s about the role of the flock in the digital age.

The wildest take I have on this is that physical church structures are becoming obsolete when the congregation can be online. This may be years off, and we don’t have the tools to do this well, but the sentiment is there. This is an inevitable process. Communication is changing, and b cause of that so will our way of organizing.

That bloggers are getting into dustups with church authority is indicative of the times. It’s a clash between hierarchy and networked individualism, and the latter group is growing in number. Even if you tend to side with authority in most cases, you’re using tools that are rewiring you and your expectations. “Why can’t organizations communicate like I’m used to communicating?” will be the mantra of the next two decades as this transformation happens. Yesterday it was traditional news media. Today it’s United Airlines. Tomorrow it’s your area First Baptist Church.

This new mentality is invading our media use. I see it in education and my own classes. It’s coming for any sector that relies on concentrated, hierarchical power. It’s coming for tribal Evangelicalism just at a time of crisis in the wake of Trump’s election (even if people in those churches largely don’t see the crisis).

Warren’s argument is that bloggers need to be accountable to church authority. She doesn’t bother to address what is really driving this online activity — bloggers want to hold authority accountable. That the latter group even exists and talks like this is indicative of the way the internet has changed the path of discourse, both in society and in the pews.

Where do we go from here?

When Protestants split from the Catholic church, there were theological differences to be sure, but for the most part those two churches are set up the same structurally — clear lines of authority and a top-down way of doing things. If you don’t believe me, go to a white Evangelical church and wait for the Q&A portion after the sermon. You’ll be waiting a long time. Knowledge is transmitted, and quibbling is only allowed at the edges. Questioning a pastor isn’t done — you simply leave the church if you aren’t happy, at the risk of being ostracized from family or network structures you spent years building (Max Weber’s work on Protestant churches during the 1800s is instructive here; there have traditionally been huge social consequences in American Evangelicalism if you rock the boat). Or you stay and ask hard questions at the risk of being ostracized. Understanding of truth is not up for discussion. Truth is transmitted and supposed to be accepted.

Now think about that last paragraph and imagine a website or online community that works that way. You’re given the truth. You cannot ask questions or talk back, take issue with anything said lest you be banned or booted. There’s no dialogue, no conversation. You are a receiver only. To many of us, that is a picture of Hell itself not because it is the best way but rather because it’s not the way we do things in our everyday communication. It would feel unnatural today even if it would have been totally normal pre-Internet.

What Warren misses is that this conflict between church authority and bloggers was inevitable, and answering with a call for more hierarchy, more authority is speaking a wholly different language than networked individuals speak. It’s a case of asking the wrong questions, applying the wrong frames, and assuming everyone is on the same page when it comes to authority and power in Christianity.

I’m tempted in moments like this to say sectors of the Evangelical church are headed for extinction, but I’m reminded the Catholic church survived the Protestants just as the Protestants will survive the Digital Second Reformation. Some people just need authority and to be told what to believe, just as some Catholics needed to be told the Church, not the Bible, is the final authority. There will always be a market for that. But Evangelicalism that does not evolve will see its influence diminished.

We’re already seeing it. Evangelical non-Trumpists already had the characteristic of not being overly attached to their church, and now they’re leaving. The retort is usually that these folks are the unfaithful, but I don’t see it that way. They’re already in the diaspora, falling out of love not with their faith but rather the way white Evangelicalism is organized in America and by the hedged bets pastors are making with President Trump vis à vis their flock. The diaspora is driven not by lack of faith but devotion to a form they don’t see modeled in their local church bodies. They’re going to reorganize, they’re going to do it online, and much like everything else in Internet culture they aren’t going to ask for permission.

My advice to congregations that want to stay relevant is to engage these folks in the style they’re accustomed to. Stop the preaching-at, the talking-down-to, the iron fist that bludgeons rather than guides. Markets are conversations, as the Cluetrain guys say, and while that sounds crass in the context of religion think of marketing as a way to connect people with messages you want them to hear. Telling them what is true, forcing your religion on them (the windmill-tilting against gay marriage comes to mind) is very hierarchical, very old media. It’s not that these folks have different opinions. They speak a different language.

I don’t expect white American Evangelicals to take that advice, for the most part. What I just wrote is heresy to many because it feels like not standing for the capital-t Truth. All I’m saying, though, is their Truth is getting lost in a quest to establish lines of authority and power at the expense of dialogue. Warren’s conversation is misreading everything.

In some ways, Trump is the last gasp of socially conservative Evangelical dominance. The shroud is lifted and the movement has been revealed for what it always was, something that thrived on hierarchy and authority, and a ship that was sometimes being steered by people ready to abandon principle if it meant staying in control or having influence. Folks like Hatmaker have challenged not just Trumpism but the process by which people can flip on issues supposedly core to their entire belief structure. They’re questioning why those in the pulpit who say they don’t like Trump then lack the courage to speak out, to stand with targeted people such as people of color or undocumented immigrants.

These bloggers are confronting entrenched power and its effect on Evangelical leaders’ decision-making in places of authority. That this dustup is centered on politics is no surprise, given that politics and religion have been fused in this demographic for nearly 40 years. It’s not that they’re arguing about politics so much as the fault lines are much more clear in the Internet age.

But the medium is the message, in this case. Warren is complaining about content, but the more useful frame when thinking about the church in the digital age is to ask what it means sociologically that we have a blogosphere or self-publishing in general. The Internet is networked and social, and people practice their faith just as they use their tools.

It’s messy. It will take a long time to shake out. I fear there eventually will be violence, similar to the first Reformation. But the revolution that came for the media is coming for the church next.

Control the bloggers? Unleash the bloggers.

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