Comments on Comments

This last week, after there was a comments pile-up here in the discussion of the Ligonier situation, a reasonable question was raised by David Bahnsen, which was, why have a comments feature at all? Ironically, my wife and I had just been talking about the same thing, and then after the question was raised here, I brought it up at our elders’ meeting and we discussed it there. I am certainly willing in principle to pull the plug on the comments feature because St. Paul says that all things should be done for edification. If it ceases to be edifying, then we should quit doing it. That said, let me list a few reasons here why I currently want to keep the comments feature. The reasons here are listed in no particular order.

1. If it is true (as I hope it is) that the posts on this blog are generally helpful and edifying, then it is a good thing to increase the traffic to the blog. The comments (and with them, the occasional food fight they engender) have been an important part of the dramatic increase of traffic to this blog.

One time years ago I was doing some open air preaching on the campus of WSU, and no matter how often you do that kind of thing, the experience is always something like cliff diving. When you preach in church, you are addressing people who came there willing to hear you. But when you do open air preaching, you are speaking to people who didn’t come there to hear you, and gathering a crowd is always the most difficult part of the venture. So this one time I drove over to Pullman to do this, and when I got there it was overcast and there was a kind of drizzle, and I (quite willing for an excuse to just go home again) thought that this was not a good time, some other day perhaps. But then I thought better of that, and got up to preach. As soon as I did this, another guy who was nearby (a Maoist selling newspapers) jumped up and tried to shout me down. Suddenly, whomp, two hundred people. So I would present the gospel, he would do his commie tirade thing, I would answer and present the gospel, and so on. He was an atheistic godsend.

2. In any kind of public communication, feedback from those on the receiving end is most necessary to ongoing adjustments of what is said. When I am preaching, I can tell by looking at the congregation whether they are with me or not, whether I need to speed up or slow down, go over something again, etc. I need to know how to read the congregation as I speak. The same is true here, but the feedback mechanism is different. If someone checks in to this blog occasionally just to read what I have written about Deuteronomy, say, the comments might be a distraction or an irritation to him. But they are still very important to me, and they are part of the reason I can write something that is helpful to the guy who doesn’t really care for the comments. I learn a great deal from them. I learn how what I write is coming across to others who have nothing to go on apart from what I write here. Of course, there are fans out there, and there is the “I don’t know about that” group, and there is the hostile response simpliciter. There is a difference in how you make adjustments for all the various kinds of readers, but it is really important to know beforehand that if I say this, someone will respond with that. Occasional surprises are okay, but all public communicators have a responsibility to be open to various kinds of feedback. Oscar Wilde once said that a gentleman is someone who never gives offense accidentially, and the same principle applies to writers and speakers. This does not mean that I have to agree with whatever the responses are, but I do need to take them into account, and I ought not to set a bunch of people off accidentally. But in order to be able to do this, a comments feature is really necessary.

3. For preachers, the people who gather on the Lord’s Day to hear us are generally appreciative. The feedback you get there is overwhelmingly positive. Yes, I know there are exceptions, but for the most part the folks who like you are there, and the folks who don’t are worshipping somewhere else. This can create an interesting spiritual cocoon. Even when your parishioners are simply doing what God says they are to do — honor those who are leading them spiritually — the effect on the preacher, if he doesn’t get out much, and if he doesn’t watch his heart, can be identical to the effects of sycophantism. Even if no one is sinfully flattering him, he can still be sinfully flattered. So what I am saying here is that it is spiritually helpful, bracing, and invigorating to be called an arrogant bastard from time to time. Either that or a drooling idiot. Just as praise to a pastor obediently rendered can still be badly received, so a disrespectful and wicked name-caller can be used to bless the hearer. Shimei was completely in the wrong in what he said, and God judged him for it, but David still heard him in a way that was edifying to David.

4. The comments feature helps to reveal the holes in our comments technology. Cotton Mather once said that if you tie an animal up, he will know the length of his tether by morning. And so the misbehavior of some making comments has helped to show what sorts of technical adjustments we need to make (and are making).

5. If this kind of Internet monga-discussion is going to occur from time to time (and it will), I would prefer to have it occur here, rather than somewhere else. Some of you may recall that a few years ago, an extended, um, discussion about our deficiencies took place on Worldmagblog, and, having dealt with both kinds of situations, this kind is much more contained and controlled. It is the difference between something being done to you, and something you are actively involved with yourself.

6. Many Christians are unsure of how to answer a fool according to his folly, and how to refuse to do so. Scripture requires both, in different ways, and in different settings. But how are we to decide? Part of learning how to do this comes from watching someone else try to do it faithfully. There are times when I answer a fool according to his folly, lest he become wise in his own conceits. There are times when I refrain from it because I don’t want to become like these people. And Scripture requires both responses. The Bible tells Christian leaders to confute those who contradict, and to answer gently, and to avoid foolish and unlearned arguments that gender strife. This is not a “one size fits all” kind of deal. It is something we have to learn how to do. A continued comments feature means that a number of people can see when I think a patient explanation is called for, when impudence should be challenged, and when insolence is to be given the old heave-ho.