The other evening our elders had a special meeting with our parishioners to go over some of the details of the recent controversies. The meeting was fantastic, but my point is not to get into all that. Rather I wanted to simply to respond more fully to one of the questions, one that went something like this: “Are you aware of the difference between you on the blog and you in person?”
The implication of the question is that my blog persona is more combative (in the minds of some), and that my in-person persona is jollier. I think it is an astute question, and I actually agree that such a difference is noticeable, and is not at all imaginary. And after acknowledging that some folks are not too keen on me in person either, I went on to explain how I think this is a feature, not a bug.
Mulling over this a few days after, I would like to add some additional comments.
The rules for person-to-person communication are very different than the rules for mass communication. The same person, doing the same thing, comes off in a completely different way in a personal conversation, in a Bible study with twenty people in attendance, in preaching to a congregation of 200, in preaching to a congregation of 1,000, in preaching to a nameless audience on YouTube, while posting a blog, and in writing a book.
In order to achieve the same effect in these different settings you have to do completely different things. And I ought not to say “same effect,” but rather a “similar, approximate effect.” The goal should always be to communicate, not miscommunicate, and to do so effectively with the majority of whatever audience it may be. If someone ever gets to the position where shutting up would advance his cause greatly, then he should shut up.
Now it happens that the more people you are addressing, the greater the number of those who “don’t get it.” You could say something in a room to twenty people, and all twenty get it, and then communicate the same truth to 20,000 people in a blog post, and the number of people who radically misunderstand the point you are making — 200, say — is ten times greater than the number of people in the room who first understood you. Well, why do it then?
You do it because of the ratios. You do it for the sake of the opportunity to get something across to the 19,800 people. Out of the 200, 20 are trolls and we need not worry about them. They have dedicated their lives to misunderstanding things, and we frankly cannot keep up anymore. But what about the 180 who could have understood you, and who would have understood you had you been able to speak to them face-to-face? Isn’t that unfortunate? Yes, it really is unfortunate. But while I hate to sound callused about it — and if you were here in person you could see that I hate to sound callused about it — it remains a necessary part of the cost of doing business.
When this kind of issue arises, one of our first reactions should be to ask if this kind of problem is one that the Bible addresses. Are we given our priorities in this kind of decision? And the answer is yes, we are. There are numerous examples, but I will just cite two.
“I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you” (Gal. 4:20).
Paul acknowledges that if he were present with the Galatians, he could do a better job clearing up misunderstandings. He knows that. But that doesn’t prevent him from writing Galatians. The epistle cannot get down into the corners the way a personal visit could. But it can do some important things, and that is why he wrote it.
“That I may not seem as if I would terrify you by letters. For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (2 Cor. 10:9–10).
In the case of the Corinthians, the comparison between Paul in print and Paul in person was disparaging to Paul in person. His letters were impressive, but his personal charisma not so much.
Paul knows all about how letters and visits, mutatis mutandis, need to be evened out. Sometimes the “evening out” is done by the spoken word and sometimes by the written. But in either case, he knows that the Paul in both instances is the same man, with the same goals, driving toward the same end.
“Let such an one think this, that, such as we are in word by letters when we are absent, such will we be also in deed when we are present” (2 Cor. 10:11).
The necessary consistency is to be found, therefore, in character and mission, and never in technique. Would Paul have used Instagram? Not an easy question to answer, although I think he probably would have. But if he had used that tool, he would done very different things, but as the same man. Semper constans, numquam praedici. Always consistent, never predictable.