Yesterday, the internet exploded.
In case you somehow missed the insanity, A&E suspended Phil Robertson from its popular Duck Dynasty show following comments he made about gay people and African Americans. After A&E’s announcement, the internet went nuts as angry fans expressed their outrage, while others were outraged about the outrage.
It was not a great day to be on social media.
Now, I have my own opinions about this whole thing, but I’m not going to share them here. Instead, I want to tell you what I learned yesterday after I watched the debate go down. It is this:
Most Christian bloggers are not interested in teaching.
By “teaching”, I am here referring to the important work of shaping minds, the art of participating in a learner’s transformation. Teaching, in that sense, is a very different activity than merely spouting off. It is also different than simply standing in front of a classroom and reciting information. Teaching, in a classical sense, is not ranting and raving, and it is not information transmission. Instead, teaching has the growth of the learner as its end.
And I’m not sure many Christians today are very interested in that.
I say this because most Christians I know, and most bloggers I know, said exactly what you would expect them to say yesterday. The conservative bloggers argued for Robertson’s First Amendment rights, and more progressive bloggers condemned Robertson and his remarks. On both sides, there was dogmatism without much complexity.
Aside from the fact that this is not at all surprising, it reveals an underlying misunderstanding and/or indifference to the art of teaching. When your audience agrees with you, you aren’t teaching them. It might feel good to vent and take a stand, but all you’re really doing is tickling your readers’ ears, fortifying their already held beliefs.
Among learning theorists there is an idea that, for real learning to take place, a learner must experience a thing called “disequilibration.” This term refers to the disorientation of the learner. When a learner hears something that challenges pre-existing knowledge or beliefs, she experiences “disequilibration”. This is the kind of thing that happens when young Christians go to college and take their first class in Religion. It is what happens any time an experience does not fit into your pre-existing categories. It disorients you, and it can be scary, but it is in that moment that you learn and grow.
Good teachers seek to disequilibrate their students from time to time. You see this whenever a blogger or teacher capitalizes on the trust they have built with their audience to say something hard or challenging to them. But more importantly, you see this a lot in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus loved to disequilibrate his listeners. Depending on the audience, he over-turned traditional notions about the law, about holiness, and about the Messiah. Jesus was constantly disequilibrating people.
But yesterday, I didn’t see much of that. Most bloggers weren’t interested in disequilibrating their readers. To be sure, most wrote passionately and sincerely, but they wrote nothing that their typical reader would not disagree with. They were, to borrow the saying, preaching to the choir.
There were a few great exceptions to this trend. At The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter called out Robertson’s troubling comments about race, and Jared Wilson challenged the notion that Robertson’s rights had been violated. Then on Time‘s website, Brandon Ambrosino, an openly gay man, made the important distinction between homophobia and sincere disagreement or unwitting ignorance. In each of these three instances, these men capitalized on their clout, speaking into their sphere of influence to disequilibrate their readers. They received push-back, of course. Jared Wilson, I believe, was called a Nazi sympathizer. But for those who had ears to hear, for those who trusted these men, even when what they had to say was hard, real learning transpired.
I’m not sure many people are genuinely interested in the hard work of helping someone learn. It involves restraint, and winsomeness, and the ability to listen. Learning usually occurs one baby step at a time, and most people don’t have the patience for that. They want total agreement, right away.
But for those of us called to teach, this is something we need to take seriously. It’s important to consider your audience–who is actually reading your blog or listening to your podcast–and teach them. Not the people out there, not the people you disagree with and who probably don’t read your blog anyway, but the people within your sphere of influence. How can you help your actual readers to grow in the Lord? How can you help them to live out the gospel in an exceedingly complex world?
You will not accomplish this if you are not disorienting the people who like you and read you. Sometimes you have to say hard things to the people in your camp. Many of them won’t like it, and many of them will call you names, but some of them will learn something, and some of them will actually grow. As teachers following the way of Jesus, that’s what we are called to do.
Wait a sec … are you saying that being indignant is not the same as being edifying? Oh man, now I gotta go re-write. 😉
Very funny, Tim. You know your writing is edifying!
You know, you had me right up until “winsomeness.” Why’d you have to take a perfectly good blog post and then introduce a term that’s a registered trademark of the Young, Restless and Reformed movement?
Sergius, I can honestly say I have no idea what you’re talking about, so you can rest assured that I am employing its pre-Young, Restless, and Reformed meaning. 🙂
That you have no idea what I’m taking about is the best news I’ve heard all week–and an indication that you need to catch up on your YRR reading list.
Haha sounds good!
Appreciate your thoughtful commentary here Sharon. My 14 year old who loved DD, was confused and disappointed about this whole fiasco. Provided good opportunity for conversations.
I think this is good wisdom even for the day to day postings in the Christian blogosphere. Its too easy (been guilty of it myself) to just slip into posting something that roughly fits the standard line rather than taking the responsibility to teach seriously
Yes, yes, yes! Why can’t we get this mentality to spread?
Great thoughts, Sharon. The one great “teaching” post I read yesterday was on Rage Against the Minivan: http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2013/12/duck-dynasty-first-amendment-rights-and.html
Thanks for the recommendation, Lesley!
Sharon, how do you gain an audience that wants to hear something other than what they agree with in your local congregation or on Facebook? I love your advice in this article and I am passionate about teaching in this same manner, but I’ve found it just turns people away when all you want is for them to see a better way to live like Jesus. They see it as judgmental and speaking of other Christians in a judgmental way and that one shouldn’t do that…heretical in essence. This culture and the church in general; we see what we want to see, what we expect to see, what we are conditioned to see, and we filter everything else out. I thank you for any time you might have for this question!
Hey Joel, that’s a great question! Disequilibration is just one technique for teaching among many. There are numerous ways you can teach without disequilibrating your audience, but there is certainly a time and place to use it. Teaching is a real art, so I think the more you do it, with the help of the Holy Spirit, you learn the right words at the right time.
That said, not everything you say needs to be a “hard saying” that puts people off. Instead, the goal is to build up enough trust between you and your readers that, when you do say something hard, they can receive it. Not all of them will, but some will!
I definitely agree with you and I don’t speak so hard all the time as one definitely has to have a balance. However, when it’s needed, most still don’t receive it (in my humble opinion) when most evangelicals tote one party line in your church demographics, and don’t agree with you that women can teach men, or bringing up any of the church’s violent and hurtful past is simply heretical….well going against the grain on any of that is not accepted. People are so impassioned about things that seem to challenge Jesus as being their only master…..sorry to be so disheartened.
Excellent, Sharon. Thanks.
I thought this was also a great blog about the subject. It challenged most of the responses I saw on social media.
Thanks for challenging us!
Thanks for sharing, Mae Lynn!!
Thank you for the encouragement Mae Lynn. And thank you Sharon. I deeply enjoyed this article, and it’s challenge to steward the wine of the Lord well, teaching as we pass into other wineskins. Bless you.
YES! Applause, applause!
I personally think there’s little hope for changing hearts in the semi-anonymousness of the internet; I think face-to-face and life-to-life is the best context for making headway in emotionally-charged disagreements.
Winn Collier says: “What if, before we heralded our answers to every moral quandary, we asked questions about a person’s story, about what they hope for, what they are afraid of and what they most desire?…Would the world view the church differently if we owned the reputation as people who were authentically curious, who hoped to turn every stranger into a friend?” More in this same vein here: http://quotecloset.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/ask-more-questions/
Sharon, this is a fabulous post. I think there is a major difference between disequilibrium and the “shock factor,” which bloggers, I think, tend to confuse. I feel thankful for your reminder that we teach and ask ourselves about what will grow readers. Thank you for this perspective!