Tuesday, March 04, 2008

When Everything In The Garden Isn't Lovely: personal reflections on an internet dispute

King Jesus hath a garden, full of divers flowers
Where I go culling posies gay, all times and hours.

Where naught is heard but paradise bird,
Harp, dulcimer, lute,
With cymbal, trump and tymbal,
And the tender soothing flute


The above is part of a rather lovely carol which I haven’t sung since my schooldays, when it was part of our choir repertoire. It has flitted in and out of my mind over recent days. I love its imagery of a garden filled with spiritual virtues. It got me to thinking of the image of the Church as a garden too (filled with flowers, some more divers than others). If in the words of another hymn “All the world is God’s own field” couldn’t we be that nice cultivated bit (tortuous I know, but please).

In my own corner of the Christian cyber garden, however, the music has been far from harmonious of late. For the past 15 months or so I have been following an internet dispute between two groups of Christians. I’ll try to be as vague as possible about it but not because The Issue under dispute is unimportant. It is important and one that does concern every Christian directly or indirectly. It isn’t a ‘salvation/damnation’ issue – although one party is fairly adamant that the other party believes and acts as though it is (and that party, equally adamantly, denies it). I’ll be vague because I suspect that although the little corner of cyber-Christendom I frequent is a small and parochial one, this sort of dispute and the behaviour it has engendered is probably happening all across the web, over issues as far ranging as baptism and the right colour for a church carpet. So if you think you recognise the dispute I am referring to, you may be right or, on the other hand, completely wrong.

When I first encountered the dispute I thought that if the taking of sides were called for, my ‘side’ would be pretty obvious. My job, prior to marriage, concerned the very issues over which the dispute first hit the internet, so I had a natural interest and it might be assumed certain sympathies. Disconcertingly, I found after just a few salvos from each side that this was not to be the case. Neither side, to my woolly mind is completely ‘right’ but (to broadly paraphrase Jane Austen) I do believe that the weight of goodness, though it has shifted about pretty much of late, largely falls on one side and not the other. That was a lesson to me in itself. My presuppositions and natural inclinations are not infallible guides. Not rocket science, but sobering to me. I also had to realise, yet again, that having a sympathetic, humble and likable personality does not mean that one is always right. Nor does the absence of such a personality mean one is more likely to be wrong. As the old saying goes: in the English Civil War the Cavaliers were romantic but wrong whereas the Roundheads were right, but repulsive.

The dispute has burned up a lot of ground on the internet. The number of posts and comments on it must be in the thousands by now (and here is another one). Some of the things I have read (on both sides) have been filled with such downright spite and meanness that it has taken my breath away and all in the name of ‘contending for the truth’. I have seen one side split and almost devour itself and have been astonished at how some of the participants involved can be so continually involved and yet have time to do anything else. They could make a fortune with an ebook on time management.

I have spent a fair number of hours reading all the posts and comments but as yet have never commented myself. I would like to think that this is because I took my mother’s teaching of ‘if you can't say something nice say nothing at all’ to heart, but I suspect it is more to do with my own fear of confrontation. One side tends to disallow critical comments on its blogs, while the other allows the comments but tends to roast their critics with alarming zeal. Anyone who broaches a criticism or urges moderation is liable to be treated as a fellow traveller of the opposing side, or worse. There is more than one way of censoring debate and it has certainly scared me off.

This may be viewed as moral cowardice and probably is, but what the Lord has been speaking to me constantly about over these past months is rather my own motivation for following the dispute. It has come very close to voyeurism and of that I am not proud. The truth I have realised is that while I have a fear of confrontation that involves me personally, I find it horribly entertaining to watch it unfold in the lives of others. Especially if I can do it anonymously. And that is sin. Popular entertainment shows thrive on this kind of sin, but having no television does not guarantee immunity by any means. Meditating on scripture is the medicine needed:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.
Philippians 4:8 NASB

So am I still following the dispute? Yes, but evaluating my ‘lurking’ behaviour each time I read. I justified my initial curiosity as one of ‘professional interest’ – so that I could better understand some important issues and the various arguments involved, so that I could help others as they worked through similar issues (as I conceivably might be asked to do). Knowing how woefully easy it is to self deceive, I had better make jolly sure that I have a good purpose in reading such things and that it is God’s good purpose and not one of my own invention. And I had also better be sure to pray, more often and with more fervency for those involved on all sides, that the noisy gong and clanging cymbal might be replaced by ‘the tender, soothing flute’ and one day, hopefully soon, charity prevail.


Yaakov Kirschen said...

Come on! Be fair!
Please let those of us (who are not in the know) understand what you are talking about.
what is the argument about?
Dry Bones
Israel's Political Comic Strip since 1973

Karen said...

Very insightful post. I really needed to read this today!