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The other day I heard a guest on NPR describe blogging as old technology. Weblogs were what people used to do in the days before social media. He was a young, hip entrepreneur. His company sells T-shirts, or as he called it “gear,” so I suppose he would know. I was startled to find this out. But I guess I should have known. My age should have told me that what I thought was cutting edge was actually the internet’s equivalent of “dad jeans.” If I can do this, I suppose anyone can.
Still, I feel powerful every time I click publish on my WordPress blog. Suddenly the thoughts I’ve labored over are out there for the whole world to read. I feel like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. Within minutes I start checking my stats to see if the Reformation has begun. But just because we put something out there is no guarantee that anybody will be interested in it (or even know where to find it). The more voices in the room, the harder it is to make out what is said. Often when I post, I wonder if I am only adding to the background noise.
In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized publishing in Europe by using printing presses that employed mechanical, movable type. He was to the world of books what Henry Ford would eventually become to the automotive industry. Gutenberg didn’t invent books or printing, but his technology made them affordable and available. Books weren’t just for the rich or the church anymore. Now ordinary people could own books, and for many, it meant they could publish them as well. The internet mirrored Gutenberg’s revolution and extended it. Thanks to the internet, we are all writers, publishers, and broadcasters now.
Unfortunately, with so many other voices crying in the digital wilderness, one must startle to be heard. The attention of the multitude is reserved for the loudest, strangest, angriest, or crudest voice. Such an environment is toxic for those who merely want to reflect. It is even worse for those who set out to tell the truth. These days publishing in any form seems to be more about marketing than it is about words and ideas. We sell the sizzle instead of serving meat. In the process, we may end up selling our souls to be heard. The effort that is required to capture the attention of an audience that has become deafened by the sound of so many voices can cause Christian communicators to shade the truth, smoothing the sharp edges in an attempt to make it more palatable. We may succumb to the temptation to exaggerate, telling our own story but with a flourish that makes us seem more interesting than we are. We resort to cheap sentimentalism and manipulation.
Or maybe we just get cranky. When I preached regularly as a pastor, I discovered that in my earnest desire to hold the wandering attention of my audience, I sometimes limited the emotional range of my sermons. Looking back, I think I had confused volume with dynamism. Or maybe it was a function of my personality, which tends more toward critical thinking than chirpy effervescence. Whatever the reason, it meant that my sermons were disproportionately “prophetic” in tone. On most days there was more thunder than sunshine in them. After one of these sermons, someone approached me and wanted to know if everything was alright. “Why do you ask?” I said. He smiled nervously and replied, “Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but lately, it seems like you are always yelling at us.”
Ambition is another complicating factor. The promise of a limitless audience can lead to unrealistic expectations. More often than not, it turns out to be a false promise, and I am disappointed. I am not blaming the internet for this. The ambition is my own as are the unrealistic expectations that come with it. But I find that I am not the only one. Nearly every evening, you can turn on the television and find some talent show whose contestants are convinced that they are destined for greatness. A few manage to capture the brass ring. The majority finish disappointed, wondering why the viewing public failed to recognize their star potential. The losers are sent home with hyperbole and accolades, which only reinforces their conviction that if they only believe in themselves and keep trying, their dreams of fame and glory will come true. Most of the time, we never hear from them again.
C. S. Lewis has rightly pointed out that “pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools” is a kind of false humility. But we live in an age that moves in the opposite direction. Today every child is a prince or a princess. Commonplace actions that were once treated as matters of ordinary civil responsibility are now spoken of as heroic. These days everybody is a hero. The sin of our age is not one of explicit pride so much as it one of ill-conceived hyperbole. There is no longer any room in the world for an ordinary person. We are all exceptional now.
A similar spirit is abroad in the church. It is not enough to be a plain Christian. Instead, we must be extraordinary. It is no longer acceptable to come to church simply to worship and give thanks. We need to do something “life-changing.” Quiet reflection is self-indulgent. Don’t just sit there and concentrate your attention on God. You should be trolling the aisles, looking for divine encounters with strangers and engaging in strategic conversations. In this case, fame is not the goal but spiritual greatness.
All this pressure to do something great is tiresome. Whether the pressure I feel has been self-imposed or is an expectation placed upon me by someone else, it seems strangely out of harmony with the Apostle Paul’s directive to make a quiet life our ambition (1 Thess. 4:11-12). This command is fulfilled in the home, the workplace and the neighborhood. Its success is not measured in greatness but by responsible living. Do your job. Pay your bills. Be a good neighbor. A deadbeat who can walk on water might indeed be an intriguing spectacle. But he is still a deadbeat in the end.
I do not want to give the impression that there is no place for greatness in human experience. However, in the majority of cases, those who achieve such status were not pursuing it. If it is not an accident, it is at best a byproduct of something else. Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1,800 poems, but only a few were published while she was alive. Dickinson wrote, “Success is counted sweetest By those who ne’er succeed.” Dickinson also wrote, “Fame is a fickle food…Men eat of it and die.”
Others long for it and go hungry.