A Resignation Letter
July 22nd, 2015 | 9 min read
Let me get this out of the way, so no one else has to say it: “Farewell, Matthew Lee Anderson.” Effective immediately, I am stepping down as Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy and handing full control of the site over to Jake Meador. He will assume responsibility for all aspects of the site. If he makes me “Emeritus Writer,” well, I won’t turn him down. I am also indefinitely departing from Twitter, though I will be carrying on with Mere Fidelity. Whenever we get off our summer holiday, that is (which should be next week).
Eleven years ago, a friend and advisor told me that I should begin a ‘blog,’ a new medium that was democratizing discourse and opening up career paths for people who knew nothing about the traditional means of rising the ranks in publishing. I gathered a few close friends, took my inspiration from C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, and Mere Orthodoxy was born. It’s impossible for me to sum up everything this site has meant to my life since that day: we have never been famous or had a large audience. But our small size was one of our greatest strengths, especially in those early years. I was so young, and a barely adequate writer and thinker then, but somehow a small and extremely intelligent community formed and we argued and argued and argued together. Those years were crucial for my formation as a writer and as a person. And now that I am a decade older and still a barely adequate but much more verbose writer, I still don’t have the skills to say how much this ‘place’ means to me. Deciding to step down was the single most difficult decision I have made in a long time.
There is one central pressing practical reason for this decision: I have a doctoral dissertation to write, and it demands and deserves my full and undecided attention. As one person kindly reminded me, I’m no good to the world until that dissertation is done. (I’m not even sure that was hyperbole.) The academy is currently gripped by a credentialism that I sometimes think is more tied to the old vice of curiositas than the Christian pursuit of understanding. But to it I go all the same, embracing the discipline and attentiveness that it demands, with hopes and prayers that the formation I have given myself the past decade has not ruined me for its rhythms and life.
I am not giving up on writing for the vaunted ‘ordinary reader’ or ‘lay audience,’ though. I have come to understand that I have never really known how to write for such ‘ordinary readers’ in the first place, to which critics and fans alike I suspect would add their “Amen, yea verily, it is About Time.” And then they’d add that expressions like “yea, verily” are proof of the thesis under consideration. I mean, who says that? And where was I again?
Right. Signing off. This is a path too difficult for me.
The renewal of the ‘evangelical mind’ was well underway by the time I finished at the Torrey Honors Institute and began this little site: I had encountered there an evangelical community that was confident, historically aware, institutionally located, and unafraid to argue with each other about the questions that matter most. But it was a vital evangelical community precisely because it was so interested in the world beyond it, interests that I assimilated and learned. I became gripped by the possibility of articulating a ‘mere Christianity’ in public that had the energy, life, and joy that Lewis and Chesterton embodied. This little corner was intended to contribute to that effort, to the renewal not simply of evangelicalism, but of the traditional Christian witness in the elusive ‘public square’ of the emerging new media.
The scope of my writing has narrowed considerably since then, which is perhaps the most important non-practical reason for me to stop writing here. I was motivated by a strong sense of urgency when I began writing—the kind of urgency about the immediacy of action and decision that the conservative evangelical world fosters, and thrives upon. It is an urgency made for the internet, which depends upon closing the gap between action and response to almost nothing. But that means that those who are online tend to have their passions and interests pulled along by what is currently happening at any given moment, rather than allowing one’s judgments to be formed through a process of slow, patient deliberation. I said something about this in my piece on reading, which I wrote several years ago. But a few months back I reread this from Oliver O’Donovan, which confirmed my intuition that I needed to cease writing here for a season:
There is a folly of opinion, which finds satisfaction, as the proverb says, not in understanding but in expressing one’s mind (Prov. 18:2). Unlike the inconsiderate folly, this has exposed itself to the dialectic of social interrogation. But driven by a dread of having nothing to contribute to the social exchange, it allows society’s exchanges to direct it, rather than the realities that they should be communicating. ‘Where we are now’ becomes the sole measure of truth—always ‘we,’ never ‘I,’ for the voice is that of the immanent collective, not of a formed judgment.
Here is the ‘simple’ of the Proverbs, who ‘believes everything’ (14:15), and here is the ‘scoffer,’ who ‘does not like to be reproved’ (15:12), the suggestible and the counter-suggestible, one echoing the current views and the other reacting against them, both wholly creatures of them, forming no judgment and offering no dialogical resistance. Opinion gains no coherence, and so has no prospect of growth. It is neither accumulative nor critical but reactive, a series of discontinued beginnings.
A self too weak to interrogate or argue with the successive new reports of reality that reach it makes no contribution to communications by reporting its own experience or questioning others’ reports. The mind is lively enough—images of the world and its doings and constantly formed and re-formed—but it is no more than a screen onto which public reflections are projected….The passions aroused by the news have a purely representative character, like those aroused by tragedy on the stage. Sharpening our arrows of opinion and firing them off at actors they will never reach, pronouncing judgments that involve us in no actual responsibility, we go through the motions of playing a part in the great communicative drama and so work off surplus active impulses before turning to the tasks that actually lie before us. We may, perhaps, feel more resolute about those tasks as a result of the exercise, but this is not the result of anything we have learned.
I cannot think of a more profound or accurate diagnosis not simply of the tenor of our age, but of the character of the internet and its various communities. I have tried, as much as possible, to resist the fragmentation and inevitable narrowing that interacting online leads to. And even before I had reread O’Donovan’s quote, I had become more skeptical of the de-institutionalized effect of writing at a distance.
But the narrowing has happened all the same, and there is no one’s fault but my own. In recent years, I have written less frequently than ever here, and it has been primarily controversies and events that have drawn me out of the woodwork. I own the weakness, even if I do have two substantive books to my name that provide a relatively robust outline of how I see the world. I can think of only one mitigating factor that O’Donovan does not address: such a narrowing is perhaps much more likely when no one is being paid for their time or opinions. There is, as I said before, a love of writing and of words that ought move us to write (though not necessarily publish) regardless of who is reading. But when economic pressures turn such writing into a luxury, it is far easier to only weigh in when the passions are sufficiently aroused to do so. The difficulty is especially poignant within evangelicalism, where ‘passion’ is our stock and trade and one of the few motivators we have.
It is more difficult to step away now, though, because the opportunity to have a robust and cheerful conservative Christian outlook be heard is so much greater now than it was when I started out. The recent gay marriage decision provides Christians our best opportunity in the past 50 years to begin articulating the unique power and beauty of the orthodox view of marriage, and unwind the corrosions of it that have built up the past fifty years (and more). And because of the disputes about religious liberty, Christians are going to have to make the case over and over again for the fundamental importance of their practices and religion. Disillusionment, exhaustion, and alienation are not simply a phenomenon among young evangelicals, though they certainly are present there as well. There is a word of hope that matters now more than it ever has, a word which is one for all people, which those who bear the mantle of the “Gospel” can make more clear than ever through our communication and our lives.
But none of that can happen if we ourselves do not have a culture, and if we do not resist the allure of allowing the banalities required by the culture war to overwhelm the goodness of the civilization we are seeking to preserve. Institutionally, the path to prominence in evangelicalism has always depended upon maintaining relevance. It may be easy for conservative, traditional evangelicals to mock the magazine that bears the name and its corresponding interest in contemporary music and media, but we have our own forms of relevance-chasing, which follow the news and controversy cycles. For now, I am so embedded in this pattern that it is clear the only means I can resist it is by withdrawing from it. The path to building a new culture of words, a new cycle of communication, about even our society’s most controversial questions may depend upon more radical action than five or ten thousand word missives, though I still protest that those are still a good start. It may depend upon seasons of absence and silence, seasons which are not withdrawals but opportunities to listen and work for words that have more substance, more depth, more meaning than digital publications will allow. (Whether this form comes in personal correspondence or unpublished essays does not matter so much to me.)
All that is simply a hypothesis. I will find out its truth in the testing of it.
I do know, at the least, that any future words from me should only come under the authority of an editor who can tell me ‘no.’ It is a deep and perhaps irresolvable tension in my life that I sought to contribute to the renewal of the evangelical mind without participating in either of the central institutions which have dominated its intellectual life: the pulpit and the university. The status that partaking in such institutions grants within the evangelical world has one major negative: it takes our focus off the direct quality of the arguments and the work being presented. My educational training was characterized by what I might describe as a respectful deference to authority that was manifested in loving cross-examination: anyone was free to be questioned on what they said, and the vindication of the authority was in the reasons they gave for their position.
But for that, the deference to pastors and professors is the right one to have, for the credentialing process in those communities is helpful for sifting out at least some who should not be teachers. The immediacy and self-authority intrinsic in blogging exacerbates the unaccountability of writers, and itself contributes to the very anti-intellectualism of the evangelical world that I attempted to resist through the medium. It is not surprising that the emotionally emphatic character of evangelical writing, with its first-person narrative style and its bold font, has emerged among those who write online. We were the generation that wrote on Xanga, after all. But worrying about whether the negative effects of the form have overtaken any potential positive goods is not something I can do properly while participating in the medium. Sometimes it is not those who have experienced a thing that understand it best, but those who have not.
Still, there is lots of work left to be done. And for Mere-O’s part, Jake is the man to do it. It is my hope that he will re-broaden the vision of the site, and be willing to test your patience by posting on issues that seem obscure, uninteresting, and ostensibly irrelevant—in order to demonstrate that it is often in the obscure, forgotten corners of our world that transformation begins and our hope is found. I commend him to your careful attention, as I have since I first started publishing him, as well as the rest of the writers here.
For my part, I leave with nothing but gratitude for you, the longtime readers of this site and our new audiences. I have not words to say how I feel about the kindness you have shown me throughout the years. That so many of you have disagreed with me so vociferously is among my great joys: it is in spirited opposition that true friendship sometimes consists in, and if I haven’t always been an exemplar of charity, I have always been humbled to be a recipient of it. I leave a debtor, owing more than I could possibly repay.
And now I practice what I have always struggled to learn: knowing when to stop.
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