Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Reflections on a Controversy: Webb, Walker, and Mere-O

December 29th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Well, that's quite a way to come back from Christmas vacation.

As the "lead writer" here at Mere-O, I feel somewhat obliged to offer a few reflections on the controversy surrounding my colleague Andrew Walker's rather pointed analysis of Derek Webb's interview in the Huffington Post.  Addressing this is not a task I particularly enjoy, given that the controversy has overshadowed the excellent work that has gone on here at Mere-O this year.  And Andrew has been right at the heart of that.

And therein lies the problem.  I'm not opposed to satire, but I don't practice it in public because it is so difficult to pull off well.  And the failure to execute properly has the potential to do far more harm than other tools in the writer's toolbox.

And from my vantage point, that is precisely what has occurred:  where we could be having a fascinating discussion about the contents of Derek Webb's interview and the actual ideas he presented, the conversation quickly turned to the presentation of Andrew's critique, rather than his substance.  And that, if nothing else, is a missed opportunity for substantial dialog on important issues.

Yet it's important to point out that such pointed criticisms are not necessarily wrong.  G.K. Chesterton, for instance, didn't hold back in destroying arguments with a healthy amount of wit.  But he would even direct a few barbs at his opponents as well.  While that sort of rhetoric has been standard fare for centuries, it's not immediately obvious that we have become so enlightened as to render it unnecessary.   We should be wary if our criteria for public rhetoric no longer makes room for our Savior ("you brood of vipers!"), even while we should be simultaneously wary of justifying our own lack of charity toward others with our appeals to the one in whom there was no sin.  Andrew has acknowledged his own errors in the matter, and that is enough.  Abusus non tollit usum, and all that.

With that in mind, here's a few more general reflections about the episode.

First, we have to acknowledge that public figures like Derek Webb have an incentive to be critical, as do the bloggers and writers who respond to him.  Andrew's post was one of the most popular posts ever on Mere-O, in part because Webb sent the link spiraling throughout the Twitterverse (the retraction, no doubt, will be largely ignored).  The only reason that the interview garnered any attention was because of Webb's thinly veiled critiques of those who originally made him famous by buying his music.   The only real law of the internet is that controversy draws a crowd and pays everyone's bills.

Yet that incentive comes with a real cost, and as for me and Mere-O, we will take the path of downward blogging mobility rather than compromise our reputation as a place for substantive commentary and conversation on all things pertaining to Christianity, culture, and politics.  There is room at Mere-O for charitable polemics.  But it should facilitate the goal of persuasion, not detract from it.   The lure of traffic is strong, but my vision for the site is much broader and longer than the bursts that come with dipping into controversy.

On a related note, I want Mere-O to be a place where we find the good and praise it. One of my favorite comments ever here at Mere-O was nearly five years ago when a reader pointed out that I try to find something good in what I'm interacting with.  That's a discipline that is easy to forget because it's rarely, if ever, rewarded.  The internet is a place where praise feels redundant, where even complimentary posts frequently only give a link, a quote, and the mild "read the whole thing."  While I have gotten away from that discipline, it's something that I do make a conscious effort ot

Third, I want to underscore that while Andrew's presentation has raised legitimate questions about the role of satire and polemics in public Christian discourse, I think that he is right to raise genuine concerns about some of Webb's language.  Frank Turk's close reading of the interview is helpful in this regard.

Finally, 2010 has been Mere-O's best year ever in terms of content and I am grateful for those readers and commenters who have contributed to our learning and held us accountable to the standards which we have tried to set for ourselves.  It's been six years of growth, and I am thankful for the new readers we have gained and for those who have stayed with us.  We don't fit easily into any corner of the Christian blogging world, and that can sometimes make it seem a little lonely.  We appreciate and read all the feedback we get, even if we don't respond directly to it all.

With that in mind, we will continue to work hard in 2011 to provide and preserve the sort of careful and charitable analysis that has made Mere-O one of the best places online (in my unbiased opinion).  We hope you'll continue to join us contribute your voice to the discussion about the shape Christian discourse should take in the public square.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.