In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes writing as making several thousand close judgment calls.[i] William Zinsser concurs in his famous book On Writing Well: “Professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.”[ii]
Dillard and Zinsser have in mind the thousand literary micro-decisions involved in perfecting a piece of prose, including the choices of diction, syntax, pace, tone, concision, punctuation, and whether adding a pinch of verbal cayenne pepper would spice up the sentence or overwhelm it.
All of these choices require discernment on the part of the practitioner, like a visit to an eye doctor who repeatedly interrogates whether this one looks better or this one does. “Again,” the eye doctor asks, “this one or this one? Okay, now, this or this? This or this?”
Writing comes down to making and remaking slight improvements to achieve better clarity and aesthetic; writing is the pursuit of marginal gains, insignificant by themselves but significant in the aggregate. Do I break this paragraph here or there? Do I tell a story to begin a chapter or favor a provocative propositional statement? Should I insert dialogue, and if so, do I use direct or indirect? And if an editor has suggested I write some sentence or other in the active voice rather than letting the sentence be written in the passive, which shall I choose? Could the sentence in question be a place where the passive voice is actually better?
All of a sudden you realize that the passing line from Dillard about writing involving several thousand close judgment calls might not be hyperbole. Writers must love these choices and labor to make them better. “Rewriting,” says Zinsser, “is the essence of writing.”[iii]
So, if Dillard and Zinsser can exhort a general audience to care about their lines of words so much, how much more shall we, those redeemed by the Word made flesh, care about the beauty of our prose? Christians called by God to write must strive to write well.
But beautiful language, by itself, does not encompass all that it means to write well as a Christian. Christian writers must labor not only to write what is true but also to write in a manner that adorns the truth. For example, I love my wife, but if I shout, “I love you”—a true statement—with my nose tip touching her nose in the dark at 5:00 a.m., she won’t feel loved. Can you blame her? She’ll feel loved when, after she wakes up and has her Diet Coke, I hold both her hands in mine, look her in the eyes, and surprise her with news that I got a babysitter and movie tickets.
These two aspects of Christian writing—writing truth and writing that adorns the truth—are often missing in writing on the internet. In a post about the aim of Christian writing, Cody Cunningham notes that “too many Christian blogs—often self-identified as ‘truth-tellers’—are merely cheap imitations of American culture’s response du jour: outrage and snark.”[iv] There are consequences of this cultural discipleship among Christian writers, not the least of which is God’s name being blasphemed among the Gentiles on account of those who claim to be writing on God’s behalf.
The pervasiveness of sinful speech on the internet is so bad, it can cause some Christians to wonder if it would be better if we abandoned it altogether because the medium is too tainted. Brett McCracken has even called the internet a “cesspool of spiritual bacteria,” understanding the temptation to flee to the “analog hills.”[v] But a better approach, he argues, would be to redeem rather than abandon. McCracken writes, “like the leper colonies, Ebola-stricken nations, or plague-infested medieval cities where Christians risked their own health to bring healing to others, the internet desperately needs people of light to stay rather than to leave.”[vi] But if we do stay—and we do want you to stay if you’re already blogging and to get in the game if you’re on the sidelines—then we must possess discernment.
Paul writes in Ephesians that we must take “no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Eph 5:11–12). Do you see the tension in these verses? On the one hand, expose. On the other hand, even speaking about certain sins is shameful. Resolving this tension requires discernment. Without the cultivation of discernment, we’ll be sucked into the cesspool without even realizing it. This is true for any Christian writer, but especially those so-called discernment bloggers who major in exposing sin, sinners, and theological error.
Is it possible you might need to courageously expose sin or theological error at some point as a blogger? Yes. Is it likely a God-glorifying blog is marked by a critical tone? No.
Too many self-proclaimed discernment bloggers do not have the spiritual gift of discernment, nor meaningful membership in a local church for that matter, which should keep a blogger grounded and accountable. To be clear, bloggers are not obliged to meet the requirements for eldership listed in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and 1 Peter 5:1–4. But shouldn’t we aspire to do so? Shouldn’t we aspire to be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, . . . not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome”? Shouldn’t we strive not to be “domineering over those in [our] charge” but rather the kinds of examples that the Chief Shepherd will reward when he appears and bestows “the unfading crown of glory”? We should. In the Bible, godly prophets loved the people they chastised. And they still do today.
Furthermore, such a relationship with the local church and submission to her leaders will help set a Christian blogger’s sights on building up God’s people. This mission is set in stark relief to getting views by tearing down others.
A few months ago a friend at church sent me a text message about an article he read. The title of the post was “Lesbian Feminist Receives The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 Book Award for Evangelism and Apologetics.” The author, showing no discernment, titled his article this way even though the female author of the book is in a committed, heterosexual marriage, which I’m quite sure is not the definition of a lesbian. At the time I clicked the bait, the article had been shared on Facebook three thousand more times than any article I have ever written. The whole piece was smeared with unsubstantiated slander. This makes the article (and the particular website, for that matter) an extreme example. But it’s often in the extreme that we see the principle: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov 18:2).
In a day when sick burns get more clicks than a gentle, loving rebuke, why should we bother being measured in our approach? A brief perusal of YouTube demonstrates just how many sell their wares with the promise of a burn. So why should we worry about getting the tone and the content right when we know fewer people will read an article if we write with discernment? We bother because God is God, and on the day of judgment we will give an account for every careless word we have ever blogged (Matt 12:36). In the section of his epistle on our inability to tame our tongue, James writes that not many should become teachers, for we will be judged more strictly (3:1). In the same way, not many of us should become bloggers, let alone discernment bloggers.
But some of us should take up this role, just as some of us are called by God to be teachers. For those who are, you must labor to cultivate the gift you claim to have. Pursue discernment for the sake of God’s honor, the edification of others, and your own eternal joy—even if you get fewer clicks.
Editor’s Note: This post has been excerpted from Benjamin Vrbicek and John Beeson’s new book, Blogging for God’s Glory in a Clickbait World.
[i] Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013), 11.
[ii] William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 4.
[iv] Cody Cunningham, “The Aim of Christian Writing,” CodyCunningham.com, July 24, 2020, https://codyacunningham.com/2019/07/24/what-is-the-aim-of-christian-writing/.
[v] Brett McCracken, “The Digital Revolution Reformation,” The Gospel Coalition, November 19, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/digital-revolution-reformation/.