Sunday, October 05, 2003

BloggerCon 2003 VIII

Spirituality: AKM Adam

AKM Adam is associate professor of the New Testament at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Here is a rough transcript of the session:

I walked in a little late, when Adam was taking suggested topics of discussion from the audience. Recommended themes included the role of blogs in congregations, blogs as genre of spiritual writing, blogging as spiritual exercise, the spiritual community, the community-building aspects of sermons, the difference between oral and written traditions, and how blogs can help us learn about real-live people. After touching on Real Live Preacher, a semi-anonymous minister in Texas who blogs regularly, as an example, Adam began leading a group discussion.

There are two schools of thought about sermons. One holds that you prepare spiritually, reading, studying, meditating, and then you channel a sermon. No documentation of the actual sermon. Other people don't ever really prepare but still preach extemporaneously. Those are the people you don't want to listen to. Still, we hold ministers responsible for being the real Christians for us.

There are also people who can't read. I don't mean that they can't read but that they have trouble reading from a text. I have trouble reading Bible. They sound like the built-in text reader on your computer. There's a problem with reading in general. That's a more fundamental problem than preaching extemporaneously. It's a problem coping with words, thoughts, and expressions. There's a reason that preachers frequently go to seminary: It's to learn something about what they're doing. Seminary is bad for some preachers.

You can get feedback and input on your work by, say, posting a Weblog. If you put sermons on a Weblog, you're preparing for Google juice and interested people who actually want to see what's going on there. People come to my site and comment on my sermons whom I've never met before. They have no intrinsic motivation to find out more about me. They're doing a Google search for some word and "sermon," and they're stuck in the mire of conversation with me. If a real-live preacher puts the effort into starting those conversations, there's a lot that she can learn. There might be some things that you don't want to say to their face. Maybe she says "obviously" all the time.

Dan Bricklin: What you're saying is more about the Web than about blogs, unless you're following the development of a preacher. When I think about spirituality and blogs, I think about the intertwining of spirituality and other stuff that's going on in the blog. The blog lets you put the two together. In my blog, I will quote scripture, which is somewhat odd in a techy blog. Scripture is great to use as examples because there's so much commentary around scripture.

One of the fundamental things that I try to do is go to congregation groups and look at their Weblogs. Sisters and brothers, there are a lot of bad Web pages in the world, but a disproportionate number of them belong to churches. And they're more resistant to change. If you're not showing anything that someone might not like, you're probably not showing anything that people might like.

The more of the stuff of the congregation that shows up here, the more that anyone who comes to the Web page will recognize the voice of the congregation. Chris Locke says that large corporations and organizations don't have soul. I don't agree. I wouldn't say that corporations have soul, but collective entities have a lot going on.

Question: Is it your experience that the written form of a sermon is more useful before it's preached -- or after?

I have an inflated view of myself of a preacher. People say that when they read my sermons, they can hear me preach. The same is true with my blog. There's a lot of continuity. There's not so much a better or worse, but people like going back to it and remembering. People who weren't there like knowing what people were talking about. With student sermons, they tend to get better after a few whacks at them with comments. Unfortunately, by then they've already been preached. One thing you could do is put some notes up on Monday, ask for some feedback, and then incorporate that into your sermon Sunday.

Griff Wigley: Have you done that?

No. This is my sermon, sir. It comes from preparing it, going over it, maniacal composition and copy editing. I preach it to myself three or four times. My father worked in English composition and specialized in comedy. We would watch movies such as W.C. Fields, and analyze what was funny. W.C. Fields says that you'd go to a city, find the outlying areas that were funny, and incorporate them into what you say. In Pittsburgh, there's McKee's Rocks. Anything you say about that will be funny. I'm from that school, going through everything and seeing what works for me.

Griff Wigley: Would you post your reflections about your struggle going through that sermon?

I do. I did a sermon about El'dad and Me'dad in the camp. Every hour or two, I put up some comments about my struggle. I need two things in a sermon: the introduction and the conclusion. It takes a lot to really wrap a sermon to lodge it in someone's brain. The other thing is a hook. Just like a pop song, I need something that I know is the riff -- not something I'll repeat all the way through -- but something that I'll return to and lean on in critical moments. I couldn't find a hook for that sermon. But people left comments, and I eventually came up with the Dad Bros.: El'dad and Me'dad. I just did that one time. I can't imagine boring people with that process every time I preach.

Some churches aren't open to comments. This isn't business, this is God. I am not one to prescribe one thing, not for anyone, not for preaching, not for anything. That said, a lot of that hesitation and fear is antithetical to what a congregation should be doing. A Trappist monastery Web site without any text on it? That I could get behind. Paul says, "I am not afraid of the Gospel." Put it out there. Take the shots. Take your lumps. For congregations that are inclined to take that step, that's an important part of it.

Dan Bricklin: This is a problem with any community and the Internet. We've got a general mailing list. And we've got a list in which topics are discussed. That can get pretty hot and heavy. We split it because not everyone can put up with the nerve.

Not to put Ross on the spot, but in Blogware, to comment, you need to be registered. That makes me think that you can say, I don't want to see anything from Ross. It's a problem, but it's a problem worth dealing with.

Dan Bricklin: But it's a question of what you put out in the world. Does the preacher decide what's put out there? Do you post the comments that matter? Open deliberation is important. The Talmud sounds like a Weblog. That's a great model for this, as is the revolutionary period and pamphlets. Sermonds are much more closed in their deliberation.

They're not mutually exclusive, though. The Web can counteract and countervail the cultural tendency to short attention span by drawing you into interactive deliberation about things.

Griff Wigley: The reason I asked about your blogging about struggling with a sermon is that because as a man of the spirit, it's a good way to share your development as a spiritual person. As a dad, I've posted excerpts from my real journal to my blog for my three 20-something sons. You can't say too much about the people you're counseling, but you can blog about your daily experiences as a preacher. This isn't just God and me, this can happen to you, too.

This is a really important topic. There are a lot of congregational leaders whose notion of relating to an unacquainted public is that they have to seem pious and perfect and spiritually powerfully in every way. Or, on the other hand, to say, in effect, I'm not that kind of guy. I don't know what I'm doing. This is all so confusing. The perfect preacher might not be as wonderful as you want him to think. That's the PR notion. Real Live Preacher has a depth that's not available in any other sources. You don't have to be a clergy leader to do that. It's edifying for the world to see there are alternatives to the extremes.

Dan Bricklin: Seminary students can use their blogs as a resume. Congregations might choose to hire only clergy who blog.

Halley Suitt: Or don't.

Dan Bricklin: Exactly. That's different than an established preacher blogging -- or a 17-year-old writing about their date last night.

When I wrote the blurb for this session, people gave me a hard time about saying that bloggers have souls. There's a perceived question about whether I'm speaking to people to whom I'm accountable to. Am I saying that all bloggers need to subscribe to a metaphysics or they don't have a blog. That's not what I said. It's an environment in which people can correct me even if that's what I'm going to say in the end.

Purely hypothetically, not based on any congregation I know about, but something that I can only imagine, say you call an interim minister without knowing anything about them. If it just doesn't work out, wouldn't you like to replay that, look at the person's blog and be able to say the person is a tedious windbag or their far right politically. If you can fake something well enough for two years, you might be close enough, but it takes a lot of energy to fake that much.

Dave Weinberger: Is there an implied metaphysics in truth, if not soul? Let's look at communities. You're open to people of various faiths questioning you. There are all sorts of truth. Others aren't so open to that. Do communities of bloggers have a shared metaphysics about truth, if not faith?

Let's change the subject from faith to politics. You're either going to get a lot of right on's or people actually discussing the topics.

Dave Winer: I want to go back to the example where both of us got flamed simultaneously. Looking around the room, there's the notion that were friends on the Web. I'm not your friend. I'd like to be your friend. But there are some people who assume we're friends. You got push back because you had anything to do with me. Is it OK to make it a condition in a friendship that someone can't be friends with someone else? I say no. That's not OK.

There's not much of a me left if you take away my friends. I am largely constituted by the spiritual hyperlinks.

Dave Winer: I don't believe that. I see you right here.

I wouldn't have been here if two years ago, David hadn't started emailing me and Halley hadn't started emailing me. My presence here is dependent on those relationships.

Dave Winer: My uncle just died. Did he die because his friends stopped supporting him? No. His heart stopped beating. Existence is pretty simple.

I got the impression from your blog that when your uncle died, you were diminished.

Dave Winer: I wasn't in any way diminished. I was enhanced in real ways. His existence is what I'm talking about.

As a reader, for someone who Dave Winer was a three-minute voice on the phone and reading Scripting News, my sense was that it was like you were in a movie, hit in the chest with a shotgun blast. I read that as loss, as something important going out of your life. If you subtract the social hyperlinks, the spiritual hyperlinks, what is left is not AKMA but some kind of body lying there.

Dave Winer: Are your friends allowed to make friendship conditional?

This is a pointed question that gets really deep and uncomfortable. I owe people to whom I have long-standing relationships and respect, and there's some concern that I am endangering the AKMA-ity of AKMA by associating with you. There are folks where it changes the very notion of who they are when you learn something about them.

I want to signal that in that instance, I extended myself to say, look, I've read the controversies. Part of me is that I'm a pastor. I hear what's bothering you and you and you. I'm not here to adjudicate what's bothering you, but to listen, respect, and perhaps interpret what seems to be going on. Sometimes it's best just to listen.

I'm going to go to BloggerCon. Then I'm going to go home.

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