I’ve been thinking lately about some of the challenges of blogging. (Millennial Star recently had a really interesting discussion about Bloggernacle dynamics here, and I’ve also been thinking about some of the issues regarding audience that Eve raised several years ago in this post. Additionally, T&S recently had a conversation about the boundaries of the “Bloggernacle”, and its relationship to LDS blogs more generally.) And one particular question I’ve been contemplating goes back to a much-debated question: what are the issues at stake when we publicly discuss more difficult aspects of the church? (As long as I’m linking, I’m pretty sure that Kaimi had a post several years ago, which I can’t seem to find, on the question of whether we should ever say anything negative about the church when non-members might be listening.)
Over the years, I’ve seen more than one commenter explain their comments in terms of the need for balance—strikingly, not as a virtue in and of itself, but specifically because non-Mormons might be reading. (I’m not sure “balance” is the best term here, because I haven’t observed that blogs which emphasize the more traditional kind of faith-promoting material are particularly concerned about balancing out their own views, either.) But in any case, I do have some sympathy for this view. I can appreciate the desire to represent the church fairly. I get annoyed when people make negative generalizations about all Mormons (we’re a bunch of sheeple who don’t have the ability to think critically, etc.)
I can also respect that different blogs are aimed at different audiences. Where I find myself disagreeing, however, is with any assertion that it’s the responsibility of all blogs which classify themselves in the believing category to stay focused on the positive, because of the concern that non-members might get a bad impression of the church. I find this problematic for several reasons:
1) I think this approach potentially undermines our ability to have genuine conversations with each other. If one (or more) participants in a discussion are always talking with an eye toward missionary work and/or public relations, they can’t really be said to be engaging the others who are actually participating in the conversation. And it’s frustrating to talk to people who are aren’t actually talking to you, but to an imagined non-member audience who might happen to be watching.
2) I think this approach can actually detract from the positive potential of the Bloggernacle. If hordes of non-Mormons are indeed hanging around, I think there’s value in giving them a chance to see real Mormons talking about their various questions and perspectives on things. I would be quickly bored if I encountered another religious blogging community whose members made sure all their posts and comments were sufficiently faith-promoting. I did my master’s in theology at a Catholic school, and I loved getting to hear Catholics discussing and debating and sometimes critiquing their tradition. I enjoyed the opportunity to eavesdrop on people who were working to make sense of their faith, rather than being careful with what they said because I was there. It didn’t at all make me think less of Catholicism; in fact, it made me appreciate its richness and complexity.
3) I see the Bloggernacle as actually challenging some common stereotypes of Mormons. For example, people sometimes get the impression that we’re a homogeneous cult that all thinks the same and marches in lockstep. Fifteen minutes on the bloggernacle, seeing people arguing at length about topics from caffeinated beverages to polygamy, is likely to quickly disabuse them of this notion. Even the feminist blogs, which are sometimes dismissed as simply apostate, implicitly send the message that there are a wider variety of Mormon women than one might initially assume. When I’ve talked to non-members about the existence of Mormon feminism, they’ve generally been fascinated, and excited to hear about it.
4) When people have concerns about the church, I think that attempting to come up with clear answers isn’t always that effective. In my experience, at least, seeing that there people who have difficult questions who still stick around is much more helpful. It actually testifies to the power of the church. My close non-LDS friends know a whole lot about what I think is problematic about my religion (just as I know a lot about their relationship to their churches). And several have told me that the fact that I stay despite all that is something that actually gives them a positive view of Mormonism.
You might point out that the Bloggernacle isn’t exactly representative of the population of the church, and I would certainly agree. But I’d note that potential converts aren’t homogeneous any more than are Mormons. Some of them may be drawn to the lds.org vision of the church. But others may be drawn to the kinds of discussions found elsewhere.
5) I have concerns about saving discussions of difficult issues for private settings in which only insiders are participating. One problem is that of people who feel that they were deceived when they only find out some of the skeletons in the closet after they join the church. I also don’t think we should pressure people to frame all their experiences into a faith-promoting narrative; I’d hope we have room as a church to allow for a variety of experiences, including difficult ones. I actually think that this can make testimonies more credible, not less.
6) I suspect that people are most likely to get a negative impression of the church not from the content discussed, but from the way we treat each other. When we’re busy calling each other to repentance and generally acting obnoxious, I imagine that doesn’t speak very well to our character as a people. (I say “we”, because I’m not claiming to have a stellar record on this one.)
I’m not saying, just to clarify, that blogs whose primary focus is on the positive aspects of the church, are necessarily being disingenuous—my impression is that they’re usually quite sincere. I see different blogs as aimed at different audiences, and I respect that. What I’m critiquing here is the notion that discussing negatives is somehow a betrayal, or makes a blog less faithful.
In my own blogging, I think the best I can do is talk honestly about my experience of the church, which is complex and messy and involves both faith and doubt. And when it comes to ZD, I won’t presume to speak for my co-bloggers, but I hope to be part of creating a space where people who might feel marginalized and un-heard at church can have a voice. Of course, we aren’t limited to feminist or other controversial topics, and some of what we do is just downright silliness. (What can I say? That’s the family culture in which I grew up.) But at its best, I really do believe that Bloggernacle-style blogging, with all its questioning and craziness, actually has much of value to offer.