I have been following a fascinating debate about authority and accountability for popular female bloggers. Much of it is response to the evangelical Christianity Today (CT) Women article “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?“.
The articles states:
“Hits on a viral post lead to book deals, which lead to taking the conference stage. Winsome, relatable writing, good storytelling, and compelling life experiences are often as crucial to audience size—and therefore to authority—as theological teaching, presuppositions, or argument… garnering huge followings based on a cult of personality and holding extensive power and influence, yet often lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.”
It goes on to say that “In the vacuum created by a lack of women’s voices in the church, Christian female bloggers became national leaders who largely operate outside of any denominational or institutional structure.” Instead of authority deriving from institutional (academic or ecclesial) powers, theirs come from the marketplace.
This is vibrant and highly contested discussion (a visible on Twitter) which I am following with great interest. There are 4 levels of investment for me – and none of them seem to connect with one another.
I am an academic, a minister, a blogger and I am from an evangelical background. These four have almost no overlap …
I have had the pleasure of learning at a school with amazing professors like Kathleen J. Greider, Monica A. Coleman, Grace Yia-Hei Kao , Najeeba Syeed and my PhD Advisor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook (who’s book on inter-religious learning is a must read).
As a professor I require my students to read Elizabeth Johnson, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Elaine Graham, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Letty Russell, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, bell hooks, Crystal Downing, and MaryKate Morse.
In my church life – both in Los Angeles and now in Portland – with all of my Dist. Superintendents as well as both Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, the United Methodist has women at every level of leadership.
I am also a blogger – which is quite independent of either my academic or ecclesiastic responsibilities. So I get the concern over accountability with that enterprise.
In contrast to all of the above: I was raised, ordained, and continue to teach adjunct in a evangelical denomination where CT carries a lot of weight and often initiates conversations.
So while I 100% understand and support those who are upset at the CT article, tone, conclusion, and narrowness of scope … I have to admit that it is a very real problem and concern in those evangelical circles in which CT exists. I know 50 pastors and people in church leadership off the top of my heard who say the sort of things that the article says.
My experience in the evangelical church stands in stark contrast to my experience in the academy and in the mainline church. They actually could not be more different in this aspect. It is nearly impossible to overstate. When you have male-only leadership, you are bound to have secondary and auxiliary voices become authoritative and this will be viewed either as a challenge or undermining to the establishment.
It reminded me of a conversation that I had with Phyllis Tickle at an event 3 years ago about authority and the age of the spirit. As someone who formerly pastored in an charismatic/evangelical church and now is in a Methodist setting, I had this take on the decentered and radically democratized notion of ‘authority’ heading forward:
Element 1: in the past we talked about seats at the table. Where does authority reside? Past answers have included leaders, scripture, the collective, bylaws, reason, etc. Traditionally we have talked about authority in a static sense – there in a danger of ‘misplaced concreteness’ when we talk about authority a deriving from one element.
Element 2: in the Methodist tradition we have the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, experience and reason. This constellation of sources is vital because if both provides different anchor points for our ‘web of meaning’ and it is sequenced with scripture leading – but as prima scriptura and not sola scripture.
Elements 3: I read a fascinating article about developments in neuroscience. Researches have long looked for which part of the brain memories reside in. It turns out that memories are not located in any one place but in the connection made between different parts of the brain.
Having said all of that:
Proposal: Authority, like memory, is not located in any one place. It is uniquely comprised of the connection between component parts. Depending on the collected aspects, the authority that emerges will be unique to that organization, congregation, and movement. It will not look the same for a UMC pastor in Portland and a blogger in Austin, TX or an independent Baptist church planter in Carolina.
Part of our frustration may be that we are looking for one answer instead of (to paraphrase Bonnie Miller-McLemore) a web of meaning/authority.
Authority doesn’t exist (per se) in that same sense that we have traditionally conceptualized it … OR perhaps I should say it doesn’t reside somewhere (a given place) – but in the connection and configuration of collected elements and sources.