On Blog Warfare: Snapshots at History’s Turn

Back in 2007-2008, the theoblogosphere was just starting to blow up. All of this was rather new, but already household names were being established: Myers, Congdon, Doerge. Hushed conversations were the order of the day, whispered inquiries on whether or not one had seen the latest post, and urgent inter-library loan requests were constant. It was far from clear if these nascent sites of theological discourse would be permitted, allowed, and sanctioned by the gatekeepers of power and authority. Would this last or was it merely a passing fad, a flash in the pan?

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I well remember typing “Karl Barth” into Google for the first time, and the way that a couple sentences written by some Aussie took my breath away.[1] Who would have thought that something outside the bounds of peer-reviewed and professionally edited volumes could actually say something of worth? Next, I came across a series of posts about some guy named Von Balthasar. Was it possible that a PhD-less guy writing from Portland could stir our hearts and minds? Then, there was someone writing a bunch of posts on evangelicalism and universalism. Was such a thing possible? Surely not.

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We were innocents all, unaware of the powerful forces we were tinkering with, captivated by the seductive promises at which this new medium hinted.

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I still remember the first widespread disagreement that threatened to tear this still-emerging community apart. A popular blogger had released a gripping take on David Bentley Hart’s then newish book The Beauty of the Infinite. Surprisingly, the simple assertion that this was an important book and that people needed to read it proved to be a stick of dynamite, exploding burgeoning alliances, splitting factions in half, and inciting vituperative pieces calling this man’s intellectual, spiritual, and moral bonafides into question. Those in support of Hart’s (and the fearless blogger’s) worth struck back in full force. Theological bloodshed was widespread, the sense of loss was overwhelming, mourning covered the land. What had once looked so promising was now rent asunder and tragically undone. Would we ever be the same again? Was our innocence lost forever? Was hope no more?

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To deal with this trauma, I did what all particularly entitled people do: I decided to move overseas. Disembarking in St. Petersburg, Russia, I spent the next year attempting to put a salve on the wound through a consistent combination of borscht and beer. It didn’t really help. Not really.

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Eventually, however, the homeland beckoned and I returned to the States. Having touched-down, I rushed from the airport to the bookstore, and set about actually reading The Beauty of the Infinite (because that’s what you do before going to seminary, right?). When I finished the book, I covertly admitted to myself and a few trusted confidants that I understood basically none of it. Yes, it was thrilling. Yes, the intellectual gymnastics, the rhetorical acrobatics, the severe takedowns were blood-stirring. Yes, this was exciting stuff, and, yes, I wanted to read more, but I didn’t get what he was on about, beyond a general commendation of Nietzsche and an ontology of peace (whatever that was).

But, I thought: Count. Me. In.

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After this initial excitement, 2009 was probably the last time Hart’s work really interested me. This was the point when he ventured into a sustained engagement with the New Atheists. While I was intrigued by beauty and peace and critiques of capitalism, I’d had enough of apologetics growing, so waved goodbye to my love-affair with this man and his work.

Sometimes, the spark’s just gotta die.

*          *          *

I thought I had done and settled the matter. I thought I’d finally moved on. I thought I was finished with Hart.

Until, that is, I was scavenging for books in my father’s library.[2]

Nestled between a particularly large volume on Lincoln’s cabinet (the political one, not his chest for antiques...) and a slenderer one on cat physics (i.e. how the laws of nature act on cats in catapults, not how cat scientists conduct their research…), I found The Dream-Child’s Progress, a collection of David Hart’s essays.[3]

I distractedly paged through the book, expecting to quickly put it down, but a particular phrase caught my eye. Having caught my eye, I found myself compelled to read the rest of the essay.

What I found was disturbing indeed.

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[1] Enjoy it while it lasts: barring the unexpected, this is probably one of the only times you’ll see that name here.

[2] This is a favored pastime of mine, and a particular season of random volume-sniping inevitably ends with my dad contacting me with the request that I give back the dozens of volumes of his that I’ve poached and failed to return.

[3] David Bentley Hart, The Dream Child’s Progress And Other Essays, (Kettering: Angelico, 2017).

Background banner is On the Wire by Harvey Dunn. (Copyright National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.)