[Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with Tim Challies, Jared Wilson, and Justin Taylor, who all started blogging in 2003. To read the introduction and interview with Challies, click here. To read the interview with Justin Taylor click here.]]
In 2003, I wanted to be like Jared Wilson. Although he had only been blogging for a few months when I started, he had already established himself as a leader in what we often referred to back then (without irony) as Godblogging. Jared was winsome, thoughtful, and unwavering in his defense of orthodoxy. In 2013, I still want to be like Jared. After ten years of writing he has established himself as a leader in what we often refer to (without irony) as Gospel-centered blogging. In a medium that has become increasingly jaded, coarse, and theologically squishy, Jared remains compassionate, charitable, and consistent in his defense of the Gospel.
When he started writing, Jared was a novelist. Fortunately for us, the first book he ever wrote remained unpublished for nearly fifteen years (Otherworld was released just last month). The delay caused him to focus on non-fiction, which led to a series of great works, starting with Your Jesus is Too Safe. Over the next few years we’ll get even more from him with four non-fiction books and another novel on the way.
Over the past decades I’ve had some degree of success in aping Jared’s manner of writing, but I’ve never been able to match his wit or intelligence. Jared is truly a gifted communicator. Not only can he write about topics as varied as theology and pop culture (or even the culture of pop theology) he does so in a manner that is clear, engaging, and God-honoring. I’m proud to call this brother my friend.
What was your motivation for starting a blog?
I didn’t even know what a blog was when I started blogging. I was part of an email book discussion group with some friends scattered all over the place. We mostly read the Inklings stuff but a few other things. Then one of our guys said, “Why don’t we stop the clunky email chains and do this on a weblog?” I had no idea what that was, but we all kinda said, “Okay.” It was explained to me that we would put our thoughts on the books and other things up on a website and just have our discussions in the comments. Other people could comment too. That was intriguing. But I thought of it like a bulletin board type thing and still somewhat intimate/private even though others could read it. I wasn’t blogging in those days to attract a readership. And I really never have (or else I’d be more consistent with it).
That blog became The Thinklings. We came up with the tagline “The nexus of the intellectual universe” as a joke about our actual low-mindedness. But some people have taken that as a straight-faced claim. We were just having fun. And it was a lot of fun in the early days. The Thinklings are still going, but with a lot less verve these days.
How has blogging changed your life over the past decade?
I never tried to build a public platform through blogging, but I actually got one. In the early days, you’ll remember, the Christian blogosphere especially was kind of a small pool. All the big pastors and bestselling writers weren’t blogging yet. Just us nerds. So it became relatively easy to distinguish yourself if you could write well or say compelling/controversial things. As the thing grew, it became more tribal. I remember when there was a lot more interaction between Christians of all stripes because we had the community of “blogging” in common. But it was in that tighter community that I connected with bloggers like you and Tim and Justin, and of course Michael Spencer and Dan Edelen and a few others. Tim was gaming the system from the beginning with the strategic blog rolls and link exchanges and all that. Always three steps ahead of us. But I connected back then with people with connections, and one of them was my friend Glenn Lucke, a fellow Houstonian who interacted at Thinklings and blogged at Common Grounds. When Glenn started Docent Research Group, he kindly drafted me to do some research and manuscript editing, which connected me to some of the pastors with large public platforms, which helped me network well in advance of pursuing publishing my own stuff. If I hadn’t been suckered into a “weblog” back then, I don’t think I’d have gotten the open doors I got to get my articles first and later books before the right eyes.
What is one lesson you’ve learned from blogging about writing, communicating, etc.?
Well, the practice of blogging is great just for the discipline of writing, keeping the juices flowing, the muscles working. But you could do that with a journal or private notebook. But I think that’s one thing that’s helped me develop in the craft of writing, but one larger area it helps is in the almost immediate audience response. When you’re writing a book, you have an idea of who you’re writing to and for, but all along you’re basically guessing as to how they’ll receive it. When you have a publishing deal in place, you know you will have editors reviewing and responding, but it’s still not the same as the “market test” of the blogosphere for the ideas and even the way you express them. So having almost instantaneous feedback in comments, emails, and even Twitter replies helps me know where an audience is on a certain issue and how they respond to the way I express it, which of course helps me improve in areas like clarity, research, boldness, sensitivity, humility, etc.
Blogging can be good for writers in helping them develop an ear for their audience but also in helping them develop a thick skin for criticism.
How has blogging itself or the blogosphere changed in these ten years?
As I said, the blogosphere was a much smaller pool ten years ago, and even though we had our fair share of flame wars, it still felt more communal, more relational, more fraternal. It’s much more tribal today. I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. There’s pros and cons to tribalism. It’s also much bigger, of course, with everybody and their mom blogging now. The celebrity bloggers have sort of crowded out the thoughtful writers, and only occasionally are the celebrities the thoughtful writers. But I think the way there is much more product leads to much less thoughtfulness. So, maybe the experience was different for you, but I remember 8-10 years ago that the real good action took place in a comment thread. You might have some heated disagreements but comment threads were actual discussions with people really putting some good stuff out there. Now comment threads are where thoughtfulness goes to die. It’s become this veritable graffiti wall where drive-by malcontents can fling their poo like monkeys. There are exceptions of course but they are rare.
And I think we also shouldn’t underthink how technology itself has changed—more portable, more pervasive—and therefore how it’s played a large rule in making us as a people less relational, more socially awkward, and shorter tempered. I think Tim has put a lot of thought to that area and can say some helpful, insightful things about it.
The blogosphere has also changed in that ten years ago most us weren’t consciously trying to build a platform. We may have been trying to increase our readership but most of us weren’t thinking in terms of “being known” or getting famous or leveraging blogging into other things. I think fame culture has gotten worse ten years later and many people who blog do so to get on the rankings lists, build their brand, or whatever. The rise of YouTube and Facebook and Twitter have also contributed to the new blogging ethos, I think. And because we are generally less thoughtful today we don’t see through it as easily as we used to.