I Have No Opinion
27 Jul, 2012 - Rebecca Tirrell Talbot
How much time does it take to write articles that engage mainstream contemporary culture in order to both praise and refine that culture?
I’m typing into a box right now, WordPress widgets all around. On my right is a big blue “Submit for Review” button that blinks sleepily each time the post auto-saves. How easy it can be to click that button and send these thoughts on their way.
But how long should it take? Can engaging culture ever be rushed, and what are the consequences? Is it ever okay to refrain from voicing opinions about controversial topics, or is there a mandate that demands that culture-making, culture-engaging people engage all culture all the time?
The writing I’m most proud of flows from convictions, and the true convictions I hold have cost something. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I would refer to “my convictions” flippantly, and usually in the negative. I had “convictions,” and I had them against things. At least, I thought I did. What I generally meant was that I had a gut feeling, or had looked up a word in the slim concordance in the back of my Bible, or that my parents’ actions and beliefs, which actually took them time and pain and fiery trials to solidify, would do for me in a pinch. The lesson of late college and early adulthood was that “convictions” won so cheaply won’t be there when you need them most.
True convictions are worn into my being through habits of mind, heart, and body. Actions I’ve taken, both noble and regrettable, engrave them there. Conversations I’ve had with people who think differently challenge me indirectly or head-on to refine these beliefs. The words I let live in my brain can reinforce beliefs and, if well-chosen, separate truth from lies. The lesson of my later twenties has been that a true conviction has the power to startle me, as if I stepped on the ground expecting moss only to find sharp rock underneath.
I doubt I’m alone in the slow way my convictions accrue. So, what does this mean for those who are committed to engaging and creating culture?
I’ve been avoiding this fact for several paragraphs, but I’ll say it now. It was the recent Jared C. Wilson internet brouhaha (his post has since been taken down) that inspired these thoughts. Wilson clearly wanted to engage mainstream culture, or engage his Christian readers in thoughtful response to mainstream culture, by commenting on the bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey on his blog. To comment on why the novel’s depictions of sadomasochistic sex have been accepted enough to make the novel a best-seller, Jared Wilson brought Christian author Douglas Wilson’s controversial words into the discussion. And at that point, the focus permanently shifted from engaging the culture to furiously, explosively–and quite justifiably– debating about Doug and Jared Wilson’s views on authority, submission, misogyny, marital sex, and gender roles.
As an attempt at engaging culture, Wilson’s post didn’t work. That part of his intent got lost in the explosion. Because not all attempts at engaging culture work, it makes me wonder if sometimes writers rush to publish, to engage, to be timely. Reflecting on a bestseller list should take a lot of time, a lot of knowledge, a lot of familiarity with books, reviews, and discussions that have come before, and a careful consideration of the source material that is best suited to dialoguing with the culture. I know there is at least one “timely” article I wrote without knowing enough about an author’s oeuvre; I hope to write a follow-up article soon.
A culture-making, culture-engaging community can and should be one in which writers and artists take the time necessary to reflect, carefully and in the context of a diverse community, for years if necessary, and then speak. We should surround ourselves with people whose differing convictions and opinions encourage a creative kind of conflict. We can create a community in which the people who mentor these artists can ask the crucial questions to draw out reflection and test depth of knowledge.
To do that, we need to cultivate a quiet spirit. William Pannapacker of Hope College praised the strength of introverts in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. There, he partially paraphrased Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writing that excluding the reserved and cautious introvert has “led to”–among other things–”a culture of shallow thinking.”
We can draw on the strengths introverts’ reserve and caution bring. As artists, writers, and talkers, we can create a community that thinks deeply and carefully about culture, refusing to rush to comment on all culture all the time and refusing to spawn a sub-culture of shallow or hasty thinking.
To further avoid shallow and hasty thinking, perhaps we should specialize even more. I love the advice Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff gives to “those who would be Christian scholars” and consider it applicable to many thoughtful writers. Wolterstorff advocates patience in scholarship, saying that for years or maybe even decades a Christian scholar might “feel in his bones that some part of his discipline rubs against the grain of his Christian conviction” but not be able to pinpoint the conflict. And then after that, it might be years or decades before he can offer any alternative.
If it might take years to have that much of a handle on a subject area, let’s get started. Let’s find ways to reflect on what we do know, and encourage others to reflect, to taste ideas, to test convictions, and to be okay with maybe having no opinion at all for a while.