28 June 2024

Simoniac blogs.

If you remember what simony means—and if you don’t, it means people who are trying to make money from the sort of religious stuff which ought to be free—then you can kinda tell what today’s rant is gonna be about. But first, backstory.

I’ve been blogging for more than 20 years now. Back in 2002 I created an Angelfire website for myself, just ’cause I could. And I added a few extra pages to the site, in which I opined about this subject or that. It had been a few years since I last had a newspaper column, so I had a bunch of rants in my system to turn loose. I migrated it to GeoCities. Later, when I went to grad school and found a lot of my classmates had Xanga blogs, I started one too… then ported all that to Blogger, and I’ve been on that platform ever since. They host The Christ Almighty Blog, a.k.a. TXAB.

True, TXAB has only been around since 2015. But my first Blogger blog was a personal blog I started in 2004. Then I created a second blog for my bible studies, Towards a Fuller Understanding of God; then a third for my old comic strips, then a fourth for articles Smith Wigglesworth had published, then a fifth for fiction. Since I wanted to talk about more than just bible studies, I created a Christianity blog, More Christ, in 2010; but after a few years I ditched all the other blogs and consolidated everything into one blog, this one.

I had to look up all those dates ’cause I don’t keep track of anniversaries. For some people, celebrating how old their thing is, seems to take precedence over whether it’s still relevant, or any good. But I digress.

When I started blogging, of course I also started reading other people’s blogs. There weren’t a lot of them in 2002. Xanga got me reading all my friends’ blogs… most of whom had nothing to say, and now they have Facebook and can say even less. Xanga also got me reading other blogs in my “community”—other people who shared my views about Christ and politics, so I read what they had to say too.

But when I left Xanga for Blogger, of course I found other bloggers. Good ones.

So much bloggery.

I already read a lot, so it was kinda easy for me to make the switch from reading several books a week, to dozens of blogs a week. There’s a lot of content out there. Lots of wheat; lots of chaff. But there are so many bloggers out there, y’still end up with barrels of wheat.

First there are the writers. It makes total sense that a writer would have a blog; they have opinions, and they write for a living! Thing is, for a lot of these writers, the reason they started a blog was because their publisher encouraged them to create one for publicity reasons. They have a lot to say, but they’d much rather put it in their books, and sell those books and get paid, than stick it on the internet for free and get paid nothing. So a lot of their blogs don’t have much on ’em. There’s one writer I follow who only posts an article a month, just to keep his website alive. I have more to say about such people later.

Then there are the magazine blogs. For a while there, magazines were encouraging their writers to blog; again, for the publicity. These writers were on deadline, and had to come up with an article a week, and some of them clearly struggled mightily to come up with content. (Me, I usually have 10 articles’ worth of stuff in me on any given day. Content’s never the problem; free time is.) Too many magazine bloggers burned out after six months: They got everything out of their system, and now they were just filling space, or repeating themselves. Readership declined accordingly. Magazines still try out a new blogger now and then, but I give ’em six months before they’re done. Sometimes they last longer, and I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s rare though.

There are the blogs where the articles themselves are short and thought-provoking… because all the fun came from the comments. The blogger pretty much spends all their time moderating those comments, and there are some really great commenters! The depth of their comments often get me reading their blogs too. Although sometimes I discover their personal blogs are way different than their comments; probably because of the moderation. I’m thinking mostly about this one dude who guest-posted on a blog, and did a great job, so I visited his blog, and it turns out he’s a big, huge Nazi. No, I don’t mean offputting right-wing authoritarianism; I mean Hitler quotes and everything. Yikes. Guess the blog’s moderator hadn’t found out about the Nazi stuff yet, and the guest post soon disappeared.

Anyway I had the darnedest time keeping up with all these blogs, but then I discovered feedreaders. They’re awesome. Most blogs and regularly-updated websites have a site feed, which tells you everything that’s been recently added, and is updated every time there’s something new. (Yes, TXAB also has one.) Plug all your favorite sites’ feeds into your feedreader, and every time the blogger posts a new piece, your feedreader alerts you. So now you don’t have to visit every favorite site and see what’s new, if anything: Just check your feedreader.

My Macintosh had a built-in feedreader; it doesn’t anymore, because nobody really used it. Google used to have one, but it was an administrative hassle and wasn’t making them money, so they discontinued it. So I had to port all my feeds to Digg’s feedreader; then they discontinued it too, probably for the same reasons. Currently I’m at Feeder, which works great so far!

So yep, on my work breaks, I’m reading blogs. Occasionally I’ll set them aside and read a book… or talk to my coworkers, whenever they feel like putting down their phones. There’s always lots to read.

And finally to my point.

Every once in a while I notice a blog hasn’t updated in a long while. I might not notice it right away; it may take a few months. Still, sometimes I’ll think, “Hey, when’s the last time he updated?” check the feedreader, find out there’s nothing since January, and go visit his actual blog to see what’s what. Maybe his feed isn’t working. Maybe he’s died. (Sometimes that’s exactly what happened!)

Last week it happened again. I’m gonna call the guy Seong-Hun. He’s a bible scholar and university professor who’s published a number of books, and he has a blog. Which has moved around a bit from platform to platform. First he was on Blogger, then the religious-blog website Patheos snapped him up for a while, then a magazine got him to blog on their site for a bit. But he’d probably reached the six-month itch and moved back to Patheos or Blogger, or maybe WordPress; I dunno. I just figured, “Hey, I haven’t read Seong-Hun’s blog in a while; is it still up?”

Turns out he moved to Substack. Ugh, Substack.

Seong-Hun is the fourth Christian blogger I follow who, in the past two years, has moved to Substack. And as you can probably guess from my “ugh,” I’m not a fan. Substack is a blogging platform which promotes itself as a platform for “digital newsletters,” not mere blogs; for journalists and newsmakers, not mere bloggers. And their big thing is subscriptions. You wanna read their stuff? You gotta send them money. Otherwise, here’s a paywall.

Now there are exceptions; there are a few Substack blogs I read whose paywalls are optional. Seong-Hun has not chosen to go that route. Neither have the other three Christian bloggers I used to follow. I’m not following them now! I’m not paying four different guys $10 a month to read their content. It’s good, but it’s not $480-a-year good! I could buy books with that money. Maybe their books. But not anymore, because I won’t know what they’ve got coming out, because their blogs are behind paywalls.

Substack’s been really successful with getting journalists to blog there, thanks to the collapse of traditional media. There are a lot of reporters who wanna keep reporting, but can’t find a newspaper or magazine or blog who will keep them gainfully and reliably employed; you know as soon as a large-language bot (the ones they keep calling “A.I.”, but aren’t all that intelligent) can write as well as they can, the publishers will just fire ’em. So, rather than sell articles freelance, you can just put it on Substack and charge for subscriptions. But again—do I wanna buy my news piecemeal? Back when I read five newspapers a day, I only subscribed to one, and picked up the other four at work. How crazy is it to subscribe to a dozen individual reporters, each of whom charge more than one month of a newspaper?

But let’s set that aside. Along with the many, many things I could say about traditional media, paywalls, and how it’d be significantly better for the news and the public if they switched to a non-for-profit business model. Lemme get to the more relevant thing I wanna rant about: Christian bloggers moving behind a paywall.

And lemme start by quoting Jesus.

Matthew 10.8 KJV
Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

This was part of his directions to the Twelve when Jesus sent ’em out to preach the gospel and cure people. Don’t do it for money, like Pharisees and ancient witch doctors did. You got it for free, so pay it forward.

I totally get why an expert in a field, after years of studying and practicing in that field, would wanna get compensated for their time and efforts and expertise. It’s how the world works. I went to school to study journalism, and whenever I do journalism or history, I wanna be funded. If I went to school to study auto repair, agriculture, education, psychology, finance, or physical therapy, same deal.

But there are significant exceptions to all those fields, and that’s anything having to do with God’s kingdom. Biblical studies, church leadership, theology, ministry… and since Jesus talks about curing people, I would also include healthcare. (I don’t care that it’s expensive; y’all should have thought of that before you spent years learning how to alleviate suffering and save lives.) These are areas where we’re not meant to charge for our services, but find other ways to get funded, like the ancient Israeli priests did. Or, like Paul of Tarsus—and like me—have a day job.

When you’re selling biblical knowledge, or you’re selling your musings about biblical knowledge, you’re practicing simony. And I don’t care that western culture is used to seeing Christians do that, and lets us get away with it; that it charges a bundle for scholarly Christian works, or charges a bundle for Christian conferences, or charges a ton for an accredited Christian education. Yeah, they’re gonna claim you don’t muzzle an ox while it’s treading grain; 1Ti 5.18 that they oughta be compensated for their time. And I agree; of course they oughta! But again, you find other ways to get funded. Set up a charitable fund and look for donors. Set up endowments. Sell ads. Do not charge the people you minister to, for ministering to them. It’s like charging homeless people for soup-kitchen soup. It’s ridiculous and outrageous, and antithetical to God’s kingdom. Freely give.

I’m gonna give these guys the benefit of the doubt and figure they don’t mean to commit simony. These guys write books. They’re used to getting money for writing. They were probably thinking, “Wish I could get some money for blogging, too,” and here comes Substack, offering ’em exactly that! They might even have seen it as a God-given opportunity; certainly not a devilish trick to put the gospel, and bigger and bigger segments of God’s kingdom, behind a paywall.

But I don’t know their hearts; maybe they did intend to commit simony. Maybe they grew jealous of secular writers, who can write about irrelevant things like sports and movies and popular culture, and make money on it. “Why can’t I make money writing about infinitely important stuff?”—and this unhealthy envy grew into something the devil can put its hooks into, and drag ’em into the darkness.

If these guys had Substack blogs in which subscriptions were optional, I’m even okay with that. Someone who has lots of money can be one of their donors. But none of them have chosen to do that; they want everyone’s money. And I’m just gonna repeat Simon Peter when Simon the Samaritan offered to buy the Holy Spirit off him: “I wish you and your silver would go to ruin.” Ac 8.20 KWL

Obviously I’m gonna move on to other blogs to read. And just as obviously, I’m never moving TXAB behind a paywall. If you were ever slightly worried, don’t be. I paid attention to Jesus; I’m freely giving. I recommend it.