I came across a disappointing article by Richard Abanes yesterday called “ODMS: A Cult is Born?” I say disappointing because I like a lot of Abanes’ material. However, I am not surprised by Abanes’ perspective.
Abanes complains about the multitude of ‘online discernment ministries’ acting without oversight or credentials. He throws a bone here and there about some ministries being legit and worthwhile but it comes across as reluctant, if not forced. I presume that I am in the group of apologetics ministries he graciously descends from on high to bless, but since so many aspects of his article seem to apply to my ministry I thought it was worth addressing.
Now, I have the feeling that Abanes is writing in self-defense. I didn’t dig into it but I suspect one of the real motivators for his article is that he has been targeted by these ‘online discernment ministries’ (ODMs) and their hack ‘apologists.’ I infer this from a comment like this one: “Rooting out heresy, even where it doesn’t exist, has become the prime directive.” (underline his)
Now, I certainly agree that these sorts of people exist and that they can be a nuisance. The problem is that Mr. Abanes paints with too wide a brush and allows a certain… snobbiness… to guide his analysis. He complains that today ‘apologists’ don’t go to the seminary, or train under someone who did (or had appropriate experience), or don’t get their books published through the traditional outlets, etc., etc. His half-hearted caveat in his last paragraph that of course not all websites/discernment ministries are like this fails to acknowledge that his general description of these accursed ODMs just as easily includes ones he’d find reputable. Or so we might think, but since Abanes lumps them all together we might be hard pressed to find online apologetics ministries that are excluded.
Abanes weaves a story of heresy hunting hacks passing as apologists and assumes that certain facts, like the fact that ‘ODMs’ don’t get published by the real publishing companies, is prima facie evidence that “they pay to have their books published because no legitimate publisher will have them.”
As one who has been active in apologetics ministries for a solid 15 years, I can offer some other possibilities for his observations. As I said, I know the ‘bad’ sort exist. For example, though it wasn’t a member of an ‘ODM’ that I know of, I was recently taken to task by a reader who accused me of unbelief because I referred to the saying “Those who forget history are destined to repeat it” as a proverb. “What? That is not in the book of Proverbs! You heathenous liar!” That is the sort of stuff one puts up with on the Internet. It does not justify dismissing everything and everybody on the Internet. That’s the sort of thing you just have to laugh off.
Abanes’ basic attitude seems to be of derision of anything that doesn’t come through approved channels. This attitude is common in certain circles. Academic circles are filled with it. You find it among the ‘professionals.’ The argument seems to be that unless something comes out of scholarly ‘peer reviewed’ circles it can’t be trusted. This ignores the fact that the traditional publishers, the academic community, the professionals, etc, are routinely producing excrement. There is no outrageous idea on the Internet that hasn’t been put forward at one time by some scholar somewhere and there is no traditional publisher that doesn’t factor in how much money a book will generate for them when contemplating the books ‘value.’ This was true in past decades and it is true now. The only difference is that the Gate Keepers no longer control the gate. The Internet has changed everything.
The Gate Keepers are not happy about it. Now it is possible to get your rubbish published along with all the rubbish frequently seen out of the mainstream press and academia.
On the other side of the issue is the great necessity of there being people (like myself) active on the Internet. I don’t suppose Mr. Abanes is going to correspond personally with the millions of skeptics and struggling Christians on the Internet? Are we to hope that seekers of all sorts restrict themselves to ‘approved channels’ or are we going to go out and meet them? It seems like we need every man we can get.
Moreoever, the problem Mr. Abanes describes is a problem made by the Gate Keepers. As he well knows, apologetics requires a tremendous amount of research and study followed by synthesizing and writing. If Mr. Abanes would like to give me a list of ten congregations in the entire country that has paid apologetics positions I would be grateful- and shocked. I am currently jumping through the ‘hoops’ that Mr. Abanes and his sort think people should have, pursuing a Masters in Apologetics. When I finally have it, what am I going to do with it? How will I support my family while carrying out this intense and highly involved ministry?
In short, unless I become an academic or a pastor, I won’t. The only problem is I have no interest in being either. So, Mr. Abanes, if you don’t want rogue ‘online discernment ministries’ out there, perhaps you could use your influence to push congregations to add apologetic staff positions that in turn have a strong Internet presence. That would provide the ‘reputable’ channel I think you are looking for. Apart from that, I’m afraid, your article needlessly diminishes those who are doing work that still needs to be done even if it is not institutionally supported.
How then might we explain the rise of the ‘ODMs’ apart from fractures after the death of Walter Martin?
- A continued failure of the Christian Church to equip Christians to follow the clear command of Scripture to be prepared to give a defense of their faith.
- A need for those who do attempt that equipping and do engage in that defense to still support their families. Or perhaps Mr. Abanes would prefer they starved while waiting for a traditional publisher to pick up one of their books? (Even if they did, you’ve got as much chance of getting a living wage from putting out a book the traditional way as you do if you ‘vanity press’ it.)
- An observation that the ‘traditional’ media and academic community is not inerrant and in some cases utterly disgusting. Case in point: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. This book is chock full with nonsense that mainly deserves ridicule but by Abanes’ (and other’s) perspective needs to be treated seriously, coming from an academic out of traditional publishing outlet and all.
In short, given that Mr. Abanes and I have the same kind of goals and objectives but different areas of influence and expertise, it would be nice if Mr. Abanes wouldn’t go stomping indiscriminatly on my face- and the faces of a good half dozen other ‘online discernment ministries’ I can think of that do not engage in ‘heresy hunting’ but strive to really defend the faith in the nooks and crannies of cyberspace, where the Gate Keepers are too big and bulky to ever effectively minister.