Thank God for Bandit Country

Carl Trueman Articles
One question that I have now been asked more times than I care to remember is "How do you cope with all the nastiness that's come your way on the internet over the last few years?"   The answer is pretty simple: it generally doesn't come my way because I generally don't read it.  I simply do not have the time or the energy.  Unless somebody extracts a particular insult and puts it in an email to me, I don't see it.  Only when a friend, worried about my reputation, sends such a missive do the loonier excesses of the blogosphere register on my radar.  Thus, while I am unaware of perhaps a majority of the dissections and demolitions of my character out there, it has been brought to my attention over the last years that I am the hapless lackey of right-wing Christian America, the ruthless dismantler of everything good and virtuous at Westminster Theological Seminary (both the right and the left have advocated that one), a communist apologist for Islamic terrorism, a fundamentalist, a liar, a liberal (political and theological), an inveterate street fighter, a spineless girlyman, and a symptom of the crisis in American higher education whose very existence explains why so many young people leave college ill-equipped to deal with real life. I have also been told to go to hell, threatened with dismemberment, and told my career was going to be torched in an inferno of revelations about my professional and private activities.  An interesting, if somewhat eclectic and incoherent, list of threats, high crimes and misdemeanors if ever there was one.  Up to this point, (at least as far as I am aware), nobody has yet blamed me for the worldwide economic downturn, Swine Flu, or the popularity of the Jonas Brothers; but, hey, it is surely only a matter of time before the true extent of my evil is outed on the net.

Public figures are, of course, fair game for every self-absorbed numpty, dirty-mouthed whackjob and demented conspiracy theorist with a keyboard, a modem and way too much time on their hands.  Anybody who holds any position of responsibility is a public figure; and, if the web is anything to go by, the Christian world is rather full of said whackjobs and paranoid nutters.  So Christian public figures are going to be hit again and again and again.  Goes with the territory.  Yet it should be remembered that this phenomenon can be a little disconcerting to those not used to the protocols of Christian love.  A year or two back, I was giving a lecture at the British Academy and met a friend whom I had not seen since we were postgraduates together in Scotland in the late 80s.   He told me he had been trying to track me down and had recently done an internet search for me.  "Who on earth are these theonomic homeschooling people?" he asked, "And why do they hate you so much??"  Yes, I thought, to anyone outside the Christian subculture, the world of Rushdoony's virtual acolytes must seem a very strange and twisted one indeed.

Now, I have to confess that, in the early days, the web insults that were forwarded to me did hurt a bit.  I suspect that anyone who says that such things do not hurt is a liar.  I may have had my blood replaced with ice water when I took the job of Academic Dean; and I can confirm the rumours that I do not have a shadow or cast a reflection in the mirrored glass in Machen Hall; but, despite the hearsay, I do remember getting a lump in my throat at the end of Bambi when I was child; and I can enjoy the occasional episode of Dancing with the Stars as much as the next man.  Yes, I am human and I have the feelings too.  In fact, I was particularly angered on one occasion when my youngest son, searching for a funny picture of his dad on the web for a Father's Day card he was making at school, came across some hate site trashing me with all the adjectives the loving Christian brethren typically have at their disposal.  He was so upset by it that he did not tell me about it for ages, worried I would be hurt.  That made me angry: I am fair game, I thought, but my son is an innocent victim, the collateral damage of this virtual terrorism.  But gradually it has dawned on me that the web is, in the words of my current journalist hero, Rod Liddle, bandit country.  It is a lawless, anarchic place where anyone can say anything about anybody else with impunity, so who really cares what is said there?  Lunacy is usually only indiscernible to those who are themselves lunatics, so what does  it matter what rambling diatribes there are  out there as long as most people don't have a screw loose?

Further, for those who make it their primary means of discourse, it is also a cowardly medium.  Few - in fact, none - of my web critics have ever had the courage to look me in the eye, or even pick up the phone (other than anonymously - and that's another story, sadly involving my wife and kids) and tell me what they really think about me.  Possibly this is because the web is, by and large, a young person's medium and belongs to an effete generation apparently incapable of understanding disagreement in anything other than deeply personal terms and strangely incompetent when it comes to handling face-to-face conflict.  The gung-ho ferocity of blog attacks is often matched only by the oleaginous fawning of the webwarriors  when encountered in the flesh, something which I confess has been, on occasion, a source of some mild, and probably sinful, amusement to me as I observe their unctuous and sycophantic squirming in my presence.  I have seen the future, and, frankly, it looks like Uriah Heep with a Facebook account.

This raises the question of whether one should respond to individual blog attacks.  My advice is no, never, not under any circumstances.  Now, one of the reasons I do not read these things (in addition to having a real life with real friends, real problems etc) is because I know that, if I did so, there would be times when the temptation to respond would be overwhelming, and that would be fatal.  As soon as one responds, the attacker grows parasitically stronger, gaining an audience and a credibility previously denied him.   And the victim has lost because he has taken the rant of some nutjob seriously enough to acknowledge it; he has granted it a status which it simply does not merit in and of itself; and in his efforts to refute it, he has perversely made it important, given it a constituency it did not possess.  Look,  to repeat: the web is bandit country.  Let the wild and the whacky compete with the sane and the measured, the incoherent and rambling with the logical and well-argued, the extreme with the moderate.  If people believe you are really a lizard from the Planet Iguanadon who has assumed human form and infiltrated a church or a seminary to make it the base for an Iguanaman takeover of the entire Christian church, then let them do so. Nothing you can say to the contrary will do anything other than convince them of the depth and sophistication of the extraterrestrial reptilian conspiracy.  Their emotional and psychological needs are clearly more serious than your own; and if you respond to such nonsense, you give it credibility and allow the parasitic nature of the attack to succeed.  Ignore it and it may not go away, but sane people will see it for what it is and walk by, slightly embarrassed, on the other side of the virtual information highway.

There is, however, a spiritual dimension to blog attacks which is, ironically, conducive to spiritual health and growth. Here I have learned much (as elsewhere) from the master theologian, churchman, public figure, and normal Christian believer, Martin Luther.  It is well-known that in his writings in table conversation Luther would often refer to visits from the Devil, how the Devil would come to him and whisper in his ear, accusing him of all manner of filthy sin: "Martin, you are a liar, greedy, lecherous, a blasphemer, a hypocrite.  You cannot stand before God."   To which Luther would respond: "Well, yes, I am.  And, indeed, Satan, you do not know the half of it.  I have done much worse than that and if you care to give me your full list, I can no doubt add to it and help make it more complete.  But you know what?  My Saviour has died for all my sins - those you mention, those I could add and, indeed, those I have committed but am so wicked that I am unaware of having done so.  It does not change the fact that Christ has died for all of them; his blood is sufficient; and on the Day of Judgment I shall be exonerated because he has taken all my sins on himself and clothed me in his own perfect righteousness.'

Luther knew what temptation looked like; he knew his own wickedness; but he also knew the all-surpassing perfection and grace of Christ.  So, in closing, I want to thank my blog critics, the crass, the colourful, the profane, and the plain old crazy, for helping me to understand better my sin and my Saviour.  You think I'm arrogant?  You should talk to my wife: she could fill you in on just how arrogant I really am.  You think I'm ruthless and cold?  Believe me, you don't know where half of the bodies are buried.   You think I'm a weak and spineless girlyman?  Hey, you don't know nearly the extent of my cowardice.  You think I'm an inveterate street fighter?  Bring it on.  If someone will hold my coat, why go out onto the street?  We can finish this right here and right now.  But you know what?  My Saviour knows the full depth of all my sleaziness, my sin, and my moral insanity, and has covered by his blood all these crimes you allege against me.  Indeed, he has covered many more and much worse; and your reminders of my sinfulness and my need of him are most gratefully received.
Those disturbed by web attacks on their good names should not be so. Believe me, you are much worse than they say, and God is much greater and more gracious than they imagine.  It's bandit country out there on the web but sane people know lunacy when they see it: let the nutters do their nutjobby thing; let the psychos babble; and let the vicious vent.  And then, in the tradition of Luther, thank God for bandit country and use the malice you find there to help you appreciate Christ

Carl Trueman is a Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.

Carl Trueman, "Thank God for Bandit Country", Reformation 21 (June 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at

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