On Oden 2: Regarding the Dropping of Names and the Twaddle of Twitter
Aimee’s post earlier this week pointed to the complex relationship that inevitably exists between legitimate publicity and self-promotion. When one ends and the other begins is not easy to discern.
George Orwell commented that all writers are to some extent egoists, driven by a belief that they have something to say that is important enough for others to read. Again, one might comment that the line between a legitimate egoism which is led by the message, and an illegitimate egoism, where the message is simply subordinated to the promotion of the messenger, is hard to judge.
Reading Thomas Oden’s autobiography, I was struck by the vast number of names that he mentioned. He seems to have met everyone of any theological importance in the last sixty years, from Barth, Niebuhr and Pannenberg to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. And yet I was also struck by the fact that his narrative did not leave me feeling that he was promoting himself. Every encounter he noted helped simply to move his narrative forward or to illustrate some larger point which served to draw attention not to Oden himself but to the bigger picture.
As I was reading Oden’s book, I did something in which I indulge every few months when I am feeling just a tad too cheerful and thus need to be discouraged a little: I stalked the twitter accounts of some of the great and the good in the evangelical world. I confess that I still do not see that Twitter fulfills any useful purpose beyond linking to longer articles of real substance. Instead, it seems on the whole to be constitutive of an age of superficiality, soundbites, and clichéd piety. Yet it also seems in the hands of the great and the good to have become little more than a way of displaying one’s harem of important friends and showcasing all those flattering references to oneself.
Oden's autobiography, by way of contrast, is a model of humility in the service of substance. So much evangelical tweeting seems to be the exact opposite: a model of no substance in the service of self-aggrandisement. And the names that Oden drops -- including not one but two Popes -- are in a slightly different league even to those of the Toppermost of the Poppermost in our circles. Time spent reading Oden’s autobiography is thus time well spent. Time spent reading -- and writing -- Top Men tweets not so much.