Answering Fools and Folly: A Theology of Blog Commenting

As a host of a blog sometimes it's hard to know when to respond to comments. There is a great deal of discernment that takes place. Questions I ask myself:
Am I being defensive and trying to protect my vanity?

Does this seem like it would be a productive, mutually edifying and clarifying exchange or an exercise if futility?
Regarding the former question, no one likes to be attacked or called names. There's not much of that on my blog (thank heavens), but it pops up from time to time. Mainly I'm tempted to answer snark with snark. Regardless, these responses are being driven by my own ego. And that's not good for the soul. To help with this I'll often not look at the comments for most of the day. And sometimes I pray first to get my head and heart straight.

Regarding the latter question, I think I'm a pretty good judge of who seems open to conversation and who does not. But I'm sure I make mistakes in this regard.

In light of these ruminations I was recently struck by this advice from Proverbs and how it might apply to blog conversations:
Proverbs 26.4-5
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
The advice here is a bit paradoxical. First, don't answer a fool according to his folly. If you do you'll be the fool. This is good advice for not responding to certain comments. The key here, I think, is "according to his folly." What does that mean? I think it means accepting the terms of the fool, be those terms intellectual or social. The social part is easy. Try not to take the bait, be that bait snark, condensation, faux disappointment, hating, or name-calling.

(Faux disappointment is the worst for me. It's so passive aggressive. "This post sadness and disappointments me..." Whatever. Children starved to death today. Who cares if some stranger's blog post saddened or disappointed you?)

Intellectually I think this means spotting where undergirding assumptions differ, particularly if those assumptions are folly. Basically, if we don't agree on assumptions (and this can be spotted pretty easily in comments) then there is no way to answer your questions. It's worldviews colliding. It's sort of like trying to answer the question "When did you stop beating your wife?" To answer is to accept the folly of the framing.

So there are times to "not answer a fool." But the proverb goes on to say that there are times when we should answer the fool. Why? So that the fool won't be "wise in his own eyes." It might be helpful and therapeutic for the fool to know he or she is being a fool. Or at least not as smart as he thinks he is. A little self-awareness can go a long way.

And, finally, I must flip this around on myself. You, dear Reader, have to decide if you want to comment on any given blog post. Shall you refrain, refusing to answer this fool according to his folly? Or shall you comment to answer my folly so that I will not be wise in my own eyes?

Welcome, fools, one and all.

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26 thoughts on “Answering Fools and Folly: A Theology of Blog Commenting”

  1. Dr. Beck, please don't take this comment as an indication that I think you're a fool!  It's hard to know sometimes what, exactly, another person is thinking and what his or her intentions are.  Even in face-to-face interaction, with all the advantages that lends to communication, we can still be "fooled" and hurt by others.  I think I must have issues with subtlety, because sarcasm and innuendo is easily lost on me.  Blog commentary can be even more confusing.  When in doubt, I have had to ask whether I understood a comment rightly.  D'oh!

    Once, I was really peeved and disappointed with you, and foolishly let it be known.  Now I see (understand) more clearly what the situation was and is.  And, no doubt there is much more that I do not know.  I am sorry.  That was a time when I should have kept quiet.  The lesson for me was this:  Judge not.  "Friends" (even blog friends) believe the best of one another, bear with one another, and even understand if and when a temporary lapse in judgment occurs, rendering one a "fool."  Friends can even disagree at times.  Being right isn't half as important as treating others with compassion.  Anne Lamott writes about this, but I have also experienced this truth here among the regulars at ET.

    "You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important."

    Peace, and thank you.

  2. No worries Susan. You're one of the most thoughtful and encouraging people on this blog.

    And regarding the post, I don't really like the label "fool." Which is why I wanted to apply the label to myself at the end.

    But when I read that bit from Proverbs it did made me think of comments and conversations on blogs. I'm sure we all have our war stories about our attempts to answer fools and folly on blogs.

  3. "Being right isn't half as important as treating others with compassion."

    Well said, Susan.  This, IMHO, is the key to a long and successful marriage as well.  If more people practiced it, I think there would be far fewer divorces, and many happier, more secure children.

  4.  So hard to not be misunderstood sometimes, without body language and tone of voice as cues. And even with those cues, Ideas are often misunderstood because of our own experiences and biases. We all do the best we can. I think so long as there is respect and courtesy, we can disagree.

  5. I love the Proverbs passage, one of my favorite in Scripture (I even preached a sermon on it).  It seems to allow a lot of room for paradox, while also requiring that every situation be approached with care and wisdom rather than a one-size-fits-all answer to every situation.

    (BTW, I also liked your expose' of faux disappointment, something which I had occasion to experience for myself in a slightly different context not long ago.  It felt manipulative to me at the time; now I understand why.)

  6. Susan, I see you as a woman of great compassion, humility, and graciousness, and I'm continually impressed with the care you take to understand other commenters here. God bless you for that.

    I am far, far better than you, however, in this regard: my lapses in judgment border on the permanent.

  7. The good news is that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.  I think maybe the trick is to recognise that I'm one of the fools - and to be OK with that fact.  I know what you mean about knowing when to engage - for myself, I guess I try, however misguidedly, to discern whether someone is looking to learn or looking to prove something and go from there...  Not sure if I've cracked how to answer a fool yet - I think for Jesus it was partly about framing the question that wasn't being asked, but needed addressing.  As 1 Cor 11 goes on to say, "God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are."

    Blessings to my fellow fools (you know who you are)

  8. BTW, I just noticed that I wrote "condensation" in the post rather than "condescension."

    I'm going to let the error stand given the topic of this post.

    Though perhaps it's apt, some comments really do rain on the parade...

  9. I love the way you host this commentunity (there's a neologism for the Web2.0 world - this community of comment makers. I jot around below the line of about a dozen blogs and I think of all of them you and Rachel (H-E) have got the balance right of stepping back to let the community find its voice and also stepping in, to share your place at this table. I must admit its a bit of a thrill when you or Rachel reply to a comment, or when a really good thread gets going that picks up the essence of the original post. I too share that exaperation when the commentary ambles off in a direction consistent with only the header or first line of the post. "I wasn't blogging about whehter God actually hates gays or not!...". Except of course when it is me that has misjudged the point of the post, that's forgivable, naturally.

    This is a really good place, thanks for making the space for it to happen.

  10. Personally I'm a big fan of your process of answering critics in the comment section, as I tend skim and only focus on those responses. In my opinion, that's what makes for a lively, informative, and polite blog. Great content followed by a comment section full of real people with real ideas that are spotlighted by the blog owner.

    We as readers however have to do our part and vote for the comments (foolish or otherwise) that help this blog thrive. Vote with our comments or vote by clicking "like". Then perhaps we can 
    collectively unearth some "fool's gold" here at Experimental Theology.

  11. Great post!  I just started blogging and recently received a lot of heat for disagreeing with a highly educated blogger.  I eventually just had to quit responding.  In the past three days I've been called numerous names, but I finally just quit caring.  I don't take back anything I said and I will try to keep my comments loving and constructive.  That's all I can do.  

  12. The Message translates as:
    4 Don't respond to the stupidity of a fool; you'll only look foolish yourself.
    5 Answer a fool in simple terms / so he doesn't get a swelled head.

    There's a difference between "simple" and "stupid". Not much can be done with stupid, but simple can be earnest. It takes a very wise person to say something complicated in simple language; Jesus was good at it. Whereas if you reply to an earnest but naive question with a sophisticated reply, the simple person is liable to think you didn't understand. Personally, I ask a lot of naive but earnest questions, and that's the sensation I often come away with. (...not around here...)

    Got no Hebrew; don't know whether you can really get this out of the text or not, but it works for me.

  13. As an Experimental Theology RSS feed lurker, I don't see the comments here too often, but this post was a good reminder to come inside for a minute and say thanks.  I've taught some classes at our church based off of your book, and I consider your writing to be incredibly important for the kingdom.  Thank you for stretching me and giving me new ways to look at the Scriptures.  

    And now it's time for me to evaporate...

  14. Thanks so much, and oh yes...I could relate too well to both sides.  Responding *to* foolish comments, and making them myself.  I'm learning to navigate more gracefully.  Only after a lot of clumsy "falls."  Sam, Jeff, Maeve and several others I've come to care for here:  You're all so easy to love (and like :-)  -- what a blessing you all are to me.  ~Peace~

  15. Richard,

    Not only am I a fool, but an old fool--involved in foolishness since my childhood.  Not only that, I am a procrastinating fool as evidenced by this late post.  I learned procrastination from my late mother (whom I am honoring today) but not the foolishness.

    Thanks for this post.  And how about one on procrastination?


  16. I'm really saddened and disappointed by this post. I can't believe I wasted 3 minutes of my life reading it.

  17. When Hauerwas spoke at the college I attended and used "cuss words," a letter to the editor in the college newspaper went on and on about how "Jesus was weeping" at the profanity.

  18. Got just enough Hebrew to know that, while credible, this rendering really louses up the poetic shock of giving two pieces of contradictory advice in a row. Sigh. Hate it when translators think it's their job to save people from being shocked or confused by Scripture. Too bad God didn't know what he was doing putting all those shocking and confusing things into the Word.

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