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The Possibility of an Impossible Online Community


Hospitality is only truly hospitable when freely offered, at least initially, without condition.  As Jacques Derrida notes, if one already knows whether a midnight knock on the door is likely to be a familiar wayfarer seeking mutual refreshment or a selfish thief with nefarious intentions, the door will only be opened to a short list of insiders while keeping unfamiliar strangers in the dark.  Therefore, unconditional hospitality can only be found through opening up to the unknown and welcoming the unwelcome.  As Jesus said, anyone can love a friend; but the Kingdom of God comes in love for our enemies.  (Just as I wrote these words, our doorbell broke the Sunday morning predawn peace and an unknown house-sitter locked out next door tested and then literally cracked open my own hospitality.)

Pure, unconditional hospitality is, as Derrida contends, impossible, since to drop all boundaries and release all control would leave nothing to offer guests and even worse leave those guests inhospitably unprotected.  This impossibility of hospitality is both the challenge and possibility of creating community through conversation on a blog.

After long discussions among the Spectrum board of directors, web team, and moderators about how best to undertake this impossible challenge, we have made an attemp to modify the system. As you will have noticed by now, the Spectrum commenting system has moved to a new platform. As of September 15, most comments are no longer below each article, but only available if you click through. We have also requested that commenters sign in using their real names.

Before implementing the new system, we discussed many options for encouraging the conversation to be more civil. We talked about limiting the number of comments, pre-moderating comments, and even shutting down comments all together.  Shutting down comments on the blog of an organization committed to conversation is obviously a last option.  Pre-moderating comments would either in reality or perception limit the conversation to only insiders.  Limiting the number of comments would make room for others to share their thoughts; but it would diminish the possibility of conversation.

By providing an open forum with free online access, we have opened a space to host conversations that are often impossible in the local and global church.  However, in addition to spiritual wayfarers looking for a place to exchange ideas, open conversations on controversial topics tend to attract “angry exes and committed zealots” whose competing self-interested arguments may overwhelm the conversation despite the herculean efforts of moderators to maintain civility.  The ensuing discord discourages those most in need of a safe and open community from commenting and has earned insightfully satirical comments, like the BarelyAdventist post proclaiming Spectrum as the winner of the International Award for Angriest Comment Section.  

Anecdotes regarding why those who would otherwise be interested in community through conversation choose to avoid the Spectrum blog invariably focus on the volume and vitriol of comments.  But all the blame cannot be placed on commenters.  Adventist Forum/Spectrum itself is in part to blame for the contention.  

The Adventist Forum (then the Association of Adventist Forums) began during the uproar of the 1960s when the younger generation was beginning to question everything.  The Forum’s founding story was of an open and welcoming space for thoughtful Adventists to freely exchange ideas and interact with interesting concepts of all types.  But openness to new ideas went too far for the comfort of church leadership.  As a result, the initial support from the General Conference quickly shifted to open opposition.  This turn of events initiated a second story in which Adventist Forum took up the fight as the last strong and free voice against what was then seen as a hostile, controlling, and exclusive church organization. 

Integral to this shift was the role of the Forum’s journal Spectrum in exploring the profound and unmentionable questions of Adventism.  As one of the only outlets for frank conversation and open-minded inquiry about issues facing Adventists, Spectrum hosted and preserved much-needed conversations on Ellen White, the investigative judgment, age of the earth, and many other hot-button issues.  While these conversations were then and remain now integral to the original intent of the Forum, the fact that traditional perspectives on these topics were welcomed in official church publications while alternative voices were relegated to the pages of Spectrum only exacerbated the hostile perceptions on the forming sides.

In the current online era, competing “open and welcoming” versus “negative and hostile” identities have alternatively produced both the beauty of “community through conversation” and the counterproductive contention of hostile exchanges.  Those of us who resonate with the original “open and welcoming” story are distressed by mean-spirited comments on the Spectrum website, hostile reviews assuming nefarious intentions of annual Adventist Forum Conferences, and negative reactions from church leaders —  all of which build on and reinforce the second hostile narrative.  

Recognizing and owning the increasing dominance of this “negative and hostile” story is helpful in understanding our own culpability in the ongoing hostility.  As an independent voice highlighting issues that the institutional church’s leaders would rather gloss over and hosting conversations local churches pragmatically ignore, Spectrum walks a fine line between loving encourager and faithful facilitator versus mean-spirited critic and troublemaker.  The extent to which Spectrum has crossed this line is of course relative to one’s opinion on the issues in question; yet, we must recognize that Spectrum has not always maintained a loving and faithful approach.  But, recognition is just the first step.  The greater challenge is this: How can we promote the original “open and welcoming” identity so that Spectrum’s story can continue as an independent voice and safe place for diverse dialogue?

We hope that the recent changes to our website and the comments are an important step in this direction.

We invite all Spectrum readers and commenters (and I hope you consider yourself both) to converse thoughtfully on challenging topics while minimizing contentious debate so that we can extend hospitality to all and together experience the goal of Adventist Forum: community through conversation. 

We hope that you will join us in creating a community to welcome the full spectrum of sinners and saints, orthodox and heretical, knowledgeable and ignorant, familiar and unfamiliar, traditional and progressive, wise and foolish, and insiders and outsiders.  For that is all that we are.  Indeed, that is all that each of us is.

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