Over the years, fundamentalism has lacked a strong self-critical voice,” says Aaron Blumer, the new publisher of www.SharperIron.org. “We have not had people who are willing to challenge our own conventional wisdom in the light of Scripture, and there are too few places for these challengers to be heard.”
Aaron is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Boyceville, Wis. The western Wisconsin town is home to 1,043 people and a popular Cucumber Festival every August—but it’s not the sort of place you would pick as headquarters for a popular website. Aaron has ministered in Boyceville since 2000, when he graduated from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minn.
“The Web audience is completely different than my church,” Aaron says, noting that the people in his congregation don’t spend much time on the computer. “Some use it for e-mail, but I only know of one person in my church who is interested in reading blogs. Our church has a pretty strong rural flavor.”
SharperIron.org was founded in 2005 by a group of young fundamentalist pastors and seminary students. Jason Janz, a pastor in Denver, was the site publisher until this spring, when he left for a new ministry as a church planter. The site caught on quickly, fueled by significant attention to a widely read survey about the beliefs of young fundamentalists. The SharperIron site is designed so that anyone who browses the Web can read the articles and discussion threads. But to post a comment, writers must register and agree to a basic fundamentalist statement of faith. As a result, the site is viewed by 30,000 readers a month, with articles and responses written by about 4,000 registered members.
The new website was part of an innovative series of developments known as “Web 2.0,” a buzzword that describes new websites with “user-generated content.” Where first-generation websites were created by people who wanted merely to post information for others to read, the Web 2.0 sites were designed with the expectation that readers would view the sites and then add their own related content.
Aaron started participating on the SharperIron site soon after it opened in 2005. Nearing his 40th birthday at the time, he was quickly losing the right to be called a young fundamentalist. And he was not fully convinced that the Internet was a legitimate form of publishing. “But now I’ve started to revise what I think about what ‘real’ publishing is,” he says. “SharperIron is part of the transition from paper and ink to a much more disorganized digital world. Right now we’re in this transitional period where everyone tries to figure out what the new media is.”
Aaron is discovering that the “disorganized digital world” can be a source of trouble. Despite careful membership procedures, not all of the SharperIron participants have modeled graceful speech. “The line can be really fine between giving helpful information and just being gossipy,” Aaron says, explaining how a team of volunteer moderators reads every post, deleting inappropriate content when necessary.
While the site is mostly populated by younger readers, Aaron appreciates the older readers who write articles and post in the forums, lending a component of “older guys teaching the younger guys.” But this leads to frustrating moments for the older generation, especially if they attempt to persuade younger readers by appealing to their own wisdom.
“Experience and credentials are not the strongest arguments to make a case,” Aaron says. “Our younger readers aren’t impressed when our older readers say, ‘Accept what I say because I’m older and wiser and more credentialed.’ ”
As a result, the discussion on many threads hinges on the Scriptural support—or lack of support—for many traditional fundamentalist viewpoints.
“The fundamentalist movement has needed more restless and inquisitive minds raising inconvenient questions,” Aaron says. “It’s been too easy to think, ‘We’re okay because we’re not like those other guys.’ As a result, we’ve forgotten how to rightly defend our beliefs.”