This is the third post in a series on why I blog with no authority. Previous posts include the first post explaining why I needed to write this series and a second post on how I started out blogging without any concept of what the public sphere was.
Around the time that I was really starting to explore the implications of reading Catholic and Orthodox theology as an Anglican layperson, a friend of mine in graduate school, Karl Persson, sent me a private message. He told me that he had been reading some Catholic blogs, and he had been inspired to write about his Christianity in relation to his experience with mental illness; it should not surprise you that he now contributes to the award-winning Patheos Catholic blog Sick Pilgrim. In particular, he told me that he enjoyed reading a blog portal called Vox Nova, which he told me was a collective of young Catholic writers who were starting a new thing with their new voices on the Catholic blogosphere.
At the time, the only Catholic publications I had heard of were America and Commonweal, so all this was quite new to me. I knew about what I now know are the more progressive wings of American Catholicism mostly because I had read the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s autobiography, and I listened rather religiously to the America Magazine podcast; in fact, I am not ashamed to say that I had a sort of intellectual crush on Kerry Weber because her interviews with the various writers, filmmakers, artists, and activists in the Catholic world were always so smart.
Along with the Lutheran writer Mathew Block, Karl and I started our own group blog called A Christian Thing. It was modelled after Vox Nova in the sense that we too were a group of people who were going to write our own things and perhaps sometimes even publicly interact. In fact, this is why we called it a ‘Thing’ – Karl is an Anglo-Saxon scholar, and he pointed out that the etymological roots of the term ‘thing’ actually refers not so much to an object, but to a collective meeting of persons for slow, ponderous, considered discussion, much like an Entmoot in Tolkien’s world.
However, unlike Vox Nova, we were a little scared of using our real names because we were both working in the secular academy and had been told about a big, bad job market on the other end of our doctorates to which we did not want our names attached as Christians. On hindsight, our reluctance to use our own names only resulted in a great deal of comedy as it was really an open secret who we were – in fact, I started taking the gag so seriously that I’d refer to my alter ego ‘Chinglican at Table’ in the third person and eventually started writing as a caricature of myself – and now that we are actually on the academic job market, neither of us really seem to mind using our real names as Patheos Catholic bloggers. But it did give me some initial boldness; the riskiest thing I wrote early on was my joke post on the New Calvinist pastor Mark Driscoll becoming authoritarian at his Seattle megachurch because (as I argued) he was dealing with all of his Irish Catholic baggage, and I felt like I could write it because I did not have to write as ‘Justin Tse’; I was Chinglican!
Between writing for A Christian Thing, reading Vox Nova, and doing fieldwork in 2012 in Hong Kong, I began learning about something called the ‘public sphere.’ The irony in this cannot be overstated: the doctoral fieldwork that I had been doing since 2011 (which was a project I had concocted in 2010, while I was still in my very private phase) had in fact revolved around how Cantonese-speaking Protestants and how they engage with civil societies in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. But even though the core of my academic work literally revolved around the question of public spheres, it was only in practice that I really began to understand what a ‘public’ actually was.
This means that tomorrow, I’ll have to talk about Hong Kong, and by that, I do not mean the Umbrella Movement.