I am a Christian. You might be Christian too. But we are neither Christian nor even religious.

If you are the sort of person who reads Meta, this is insultingly obvious. It says right in the FAQ:

We welcome Jewish, Christian, Atheist and other viewpoints as long as they take seriously the process of understanding the Biblical texts.

So, why do I bring this up? Well, the immediate reason is a comment I noticed from a new user:

This site is only for Protestants or no? I looked around and sometimes answers seem to be for all Christian groups but other times I saw only Protestant theology.

So our FAQ says one thing, but our content tells a different story. We look like a Christian (Protestant even) site to an outside observer. Given that many of our most active contributors and pro tempore moderators are Protestant Christians, that's not a big surprise. But it is a big concern. In fact, this has been a concern of mine since nearly the beginning of the site. Actions speak louder than words; if we continue to look like a Christian site, we may lose our non-Christian contributors or only attract Christian users thereby becoming a Christian site whatever our FAQ says.

What then shall we do?

The above are the facts and the conundrum as I see them. If there were easy answers, I'd list them here in the question. However, no consensus has been reached in over a year of meta-posts, chat and comments, so I'm looking for suggestions and insights into the problem.

There are several things that limit the range of answers:

  • It seems to me that editing out objectionable bits is not an option, even if we could agree on the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable content. Personally, I would also advocate for soft, rather than hard, lines. The best proposals are likely to have analog, not binary,

  • On the other hand, we ought not create a situation where every answer that asserts any particular doctrine spawns a comment knife-fight or votes held in ransom. As a community, we need to give each other space to be passionate (whether right or wrong).

  • The burden to demonstrate we are not a Christian site falls heavily on Christians. Remember the words of our Lord:

    So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.—Matthew 7:12 (ESV)

This post was heavily inspired by Caleb's Brothers, we are not Christians!! –  Jon Ericson Jan 28 '13 at 23:02
One big way in which the site "looks Christian" is the current policy (never openly discussed or voted on before enactment, as far as I can tell) that by default Christian answers to Tanakh questions are acceptable, and the asker has to opt out. If that were opt-in the site would both be and appear to be more open to Jews. Right now, with a Christian super-majority and with all mods being Christians, most people (through no fault of their own, let me be clear!) just don't see how this looks to others. –  Gone Quiet Jan 29 '13 at 3:51
@GoneQuiet: I understand the frustration with Christians reading our faith into the Jewish scripture. But why ask a question about the Tanakh here if you want a Jewish perspective and no other? Aren't many of the same questions on-topic at Mi Yodeya? (The same could be said for New Testament questions and Christianity too. But there are many reasons to ask a more diverse audience, in my opinion.) –  Jon Ericson Jan 29 '13 at 8:03
Well, I do ask my Tanakh questions there, except for one that I asked here in order to save a tag. Why might others not? At least one BH participant has told me he felt he couldn't formulate a question for that group; apparently we're intimidating to some. You might ask here if you want to stay text-focused rather than drawing in other rabbinic interpretations that can, sometimes, deviate rather far. You might ask here if you want to give weight to science or the possibility of non-divine authorship. Mi Yodeya has a theological base; that may or may not be what you want. –  Gone Quiet Jan 29 '13 at 13:42
BTW, I tried to edit my comment last night but timed out. I want to be clear that I'm not trying to ascribe any ill intent to any of the fine people here. It is really hard to look beyond one's own personal circumstances, particularly when reinforced as part of the majority. I'm as susceptible as anyone else. –  Gone Quiet Jan 29 '13 at 13:48
Jon, a further thought on re-reading: as you mention (and site activity bears out), Jews are not generally all that motivated to ask our questions here when we can get answers that match our perspective on Mi Yodeya. So one of the major means of participating in an SE site, asking questions, is less appealing right out of the gate. If you (plural) want us to participate anyway, e.g. by answering questions, we have to feel welcome -- not just tolerated, but full partners in the site. Otherwise, what's our motivation to spend limited time here rather than elsewhere? –  Gone Quiet Feb 27 '13 at 14:00

6 Answers 6

It would be great to be able to actively encourage contributions from those who so far form a minority (or who are not represented at all) on the site.

I'd suggest your 'Let's ask about' meta posts would be one useful way of doing this.

What I really don't want to see is this, mentioned in The Library being realised:

It just seems like the main solution given by you so far to promote a full range of approaches is to restrict certain approaches, which seems antithetical to exactly what we're trying to promote.

I'm very concerned that most of the proposed means of keeping the appeal of the site broad enough for some, will end up shutting the door on many others.

I'd also like to add a few notes of positivity:

  1. Traffic is growing
  2. Quality is high
  3. Users that provide content with broad appeal are rewarded
  4. New users are welcomed
  5. The Library is proving to be a useful and active chat-room
  6. Old users are returning

I've been very impressed by the way the members of this site treat each other, even when they disagree, and I'm not the only one to be impressed. I've always thought this site would grow more slowly than other parts of the SE network because the key experts don't overlap strongly with the folk on SO—the vital ingredient for us collectively and individually is patience, so please keep up the good work everyone!

The metrics you list say nothing of the make-up of the content. C.SE could have exactly the same pattern. I don't know how to measure breadth and welcoming-ness other than anecdotally. Several non-Christians and one Christian non-Protestant have told you that the impression the site gives doesn't match its goals. That's the input that matters to me. You may say I'm biased (and I would say the same of you), but if I were the only one saying this I wouldn't be pushing so hard. –  Gone Quiet Jan 30 '13 at 14:01
"Several non-Christians and one Christian non-Protestant have told you that the impression the site gives doesn't match its goals."—have they? I'm not sure who you are referring to. –  Jack Douglas Jan 30 '13 at 16:11
The non-Protestant is quoted in the question. See also: meta.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/73/… (my first mention of this, I think), meta.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/427/208, and I know there were some in chat but they're harder to find right now. BTW, found on the way to look for those: meta.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/74/208 (a different perspective, but also calling for doctrine to be explicit). –  Gone Quiet Jan 30 '13 at 16:36
@GoneQuiet I don't read any of those except yours as saying (to me?) "the impression the site gives doesn't match its goals". One in particular has agreed to feed back after a period of time and I'm very interested to see how that works out! –  Jack Douglas Jan 30 '13 at 18:02
Gah, it was actually the post from that comment that I meant to link to, oops. "I'm feeling some dissonance between the stated policy of not-so-much-doctrine and the content of questions I see. To begin with, every time I see the term 'OT', I cringe. ..." (I got lost in my bmargulies tabs.) –  Gone Quiet Jan 30 '13 at 18:39
Oh, and it wasn't meant to be a personal-exclusive "you", sorry. –  Gone Quiet Jan 30 '13 at 18:41

Let us focus on what unites us.

This past weekend, my son and I went on the annual Ten Commandments hike sponsored by our Boy Scout council. Ten places of worship are chosen to give short lectures on one of the commandments. Most are churches, but the organizers try to include a synagogue if possible. This year, the Episcopalian priest invited his friend, a Reformed rabbi, because the nearest synagogue would have added a mile to the route.

The priest started off by saying that he invited his friend because if you are going to talk about the Torah, you need to go to the Jews. God gave them the law first, after all. The rabbi disagreed: many Christian scholars are well trained and he's gotten new insights from them. Even so, he went on to explain the fifth commandment while the priest listened. This is my paraphrase from memory:

The Ten Commandments were a revolutionary legal code because they were given to everyone. Other cultures had commandments that protected the elite, but God gave the Torah to protect even slaves and foreigners living in the land. "Thou shalt not kill" meant that it was wrong to kill anyone. It also was the first document to espouse gender equality: "Honor your father and your mother."

The promise, "so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you", works because our parents have won wisdom over their long lives. If we refuse to learn from them, we can't benefit from their experiences. The Jews are parents to Christianity and Islam, so we should listen to their teachings. We are all "people of the book", but God went to the Jews first.

Even so, the Torah is for everyone since we all trace our origin back to the Lord who gave it. Abraham was promised that he would be a blessing to all the nations and that has come true. We are on different paths, but we are all climbing the same mountain. The Ten Commandments help us find our way.

Now let's not quibble about theology: my point is, we have a common text. Yes we have different ways of talking about it, but the text remains constant; it's our touchstone. The solution to appearing too Christian is to invite more viewpoints. That's why I'm seeking second opinions. That's why my first challenge was to ask questions. I believe the text becomes more clear the more ways you look at it.

+1 I wholeheartedly agree! –  Jack Douglas Jan 30 '13 at 16:12
Well, I knew the Boy Scouts excluded atheists, but I'm upset to learn they're also favouring Abrahamic faiths (and specifically Christianity). Meh. More privilege blindness, I suppose (of the same sort that's also harming this site). –  TRiG Jan 30 '13 at 17:30

One thing that could make the site seem more open and less Christianity-specific would be to adopt a cultural norm to use neutral terminology where possible. I am not proposing a requirement (put that straw-man away, please), but as polite people trying to get along in a heterogeneous (and heterodox) environment, we should strive to not use terms that others find problematic or offensive. This care on the part of authors should, of course, be balanced by readers assuming authors' best possible intentions. This isn't a political-correctness tirade or an attempt to rewrite major parts of the English language. But there are a few things we could do better on...

This suggestion has two parts: (1) raising awareness, which I hope to do in this answer (among other places), and (2) tolerating edits for this class of wording just as we tolerate (and encourage) edits for grammar, formatting, and so on. No one should feel pressured to audit his terminology before posting (it's a good thing, but not a requirement), and nobody should be offended if his post is edited in this way.

Here's a list of affected terms in approximate order of severity (degree of offense that I think they cause specifically for Jews; I can't speak for Muslims):

  • "Old testament" except in an explicitly-Christian context. Use "Tanakh" (an acronym for torah - neviim (prophets) - ketuvim (writings)) or "Hebrew bible". If you're talking about Christian scriptures then it makes sense to talk about "new" and "old", but seeing "old testament" on a question about Isaiah is off-putting.
  • "Christ" where "Jesus" would suffice (especially in a Tanakh context). The former is an assertion of Christian faith; the latter is a personal reference. Of course, if the context is specifically discussion of the Christian messiah, this bullet doesn't apply -- you need to be able to talk about your saviour unambiguously.
  • "Judeo-Christian": this usually seems to mean "Christian" and it's a term Jews don't use. Also, here on BH when you're talking about these two religions you might intend to include Islam too. Try "monotheistic religions" if you want to talk about all of these, or just list them. (How often does this come up?)
  • (This is some padding to convey that the next item is a much smaller issue.)
  • "BC" and "AD", which mean "before Christ" and "anno domine" (year of our lord). Jesus isn't everybody's lord. The terms "BCE" and "CE" ("(before) common era") have become more common in interfaith and academic settings.

Again, this is not an attempt to wave a big stick and say "thou shalt not post using these words". It is a call to try, and to accept edits that change these terms in the same way we accept other edits. It's quite all right to place the burden of maintenance on those who care the most.

Also, remember that edits leave a complete audit trail and can be rolled back or further edited.

This answer doesn't address doctrinal concerns, some of which are also quite offensive; for that issue, see this answer.

Since you asked how often "Judeo-Christian" comes up, I ran a search and there is only one use of the term on the site. Oddly enough, it pretty much refers to "Jewish" rather than "Christian" in that answer since Christianity was still nascent at the time and certainly unknown to Philippi. –  Soldarnal Jan 30 '13 at 4:12
This is a useful and thoughtful post, but I reluctantly dovnvoted because I disagree that editing is the right answer. When you change 'Old Testament' to 'Tanakh' you remove visible information about the poster (that (s)he is writing from a Christian perspective) and add misleading pointers in the opposite direction. Speaking as a Christian I appreciate when you and others use the term 'Tanakh' precisely because it makes your perspective easier to recognise and your contributions easier to understand. It is ok in my view to encourage folk to use so-called neutral terms by other means. –  Jack Douglas Jan 30 '13 at 10:42
Unlike @Jack Douglas, I upvoted this answer because I'm a bit more "pro-edit". But he makes a compelling point--especially in light of our FAQ assertion that we are open to all hermeneutical traditions. We'd probably have more instances of "Judeo-Christian" if we had more secular voices, for instance. It would be nice if we could use this answer to gently remind folks that Christianity doesn't own the Tanakh, but by throwing in the editing issue (better addressed elsewhere, in my opinion) I don't think it will serve. (One solution might be for me to edit it!) –  Jon Ericson Jan 30 '13 at 13:41
@JackDouglas, so by that reasoning, when Jon uses "tanakh" instead of "old testament" because he's trying to be inclusive, you can't tell that he's a Christian? I don't think anybody doubts that but somehow he does it anyway. If you want to know about a user, that's what the profile is for. Posts should be self-contained; if knowing the person's perspective is important to understanding the post, then we should be asking people to declare it explicitly. –  Gone Quiet Jan 30 '13 at 13:51
@JonEricson, that edit would pretty significantly change the meaning of the answer. Feel free to use the parts you like in the FAQ or elsewhere on meta or whatever, but this question asked what we can do, not "ideas that we hope people will keep in mind, at least for the week or two that this post is still remembered". I am proposing the gentlest of editing policies (not at all inconsistent with other SE sites) as a means to move us toward the norm we want. I don't think you can get there just by talking about it. –  Gone Quiet Jan 30 '13 at 14:16
@GoneQuiet I considered mentioning my thoughts on that (Jon or another contributor using 'Tanakh' with the deliberate intention of being more 'neutral'). Even this adds information about the person who does it in my view—both those who are willing to use the term and those who are completely unwilling to do so are telling us something about their viewpoint. –  Jack Douglas Jan 30 '13 at 16:25

I don't want to come across here as protesting too much. We obviously have some issue or this post would not have been raised and there wouldn't be so many opinions. The purpose is to try and provide insight into our content.

On Jack's answer, GoneQuiet noted that his metrics don't give good insight into the makeup of our content, so I want to use this answer to try and address that. Here are a number of searches I've run to try and get a sense for how we might be skewed1:

On the use of "Tanakh" vs "Old Testament":

http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/search?q=tanakh 126 results http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/search?q=%22old+testament%22 117 results

On the topic of "Judeo-Christian":

http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/search?q=judeo-christian 1 result

On the issue of "Christ" I didn't have a great way to search, since obviously many NT quotations will simply contain the title. I did a search instead for questions tagged containing "Christ":

2 results (both at -1 votes)

On the issue of BC/AD vs BCE/CE2:

http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/search?q=BC 18 results http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/search?q=BCE 11 results http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/search?q=CE 15 results

Each of you can draw your own conclusions from the data, and I certainly welcome other data points.

Personally, I think the data above shows that these issues are a red herring. Instead, the area where we see the biggest number skews is in our questions. I mentioned in chat before, but our top three Jewish users by reputation combine for more reputation than Jon Ericson (even accounting for his bounties), but have asked 17 combined questions to his 138.

If there is anything skewing the feel of our site, it would seem to me this. The first thing a user sees when they come to the site is the most recently active questions. If those questions are primarily from Christian users, they will tend to be questions about the New Testament and tend to garner answers from other Christian users.

It doesn't seem possible to ask our Christian users to ask questions from a Jewish world view; so probably the next best thing we can do is encourage questions about the Tanakh. It's been a while since we've had a challenge as Jon mentions. Obviously he has his hands pretty full right now (or will soon again), so it might be best if someone else would spearhead this, if others indeed think it would be helpful.

1 It should be obvious, but all results counts are at the time of this post.

2 A search for AD returns a number of irrelevant results (e.g. 'ad' is a Latin word that shows up surprisingly often), so it was hard to gauge the numbers for that.

Interesting data and very relevant. One item that you are missing is that people seem to assume we are Christian without even looking. When you come in with that assumption, it doesn't take much evidence to convince yourself that it's true. However, I agree that since questions direct the topics of the site, asking more "non-Christian" questions (whatever that might mean) will do more than trying to fix a few answers. –  Jon Ericson Jan 30 '13 at 17:25
@Jon while I think what you say is true, I also feel it is important to distinguish between 'real' evidence as presented here by Soldarnal and 'anecdotal' evidence (which is all we currently have about the site's perception). There are all sorts of systematic biases possible when we rely on anecdotal evidence. –  Jack Douglas Feb 2 '13 at 9:09
I just removed a "Jewish/Christian" that wasn't caught by the Judeo-Christian search. (I bring this up to remind us all that there might be alternate formations of some of these.) –  Gone Quiet Feb 5 '13 at 13:56

My thoughts on the question(s) behind this question are documented and searchable so I'll not do a lot of rehashing.

I think that it's important to clearly define on-topic vs. off-topic content. In the discussions that I've witnessed, Christians (of which I am one) tend to lean more toward allowing doctrinal and theological explication in answers. As far as I can tell, this has been and may continue to be a barrier to entry for non-Christians.

I think I agree with this answer, but I'm not sure it's helpful on the more specific issue of how Christians can answer from their own tradition without creating the impression that the site is Christian. Are you suggesting that all answers be inductive? –  Jon Ericson Jan 29 '13 at 0:31
@Jonericson Inductive feels like too much Christian-ese. I guess I am recommending that if we could get to a place where we were comfortable saying that all questions should start from the text or the process (and not the result) then there would probably be a bit more non-Christian interaction –  swasheck Jan 29 '13 at 2:13
Heh. I picked "inductive" because it seemed less Christian. ;-) To put it another way, you seem to advocate a bottom-up criteria for the site, rather than top-down. I'm not convinced that that's a silver bullet. –  Jon Ericson Jan 29 '13 at 3:00
And when we define on-topic versus off-topic, that has to address answers too. Some assert that there is no such thing as an off-topic answer; I disagree. Answers make up the majority of our content by volume, so they will affect how people perceive us. Any definition of on/off-topic that only addresses questions won't change the impression we're giving. –  Gone Quiet Jan 29 '13 at 17:26

One site policy that makes the site "look Christian" to me is our handling of doctrine in answers. Doctrine-based questions are not permitted, but the policy our mods are currently following is that doctrine in answers is ok (and according to some, unavoidable). Answers constitute the majority of our content by volume, so a doctrine policy that only addresses questions does not appreciably help the impression we give of being a Christian site.

I have argued before about why this is problematic, so here I will just propose a policy change:

  • "Out-of-context" doctrine, e.g. Christian interpretations of Tanakh text or Muslim interpretations of gospels or Jewish interpretations of Revelation, is by default not permitted as the foundation of an answer.

  • The asker of a question is free to opt into broader scope, in which case the previous does not apply. Suggested wordings: "I welcome answers from all doctrinal perspectives", or "I am specifically interested in Christian interpretations" (of a tanakh text).

  • It is acceptable to augment an answer with doctrinal tie-ins, but they should be separated from the core of the answer. "By the way, this textual interpretation forms the basis for Muhammad's infallability, as explained in (source)". (If you can't source it you should probably leave it as a comment instead.) It's not acceptable for doctrine to be the answer, but it's ok to, essentially, footnote it.

Information is not the same thing as opinion (in which category I place doctrine). I am not proposing that science and history are off-topic unless solicited. A question asking what "day" means in Genesis 1 could elicit an answer that discusses sourced scientific findings about the age of the earth -- so long as it still answers the question by tying that to the text somehow. An answer that merely asserts "the earth is millions of years old so this text is wrong", on the other hand, is an opinion and not an answer. Science can be just as doctrinal as anything else, but it needn't be.

How does this help us with our image problem? It puts the doctrinal parameters of a question front and center. The person Googling for an answer to a Tanakh question will see, before he gets to the Christian answers, that the question invited that perspective. It's accuracy in labeling.

I'm separating my thoughts on this question into multiple answers to facilitate voting on the different themes. More to come. –  Gone Quiet Jan 29 '13 at 21:15
To play devil's advocate: does this mean it would be wrong to interpret demon possession as an epileptic seizure or to interpret the plagues on Egypt as being legendary exaggerations? Alternatively, would questions on New Testament texts default to Christian answers? (As you might imagine, neither of those extensions of the principle would sit well with me.) –  Jon Ericson Jan 29 '13 at 21:24
How do you see an opt in policy as directly addressing this? Seems that if most of the questions are already originating from Christian askers, this wouldn't do much to change the numbers on the answers. –  Soldarnal Jan 29 '13 at 21:35
Jon, I'm looking for a way to draw the line between knowledge that comes from outside of the text and opinions that do so. I've got no problem with an answer that says "archaeological evidence is inconsistent with the plagues having happened as written (details)", though since "did the plagues happen?" is off-topic this would have to be part of a question along the lines of "we're told (something) about such-and-such plague; how did that work?" (e.g. given that people need water to live, how could people survive the Nile being turned to blood?). That's probably not a good question, though? –  Gone Quiet Jan 29 '13 at 21:38
@GoneQuiet i understand your perspective, though i think that inferences or observations might be more accurate than opinions. having said that, i have seen some conjecture and opining in answers. –  swasheck Jan 29 '13 at 21:40
@Soldarnal, it puts the parameters front and center. When somebody Googles a question about Genesis expecting to get a tanakh-based answer and sees sensus plenior et al, at least the question he saw on the way to that answer said "I welcome Christian answers". It's truth in labeling. I'm trying for a compromise that could actually be implemented, finding the current state untenable. –  Gone Quiet Jan 29 '13 at 21:40
Much of this answer is based on the assumption that terms like "Out-of-context doctrine" are easily defined and agreed upon. In my view the exact opposite is true: the discussions we have had so far on this subject would seem like a walk in the park next to the endless disagreements over definitions this kind of policy would provoke. –  Jack Douglas Jan 30 '13 at 10:59
@JackDouglas, you assert one thing, I assert another; what data can we look at? We don't have strict definitions of "offensive", "chatty", "off-topic", or sometimes even "duplicate" either, but somehow the site gets along anyway. Let's trust in the good will of all participants in combination with revision history. I believe the right things will fall out over time. This site isn't done evolving yet and that's what beta is all about. –  Gone Quiet Jan 30 '13 at 14:06
A quick look around is enough to prove that there are many different ideas on what exactly 'doctrine' or 'dogma' means. Here are a few examples: 1, 2, 3, 4 –  Jack Douglas Jan 30 '13 at 16:37

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .