On Being Mark G., And Not

Last week I received a brief but warm e-mail thanking me for something written that day in the comments section of the Reformed Forum blog. The comment in view was theological and in critical response to someone else’s remarks, with which my correspondent disagreed. One would expect, fairly, that I would be delighted to receive the e-mail, happy for a moment of (naturally) insightful appreciation of my uncommon brilliance and polemical acumen. Only I wasn't delighted. In fact I was not the author of the comment in question, nor of any of the many other comments posted by “Mark G.” over what has been at least a few years.

Allow me an explanation. For quite some time now, I have been confused with a certain “Mark G.” who comments on the Reformed Forum blog. It has been my strange experience – sometimes with amusement, sometimes with something less honorable – to be accused, praised, or simply assumed to believe something on account of something “Mark G.” said in this venue. I have had conversations with new acquaintances or colleagues who decide, with visible discomfort, that they must take issue with something I believe, only to discover, after the inevitable and seemingly interminable minute or two of confusion, that he is referring to the "Mark G." of the Reformed Forum blog. Somehow, in short, many of the billions - give or take - of readers of Reformed Forum’s blog have assumed I am the “Mark G.” who shows up in the comments feed.

I can hardly complain, of course: the confusion is utterly sensible. After all, I have been interviewed on Reformed Forum programs, have several friends in the Reformed Forum circle of speakers and listeners, and have published on topics not only discussed often by the crew at Reformed Forum but also, providentially and humorously, discussed with verve and effect by the “Mark G.” of the comments section of the blog. In fact, it is not only critics of the “real” Mark. G. (to which idea I will soon return) but supporters and friends as well who have confused one Mark with the other. “And by the way, you were exactly right in what you said to xxx!,” said a dear friend to me about a year ago. To which I replied, “Huh?” And without fail the now familiar pattern revealed itself: invariably, the next thirty seconds of the conversation consists of terribly embarrassing flailing about - complete with (what must seem like outrageously rude) attempts to interrupt the speaker mid-thought - in the attempt to make clear what has in fact happened.

mistaken identityThe truth is I do not recall ever having said anything in the comments section of the Reformed Forum blog, nor would I be inclined to attempt meaningful theological interaction in the comments section of any blog. The venom that floods from the orifices of blog comments in webdom has been a notorious and heavily criticized feature of religious interaction in recent years, and I hardly need to persuade the reader of this ironic stain on Christian beliefs regarding faithful practice and engagement. (This touches on the larger question of our relationship to technology, but I leave it to Michael Sacasas, editor here at Wince+Sing and in my view the finest Reformed thinker on the ethics of the use of technology, to elaborate on this.) Theological discussion via blog comments has not been, then, a first choice personally. I do not suggest, though, that it would be impossible to do it well, but that I do not expect I would be very successful at it. At the least, I have a way with words, and it is the way of exhaustion: I use too many of them when I want to say something, and this doesn't fit the medium very well.

Thinking this over the past few days, I recognize there are at my disposal a range of possible reactions to the “Mark G.” phenomenon. I note here only two. Firstly, I might wonder, for instance, how many other readers or “skimmers” of the blog, but from whom I have not heard, have assumed that I believe things, have said things, or do things that were in fact the beliefs, words, and actions of another. I wonder too how often, if ever, this has worked against me. As a minister in the Church and teacher in the classroom, I’m all too familiar with how such assumptions can work to destroy rather than to build. There are assumptions - some valid, many invalid - that are tied to my being a Ph.D., a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, a minister (including specifically in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), a man of my age in years, a Garcia from Miami with a Cuban family background, and so on. Less with paranoia than with bewilderment at what some of those criticisms and assumptions have been in the past, I can't help but wonder, what if this has been part of that picture?

There is another, second reaction, however, that commends itself much more readily for a Christian. It begins with a heavy dose of realism (when someone refers to "realism" in this way you can expect they mean something uncomfortable compared to the ease of sticking with the alternative). In fact I do not know the other “Mark G.” and I do not recall reading more than a handful of his comments in the past, all of them unproblematic and which I read only because of curiosity over the “Mark G.” phenomenon in the first place. And realism in this case must include this stubborn fact: it may very well be that I should be glad for the confusion rather than disturbed by it. "Mark G." from the blog may well be a better, wiser, and more helpful "Mark G." than I am, may be doing the name a much better service than I am, and it would be foolish and arrogant to assume that the opposite is the case. (After all, I know some rather excellent Christian scholars who are also "Mark G.'s" such as Mark Goodacre and Mark Gignilliat.)

Why, then, did my first reaction to this most recent e-mail provoke the very different feeling of “ugh, here it is again, I wonder what was written this time”? At least one reason is clear enough and puts others in some perspective: I am a sinner, and sinners are foolishly sure most of the world is standing to their left, not to their right. I’m reminded of Spurgeon’s wise words regarding the unfortunate reality of being the object of undeserved criticism: if the criticism isn’t true, he said, don’t be too upset – it wouldn't take long for them to find something else in any of us that is true, and we might be better off with the unjust accusation than the just one. This is a suggestion easily abused, but, hm, okay. (Gulp.) Fair enough.

Moreover, on guard against my wicked tendency as a son of Adam to act as though the world revolves around me, I need to be careful not to sound as though I am the "real" Mark G. in a way that might suggest the other Mark G. is not "real" too. He is real, as real as I am, perhaps upset at being confused with me for all I know, and again it may be a gift for others to confuse him with me.

Why, then, mention this confusion at all? Because in thinking about this phenomenon, and of various ways to react to it, I have been reminded of the ironically wonderful truth that the Gospel in which we hope is not, strictly speaking, good news of confused but it is still good news of assumed identity: we depend for life eternal on the person and work of Another, of One who assumed humanity to heal it, of One who became sin - or Sin, and monstrously so - in order that we might become Righteousness, and gloriously so. Blessed identity switch, indeed.

While I do not know the true identity of “Mark G.” the commenter, and do not know if I ever will, I’m grateful for the happy benefits that accrue to me from the confusion (despite my efforts to be dutiful in correcting the mistake). And for those times the confusion proves to be anything but happy, I pray my response will speak well of the Gospel I say I hold dear.

~ Mark G. #2

Update: Reformed Forum has now referred to this post in their Twitter feed.