One of my primary points in my review of Rod’s book is that orthodox Christians need a robust commitment to conversation if we are to thrive in a post-Christian context. Given the importance this will play and the related point about how much of this will also be happening online rather than in-person, I want to say a bit more about how this needs to be done. I also want to make a few observations about movement-building and local advocacy for reform movements, as this will often require more (though not less!) than just conversation.
First Principle: Christian conversation is shaped by love. Love is patient and believes all things.
One of the difficulties for many of the writers talking about the BenOp is that what we’re really doing is fairly radical: At bottom, this conversation almost certainly requires a pretty robust rejection of modern liberalism, which for many people today is like being a fish trying to reject water.
Christian writers who have spent time reading Rod or Dr. Esolen or, better still, Lewis or Dawson, need to understand how difficult this move is going to be for many people we share a pew with on Sundays and we need to both be patient and assume the best. We—I—cannot afford to simply get frustrated and lash out at people when they say something that we (I) believe to be foolish, naive, or badly wrong-headed. Indeed, we should expect it: If the BenOp critique is true, then we should not be surprised to find that many Christians have questions about our proposal. Our entire critique assumes that most American Christians have not been properly catechized, do not know the basic teachings of the faith, and are thus unaware of the ways in which our faith and modern liberalism do not mesh. If our entire project is based on this idea it is not fair for us to be frustrated or exasperated when we find people in the pews who are exactly where our own critique says they will be. So there is at the front end of this whole thing a need on the part of BenOp advocates to engage patiently, gently, and to be prepared to walk a person through the various steps of the argument.
This is the point I want to make with more conservative Christians who tend to be instinctively sympathetic to Rod’s point and who feel immensely frustrated by their fellow parishioners’ concerns with it. And here I am speaking more to myself than anyone else as I think far too much of my own thinking (and probably writing as well) in the past six to eight months has been driven by, at least, frustration and at times genuine anger. We need to make arguments and we need to do so in a way that doesn’t obviously come off as impatient and exasperated because we have already made the argument a dozen times previously and we are now sick of it.
Conversation requires love to be truly fruitful and life-giving and love is patient and believes all things. BenOp proponents have to internalize these principles on a very deep level not only because it will make them more effective communicators but also—and more importantly!—because our own spiritual health hinges on the extent to which we, through the renewing work of the spirit, cultivate these sorts of habits and virtues.
Second, a commitment to conversation is not a blank check obliging us to have the same conversation with every person we encounter.
Amongst many younger evangelicals there is an admirable commitment to precisely the kind of conversation I am describing above. Indeed, part of what makes the BenOp conversations so difficult is that the temperament of BenOp proponents and the temperament of young evangelicals clash along these lines quite often. The commitment to conversation and dialogue in younger evangelicals is a praiseworthy thing.
However, this commitment cannot be absolute because Scripture does not make it absolute. There is clear biblical precedent for saying that certain conversations are not worth having, will not be fruitful, and therefore should be avoided. In these cases, attempts at “conversation” are almost certainly going to backfire because our opposites are not actually interested in conversation.
To illustrate the point, here is a story: A friend of mine was in a church situation several years ago where a few pastors in his church were trying to basically run out a few people in the church that they disagreed with. Initially, my friend and those who agreed with him tried to approach the issue peaceably. They threw the other side a few bones, tried to listen, bent over backwards to accommodate them, and so on. But the trouble was that this is what you do to make conversation possible between two parties who are actually interested in conversation.
If you try to build trust and appease a person to allow for conversation and the person is not actually interested in conversation, then you have a problem on your hands: The person is just going to take everything you give them and then turn around and use it against you. So in my friend’s situation, they had to change their approach so that it was no longer contingent on the other side having a good faith commitment to dialogue.
In many contexts, when you arrive at this point it is best to simply walk away from the conversation. This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when he warned his followers against casting pearls before swine. However, the fact of the internet and social media adds another layer to this which complicates things a bit.
One of the most important questions to ask in these situations is “will anyone else observe this conversation and can I make this conversation helpful to them, even if I have no hope of getting anywhere with the person I’m actually talking to?” If the answer is “no, this is a private conversation,” then you are probably best-off simply not having the conversation because it is not going to serve any purpose and will quite possibly do bad things in your own heart.
However, when the conversation is public, you can engage the person profitably because if you engage them well it will be instructive to others watching as to how they should think about this issue. There are multiple ways of doing this engaging, each of which can be appropriate in different circumstances.
One strategy is to simply have a calm, reasoned debate and rebut their arguments. I have friends who will do this on Facebook sometimes—they’ll engage with a troll posting dumb stuff on Facebook not because they think they’ll persuade the friend but because laying out the problems with the friend’s post can be helpful to others. Your opposite may not be engaging in good faith, but there may still be an audience watching that will benefit from seeing someone actually take apart their arguments a bit. Quite often social media trolls and internet famous celebrity writers have gained an audience for some reason besides their careful thinking or probing wisdom.1 However, their readers may not necessarily recognize that this is the case. In these situations, taking the time to calmly explain why the emperor has no clothes can be extremely valuable. This piece we ran four years ago by Derek Rishmawy is a good example of this, I think.
Another strategy is to troll the person a bit so that everyone else can fully appreciate how silly and trivial they actually are. Lest I be accused of being mean by citing a contemporary example, I’ll cite a Biblical one: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal:
25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
It’s OK to find this funny. Elijah did. By drawing out the absurdity of the thing, Elijah is helping us to see how ridiculous the prophets of Baal really are. With this biblical precedent, I’ll now give a couple contemporary examples of this same sort of mocking or trolling response to a thinker who is not worth engaging seriously.
First, this review of Rob Bell’s farcical Zimzum of Love published in, alas, the late Books & Culture is marvelous:
The following is an edited transcript from the Summer 2011 editorial meeting of the Shadow Government of Religious Publishing, known in the industry as ShGoRP. The acronym rhymes with “corp.” as in “corporation,” which is probably just an accident.
Executive 1: “We’re in a crisis. Numbers are down. Bart Ehrman isn’t going to make back his advance. Dan Brown-style conspiracy has run its course.”
Executive 2: “What about Americanized Eastern religion? We can always go back to that well. Wayne Dyer, peace be upon him, is still on PBS.”
Executive 3: “Okay, but we need a fresh angle.”
Exec 2: “We need to make it practical. I’ve always felt like we aren’t connected enough to real life. Diet books and couples yoga books, that’s all we’ve really had. And if we hit something practical, like marriage … don’t forget, rich people who buy books are usually married.”
Exec 1: “Good point. Let’s work that marriage angle. Do we have anything in the pipeline?”
Exec 2: “I had a proposal last month from an assistant prof at UCSD, a feminist who is fighting porn culture. She pitched a self-help marriage book that uses the Four Noble Truths to teach resistance to desire, even in marriage. She was inspired by Gandhi’s celibate marriage and the way in which he used to lie with naked young girls trying to exercise self-control by not getting aroused. She has her husband ogle her nude body and resist arousal. They also commit to total silence every other month in an effort to resist the desire to communicate.”
Executive 3: “Interesting, but it won’t sell. We need something pro-sex and pro-communication. And we need the veneer of Eastern religion but not the substance. Something that sounds Eastern, but isn’t.”
Executive 2: “And it’s got to be practical. The polls are telling us we are perceived as too esoteric and too out of touch, not practical enough.”
Minion tentatively takes a stab: “Evangelicals. They love practical. They love sex.”
What is particularly excellent about this review is that it not only shows how bad the book is; it also highlights the reason the book got published:
Not only does it treat the ideas with the contempt they fully deserve, it undercuts the entire project by highlighting how it is all driven by marketers and publishers who want to make a buck. It’s glorious.
A second example, this one from Alan Jacobs in First Things:
Expansive and yet vacuous is the prose of Kahlil Gibran,
And weary grows the mind doomed to read it.
The hours of my penance lengthen,
The penance established for me by the editor of this magazine,
And those hours may be numbered as the sands of the desert.
And for each of them Kahlil Gibran has prepared
Another ornamental phrase,
Another faux-Biblical cadence,
Another affirmation proverbial in its intent
But alas! lacking the moral substance,
The peasant shrewdness, of the true proverb.
O Book, O Collected Works of Kahlil Gibran,
Published by Everyman’s Library on a dark day,
I lift you from the Earth to which I recently flung you
When my wrath grew too mighty for me,
I lift you from the Earth,
Noticing once more your annoying heft,
And thanking God—though such thanks are sinful—
That Kahlil Gibran died in New York in 1931
At the age of forty-eight,
So that he could write no more words,
So that this Book would not be yet larger than it is.
There is a kind of Oprahistic “wisdom” that many of our peers gobble up without much critical thought. Quite often the best thing we can do in response is blow a few raspberries. Much of the appeal of works like Gibran’s is rooted in group dynamics. There is a zeitgeisty awe that exists around the book such that no one feels the liberty to say “I don’t think he actually said anything?”
Put another way, we’re right back to the Emperor’s wardrobe malfunction. There are occasions where the best thing we can do as an act of love to neighbor is, by our own mockery of a thing, tacitly give permission to our neighbors to also state what they actually think of a thing but have been too afraid to say for fear of being mocked or ridiculed.
The danger here is that if we only give license to dismiss without necessarily laying out the problems clearly, then we may miss a lot of people and alienate people that might otherwise be persuaded. So this is a delicate thing and we need to be careful about how we do it. But mockery and trolling is very much an acceptable rhetorical strategy for Christians.
How do you handle conflict when you cannot walk away?
That said, all of the above is of limited value in institutional settings. Walking away is not an option. Nor is mocking ridicule, for obvious reasons. If you are in the same congregation as the person in question or in a leadership role with them or are laboring alongside them in another institutional context, such as a denomination, you will have to find some other means of handling the problem.
In these sort of group settings, there are two ways of dealing with conflict. The first is the way we all prefer—we resolve the issue relationally thanks to a basis of shared trust and sometimes extensive conversation which is continued until we arrive at a resolution. But in cases where there is not enough trust to allow this to happen, group conflicts are worked out along procedural lines (if there is a procedure in place for doing so).
Procedure is useful because it has a kind of objectivity about it that does not exist with more relational approaches to conflict. The downside to procedure, of course, is that it feels impersonal and perhaps even a bit cold. But the benefit is that it offers a way of working out difficulties when there is not enough trust or affection in place to manage it by any other means. If this strategy does not work, the group will splinter. (Likewise, if the group has no such procedural strategy, the group is likely to functionally splinter even if it retains some sort of theoretical unity.)
Now let’s return to my friend: My friend and those with him were doing things you do to strengthen trust when you are resolving conflict in the first way. But the unfortunate thing is that if your opposites aren’t committed to conversation, then the same things that strengthen you relationally can weaken you procedurally. Your opposite will simply take whatever you give them and then use it against you. This is what was happening to my friend. (It’s also what has been happening in the SBC, in my opinion.)
What ended up fixing things for my friend is that they started to fight back procedurally. When they started doing this, the whole game changed as each of the ringleaders on the other side changed their behavior in some significant way. These days, things are much better and they even manage to do some things via relational trust. But to get there, they had to fight fire with fire a bit. Significantly, once the relational trust had been restored, they were able to default back to that means of navigating group conflict and I don’t believe they have had to resort to exclusively procedural strategies at all since then.
There are good and bad ways of attacking an issue procedurally, of course. That’s what my lengthy Twitter thread about the SBC was about:
— Jake Meador (@jake_meador) March 13, 2017
You need to be able to have some political savvy, identify the procedural avenues available to you, and recognize what the consequences of pulling each possible procedural lever will be. But sometimes this sort of strategy is the way to win a major victory.
Here is one example. The 16th century reformer Martin Bucer is a hero of mine. One of his peers once said that no theologian was more skilled in handling conflict “in the manner of the world,” then he. Evangelicals can be very squeamish about such things and so we hear something like that and probably take it intuitively as being an insult. But that is not necessarily the case. There are occasions where a bit of savvy around institutions is most useful. This story is a good example.
In 1531 the Reformation was teetering. After the failure of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 the mainstream reform movement had splintered into two separate movements—arguably three. At minimum, you had the Lutherans in northern Germany and the Reformed in Switzerland. The South German Reformation centered around Strasbourg, where Bucer was pastoring, could either be classed as its own separate thing or as part of the Swiss movement. By the end of the year, the Swiss would be on the brink of collapse. Zurich and Basel, the two primary cities in the movement at that time,2 would lose both of their leaders by year’s end with Zurich’s Ulrich Zwingli dying in battle and Johanes Oecolampadius dying after a short illness in Basel.
Strasbourg had problems of its own: The city’s church was overrun with Anabaptists. These radicals functionally speaking rejected involvement in civil society and embraced a dramatically different sort of ecclesiology. Their worst members also traded in a sort of cultic apocalypticism inspired by the flamboyant Melchior Hoffman. However, many of the most devout Christians in the city were Anabaptists and so they had gained a great deal of influence in the city. In fact, the city of Strasbourg itself was on the brink of going to the Anabaptist cause completely. Cathedral preacher Matthew Zell and his wife Katherine were friendly to the movement as was the church’s foremost leader within Strasbourg itself, Bucer’s friend Wolfgang Capito. Indeed, Capito was living with the prominent radical spiritualist Kasper Schwenkfeld and was beginning to adopt many of Schwenkfeld’s ideas.
Then something unexpected happened: Capito’s wife died suddenly. The reformer would have to remarry fairly quickly because it was not possible for him to maintain his own household and his work in the church without a wife. At this point the Anabaptist factions in the city recognized an opportunity. If they could arrange for Capito to marry an Anabaptist, they might finish the process of winning him over to the cause. With Capito won, the city would follow. Thus the Anabaptists began to maneuver to try and arrange a marriage between Capito and the widow of a respected local Anabaptist named Sabine Bader.
Bucer quickly became wise to their plans and knew that the only way to counter them was to propose an alternative spouse for Capito who would be more friendly to the Reformed movement. And he knew the perfect candidate: Oecolampadius’s widow, a remarkable woman named Wibrandis Rosenblatt.3 Bucer wrote some letters and quickly learned that Rosenblatt was open to the arrangement. He then went to Capito and encouraged him to honor their fallen friend Oecolampadius by marrying his widow and caring for her and their children.
At the same time that he was doing this work, Bucer was also working on a commentary on the Gospel of John. At this time, Bible commentaries often doubled as a way for pastors to write something like a systematic theology as they would comment extensively on individual texts in ways that allowed them to discuss a variety of different issues. In his commentary on John 1, Bucer rebutted many of Schwenkfeld’s teachings on the inner witness of the Spirit as it related to the teaching and authority of Scripture. Bucer knew quite well that this was the point where Capito was wavering and so he addressed Schwenkfeld’s arguments without ever attacking Schwenkfeld himself, let alone attacking Capito. Capito found Bucer’s argument persuasive and began to move away from Schwenkfeld.
It was in this context that Bucer then proposed his idea to Capito that he would marry Oecolampadius’s widow. Capito agreed to the plan. He and Rosenblatt were married. Not long after that, Schwenkfeld voluntarily left Strasbourg as it had become clear to him that he would not be able to persuade any of the key leaders of the church there to join his movement. Strasbourg would remain reformed.
Seven years later, a young French intellectual, recently banished from his former home, would arrive in Strasbourg looking for a job and a place to live. Bucer, by that time the preeminent leader in the city, would give him a job pastoring a church of French refugees. Over the next three years, he would mentor the young pastor, who was of course John Calvin. By the time Calvin left Strasbourg to return to Geneva he was a more mature, slightly chastened pastor. He returned to Geneva and handled the city’s internal politics far more effectively and, enjoying a level of support in Geneva that Bucer himself never got from the Strasbourg government, was able to effect wide-reaching change in Geneva which saw the creation of a seminary, the commissioning of missionaries, and the establishment of a thriving publishing scene.
When we tell these stories, we don’t necessarily like to dwell on the political maneuvering which creates the conditions in which these things can happen. But it is quite likely that if Bucer had not successfully navigated the complex Capito situation that none of what happened afterwards in Strasbourg would ever have happened. The city may very well have radicalized. Bucer would likely have been banished and the thriving publishing and educational hub that was Strasbourg would not have been able to fill the important transitional role it played in the early Reformation as it shepherded the movement during the brief window after Zwingli’s death and before Heinrich Bullinger and Calvin established themselves.
The core question that has concerned me with this post is how BenOp proponents should communicate their ideas and work for them within their local contexts. These are the main ideas I have landed on:
- Proponents of movements calling for radical change must, somewhat ironically, be patient and gentle in their advocacy for change in order to be effective on a broad scale. The first responsibility for anyone advocating change is to communicate in ways consistent with Christian love.
- In most situations, taking the time to have a calm, respectful conversation and to explain the idea to a person will be the best way to proceed. This is basically always going to be the case when speaking to someone who is honest and willing to converse.
- In cases where the interlocutor is not being honest or is not interested in actual conversation, other strategies are acceptable. There is no absolute rule requiring Christians to always approach people with a commitment to dialogue and conversation.
- Harsh, stinging criticism and even mockery or trolling can be acceptable ways of communicating a point to an audience in certain circumstances.
- In some situations, conflicts are best handled not by direct confrontation but rather via savvy political maneuvering within an institution.
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