By Joshua Heavin
Collin Hansen recently tweeted, “I’ve come to expect that many will lie about what I say and think. It’s part of the job for me and life for all of us in this fallen world. I don’t quite know what to make of the fact that almost all of the lying comes from professing Christians who know the truth.”
Hansen’s lament is probably applicable across the political and ecclesial spectrum. What makes that uniquely tragic is that Christians have a particular duty to accurately represent our interlocutors.
In the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin comments on the ninth commandment as follows:
The purport of the commandment is, since God, who is truth, abhors falsehood, we must cultivate unfeigned truth towards each other. The sum, therefore, will be, that we must not by calumnies and false accusations injure our neighbour’s name, or by falsehood impair his fortunes; in fine, that we must not injure any one from petulance, or a love of evil-speaking. To this prohibition corresponds the command, that we must faithfully assist every one, as far as in us lies, in asserting the truth, for the maintenance of his good name and his estate. (Institutes, II.8.47)
Calvin’s development in this regard cuts us to the quick for our near obsession with the intoxicating, poisonous opportunism of falsehood:
And yet it is strange, with what supine security men everywhere sin in this respect. Indeed, very few are found who do not notoriously labour under this disease: such is the envenomed delight we take both in prying into and exposing our neighbour’s faults. Let us not imagine it is a sufficient excuse to say that on many occasions our statements are not false. He who forbids us to defame our neighbour’s reputation by falsehood, desires us to keep it untarnished in so far as truth will permit.
Though the commandment is only directed against falsehood, it intimates that the preservation of our neighbour’s good name is recommended. It ought to be a sufficient inducement to us to guard our neighbour’s good name, that God takes an interest in it. Wherefore, evil-speaking in general is undoubtedly… Wherefore, if the true fear and love of God dwell in us, we must endeavour, as far as is lawful and expedient, and as far as charity admits, neither to listen nor give utterance to bitter and acrimonious charges, nor rashly entertain sinister suspicions. As just interpreters of the words and the actions of other men, let us candidly maintain the honour due to them by our judgment, our ear, and our tongue. (Institutes, II.8.48)
If Calvin is correct, then Christians have a particular duty not only to refrain from spreading falsehoods about our neighbor, but upholding their good name as well. Accurately representing our interlocutor(s) is undoubtedly an implication of loving our neighbors. But additionally, the logic of Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians links the church’s obligation of truthfulness directly to our participation with Christ in the new creation: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:9–10).
Through union with Christ we share in Christ’s threefold office of prophetic witness, priestly service, and kingly reign (see Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31–32). Our capacity to serve in those regards as credible truth-tellers about God and the world can be harmed by various and pernicious temptations related to truthfulness.
Perhaps we lazily caricature our interlocutors before quickly disposing of our grotesque depiction of their obvious idiocy and stupendous immorality. A popular and expedient species of that argument can oversimplify the nuances of two opposing perspectives on some matter, doing justice to neither, while posturing as a morally superior moderate, asking, “why not both?”
Although slightly more sophisticated, we might refuse to articulate or engage our opponents’ actual arguments, and instead only prop up and cut down what we regard as the implications of their arguments.
Now, obviously it is sometimes appropriate to take a both-and approach to some question, or raise concerns about yet-unseen implications of a proposal. But we have a theological responsibility to do the hard work of so articulating the position of our interlocutors that they would recognize the nuances of their own positions on our lips and in our writing. It is entirely possible that we could regard something as an implication of their reasoning that does not necessarily follow.
Amidst the chaotic public discourse in American public life over the last three years–a cacophony demonstrably exacerbated on social media by active measures of a hostile foreign adversary–it might be easy to dismiss all of this as a mere microcosm of a decadent society. But where such trends are unsurprising in a world of Machiavellian monarchs, such practices are against the very nature of an institution that happens to be named in Scripture “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
To clarify, it is not that the church should never recognize a problem or heresy and speak or act on behalf of its integrity. Rather, precisely where we desire the church to have the moral clarity and will to act on behalf of truth, we all the more so must avoid misrepresenting our opponents while claiming to defend some notion of orthodoxy. Here I’ll note three very different examples in this vein.
First, the Revoice Conference has never been secretive about its beliefs, mission, or perspective, such as their recent Statement on Sexual Ethics and Christian Obedience. Nonetheless, a significant portion of the discourse about Revoice from prominent evangelical leaders to lay persons have often not only slightly but quite terribly misrepresented its leaders.
One may or may not regard what Revoice stands for as a good thing. However, a vast amount of conversation has taken place that has misattributed what Revoice fundamentally stands for. Despite consistency and many public statements of Revoice’s values, it is not uncommon for its leaders to have exchanges in churches, blogs, or other public forms where they have to indicate “I don’t recognize my views in that summary,” or “This quote absolutely misrepresents what I believe….” However, there is an especially noteworthy instance of this trend.
Rosaria Butterfield is a former English professor and specialist in queer and feminist literary theory at Syracuse University, and recently wrote The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World. At one point, amidst an explanation of why Christians should show hospitality to the LGBTQ community, Butterfield offers strong criticism of an article written by Wesley Hill. According to Butterfield’s account, Wesley Hill’s “shamefully misleading idea” uncritically celebrates nightclubs as sanctuaries:
On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a twenty-nine-year old security guard, killed forty-nine people and wounded fifty-three others in a terrorist attack inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orland, Florida. Immediately, media started to represent Pulse as a sanctuary rather than as a nightclub. Christians who, by God’s grace and protection, had never stepped through the door of a gay club, concurred. A nightclub is a sanctuary, they said. Wesley Hill, in an article entitled, “If the Church Were a Haven,” a First Things article, offered this: “Clubs like Pulse have been among the precious few places for the LGBTQ community throughout its history to find respite from ridicule (and worse)… Some of the clubs have even borne that name – ‘Sanctuary’ – in neon, like a lighthouse pointing the way to safety.” It is a misleading article, and it is based on a shamefully misleading idea…. “sanctuary” is the antithesis of what it is… A nightclub is not a sanctuary. No one really believes that it is.
The problem is that Wesley Hill’s First Things article does not believe that it is either. Here, Hill does not introduce the metaphor of a sanctuary as his own constructive, programmatic statement that nightclubs are virtuous. Butterfield has quoted the final line of Hill’s introductory paragraph, but there Hill merely quotes what others have said in order to probe and reflect on a paradox: why has the currently grieving LGBTQ community often used the metaphor of a sanctuary for a nightclub? Hill then plainly states he does not endorse nightclub culture. This is not some subtle, hidden inference in his article. Where Butterfield quotes the works of the flesh in Galatians 5 to denounce what typically occurs in night clubs, and implies that Wesley Hill endorses the works of the flesh, Hill wrote the following instead:
Clubs like Pulse have never been my scene, but I have an inkling of what they mean to my tribe… I don’t want to sound naïve. Whatever else was happening just before last call was announced and Omar Mateen checked the magazines on his 9mm Glock for the final time, I don’t imagine it was intimate, unselfish conversation. Nor, as I also know from experience, is the gay community exempt from the backstabbing, shallowness, and hedonism that bedevil every other human group, bar none, brought together by mutual affinity. Still, when I think back to the consolations of that dinner around my table, tainted as it was too with my friends’ and my own insecurities and petty sins, I want to cry for what was lost that night at Pulse. Solidarity among friends and a safe place to belong, even an imperfect one marred by self-indulgence, was shattered…
Ironically, Butterfield’s call for a kind of Christian hospitality towards the Pulse community is itself an inhospitable use of Wesley Hill’s own call for Christians to practice hospitality. Where Butterfield paints Hill’s “misleading article” as concerned with little more than regarding nightclubs as sanctuaries, Hill’s concluding concern is that Christians make use of their theological resources to grieving people seeking respite elsewhere, such as his concluding lines: “We Christians have our theology of self-giving love, our saints’ examples, and even recent Christian heroes’ memories to point the way forward in a post-Orlando world. Would that we would seize on our own best treasures and offer them afresh to a grieving population.”
While striving here to be as charitable as possible to Butterfield, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that she has quite seriously misrepresented Hill and unfairly dishonored his name in a warmly reviewed book that has been widely popular among evangelicals.
Second, in a very different realm of academic discourse, arguably New Testament scholarship could have looked very different today if two notable examples of caricature had long ago been avoided. The scholarly movement known as ‘the New Perspective on Paul’ is generally recognized to have been generated by E.P. Sanders’ landmark 1977 study Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published shortly after the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls that offered far more insight into first century Judaism than was previously possible.
Sanders’ stated goal was to refute caricatured views of ancient and contemporary Judaism that were recycled throughout the centuries in churches and in scholarship, reduced Jews to little more than an inferior foil to Paul (and later Christianity), and which were often freighted with and historically carried anti-Semitic implications. Sanders’ massively influential work led to a revolution in scholarly perspectives on ancient Judaism, but a number of interpreters proceeded subsequently to sometimes distort or caricature Paul’s later Christian interpreters as fundamentally misguided in their readings of Paul. The perspective Sanders himself sought to challenge was not so much that of Martin Luther, John Calvin or the magisterial reformers themselves, but rather the then-dominant Lutheran existentialism in mid-twentieth century scholarship associated especially with Rudolf Bultmann’s tremendous influence.
Nonetheless, the Protestant Reformation’s forebearers became regular strawmen in the decades that followed. This trend recently prompted New Testament scholar Stephen Chester to return to the sources of the Reformers themselves in order to appraise whether or not they have been fairly represented where they have been dismissed. The fruit of that research is Chester’s book, Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives. It is difficult to improve upon John Barclay’s blurb for Chester’s book, that “Hours of futile disputes and reams of pages caricaturing the Reformers could have been avoided if Pauline scholars had known this material. From now on, if such caricatures persist, there will be a simple reply: ‘read Chester before you speak or write on this again.’” Here I’m not interested in speaking to the subject matter in question at the heart of these debates, nor seeking to appraise the thought of either Sanders or Chester in these extremely complicated debates.
I merely wish to draw attention to and provoke reflection on the mode of discourse that allows for such a situation to be perpetuated. Not merely in popular religious discourse “on the street,” but at the very highest levels of both critical and confessionally Christian scholarship, caricatures have been tolerated and perpetuated. To be fair, some oversimplification is unavoidable; we need categories and boxes to put movements into because it is impossible to know or say everything all the time. But that does not necessitate that we tolerate caricature and scarecrows.
Finally, beyond beyond published books, social media presents spectacular opportunities for bad faith trolling and the expedient misrepresentation of interlocutors. Recently Zeynep Tufekci has argued in MIT Technology Review that:
…when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one…
Discussing this and other challenges that lack clear solutions, L.M. Sacasas cautions:
It is not an option, as many today counsel, simply to leave the agora or the assembly and retreat into our private spheres. The marketplace and the assembly hall now surround us, and spill out indefinitely into the future with no prospect of closure. Thanks to the ubiquity of the digital apparatus, we are no longer able fully to step out of the chaotic and contentious flux. Controversies, debates, and crises do not so much resolve as cascade indefinitely. Wherever we go, we cannot escape the storm.
Thus, on social media websites such as Twitter, we can block, mute, and personally curate our feed to avoid volatile accounts, and even limit our personal time on the site. Nonetheless, the effects of social media on our world and contemporary political discourse are inescapable. The national press frequently publishes articles that amount to tweet round-ups, and where we find ourselves forced to suffer the talking heads of cable television, it is not uncommon for such shows to offer commentary on recent tweets.
Beyond merely how our use of social media affects our personal tastes, relationships, awareness of our physical environment, or relative happiness, social media as the context and medium of discourse is a force changing our world, perhaps in a few positive ways, but also with almost unimaginable harm, such as a genocide incited on Facebook from military accounts. If Marshall Macluhan’s famous dictum is true, that “the medium is the message,” we need to become aware and think critically about how mediums are not merely a different delivery method for content but affect “the actual state and context of content.”
Although it is by now a recurrent mantra that “twitter is not real life,” our digital lives – as trite as that sounds to think about – are very real nonetheless in their affects on individuals and societies, and should prompt each of us to audit what kinds of things we are and are not willing to drag onto these mediums in what we share and debate in varying degrees of courage, cowardice, wisdom, and folly.
From day to day, social media can oscillate between the utterly trivial, the friendly and wholesome, to the deadly serious, particularly in an era where violent racism spreads through meme culture that can always be excused as merely an edgy joke or an irony-post. By very definition, the goal of a troll is to provoke a response; they might not even sincerely believe the profoundly offensive, utterly ridiculous, or genuinely dangerous images or words used, but by provoking an outraged response the troll can point to their enemies’ rage as sensationalism or hysteria while posturing as persecuted by the response they incited.
It is all the more urgent, therefore, that Christians engage these fraught mediums with wisdom and seek the kind of integrity that swears to one’s own hurt (Psa 15:4). Now, the subversion of satire can sometimes be used for good, from Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” about eating impoverished children, to Jesus’ cheeky exhortation to remove the log from our own eye before pointing out the speck of dust in another’s eye (Matt 7:4). Nonetheless, even in doing so, those who are in Christ must resist the urge to indulge in the expedient politics of provocation, resentment, and deceptive or bad-faith discourse.
What happens when we take a stand for the truth by dishonest means? When inevitably exposed, it is not merely the case that we can surrender our credibility and immediately win sympathy for our interlocutors. Worse, we can quench the smoldering wick of faith for those wounded by our lies, and lend greater credence or plausibility to Nietzschean critiques of religion as nothing more than a power play. But also, we harm the body of our Lord, who not only reveals truth, and who not merely forbids bearing false testimony against our neighbor, but who is Jesus Christ himself, the Truth (John 14:6).
As those who are exhorted, “let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith,” (Gal 6:10), perhaps the very least we could possibly do is not lie about one another.
Joshua Heavin is a PhD Candidate at Trinity College Bristol, University of Aberdeen, where he is writing a dissertation on the Apostle Paul and Participation in Christ.