There’s a movie scene I’ve been thinking about this week in which a pastor and a journalist sit down to talk about their home city. The pastor offers his help to the newly appointed editor and says, “I find that the city flourishes when its great institutions work together.” The editor replies, “Thank you. But I’m of the opinion that for a paper to best perform its function it needs to stand alone.”

If you’re a communitarian sort of Christian, you may well find yourself sympathizing with the pastor’s comments. The underlying assumption of the young post-liberal Christians is that society exists as an organic whole and the various institutions and communities that exist alongside each other all contribute to the common life of the place. Put in those terms, it sounds compelling.

Unfortunately, the pastor in the above story is Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of the archdiocese of Boston. The line is from the movie Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film that told the story of the Boston Globe‘s investigation into child abuse in Catholic churches in the city of Boston which, in turn, sparked global investigations into similar abuses happening all over the world.

There is another scene at a diner where Mitch Garabedian, the lawyer representing many of the plaintiffs in multiple suits against the church, says to Mike Rezendes, a reporter at the Globe, that the reason the abuse continues is because the city doesn’t really want to know. It is easier to look away from the city’s underbelly and believe the story the city tells of itself, of this place with a rich local identity in which the church is an indispensable member. “If it takes a village to raise a child,” Garabedian says, “it also takes a village to abuse one.”

In this vision of society, the village is not a single organic whole in which all can flourish; it is, rather, a dangerous thing because villages are fictitious things imagined by the powerful whose claims can trump even the claims of the innocent victim of injustice. It’s not that every member of the village is vicious. Rather, it is that a minority are and everyone else finds it much easier to ignore them and act as if everything is fine.

The clearest picture of this dynamic is in the character of Walter Robinson, Robby as he is known to friends. Robinson is the editor of the Spotlight team that is investigating the scandal and a long-time staffer at the Globe. Prior to the Globe, he had graduated from BC High, another local staple that has a history just as proud as the Globe’s and just as central to the city’s life.

Near the end of the film it comes out that Robinson had receive an email eight years prior to the events of the film that listed 20 priests guilty of child molestation. Robinson buried it. He’s a son of Boston, a member of one of its proudest institutions and a graduate of yet another. And the disturbing thing is he says he doesn’t even remember getting the list. He just buried it.

In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Robinson goes to a lifelong friend of his, a lawyer who has done work for the church. He asks him to confirm the paper’s list of pedophile priests. In a tense conversation, the friend asks him, “where were you guys?”

If Garabedian is right, the press was doing what all institutions do in a village: holding up the life of the village. As long as Robinson remained on the side of the village, the scandal would continue. It was only once the film began, once Robby found himself standing with the newspaper, independent of everything else, that he could become part of the answer to the horrific abuse that was endemic in the church for so many years. For justice to be done, the village had to be broken because the village was not a true community but was simply a made-up idea that powerful men came up with to protect their status.

The most disturbing thing, of course, is that virtually every person in the film who enabled the abuse at one point or another has a moment where something punches through the haze of the village and you realize they’re as appalled by the abuse as the journalists. But they don’t know what to do. And so, as another character puts it when talking about the abuse, they “go along.”

**

I’ve been thinking a lot about Spotlight this week. I’ve watched it twice, in fact. I trust the reasons do not require explanation. I remember once reading something, I think by Boz Tchvidjian, in which he said that evangelicalism has an abuse problem as bad as the one that faced the Catholic church in the early 2000s.

I didn’t want to believe him.

These days I don’t think I can do that anymore.

Al Mohler has a good post about this. He says it is the wrath of God being poured out on evangelicalism and I think he’s right. In it, he expresses sincere remorse over what has happened and clearly calls on pastors to report instances of abuse to law enforcement and to have third parties investigate serious accusations of the sort that Patterson faces over his handling of a rape case at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary during his time there. These are all very good things.

But, then, I can’t help wondering: Where do Mohler and a few other prominent evangelical leaders go from here?

After all, it was only this week that Boyce College professor Denny Burk was quoted as follows in the Post:

Asked about Patterson’s comments specifically, about abuse and divorce and female bodies, Burk said that “men and women are created equally in the image of God. They have equal value, there is no superiority or inferiority before God.”

Interpreted correctly, “Biblical complementarianism is always going to bless and honor and protect women. Anything else falls short.”

Did Patterson’s comments fall short?

The professor was silent for a full minute. Then he spoke.

“Well,” he said, “our time is up.”

That’s “going along.” Rather than forthrightly condemning Patterson’s inexcusable remarks, Burk chose to deflect or to be clever. And he failed, assuming the interview is presented accurately, to simply say “Yes, Dr. Patterson’s comments were inexcusable.” That is how abuse continues—not necessarily because of the bad men who we will always have with us in some number. But, rather, because people stay silent, people ignore it, people deflect when asked about it. This is all the stuff Mohler talked about in his piece when he talked about communities given to silence.

Of course, on this topic there is also the notorious incident when Mohler joked about the ongoing allegations facing C. J. Mahaney.

I bring these incidents up not because I particularly want to hit the scene in Louisville. I’ve never met Mohler in my life and when I have spoken with Denny in the past I have always come away from the conversation with a favorable impression of him, grateful for his willingness to talk and gracious demeanor in conversation. My point isn’t to attack him or the SBC more broadly. The problem, it seems to me, is larger than both. Rather, I want to use this particular failing on his part to illustrate a point that is lingering in the background of Spotlight.

The difference between Law’s world and Baron’s is actually not chiefly ideological. The ideological difference is downstream. The difference is whether they believe in the idea of a village. Law does. But Baron doesn’t. His entire project presupposes that the village is basically a myth and the newspaper has to stand alone because it has to be capable of speaking clearly when the village leaders do wrong in order to protect their readers who might otherwise be victimized.

From Baron’s perspective, it does not actually matter if Law believes anything in the Catholic Catechism or not. The point is that the idea of a village is a useful one for keeping him in power and for giving him an enormous amount of control over the other members of the village.

You can map this difference pretty neatly, I think, onto the culture war battles of the past 20-30 years. The culture warriors claimed that Christian America was a real thing that existed and they had to protect it from a set of progressive reformers who would transform the nation for the worse.

But for the progressives, the culture warriors are playing a part. They have written a narrative about America that allows them to be powerful. Whether they actually believe in the things they say they do is irrelevant. Indeed, even if they don’t, it’s a convenient lie. Christopher Hitchens expressed the point quite clearly when he said that Jerry Falwell Sr. didn’t actually believe any of the things he claimed to believe, but he knew those things were useful public claims to make in order to make himself powerful and influential.

If you assume the progressive story, then your work is to lift off the mask, to reveal that the Christian America the culture warriors believe in does not actually exist and that the “culture war” is a fake story that Christians make up to keep themselves in power. How do you do that? You prove the actors are just playing a part.

That is what is so damning about Burk’s quote. Burk, along with several other folks closely tied to CBMW, has a long history of staking out unpopular ground, of being precisely this sort of culture warrior. Indeed, the Nashville Statement and the publicity campaign associated with it were vintage culture war displays.

This has always been presented as a bold stand against those who would undermine the Gospel and the church’s witness in the public square. And they’ve pushed this stand quite far indeed: In the Nashville Statement they go so far as attacking, in aggressive terms, the Spiritual Friendship movement. Even people who affirm the Christian view of marriage and sexuality (at great personal cost!) but weren’t “correct” in their understanding of desire were not merely criticized as being muddled on key questions, but quite actively written out of the orthodox evangelical movement.

The story the conservatives would have us believe is that this is a courageous sacrifice of one’s popularity in order to protect Christian truth.

The story the progressives would have us believe is that it’s a part someone plays in order to advance a pre-written narrative to serve their far more cynical ends.

When Burk chose not to forthrightly condemn Patterson by name, when he chose to deflect when asked, point-blank, if Patterson’s comments crossed a line, he provided a strong argument for the progressive story.

This makes the progressive story appear to be true and it explains what happens next. If the progressive story is true, then the best way to avoid the abuse of the village is to avoid the village. For human beings desire power above all else and the only way to make sure they do not abuse power is to make sure they never have it. So we atomize. We break apart. We stand alone.

It’s better than the alternative.

Here is the tragedy, here is the thing that breaks my heart every time I think about it: There’s another scene in Spotlight when two of the reporters stand outside one of their homes and talk about the story and how it is impacting them emotionally.

The first, Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, says she has stopped going to church with her “nana,” her extremely devout grandmother. She can’t stand to be in the building because the only thing she can think about is those victims she is talking to during the week.

Then Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, answers: “I really liked going to church when I was a little kid.” Then he continues, “The weird thing is that I think I figured that maybe one day I would actually go back. I was really holding onto that. And when I read those letters… something just cracked.” Pfeiffer responds, “it’s a shitty feeling.” Shortly after we see a scene of Rezendes standing in the back of a church, watching a children’s Christmas concert, and you can see not just the anger, but the genuine sadness on his face.

Later the film brings home how shattering this story was for people in an interlude that shows the Spotlight team interviewing victims, writing the story, and following up on leads while shots of Catholic churches celebrating Christmas are interspersed and the song “Silent Night” plays over it all. It looks and sounds like Christmas, when the hope of the world finally arrived, but there’s Pfeiffer holding the hand of a sobbing man, broken by what was done to him as a youth by the church.

I think we live in a republic full of people like Pfeiffer and Rezendes. They’re irreligious liberals, in the classical sense of the term, who make the best of their lives, working a job that may or may not satisfy them and finding what pleasures they can as they come.

In a deep part of their soul they still long for something more. Augustine says our hearts are restless till they rest in God. They have spiritual longings that they keep muted just beneath the surface and that our prevailing culture aids them in suppressing with the many amusements and baubles it makes available. But those longings still flare up sometimes because they’re human, because they’re made to know God’s love. They want the village. They want the meaningful life in which both material and spiritual longings are seen, named, and fulfilled.

When abuse happens in the church, as it clearly did under Patterson’s leadership, and when the church flinches when it is time to condemn that abuse, as Burk did earlier this week and as Mohler has in the past, we’re hurting those people. And we’re strengthening the idea that is also in their minds, the liberal story that says we’re all ultimately alone and that attempts by powerful people to work together for the betterment of a place aren’t really sincere. They’re just power plays.

I think that’s a really bleak and sad story. But I also think it’s one that Christians in America have made quite plausible to many not only because of the actions of some particularly vicious people, but also because of the timidity of many more.

There’s another scene near the end of the movie when one character friendly to the church begs Robby to kill the story. “People need the church,” he says. “Now more than ever.”

The tragedy is he’s right. We do need the church. But not at the cost of fidelity to Christ, not at the cost of protecting the innocent, not at the cost of flinching when we face moral crisis. And if the church is going to do those things, then Garabedian is right: People don’t need the church; they need to be saved from the church. Christ’s word still stands, but the church, as has happened in the past, will pass into exile. Indeed, it must because sometimes the most loving thing God can do is discipline his people severely.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Cal P

    You’re basing a one-to-one analysis on a movie that is just as equally fictitious as super-hero movies, with the intrepid journalists standing alone. But beyond this quibble, the more important problem is that this comparison between “village” and “progressives” depends upon some assumption about a coherent, and congealed, thing you call “society”. I don’t know what that is, especially in relation to Boston which is hardly some kind of village. Maybe the harder question is whether there should be these giant conglomerate empires of Christianity, where lots of money is churned out through the industries, of which the ghetto mentality of many Evangelicals plays the part of a hungry market. The Vatican is the sewer of Satan, but many Protestants seem keen on imitating it, with their own small-bit media or education-racket empires. Maybe if Christians got out of the business of trying to integrate into the village, which may very well be a myth, and worried about their cleaning their own houses, we’d not be giving reasons for the Gentiles to blaspheme our God.

  • calebroberts811

    I really enjoyed this piece, and it confirms a lot of my observations about the conflagration of evangelicalism right now. But I wonder if you’re drawing a false dichotomy between either a village of established institutions in which everyone harmoniously fits together and the cold atomized existence of autonomous individuals protecting their own against ever present threats. There was, after all, a kind of community of solidarity between the reporters and the victims in the film.

    I was reminded of a really good passage from Herbert McCabe in which he says that:

    “I do not think we should foster the illusion that there is a unity of mankind. To do that is to pretend that there is no sin, that the kingdom is fully established, that there already is a brotherhood of the human race. In fact the only approach we have to a real unity is the solidarity of the poor and the exploited against their oppressors: we have to recognise both that this is so and that it is not enough. It is just the nearest we can get to unity. We have to recognise that the only God we know is the God of the poor, the God who takes sides in the struggle, and that any God of consensus who is supposed to belong to both sides is an illusion and a dangerous one. Sorting out the sides is, of course, a delicate business because though God is not on both sides we are: God is a God of judgement because he is love. We do not have ‘God on our side’, and this is not because God is neutral but because we are compromised. […] There is no real unity to the world, the only authentic unity is in the struggle, and it is because this is our real unity here and now that we can only express the Kingdom sacramentally. We can see humankind itself as one only in mystery, in the gesture towards the reality that is to come. We can only see God in mystery, as the reality that is to come. We cannot see love except in hints and guesses of what is to come.”

    My issue with a great deal of conservative cultural criticism right now is that it seems to ignore that there has always been the possibility of unity-in-struggle, a village-against-the-Village. Instead, it too often ends up conceding Law’s point that the illusion of the village is really the only hope for a village at all, even as it appropriately laments when that illusion is revealed to be corrupt and unjust.

  • Wayne Larson

    Great reflection, Jake! One quibble. I would argue that instead of Baron not believing in a village, rather he understands the fact that being a “differentiated self” in the mist of the village is the only way to bring health to the village. The Globe cannot be disconnected from Boston, but it must not allow itself to be defined by the pattern of relations emerging in the system called the “village.” This is classic family systems theory and it works on the institutional level as well.

  • Carolyn Custis James

    I also watched Spotlight twice–but not as a Catholic. It was impossible to escape watching as a Protestant, knowing the same kinds of sexual abuse and cover-ups were happening within Protestantism. Thank you for connecting the dots in your article. So easy for evangelical leaders to disapprove of one scandal while refusing to address the systemic issues and their own complicity. The current #MeToo cultural climate hopefully will keep the spotlight on these issues and compel the church to pull up the abuse of power by the roots.

  • mcepl

    I was living in Boston during the time of the scandal as an international student. I am a Protestant, but for me the pain was catholic (with small c), the pain of the church of Christ. My heart broke over the victims, of course, but very much also over all those people who in the very Catholic Boston lost their spiritual community because of idiocy of their leaders who couldn’t keep their zippers up. People who lost their parishes, parishes of their parents, church buildings, and much more, just because the leaders of the diocese were unwilling to be open and rather paid billion of dollars (or more) just to keep their secrets closed. People who paid for the cardinal Law to be whisked away to Rome, where he lived to his death in comfort and peace. And yes our congregation bought (fortunately unused) church from the Catholic Church, who rather suffered loss when selling it to a Protestant congregation then to sell it for much more to Harvard or some developers, who would destroy it and build some office buildings there. Thank you.

  • mirele

    Sorry to bust in here and rain on your parade, but Evangelical churches are profoundly unhealthy places to be and not recommended to anyone who isn’t an adult male, despite your plea. Your village is awful! It’s a place where child sexual abuse is covered up and where women are told not to report their rapes. You might want to consider why that is the case–may I suggest that the rampant patriarchy in Evangelicalism treats non-adult males as things or property to be shoved into a closet when there’s a problem?

    I’d rather be out on the sidewalk with my sign–whether it be at Together for the Gospel 2018 in Louisville (which I really did protest) or tomorrow outside my local Sovereign Grace, than inside an Evangelical church. Why? Because I’m a woman, I’m treated as second class in most Evangelical churches. Because I never married and had kids, I am treated as a failure. (Even though I have a well-paying job, a life and am about to go over and visit my elderly mother.) Because I have no headship, I am looked upon as suspicious and uncontrolled. (Even though I’m 57 years old and have been on my own for nearly four decades.) My education and intelligence are denigrated because I’m a woman. (Yeah, that BA and JD I spent years getting simply don’t count, nor does my extensive reading and study in Christian history and doctrine.) And this is not even getting into how I’d be treated differently because I believe the president of the United States is corrupt and destroying the country (unlike the ~80 percent of Evangelicals who support him), or how Evangelical churches treat LGBTQIA persons like yesterday’s smelly garbage instead of the human beings they are. So yeah, I totally understand where the fictional Marty Baron is coming from, and I know I’m just one of millions of people who are tired, very tired of Evangelicalism pushing itself out as the answer when Evangelicalism is a horrible place to be for so many.

    No, Evangelical churches are not places I’d recommend to anyone. You can find me on the sidewalk outside Sovereign Grace in Gilbert, Arizona tomorrow. Because CJ Mahaney needs to accept an independent investigation. – Deana M. Holmes mirele@sonic.net

    • Mike

      Please note that not all Evangelical churches are created equal. Many of them would never tolerate abuse or discrimination, but they’re not the ones who make headlines.

  • Mitya1102

    Jake, I hope you are being fair to Denny Burk. He is central to your article, and now he has been dragged into the vortex.

    Boorstein’s full article tells the reader how to interpret Burk’s response. She writes that “Burk [. . .] mulled where it’s all leading — while managing not to criticize Patterson directly.” (Well, if you say so….) Then she writes that Burk “was silent for a full minute.” I find that simply hard to believe. A full minute? And I find it also hard to believe that Burk did not go on to explain what he meant by “our time is up,” if there was more that needed to be said. (Has God’s patience run out? Then I bet Burk explained this. Or is Burk just saying that the interview is over?) You are cautious enough to acknowledge that you are “assuming the interview is presented accurately.” But then, even with such a caveat offered, you go on to write, “That is what is so damning about Burk’s quote.” (Again, assuming it accurately represented by Boorstein.” You follow that up with Burk, along with several other folks closely tied to CBMW, has a long history of staking out unpopular ground, of being precisely this sort of culture warrior.” So is this what really bothers you: You don’t like Burk’s Culture Wars strategy? (That term “Culture Wars” has, among some Evangelicals, become as pejorative as “fundamentalism” among the Baptists. I’m not quite sure what either one means, but I know that they are bad, bad bad!)

    In my estimation, this is where we are culturally: We are just now starting to condemn certain kinds of sin. But then we quickly move on to condemn those who, in our opinion, have not come down hard enough on the sinners. (What sins are we allowing to continue right before us? And when will we be called to account?) These matters are complicated, but the outrage seems to be pretty easy to whip up when it comes to this particular issue of our day. When others participate in the aiding and abetting of other vicious acts, they might be considered patient, non-judgmental, tolerant, etc., etc. And their motives might be just as impure as those you are imputing to Burk and those like him.

  • hoosier_bob

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

    I would quibble, however, with your use of the word “progressives” to describe those who may disagree with Burk and the CBMW crowd.

    WSJ ran a good feature piece yesterday on James Davison Hunter in advance of the release of his new book. As Hunter notes, the Culture War is less of a battle between conservatives and progressives than it is a battle between traditionalists and cosmopolitans. Yes, nearly all progressives side with the cosmopolitan side of the battle. Even so, a sizable number of cosmopolitans are not progressives. In fact, the predominant worldview of cosmopolitans is not progressive idealism, but is instead pragmatic realism.

    On the village theme, it’s really a tale of two villages. With the emergence of cosmopolitanism as a distinct social class, institutions generally find themselves aligned either with the cosmopolitan village or the traditionalist village. The editors at the Globe belonged to the former, while Cardinal Law belonged to the latter.

    Burk’s silence is unsurprising to me. Burk has consistently shown himself to be a wily operator when it comes to reinterpreting the Gospel to serve the traditionalist cause in the Culture Wars. As you note, the Nashville Statement is probably the most egregious example of this.

    • Cal P

      ” With the emergence of cosmopolitanism as a distinct social class, institutions generally find themselves aligned either with the cosmopolitan village or the traditionalist village. The editors at the Globe belonged to the former, while Cardinal Law belonged to the latter.”

      That typology doesn’t make any sense. In this case, it was really the editors of the Globe (with the exception of, maybe, Marty from Miami) who were parochial (seeing Boston as their “home town”), and it was the jet-setting Cardinal Law who was cosmopolitan (who quickly jumped into a new Vatican job when the report arose).

      You’re becoming a one-trick pony with your simple dichotomies and quiet rage against the white-trash barbarians.

      • hoosier_bob

        Yeah. After all, the editors of the Globe were slumming it back to Brockton every night, while Cardinal Law was sipping cocktails in Copley Square. Give me a break.

        • Cal P

          If the movie was even remotely right, or if you do a simple google search, you’d have a clue rather than dumping geographic references as a QED. Law was far more globally oriented and connected than the reporters, with the exception of Robinson.

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  • David Moore

    Thanks Jake! So much more needs to be done.

    I keep thinking of Peter Vardy’s words: “It takes courage to stand up to your enemies. It takes more courage to stand up to your friends.”

    And I still have not received a positive answer to my question: Do you know a person who has been honored/promoted within a Christian organization for telling some of the emperors within it that they have no clothes?