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Screwtape's Warning about Polemics and Evangelical Associations

January 10th, 2013 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Over the past year, I sounded in various ways my growing concern about the tribalization of public life and the corresponding loss of a shared framework where we might work out disputes reasonably has grown.  My final post in that direction was an attempt to outline “intellectual empathy,” an overly fancy way of framing what previous generations might have simply called “charity” or “understanding your opponent.”

The concept didn’t win everyone over, of course, as it was admittedly underdeveloped.  Brad Littlejohn did some excellent work filling the things out and clarifying what “intellectual empathy” does not mean.   It's hard to improve on what he's already said, though I’d simply note my agreement that we ought not forgo the occasional strong words for those people and positions who deserve them.  Indeed, part of my broader concern is that the widespread lack of intellectual empathy actually makes polemics more difficult, as they have nothing to stand out against.  If everything is polemical, then nothing is.  Yet I take it that we are increasingly moving to the point where trans-"party" dialogue is treated as intrinsically treasonous.  That seems to me an unhealthy way of looking at things.

Screwtape Letters Screwtape Letters (Photo credit: ckpicker)

I will also add this.   While I made the point in relationship to partisanship (as the piece was written around the time of the election), my real concern is for the church and for how we talk with each other.  To reiterate  a throwaway comment I made in my review of Rachel Held Evans’ book, we have other norms besides the truth that should govern our public discourse.  We have an obligation to pursue reconciliation and peace, even when they involve drawing sharp lines (as they sometimes do—cf. 1 Corinthians 5).

Let me put a hypothesis out there, by way of inquiry rather than assertion:  it seems that pursuing those other ends in our public discourse is more difficult within the diffused networks of "evangelicalism" than it is within defined institutional contexts.   Our tribal affiliation (if I may put it that way) tends to overwhelm and subsume within it our relationship to our church.  If we conceive of ourselves first and foremost as “evangelicals” rather than as members of “First Baptist Church” or what have you, then the good of “unity” will be as diffused as the institutions that support it and so will have less power to govern our rhetoric.  Which often happens, at least tacitly, among those who spend a good deal of their time online or who write and speak for non-ecclesiastical organizations (as I do).

Where we conceive of our "public discourse" occurring actually shapes which virtues we prioritize, in other words.  The most ecclesiastically tied among us might still interact with Christians online and still not know precisely how the good of unity ought stand with their love of truth.  And they too have their own other ways of aligning themselves and so calling their emphasis on unity into question (“Are you of Keller?  Are you of Wilson?”).  But they at least have the advantage of prioritizing a particular instance of unity in ways that many evangelicals in their church contexts do not, and that helps them see the point of pursuing unity (and to know better when to draw lines) better than other folks.

I realize all that is underdeveloped, and I put it out there somewhat gingerly.  But behind it is this bit from Screwtape, which I stumbled over in my holiday reading:

“Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse of mutual admiration, and toward the other world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.

Even when the little group exists for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.  We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique.

The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and of Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties in the Church of England.”

I don’t have much to say beyond that, other than to add an exclamation point.  The evangelical world these days is largely driven by precisely the sort of small coteries that Screwtape wants to encourage, and they generally line up with the conferences where they happen (“Are you of Q?  Are you of The Gospel Coalition?”).  For all the good that comes from those organizations—and having been to both and written for both, I think on balance a lot does—there is a perennial danger that they will devolve into "hothouses of mutual admiration."

And particularly as evangelicals, we ought to worry a little about whether our weak ecclesiastical ties and the rise of even more sub-ecclesiastical associations will stunt our discourse by diminishing our sense of the need for unity, a sense which is primarily shaped by our experience of the local church.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.