Scorn and the Culture Wars

Timothy Dalrymple writes concerning the growing tendency among progressive Christians to launch vituperative and scornful attacks against ugly liberal caricatures of conservative Christians in order to represent themselves as more loving to the world. He remarks:

This is selling anger, not offering enlightenment.  Anger is not always wrong, but it’s always a dangerous substance to deal with.  In its anger, posts and billboards like these lose the capacity to understand believers who disagree.  They rush to judge our elders and dispense with humility or nuance.  Instead of saying, “No, most conservative Christians are not hateful or deceptive.  Here is where they’re coming from, but I stand with you” — they say “I am with you” because “I scorn them too.”

Does it happen on both sides?  Absolutely.  I cannot stand the glib, bigoted “ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven” video that’s circulating.  But one would never know, from a post like Evans’, that there are loving and thoughtful and self-sacrificial people on the conservative side of the argument who are genuinely trying to do the right thing for all people.

There is a growing genre — call it Progressive Christian Scorn Literature — about the scorn progressive Christians have for conservative evangelicals.  It seems to be celebrated on the Left as a kind of righteous comeuppance for the Christian Right, and it wins the applause of the Left for the Christian Left.  But it’s wrong and it needs to be called out.  It’s neither winsome, nor loving, nor constructive, nor right.  It will not improve our witness because it’s soaked through with bitterness and rancor.  I hope that people of good heart and mind, like Evans, leave it behind.

We cannot get beyond the culture wars by simply joining one side and lobbing bombs against the other.  We cannot improve the reputation of the church by throwing half of it under the bus.

One of the things that I have increasingly observed among such progressive evangelicals is the tendency to cast all arguments in terms of false and extremely polarized dichotomies. The culture war seems to have attained such a dominating status in the imaginations of some individuals that they find it impossible to envision options that aren’t one of two supposedly mutually exclusive arguments on the table. No middle ground exists, and any criticism of their position will lead to you being demonized. This is the classic dynamics of the scapegoat mechanism, and we should all pray that Christ deliver us from it.

Many of the individuals in question have come from unhealthy and abusive forms of evangelical background. Unless we are careful, such a background can become an extremely caricatured and emotionally charged polarity against which all of our subsequent thought is a reaction. Sadly, there are a number of progressive Christians blogs around that seem to encourage such forms of thoughts. They haven’t succeeded in moving beyond their background at all, as its themes and framing continue to dominate their current thought, which is merely its antipathetic inversion.

When, rather than thinking in terms of the Scriptures and other secondary authorities, thought is framed in terms of extreme polarities, the rejection of one pole is taken as proof of the other. No alternative options or framing can be considered. I have observed this producing an atrophying effect upon the imagination, reasoning, and Christian spirit within conversations. When all supposed opposition can be lightly dismissed in the form of a ridiculous straw man, the onus upon us to examine and question our own positions is never addressed. When probed, persons who think in such a manner can seldom give much of an account for their position. An obnoxious certainty that we are completely in the right, and our opponents entirely in the wrong, can easily develop when we succumb to this. It also encourages a revelling in supposed ‘righteous’ anger, and a failure even to attempt charitable representations. Theological imagination is lost, as the current framing of the debate rules out any possibility of alternative visions. Thought becomes trapped in deep ruts. Anyone observing the dynamics of such a debate needs to appreciate that it is being driven by emotional dysfunction and mimetic violence, rather than by thought. It is usually best to stay well away.

I am thankful to know many conservative and progressive Christians who do not exhibit such forms of behaviour. Such Christians can express strong differences, while still charitably representing those with whom they differ. Such Christians are not driven by the emotional and mimetic polarities of the debate, but by careful and thoughtful engagement with each other’s arguments and with the Scriptures and other relevant sources.

Keeping one’s head and a loving spirit in such an environment is difficult. In my experience, the best way to escape such polarities is to frame our thought and debating in terms of a non-antagonistic engagement with a third party. When engaging with an antagonistic individual, I mentally focus on the person quietly and non-aggressively listening in, and address the antagonistic party with them primarily in mind. Their non-aggression mediates my relationship to the other party and makes it much easier to retain my cool.

I believe that Scripture needs to function in a similar way within our thought. Rather than seeking to identify Scripture entirely with our own pole of the discussion, we need to recognize it as a third pole, to which we continually need to be attentive. If we focus primarily upon sustaining our own healthy relationship with the non-competitive pole of the Scripture, we really won’t get so caught up in opposition with others, and will find it easier to disagree without this disagreement completely dominating our relationship with Scripture, or producing a polarization.

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13 Responses to Scorn and the Culture Wars

  1. cookiejezz says:

    Thank you, Alastair, for another thoughtful and incisive blog post. This is a debate which is highly charged on all sides, yet I think at the same time it is one in which many on both sides have only a partial understaning of what is the real foundation of the gospel’s approach to homosexuality.

    Let’s look at it like this: the liberal church’s scorn of the conservative church’s treatment of LGBT people is a reaction to the latter’s failure to engage with and welcome those people. In attempting to balance the boat and reach out to LGBT people in love, the liberal church rejects many of the biblical and moral foundations on which the conservatives stand. Yet the conservative viewpoint, or at least its outworking (LGBT people driven away from mainstrem evangelical churches) is itself the result of a rejection of biblical teaching.

    What on earth am I trying to say here?

    The conservative evangelical church largely has no place for gay people and no successful ministry to them – the opposite of Jesus, who made friends and converts of all kinds of sinners. For this to be the case, something has to be missing from the CE church that was present in Jesus’ ministry.

    What is that “something”? Well, in part it is love, but it goes deeper than how we feel about people. Love has to be accompanied by actions. Yet where we feel powerless to address issues, we pretty soon find ourselves firstly not taking action and then, as a result of that powerlessness, not feeling particularly loving. “We can do nothing for you here,” is the sad conclusion to our conversation.

    The conservative evangelical church has for many years and in large part rejected the gifts of the Spirit, and indeed the baptism of the Holy Spirit as an experience subsequent to salvation. This is unfortunate, to say the least, because not only has ithe CE church rejected vital and powerful gifts, but it has also rejected along with these gifts the kind of ministry that LGBT people need if they are to be set free from their sins.

    The CE church places a lot of emphasis on salvation and sanctification, and rightly so. But it tends to stop there. In short, it does not have the answers the LGBT community needs to hear if it is to be set free from its sin. The CE church says, “Be like us,” and offers an essentially legalistic framework of behaviours to which it expects its members to conform. This works for some people, but only people whose lives already largely fit the mould in terms of morality and lifestyle and who just need to make Jesus Lord of their lives. For those who need more healing, deliverance and the raw power of God at work in their lives, it is insufficient. The proof of this is that it is not only gays and lesbians that the CE church is failing to win and deliver. It isn’t reaching drug addicts, criminals or those bound by fears, phobias and eating disorders either.

    So the CE position is one similar to that of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day: it has fallen back on legalism, which has only a form of godliness and not the real thing, because it lacks power – the real power to deliver from the bondage of sin. If just getting people saved was all there is to it, LGBT people would be getting saved – and continuing in Christ – in CE churches.

    Understandably the LGBT community and the liberal church rejects this legalistic, powerless kind of Christianity, because it sees itself being told how to behave without being offered the means by which to do so. It is living by the Spirit which ensures we do not gratify the desire of the sinful nature (Gal 5:16). Yet the Spirit is shut down at every turn, as I found out whilst growing up in a conservative evangelical baptist church. Seeing only condemnation for its wrong way of life and no hope of deliverance in the CE side of the argument, and believing the lie that they are “born…” and/or have to remain “…this way”, the LGBT community and the liberal church retreats into another, different form of godliness which has no power: belief without sanctification.

    In order for this unholy split to be resolved, both the conservative and the liberal camp need to rediscover what God really says about dealing with sin and not only that, but to embrace the power of the Holy Spirit and faith in a living Word of GOd, which the experience of the charismatic church is showing can deliver anyone from anything, when the issues of their broken hearts and hurting lives are addressed with the love and healing power of Jesus Christ.

    The conservative evangelical church is losing people over the LGBT debate not because its moral stand is wrong, but because it has rejected even the basic vocabulary of true hope and deliverance. Only in recovering the fullness of the gospel – healing, deliverance and the power of the Spirit-filled life, as necessary adjuncts to salvation and sanctification – will any church be able to win those bound in sins for which sections of the church at present have no effective remedy.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Jeremy. There are dangers on all sides here. I think that you put your finger on a key issue in raising the issue of the Holy Spirit. I would be cautious about a one-sided stress upon the idea of a ‘cure’, though. While God can and does heal, transform, and completely deliver us from our troubles, suffering, and struggles, this is not always the form that things take. The strength and joy of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ is often most powerfully found in living with our weaknesses, infirmities, etc. The role of the Holy Spirit is crucial here. Without the Holy Spirit we are merely in the realm of stoicism, legalism, and the like.

      • cookiejezz says:

        Yep – I think there may well be some who find themselves being “eunuchs for the kingdom’s sake”. But (and I am sure we are agreed here) that is vastly different from being dominated by temptations and weakened by hurt, abuse and neglect that is left to fester by theologies that are inadequate. Indeed, as you say, people should ultimately be finding that there is strength and joy in walking with God through difficult situations. Too much Christian religion tells us we have strength and joy but there is nothing transformative or transcendent about it; it is merely unhappy endurance.

  2. Becky White says:

    Both your post and cookiejazz’s comment resonate strongly with me. There is an unfortunate tendency among many Christians (on all sides) to gratefully accept the grace of God that they have so desperately needed, and then subsequently fail to be instruments through which that same grace can be extended to others. This raises such roadblocks on the path to salvation as to be almost insurmountable, giving the impression that one can only come to God once all of one’s problems have been dealt with, especially in the case of homosexuality. That this is manifestly contrary to Biblical example is glossed over by paying lip service to the truth while failing to deal with judgmental attitudes that deny others access to that same truth.

    There is also far too much of people being vehemently against things without really understanding the reasons why. This leads to debate without love, compassion or understanding, which can only end with antagonistically-expressed deeply-entrenched opinions being voiced over and over again with no attempt to acknowledge even the starting point of the other side. I’m sorry to say that I believe that this has been fuelled in the UK by imported US media and political debate which tends to be more polarised on religious issues than it is here. I detest the phrase ‘the Christian right’ and I despair that faith has become so easily identified with a particular political viewpoint. Increasingly I am hearing people in the UK also frame their debates in these terms, which really have no meaning here, but trying to explain this rationally is next to impossible. If I come across a triumphantly-expressed paraphrased version of President Bartlett’s famous speech on homosexuality to the radio presenter in the first episode of the second series one more time I think I will throw something at the internet!

    The current debate on re-defining marriage has once again dragged religious belief into the political arena in a way which I feel is unhelpful. Not only does it encourage the kind of polarisation you discuss in your post, but it also ignores and disenfranchises those who have opinions that are not based on religious belief. I know many non-religious people who are concerned about the proposed changes to marriage but they have no voice as all objection to the changes are assumed to be on religious grounds and are therefore, to many people, immediately deemed invalid.

    Well, I guess I’m getting a bit off-topic here, but thank you again for making my brain do a little work today! :)

    • Thanks for the comment, Becky. One of the difficulties that we face in that our voice on such subjects is framed by the questions of people who oppose us. The media or the general public aren’t interested in hearing a more balanced and wide-ranging Christian teaching on the subject of homosexuality and marriage. They just have key issues that they want to know the Church’s stance on. However, the Christian approach to gay persons is far more complex and multifaceted than mere opposition to same-sex marriage or homosexual practice. It is frustrating that the current framing of the debate gives us little opportunity to express or develop a more balanced and grace-driven approach to the subject, as we are reduced to a sort of bare legal opposition by the terms and framing of others. This makes it hard to tackle the homophobia that does exist in the Church, and difficult to be present to and with our gay neighbours and friends, for whom much of the reported teaching of the Church must seem profoundly alienating and cruel.

    • cookiejezz says:

      Thanks Becky!
      You’re right that religious concerns seem to be dominating the agenda, and perhaps the church does deserve a fair bit of coverage, but don’t despair – there are non-religious organisations and people who are making their voice heard in favour of the traditional view of marriage. One such is the Family Education Trust (http://www.famyouth.org.uk/), a secular body whose research and work on behalf of families and young people has led it to adopt what it director described to me as the “Judaeo-Christian morality”. I am all for these organisations being heard, as I think there is a tendency by some to regard Christians as the loony squad, and if there are “independent” organisations which base their work on science that turns out (surprise, surprise!) to confirm that biblical morality is best for humanity, then so much the better.

  3. Matt J. says:

    Clearly, everyone in the debate is either a hate-filled bigot or a deviant reveling in sodomy. What else could there possibly be? This seems, as you are suggesting above, an excellent example of Girard’s “escalation to extremes” that is so dangerous. We really need to find a path through this. Conservatives has resorted to phrases like “love the sinner hate the sin” which of course sounds like nonsense to any outsider within earshot. Liberals have tried to invent their own moral high ground via “dialogue”, only to become frustrated when nobody but their own crew shows up to share.

    You mentioned a bit near of the end of how you try to engage antagonistic people without causing polarization. I would love it if you could elaborate on this some time. I think this is exactly the sort of thing we need to learn. (It’s what I want to learn.)

    It seems to me that the only antidote for this escalation is close contact with the real people involved. It’s remarkably easy to demonize people in distant lands and even your neighbors if filtered through the internet. For example, I have progressive Christian friends that I really enjoy the company of, but if my only interaction with them were to read some their occasional Twitter or Facebook posts on politics, it would be hard not to just feel hate. What I find is that at the ground level, people don’t really know what they believe and are tentatively identifying themselves with different groups and beliefs as their own lives and relationships evolve. We can be part of that without being against them. Learning how is part of learning how to love.

    • Matt, I think that you are absolutely right about the need to have close contact with Christian friends from various backgrounds. Also, I find that, on the ground, in much practical Christian ministry, many of our differences are far less significant than they can appear on paper. Practical involvement and interaction with people with whom we have such differences can really knock those differences down to size.

      The basic key that I follow when engaging with antagonistic individuals is to recognize that we will always tend to imitate someone. In mimetic rivalries, the antagonism can come to dominate so much that the third pole (and there is always a third pole – a relationship, an issue, a symptom, etc.) becomes interchangeable. The key to avoiding rivalries is to introduce a new pole, which mediates your relationship to the antagonist. For me this pole is often Scripture. I renounce my claim to be thoroughly aligned with the pole of Scripture and refocus my attention on it, using it to mediate my relationship with the antagonistic party. Alternatively, I focus on a non-aggressive third party.

      You may notice that this same pattern is observed in the UK parliamentary system of the House of Commons, for instance. MPs don’t directly address each other: all of their interactions are mediated by and addressed to a non-aggressive, non-partisan third party – the Speaker. This serves to dampen antagonisms and decrease the tendency to fall into rivalry. In a conversation where such a ‘Speaker’ figure is lacking, you need mentally to establish and situate yourself relative to one. For me, the peaceful lurker or eavesdropper, Christ, or the Scripture can all serve in such a role. As I engage directly with this peaceful party and my relationship with the aggressive party becomes mediated by this party, I find it so much easier to retain my calm.

      I have also found that such parties are not just fictions. Recognizing the Scripture as a third party, distinct from us and our position, is so important for healthy and continual engagement with it. I also frequently receive correspondence from people who listened in on my engagements in contexts that seemed to be hostile echo chambers, telling me that they benefited greatly from my involvement.

      • Matt J. says:

        Alastair, Thank you. This is helpful. It’s worth remembering that the third corner of the triangle is always there, whether we recognize it or not. That the mediator can be willfully substituted by one party (and it seems that it really can) is quite stunning.

  4. Jen Stuck says:

    Thank you for this article. I appreciate most of what I’ve read so far, but this seemed particularly timely with debates I’ve been having among my friends.

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