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Theological Debate as a Blood Sport

Jamie Arpin Ricci has some thoughts around the debate on Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity.  I am going to quote a big chunk of it here but make sure you go to Jamie’s site and read the entire post.

McLaren, who finds himself in a cultural context that is incredibly polarized theologically, politically, etc., has too often been the target of ungodly attack.  This is not to say he is above criticism, but rather acknowledging that he has been subject to indefensible treatment by many people.  In light of this reality, it does not surprise me that Brian would very quickly want to make some distinctions for his readers up front, which I believe was his intention with the cited material.  That is entirely understandable.  That being said, I believe he pushed too hard, writing more for the extreme critics than for those of us who might be cautiously interested.  As a result, I believe that he unintentionally alienated many of his readers.

I am not suggesting that Brian was simply misunderstood, that if we could just understand his intentions, this would all be cleared up.  Of course not.  First, the poor communication is his mistake, one that should be acknowledged.  Frankly. it is a small issue, worth mentioning only for clarity.  Second, he clearly does present beliefs that run contrary to what many of us hold as sacred.  This is not an indictment, but rather an acknowledgment that, beyond the misunderstanding that exacerbated the problem, there are still very real, underlying differences.

I point this example out because it illustrates a dynamic that is problematic.  It seems to me that both sides are so focused on their position, be it defend or attacking, that they continue to talk- yell past each others.  Again, there are exceptions to this rule on both sides, but even they are not saved from getting caught in the cross fire.  I recently read a very gracious critique of the book that one defending blogger (who is a notable voice and who I greatly respect) cited as unreasonable, bashing and even jealous.  Was I missing something?  Can we not disagree on something graciously without resorting to character assassination?

Frankly, I am ashamed.  I am ashamed that on a public platform before a watching world, sisters and brothers in Christ are letting this get so out of hand.  Disagreements within the Church are nothing new and will always be with us.  It is right to be passionate about what we believe is true, even taking to task those with whom we have concern.  I’m not advocating some limp hope that “we can all just get along”.  I am advocating for some grace, self-restraint, humility and- for the love of God- maturity.  Or are we hoping that the world will know we are Christians by our fights with each other?

Without question there are some serious issues at hand.  I have some grave reservations about some of the theology I see being put forth in sectors of the church, be it emerging, missional, evangelical or otherwise.  However, we need to acknowledge the relational dynamic at play here.  For myself, I have seen people who I consider dear friends publicly go after each other, feeling helpless to do anything about it.  I even fear that this post will only fuel the fire.

I have long felt that the American political discourse of hyper partisanship continues to shape the way we discuss theology in the church.  Of course this is a really big issue because it isn’t as if we have a proud tradition of doing this without the influence of FOX News (how many wars were fought during the early stages of the Protestant reformation over theology?).  Add in the time lapse in which we order something from Amazon, read it, and then rush to review or write about it in internet time (often to capitalize in on the traffic that comes from an trending topic) and no wonder why the discussions seem to be lacking.

I was thinking back to the emergence of neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s amongst Barth, Bultmann, Brunner, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and others.  They debated largely in private through letters, in person, and in more thought through essays in journals.  The debates were a lot more private and a lot more measured, partly because there was time for theological reflection.  The net has taken that away from us and has given us immediacy.  We know it has hurt journalism.  Look at how many times NBC has referred to Michael J. Fox when they meant Terry Fox on their broadcasts.  Today I was reading the news online and saw a half-dozen factual errors (not just differences in opinions but obvious mistakes in facts).  In some ways “internet time” is great but in other ways, it has hurt our ability to discuss substantial issues and I think we have to take into account it’s influence.

We also need to take into account what we are doing is in public.  Ever since Google Alerts has come out, I have received mentions of jordoncooper.com and Jordon Cooper when they are used online.  I have seen my writings misquoted and misconstrued by those worried about those of us in the emerging church.  I have no problems with a difference of opinions, after all you are entitled to be wrong :-) but some of the stuff never represented what I said of believe.  Later on I have had the privilege of meeting the people who have said what they said and they have no idea the impact of the crap they said.

One of the things I love about living in Saskatchewan is that there is only one million of us and we do run into each other.  My MLA goes through Wendy’s till at Safeway.  One of the reasons why I stopped talking partisan politics is that I really like people from both sides of the ideological divide.  When I posted some photos of Flickr that showed a city councilor, I was contacted that day to see if they could get a print because they saw the photos and liked them.  Somewhere along the way we forgot that this stuff is read by the people we are talking about.

Of course we also have to take into account how bloggers get played by the publishing houses.  In exchange for “review copies”, they get to turn us into their own personal marketing whores.  You don’t think Harper Collins isn’t feeling pretty happy for the “buzz” that we generate from their free cheaply produced review copies.  We get to feel like “insiders” when we are marketing pawns, rushing to review the book on Amazon and posting the reviews on our blogs.  Harper Collins (as a division of News Corp.) has an obligation to the bottom line, not to the faith.

I think Jamie is right.  We need to have passionate debate about theological matters but there has to be a better way of doing this than what has been acceptable practice for the last couple of years.  That is a project worthy of some time and effort. 

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Jordon. This is a great post with excellent insight.

  2. dan sheffield says:

    J, I am reminded of the vitriol directed at Clark Pinnock over the years, mostly by his calvinist, deterministic colleagues from the earlier part of his faith journey who sought to disown him and and ‘bar’ him from participation in the evangelical dialogue, when he continued to let the HS guide him into all truth — eventually becoming more wesleyan/arminian :) despite the deep hurt that he experience personally from these attacks, he has continued to respond in a gentle Christlike manner.

    1. Jordon says:

      Hi Dan, I was on the CETA email list when Clark Pinnock was kicked out of the evangelical theological association and I remember his writing how painful it was for him to be treated like that.

      I was always impressed with his grace under circumstances like that. If anything his responses always made me more attracted to this his theological worldview than anything his opponents wrote.

      Of course, him becoming more Wesleyan/Arminian helped a bit as well.

  3. Patrick Oden says:

    I agree with Jamie, great post (as was Jamie’s)

    Your comment about Barth, Bultmann, et al made me think a bit. I think that’s an interesting example of men with rather different theological approaches maintaining collegiality.

    I do wonder, though, if that’s the best model. Germany was already in almost total ecclesial collapse. These were men who were not necessarily writing out of contrasting traditions, but were moving different directions during and immediately after some of the most shocking societal atrocities. They were all theological liberals who contributed to rebuilding theology, a task that has been carried on in the work of Pannenberg and Moltmann. They were university men, forged in the context of academic collegiality.

    The emerging church, however, is not a product of either the academy or theological liberalism. Just the opposite on both accounts. Yet, because of the core elements it was not limited to either being a step-child of evangelicalism or a church growth tactic. It’s a movement whose elements provide common ground for many different threads, many of which are in other circles rather hardened foes.

    I don’t think we’ve seen collegiality among divergent theological traditions for a very long while. Maybe going back to the Ecumenical councils of the first centuries of the church.

    In the meantime, we’ve had a tradition of battle after battle. Recently, the early 20th century battle between Libs and Fundies, the late 20th century “battle of the Bible” between Evangelicals and Evangelicals. Where the academy meets the church, there are always significant lines being drawn, as pastors see the application for the theology in their preaching and ministry.

    What’s going on in the emerging church is all too understandable and expected. Which makes those of us who want to make a stand in the middle, refusing to choose sides all that much more important. If we lean towards one side or another, church tradition for so long encourages us to make a supposed martyriffic stand against the enemies within. But, church history shows exactly what you said–our image to the world of sniping, backbiting, hatred, is not the image of Christ.

    We have to make a turn from that, making a stand in the middle, even as in the present there are some being crushed and turned along both flanks. That’s something our generation can contribute in ways that so many previous generations utterly failed at. Even as Barth and the others show an example, they did not reach quite as far or across as many lines as we’re being asked to do. This is the moment, I think, where the core of emerging proves itself as either yet another field of battle for an age-old war, or a new expression of church both in practice and thought that is not seduced by either right or left.

    That latter position is where I stand, and where I’m going to fight to keep standing.

  4. Todd says:

    Healthy post for us Jordon. It is always helpful for we in the AmericaWest to hear from our friends to the north. I could not agree more the partisanship present in our politics has made us unfriendly conversation partners in our theological endeavors.

  5. […] this kind of dialogue happen within Emergent circles. To an extent it is continuing to happen as folks here and there state that, regardless of whatever theological differences they might have with […]

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