The Teaching vs. The Teacher

The last couple days I’ve been reading a book of theology by an author I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I know and trust a couple of the guys who endorsed it, though, so I plowed in and I’m generally enjoying it and on board with what the author has to say. Curious to find out more about him, I headed over to his website, which then pointed me to his Twitter. And what I found there? Oh dear.

This author of a thoughtful book championing love as the highest law has a Twitter account full of vitriol against our current President, frequent retweets of the loudest and most thoughtless conservative pundits, and images comparing vaccine mandates to Nazism. I was stunned by the incongruity. The people I know who endorsed his book (written in 2017) are thoughtful, gentle people who aren’t rabid politically in either direction. So what’s up with this guy? Even more, his website offers the reader a chance to sign up for his “Discipleship Course”. Do I really want to be discipled by someone like that? And, more challengingly, what do I do with his book when his recent demeanor seems so troublesome?

I tweeted briefly about my quandary, and my friend Matt (a teacher who always seems to ask good questions) asked my thoughts about learning from the approach/perspective rather than the person. And that got enough thoughts going that they merited a blog post rather than a tweet thread.

How can or should we separate the teaching from the teacher?

On one hand, Jesus was the only perfect teacher, so literally anyone else that we learn from is going to have issues. And yet there are those who have taught truth whose behavior is so disqualifying that it brings into question the integrity of everything they taught.

That behavior could be unrelated to their teaching or their methods. J. H. Yoder was the classic example of this quandary. It is perhaps easier, though, to think abstractly about an obscure Mennonite ethicist who abused women than it is to consider examples more fresh and prominent in our memory: men like Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, or Jean Vanier. Did (or should have) their behavior have disqualified them from teaching? Absolutely. When we find out about their behavior after absorbing their teaching, how should we reconsider it? That’s hard.

Then we have the case of this author where the behavior directly brings me to question the teacher, because his online behavior seems so out of line with the principles he’s teaching, and because the judgment and logic and reasoning skills he’s displaying on Twitter make me wonder whether I should question the judgment, logic, and reasoning in his book.

Ultimately, I need to evaluate the teaching separately from the teacher. But if I start seeing a pattern where people who teach these things also act that way, I want to factor that in to my evaluation. Correlation isn’t causation… sometimes.

Then there’s the question of discipleship. As a Christian, my aspiration is to be a “little Christ”. If I disciple myself by attending to teachers who are impulsive, caustic, and illogical — even if they are teaching true principles in that way — I shouldn’t be surprised if I learn to be impulsive, caustic, and illogical myself.

But what about the flip side of that? Surely just because a teacher is kind, gentle, patient, loving, and self-controlled doesn’t mean they’re correct, does it? Well… maybe not. But what does Jesus say in Matthew 7?

Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will know them [prophets, teachers] by their fruits.

Matthew 7:16-20, NRSV

In the case of this particular book and author, I think I’m going to end up on the side of agreeing with the book even though the author is problematic. Partly because I think the principles hold up regardless of the teacher, but also partly because there are other teachers I know who are saying the same thing and who provide very compelling examples of living out the fruit of the Spirit and Jesus’ kingdom principles. But am I gonna follow the guy on Twitter to keep learning from him? Nope.

Recommended Reading, September 2021

I have badly neglected recommending any reading so far this year. I have read plenty of books – looks like 54 at the moment – but it’s definitely time for some recommendations.

Fiction

The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

This one is apparently considered a sci-fi / fantasy classic at this point, which makes me wonder why I hadn’t read it until this year. A story that combines humans encountering alien culture with an exploration of faith and theodicy… phew. It’s a good one. Well worth a read.

The Just City – Jo Walton

The premise here: what if some Greek gods selected people from throughout history and brought them to a specific place and time to set up a community based as closely as possible on Plato’s Republic? I’ll admit that it’s been a while since I’ve read Plato, but this exploration of how Plato’s ideas might (or might not) work out in practice was quite fascinating. Oh, and what happens when the cleaning and maintenance robots become sentient?

Non-Fiction (ok, so mostly for me this means theology…)

So many options here. I’ve been participating in a twice-a-month book club this year – and it’s a new book every time, so that’s a lot of reading – which has brought me to some very insightful authors who aren’t all white guys. A couple I can recommend:

The Violence of Love – Oscar Romero

This book is a collection of excerpts from Romero’s sermons and other talks in the late 1970s. While in my earlier days I have been steered away from him as a sort of dangerous, socialist, liberation theologian, what I found was a deep love for the message of the Gospels and a heart full of God’s care and love for the poor and oppressed. It’s easy reading, and well worth it. There’s a free PDF you can legally download, too.

Latina Evangelicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins – Loida I. Martell, Zaida Maldonado Perez, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier

A short work of systematic theology by three Latina women. It kicks off in an unusual place for a systematic theology: a long discussion of the Holy Spirit. This book has an awareness of community and community interpretation of Scripture that I found particularly helpful, too.

Next Up…

I’m currently reading Father James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, which is part memoir and part introduction to a bunch of saints throughout history. If I had finished it I might have listed it up above. I’m only a third of the way through but it’s been quite enjoyable so far.

Once I get through that my to-read shelves are still burgeoning with opportunity. The Princeton University Press half-off sale didn’t help empty those shelves, either. So many books, so little time…

A ‘Christian’ nation without empathy

In case the tweet gets deleted: an embedded tweet from John Rogers (@jonrog1) saying: “People mocking 1/6 cops’ emotions and Simone Biles Olympic decision really brings home that we’re way past partisan divide and dealing with the fact that somehow, over the last half century, our predominantly religious culture raised a hundred million Americans without empathy.”

This tweet has made the viral rounds in just the past 24 hours, and it’s got me thinking, because I resonate strongly with the message. I have seen it very frequently among the Christian circles—particularly the evangelical Christian circles—that I have lived in my entire life. The disdainful comments about people on food stamps. The anger at immigrants that “won’t learn the language”. Snarky, hateful comments about “the gays”. An insistence that poor mothers should get benefits cut off if they keep having children. And on and on and on.

What makes it more jarring is that these same Christians, when provided with a specific in-person opportunity to show empathy, will almost always respond in very compassionate, empathetic ways. They will give money, make meals, house people, literally give you the shirt off their back. But when talking about a generic “them”, or an individual that they don’t know personally, that sense of compassion and empathy quickly disappears.

Why is this so? Why do we have such a failure of compassionate imagination that when we think of the generic other, we assume the worst and by default make a critique?

As I ponder this question, my mind is drawn to the incongruity that has nagged at me a thousand times in a thousand different sermons and ‘gospel presentations’. Why is it that the same people who will insist that salvation is 100% God’s work, that we are wretched, helpless, despicable people, and that every act is determined by God, will also be the loud voices preaching that you better shape up your life, and that if your sin doesn’t bother you enough, you’d better think hard and long about whether you’re “really saved”? (As if that theological framework would allow that you could do anything about that status, anyway.)

Then I connect a dot or two related to the predominant theme of “the gospel” from that vein of evangelical Christianity: penal substitutionary atonement. Specifically, that God’s wrath against sin is burning so hot that if you (yes, you) don’t accept the gift of salvation He offers, He is right and just and praiseworthy to torture you for all eternity. (Sure, there’s a hint more nuance in the systematic theology books, but this is the way you hear it from the pulpit. And Sunday School. And VBS. And AWANA. And on and on.)

A conundrum

So what happens when an evangelical tries to make all of these line up? Maybe evangelicals, when they look at these “other” people, subconsciously find it easier to live with the belief that God will torture those “other” people eternally if they can point to reasons why those “other” people are bad. They will deserve it, after all—that little Gospel presentation tells me so. After all, there has to be something different between me and them, right? Because even though that Gospel presentation tells me it’s 100% God and 0% me, there has to be something better about me, right? Because otherwise why is it great and good and praiseworthy that God arbitrarily chose to reward me, but to eternally torture millions of others?

An alternative idea…

What if, on the other hand, I understand salvation as being a part of God’s redemptive story for all people and creation? An act of restoration that will, in C. S. Lewis’ words from Narnia, make all sad things become untrue? A cosmic work of reconciliation that will restore right relationships between all living things? And that Jesus’ death was not God punishing God to pay for some select few a penalty that God arbitrarily set in place, but rather was a demonstration of God’s love for all creation, proof that the effects of sin in the world will bring death to even the most undeserving, but that God’s redemptive power is stronger even than death itself?

With that view in mind, might I (who up until very recently claimed to be an evangelical Christian) have more empathy and compassion for those struggling with the effects of a broken world? Might I see them — even the general, “other” them — first and foremost as image bearers in need of restoration? Might I see that the good works I can do to help those in need are not some work of “social justice” at odds with “the gospel” but rather the very foreworking of reconciliation and restoration that Jesus will eventually return to complete?

A closing comparison

Ever since dispensationalism took hold, the evangelical church has looked askance at themes of environmental care. Not everyone would say it so bluntly, but the underlying theme is something like this: if it’s all going to burn eventually anyway, why does it matter so much if we take care of it? It doesn’t feel like a stretch to think that for many, the same principle might unconsciously apply to the general “other” person: if they’re going to burn in hell for eternity anyway, why should we care now?

May the church repent and return to compassion, empathy, and care for everyone who God loves — which is to say, for everyone.

Richard Beck: hermeneutical self-awareness and a neurotic spiritual nightmare

Richard Beck is on a roll this week with a short series on reading the Bible. In Part #1 yesterday he states premise #1: “Interpreting is inescapable.”

Do the hard work of Biblical study, put in the time and effort to explore, but don’t think you can avoid, in the final analysis, the necessity of making a call. So make it. 

Today in Part #2 he highlights the terror that can come when the self-awareness of interpretation is paired with a belief that God will judge you if you get it wrong.

Hermeneutical Self-Awareness + Judgmental God = A Whole Lot of Anxiety

I don’t know that I ever verbalized this thought myself, but I think it drove a lot of my study and reading in my 20s and 30s. Here’s how Beck describes it:

Biblical interpretation is so anxiety-inducing because it’s viewed as so high stakes. Your eternal destiny hangs in the balance, so you have to get it right. And yet, given the hermeneutical situation, you lack any firm guarantees you’ve made the right choice. The whole thing is a neurotic spiritual nightmare. In fact, it’s this nightmare that keeps many Christians from stepping into self-awareness to own and admit their own hermeneutics. It’s more comforting to remain oblivious and un-self-aware. 

This put me in mind of a piece I wrote a few years ago where, as an aside, I mentioned that I’m certainly wrong about some percentage of beliefs, but I can’t tell you which ones. Turns out I was interacting with a Richard Beck piece in that one, too. So what do you do? How do you get your way out of Beck’s “neurotic spiritual nightmare”?

By reevaluating one of the terms in the equation.

So I told my students, You have to believe that God’s got your back, that, yes, you might make a mistake. But that mistake isn’t determinative or damning. Just be faithful and humble. You don’t have to have all the correct answers to be loved by your Father. Each of us will carry into heaven a raft of confusions, errors, and misinterpretations of Scripture. It’s unavoidable. We will not score 100% on the final exam. 

But don’t worry. Let your heart be at rest. God’s got your back.

As I like to paraphrase something Robert F. Capon said in Between Noon and Three: yes, I’m assuming that God is at heart loving and gracious. Because, let’s face it: if God is a bastard, we’re all screwed.

An Easter 2021 Meditation

This last year has felt a lot like death.

We’ve had a pandemic sweep the world, and in this country had our leaders fail to lead, instead spreading rumors and assigning blame. Hundreds of thousands are unnecessarily dead. We’ve necessarily stayed cut off from work, family, friends, school, church, and travel plans to protect ourselves and each other. It feels a lot like death.

We left our church last year. This year I‘ve been watching as the evangelical church in America consistently chooses the hope of political power over truth and justice. Chooses to side with abusers rather than victims. Chooses to marginalize women in the name of Biblical literalism. Chooses to persecute LGBTQIA people rather than love and accept them. Chooses “personal freedom” rather than taking basic steps to protect others amid the pandemic. It feels a lot like death.

In August last year we had a derecho destroy our city. The majority of our tree canopy is gone. Everyone had house damage. Our power was out for almost two weeks. Eight months later, I don’t have to drive further than my own street to see houses still missing siding and fences, roofs with tarps where shingles should be. In my own yard where three old friendly trees once stood, all that remains are ragged scars and chips left by a hurried stump grinder. It feels a lot like death.

There are other stories too personal to post. Stories that aren’t mine to tell. Stories that have kept us awake at night, on the floor in desperation, in helpless gnawing realization of things that aren’t alright. That has often felt a lot like death.

This is the first Easter in my memory that I haven’t been to church to celebrate. That, too, feeels like death.

Somehow, through all this, Jesus still holds on to me. I don’t know how. Even after I put away the fear wrought by legalism, after the habits are ripped away, after the culture that taught me Jesus for 40 years has turned from Him in the name of power and freedom, Jesus is still there. Faithfully loving and sustaining me. Faithfully promising that, in the end, this mess will be redeemed.

In this year that has felt a lot like death I will cling to the hope that Jesus is risen. Somehow, He feels a lot like life.

Teenage Vernacular Update, circa March 2021

“Yeet” is passé. “Ye” has entered the common vernacular as an affirmative response.

“Pog”, “big pog”, and “poggers” (expressions of happiness or approval) have become common enough that the teens don’t think it’s too weird if Dad says them.

“F in the chat for <thing>” (paying respect / acknowledging something that died or failed) is still new enough that Dad gets weird looks when he says it. Multiple attempts result in Dad being told he is “trying too hard”.

Recent reading: Queer Theology by Linn Marie Tonstad

The past couple months I’ve been participating in a reading group hosted by Matt Tebbe. (Matt leads an Anglican church plant in the Indianapolis area.) This group, framed around “Reading for the Sake of Others”, is focused on reading outside of the usual conservative white male authors that fill our reading piles. The intention is not that we will agree with everything we read—indeed, if we do, we’re probably not reading widely enough—but to expand our horizons, to acknowledge our blind spots, and to stretch us at least a little.

Our first book in March, then, is one I would likely have never picked up otherwise: Queer Theology by Yale Divinity School professor Linn Marie Tonstad. It’s a short book—less than 200 pages—but provided me a lot to think about. I won’t try to summarize it all here, but wanted to recount some thoughts that I scribbled out on Twitter last night.

  1. I appreciate the focus in queer theology on the reality of embodied existence. Our embodied experience is complex, messy, and should not be ignored. We should pay more attention to what it means for Jesus to have been incarnate.
  2. I appreciated the thought that, though we might hope or imagine otherwise, we are not “self-transparent, rational, autonomous individuals”—i.e., that we are to some extent unable to make choices that determine our outcomes. This means that the categories that we learn and filter our view of life through are so built-in that they are beyond our control and will inevitably affect our view of everything, but especially of the non-normative.
  3. I appreciate an approach that acknowledges that there are queer members of the body of Christ, and works from that given to then think through what this might mean about Christ’s and the church’s nature.
  4. I am challenged by the assertion that if (since) Christianity is “a story in which each person is the object of God’s care, attention, and love”, then Christians should reckon more seriously about those implications, aprticularly regarding politics, economics, and sexuality. This quote reminded me a lot of reading Robert Capon: “The question is this: what does an economy of infinite, inexhaustible love look like?”
  5. I am conflicted about the queer theology assertion that our sexual self and experience is so fundamental to the experience of being a spiritual human being. The theology I have grown up learning is heteronormative, insisting that other experiences/desires are sinful. Yet, it’s hard to deny the assertion that our sexual selves are fundamental to our human experience, and thus to our spiritual being as well.
  6. Finally, I really appreciate the language of “human thriving” to describe that which God wants and we should strive for. I have read others (I forget who) who describe sin as that which is contrary to human flourishing, and that’s been a helpful frame for me to think through sin, the result of sin, and the goodness of the law.

I am definitely looking forward to the group discussion on this one next week!

Thoughts upon Rush Limbaugh’s passing

Rush Limbaugh passed away today at age 70.

I spent countless hours listening to his radio show as a pre-teen, teenager, and into early adulthood, largely absorbing both his Republican political views and his cruel, snarky attitude toward those who disagreed with him. I tried calling in to the show on multiple occasions. (I remember getting through to the call screener once, but never got on the air.) I recorded some of the political spoof songs he played and memorized the lyrics because I thought they were funny. (The spoof of “Bette Davis Eyes” as “Billy Clinton Thighs” to commemorate the jogging President’s short shorts is still in my head today.) I laughed as he called people names and ridiculed people who weren’t like him: Democrats, environmentalists, feminists, immigrants, LTBTQIA people…

Rush made it easy to dismiss people who disagreed with you, and made sure you knew who those people were. I carried those views and attitudes well into adulthood. If you search back far enough you will find posts on my blog here that reflect that sort of snarky and uncaring attitude toward political opponents. I’ve spent the last decade or more regretting and repenting of those words, actions, and attitudes.

Rush caused a lot of people a lot of pain over his lifetime in talk radio. I am glad that his passing means he will stop causing people more pain. Sadly, the effects will linger far longer than his voice did on the radio waves. He had a massive amount of talent and opportunity to do a lot of good for a lot of people. It’s sad that he chose not to.

I’ve seen a lot of understandable pain and bitterness on Twitter this afternoon as people react to Rush’s passing. I don’t want to criticize those reactions. Pain has to be acknowledged to be worked through. I’ve seen a lot of comments about Rush now in eternity finding out how wrong he was and some sense of justice that he might be in hell. I get it. I do.

But I can’t gloat in his passing, and I can’t hope for his eternal torment. Rush was a human created in God’s image the same as everyone else, and he deserves that respect even if he refused it to others.

I’m hopeful of some sort of universal reconciliation through Christ. I know you can interpret the Bible to say otherwise, but after a decade of reading on the topic that’s where I land today. Does my sense of justice think Rush deserves punishment? Yep. But if I can hope for something more beautiful, it’s for a bitter old man with a lifetime of hate coming to sorrowful repentance and being eternally reconciled to Democrats, feminists, immigrants, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and everyone else he hurt through the transforming love of God.

It feels wrong somehow to say “rest in peace” for a guy who caused so much discord. Maybe instead I can wish that he will rest in a discomfort that will lead to repentance and eternal reconciliation. Then I can pray for and work toward healing for those he hurt.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5:18-20, NRSV

Richard Beck: Political detox for evangelicals

Richard Beck has a wonderful post up today, describing American evangelicalism as “addicted to politics”, with a need to detox. He lists “three simple steps” to get free and sober of the addiction.

1. Do not vote in an election for the next ten years, or even ever again.

Basically, go cold turkey. An evangelical who stops voting is like an addict flushing pills down the toilet or emptying bottles down the sink. Break the connection between God and country. 

2. Abstain from or delete social media, cable TV and talk radio.

Stop going to the drug dealers. Avoid the street corners where they are pushing their pills. 

3. Invest in an apolitical local ministry that cares for the hurting or marginalized.

Sobriety requires a new lifestyle. So stop haunting the crack houses. Find a service, organization, or ministry in your town that cares for hurting or marginalized people. Invest all the hours you used to spend on social media into looking some hurting person directly in the face. Keep doing that until you know her or his name. And keep going until the names become your friends. 

Beck notes that these same steps would be appropriate for politically-addicted progressives, too. I dunno if I’d call them “easy”, but it’s helpful to think about the kind of radical steps that would show the problem were being taken seriously.

Love hopes all things, but I’m still hitting the ‘Unfriend’ button

Over the past month or two I have been making a renewed effort to engage in good faith political discussions my Facebook friends. I had been hoping that since the election was over and there are a handful of key points that are very obviously matters of fact, maybe I could reason with my friends through those topics.

1 Corinthians says that love hopes all things, and my rationale went along these lines: I love these people, and I hope that eventually their eyes could be opened to the truth rather than the lies they’ve been chasing. My engaging and speaking truth could be a pathway toward that realization for them. After all, if everybody who disagrees with them just gives up and disengages, the echo chambers just get worse, right?

It’s been an exhausting month. Maybe I’m just really bad at this. Maybe people are far more entrenched in lies than I wanted to believe. Maybe Facebook is really not a good platform for those conversations. But whatever the case, I got nowhere with my arguments, got called a bunch of names, and my stress level went through the roof every time I was inexorably drawn to tap the Facebook app icon.

So last night enough was enough. I went through Facebook and unfriended a bunch of people who aren’t really in-person friends, and unfollowed a whole bunch of people who I do know in person. I still love these people and pray and hope that their eyes would be opened, but this can’t be the way. At least I hope that if they someday reach a point where they see things differently and want someone to talk to about it, they’ll remember me as someone who’s willing to talk.