February 24, 2013

Lessons from the Rachel Held Evans Dust-up.


By Alan F.H. Wisdom

From its founding in 1981, the IRD has a history of engendering controversy. That history continues with the recent furious exchanges on IRD’s “Juicy Ecumenism” blog sparked by its coverage of “evolved evangelical” blogger and author Rachel Held Evans.

I’m an old hand in these kinds of tussles, having experienced many through a 25-year career at IRD ending in 2011. Fellow IRD veterans like Mark Tooley and Faith McDonnell can show their battle scars too. It is with pleasure, mixed with some concern, that I now watch a new generation of IRD staffers entering the fray.

Kristin Rudolph, the IRD writer responsible for the latest articles addressing Evans, does us proud. She composed a careful summary of a series of talks Evans had given earlier this month in Williamsburg, VA, using ample quotes in context to illustrate the leftward “evolution” in the author’s thought. When Evans wrote to complain, she did not dispute any of the facts in Rudolph’s report. Instead Evans objected to the personal abuse heaped on her by some commenters on the blog. (I shall not dignify the insults by repeating them.)

Rudolph responded with poise and grace, in the best IRD tradition. She did not back away from any of her impeccable reporting. But Rudolph expressed sympathy with Evans’ feelings of offense at the comments. “I agree with you,” she told the author, “many of them are hurtful and unproductive. Certainly not reflective of what a Christ-honoring community should be.” Rudolph promised that the institute would “begin moderating the comments more stringently.” She affirmed that IRD “welcome[s] discussion about the substance of your message, but do[es] not condone the [negative] assumptions about and attacks on your character.”

Rudolph has my respect for extending this olive branch. But my experience suggests this episode will not be the last. There will almost certainly be more controversies, perhaps involving Rachel Held Evans, and there will be more hurtful things said and more feelings of offense (on all sides). How can we sustain these debates about vital issues—painful and yet necessary—over the long haul? I shared some thoughts in an email to IRD staff, and Mark Tooley invited me to post them on this blog. Herewith a few scattered reflections on controversy and Christian civility:

1. If you work at the IRD, you have to expect controversy. If you go to the IRD blog or website, you must expect controversy. The IRD engages issues about which Christians care passionately: the future of the Church, and whether it belongs to a more orthodox or a more progressive faith. IRD staffers bring their own passions to these issues. To stir discussion, the IRD reports provocative things that have been said by figures such as Rachel Held Evans. Those provocations predictably provoke sharp responses. In an open forum, the responses will sometimes go beyond the bounds of Christian charity—or even common decency.

2. Rachel Held Evans and the IRD have at least this much in common: She also is seeking to stir discussion about sensitive issues, such as whether the future of the Church belongs to a more orthodox or a more progressive faith. Progressive-leaning authors such as Evans put their views out in public with the evident desire to gain a wide audience. Seeking to push the Church in new directions, they need to attract attention. So they attack beliefs that are deeply meaningful—even sacred—to many people. They reach for the striking phrase that will resonate. Such phrases will resonate well in some ears; they will inevitably be repugnant to other ears. The price of being a published author and media personality is exposing oneself to harsh criticisms—including criticisms that cross the lines of propriety. That’s especially true for provocateurs such as Evans and the IRD. I would prefer to live in a society in which the lines of propriety were drawn and enforced more strictly. We can all try to do our part for civility in the small spheres that we control, but ultimately we have to accept that this is the rough-edged society in which God has placed us and learn how to live graciously in it.

3. Frequently, the figures that IRD covers—such as Evans—are out of step with many of the church members whom they seek to lead or influence. These figures represent a progressive elite mentality, whereas the average person in the pew tends to be significantly more conservative theologically and politically. Figures in this position often adapt by tailoring their rhetoric to their divergent audiences. They voice their convictions more boldly before like-minded progressive elite audiences, more cautiously before audiences perceived to be more conservative. Such figures sometimes resent IRD coverage because the institute holds them accountable for what they say to both audiences.  They are upset because they have directed remarks to a sympathetic left-leaning audience, expecting a sympathetic reaction, and then IRD reports them to a more conservative audience and they get an opposite reaction. I don’t see, however, that these figures have any legitimate grounds for complaint. When you put your views out in public, you have to be willing to stand behind them before any audience. You can’t be regaling liberal audiences with anecdotes showing how silly all that patriarchal Old Testament stuff is and how narrow-minded and repressed traditional Christians are and then turn around and swear to a conservative audience that you revere the Bible as much as anyone, and we’re all just seekers who have small differences of interpretation. People are going to notice the contradiction, even if IRD wasn’t the source breaking the news to them.

4. The problem of offensive comments is not easily solved. The IRD cannot control the inferences that people draw from its articles. It can certainly try to moderate more closely the comments on its blog—we don’t want misogynistic name-calling or any other kind of personal invective. But even if the commenters refrain from name-calling, they still are likely to say things that Evans and her friends are going to find hurtful. You can’t touch the topic of whether someone who calls herself an “evangelical” has departed from classic evangelical understandings of biblical authority without hitting a nerve somewhere.

5. I think the underlying source of tension is this debate about whether Evans and her fellow “new evangelicals” are really evangelicals at all. That is not a debate that I find to be helpful. The term “evangelical” is so loose—in some parts of the world it’s just a synonym for “Protestant”—that it’s hard to say when someone enters or leaves the “evangelical” camp. Evangelicalism is not a denomination; it’s a movement—a movement that is transmuting, and possibly disintegrating, before our eyes. There is no creed or rite of initiation or distinguishing mark of membership that would allow one to verify whether someone is a “true evangelical.” So my policy has always been that if someone calls himself or herself an evangelical, I won’t challenge them. I’ve never challenged Jim Wallis or Rich Cizik or any of the other leftward moving evangelicals, and I wouldn’t challenge Rachel Held Evans.  They can claim, correctly, that they grew up in evangelical churches and still have some attachment to their evangelical heritage, and they may have had some kind of vivid conversion experience at some point. So they may be just as much evangelical as am I—who didn’t grow in an evangelical congregation, didn’t have a distinct conversion experience, and don’t attend an evangelical church today . I’m in no position to decide these questions. All I can do is report what the “new evangelicals” say, indicate where I agree or disagree, and let people draw their own conclusions.

6. The problem reflected in the IRD blog comments is that people—especially evangelicals—are driven to draw conclusions that go well beyond what IRD has reported, or what they can legitimately infer from IRD’s reporting. In particular, when someone says “Rachel Held Evans is not a real evangelical,” what he or she often means is “Rachel Held Evans is not a real Christian, not a follower of Jesus Christ, not a child of God, and therefore she’s headed straight to a bad place.” At least two of the commenters said it directly: “She [Evans] is not a Christian.” It’s no wonder that Evans is upset at being summarily excluded from God’s kingdom. I would never make those kinds of inferences myself, and I doubt that many at IRD would either. We have realized that Christianity is so much bigger than contemporary evangelicalism. And we recognize that it is God alone who can judge the hearts of individuals and who knows his own sheep. It’s not up to us to determine whether Evans or anyone else is a real Christian. The IRD can just report what she says and compare that to what the Church Universal has taught. It can note that some of her positions don’t accord with that teaching, and it can observe that some of her reasoning doesn’t stand up well. Unfortunately, others will use that reporting and analysis to draw unwarranted conclusions about the state of Evans’ soul. But we must not pass judgments like that.

7. It is easy to declare that we intend to focus on the arguments rather than the persons putting forward those arguments. It is much harder to practice that principle consistently. Issues are quickly personalized. The debate starts to revolve around whether we adore or despise Rachel Held Evans—or Rob Bell, or Brian McLaren, etc.—rather than whether we find her arguments convincing or unconvincing. Some of the personalization is unavoidable. It is rarely effective to engage an argument in the abstract. People want to know who is making the argument, what precisely they said, and in what context. It is this information that puts us in a position to deliver an effective rebuttal. But most people will take the rebuttal personally. Moreover, given the state of American society and the state of evangelicalism, all the social forces are pushing us toward personalization. The mass media, and evangelicals in the mass media, operate by personalizing the collective and the abstract. Leaders are lifted up as the embodiment of the cause they represent. People don’t know Saddleback Church; they know Rick Warren. People don’t know Sojourners; they know Jim Wallis. And so forth. When the personality is appealing, it becomes a vehicle for massive publicity for the cause. But the dark side is that opponents of the cause will instinctively go after the personality. Sadly, the most effective way to undermine a cause is to disparage and stigmatize the person who represents that cause. And being the imperfect creatures that we are, there is always something to disparage. Rachel Held Evans, wittingly or unwittingly, is putting herself out there and is being heralded as the embodiment of a new type of evangelical woman. Now she is experiencing the attacks—low blows as well as legitimate counterpunches—that come with that kind of high profile. I can feel for her, but I don’t see how we can change the reality that we all face. The IRD’s Mark Tooley takes his share of low blows too.

8. These kinds of debates are messy and often painful; however, there is much to be learned if we can keep calm, patient, alert to our own shortcomings as well as the perspectives of others, and attentive to whatever light God might shed through the fog of our conflicts. That is what I tried to do through my years at the IRD. And I believe that is what Kristin Rudolph and other IRD staffers are doing today.

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8 Responses to Lessons from the Rachel Held Evans Dust-up.

  1. quester123 says:

    Bravo. A very well thought-out piece that is realistic, as well as fair and even-handed. I’d like to throw out a suggestion to all, something to ease at least some of the conflict that erupts in the blogosphere: could we all put our heads together to come up with creative, accurately descriptive terms as an alternative to “liberal” and “conservative” when discussing matters of spiritual (as opposed to purely political) import? I realize it’s not so easy to separate these two realms, but speaking from the point of view of one who self-identifies as “liberal,” I have to say that the use of these terms in a non-political setting is itself very divisive. Our more conservative brothers and sisters may not be aware of the offense that is dealt when the terms are used in such a way that implies (either consciously or not) that “liberals” are not biblically orthodox by definition. Here’s why this dichotomy is so off-track in my view. You may be “liberal” in your views on many things that don’t relate to basic Christian doctrine and practice (tax policy, immigration, foreign relations, government programs for the poor, etc.) but yet be what people will call “conservative” on things that matter the most (the authority of scripture, Christology, soteriology, biblical teaching on sexual morality, etc.). To label such a person a “liberal” in the way that word is used in these situations implies, though, that such a person is unorthodox in the way that view biblical teaching as well as political issues, and it just ain’t always so. To assume so is really offensive to those of us who have a lot more complex system of beliefs than these labels suggest, and in the verbal tussles on the blog posts relating to Rachel Held Evans, I kept getting accused of holding to positions on biblical issues I just don’t actually believe, simply because I hold to certain positions on other issues. I kept telling these people that no, I don’t believe this or that, but they had already made their mind up about the kind of person I was, had labeled me, and decided to just dismiss everything I said, and believe me, that really infuriated me. And this is why I really believe we need to stop using these dern labels: they shut down debate, and cause people to stop listening, and we really don’t need that. So, does anyone have some serious ideas about a pair of terms we can use to denote the two poles of this ongoing discussion that are descriptive and not pejorative?

  2. Ben Welliver says:

    To give you a really brief answer, quester: No, we can’t stop using labels. Allow me to throw a few quotes from Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches, where one of the chapter titles is “No Labels”:

    “Label” is another word for “word.” And without words—i.e., language, communication, the sharing of complex ideas—we are back in the trees. . . . Everything we associate with civilization, decency, and progress depends on labels. If we cannot label something poisonous, people will die. When we label evil behavior with the word evil, we signal to the world that that is something you should not do. p 60

    Liberals are embarrassed by their own label. That’s why they don’t believe in labels—because the labels describe them accurately. p 65

    Ditto to all that, and yes, it does apply to religion as well as politics. Maybe you haven’t heard, but Christianity, especially the conservative variety, is being made very unwelcome on college campuses, where most faculty and staff identify as liberal. Most people I know that are conservative in religion are conservative in politics too, and the religious liberals I know are almost all political liberals too. So, the labels may distress you, but I like to use them for the obvious reason: They are accurate.

    One of the key finds of my spiritual life is the classic book Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. The title tells all: two religions. Machen allowed that Christians will disagree on many things, and the minor ones ultimately don’t matter. As he saw it, and I agree, liberalism is rooted not in God’s revelation to man (through the Bible, but also tradition and experience), but in wishful thinking, taking the language of Christianity and using the churches as tools for personal improvement or social action, neglecting the clear teaching of the New Testament that the main goal is the salvation of individuals. As Machen puts it, Christianity is the “religion of the broken heart.” The new life begins with something very simple: “Save me!” The rest follows from that. When you take the New Testament as a whole, not just look at isolated verses, that is Square One: broken heart, embrace Christ, new life, new mind, grow, eternity. I have listened to lots of liberal sermons and have rarely heard the word “salvation” even spoken, and there are supposed “evangelicals” today like Scot McKnight, a seminary professor, who work to convince evangelicals that they are dead wrong about emphasizing salvation. Christianity, the salvation religion rooted in a broken heart that needs fixing versus liberalism the feel-good-and-improve-society religion (usually a conform-to-society religion too). The two religions are really not that hard to distinguish, and there are plenty of “evangelicals” who are now rather obviously on the side of liberalism. People like Brian McLaren are pretty open about dumping some core doctrines like original sin and the atonement. Since IRD wants us to be polite, I won’t say that McLaren isn’t a Christian. I will say that his books are not, and I think God will hold him and all writers accountable for their words.

    So, quester, you may have good intentions in your sermon against labels, but for the time being, this side of paradise, the labels serve a useful function, and I share Jonah Goldberg’s cynicism about people who say “let’s get rid of labels.” They’re usually trying to pull a fast one. To ignore that is to fall down in one’s Christian duty. Faith is worth fighting over.

  3. Alan, you made some good points, especially # 3. A key problem for Evans is she has two faces and doesn’t seem too happy that IRD points that out. Speaking to liberals and semi-evangelicals, she can seem extremely harsh toward evangelicals (as she is in her books), whereas, here on IRD, she is all about loving Jesus and loving the Bible. I think her books, her blog, and her speeches to groups like the Wesley Foundation at William and Mary are the real Rachel Evans and the comments she posted here just don’t seem all that sincere. We can leave that to God to judge. Given the things she has written in her books, she is going to have a very rough ride as an “evolved” evangelical or any other kind of evangelical, so if I were predicting I’d say she may drop the evangelical name eventually, a relief to her and to us, which may pose a problem with her publisher, since they would gladly sign her to another book.

    I have to politely disagree with Quester. These discussions get messy at times, but I don’t think discarding labels is the answer. It may get “offensive” at times, but that goes with the territory of defending the truth. I spent several years attending Coral Ridge Presbyterian, and I admired D. James Kennedy immensely. He was a charming, happy Christian, not a mean bone in his body, but he knew where to draw the lines and speak the truth, not fretting about whether it would “offend” somebody. I can’t picture him shrugging off Rachel Evans’s very flippant attitude toward the Bible. His whole ministry was based on the assumption that Christians can interpret the Bible clearly and can live biblically, and that is totally at odds with what Evans has written.

  4. Well thought out, insightful piece, covering a number of important perspectives.

    We have entered a brave new world in which feelings take precedence over truth and ideology trumps pragmatism.

    What springs to my mind quite often in reading IRD posts is the fact that 40-plus years ago the opinions offered by IRD would generally not be considered controversial at all.

    For example, what mainline 1960’s Christian would have thought that holding a traditional Judeo-Christian view of marriage would have ever…EVER… been considered “controversial?” Or that defending the nation of Israel would have been characterized as reactionary or prejudicial? It just goes to show you how much society can change if rabid activists assume positions of leadership, both within and without the church.

    British author Melanie Phillips covers such topics very well in her insightful and appropriately named book “The World Turned Upside Down.” Very much worth reading: http://www.amazon.com/The-World-Turned-Upside-Down/dp/1594033757#

  5. Greg Piper says:

    “We can all try to do our part for civility in the small spheres that we control, but ultimately we have to accept that this is the rough-edged society in which God has placed us and learn how to live graciously in it.” Straight outta the Apostle Paul. Good thoughts all around.

  6. bravelass says:

    Excellent summary!

    I have just one quibble with point #4, make that two quibbles.

    First, I wouldn’t assume (unfounded) inferences are being made because some some comments go beyond the specific article. Or am I reading you wrong there? Many subjects of your blog posts here have rather large public records – in print and on blogs. Often posts such as the excellent one by Kristin Rudolph serve as jumping off points for discussing the larger body of someone’s work. A single assessment may or may not be representative of a person’s work.

    Second, labels are enormously helpful. They help us distinguish between something like life giving H2O and poisonous to drink, H2O2. In the theological realm, they help us distinguish between orthodoxy, heterodoxy and heresy, for instance. Quite honestly, having been the subject of not a few labels myself, I found that only the ones that were true hurt. The others, more frequently than not, elicited a snort of derision and some uncharitable muttering about ignorance. I’d say that labels, backed by evidence, are perfectly appropriate and necessary. Sometimes that includes even the derisory ones. I seem to remember a biblical instance or two of that sort of thing.

  7. btay1 says:

    “Rachel Held Evans is not a real Christian, not a follower of Jesus Christ, not a child of God, and therefore she’s headed straight to a bad place.”

    I didn’t say those before, but I would say them now and not feel bad about it. Why? because they are only my opinion. Any mature Christian knows that only God judges our salvation, so I may be right, or I may be wrong. But I would argue and support my position to anyone that wanted to discuss it based on what the bible has taught me. But the bottom line is it still my opinion, so it is neither right or wrong.

    I find the idea that Rachel find anyone’s words hurtful as comical. Her books and words are her opinions only, so they are just a right and proper to share as my last paragraph was. If I told her to her face that I thought she was going straight to hell, I am sure she would not agree with me. If it truly bothered her, she would spend the time to understand why those that oppose her feel the the way they do and address it honestly and completely, instead of insulting them. Jesus himself said how the narrow the road to Him is, and how few find it. We need to help people find the narrow road, not write books and give speeches about how we are going to make the road wider, or why in your opinion, those already on the road don’t want you on the road with them.

    Jesus watched many a man or woman follow him and then walk away. He told the disciples at times that his words were hard teaching. He didn’t call to those that walked away back to him to come back, or follow them to argue with them, or force them to himself, he let them choose to leave, as many do to this day. Everyone’s day of judgement comes and all Jesus asks us to do is believe in him and repent of our sins. I find it sad that so many choice to do the first, while ignoring the latter. The same as if I point out to you that your life choices don’t show repentance, is it not because I am better than you, or superior in faith to you, but because I love you and don’t want to see you be lost to the enemy.

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