I’ve found that there are ways to end a discussion before it even begins. It’s easy: you set the terms of the discussion so that if you disagree with me, then it’s clearly because you have a problem, so it’s no use even continuing. It’s not really fair, but it allows me to pretend that I have the moral high ground while it effectively silences you, if you let it that is.
When I watched a video about Brian McLaren’s new book, I wondered if that was happening. If I disagreed with McLaren, would I be one of those brittle, scared people resorting to ad hominem arguments out of my desire to maintain the status quo? It’s an awful way to start a discussion if those are the terms!
I thought of this again last week as I read Mike Wittmer:
I read the introductory three chapters of A New Kind of Christianity, and so far it’s an updated version of the Brian we’ve seen before. He claims to be “a mild-mannered guy” who is only looking for a new way to be a Christian that will boost the declining numbers in our churches, and he can’t understand why his critics respond with “fear,” “clenched teeth,” and “suspicion and accusation.” Brian’s really good at winning sympathy, and soon I was loathing myself for ever politely disagreeing with such a nice man.
But then I remembered that this debate about the Christian faith–which he and his friends started–is not a personality contest. You can’t dismiss what Christians have always believed and then expect a free pass because you’re likable. And just below the surface of Brian’s humble, can’t-we-all-just-get-along vibe is an accusatory tone that repeatedly compares his critics to a religious Gestapo whose leaders defend their conservative beliefs because they don’t want to lose their jobs.
At the end of McLaren’s book, the writes:
You can either criticize my responses from a distance…or you can come to the table, join the conversation, and make your own contribution. Be assured, if you come in that spirit of collegial contribution and creative collaboration, many of us will be eager to hear what you have to offer as we journey forward together…Wherever that willingness to rethink has been squelched, wherever that sense of quest has been buried under convention and complacency, the Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble.
Here’s what I want to flag: I’m not sure I like these terms. There’s a subtle (or not so subtle) implication that we can pull up to the table with smiles and pose our own questions, and tweak McLaren’s proposals and join the fun. But if we say that we have concerns, it’s implied that we have a problem and we’re trying to shut things down. This makes it hard to review a book, never mind deal with the kinds of issues raised in a book like this.
So I’m coming to the table, and I promise not to call anyone names. I’m hoping I’m allowed to stay for a bit even if I disagree with what you say. Those are the best kind of tables I’ve sat at. But if I can’t disagree without being called one of those people, who’s squelching the discussion?