You may not agree with popular blogger Rachel Held Evans, for example, but she is no troll. She’s a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books and more than 100,000 people follow her on Twitter and Facebook. But Evans was blocked by TGC when she questioned a post on their site that used rather alarming language to discuss sexual intercourse.
The article quoted controversial pastor Douglas Wilson: “the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” Evans countered that the statement was offensive and degrading to women and triggered images of rape and sexual violence. Later, prominent theologian Scot McKnight called on TGC to remove the post, arguing it “inculcates justified violence” against women.
TGC’s leaders would have done well to listen to her. She was expressing legitimate concerns and Douglas Wilson has also praised the “unexpected blessings of slavery” and admitted that he believes LGBT people could be executed in certain circumstances. Instead of listen, TGC blocked her on social media. (The original link to the article is now disabled. The author later apologized for posting the quote, but the link to the apology is also now disabled.)
Evans was not the first person to be stiff-armed for speaking up. Not by a long shot. Most people who have been blocked by TGC say they were punished for questioning the coalition’s disastrous defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a prominent Calvinist ministry that was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal. TGC personalities connected to SGM continued to express support and friendship for those involved with the scandal even as it became clear that Sovereign Grace leaders were complicit. Many who questioned TGC’s stance were blocked. Some who merely used Twitter handles such as #istandwithsurvivors were similarly punished by TGC.
Not being much of a fan of Doug Wilson myself, Calvinist though I am, for Evans to protest Doug Wilson seems like the progressive equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. If she'd set her sights on Tony Jones' treatment of his ex-wife that would be a bit more impressive. Sustained and careful critique of someone who you consider on "your" team is more difficult to pull off and requires both more care and at times more forceful argument. At the risk of pointing out what might already by obvious to regular readers, I'm not just writing that as though I've got no personal experience.
But Merritt's mention of Evans makes it impossible for me to ignore something. Evans has a history of calling out guys who've been in the Gospel Coalition orbit for being bullies and while that's salutary in its way ... it highlights that in neither case did that public posturing actually accomplish anything. In fact in the cases of both Mark Driscoll and Doug Wilson we're talking about guys who ended up embroiled in plagiarism controversies that were brought up not by Rachel Held Evans but by conservative Reformed types, whether Janet Mefferd in her on-air conversation with Mark Driscoll in 2013 or Rachel Miller at her blog in 2015. Evans was sounding off on how Driscoll and Wilson were guilty of the thought crimes progressives have largely always thought those guys were guilty of in any event but which, let's remind everyone, is still stuff that, however unsavory it may seem, is protected speech. It was from within the Reformed scene that these guys got trouble over books that were regarded as having problems that amounted to copyright infringement issues.
Driscoll's books have been amended as has been documented by Warren Throckmorton. A Justice Primer has been withdrawn. Now if Evans herself weren't part of the celebrity Christian train ...
Rachel Held Evans, Appointee for Member, President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
Rachel Held Evans is a Christian blogger and the author of Faith Unraveled, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and Searching for Sunday. In addition, Ms. Evans speaks at retreats, conferences, universities, and churches across the country. She has been featured on NPR, Slate, The BBC, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, CNN, The View, and The Today Show, and in 2012, she was named one of Christianity Today's “50 Women to Watch.” Ms. Evans received a B.A. from Bryan College.
See, her piece about Donald Trump was another case of shooting fish in a barrel from a progressive camp. So she doesn't like Trump. I don't like Trump and I consider myself a moderate actual conservative on both politics and Christian doctrine. Whether it's Trump or Sanders there's two candidates in play this year that appeal in a big way as populist agitators to angry white reactionaries and radicals. It doesn't mean I have to like either of them and so I don't like either of them.
If Evans spent less time shooting fish in barrels like Mark Driscoll or Doug Wilson or Donald Trump she could do the more difficult work of levelling an internal critique. If there's something in our age that seems badly overdue it's passing judgment on our insiders instead of fixating on the punditry of taking shots at the people just about anyone could work out we already disagree with.
Rachel Held Evans has the right to disagree with guys like Trump and Driscoll and Wilson as much as she wants. That the Sovereign Grace Ministries situation was a fiasco seems pretty much beyond dispute but I haven't remarked much upon it because that's all stuff that happened on the other side of the country and I had enough stuff that I felt needed documentation over here in the Seattle area I figured I'd focus on that. And to make a nasty point about it, I'm also not the sort of celebrity Christian who feels obliged to sound off on headlines and controversies just to stay in rotation. I've been trying to phase out things Mars Hill these last two years and Driscoll just insists on staying in the spotlight. It's kinda lame, and it would be better for his spiritual health to step away from ministry (for a long time to get that help the Acts 29 Board said he needed back before Darrin Patrick had to be removed ... ). But he's not stepping away from ministry.
And, unfortunately, it seems that Evans in her own way can't resist taking on these right wing Calvinist bros who are also seeking the spotlight. Did Evans discover any citation problems in Mark Driscoll books? Did she break the story about Result Source? Did she find enough evidence of plagiarism that Wilson and Booth had to retract a book?
It was actually a software check that first unearthed the plagiarism in A Justice Primer—but not Canon’s software check. Rachel Miller, the blogger who found and reported the book’s citation problems, bought a copy of A Justice Primer on Amazon, and then noticed sections that seemed plagiarized as she was reading. She typed up the sections and ran them through Grammarly’s plagiarism detection software.
No, obviously. But she's been able to get some props for sounding off on guys she would have sounded off against for probably just about any other occasion. I happen to think Dan Savage is a jerk and I disagree with him on a variety of things but there's no point in sounding off about him 99.99% of the time. I didn't agree with a lot of what Christopher Hitchens said and wrote in his career. But I still read him and I don't for a second believe the fantasy that he had thoughts of converting to Christianity. Hitchens could read Solzhenitsyn and appreciate the man's moral courage while never agreeing with the man's Christianity. Long ago Hitchens said that the people that annoyed him weren't the obviously fundamentalist types a la Doug Wilson but the self-identified liberal/progressive Christians.
Merritt wrapped his piece as follows:
But we can also learn about something by providing negative answers, rather than positive ones. We can get at how one might do something by describing how not to do it. Here’s a start:
- Constantly criticizing outsiders while only listening to insiders … is how not to engage culture.
- Shutting out dissenters who challenge your beliefs, content, or ideas … is how not to engage culture.
- Operating in a pattern of isolationism, tribalism, and egotism … is how not to engage culture.
- Refusing to answer difficult questions about your organization’s practices … is how not to engage culture.
It's not really that clear to me how Rachel Held Evans doesn't fit into that checklist, just in a different way that the bros at the Gospel Coalition do. One team's crusader is another team's troll and it's not a foregone conclusion just because Merritt says Evans isn't a troll that she can't possibly be a troll; if anything we're looking at two macho man pastors in a row where Evans did the public sound off and somebody else got the guys on the ropes over books while Evans was dissenting from views that are technically still protected speech under the First Amendment.
What was Evans' thing? Mark Driscoll's a bully, stand up to him. Doug Wilson has said some creepy stuff about slavery and women. Even Carl Trueman, probably nobody's idea of a liberal on doctrine or politics, thinks Doug Wilson's said some stupid, indefensible things. It means something different coming from people who would ostensibly be in the same Reformed tradition than from a self-identified liberal on politics or religion. It gets back to that "criticizing outsiders" thing. Evans could sound off on how Tony Jones treated his ex-wife any time now, or is being in an advisory role to the Obama administration and promoting her writings too time-consuming? Can Evans say that she's never, ever blocked anybody? How did she take to Alastair Roberts' critique of her 2012 book? Is Merritt absolutely certain Evans couldn't fit into his checklist in ways not unlike people who write for The Gospel Coalition?
The Gospel Coalition does have an awful lot to answer for. Earlier this year Wenatchee The Hatchet published a document in which the Driscolls asked that people at The Gospel Coalition get galley proofs for Real Marriage. Driscoll specifically requested that galley proofs be sent to Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung. That'd be the Kevin DeYoung who praised A Justice Primer as a great book discussing, "It’s actually a book about how the Bible would have us judge each other (or not) in the mad, mad world of blog warriors and internet vigilantes."
Does Kevin DeYoung want to say anything about that withdrawn book now? Did he get a galley proof of Real Marriage?
Merritt could be missing the boat altogether here because what might be happening with The Gospel Coalition, if they stay this course, could be what happened with Mark Driscoll--there's a point where if you're too combative and domineering and too protective of your brand you end up alienating not the people who already can't stand you (i.e. the Rachel Held Evans types of the blogosphere) but even the sorts of people who, on paper, would be in your corner.
I know that sounds cynical. But I have been an observer of these things for too long to believe otherwise. The Reformed(ish) Industrial Complex is too insular and self-protective. It is too sensitive to anything that sounds like critique. It is too committed to its own promotion. Early on I suppose I was too sanguine about the rise of the YRR movement. I assumed that holding to reformed doctrine would guard us from unwise practice and the celebrity culture that was so much a feature of broader evangelicalism. I was wrong. [emphasis added]
Those words mean something different coming from Pruitt than they would from an Evans or a Merritt. Progressive Christians have every right to complain about conservative Christians here but it wouldn't be altogether bad for them if they asked themselves whether their own celebrities have behaved in terrible ways. It seems both camps would benefit from more unstinting internal critique than the merry-go-round of adducing "lessons" from the team we all agree we don't want to play nice with as it is.