Sunday, November 06, 2011

a comment from a discussion at the Wartburg Watch gets me thinking

steve on Sat, Nov 05 2011 at 02:33 pm

In terms of comment deletion, dialogue, and such, here’s an interesting quote from Michel Foucault about the difference between entering into dialogue and being a polemicist.

“I like discussions, and when I’m asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of ‘infantile leftism’, I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the morality that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other….

….The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consists of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be, not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”

Many of us have helped make these folk polemicists. We have hung on their every word, and let them be experts in preaching, theology, ethics, science, politics – basically whatever they have spoken about. Now, we all have opinions about the economy, global warming, the Bible, etc., and usually those opinions are not taken to be canonical. But when some of our evangelical pope/theologian/rock stars speak, we think they must be right, regardless of the topic. People are not supposed to receive that kind of admiration; it really does set people up for a fall. Too many evangelicals have allowed these people to think for them, with the predictable result that those at the top have become unbalanced.
Everything they say is right; therefore true, therefore biblically sound. If someone opposes their opinion, it is tacitly equated with opposing Scriptural insights, which is then opposing God. Why let someone challenge God on your blog? Now, it happens that God’s truth is mediated through the blogger, but that’s not what’s important. How can you not be polemical against wolves who are destroying sheep, the sheep who you must feed with God’s truth?

There is no room for discussion or dialogue because those who aren’t with you are against you, and therefore against Christ. And, to come full circle, since you are an expert about everything you talk about, if people oppose you on any issue or in any way, you don’t need to listen.

There are polemicists in seminaries, pastorates, and on blogs. The sad thing today is that polemicists in evangelicalism are often polemicists against other evangelicals.

It just so happens I read this interesting blog post over at City of God excerpting from Chomsky about Chomsky's dislike of postmodernists.  He made an exception for, of all people, Foucault.
Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English
This didn't mean Chomsky agreed with Foucault necessarily but that he was saying he could an actual conversation with Foucault about actual issues (whatever those were and you may have put together I am not the world's hugest fan of either Chomsky or Foucault myself).  But here wwe have to mentions of Foucault on two blogs I regularly read and Chomsky can be considered an independent witness of Foucault's eagerness to avoid being a mere polemicist.
At the other side of the political spectrum many a liberal said that though they would often vehemently disagree with William F. Buckley it was to his credit that they could have an actual conversation.  Many people who miss Buckley style conservatism may not yet realize they are some of the reasons that style of conservativism isn't around.  Buckley passed and we get Limbaugh and Coulter as prominent public and vocal conservatives?  Well, duh, of course that means the nature of public discourse has just changed.  Anyone who's read maybe ten of my blog posts here probably would have guessed I lean more Buckley in my preference and disposition. 
Now here is where I wish to go a bit with this set-up.  A polemicist, as Foucault put it, argues from a position of privilege which he possesses in advance and will never agree to question.  This is exactly what I have seen, like steve, among neo-Reformed sorts.  But it is also a quality I have seen in people who have set themselves as polemicists against the neo-Reformed sort.   Whether you're in or out it's an all or nothing deal.  You can't say that this is good and that is bad.  You have to say it is all good or all horrid.  This is something I object to.  I have been told by some people that my problem is that I see things in black and white and, if anything, the problem is that those sorts of people insist on seeing everything in terms of black and white and because they disagree with me they read that quality on to me.  People who actually know me know that the last thing I could be accused of being is someone who is utterly Manichean, seeing EVERYTHING in starkly black and white terms. 
I have written at some length about difficulties in a particular church but here I want to reflect a bit on problems I have seen in some polemicists who have set their sights on Mars Hill. The problem, to put it bluntly, is that many of these polemicists against Mars Hill are just that, polemicists of precisely the same sort Driscoll has always been.  I have come to be friends with a number of people who are such polemicists and I sometimes wonder if they always think through their own standards and behaviors in light of their capacity to be firebrands. 
One fellow who initially objected to the courtship fad began to parrot everything the courtship advocates trumpeted hither and yon.  He also went so far as to defend those advocates as always knowing what was going on.  I was convinced otherwise by what I actually observed but the need to keep up appearances was strong.  Years later one of the courtship advocates admitted to what I and probably hundreds of other people noticed, that he was completely blindsided by his daughter being in love with a guy.  He hadn't kept track of things and the facade of being in the know was just that, a facade.  Was it deception?  No, not of anyone else, it was more likely a fear of admitting that the gap between rhetoric and reality was much bigger than advertised.  So when this man eventually became an ex-member of Mars Hill and considered the gap between public rhetoric and private conduct I was disappointed to hear such gaps could be culturally systemic but not entirely shocked.  After all, this man had the same kind of gap between public rhetoric and private reality in his own life on his pet subject of courtship. 
One fellow made a point of pressing me about why I wasn't married even though he was at that point not necessarily keeping track of who his daughter was spending time with.  For this man the polemic of my needing to be married was a sticking point.  I eventually felt obliged to point out that since I'm not his kid and not situated to be married yet it might be better to keep his sights closer to home and keep track of who his daughter was hanging out with.  This is another case where an ex-Mars Hill member engaged in the same sort of polemic for marriage that I'd seen in the Mars Hill culture itself.  If the pot calls the kettle black how guilty is the kettle?  I don't know if there's even an answer for that question.
In another situation a fellow had spent years going along with things he didn't necessarily agree with and, as I saw things, he was not agreeing to these things because he really agreed with them.  He was willing to publicly denounce and attack other people for disagreeing with ideas he wasn't that committed to except on the basis of an utterly pragmatic and self-serving goal.  If he stuck with and defended the courtship fad while attacking people who disputed it he might land a hot wife at the church.  Now he views marriage as an abomination and likes to vent his spleen about the shallowness of women but, all things considered, his mercenary approach to conformity just to land a woman doesn't seem that much more admirable, neither does his pragmatic renunciation of a social relationship he has never seemed particularly well-suited to being part of anyway. 
The men who have been the most angry ex-members have been the same sort of polemicist Driscoll has been.  They invariably deny this but there is a sense in which this denial is a quality cut from the same cloth of Driscoll.  Now there are other ex-members of Mars Hill who can say at some length who they encouraged and participated in things they now deeply regret.  About those people I have nothing critical to say at all!  We are brothers and sisters in recognizing how we had problems in our spiritual lives that led us to unfairly judge others. 
But years after certain debacles happened in a row I still see on-line polemics about Mars Hill and this is where Foucault's observations about the polemicist are pertinent.  Driscoll avails himself the privilege of saying God called him in a way that he would not necessarily grant to other preachers or self-described prophets possessing spiritual super powers.  There is a certain person who has made vigorous claims to spiritual insight and spiritual superpowers who is pretty much insane and has not been at Mars Hill in a few years (that I know of) and yet no one at Mars Hill contests that when Driscoll says "I see things" that this is crazy the way this other person's claims are seen as crazy.  That could be because Driscoll is claiming to see events that happened years ago that just about no one could independently verify or disprove; this other self-described seer has made patently falsifiable claims about who is and isn't really dead.  But the question, for polemicists pro and con, will not exactly go away--however, that question about visions and all is something I'm saving for another time.  As I have been writing here for years my desire is not to be a mere polemicist but to discuss things I appreciate as well as don't appreciate about a certain place.
And what a polemicist against Mars Hill might be tempted to do is fret about how terrible and abusive the place is despite having no less than two in-laws he loves a great deal having married into his family from, of all places, Mars Hill.  Couldn't Driscoll say this proves he's on the right track?  I mean, really, if the church is so evil and terrible and his goals and preaching are so awful how did that manage to produce not one but two sons-in-law?  I'm not saying it justifies Driscoll being an asshole (which I'm sure he still is a good deal of the time) but I am saying that the problem with a polemicist who frames Driscoll and Mars Hill and anyone in its leadership network as being only evil all the time is that if such a polemicist has TWO in-laws (let alone three) who married into the family due to the man's family association with Mars Hill then maybe some nuancing can be considered. 
Steve put it this way in his comment:
Many of us have helped make these folk polemicists. We have hung on their every word, and let them be experts in preaching, theology, ethics, science, politics – basically whatever they have spoken about. Now, we all have opinions about the economy, global warming, the Bible, etc., and usually those opinions are not taken to be canonical. But when some of our evangelical pope/theologian/rock stars speak, we think they must be right, regardless of the topic. People are not supposed to receive that kind of admiration; it really does set people up for a fall. Too many evangelicals have allowed these people to think for them, with the predictable result that those at the top have become unbalanced.
It takes a cult to make a cult of personality and the power at the center of the cult of personality is not one that the idol at its center can create.  Superman gains his powers from the light of a yellow sun and the focal point of a cult of personality derives power from the reality that dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of people grant to their idol.  I have been writing a lot about superheroes and cartoons in the last year and there's something about them that I believe is relevant to discussing celebrity pastors--heroes take huge risks, obtain great glory, and then become heroes because they make an offer to share that glory with the people willing to join ranks with them.  The only way to not be tempted by such an offer or to fall prey to such a snare is to not have sharing in glory or obtaining glory as a personal goal. 
The polemicist taps into a capacity to promise to people what they want.  If you don't think a polemicist or teacher can get you something you want, and if you don't see that polemicist as articulating ideas for you that you don't know how to articulate for yourself, then that polemicist has no power over you and no appeal to you. At Mars Hill the courtship fad took hold because it promised a lot of people that if they would just jump through all the right hoops the smoking hot spouse of their dreams was just a few meetings with the future in-law away. This was all nonsense but people chose to believe it, people even chose to believe it was somehow "biblical" when it was just a made-up cherry-picked melange of some 19th century customs limited to a small socio-economic demographic.  It didn't even matter that many of the people stumping most for this fad were fornicators who dated the new-fashioned way and had no experience in even being single at any point in their adult lives.  
A friend of mine once said that his parents' generation got an idea that public schools were so sinful there needed to be private Christian schools.  He saw how bad things were at private Christian schools and concluded that private Christian schools were even worse than public schools.  He decided that homeschooling was a better option.  Well, see, homeschooling won't keep kids from experimenting with drugs or sexual immorality as it turns out.  Courtship, by extension, does not preclude sin.  It may somehow preclude certain sexual sins from being as common but that's only if the parties involved are already resolved to exercise self-control.  In other settings courtship can be a grand opportunity for parents and children to sin in all sorts of other ways that are as bad as sexual impropriety.  
For polemicists who want to paint Mars Hill in only bad colors none of this will convince them.  They already have made-up minds, they can appeal to the privilege of the abuses they have considered themselves or others to have received.  Notice I'm not saying abuses have not happened.  I'm not saying bullying has not happened. 
I'm saying, however, that after a decade I have noticed that some of the people most bitter about things were among the key perpetrators of a bullying sort of church culture themselves.  I have seen men who dismissed any and all concerns as "sour grapes" or having "problems with spiritual authority" while they were in good with the good old boy network who over a few years began to be bitter about the good old boy network they weren't complaining about when they still had more pull, friends, and social capital among the big dogs. 
At the risk of pulling in a commonly repeated meme, those who have been the victims of abuse are more likely themselves to perpetrate cycles of abuse.  When abuse is the "normal" setting you know you are far less likely to step back and consider whether the bullying you dish out is because bullying was what you were used to receiving.  You don't even stop for a second to consider that what you're saying and doing to other people is abusive because while you may be keenly sensitive from experience to what it feels like to be abused you don't understand that there are things you do and say that are abusive. 
A polemicist is frequently able to diagnose spiritual flaws in others that he either does not recognize in himself or is willing to excuse in himself.  This could be described in a few words as the "I never beat up anyone who didn't deserve it" school of self-assessment.  Or "I never belittled anyone who didn't have it coming."  Or,"I'm not emotionally mainlining the high I get from being involved in fights about theology I'm contending for the truth."
At length I came to the conclusion that I could not diagnose a spiritual illness in a local congregation without searching through my heart, considering the scriptures, and recognizing that the disease I saw in others was actually a pernicious spiritual disease in my own heart.  There comes a point where if a church is unable to aid you in repenting of sins X and Y because those sins characterize both you and the church then there is a time to let God open up paths to being part of another spiritual community. It took me a few years to start grasping that the point of theological discussion (and even polemic, when that happens) should not be for me to win, it should be to be of service to the church..  Or the Church, for that matter.  There are some people who don't grasp that and there are others who grasp that but feel obliged to debate two kingdom theology or similar topics thinking they are sincerely doing the church a service when they are mainly stumping for their own social and political pre-convictions. 
Let me end with a potentially weird and unconnected story summary.  God continued to have prophets address Ahab despite Ahab's lack of regard for the Lord.  As king of the northern kingdom he could have been considered, easily, to be no legitimate king and to not be worthy of any warning or consideration from the Lord.  Yet consider the various times at which God relented from destroying Ahab.  Consider the various ways in which God sent prophets to challenge and correct Ahab.  Ahab thought that Elijah was troubling Israel and Elijah said that, no, it was Ahab who troubled Israel.  If Elijah had played the game that some watchbloggers and would-be prophets or polemicists against Israel would have advised him to do he wouldn't have stayed connected enough to Obadiah to have even had a chance to arrange a meeting with Ahab. 
I can't help but note the humor in Obadiah's response to Elijah, "What sin have I committed that you are sending me to my death!?"  Dude, if I do this favor for you Ahab is totally gonna kill me, what evil thing have I done that makes me get this crap job!?  Obadiah feared the Lord greatly and yet served Ahab.  He also hid prophets when Ahab let Jezebel kill prophets of the Lord.  Let us also not forget that besides Obadiah Micaiah was also in the royal court. 
Let me pretend for the sake of some of those polemicists out there in internet land that Driscoll is some kind of Ahab, even if this were somehow the case there are still Obadiahs and Micaiah's in the royal court.  Elijah didn't tell those prophets to leave Ahab's court or to stop hanging around Ahab.  Elijah didn't tell those prophets that they were wrong.  He didn't question the legitimacy of their trust in God or the legitimacy of their positioning in a corrupt regime that we can see recorded anywhere.  He also did not attempt to drag them into his personal ministry campaign against Ahab.  He let them be where they were despite their being installed in key positions in a corrupt regime.  Was Obadiah afraid for his life because he hid and protected a hundred prophets of the Lord?  Yeah.  Was he a worthless coward for fearing for his life because he knew word had gotten back to his masters what he had done?  No. 
Ultimately it was Elijah and not Obadiah or Micaiah who turned out to have the huge attitude problem about needing everything to be about him.  He was fine denouncing Ahab and being the big gun who battled prophets of Ba'al but when the battle began to actually hit home (i.e. Jezebel) he freaked out and fled because he didn't want to die and didn't want to get stuck in a position where he was on the losing side of something. When God gave Elijah direct commands to annoint kings and install his successor Elijah went and found Elisha but never did annoint those kings.  Elijah's career-end was one where he persistently didn't do what God commanded him to do! 
Apparently Elijah was cool with speaking the truth to power and confronting corruption ... just as long as he stayed the center of attention and could call the shots.  When God revealed that Elijah was not the lonely righteous crusader he thought he was Elijah suddenly seemed able to be as petty and cranky as Ahab could be. When the Lord asks Elijah, "What are you doing here?" that is a question anyone who thinks they have a calling or obligation to speak up against corruptions in God's people have to consider.  What, exactly, are you doing here? 
What are you really trying to do here? If your goal is to honor the Lord as best you can despite your failings and to encourage people to seek the Lord, great.  We're brothers and sisters in Christ.  Does some kind of Ahab need to be challenged?  Okay, just remember that in the end what matters is the greatness of Christ not whether or not we see the kinds of results we want. Our goal should be to be iron sharpening iron so that people seek Christ.  Trying to turn people away from this or that teacher isn't the same thing as urging them to Christ. 
We must be vigilant (I must be vigilant) and be on guard that I don't become the sort of polemicist that I so often find annoying.  The apostle wrote that if anyone is trapped in a sin you who are spiritual should come alongside and help them but also be careful that you do not fall prey to the same snare yourself.  If I have observed anything in ten years of reading Christians blogging on the internet it's that this is woefully true.  There are plenty of firebrands and polemicists out there on the internet who are freaking out about firebrands and polemicists.  There are abusers who are worked out that someone else is abusing people. 
Anyway, that's my ramble about polemcists for the day.

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