Win or Winnow or Both?
Sometimes, after I have thrown a Molotov cocktail or two, meaning by this an incendiary adjective, or hot incandescent metaphor, a number of my friends who follow this blog have counted to twenty-five, muttering to themselves all the while that they know there is going to be a follow-up post, one that will seek to put out the fires that were just started, a follow-up post they will agree with completely—and another problem they have is the length of some of my sentences, but let’s not go into that right now—and they wonder to themselves why the deuce I didn’t write the calm, cool, and collected post first. Everybody’s happy, everybody learns something, nobody’s spitting red hot nails, and so why couldn’t you do it that way?
There are two answers, one earthly and one spiritual. I will start with the earthly one so that those who want to maintain their prejudices about me may continue to do so. “Such a carnal man.” I would rather write two or three provocative posts, and then a follow-up post read by 20,000 people, than to write the contents of that follow-up post in adjectiveless prose that your sainted Aunt Millie would never object to, and have it read by 200 people. The point of writing is to have people read it. Or so it would seem to me.
And whatever else you might want to say about it, conflict is interesting. It catches the eye. Do you recall how, in junior high, no crowd whatever would gather around a couple of girls in the hallway exchanging views on what they would wear to the dance tomorrow, and a huge crowd would gather around a couple of girls, standing in that very same spot, scratching each other and pulling hair?
And no, I am not defending conflict for conflict’s sake. Nor am I saying that it is good to whip up conflict for entertainment purposes. Picking a fight for the simple sake of traffic and clicks would be wicked and ungodly. As your sainted Aunt Millie would say, “Heaven forfend.” But I am saying that—when the challenges are great, the threats are dire, the cause is just, your civilization is disappearing up the kitchen hood, out into the night sky, on account of a wicked bad grease fire, and taking one thing with another the leadership of the good guys is feckless—conflict is a tool in the toolbox that needs to be used way more.
In a war, conflict is not an unfortunate by-product. Conflict is the point.
A MORE SPIRITUAL REASON
This leads us to the spiritual defense of provocations. Jesus did it. This was one of His central teaching techniques.
But before getting to that, I rush immediately to acknowledge that I am not Jesus, and that flattering myself in such matters would be spiritually deadly. I am a long way off from being like Jesus in polemical exchanges. I don’t know how to hit nearly as hard as He did. But I can say this. I am not as far off in these matters as I would be if I thought I didn’t have the duty of attempted imitation at all.
For some reason, modern evangelicals are all about the imitation of Christ when it comes to feeding the poor—ready to walk the radical way—but are immediately suspicious of any attempts to cleanse the Temple. This is done in the name of humility—“you are not Jesus, pal”—but after a while one suspects that there is a hidden premise in it, which is that our modern temples need to be left pretty much alone. The money changers might get mad at you and boycott your state. Then where would our coalition be?
Why should we imitate Jesus only when it involves arranging pussy willows in a vase, and not when it involves taking a nine-pound sledge to the vase?
I am not Jesus when it comes to love and compassion either, and deficiencies in either are certainly capable of screwing up a lot of lives. So shouldn’t I play it safe, and not even try to love the poor? No—when we insist that certain attitudes and practices exhibited by Christ are worthy of high imitation, and we insist, just as strongly, that others are off-limits, this is not humility. What this actually should be called is ecclesiastical effrontery—an attempt to steer and stage manage the example of Christ. We tell Jesus where to stand on our public stage, and then we try to feed Him His lines.
A modern preacher is not going to be as good at illustrations and parables as the Lord was. Of course not. But shouldn’t he make the attempt? Instead of trying to preach like he was trying to unravel a microscopic strand of DNA from Brown, Driver & Briggs?
THE DOMINICAL MO
And all of this applies to polemical conflict. Let’s look at what Jesus does over and over. Other examples will no doubt occur to you.
One time Jesus escaped from a crowd that wanted to make Him king (John 6:15). He crossed the sea, but they figured it out and followed Him (John 6:24). Jesus saw that they were in it for the wrong reasons (John 6:26). So what He did was teach something provocative and hard to understand in order to thin the herd (John 6:35). When He was done, a number of Jews who had believed in Him threw up their hands in disgust and departed (John 6: 60, 66). The goal of biblical teaching is not simply to win, but also to winnow.
Another time Jesus just lit into the scribes and Pharisees. We should remember that before Jesus trashed their reputation for all time, they were the most highly respected religious group in Israel. When He went after the Pharisees, he was not going after the late night seedy denizens of the waterfront. He was going after the most sought after high gloss conference speakers.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them. Then answered one of the lawyers, and said unto him, Master, thus saying thou reproachest us also. And he said, Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:44–46).
Somebody helpful told Him that if you took those words of His at face value, they would apply also to lawyers. And that would be hurtful and unnecessary. And instead of taking the hint, Jesus said, “Whoa. I almost forgot the lawyers!”
And why did He use parables? They were not simply teaching helps, windows to admit light into an otherwise obscure discourse. No, the parables were also curtains, designed to withhold light from a certain kind of person. Parables were provocations.
“Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Matt. 13:13).
Not only were they provocations, they were understood by the recipients to be such.
“And they sought to lay hold on him, but feared the people: for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them: and they left him, and went their way” (Mark 12:12).
As I said, examples of this can be easily multiplied.
A BASIC TOOL
Our problem is that what they found provocative is not thought to be provocative by us. And what we find provocative—our sins being quite different—would not have been thought provocative by them. This means that we read through the gospel accounts, noting all the Sunday Schooly things that Jesus says, quite mainstream, and then things end inexplicably with Him getting crucified. That result is quite mysterious to us because we do not recognize what a firebrand Jesus was. In short, whether or not we are actually imitating Jesus can be determined from the results.
The demand that Christians be universally winsome is actually a demand that we compromise. Of course, we should not be obnoxious just for grins, and we should know how to answer gently (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The point is to win people, not arguments. But remember, there are times when winning the people you want to win requires that you win the argument. And one of the basic biblical rhetorical tools we are given is the tool of provocation--winnowing--teaching. The pattern can be shown time and again.
A WORLD GONE MAD
Now in our era, what kind of biblical provocation is necessary? This is a world gone mad, and in a world gone mad, the provocations should be sane. And Joe Sobran put his finger on it when he said, “To my mind, humor has always seemed inseparable from sanity” (Subtracting Christianity, p. 144).
Every society has always had folks out on the margins, people who have lost their grip. But we are in a different situation entirely. All the people in charge have lost their grip. To make up a random example, but one that fits right in with all the actual examples, we are now being treating to the spectacle of news stories trying to breathlessly persuade us that a dude named Bruno just gave birth to an 8 pound baby . . . actually, we are no longer sure of what we give birth to. Let us call it an 8 pound carbon-based gender-fluidity. And we live in a world where, if a nurse snorted and told a joke back at the nurse’s station about this howler, because she knew Bruno back when she was Suzie, the nurse is the person who would lose her job.
Not only do we live in this world, we live in a world where many professing Christians would have more of a problem with the nurse who told the joke than with Suzie’s incoherent spiritual condition. They would try to shush the nurse. Jokes like that are in bad taste. Oh—and mutilating God’s sweet norms isn’t?
In a world like this, it is absolutely mandatory, whenever we find ourselves up against some insane form of political correctness, that we put our foot through the side of it. And one of the best ways to put your foot through the side of this insanity, or that one, is through the use of deadly serious humor.
“But unlike most humorists, [Chesterton] never seems, to me at least, to be trying to be merely funny; he is trying to tell the truth as robustly and vividly as possible. In a way, his seriousness is what gives his humor its power” (SC, p. 144).
Someone is going to object that provocations are all very well, but that they shouldn’t be too . . . well, provocative. One thing that might help Christians work through this issue is the realization that the outrage that erupts in my direction is largely manufactured. Fake. Spurious. Phony. Concocted. Fraudulent. Bogus, Fabricated. Counterfeit.
Jonah Goldberg recently noted that we live in a time when a conservative speaking on campus can have his speech rejected as “violence,” and the rioters objecting to his speech can have their burning of cars defended as a form of “speech.” Goldberg confessed he had very little patience with this kind of thing, and I confess myself to be impatient in exactly the same kind of way. I also have little patience with Christians who give these inversions the time of day. Isaiah pronounced a curse on them (Is. 5:20), and we should not be scurrying after the spiritually demented, trying to show them how much we care. In this kind of instance, we need to be showing them how much we don’t care.
Yes, someone might say. But still. Why you have to use phrases like “lumberjack dykes”? It is provocative. Yes, it most certainly is. But the people pretending to be outraged are liars. I put certain things out there as bait, because I know they will take it, and when they take it I have yet another glorious opportunity to not care about their faux-outrage. Look. We just had one of the largest political demonstrations in American history, which consisted of tens of thousands of women in vagina hats. Christians who are concerned about the kind of provocative discourse you can read here—and their anxiety is not faux-anxiety because they have been conditioned too well—need to recognize that they are not living in the world that they think they are living in.
Why are some of these Christians upset? They are upset because they do not understand the world, the times, the culture, the drift, the stakes, or the battle. Important side note. As my meme above illustrates, I don’t believe that I hit the bullseye every time. So I do believe that there are Christians who understand the world, the times, etc. who can take a principled exception that time when I said something was gaytarded. When they do, they simply differ. But if they have to breathe into a paper bag for five minutes or so, then they are being conned.