getting past the polemics.

po·lem·i·cist — a writer or debater who argues in
opposition to others (especially in theology)

Are you a polemicist? Do you argue about controversial topics? Are you quick to point out where other people are wrong or have failed to adequately nuance their point? Do you find yourself trying to convince others of your view while failing to faithfully explore theirs?

There’s really no way around the truth here. I. Am. A. Polemicist. And chances are, so are you.

Let’s start with me. 

I’m a thirty year-old grad student who’s spent an inordinate amount of time in the not-for-profit/church/evangelical world and who will soon hold two degrees in biblical studies and theology. While this might qualify me to have a somewhat informed theological opinion, unfortunately, it locates me directly in the center of the infighting and disunity that persists within the church. And, if I’m honest, I’ve carried my own sword into the center of that battle and bagged my fair share of heads over the years. I’m a polemicist and I am part of the problem.

Not only have I killed people in my heart, I’ve killed them with my words. More times than I’d care to admit, I’ve said things like, “Just to be clear, I definitely don’t agree with everything he says,” or “I don’t appreciate her view on such-and-such,” or “I hear what you are saying, but this is where you’re wrong.” Sure, that might not sound like a crime, but the truth is that I’ve said those things out of fear and arrogance and pride. I’ve said them because I wanted to be respected and to sound intelligent, because I’ve wanted to be known and to be heard, because I didn’t trust God to care more than I do for people’s souls and their beliefs.

What a demonstration of faithlessness on my part, a true adventure in missing the point. And really, what a waste of time.

Instead of spending more time knowing the person I was talking to, I spent more time discussing ideas, or worse, defending my ideas (as though God needs a defense?!). I should’ve learned my lesson by now after reading about Job and his God-defending friends.

Worse still, I’ve talked at people instead of to them. And even worse than that, I’ve talked about them (like a lot of them) when they weren’t around. I’ve defined others by what I think they think. I’ve denied people the chance to defend themselves. And I’ve chosen disassociation over association too frequently to forget.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve learned that taking the critical stance makes me sound smarter than taking the high road and building a bridge. After all, I get better grades on the papers in which I blast a hole through the author’s assumptions. I command more attention when I magically reveal the flaw in someone else’s thinking. Quite frankly, it’s not sexy to agree and it definitely doesn’t get you published.

Now let’s talk about you.

Think about it. Your blog platform was probably built on the backs of the people and ideas you’ve deemed worthy of criticism. Or your book reviews have gained popularity because you so insightfully pointed out the one “crucial” area the author should’ve spent more time developing, and that’s why you had no choice but to give it a 4 out of 5. Or maybe still you’ve unlovingly tweeted things like, “Farewell Rob Bell,” or you’ve decided to put on your big-boy pants, break through the anonymous online veneer, and use your own vocal chords to state aloud how wrong Egalitarians are or how terrible it is that such-and-such church decided to call their female ministry director a pastor.

I know, I know. These things are a big deal. Without male headship or theological precision or inerrancy or Twitter, Christianity would be up a liberal creek without a Bible for a paddle.

But seriously though, is this really the best way to go about “defending the faith” or encouraging the dialogue or befriending the sinner or sharpening the saint? Do we really look like we trust that God will build his church and keep the gates of hell and the heretics from prevailing?

Maybe there’s a solution.

Perhaps there is a better way forward. A balance of sorts that can be found. A place past polemics that is a little less reactionary and a little less loud.

I’m reminded of an idea from C.S. Lewis' rant on education in The Abolition of Man that I think is fair to “repurpose” here in my rant against the polemicists of our day. It essentially boils down to this: "Stop spending so much time cutting down jungles, criticizing other Christians, talking about what you don't agree with and who you don't like; and start irrigating deserts, loving people, listening well, speaking charitably, and majoring on the majors."

Sounds fair enough, right? Here’s the problem though. You’re not going to remember a word I just wrote, not unless I get my polemic on and start yelling like Bobby Knight.

In the interest of getting you to hear me then, picture the button being depressed on the megaphone in my hand as I freely admit that sometimes I just want to ask Christian leaders, authors, professors, bloggers, and yes, even myself, to please shuuuuuuut up already. (Are you freaking out that I just said shut up?! Sorry, but I’m not taking it back.) So please, shut up—shut up about the secondary issues and do something worthwhile. Share the good news of the gospel (seriously, when was the last time you did that?), say hi to the homeless man and maybe even take ten minutes to have a conversation with him about his day (homeless people have “days” too), befriend the employees at the places you frequently shop (and your own co-workers as well!), stop talking about boundaries and get acquainted with the exhaustion that comes from pouring yourself out for the kingdom of God. Give your money, share your stuff, make your bed, adopt a kid, cry with the people who are hurting, and embrace the ones who are too angry and afraid to cry. L-i-s-t-e-n to “unimportant” people that won’t further your career or make you better known, embrace the hidden life of faithfulness that often is lived in obscurity, and for the love of God, please, please, please start living like the love of God is real so that other people have reason to believe that it is!

Thank God there’s hope.

The good news is that you really can do this. According the power of the Holy Spirit that is at work within us, you are free to ask the God of the universe for help in this endeavor. You are free to build bridges, you are free to serve and to sacrifice and to share and, yes, you are free even to shut up. Why? Because God. Cares. More. about the mission than you do. Not only that, but polemical infighting hardly seems to be prescribed in the handbook of Christianity. No, Scripture tells us instead that love is the foundation of the Christian life, which is why we must decide to give up our feudal ways, choose to join hands, and together plunge courageously into the messy world around us with great passion, promise, and peace; seeking not to destroy but to build, not to cast off but to bring in, not to cut down but to irrigate.

If you're sitting back in this moment, scratching your head at the irony of what I just wrote, observing the polemic in my anti-polemics rant, I'd have to congratulate you on correctly identifying the literary device of irony. Beyond that, however, I’d rather keep driving home my point—the point that the type of Christian living I described above is not liberal or imprecise or unorthodox, it’s not word versus deed, and it’s not the social gospel; rather it is a lifestyle of maturity that can be achieved by those who’ve decided to drop out of the school of polemics. More than recognizing the futility of lobbing criticisms over the fence, the mature saints among us have seen the beauty of building bridges. These Christians know the power of silence, they have the peace of Christ, they live in freedom from fear, they believe the sovereignty of God, they reside in a place of rest that is located in the heart of grace, and they revel in the truth that God doesn’t need us and that living for the kingdom really is a privilege and God designed it to produce in us joy.

Correct me if I’m wrong (no pun intended), but I think this sounds a whole lot better than yelling at each other over the internet.

My final plea.

Please consider giving up the jungles for deserts, the polemics for peace. Please forgive me for the times I have chosen to cut down rather than to irrigate. Please come with me, out of cyberspace and into the seemingly inefficient reality of dirt and souls and people and pain, and together let us pray that we would be made one.

May the Holy Spirit tenderly knit us into a unified people, a loving church, a whole body, a collection of saints who eagerly ask Jesus to fill our cups with living water so that they might overflow and bless a dry and weary land.

May God, in his great mercy and patience, help us all.

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