Prodigal Words

In case anyone has any attention to spare for a topic besides the premiere of the Dark Knight Rises today (and the accompanying tragedy), I would encourage you to devote it to an extremely helpful post by Alastair Roberts, weighing in on Great Misogyny Controversy that’s been rocking the evangelical blogosphere this week.  For those of you who’ve remained mercifully oblivious, the gist is as follows (links omitted, as you can find some in Alastair’s post and more in Wilson’s here):
Jared Wilson of the Gospel Coalition posted an excerpt from Doug Wilson’s (no relation) book Fidelity (published 13 years ago), which offered, he thought, a helpful explanation of the recent remarkable popularity of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey (which is, as I understand, characterized by perverse, degrading, and abusive sexuality).  The gist of the Wilson passage was to say that the rejection of healthy God-given complementarity and asymmetry in the bedroom has led to a taste for hideously distorted forms; the best way to prevent rape is cultivating the right kind of understanding of the man as initiator, rather than attempting to deny such asymmetry altogether.

Needless to say, not a statement likely to endear him to many these days, and a thorny enough topic to wade into no matter how delicately.  But the passage quoted was not, to say the least, phrased particularly delicately, and unsurprisingly has provoked a firestorm, especially after egalitarian blog-warrior Rachel Held Evans got ahold of it.

Perhaps even more pressing than the already very important debate about gender roles that this controversy highlights, is the way it has drawn attention to the rhetorical dynamics of online debate.  When does what someone said matter more than what they meant?  When does how someone responded matter more than what they responded?  When is taking offence justified and when is giving offence justified?  How does the nature of blogging cause otherwise civil conversations to spiral out of control?  All questions I have had cause to ponder many times, and which are thrown into sharp relief by this controversy.  

Thankfully, I need expend no more effort on pondering them, because Alastair is doing all that for us, and a truly remarkable job.  This post of his is, lengthy though it is, is just projected as the first of several, so stay tuned. Here’s a little sampler of the fine thoughts on offer:

In order to give people the space and atmosphere in which they feel able to retract comments, we need to cultivate charity, patience, and good will towards each other. We need to master our own instinctive urges, learning to respond thoughtfully, rather than merely reacting in kind. Crucial to this picture is good humour. The reactive person always treats everything with extreme seriousness. The good humoured person is able to take things lightly when they need to be taken lightly, without losing the ability to take things seriously when necessary. This sort of good humour can defuse such conflicts with surprising ease. Sadly, I fear that such Internet debates would make humourless reactives of us all.

Our words are like sons. They bear our image, but can become prodigals. Pastor Wilson’s words wandered far from their original home and – dare I say it – have engaged in a little of the semantic version of riotous living. In such situations, though, I believe that we should beware of visiting all of the sins of the son too readily upon the father.

The meaning of our words exceeds authorial intent. Authorial intent and, more particularly, authorial care in expression can set certain limits upon meaning, but they can never completely determine this meaning. Like children who grow up and fly the nest, our words having left our tongues can work all sorts of unwitting good or mischief.

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