The “All I Really Meant…” Syndrome

Lately, I’ve been having to field a lot of questions along the lines of “Your pastor just said WHAT?” with the expectation that I have to come up with something to say in their defense.  Sometimes, frankly, there isn’t much to say in their defense, but that’s OK, because, as my wife said pertly in answer to such a query from a Catholic friend yesterday, “We’re Protestants, so we don’t have to agree with everything our church leaders say.”  Indeed, I have the Christian liberty to stand up (respectfully) and say so if I think they’ve just gone off their rocker, while remaining a happy parishioner all the while.  Sometimes it’s better to just let love cover it and let others carry on the controversy, if controversy there need be.  But as I’m increasingly troubled by the rhetorical trend—the “All I Really Meant” Syndrome—and as I’ve blogged extensively in the past to reflect on the challenges to responsible rhetoric posed by new media (i.e. here), I thought I would weigh in with a few reflections.  (IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This post should not be taken by anyone as my “firing a salvo” against either of my pastors or “throwing them under the bus.”  I refuse to be sucked into the “If you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality that dominates in so many circles.  Friendly critique can and should go hand in hand with love and loyalty.  This is a point I want to elaborate on in a post hopefully later this week: “The Guru Syndrome and the Fear of Difference.”)

The particular posts that prompt this reflection (though many examples of similar rhetorical bent could be found) were by my current pastor Toby Sumpter’s “Free-Range Gluten-Free Yoga vs. Jesus” posted just yesterday, and, to a considerably lesser extent, my mentor and former pastor Peter Leithart’s “The End of Protestantism” posted a little over a month ago on First Things.  Although very different in subject area, intended audience, and quality, both had at least this in common: both created quite the online kerfluffle of controversy (Leithart’s, of course, in a wider sphere), and both knew they would do so, and intended to do so.  Both, for the sake of maximizing rhetorical effect and provocation, avoided defining their terms, and indulged in broad generalizations.

I am not interested in evaluating or critiquing those original posts in any detail (for excellent, simultaneously charitable and hard-hitting responses to each, with which I largely agree, see respectively here and here), but rather in assessing the interesting follow-up posts, the “All I Really Meant, Guys…” posts (see Toby’s here, Leithart’s here).  In both cases, the author admitted that the original post had clearly caused offense, but insisted that he thought it had been misunderstood, and defended it on the basis that there was a genuine problem out there that he was trying to critique, and those to whom the critique didn’t apply should just relax.  What both conspicuously lacked was a recognition that much of the offense caused may have been their fault, and accordingly needed to be recanted of. (Leithart’s, I should note, did strike a humble note, and made concessions at several minor points, but it unfortunately did not do so on the really key points.  Leithart admitted that there was probably a lot of unclarity in his choice to designate contemporary American sectarian Protestantism as simply “Protestantism,” but maintained unapologetically that this helped give him the “rhetorical edge” he was looking for.  And when confronted over the fact that his article had conflated historical Reformational Protestantism with contemporary pseudo-Protestantism, he simply denied ever making any historical claims, despite several lines in the original article that could hardly be read as anything else.)

And this, it strikes me, is a major problem.  Let’s assume that the follow-up posts, in each case, cleared up all the potential misunderstandings and dealt with all the objections (I don’t think, in fact, they did in either case, but leave that aside).  First, the fact that such follow-ups were necessary is still probably evidence that something had gone seriously awry in the initial salvos.  To be sure, that isn’t necessarily the case.  It’s possible for people to take offense when none has been given, or to misunderstand and misrepresent what has been very clearly set forth.  But when you have a large number of intelligent charitable folks who know your work quite well taking offense or misunderstanding your target, then odds are, you didn’t put things as clearly as you should.  Especially if you admit that you were intentionally being rhetorically edgy.  So such follow-up posts need to strike a more penitential tone.

Second, even if the follow-up clears everything up, that doesn’t mean, “Ok, we’re all good now.”  There seem to be a lot of bloggers out there (and I’ll be the first to admit I used to be one of them, and still can get worked up and fall prey to the temptation) who think they can be as provocative as they want at the front end, so long as they’re ready to qualify and clarify and soften things later on.  Unfortunately, the medium doesn’t work that way.  You can’t throw a verbal grenade into a crowded e-audience and just plan to clean up the pieces afterward anymore than you can throw a real grenade into a crowded audience so long as you have paramedics on hand nearby.  The fact is that follow-up posts almost never get anything like the hit count of the original post.  Even after the follow-up has been posted, there are still plenty of people out there sharing and re-sharing the original and taking offense at it (or using it as ammo to generate offense, just as likely) heedless of all the ex post facto qualifications.  Moreover, studies show that our minds have a very difficult time forgetting first impressions and overwriting them with subsequent corrections.  Like it or not, your first take is likely to stick in most people’s minds, especially given that it is going to be the more rhetorically explosive and the more likely to appeal to those of short attention span.

So, all of that to say, adding clarifications after the fact is nice, but it’s a heck of a lot nicer to speak clearly in the first place.

But what about the other part of the “All I Really Meant” syndrome?  Namely, the contention that, “Because there is a real sin out there X, and that’s really what I’m targeting, people who aren’t guilty of sin X really shouldn’t be bothered.”  This approach is often defended (as I saw it so defended several times yesterday) by the ridiculous adage, “Throw a rock into a pack of dogs, and the one that yelps is the one that got hit.”  In other words, if someone gets upset, that’s proof that they’re the ones guilty of the sin in question; if the critique doesn’t apply to them, then they should let it fly harmlessly past them.  I can think of several problems with this little metaphor: don’t they realize that rocks can ricochet?  don’t they realize that some dogs, out of a sense of solidarity, are upset that stones are being thrown, even if they aren’t being targeted?  But you get the point.  Basically, this line of argument seems to me to be strangely out of touch with human nature (all the more strange that pastors should be particularly guilty of this confused social psychology, especially pastors, such as these, who are very good at conventional—i.e., offline—pastoring).

This line of argument assumes that there will only be two reasonable sets of responses to such a provocative, over-generalized pastoral salvo fired off from a hyperactive keyboard: (1) Hm, doesn’t apply to me, so no big deal, and (2) Yikes, the Spirit is speaking through this rebuke, and I need to listen.  It assumes, moreover, that everyone will have the correct response, with none of the innocent mistaking themselves for the guilty, and none of the guilty mistaking themselves for the innocent.

In reality, though, we have to deal with the fact that some of those who should respond with (2) actually respond with (1), and that some of those who should respond with (1) respond with (2), which gives us four classes:
1) The confident righteous man who knows he’s not guilty of the sin in question, and so isn’t bothered.
2) The complacent sinner who imagines himself to be innocent of the sin in question, and so isn’t bothered.
3) The over-scrupulous righteous man who worries that he must be one of the people that’s being criticized, and gets all worked up over nothing.
4) The repentant sinner who recognizes the rebuke, takes it as a word from God, and repents.

Moreover, to these four we must add a fifth category:
5) The person who knows he’s not guilty of the sin in question, but sure can tell you a list of four or five of his Christian brothers and sisters who are guilty, and who really need to hear this critique.

And let’s be honest, folks—if we know anything about human nature, we know that people are much more likely to “remove the speck from their neighbor’s eye” than the log from their own.  For every person out there who genuinely hears in the critique a diagnosis of his sin and repents, there might be five or ten who hear in it a confirmation of their suspicions as to what was wrong with their neighbor.

“Now hang on,” you may say, “if such misunderstandings are always going to happen anyway, then why blame the pastor with the hyperactive keyboard?”  Well, I would say that I think that the very idea of using digital media as an extension of pastoral ministry seems to me fraught with danger.  The office of a pastor is like that of a doctor: meticulously analyzing his patient’s soul to diagnose their sin, and prescribing just the right remedy for it.  A doctor who spent most of his time blogging, “Say, if you’ve got a rash that looks like such-and-such, you’re probably need to go take this drug” would be liable to do more harm than good.  Discrimination is of the essence of moral reasoning (which is a key part of what pastoring is all about), and as a medium, a blog is intrinsically indiscriminate.  That said, there are of course useful extensions of the medical practice into digital media.  There are blogger-doctors.  There are really useful websites like WebMD that can help you try and match your symptoms to a malady and can suggest some remedies worth trying.  But this gets to my point: the medium, though dangerous, can be navigated safely, but this requires working against its weaknesses.  If you know that people can take your words out of context and share them all over the place to audiences you don’t have in mind for reasons you don’t have in mind, then it behooves you not to throw caution to the winds in pursuit of “rhetorical edge” but to be as clear, accurate, and discriminating as possible.

The less you define your terms, the more you will increase the number of people in category (5), who, because the description is so wonderfully vague and all-encompassing, not to mention entertainingly-worded, that their imaginations can fill in the rest and see how this looks like a very good description of the vices they’ve seen in a few neighbors.

The less you define your terms, the more you will move some people from category (1) into category (3), wording things so vaguely that you throw out lots of babies with the bathwater, and thus make people who love babies start wondering if they’re idolatrously attached to bathwater.

Perhaps worst of all, the less you define your terms, the more you will move some people from category (4) to category (2).  The sinful mind, after all, is always looking for an out, an excuse, a reason not to feel convicted.  The sinner wants to find something to pick on in the pastor’s sermon, the one point where the pastor misquoted a verse, so as to ignore all the very uncomfortable, hard-hitting bits where the pastor nailed his particular sin.  At some point, of course, you can’t close off every escape route, and you just have to speak up and hope the Spirit will do the rest.  But why test the Spirit by giving the sinner more and more excuses to ignore you?  If you pepper your proclamations with non sequiturs and equivocations, you may just ensure that the sinner who would otherwise have listened long enough to be convicted instead discards you as a waste of time halfway through the second paragraph.

None of this is to say that we always have to speak in carefully-measured, lifeless academese, with a footnote to define our every term so as to remove all cause for dispute.  There is a place for provocation.  But provocation must always be according to truth.  “I’m playing the prophet!” is never an excuse for non sequiturs, or false generalizations that have no basis in reality, or for sloppy language that would confuse even a well-educated, well-intentioned reader.  Moreover, even where it avoids these pitfalls, it must always be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis.  Just because you might succeed in getting the attention of some that you otherwise might not get doesn’t mean it’s worth it.  Not if you alienate many more whom you otherwise might have won, or sow division where you could have sown peace.

PS: I know I will get a certain objection, that I’ve gotten every time I bring something like this up: “But I’m just being like the prophets!  They said all kinds of unqualified things that got people angry!”  I’ll just repeat something I said in response to this line of argument a few months ago: “There is a place for such discourse, to be sure, though I worry that it is better suited for the spoken word, when one can to some extent know and engage with one’s audience, than for the printed word; the offended and confused reader cannot easily gain clarification. Scripture, to be sure, puts some of the strongest and sharpest prophecies into writing, but this is precisely why the doctrine of inspiration is so important. ‘Imitating Amos’ doesn’t give you a free pass, unless you can prove that you too speak for the Lord. Anyone who claims the prophetic mantle for himself today takes on a frightful responsibility with no guarantee of infallibility, and must be held to a correspondingly high standard. False prophets, after all, were supposed to be stoned in ancient Israel; the stakes don’t get much higher than that.”  So, sure, if you really wanna go there, go there.  Just don’t complain if people start stoning you.

3 thoughts on “The “All I Really Meant…” Syndrome

  1. Rod Story

    I think that this is the most poignant line:"There is a place for such discourse, to be sure, though I worry that it is better suited for the spoken word, when one can to some extent know and engage with one’s audience, than for the printed word"

    Blog posts, FB, and tweets alike seem to amplify the un-intended, never to be reclaimed. And many words can make even a wise man look the fool.


  2. The obsession with culture warring surely plays a great role in all of this as well. The more distance time puts between me and my years in Moscow (which were, overall, of inestimably good formative value for me), the more it seems to me that there is a serious imprudence at work in many of their collective take on some important cultural matters. That imprudence is based in part on the typical Reformed belief that we have the Bible figured out better than anyone else in Christendom. But it is given a more militant spin by the assumption that THIS particular community has Reformed theology figured out better than any other Reformed people – hence, the spin on Reformed theology held by THIS particular micro-community of Reformed believers is the touchstone for all cultural evaluation. This intellectual factionalism is combined with an aggressive form of belief that good cultural consequences will necessarily follow upon covenant-keeping, and since this particular community is, by its own estimation, essentially keeping the covenant, this particular community possesses a cultural power that gives it the right to frequently issue unaccountable jeremiads against the "weirdness" of everybody else.

    There’s little sense in most of these jeremiads of the limitations of the horizons of the ones issuing them (witness the fact that nearly everything said about science is rooted firmly in antagonistic posturing about how at least WE believe the Bible concerning the age of the earth, or the interesting blindness of school curricula that proudly claim to be "Reformed" while taking a stance on faith and reason that guts the bulk of the historic Reformed tradition). There’s little sense of compassion, most of the time, for the battles other people might be engaging that might cause them NOT to think some topic burning brightly in the heart of a Moscow culture warrior really isn’t all that "clear" and requires, heaven forbid!, some patience and sophistication to work through.

    My worry is that if they don’t start toning down the culture war role-playing game riff and start paying serious attention to criticisms instead of just continually justifying themselves with appeals to THE BIBLE, there’s a bad fall waiting in the wings. And I really do not want to see that happen to folks whose work has meant so much to me over the years..


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