If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matthew 18:15).
We’ve been discussing Christian rhetoric and theological discourse on the HB. This has been of some concern to me for some time. I realize that I need to watch my rhetoric and I need to become more aware of how people hear (or read) what I say. Believe it or not I do try.
Simul I also think that we live in a largely pietistic (NB: pietism refers to an ethos and approach to the Christian life that centers on personal religious experience and outward behavior the norms of which have not always been clearly grounded in Scripture) evangelical culture in which the highest virtue is “niceness.” By “nice” I refer to the first definition in the Oxford American Dictionary:
1. pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory : we had a nice time | that wasn’t very nice of him | Jeremy had been very nice to her.
• (of a person) pleasant in manner; good-natured; kind : he’s a really nice guy.
I understand that some are unhappy with my use of a CT piece, which describes Mike Horton’s critique of Rick Warren as “balanced but biting,” as an occasion to discuss theological rhetoric. My point isn’t to criticize the author as much as it is to raise the question of what constitutes acceptable theological discourse and rhetoric. I’m concerned about the trend in evangelicalism to stifle plain speech, so much so that a few years ago I defended, in print, John Frame’s right to call me (and others who agree with me) “stupid.” (See “Of Nice and Men,” Nicotine Theological Journal 9.4 (October, 2005): 6-8). If I’ve said something that is truly stupid then it ought to be called that. It’s not loving to refuse to point out to me my stupidity.
My other concern on this front is that I cannot imagine how Horton could have written that piece with any more grace and gentleness and that there is a law out there, the law of nice, and I really don’t know what it is.
I know about the law to love my neighbor as myself. I understand that law, at least in some rudimentary way. There are concrete examples in scripture of neighbor love and then, of course, we have the example of our Savior. I understand the biblical teaching about dying to self. I don’t comprehend it but I do apprehend it and I pray for grace to put it into action. I’m thoroughly convinced of the necessity to die to self and to live to Christ. Jesus, help me a miserable sinner. Simul iustus et peccator. If Jesus is our example, however, or if Paul is an example or if Peter or Isaiah or Moses I don’t know what they teach me about being nice. Gentle with the penitent, yes. Encouraging, yes. But nice?
One of my concerns about the evangelical ethos of niceness is that it has more to do with macaroni salad and jello than it does with Jesus, grace, and truth. That is, it’s a cultural construct from the midwest (of which I am most decidedly a product) but it has little to do with the biblical culture of love and grace or with the cultivation of the biblical virtues of faith, hope, and love.
The ethos of niceness may also be more about how people perceive us than it is about true love. If we say what we really believe to be true people may not regard us the way we wish to be regarded. What hath popularity to do with virtue?
I’m conscious that the way things are said can be so off-putting that people cannot hear the substance of what one is saying. My classic example for this is Van Til’s critique of Barth. CVT was largely right about Barth but, in The New Modernism he never gave the reader any notion that he had any sympathy for or understanding why evangelicals might be attracted to Barth. I recall reading it and how shocked I was at CVT’s rhetoric. It was so different from the other books I was reading at the time. I think CVT’s rhetoric may have driven “nice” evangelical readers to Berkouwer. One difference is patience. I am impatient and I understand why CVT started blasting away. He had studied Barth (he read Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik closely and he had a case to make and he didn’t have time to wait around for folks to catch up. Of course, the problem is that virtually none of the evangelicals who would read CVT on Barth had his background in continental philosophy or his grasp of Barth’s theology (or his grasp of Barth’s German!). So CVT came off sounding brusque and even rude. Had CVT been a little more patient, had he explained a little more patiently, had he written two volumes instead one, maybe his case would have been more persuasive. I don’t know. Nevertheless, CVT loved Barth, even if the latter thought him a Menschenfresser — a comment I find ironic given Barth’s treatment of Brunner on natural law or Barth’s treatment of others with whom he disagreed.
In that respect I wonder if some of the issue here isn’t about minorities and majorities? The pietists are in the majority in N. America. Is it the case that they get to set the rules of conduct and discourse and they get to punish those who violate them? In our culture, especially in evangelicalism, being pleasant and agreeable is important, but it shouldn’t be the most important virtue, not for a Christian. Jesus was often disagreeable. He was often unpleasant. Most of the time, when I read Jesus, he seems to aim deliberately to make me uncomfortable. I quite suspect that Jesus wasn’t a “nice guy.” He was (and is) true God and true man but I doubt that he would have fit into the evangelical sub-culture very well. Paul wasn’t very nice, not by the apparently prevailing standards of evangelicalism. Have you read the book of James? How nice was that? He was downright nasty to the Jerusalem Christians! I’ve often thought that if a minister preached that sermon today he would likely be on his way out the door before the next Sunday.
I have some intuitive grasp of what “nice” probably entails but the essence of it eludes my grasp. I know I need to be more gracious, more patient, more understanding, more charitable but I doubt these have much to do with being nice. Whatever I don’t understand about being nice I certainly know what God’s Word says to do if you’re offended.