Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.
A few weeks ago I opened my column by noting a running theme for many of my posts: “the various ways in which the church has wrongly adopted vicious and self-interested discourses and rhetoric which are so popular in our country. Charity is seen as people-pleasing or being “PC.” Complex issues are reduced to simplistic caricatures and fiercely defended. Opponents are mocked. Giving offense is a badge of honor. And opposing perspectives are summarily dismissed.” Continuing with this theme, I’d like to look at dismissiveness as a rhetorical strategy in the church and why it is wrong. And, because I find Christian cartoons incredibly fascinating, I will use a cartoon as an example.
We can describe dismissiveness as the practice of abruptly, absolutely, and confidently denying the validity of an idea. It is the act of disregarding a position or belief without hearing it fully articulated based on the presumption that you already understand the speaker’s perspective and have judged it to be wrong.
Dismissiveness touches on several of the unloving practices of Christian discourse that I’ve already addressed in my column. It shows a lack of charity for those you disagree with. It involves a simplistic caricature of their position. And it can result in mocking them. Even more, it implies that the other person is a fool for holding his or her position and that he or she has nothing meaningful or significant to say to you. What makes it so destructive is that it involves not just disagreeing, or disagreeing confidently, but disagreeing (typically before you have heard the entirety of the other person’s perspective) with such absolute confidence as to suggest that only an idiot would believe the other position.
If the concept is still unclear, take a look at this cartoon from Answers in Genesis.
While this is a cartoon, it is clearly making a statement, not just trying to amuse. Specifically, it is responding to a theological debate about origins and the Bible. We are given two options represented by the two characters. On one side we have the endless pages of “Christian” theories about the origin of the universe. On the other side we have the Bible.
The guy on the left is younger, sweating, anxious, and confused.
The guy on the right is old, calm, and confident.
Note the strange use of scare quotes in the younger man’s dialogue bubble. What are we supposed to make of the fact that he appears to be questioning whether or not these views are “Christian”?
The implication here is that the alternative (“Christian”) views of our origins found in these books don’t come out of a belief in the Bible. Or, at least, they don’t come from a proper belief in the Bible. What is fascinating here is that the old man dismisses all of the alternative theories without considering them or responding to their specific claims. They appear to be so foolish and worldly that they aren’t worth the effort to refute. All the younger man needs to know is that the Bible has the answers.
Just as the old man dismisses the younger man’s question, this cartoon functions as AiG’s dismissal of alternative interpretations of Genesis.
In reality, many of the theologians who have argued for different, Christian (no scare quotes) interpretations of Genesis are quite orthodox and conservative with a high view of Scripture. Whether these theologians are right or wrong in their interpretation is beside the point (for this column). What is important is that the old man and AiG dismiss these views abruptly and confidently as if the conversation was not even worth having.
While I chose an example from the debates over Genesis, I’ve seen this dismissiveness characterize Christian dialogue in all kinds of political and theological discussions:
You’re an egalitarian? You must have been brainwashed by feminists.
You’re a complementarian? You must view your wife as unequal to you.
Public schools are socialist and evil, so of course Christians must home school.
There is no evidence for evolution. You’re dumb to believe that there is.
Science has disproven the 6-day interpretation of Genesis. If you still believe it, you are fooling yourself.
Democrats won’t overturn Roe v. Wade because they want to kill babies.
It is not only that these statements misrepresent the other perspective, it’s also that they presume to understand the other side, they close off the possibility for correction or dialogue, and they make an absolute claim.
There’s a sense of power and authority that comes with dismissing someone’s ideas. It implies that his or her perspective is so dumb that it is not worth your time to consider it. Sometimes we are drawn to being dismissive because it makes us feel correct, it makes us feel as though we are obviously the smart ones, even when we aren’t actually confident that we are right or smart. What we need is the humility, grace, and love to hear those who disagree with us, to understand them on their terms, and to challenge their views accurately and carefully, knowing that the One who gives us His truth does so graciously and generously so that we might do the same.
In an earlier draft of this column, I mistakenly suggested that “Christian” modified the authors of the books in the cartoon, not their views. Changes were made to correct this error, because I make mistakes.