“Vicious and Mean-Spirited”? It’s All Relative.



My Canadian friend and quasi-colleague Dr. Greg Smith, formerly an associate editor of the late great FARMS Review/Mormon Studies Review, has shared with me the following, from the prominent American Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:


“All of which tends to make rather hilarious a figure like John Spong, the quondam Episcopal bishop of Newark.  It was Spong who, in 1998, produced such a hysterical screed of a book, pompously entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die, that — in arguing for a “new Christianity,” unburdened by such cumbrous appurtenances as, for instance, God — succeeded only in making audible the protracted death rattle of a moribund church.  It was Spong also who, that same year, appalled that African bishops at the Lambeth Conference were about to defeat movements towards an official Anglican approbation of homosexuality, delivered himself of a fiercely petulant diatribe almost touching in its unreflective racism; these Africans, he declared (all of whom were far better scholars and linguists than he, as it happens), had only recently slouched their way out of animism, and so were susceptible to “religious extremism” and “very superstitious” forms of Christianity.  Now, admittedly, Spong is a notorious simpleton, whose special combination of emotional instability and intellectual fatuity leaves him in a condition rather like a chronic delirium tremens; so it is not surprising that, on being somewhat unceremoniously roused from the parochial midden on which he had been contentedly reclining, his reaction should be puerile and vicious; but his perplexity and rage were genuine and understandable.”  (David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008], 56)


“Can you imagine,” Greg asks, “if I’d written, ‘Now, admittedly, [So-and-so] is a notorious simpleton, whose special combination of emotional instability and intellectual fatuity leaves him in a condition rather like a chronic delirium tremens; so it is not surprising that, on being somewhat unceremoniously roused from the parochial midden on which he had been contentedly reclining, his reaction [online, in a podcast, or whatever] should be puerile and vicious; but his perplexity and rage were genuine and understandable”?



No, I honestly can’t.


Since far more mild comments elicited reactions in some quarters like that captured in the photograph above, I can scarcely envision what might have happened if we’d really been nasty.



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  • Somebodyz

    There are those who want to be offended by a word. They are looking for any means real or imagined. As you and Greg have witnessed and borne.

  • Quickmere Graham

    “There are those who want to be offended by a word. They are looking for any means real or imagined. As you and Greg have witnessed and borne.”

    True. This is precisely why we should take a devil-may-care approach to our rhetorical style and actively seek to increase the possibility that such folks will be able to take offense at the things we write. We should point to other examples of snarky writers and insist that any offense taken to our “wit” means people are humorless or missing the point. When we show ourselves ready to give an answer, a defense, to any who asks us the reason for our hope, we must above all eschew meekness and fear, or as other translations have it, gentleness and respect. Brava!

  • Jettboy

    QG what you say in mock I say in all seriousness. We give too much power to those who demand we care about their offense. My reactions to them are at my convenience and desire, not theirs. Never have I known someone who declared offense to be pleading for friendship or understanding, but always for power and control.

    • Quickmere Graham

      True, Jettboy, and what better way to approach such power-hungry jerks than with extra smarm intended to maintain our own sense of power?

      We might say: Oh, you’re going to go all PC police on me? Then watch me ramp up the rhetoric and really advance the ball!

      I’m never going to adjust my manner of address simply to appeal to some weak-minded audience who chooses to take offense to me simply telling it like it is! (And no, don’t be silly, I am certainly not capitalizing on my own preferred audience’s taste in rhetoric!)

  • danpeterson

    The point, QG, is that neither I nor Greg Smith have actually been nasty in our writing. Period.

    I’m not defending vicious and insulting prose. I don’t write such prose, and I don’t endorse it.

    • Quickmere Graham

      You’re a saint Dan. We know you’ve never written a misfired word, ne’er uttered a sneer, never been too dismissive, never employed too much sarcasm in the name of wit, always been charitable, and above all, you’ve always made sure to answer with “gentleness and respect,” as the Pauline scripture which you’ve cited calls for.

      • Kiwi57

        The remarkable thing, QG, is that although Dan has a reputation — in certain circles, that is — for being mean-spirited, cruel and just plain nasty — actual samples of such writing from him are remarkably thin on the ground.

        It is a “reputation” that, just like “the spider’s skeins, spun of its own substance,” is but “embroidered empty legend.”

      • danpeterson

        The simple fact is that I’ve been pretty restrained over the years, and that I’m not even remotely the villain that I’ve been portrayed as in certain quarters. Sneer all you want. It won’t change that fact.

        • Quickmere Graham

          Saying that you aren’t remotely the villain that some folks portray you as is fine. At the same time, you *almost* seem to enjoy playing the game they play. And saying you aren’t such a dreadful villain doesn’t account for lesser problems with some of your work, problems which aren’t to be equated with the worst of what your critics claim about them. Since you keep skirting my point, I’ll just flat out say it:

          You quote the Pauline verse as a justification for practicing apologetics but you have sometimes disregarded the second part of Paul’s statement which specifically addressed the manner in which apologetics should be practiced. (With meekness and fear, or gentleness and respect). Typically you defend this by saying you don’t want to be boring, or that you’re just a witty guy. That may be true. Apologetics isn’t the only venue where your wit might be happily employed, though. And if you want to use Paul’s verse, you still ought to account for your selective use of it.

          • danpeterson

            Since we’re speaking flatly, I’ll simply say: I don’t write nasty prose. I haven’t been vicious. Period.

  • Seth R.

    I think the problem is that critics of the LDS Church have simply gotten used to Mormons acting like doormats.

    Which is why they’re so stunned when someone actually points out how unpleasant they are – in blunt terms.

    • Quickmere Graham

      It’s not so much the sneeringest critics I’m worried about. It’s the decent folks, regular members of the Church, who detect an adversarial spirit in both interlocutors, when one of them is presuming to defend the gospel. It causes problems.

      • danpeterson

        A certain percentage of the population, at any given time, will object to just about anything. Even our greatest presidents haven’t received 100% of the vote, even our greatest films are disliked by some in the audience, the funniest jokes always leave a few people cold.

        Mormons, on the whole, are exceptionally nice people. Some will find some specimens of satirical humor or irony off-putting. Some will find just about any direct confrontation of ideas uncomfortable.

        But neither I nor the Review that I edited for nearly a quarter of a century have been vicious, mean-spirited, or slanderous. The accusation that we have been is, itself, slanderous and false.

        • Quickmere Graham

          Daniel, these descriptors are largely subjective. You obviously recognize the subjective nature of it, as you observe that no one can please everyone. I’m not so obtuse as to be unaware of that fact. The question I’m interested in is: Do you believe you’ve maintained a charitable tone, even in disagreement, in all of your pieces in the Review? If not, aren’t you simply acknowledging that you’re an imperfect person who hasn’t always lived up to the ideal encouraged by Paul in the scripture you have used to justify apologetics? And isn’t this a rather easy admission to make, one that can’t be confused with the more strident criticisms of you as a person, or your work?

          • danpeterson

            Of course they’re subjective. And of course I don’t claim to be or to have been perfect. But have I been fairly charitable over the years? Pretty much. Civil? Yes. A good-natured opponent and debater? Yes, I think I have been.

            Have I ever said anything that I later regretted, or that could have, should have, been expressed otherwise or better? Of course.

            On the whole, though, whatever else can be said about me, I’m a reasonably nice guy, quite even-tempered, not prone to hold grudges, and not disposed to anger.

            I have plenty of character and personality flaws. Those that my harshest Internet critics attribute to me, though, are, by and large, pure fiction.

  • http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com Gerald Smith

    All said and done, Spong really IS an idiot! Anyone who has seen the changes he would make to Christianity realizes that it would no longer be Christianity nor Christian thereafter….

  • Jacob

    I dont’ know. Being smarmy and sneering in response here in order to point out the smarminess and sneering that Dan allegedly has done seems a bit ironical to say the least.

    QC, so it is good to be smarmy and sneer at others when trying to make your point or is it bad?

    I can’t tell if your trying to defend Paul’s words regarding gentleness and respect or if you’re trying to mock his words. Please clarify

    • Quickmere Graham

      My criticism of some of Daniel’s work (some of it, certainly not all of it) isn’t done under the umbrella of religious apologetics. Daniel justifies his work by citing Paul (see his recent FAIR address) but doesn’t actually employ the entire verse. It’s true that some have exaggerated Dan’s faults. It isn’t true, in my view, that he has never taken it too far with sarcasm.

      Interesting to note, Daniel himself hasn’t complained about my tone.

    • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

      That was my first thought also. Somebody has been sneering and insulting in this thread, but it wasn’t DCP.

  • H_Nu

    Seth R.
    That’s about the best comment you’ve ever written… I really lik

  • christine

    haha, I know you know German….talking simpleton:>Liebe Anwesende, Liebe Neger….(not verifiably as actually by Luebke)
    Belegt ist, dass Lübke in Tananarive, der Hauptstadt Madagaskars, den Präsidenten Philibert Tsiranana und seine Frau Justine mit den Worten „Sehr geehrter Herr Präsident, sehr geehrte Frau Tananarive“ grüßte.[13] Ein starkes Echo fanden diese echten und vermeintlichen Fehlleistungen in der deutschen Kabarett-Szene. Aufgrund des dem Bundespräsidenten entgegenschlagenden Spotts entschied der Bayerische Rundfunk, die Vorstellungen der Münchner Lach- und Schießgesellschaft nicht weiterhin live zu übertragen.

    Ausschnitte von Lübke-Reden wurden Mitte 1966 von der Zeitschrift pardon auf der außerordentlich erfolgreichen Langspielplatte Heinrich Lübke redet für Deutschland verarbeitet. Dazu gehört die Szene in Helmstedt, als Lübke die Bewohner anreden wollte und sich nicht an den Ortsnamen erinnern konnte; Zuschauer riefen ihn ihm zu.
    the man was elected twice to German Bundespraesident…
    one would think it would be easy to put a stop to him by just not reelecting him but no such luck….
    it appears that to be one of the “sharper knives in the drawer” … is rarely equivalent to being popular….

    • danpeterson

      A German-speaking Joe Biden! Who knew?

      • christine

        Put like that, I guess Joe has the definite tendency to put his foot in it …y’all think Joe makes Obama look way more suave than he really is…?