White evangelical gatekeeping: A particularly ugly example in real time

Say you have a disagreement with another person about the meaning of a particular passage in the Bible. Do you engage them in an argument to try to show them why your interpretation is better? Or do you proclaim them a dangerous heretic and then demand that they be expelled from the tribe and fired from their job?

If you chose the latter, then you’ve got what it takes to be a Gatekeeper in the white evangelical tribe.

Let’s look at a current example of white evangelical gatekeeping as it unfolds before us in real time. This one involves Christianity Today in its usual role as good cop, and one of Al Mohler’s henchmen in his gang’s usual role as bad cop. This is an ugly, ugly business.

The subject is Eric A. Siebert, professor of Old Testament at Messiah College. Siebert is to be chastened by the tribe for a series of recent posts on Peter Enns’ blog:

1. When the “Good Book” Is Bad: Challenging the Bible’s Violent Portrayals of God

2. When the Bible Sanctions Violence, Must We?

3. Learning to Read the Bible Nonviolently

These are thoughtful, cautious essays on a subject that every Christian who has read the Bible must contend with. Genocide, slavery, concubinage, atrocities, slaughter and pillage are all part of the biblical story. At times in the Bible, these horrors are commended. At times in the Bible, these horrors are commanded.

Every Christian who reads the Bible must deal with this.

But white evangelicalism isn’t really about reading the Bible. It’s about using the Bible to enforce the boundaries of the tribe and the hierarchies within it.

Owen Strachan: Tribalist.

So the gatekeepers don’t share Siebert’s questions about these biblical tales of genocide, slavery, concubinage, etc. Those might be excellent questions, thoughtful questions, and crucially important questions, but that’s just the problem — they are questions.

Gatekeepers are not fond of questions. And those who ask them must be chastened.

So first up, the good cop. Christianity Today does its best to portray Siebert as “controversial” right off the bat with its headline: “Is the Bible Immoral? Messiah College Professor Says Yes, Sometimes.”

CT doesn’t engage Siebert’s argument because the important thing — the reason for its report — is not the substance of what Siebert says, but whether or not the tribe finds him acceptable. CT doesn’t want its readers to trouble their little heads wrestling with the texts of terror or with Siebert’s response to them. It’s just sounding the perimeter alarm and informing readers that Eric A. Siebert is dangerous, controversial, etc.

CT’s Melissa Steffan manages to use “mainline” as a pejorative and to hint that Siebert may be a heretic, but she fails to work in the usual gratuitous John Shelby Spong reference. I’m sure her bosses will take that up with her at her next performance evaluation.

Steffan’s piece is mainly just an introduction for the hatchet job by the designated bad cop in this piece of gatekeeping. Frame Siebert as the suspect, guilty until proven innocent. Then frame his inquisitor — the bad cop — as the presumed and unquestioned authority qualified to evaluate Siebert’s standing with and transgressions against the tribe. That inquisitor is Owen Strachan of Boyce College.

And Owen Strachan of Boyce College is a nasty piece of work.

Like CT’s piece, Strachan’s screed isn’t interested in the substance of Siebert’s argument as much as whether or not it is acceptable for tribal consumption. He’s not writing to tell us that Siebert’s argument is wrong, but that it is forbidden. It is out of bounds. And throughout his smarmy little attack job, Strachan keeps the focus on Siebert himself, as a person, and not on his ideas.

Strachan’s title — “Can a Messiah College OT Professor Really Teach the Bible’s ‘Immoral’?” — gives a sense of the awkward style to follow. (I know we’re supposed to recoil in horror from that rhetorical question, but I can’t tell whether we’re supposed to cry Yes! or No!)

Recoiling in horror is Strachan’s preferred mode of gatekeeping. This is the pearl-clutching, fainting-couch, oh-my-I-have-the-vapors school of faux-lamentation preferred by many white evangelical gatekeepers. The more they despise any person or institution, the more they will pretend to be saddened and disappointed  at what has recently befallen them. How art the mighty fallen and oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown, etc. etc.

Strachan lays that on pretty thick, indicating he must really hate Messiah College. Here’s his intro:

A Messiah College Old Testament professor named Eric Siebert just posted a shocking piece on Pete Enns’s blog. It’s entitled “When the Good Book is Bad: Challenging the Bible’s Violent Portrayals of God.” You should read it.

If you love the Lord and his Word, it will take your breath away.

You don’t need me to say this, though. Here are a couple of quotations that show just how far this piece is from an evangelical, or even orthodox, conception of Scripture. …

So three paragraphs in and Strachan has already told us that Siebert is a shocking nobody (note that condescending indefinite article), that he has a  breathtaking contempt for God and the Bible, and that he is far from evangelical and far from orthodox.

But that’s the nicest part of Strachan’s punitive gatekeeping effort here.

Strachan’s main objective comes in the next bit, in which he seeks to get Siebert fired:

This is a shameful piece. It does not line up with the statement of faith that guides Messiah College. … At the very least, there is serious friction here between Siebert and his school’s statement of faith.

I’m deeply concerned by this, as one who has had respect for Messiah College. I know a number of alumni, and the school has over the years enjoyed a strong reputation in the Christian community. That a faculty member would publish that that the Bible has material that is “immoral,” “problematic,” and is not fully trustworthy is frightening to me, primarily because of what many Christian students must be encountering in classes ostensibly devoted to building up students’ faith, not tearing it down.

Won’t someone think of the children?

The irony here is that Siebert’s piece was posted on Peter Enns’ blog, shortly after Enns himself wrote this:

Calling for Evangelical involvement in public academic discourse is useless if trained Evangelicals are legitimately afraid of what will happen to them if they do.

There’s no evidence that Strachan read that — or that he read Siebert’s piece either, actually — but if he had set out to prove Enns’ point deliberately, he couldn’t have done a better job.

Strachan isn’t satisfied with merely slapping a “controversial” warning label on Siebert. He wants him expelled from the tribe. And he wants him to lose his job.

This is despicable behavior. Strachan doesn’t like Siebert’s argument, so he tries to get him fired. That’s a total dick move.

Oh, right, we Christians aren’t supposed to say things like “total dick move” — no matter how totally dickish someone is behaving.

So let me put this in language that gatekeepers like Strachan will understand:

A Boyce College professor named Owen Strachan just posted a shocking piece. You should read it.

If you are capable of love, it will take your breath away.

It is a shameful piece. It does not line up with the fruits of the Spirit, the Beatitudes, or the Greatest Commandments.

I’m deeply concerned by this, as one who is now pretending to have had respect for Boyce College. The school has over the years enjoyed a strong reputation in the Christian community. Be a shame if anything happened to that.

That a faculty member would publish something suggesting that the gospel somehow is compatible with his unctuous, oily, disingenuous, stick-so-far-up-his-backside-you-can-see-the-tip-when-he-talks attitude toward those he wants to keep in line is frightening to me, primarily because of what many Christian students must be encountering in classes ostensibly devoted to building up students’ faith, not turning them into twice as much a child of hell as himself.

Or, in the vernacular: Total dick move, Owen Strachan. Total dick move.

 

  • Brantley Gasaway

    I don’t always agree with you, Fred–but you are an important gadfly. Too bad Patheos also has gatekeepers that keep you off the “Evangelical” page.

    And I read Strachan’s piece when it was first published.  While I try to see the reasons for his concern, I agree that it came across as a melodramatic call for a heresy trial.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001098371002 Michael E. Bowen

    “So the gatekeepers don’t share Siebert’s questions about these
    biblical tales of genocide, slavery, concubinage, etc. Those might be
    excellent questions, thoughtful questions, and crucially important
    questions, but that’s just the problem — they are questions.
    Gatekeepers are not fond of questions. And those who ask them must be chastened.”

    I’m not sure if I have anything insightful to add to this or not but when I read the above it occurred to me that the reason why they don’t like people asking these kinds of questions about biblical tales is that doing so would also require them to ask these kinds of questions about,well, literally, Christianity today.  And that is what is actually forbidden here. 

  • Hexep

    I would sincerely give away a piece of my earthly fortune to see Fred and Owen trapped in a room together, so that Fred can scold him into genuine opprobrium.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    This is why I heartily dislike evangelicals referring to the Bible as “the Word of God”. (As opposed to Jesus being the Word, cf John.) It tends to lead to people confusing the Bible with God, and assuming that questioning the one means rejecting the other.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Okay kiddies, free million dollar idea: A web comic about an unctuous hand-wringing sociopath called Dick Muuve.  It would be a dark satire taking place in a corporate, academic, or church setting (or all of them) … what makes it dark is that the eponymous anti-hero always comes out on top because self-styled good men do nothing. Hell, let’s go all the way and give him a sidekick (his manager/dean/pastor) named Goody Goodman. 

  • Gloria

    I read this part “This is the pearl-clutching, fainting-couch, oh-my-I-have-the-vapors
    school of faux-lamentation preferred by many white evangelical
    gatekeepers. The more they despise any person or institution, the more
    they will pretend to be saddened and disappointed  at what has recently
    befallen them.” and said “oh, so they got offended!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-White/1605859612 Sue White

    Every Christian who reads the Bible must deal with this.

    How do they deal with it?

  • Mark Z.

    If by “they” you mean Christians who read the Bible, Seibert’s articles are not a bad place to start.

    If you mean the evangelical gatekeepers, I don’t know. Back when I knew them, they mostly refused to think about it.

  • Peteenns

    Well done.

  • aunursa

    I’m deeply concerned by this, as one who has had respect for Messiah College.

    From the Messiah College website…
    (emphases added by aunursa)

    Foundational Values

    Importance of the Person. … [E]very person must be responsible in their pursuit of truth, and yet be free to develop their own understandings as they integrate their formal studies with their broader experience of faith.

    Educational Objectives

    Messiah seeks to instill in its students a sense of intellectual humility, recognizing that even the most learned persons have limited insight and therefore need the insights of others. The paradigm under which Messiah’s educational programs are designed is that of liberal education.

    By raising the right questions, exposing students to multiple perspectives, and encouraging critical thinking, Messiah seeks to enable its students to respond with maturity to the world’s complexities…

    A Lesson in Freedom — A Reflection
    by President Rodney J. Sawatsky
    December 2001

    Freedom is a close ally of individual rights and liberties. This includes the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom to dissent. All these give us the right to champion various points of view and to persuade others of the righteousness of our cause.

  • Morilore

    I don’t like imagining what must go on in the head of someone who has to convince themself that an order to slaughter children represents divine goodness.

  • ohiolibrarian

    See, this is why I don’t quite get Christian higher education (with the exception of divinity school).

    because of what many Christian students must be encountering in classes ostensibly devoted to building up students’ faith, not tearing it down.

    Is it supposed to be an environment where you are carefully protected from insufficiently orthodox ideas?

    If so, then what’s the point?

  • vsm

    Well, it’s nice to have a diploma.

  • Veylon

    I find it rather interesting that Strachan (apparently) doesn’t allow comments. I checked a few posts forward and backward to make sure that it wasn’t the situation that he’d posted an uninteresting post and nobody cared anywhere. No comments anywhere.

    Is he worried that somebody might contradict him if he compares Same Sex Marriage to Slavery? I know members here will take potshots at Fred and correct him when he occasionally flubs something, as all people do, and at which point he can learn something. Strachan doesn’t seem to expect that scenario to happen. It says a lot about how these two approach things..

  • stardreamer42

    I think of it as “turning the Bible into a golden calf”. The contrast with faiths like Judaism, in which engaging with and questioning the text is not just accepted but almost mandatory, is striking.

  • Jessica_R

    The great irony being the Professor is showing a tremendous respect for the Bible by actually reading what it says and being willing to wrestle with it, and even argue with it to the point of disagreeing with it. You don’t respect what you don’t bother to engage with. 

  • http://www.metagalacticllamas.com/ Triplanetary

    CT is just one step away from pulling a Fox News on this one. Throw in a reference to Al-Qaeda or the welfare state and they’d be indistinguishable.

    “Are Siebert’s ideas emboldening Al-Qaeda? It would be irresponsible not to speculate.” Hey, I could be the next Cavuto.

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    Wait a second didn’t CS Lewis come to much the same conclusion about this sort of thing?

    Also did people see https://medium.com/reporters-notebook/d63ecca43e35 (which I suppose illustrates why questions worry some gatekeepers – honest questions lead to seeking answers).

  • AnonymousSam

     Libby Alvarez, Megan and Grace Roper… I’m glad they’re making it out.

    You want an example of just how twisted this cult has become?

    Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, said in an interview Wednesday that the sisters had rejected the Lord.

    “We can’t control whether or not somebody decides, when they grow up, that they don’t want to be here,” Drain said. “Those two girls were kind of straddling the idea that they wanted to be of the world but that they would also miss their family, the only thing they ever knew. If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell.”

    She started to question church placards that said “Death penalty for fags” and “Fags can’t repent.” Megan told Chu she began to feel that didn’t make sense.

    Drain said Wednesday that Megan was calling God a liar.

  • olsonam

    These evangelical leaders are holding their fist full of sand as tightly as possible, eh?  I know it’s a cliche but this post in particle made me think of it.

  • http://twitter.com/coloredopinions Vincent Harris

     I prefer Origen’s solution in his Homilies on Joshua where he answers both questions (NT Canon & violence in the bible) :

    ‘So too our Lord Jesus Christ…sent his apostles as priests carrying
    well-wrought trumpets.  First Matthew sounded the priestly trumpet in
    his Gospel, Mark also, and Luke, and John, each gave forth a strain on
    their priestly trumpets.  Peter moreover sounds with the two trumpets of
    his Epistles; James also and Jude.  Still the number is incomplete, and
    John gives forth the trumpet sound through his Epistles [and
    Apocalypse]; and Luke while describing the deeds of the apostles. 
    Latest of all, moreover, that one comes who said, “I think that God has
    set us forth as the apostles last of all” (1 Cor 4:9),
    and thundering on the fourteen trumpets of his Epistles he threw down,
    even to their very foundations, the wall of Jericho, that is to say, all
    the instruments of idolatry and the dogmas of the philosophers.’

    Allthough many say Origen was influenced by platonism & stoïcism, why not credit the Letters to the Hebrews ?

  • Ian

    I don’t like imagining what must go on in the head of someone who thinks an order to slaughter children isn’t even problematic.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

     WOO! Megan is out! Hallelujah! WOO!!!!!!!!

    …I’m rather happy about this. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/bobby.herrington.1 Boze Herrington

    Me too. It’s the best news I’ve heard in a while.

  • Aceofspades25

    It’s on Peter Enns’ blog

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjamin.giffone Benjamin Daniel Giffone

     Nice use of the diëresis in “stoïcism.” We need to bring that back…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Iain-King/514746942 Iain King

     Wait, Patheos don’t regard Fred as an Evangelical? What a joke.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Anyone else finding that comments on Strachan’s piece are disabled? Intolerant of questioning indeed.

  • Jason D Greene

    Great piece. The evangelical movement has become a sham. The gatekeepers are scared little men who fear that any questioning, any wandering, any honesty will topple their house of cards. I am an “evangelical” in the historic sense of the word. I think that most of the people in the UMC, PCUSA, ELCA, and Disciples of Christ are as well. I find in the mainline churches an atomosphere that is tempermentally moderate, open to scholarship, and commited to the gospel of Jesus Christ and its offer of hope and wholeness. I am so glad that I left the “Evangelical world”. It is a world that stifles the mind, burdens the heart, and fosters an atmosphere of fear.
    thanks for sharing…
    jgreene

  • Carstonio

    But white evangelicalism isn’t really about reading the Bible. It’s
    about using the Bible to enforce the boundaries of the tribe and the
    hierarchies within it.

    I suspect Strachan’s gatekeeping is simply an expression of a deeper angst. He writes like Seibert is actually causing him pain, like he accused Strachan’s dead mother of never loving him. Not surprising for a denomination that (as I saw once in a Baptist church) would have the stained glass behind the pulpit show not Jesus but the Bible. Fred labels the belief Strachan espouses as biblioidolatry, and some anti-theists would similarly say that Strachan’s god is a book. Which leads to my next point..

    Genocide, slavery, concubinage, atrocities, slaughter and pillage are all part of the biblical story.

    I’ve had frustrating encounters with anti-theists who insist there’s nothing good in the Bible, or that Jesus’ teachings are mere blips that are negated by the brutality. This attitude is just as absolutist as Strachan’s book worship. One even described the Bible as filthy as if he were talking about Real Housewives of Jerusalem, or Keeping Up with the Solomons.

    In the OT there’s no real distinction between the religion and the culture, similar to early Greek writings. One solution for the problem Seibert describes is for Christianity to exclude the first Testament and relegate it to a supportive or reference role. The OT culture and the early Greek culture seem not just barbaric but also alien, but then, even The Brady Bunch in a recent viewing seemed ancient to me in its attitudes about gender roles. While I have the impression that most Christians regard the OT as having a lesser authoritative status than the NT, maybe it doesn’t need any any authoritative status.

  • Chad

    I get your argument and indignation, but help me understand how a blog post condemning one man who condemns another man makes much sense or is sny more loving or Christian?

  • picklefactory

    While I have the impression that most Christians regard the OT as having a lesser authoritative status than the NT, maybe it doesn’t need any any authoritative status.

    Certainly. I mean no one else was using that holy book, anyway, and it’s definitely barbaric and alien.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    Say you have a disagreement with another person about the meaning of a
    particular passage in the Bible. Do you engage them in an argument to
    try to show them why your interpretation is better? 

    This sentence just caught my attention as I was scanning down to catch up on comments and I felt “called,” as it were, to respond.

    Generally, any discrepancy between my stand and those of someone that I am talking to relates to treatment of people — homosexuality, discipline of children,  gender roles, and the like.  I don’t really argue my point with a goal of “showing them that my interpretation is better.”  I usually just say that whatever it is doesn’t match up with my interpretation of “loving my neighbor as myself,” shrug, and move on to other topics.

    If they’re persuaded by that, then I’m thrilled.  If they’re not, then at least they know that I won’t put up with homophobia, corporal punishment and/or emotional abuse, misogyny, etc .

  • Bill Heroman

    Great piece and thank you. One gentle footnote on the ‘profanity’ here:

    FWIW, I’m not at all offended for propriety’s sake if you call someone a “dick”. However, I do feel this particular term reinforces the idea that male sexuality is (inherently) selfish and cruel. So that’s worth avoiding, I suggest. Try “asshole” instead, maybe, because he shat upon someone.

    If you’re going to be vulgar, at least consider the metaphor carefully. ; – )

  • picklefactory

    I think Fred more or less addressed your asinine just-a-question a little over a week ago!

  • Joel G

    It’s also probably worth noting that Messiah College is a Brethren school, and so stands in a tradition of Anabaptist pacifism. Wrestling with portrayals of violence in scripture is central to that tradition. So Seibert isn’t speaking from outside his college’s own identity, even if many conservative American evangelicals are unfamiliar with that sort of Christian pacifism.

  • Carstonio

    Megan sounds like she has escaped from a cult.

    And I didn’t know that the women at Westboro Baptist services are expected to cover their heads.

  • Jim Roberts

    Put simply, Strachan, in a position of Christian authority, demonstrated hate (the desire to silence another utterly) and fear (the desire was borne out of what the person said.

    So far, that’s just sort of sad and maudlin, BUT THEN he credited these things to himself as righteousness. He said, speaking for God, that his hatred and his fear were the thoughts of God, without explaining how or why we should believe it be so, and without addressing even the least part of what his opponent actually said.

    Your question is a bit like asking whether it’s justified to use force to stop a father from abusing his child.

  • Carstonio

    I was speaking of Christianity specifically and I apologize for inadvertently slamming Judaism. My perception of the latter religion is that it regards many of the values of its ancestors as barbaric, viewing the Hebrew Bible as cultural as well as religious, but my knowledge there is far from complete.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

     diaresis

  • frazer

    And you don’t make it your life’s work to teach something you despise.

  • Chad

    So moving forward, how will you guard against becoming just another gatekeeper of another tribe? Would Owen feel welcomed here?
    Would you say this is a good model for others to look to when trying to critique another brother or sister in a Christ like way? Why are the stones thrown here more loving, righteous, and Jesus like than the stones the other guy threw? Who decides?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Prost/100002434484052 Tony Prost

     You decide! There is no other decider. You can decide what you please, and move along.

  • Carstonio

    It’s a mistake to assume that someone who questions a particular orthodoxy simply seeks to supplant it with another one. Or that critics of a particular type of tribalism simply want to take away one tribe’s favored status and capture it for their own. Orthodoxy is the straitjacketing of thought for the purpose of controlling people or enforcing tribal boundaries, and that is what Strachan preaches.

    I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I wouldn’t turn away Strachan from posting here unless he became verbally abusive. I would condemn his version of Christianity as hateful and cruel while acknowledging his right to express those views.

  • Brantley Gasaway

    Iain,
    See the blog post by Patheos’s editor, Tim Dalrymple, for the Evangelical page–and my question to him and his response as the opening comment:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/2012/10/02/the-future-of-evangelicalism-online/

    Tim often references (and rebuts) Fred’s work–but it would be much more effective, in my opinion, if he did so as part of an explicitly “intra-evangelical” dialogue/debate.  

    Fred: if you’re reading this, I’d be interested in knowing if you WANT to be part of both the evangelical and progressive Christian networks at Patheos (as Tony Jones used to be)…

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > If you’re going to be vulgar, at least consider the metaphor carefully. ; – )
     I would add to this: use whatever metaphor you like, but as long as we’re considering the potentially unfortunate cultural implications of various available metaphors for selfish cruelty, consider considering that assholes are differentially associated culturally (at least in most of the U.S.) with gay men.

  • Brantley Gasaway

    Iain,See the blog post by Patheos’s editor, Tim Dalrymple, for the Evangelical page–and my question to him and his response as the opening comment:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/2012/10/02/the-future-of-evangelicalism-online/

    Tim often references (and rebuts) Fred’s work–but it would be much more effective, in my opinion, if he did so as part of an explicitly “intra-evangelical” dialogue/debate.  

    Fred: if you’re reading this, I’d be interested in knowing if you WANT to be part of both the evangelical and progressive Christian networks at Patheos (as Tony Jones used to be)…

  • JustoneK

    ewww.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    So moving forward, how will you guard against becoming just another gatekeeper of another tribe?

    This is, incidentally, an excellent question.

    I say “incidentally” because the impression I get from your comment is that your goal was not in fact to ask an excellent question, but simply to challenge under the cover of asking questions. But ultimately that doesn’t really matter; good questions are valuable to engage with regardless of the questioner’s motives.

    My own position is that there’s nothing wrong with being a tribal gatekeeper, in and of itself, but it’s a significant responsibility: over time, our behavior as gatekeepers determines the nature of our tribe. Therefore it’s important to have an understanding of what we value, and to ask ourselves regularly whether we as gatekeepers are making choices consistent with those values, and to change our practice (or recuse ourselves as gatekeepers) if we find that we aren’t.

    That said, when a tribe is sufficiently inclusive, a necessary consequence is that different gatekeepers will value different things, which allows for different gatekeepers to disagree with one another’s choices, sometimes deeply and powerfully, even though all the gatekeepers are discharging their office faithfully. This can be a problem, especially when we nevertheless want to retain the ability to protect ourselves from genuinely toxic influences.

    Negotiating those sorts of tensions and conflicts is part of the skill set of coping effectively with an inclusive environment. Nobody’s perfect at it, but I generally endorse a community trying to engage with that problem rather than taking the simpler path of exclusion.

  • Carstonio

    assholes are differentially associated culturally (at least in most of the U.S.) with gay men.

    While I wouldn’t blame gay men for reading the references that way, I’ve never encountered anyone outside of Slacktivist who uses or hears the “asshole” insult as having homophobic meaning. It’s possible that they are and I’m not picking up on the context or subtext.


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