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.

 

  • http://twitter.com/geofflittle Geoffrey Little

    White men in stuffy religious environments who seem to be so smart:  here’s a Bible for you: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Nick Kristof’s Half the Sky campaign, your local Rescue Mission, your local street newspaper sold by homeless and formerly homeless, Big Brothers, Big Sisters; literacy councils, local AIDS clinics in your city, .  God could care less about you or me developing theological points out of the Exodus, the Book of Acts, or Revelation.  Is this not obvious now in the 21st century?  Where religious texts are helpful, let them be helpful.  But they are stories.  For God’s sake, they are conversations written by men about their individual experiences.  Imbue them with sacredness ONLY if they are moving you toward compassion, love, and humility.  Otherwise, you will become the monster you are claiming to battle.

  • JustoneK

    It really seems to boil down to “why won’t you let the assholes in??”  and Fred’s firmly on the side of “because they’re assholes”  and then “well it’s not Christian/liberal/progressive enough of you to not let the assholes in!”  and they get all “when they start working at not being assholes, they can come in.  not before.”

  • spinkham

    Yup.  At Messiah, their statement of faith contains both “the kingdom of peace, righteousness and justice” and “Bible as the inspired, trustworthy and authoritative Scripture”.  When these commitments butt heads, both get a fair hearing.  IMHO, you can’t ask for much more than that from a religious institution.

  • patter

    Seems OT professors in fundy seminaries are going off the reservation lately.  Chris Rollston of Emmanue [also discussed here in Patheos]l was — uh, how do they put it in the World of Spin  — encouraged to seek opportunities elsewhere for expressing similar heretical ideas about the Bible.

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

    help me understand how a blog post condemning one man who condemns
    another man makes much sense or is sny more loving or Christian?

    As elsewhere, my impression is that you’re not sincerely asking questions, but merely sniping. Nevertheless, it’s a good question generally.

    I’ll approach those three things separately:

    - Makes sense: If some things are more worthy of condemnation than others, it can make sense to condemn one person while opposing the condemnation of another person, or even to condemn one person for condemning another when condemnation was not called for.
     
    So, for example, if Siebert and Strachan are equally deserving (or nondeserving) of condemnation, then it makes no sense to condemn one but oppose condemning the other. But if Siebert is praiseworthy, and if condemning what is praiseworthy merits condemnation, then it makes sense to condemn Strachan for his condemnation of Siebert.

    Typically, this isn’t difficult to understand if one isn’t being led astray by the desire to make “you have to tolerate my intolerance!”-type arguments.

    - Loving: Condemning those who unjustly harm others can be a powerful expression of love for those being harmed.

    - Christian: This, I can’t speak to at all definitively. But my experience of Christianity as practiced in my environment is that it does not habitually shy away from condemning those who, in its view, act badly.

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

     (nods) Yup.

    And I do think it’s possible to have a genuine disagreement about whether and when someone is or isn’t too much of an asshole to be let in (and I think we often forget that).

    But this doesn’t seem to be one of those cases.

  • Brandon

    I NEVER leave comments. But I had to on this one. This is a beautiful piece, sir. Great job! 

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

     (nods) That’s fair. And to the extent that you trust your reading of the relevant context/subtext, you’re of course entirely free to endorse replacing “dick” with “asshole” as a generic insult.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deadyetliving Richard Clark

    I find a screed about the need for generosity in theological discussion to be highly ironic coming from this blog. 

  • Jim Roberts

    And I think it’s less about keeping the assholes out and more saying, “You’re welcome to come in, but you’re going to have a whole lot of people questioning why you state your beliefs the way that you do when Scripture clearly says . . .”

    It’s the difference between a gatekeeper and someone warning you not to whiz on the electric fence.

  • Jim Roberts

    Nice driveby. 3/10 for actual content, though.

  • Andrea

    Wow, Tim’s comment further down that it’s “idiosyncratic” to be “pro-life but also against the death penalty and a pacifist” is mind-boggling.

  • Andrea

    Man, where did the sudden infestation of concern trolls come from?

  • Carstonio

    I assumed they were Boyce partisans, such as students or alumni.

  • AnonymousSam

    Thinking on it, one of the things that inflames me most is that apparently Westboro doesn’t believe in redemption. They demand worship of Jesus Christ, but deny that worshiping Jesus Christ has any effect on one’s status as a sinner. Sinners, they argue, still go straight to Hell regardless of what they do.

    To which I ask, “Doesn’t that eliminate Christianity’s raison d’être?”

  • Chad

    I finally read Strachan piece. Where did he “demand” expulsion or a firing? I was expecting to find a devil but this wasn’t nearly as “nasty” as made out to be.
    Does anyone else not have a problem with calling someone a “nasty piece of work” while simultaneously condemning the same person for attacking Seibert as a person and not his ideas?

  • JustoneK

    What I keep finding is the disagreement stems from our own personal individual biases, because none of us are outside the biased systems.  I’m always looking for the most overlap between traits we can agree on.

  • AnonymousSam

    “How dare you insult a horrible person! You’re no better than they are!” arguments ring of the exact same logic found in “Can you do better? No? Then shut up!”

    If someone invents an automobile engine which is powered by the blood of newborn kittens, I don’t believe I need to be Henry Ford to criticize it, thanks. Some things are self-explicably evident to anyone who’s not a jerkass.

  • Leum

    Thinking
    on it, one of the things that inflames me most is that apparently
    Westboro doesn’t believe in redemption. They demand worship of Jesus
    Christ, but deny that worshiping Jesus Christ has any effect on one’s
    status as a sinner. Sinners, they argue, still go straight to Hell
    regardless of what they do.

    To which I ask, “Doesn’t that eliminate Christianity’s raison d’être?”

    WBC are Calvinists and believe that God chose at the beginning of time who would be damned and who would be saved. The death of Jesus was still necessary for salvation, but he died only for the Elect, not for all humanity.

  • AnonymousSam

    So you’re saved when you’re born–provided you belong to the right tribe–and your actions can only damn you, but not the reverse. That’s lovely. Now if only it didn’t ignore the Gospels…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Myeck-Waters/100000883936818 Myeck Waters

    Chad, give it up.  You are fooling no one.

  • aunursa

    So you’re saved when you’re born–provided you belong to the right tribe–and your actions can only damn you, but not the reverse.

    My understanding of Calvinism is that the Elect were chosen by God at the beginning of time.  Nothing anyone can do can change his or her status.  Those who are Elect will at some point reach a correct understanding of the Gospel and have a personal relationship with Jesus.  Those who are not Elect will not.

  • Jim Roberts

    Yeah, anyone who can’t see the, “Nice little Christian community you have here, be a shame if something were to happen to it,” oozing out of that article is either willfully blind or willfully ignorant.

  • Senor_Hosenscheisser

    What a ridiculous article. You would think Fred Clark has never met another human being in his life. Since when did “theological tribalism” become exclusively the behavior of white evangelicals? By his interpretation, the Council of Nicaea was a “dick move” by gatekeepers, the first of an endless series of priapic incursions into the promised land of boundless inquiry. Tribalism is what HUMANITY engages in, not just white evangelicals. Nobody wants their views challenged, and even the most self-aware of us still has trouble being open to criticism at first blush. Fred Clark should be thrown out of the tavern for such a sophomoric complaint.

  • Daughter

    On an up-note, the blog post had a link to a story about a defector from the family and church of Fred Phelps: https://medium.com/reporters-notebook/d63ecca43e35

  • JustoneK

    white fundagelicals are certainly some of the most pervasive in merica.  do you live here in merica?

  • AnonymousSam

    There’s a contradiction in what their spokesman said, though:

    If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell.

    If their status is inviolate, then it shouldn’t matter whether they continue with their position or not (and, for that matter, the family shouldn’t be repudiating and condemning them). It certainly says something if this is their position though– “If nothing we say makes a difference and they’re going to Hell regardless… awesome, we can say whatever we want!”

    Kind of a new spin on privilege– people who are aware of their privilege and use it to rub shit in everyone’s faces. Huh. I thought only cartoon villains did that.

  • Daughter

     And I see many readers have beat me to it!

  • JustoneK

    internal consistency is too much to ask for.

  • Senor_Hosenscheisser

    So, you think that intellectual tribalism is a causative result of skin color? You live here on planet earth? 

  • JustoneK

    Parsing error

  • lowtechcyclist

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

    If so, then what’s the point?”

    Advanced duckspeak, to steal a term from Orwell.

  • http://danieldarling.com Daniel Darling

    Wow, how tolerant of you. You respond to perceived ugliness with ugliness of your own: vitriol, name-calling, and allegations of racism. 

  • JustoneK

    We have bingo.

  • aunursa

    If their status is inviolate, then it shouldn’t matter whether they continue with their position or not

    No, it shouldn’t matter.  Again with my understanding of Election … is that the spokesman would have said:

    If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, then that’s evidence that they’re going to hell.

    In other words, one can’t be sure of a person’s salvation status.  One’s behavior would provide evidence, but not proof, of being Elect or not Elect.

  • Daughter

    Slightly complicated comment follows. Hope it makes sense.

    You may have a point – somewhat. Fred has been writing on this topic of evangelical gatekeepers for a while. From Wikipedia (and I think Fred referred to this a while  back),David Bebbington has termed these four distinctive aspects conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism, noting, “Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”[2]

    Fred has made the point that many modern evangelicals often act as if one’s views on the “big four” of abortion, LGBT rights, evolution and to a lesser extent, environmentalism, are what determines whether one is an evangelical. That is to say, no matter what your beliefs and how you live with regard to the quadrilaterial of priorities listed in the paragraph above, if you disagree with the evangelical gatekeepers in regard to the “big four”, you’re out of the tribe.

    So in one sense, this is another of Fred’s articles in that series. But in another sense, the questions here might be different – because this doesn’t involve the big 4 at all (other than how passages of violence in Scripture affect how we treat LGBT folks, among others), but rather one’s view of the Bible – which impacts the biblicism priority of paragraph 1.

    However, I think Fred has veered from discussing the big four to making a somewhat different argument. He has posted about Rob Bell’s questions about heaven and hell, about Rachel Held Evan’s writings on feminism, and now this post, about Siebert’s perspective on the violence of Scripture. Fred has also looked at the “clobber verses” that mention homosexuality in light of the entire Biblical text. He has noted that each of these people – Bell, Held Evans, Siebert and himself – highly value and engage the Bible, but come to very different conclusions about its meaning than those he calls gatekeepers.

    I think Fred’s argument now is that one can challenge conservative Biblical interpretations and still be an evangelical. Indeed, he is questioning whether many conservative Biblical interpretations are as faithful to the Biblical texts as their proponents think they are. Case in point: one of the commenters on the linked article about Siebert explained that the apparently condoned violence of some Biblical passages is a reflection of the 7 different dispensations during which God has dealt with humanity differently – while arguing that he was taking the Bible literally, but Siebert was not. Another commenter rightly pointed out the 7 different dispensations appear no where in the Bible, so he is not as literally faithful as he thinks he is, but, like Siebert, is using an interpretive framework, just a different one.

  • aunursa

    It certainly says something if this is their position though– “If nothing we say makes a difference and they’re going to Hell regardless… awesome, we can say whatever we want!”

    I presume that the Calvinist position would be that while nothing one can say will make a difference in one’s eternal destiny, the Elect will be predisposed to say things that are pleasing to God.

  • Ben

    Messiah College is actually a Brethren in Christ school, which also stands in the Anabaptist tradition. You are very right to point out that these questions are very real concerns for Anabaptist who both value peace and take the Bible seriously.

  • The_L1985

    Some, like Owen Strachan, “deal with it” by ignoring everything remotely uncomfortable in the Bible, sweeping it under the rug, and silencing anyone who dares to question it.

    More honest, decent people “deal with it” by wrestling with the meaning of the text, trying to figure out what the most important moral lesson is that they can learn from it.  Or they “deal with it” by deciding that if people like Owen Strachan are right about the Christian god, then they don’t want any part of Christianity because it makes God look brutally sadistic.

  • The_L1985

     No, Megan, you’re only recognizing Fred Phelps as a liar.  Good on you. :)

  • The_L1985

     Aww, how cute.

    Look, here’s the point.  Christians must do their best to represent Christ, or outsiders to the faith (like me) will rightly consider them hypocrites.  It’s one thing to fall short of your religious ideals.  It’s quite another to not even try.

    And it’s a third, and far worse thing, to cite your hypocrisy as evidence of righteousness and berate others for being less hypocritical than you are.  This is what Owen Strachan is doing in his article.  Fred is taking the role of Jeremiah in pointing out that “hey, this isn’t how Christians ought to behave.”

  • The_L1985

     Seriously?  Fred talks all the time about generosity.  The vast majority of his posts are on things like “we’re not doing nearly enough to help the poor, and we need to fix that,” or else “trying to squeeze Christianity into such a small box does it a major disservice and shuts out a lot of people who genuinely love Jesus and desire to learn more about Him in order to be closer to Him.”

  • The_L1985

     No, but white male evangelical Protestants have always been the ones with the most power in the US, for as long as it has been a country.  And so, while non-white churches, female Christians, and non-evangelical folks of all kinds tend to focus on “how can we be more like Jesus,” white male evangelical Protestants tend to focus on “how can we use God’s name and writings as a means to prop up our power and ensure we never lose our privileged status over everybody else?”

    Obviously, there are exceptions.  But religious-based tribalism in the U.S., by and large, is the purview of white male evangelical Protestants.  This is not the case in Europe, thus it’s kind of stupid to insist that somehow we believe that whiteness itself automatically causes tribalism.

    You must be new here.

  • The_L1985

     Wow, you just won Condescencing, Smug, Hypocritical-Posturing-While-Missing-The-Point Bingo in one round!  Congratulations!

  • walden

     Re: Council of Nicaea –
    Yes, I suppose in many respects it (or what came out of it) was a “dick move”.  Christians got thrown out of the church, persecuted, and bad mouthed for believing the wrong formulation. Back when I identified as an evangelical, I thought Athanasius was the big hero.  Now I tend to think of him as a power-seeking jerk. 

    Thought experiment — what if Constantine hadn’t put all those theologians in a room and said: “you all better agree if you want my continued patronage”? 
    Might have been a different church theologically, but perhaps better followers of Christ.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisalgoo Chris Algoo

    -deleted-

  • Jim Roberts

    The Council of Nicea, if you’ve ever read about it, involved more dickery than German porn. Attempted assassinations, burning down caravans to keep certain members from arriving – it frankly makes Mr. Strachan look like a piker.

  • P J Evans

     Sounds like most medieval politics. It wasn’t very many centuries later that a dead pope was excommunicated.

  • LL

    I know Fred and various people have mentioned this before, so my question is probably pointless, but wasn’t the whole point of the protestant religions is that they don’t have a hierarchy? Like the Catholic Church they originally broke away from? Then why the hell do they have higher-ups either approving or disapproving of what somebody says/writes, as if the idea of a higher-up in a religion (who isn’t God) is at all valid? When did Baptists turn into Catholics, I guess is what I’m asking.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    The guy doesn’t allow comments…on this piece or his newest piece on “homosexual practice.”

    Kinda tells you all you need to know, no?


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