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:
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.
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.