Whaddya Say We Get Honest about Labels?

This morning on Marketplace Morning Report, Krissy Clark filed a story entitled, “What Does ‘Welfare’ Mean to You?“:

Once upon a time, the word welfare simply meant, faring well. That’s how the framers of the U.S. Constitution used it in the preamble. Right after the part about “forming a more perfect union” and before the part about “securing the blessings of liberty”, there’s a charge to “promote the general welfare.”

And yet, if you go out on to the street and ask people how they feel about the word welfare today, the feelings are, to put it mildly, fairly negative.

“It’s for people who sit on their butt all day and don’t do anything and then say ‘give me your money,’” is how John Frazer, a car service driver from San Diego, put it.

“It’s kind of associated with failure,” added Suncana Laketa, a graduate student from Arizona who said she had received welfare in the past herself.

She goes on to explain how the word has changed — how it has been demonized. The label “gay” has undergone a similar change, as many parents have had to explain during the annual reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” And here’s a telling book title about how labels are used: Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.

You see, calling someone a “liberal” isn’t just a forensic exercise in academic differentiation. It’s a political act. And leaders who claim a theological tradition that’s particularly attuned to the political should stop acting naive about the politics of labels.

This post and the hullaballoo that surrounds it has the potential to be seen as internecine sniping, so I’m going to try to draw some larger lessons.

As I’ve written before, David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw recently wrote a book in which they stated they’ve “learned a lot” from “Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and others.”

“But their answers have often lacked the substance on which we can live, and what goes by the name of ’emerging church’ now appears to have settled into another version of mainline Christianity.”

There are so many problems with this sentence, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

On his radio show, Doug asked Fitch and Holsclaw exactly what he’s said or written that led them to believe that he is propagating “another version of mainline Christianity.” The best they could come up with is that Fitch said that Doug said something to him at an Emergent Village cohort meeting in 2002 that led Fitch to believe that Doug doesn’t think Jesus is essential to the Kingdom of God. That’s a pretty thin soup to indict someone, I’d say. You can listen to the show yourself to hear Doug’s response.

On Twitter and Facebook, I have repeatedly asked them to point to somewhere — anywhere — in my hundreds of thousands of published words, what I have written that has led them to conclude that I have “settled into another version of mainline Christianity.”

For one thing, “mainline” is a demarcation of denominational Protestantism. It has virtually nothing to do with theology, which is why Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, and Episcopalians all fall under that rubric. It’s about the church’s polity and history in the United States, not about any shared theological heritage. If anything, I have been brutally anti-mainline, both on this blog and in my books. So, I’m still waiting for a response.

I’m writing about this topic again this week because Deacon Bill wrote a nice, conciliatory post on HBC (which Holsclaw immediately attacked and wrongheaded), and Fitch blogged about how I shouldn’t get my nose out of joint because labels are good.

Listen, what Holsclaw and Fitch are attempting to do in their book is nothing new. Jim Belcher tried to do the exact same thing in his book: I’m not conservative, I’m not emergent, I’m the middle way! Indeed, I used some “third-way” language in my book, The New Christians, even as I tried to deconstruct the liberal-conservative bi-polarity, which I think is a thoroughly modern construction.

Fitch and Holsclaw are jumping up and down saying, “It’s not bad to be mainline Christian!” Fitch writes,

Doug and Tony ask why we might label them protestant mainline…?  Tony seems upset that we did so.  Does Tony have something against mainline Protestantism? Much much good has come and is coming from this part of American Protestantism.

Yes, you’re damn right I have something against mainline Protestantism! Have you not been paying attention?!? My entire PhD dissertation is an attack on mainline polity. My christology is an offense to many mainliners. And I could go on.

But none of this is really the point. The point is this: If you want to have credibility in the world of evangelical publishing and seminary education these days, one of the ways to do it is to distance yourself from Brian McLaren. Get it? Brian has gone from a board member on several evangelical seminaries and mission agencies to persona non grata. And in pitching my latest book proposal, my agent was told by Zondervan/Nelson/Navpress/IVP that I’m radioactive because of my affirmation of gay marriage and gay ordination. And make no mistake, although the Missio Alliance conference this month had an admirably diverse array of speakers, there was not one person speaking who has publicly affirmed gay marriage.

This is politics, not academic discourse. That’s what I’m saying.

I left this comment on David’s blog this morning:

David, you’ve repeatedly been asked by me to show where, in the hundreds of thousands of words that I’ve published, you find evidence that I’ve “settled into another version of mainline Christianity.” You have yet to offer a shred of evidence.

You’ve repeatedly offered to repent, but you haven’t. Nor have you retracted.

That sentence in your book is a naked attempt to categorize us as the “other.” It is a political move, an attempt to gain points with evangelical readers. For someone who purports a theology that is so attuned to the political, it seems seriously disingenuous for you to keep pretending that your sentence was not political in nature.

Mainline Christianity is dying. Everyone knows it. It’s in the headlines every day. So it’s not like that label comes value-free. You meant to marginalize us when you labeled us as such. I’m not going to stop pushing back against that political act.

Time for you to come clean.

Too harsh? But Fitch and Holsclaw have been asking for robust dialogue of differentiation. Here you go.

Feel free to play politics with me and my theological work. That’s fine. Just be honest about it.

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