Loyal readers will remember an incident from two years ago. I was speaking at Fuller Seminary — an academic institution, it should be noted. In my remarks, I spoke honestly about my view of Pentecostal theology, and how I do not think that it’s the best theology out there. [Video here.] An African-American woman in the crowd stood up and, at the end of a lengthy comment (that was more of a lecture), she called me a “borderline racist.”
Here’s her statement, as transcribed by me (you can see her comment at about 1:31:00 of the video):
“To say that the Pentecostal theology is weak and that the American theology is sophisticated, I just, I cringe at that. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned here at Fuller…I’ve learned that all theology is contextual, and to say that your American theology — and you have to think about the fact, I mean, I hate to bring up race, but, I can’t avoid it, I’m sorry but, as a Caucasian man living in America, to say that your theology is sophisticated and to say that the theology of Latin America and South America is weak, I mean, it’s appalling, it’s shocking for me to hear that, it’s offensive, it’s borderline racist, and it’s very closed-minded.”
So, there it became clear to me that stating a theological opinion in an academic setting was not wholly acceptable, at least to this interlocutor. I made a statement of preference, that I think the nascent Pentecostalism practiced in much of the Global South would benefit from being in dialogue with the older, more developed theologies of the West.
I bring this up because of another African-American woman who, more subtly, accused me of racism on her blog yesterday. I met Christena Cleveland at Subverting the Norm 2 in Springfield, Missouri last month, an academic conference at which we both spoke. I posted my notes from my talk here. Here is one of my points:
5. Be loyal to this tribe. We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today. If our version of the gospel is to stand a chance, particularly among the “nones,” then we’ve got to stick together in spite of our doctrinal/theological/philosophical differences.
Yesterday, Cleveland posted, initially misquoting me saying, “we have the best version of the gospel,” which she amended only after I contacted her. She wrote, “As a minority group member sitting in the audience, I found his statement to be unfriendly to diverse voices.” She continued,
Most blatantly, the statement violates the metaphor of the interdependent and multifaceted body of Christ. How can a gospel that is mostly (if not entirely) interpreted and articulated by a homogenous group of people (in this case, white, well-educated males) be the “better version”? But in a more subtle way, his statement sent a clear and powerful message to all of the diverse people in the room (e.g., women, people of color, people without advanced degrees, etc.). No need to join our movement; we don’t need diverse voices. We’ve already got the best version of the Gospel and we only needed white, well-educated men to figure it out. Diverse people need not apply.
As you can see in that last sentence in her paragraph, Cleveland didn’t quite get through the post with her corrections. Her entire post is premised on something that I did not say and a sentiment that I do not hold: that progressive Protestantism is the best version of the gospel.
In my live comments at that conference, I made a point that I’ve made in several public addresses over the last year: conservative, Reformed, penal substitutionary, anti-gay, anti-women evangelicals have been consistently kicking our asses in the public square. They proudly proclaim their theological convictions with certainty and volume.
progressive Incarnational Christians, on the other hand, too often pussyfoot around our convictions. We’re afraid to proclaim anything too loudly, for fear that it won’t have the requisite humility, or to say anything at all because there aren’t yet enough “people at the table.” Getting all of the right people at the table is, as WOPR discovered with Tic Tac Toe, an unwinnable game. Instead, the better posture is to do the best we can, to always be invitational, but to not let the imperfection of our diversity chill us into never speaking boldly.
Let me make it clear here as I have in many posts and several books: I believe that my understanding of the gospel has benefited greatly from the diversity of opinions that I’ve encountered, from the wide variety of books that I’ve read, and from my global travels. Much of my theological career is premised on constantly expanding my own horizons in order to better understand the gospel. And I could say the same thing about the emerging church movement as a whole.
When I said, “We have a better version of the gospel,” that statement had a clear referent. Grammatically, you cannot (or at least should not) use the comparative “better” without a clear referent. If I had said, “We have a better version of the gospel” out of the blue, the natural response would be, “Better than whose version?” But the thing is, everyone at the conference — except, it seems, Ms. Cleveland — knew exactly to whom I was referring.
The same does not hold for the statements, “We have a good version of the gospel,” (which I would say), or “We have the best version of the gospel,” (which I would not). Those statements can have a referent, but they do not demand one.
Grammatically, I used a comparative, not a superlative, and I did so purposefully. To use a comparative like “better” without a referent is called an “empty comparison.” It happens all the time in car commercials, but not in my talks.
So, what Cleveland did was not only misquote me, but took my meaning exactly wrong. I was developing a critique of one particular version of American Christianity — one that is, I might say, dominated by men and exclusionary of women — and I was attempting to rally the crowd to fight against that version in the public square with our more progressive, open, inclusionary version.
Cleveland responded by painting me as a racist — or at least as someone who “idolizes” my own “cultural group identity.” And anyone who is paying attention knows that calling someone a racist is the most discrediting of all epithets these days.
Except maybe calling someone a misogynist, which I’m also sick of. I’ll post about that next week.