Jason Allen: Retract Your Criticism of Fred Craddock on the Day of His Funeral

Jason Allen: Retract Your Criticism of Fred Craddock on the Day of His Funeral March 10, 2015

CraddockFredOne of the principal goals in My Jesus Project, a year-long effort to better understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus, is to practice and embody right-heartedness, or what I call “orthopathy.” I believe that, though our beliefs (orthodoxy) and our actions (orthopraxy) are important, both are anemically informed and out of balance in a Christ-like life if the so-called heart work doesn’t come first, to inform the other two.

Some prominent voices within the Southern Baptist Convention have been criticizing Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, known as one of the most influential voices in preaching in the past century, before his body was even in the ground. Craddock, who was 86 and had struggled with Parkinsons for a long time,  died on March 7th. He left behind a family, an extensive publishing library and a nonprofit – The Craddock Center – that has done tremendous work for those trapped in poverty in Appalachia.

Two days after Craddock’s death, Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., reduced Craddock’s lifetime of preaching work to “a mild-mannered man encouraging mild-mannered people to be more mild-mannered,” in a March 9 blog post (the day of Craddock’s funeral). He also called Craddock’s essential claims to be “dead wrong,” claiming that it led to “no true preaching.”

Criticism of Craddock by members of the Southern Baptist Convention is not new. Albert Mohler, the current president of Southern Seminary, suggested in 2008 and 2009 that Craddock had lost confidence in the authority of scripture, and that those who followed his teaching “are left with little to say and no authority for their message.” However there’s a big difference between lodging criticism a half dozen years before a man’s death and doing so the day of his funeral. 

Granted, Jesus said we should let the dead bury the dead, but I have to imagine he would also look down on someone effectively kicking the body into the grave plot. In doing so, Allen comes across as opportunistic and highly insensitive, if not to the legacy of Craddock himself, then at least to his family and other loved ones. But perhaps more significant is that Allen brazenly demonstrates one of the greatest dangers in what I have often called “valuing our ideology over others’ humanity,” which is to dehumanize and denigrate our fellow sisters and brothers as a result. This dehumanization does not play political or ideological favorites either; any of us fall prey to this trap when we hold our beliefs closer than our love of God, neighbor and self.

On a more technical note, there’s also the matter of what “authority” really means when it comes to both preaching and to scripture. What Allen seems to hold to is the more “fundamentalist” idea that authority means “it says what it says, and we believe what it says, period.” Aside from this whitewashing over centuries of broadly diverse cultural and linguistic influences, and the inevitability (in my understanding) that there is not such thing as an uninterpreted text or sermon when we read or hear it, I think he overlooks an important second opportunity we have when talking about “authority.”

An author gives life to something, they cultivate it, give it form, piece together the chaos into something beautiful and that has a voice of its own. But part of authorship is the vulnerability of letting that thing go once it is birthed. People will see it differently than the author, they will feel differently about it, and there is no possible way for the author to guarantee that their intent will be received as such by the recipient. For me, authority is more about being that which convenes, calls into being and then sets loose, otherwise the thing that has been created can never have any life of its own.

Consider this when engaging the first verse in the Gospel of John. The Word preceded all of creation, and it was given its impetus and potential by the Great Breath that preceded it. But once a Word is uttered, the resulting impact is released by the Author. It’s also interesting that, in the second creation story in Genesis, God doesn’t say “I’m making light” or the stages of creation that followed. God says “Let there be…” which inherently is a phrase that concedes some control; a requirement of any great Author.

I’ll confess that when I began writing this, I had to work hard at not “writing angry.” I’ve met Fred Craddock, heard him speak and preach many times, read his books, and he even has personal ties to my family. So in responding to Allen’s comments, I had to give myself a day to try and consider how to live out my aims to be more Chrtist-like in my own path, even when addressing those who seem to have strayed from their own path of Jesus-following.

It’s also important to note that the Southern Baptist Convention is not unified in their condemnations of Craddock’s legacy. He was invited to, among other places, Southeastern Baptist Seminary, the Baptist General Association of Virginia annual meeting and at the sixth annual Southern Baptist Forum. So I don’t want to presume that Allen speaks for all within the SBC. However, as president of one of only six recognized seminaries within the SBC, his statements are inevitably married to a larger resonance within the greater body.

As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is a season for everything. There are times when it’s incumbent on us to speak against what we believe is fundamentally wrong, and I will not begrudge Allen for staking such claims. But to do so in such an insensitive way, and on a day that seems to be more of a grab for public attention than a heartfelt reflection given at an opportune time, he is simply in the wrong.

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  • ChuckQueen101

    “Allen brazenly demonstrates one of the greatest dangers in what I have often called “valuing our ideology over others” humanity,” which is to dehumanize and denigrate as a result. This dehumanization does not play political or ideological favorites either; any of us fall prey to this trap when we hold our beliefs closer than our love of God, neighbor and self.” — Beautiful description above of how ideology and belief can not only invalidate the faith we profess, but make us less human. / It doesn’t surprise me at all that SBC leaders would denounce Craddock; they have drifted so far to the right no mainstream Christian leader or scholar takes them seriously – “Oh, it’s them again.” But for Allen to say these things on the day of his funeral also speaks to how far he has drifted from being a caring person.

    • Tom Parker

      Folks like Mohler and Allen seem to need a heart transplant as they show by their actions they are heartless.

      • Progressive Republican

        The word ‘transplant’ implies replacing something already there. The word I would use is ‘implant’.

  • Falken

    I may be alone in this, but why is it everytime I see or hear about something related to the SBC they’ve managed to shock us all by going to an all new low? Criticize someone the day before their funeral – at least if you’re a dick. Criticize them the day after their funeral – especially if they’re a tool. But on? On the day their family is putting the body to rest, on the day the family has taken time out to mourn together a lost family member, on the day that someone should at least have a little silence about them, and that just makes you a straight up asshole.

  • gapaul

    I adored Craddock and I bet neither he nor his family would be the slightest bit hurt or surprised by this. “My way or the highway” Christians have turned their wrath on countless people — most of them far less popular and celebrated as Craddock. Sometimes it is necessary to save our outrage for when we really need it. Southern Baptist leaders not liking Craddock’s preaching, and taking every opportunity to trumpet what they think is the truth? — not a surprise. Not worth the elevated blood pressure. Forget what they say about Craddock, worry about what they say about Muslims. Gay teenagers. Immigrants.

    • jo

      I don’t think the outrage is that the criticism was leveled. The outrage is the timing of the criticism. It was a reprehensible thing to say at such at time. I can be outraged about what they say about Dr. Craddock and what they say about Muslims, gay teenagers and immigrants at the same time. God knows they give us plenty to be outraged about. And, it is a surprise to me to hear this was said. I think this is a new low…although I’ve thought the same things about many other comments they have made. I don’t have to limit my outrage to one thing. I am capable of being outraged at more than one thing at a time! What was said when it was said is abhorrent.

  • Matt

    There are a handful of SBC seminary presidents who seem to have a pathological need to let everyone know how to think about EVERYTHING. The ayatollah made fewer declarations and condemnations. And like the ayatollah, they are listened to within their tribe but roundly ignored or scorned outside of it. Of course outside criticism just reinforces their legitimacy within the cultus.

  • John B. Craddock

    My Fathers funeral was yesterday. What gives you the right to criticize any of his works over the last 60 years. You really show to the world how the SBC think. With all the speaking he has done at Baptist Churches. You are a poor excuse for a human being and you have not right to be in your position. I guess now I understand why people are running away from the Southern Baptist Churches. Maybe with a little more study of the Bible you can turn out to be a real leader. I feel sorry for you and all the students. Learn to have a little compassion and respect for others. If you were 1/10 of what my Father was you would look at the world a different way. To be very blunt pull your head out of your ass.

    • Christian Piatt

      Deepest sympathies, John, as we mourn your loss with you. I certainly understand your pain and anger.

    • Theron Gunn

      I never get on these talk boards but feel compelled to do so now. Dr. Craddock came to my church to preach when we couldn’t afford to pay a lot of money to compensate him. He then dedicated his retirement years helping country preachers improve themselves at no real cost, preachers who for the most part could never afford seminary. Yes, he was a mild mannered man, humble and brilliant. Just because this cat is a money raiser for some college does not make him an expert on preaching. Everyone knows Fred Craddock and respects him but who is this guy.

    • Judith

      Amen, John Brenning….The world was a better place because of Uncle Brenning..The summer Uncle Brenning married me in Tennessee, they had just left SBC in Las Vegas where he spoke….hmmmm

  • Sharla Hulsey

    “Let the dead bury the dead.” When I read that saying of Jesus, I inevitably hear it in Fred’s voice. Somewhere I heard him quote it, and it stuck.

  • Progressive Republican

    Could someone please explain to me just what it is about conservatism that has them constantly plumbing new depths of obscenity? I’m just not getting it. But then, I’m a liberal so… y’know.

  • John McCallum

    I’m part of the SBC, and I love Fred Craddock. He is one of the four great influences in my preaching (and not one of those is Southern Baptist). And guess where I heard him first: at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when he delivered that year’s (79 or 80) H. I. Hester Lectures on Preaching. Oh the irony of Allen’s remarks from the institution that introduced me to Fred Craddock. Since then, I’ve read most everything he’s written on preaching and much of his biblical commentary work. I never heard him preach or read one of his sermons when I wasn’t stirred in both intellect and emotion. I thank God for Fred Craddock. I’m a better preacher because of him. The kingdom of God has lost a giant!

    • Christian Piatt

      Thank you John. Healing, reconciling words!

  • Wayne Carlson

    ….while I’m charmed… but not drawn in by Christian Piatt’s catch and release program…it might be a good time not to mistake our own hubris for the touch of God….

  • Mike Gatton

    Interesting that Albert Mohler should choose to criticize Fred’s preaching. I was present at one of Dr. Craddock’s presentations in Louisville and witnessed President Mohler and several of his entourage carrying stacks of Fred’s books forward after the event to have him sign them. Can anyone say with me. “HYPOCRITE!”

  • Adam

    I was shocked when I heard of Fred Craddock’s death. Craddock has been an inspiration and a guide to me throughout my ministerial life, and I was blessed to hear him both teach about preaching and bring the message of God to the Baptist General Association of Virginia annual gathering almost a decade ago. I still remember his word of encouragement given to a group of Virginia Baptist ministers: The best preacher for a congregation to hear is their own preacher, who knows them, loves them, and understands them.

    When word of Allen’s criticism came out, I was angered but not surprised. I have found many Southern Baptists to be wonderful folks, but many of those in leadership, especially in their seminaries, to lack the fundamental requirement of Christians to mirror the grace of God. I echo many of the thoughts in your article, and would hope Allen would learn from this situation and consider keeping his mouth shut next time.

    My only quibble with your article: you include the Baptist General Association of Virginia as an SBC entity. It is not. While many churches in the BGAV are also SBC churches, many others (including my own) are not. The BGAV is an autonomous affiliation of Baptist churches, traditionally in the geographic borders of Virginia, but now including churches in places like Georgia, Minnesota, Hawaii, and even South Korea. We were blessed to have Dr. Craddock join us for our annual meeting several years past, and since then he has continued to be spoken of as one of the most enjoyable, helpful, and fully Christian guest we’ve had the pleasure of hosting at our annual gathering.

    I pray his family is comforted in this time of loss, and that the ministry he started prospers and continues to make an impact for the kingdom of God. His legacy will be felt for decades to come through the pulpits of our nation and the actions of God’s people whom Fred inspired.

  • stevecuss

    Dr Allen is either ignorant or willfully misunderstanding Fred Craddock when he talks about “authority.” Anyone who has read or heard Craddock could never walk away believing he didn’t believe in the authority of the text. He devoted his very life to it, for goodness sake.