James 3:6-18 (RSV) And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish?  Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.  Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.  And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Luke 6:26 Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
Matthew 10:36 and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.
Matthew 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Mary Pezzulo, who runs the Patheos site, Steel Magnificat (on the same Catholic Channel where my blog is hosted), felt compelled to write a hit-piece at my expense, entitled, I Apologize For The Apologist (10-1-21). Her words will be in blue below. This is not the first time she has used her writing talent (which is considerable) to lob an attack on my character and person, and the apologetics work that I have been engaged in full-time for what will be twenty years this December. Her jeremiad bristles with contempt and the sort of dripping disdain that is sadly typical of pathetic Catholic infighting these days.
I had responded to her character assassination at least one time before, and the result was that she threatened to sue me, and I thought better of it and took it down. Well, one can only endure so much of this sort of thing. If she can write such a piece against me, filled with falsehoods, then I certainly have the [legal and ethical] right to respond. But she has her own way of dealing with the exchange of ideas and a man defending his good name and reputation, as we see in her anticipation of my reply:
I’m sure he’s already reading this and planning his six-volume harassing rebuttal,
Just one volume. Did you catch that? Let me dare defend myself against her endless accusations and she automatically classifies it as “harassing.” This is her game. If I don’t respond, a pack of falsehoods go out about me, potentially harming my reputation and my very livelihood. If I do, she raises a big fuss and squeals that I am harassing her and threatens to sue. That leaves me between a rock and a hard place, doesn’t it?
I would like to apologize for my Patheos colleague, Dave Armstrong. Today, Dave has decided to appropriate [former Catholic and singer Audrey] Assad’s religious choices for his own nasty, patronizing, gaslighting blog post where he chides her for having read too much Buddhist thought and not having read enough of his tiresome apologetics books.
The notion of critiquing a deconversion story has a perfectly sensible, reasonable defense, which I wrote about in my post from yesterday, Why Do I (or How DARE I?!) Critique Deconversions? It was not a response to Mary, at least not by name, though I vaguely alluded to her and other critics of mine, who currently are competing with each other to see who can be the most insulting and outrageous.
It stands on its own as a rationale and explanation of one aspect of apologetics. Here is a portion that was written to an atheist who had left Christianity altogether, but the thought is largely the same, if applied to someone leaving the Catholic Church (yet not necessarily Christianity altogether or philosophical theism, as in Audrey’s case):
One can listen and extend sympathy in one situation and critique ideas in another. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I simultaneously critique atheism and try to find common ground with atheists, too, in an attitude of respect and listening (exactly what I’m doing right now). When we got together at the restaurant, I spent a great deal of time listening: probably at least as much as I talked; and there was only one o’ me and six o’ y’all [all atheists].
If you and I were sitting somewhere and you said something like, “these are the reasons why I left Christianity; what really hurt me and caused me a lot of pain . . .” etc., then absolutely that would be a time for listening, friend to friend, man to man. Surely you would know that I would disagree with many of your reasons, but I would listen and hopefully be a friend.
But as an apologist, generally speaking (in the public arena), I have to defend Christianity, and that includes critiquing reasons given to reject Christianity. If those reasons are inadequate, then it is my task to show how and why they are, in order to prevent existing Christians from using them as reasons to leave . . .
And in another dialogue with two atheists, I wrote:
Since they are public critiques of Christianity (hence, fair game for public criticism), as a Christian (Catholic) apologist, I have a few thoughts in counter-reply.
I am not questioning the sincerity of these persons or the truthfulness of their self-reports, or any anguish that they went through. I accept their words at face value. I’m not arguing that they are terrible, evil people (that’s a child’s game). My sole interest is in showing if and where certain portions of these deconversion stories contain fallacious or non-factual elements: where they fail to make a point against Christianity (what Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls “defeating the defeaters”), or misrepresent (usually unwittingly) Christianity as a whole, or the Bible, etc.
Agree or disagree, that is my motivation.
Audrey Assad herself recognized that her publicly expressed material about her personal journey was open to scrutiny, in her tweet seeking to contact me, dated 1 October 2021: “I have no qualms with people publicly commenting on my public confessions.” If that wasn’t an issue for her, it shouldn’t have been for anyone else. She chose to write about her story in public. No one forced her at gunpoint to do so. If she had intended it to be merely private, no one would have known about it. All through this incident, I observed that my existing critics, and friends of Audrey’s on her Twitter page were much more upset about all this than she ever was (not to mention far less forgiving).
I vehemently deny that the critique was “nasty” or “patronizing.” I retracted it and apologized to Audrey a few days ago (more on that below) for reasons other than that false charge, but I still have it in a file, in case questions about its nature come up (and it will, because my critics are not letting up). I was respectful and made it clear that I was “just speculating” (based on the information she did share). I didn’t assert what I didn’t know: whether Audrey had read much apologetics.
I posed it in the form of two questions: “Had Audrey read any Catholic apologetics, so she could understand why Catholics believe as they do (the rational part of theology)? I doubt it.” And: “I would ask Audrey: ‘did you read Catholic apologetics or catechetics with regard to those doctrines that you started to doubt?’ . . .” It turns out I was wrong. She had read a good deal of apologetics, as she clarified, and this was what made me decide within a day of learning that, to retract my piece with an apology for any offense caused, because that was my main argument, and it was factually erroneous.
I complimented her and showed some sympathy (I could have shown much more of that, I now concede), and wrote: “I respect and appreciate Audrey’s transparency and honesty, and willingness to discuss such painful and private things in public (which takes guts)”. I ended with: “I have nothing against her personally (I’m just talking about the relative merit of various beliefs and opinions) and would be delighted to dialogue, if that is agreeable.”
Is this “nasty” or “patronizing”? I don’t think so. Perhaps some other portions were to some extent, but certainly weren’t intended to be. I’m not perfect, and upon reflection all writers can always do a better job and show more charity, especially if it is sensitive subject matter. But my article was not this ugly, insulting, horrifically cruel thing that Mary and others are now caricaturing and making it out to be.
Of course I never mentioned my books. That’s flat-out false. She actually did, as she wrote on her page, but I didn’t bring it up.
Nor did I chide her “for having read too much Buddhist thought”. She wrote, “I am heavily influenced by the Tao and Zen Buddhism nowadays” and I simply responded, “Obviously, if she has been reading this sort of material (contrary to theism and Christianity in many ways), it influenced her to leave Catholicism. ‘We are what we eat.’ “
Before I go further, let me document that Audrey very graciously accepted my retraction and apology and wrote on her page:
This was retracted by Mr. Armstrong, and he apologized publicly for his statements about me, which I did not request but do sincerely appreciate. (4:03 PM · Oct 3, 2021)
I do not hold hard feelings against Dave Armstrong and appreciate very much that my response was heard. I may have left the institution but my desire for peacemaking is very much intact, including with people inside the institution I left. (4:05 PM · Oct 3, 2021)
This is, of course, no reason at all to reject the Holy Eucharist (i.e., consecrated hosts) as Catholics believe it to be (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ). But the devil will do anything to separate Catholics from the sacraments and the Church and her (and their) faith. Whatever gets them away from the Eucharist results in them having less grace, which is altogether necessary to maintain such faith and to withstand the world, the flesh, and the devil.
That’s a good point that I am not all that familiar with, and so haven’t thought about much. I hope it’s not very widespread. I have never observed in my 30 years as a Catholic, in my recollection, anyone seeming to react this way as they received Holy Communion. That’s not to deny that it happens. I’m just explaining why I haven’t considered it much. But again, the solution would be therapy (for Audrey or anyone else who is struggling with that), to heal from such abuse, and OCD or PTSD or whatever else resulted from it. I believe in therapy! It’s great, and has helped members of my family.
Mary accuses me three times in her screed of “gaslighting.” I have done no such thing. It’s a scurrilous falsehood. I am a very sympathetic, empathetic (where I have experienced the same thing), and compassionate person. Mary would never know that because she seems to have despised me from Day One and has never tried to get to know me. But the people who actually do know me know the real me, not the cardboard caricature or straw man of all these recent attacks. Instead, she breezily accuses me of gaslighting, as if I am some callous, cruel Beast. She doesn’t know my interior thoughts and motivations. She can’t read hearts or minds.
If I misunderstood something, big wow. It happens. What I have not misunderstood is Mary’s utter disdain and contempt for me as a person and as an apologist. I haven’t gotten that wrong. But there is a funny story behind Proud Mary. Of course she doesn’t mention what I’m about to tell you. She was tickled and amused by the nickname at first. She said something to the effect of “I love that song! Can’t you come up with a better nickname than that?”
That was the extent of our joyous Christian fellowship: a shared love of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Ah, the good ol’ days of our five minutes of togetherness: fulfilling Jesus’ prayer that His disciples would be “perfectly one” (Jn 17:23), just as He and His Father were one (Jn 17:21-22): which oneness would be an evangelistic witness to the world (Jn 17:21, 23).
Then I busted her bubble by explaining that the satire of the name was in comparing her to the proud Pharisees, who judged folks all the time and felt morally and superior superior to them, just as she habitually does, towards far more than just myself, believe me. Ever since then, she hasn’t liked the name much.
The apologetics industry, at this stage of the game, is a gentlemen’s club of grouchy old codgers who don’t care about actual souls but just want to score points in an argument. The way to win souls to our Faith is to love them and to show some compassion. Apologists don’t do that.
I apologize for the apologist. He ought to be ashamed.
This is the very essence of prejudice: taking a whole group of people and tarring them with a negative brush. Apologetics is a worthwhile and helpful enterprise, and completely biblical and encouraged by the Church as well.
As for compassion: which I am accused by her over and over of lacking, let me share with you another story. Mary has written a lot about a condition she has which causes her great fatigue and weakness: fibromyalgia. My wife had this, and we cured it (or at least eliminated its symptoms) with diet. One of my sons suffered from a similar malady, Lyme Disease. Mary recently wrote, for example:
I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and then fibromyalgia, but medicines that show promise in fibromyalgia patients (insofar as there are any) didn’t usually work for me. . . . My fibromyalgia pain got worse and my fatigue was so bad I was sick in bed more and more of the time. (8-24-21)
We are big advocates of holistic health and herbalism, etc., and we know of someone who has helped us and who could help Mary, too, at low cost (since she also writes a lot about the low income of her family).
I sought to share this information with her through a mutual friend (who is, incidentally, pretty far left politically and who was very happy indeed that I had done so, since I was crossing lines and trying to foster unity). And what happened? Nothing. Mary never responded; never acknowledged it. Oh well, what can you do? As they say, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
I wanted to help her feel better. I was trying to live up to St. Paul’s injunction: “that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:25-26). The proposition still stands, should she change her mind and desire to feel much better.
Again, I was trying to apply Jesus’ words: “if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Lk 6:33). In any event, that is compassion and empathy (a thing Mary continually accuses me — and indeed, apologists as a group — of lacking; she mentions an alleged lack of passion three times): extended towards someone who is not exactly my biggest fan in the world. It’s irrelevant if she is or not. Christians love (“He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still”: 1 Jn 2:9 / “whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother”: 1 Jn 3:10).
Photo credit: Gerd Altmann [PublicDomainPictures]
Summary: I respond to a scurrilous hit-piece against me, written by Mary Pezzulo (aka Proud Mary), of Steel Magnificat fame, regarding deconversions. Two sides to every story.