I recently watched a couple of interviews (here and here) the ever controversial Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos did with “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson about his new movie “Torchbearer”. According to an article from the same Breitbart news, the film’s “thesis” is that “sin has become mainstream in Western culture, which will soon lead to societal destruction.”
Yiannopoulos himself, a vigorous proponent and practitioner of free speech, identifies as both gay (flauntingly so) and Roman Catholic, and so I wondered how he would interact with Robertson, who a few years ago was fired (and then re-hired following protests) for remarks about the sinfulness of homosexuality.
Christian persecution is a topic of the aforementioned film, and according to Yiannopoulos’ boss Alexander Marlow, he was “very touched” during the film at the Cannes festival in France (where the interviews also took place). In Yiannopoulos’ own words, during the movie he was often “clutching [his] crucifixes and having tearful moments.” His being greatly affected by the film was in evidence during the interviews as well, as he complemented Robertson about the movie: “it even changed my mind about you…. I thought ‘this guy is smart and compassionate – I want to meet this guy.’”
In the second interview they discussed Robertson’s temporarily being fired in Dec. of 2013 for simply sharing the “list of sins” in the Bible in response to a question about homosexual practice (“read that list and see if you are in there…”, Robertson quipped about his usual practice of helping people discover their sins). When Robertson talked about his personal experience seeing notorious sinners become godly men and women, Yiannopoulos replied, “other kinds of Christians are Christians because they think they are good people. Catholics are Catholics because they know they are not”, and this prompted a quick “that’s a good point”, from the “Duck commander”. When he later insisted that the pardon and power of Jesus Christ definitely “works”, Yiannopoulos responded, “I’m looking for a ‘pray it away camp’ that will work for me”, making one think – even if just for a moment – that he was quite serious.[i]
Recently, at a talk at the University of California – Santa Barbara, Yiannopoulos expounded on matters like these further, in response to the question “how do you reconcile being a Roman Catholic and a homosexual”. He began by politely suggesting that the man asking the question did not really understand Catholicism, stating in part (see full comment here) the following:
The Catholic church is different from the Anglican strain of Christianity not just because they’re wrong….I can’t remember who said this, but people are Anglicans… they’re Baptists or Methodists or whatever because they believe they’re good people. Well, Catholics are Catholics because they know they’re not…. we have this thing called original sin….we go to church because we know we’re not good, and I think for me at least, at least certainly living the lifestyle I do, that’s a more honest approach to theology than other sorts of Christianity have to offer.[ii]
First of all, when it comes to his claim that some of these groups attribute goodness to human nature – and hence themselves personally – this does, in fact, describe the views of many liberal Protestants (not to mention Catholics!). Furthermore, even though many conservative Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists would undoubtedly take issue with Yiannopoulos’ claim here, whether or not the struggle that the Apostle Paul describes with his sinful nature, or flesh (see Romans 7 and Galatians 5) – as when he cries out “who will rescue me from this body of death?” – applies to Paul as a Christian (and hence to Christians today) is evidently an open question in even many of these more conservative churches. So far at least, this “habitual sinner” can really identify (throughout our lives we each face our own particular crosses, temptations…and even sins) with Yiannopoulos’ rather striking answers.
And yet, then we get to the issues of Yiannopoulos’ comments about “living the lifestyle I do”. Is there a fight vs. sin here, or a sense of resignation due to the futility of fighting? Here, it seems, is the crux of the issue, and this is where my challenge to Yiannopoulos lies. He playfully kids about not having feelings, and doesn’t put a lot of stock in how “fact-free” people “feel”. So here I note that however much – or little – Christians have disagreed among themselves, they have, until only very recently, always claimed to be putting forth Scriptural teachings that, because they do not change, are able to give us the hope we so desperately need. In short, because these teachings are rooted in the very character of God Himself, His eternal law and eternal Gospel do not change – they, as Robertson was keen to point out, offer an anchor of stability and goodness we can trust…
And what this means is that those teachings have always been seen by Christians as something we today call “objective” (just subtract any Enlightenment connotations from it!) – i.e. they exist in a certain way no matter what we, personally, might feel about them (for more, see part 2. here) This, of course, holds true even for “the most fabulous supervillain on the internet.” To put this delicately to Milo (and I hope he sees this), is it not hard to claim allegiance to Jesus Christ when one is frequently giving the impression that he doesn’t need or want His forgiveness – at least for this or that thing He calls “sin”?[iii]
This forgiveness, of course, is something far more personal than the removal of the threat of punishment – it is, in fact, the act of continuing in, or the act of being ushered into, the closest of relationships with Almighty God Himself. It is because of the fact of this relationship that when He calls us “sinners” and calls our desires and actions “sins”, we are able to not only bear with this, but actually able to exult and glory in His companionship! As the One who rescues us from sin, death, and the devil through His atoning death and resurrection, He is our lovely Alpha (and Omega) – worthy of our highest honor, praise, and worship!
For non-Christians reading this, let me be clear: when it comes to considering our sins vis a vis such a One, there need be no “animus” towards any particular kind of sinner here. In other words, when it comes to particular Christians retaining these traditional views, there may well be as little “homophobia” in this or that case (here is what I published the day after last year’s Obergefell decision – homophobic?) as there is with Mr. Yiannopoulos’ purported misogyny, racism, or “transphobia”. This is something I have no doubt he would say “Amen” to.[iv] Blanket charges of “bigotry” and “animus” towards more traditional viewpoints like ours[v] are not only careless – they are, frankly, without a whiff of reason (just because I tell my children they are wrong when they are wrong, for example, doesn’t mean that I don’t love them).
In sum, to talk about the importance of all Christians acknowledging and confessing all of their sins is not to exult in self-righteousness (“I thank God we ‘good Christians’ are not like other men”) – thinking one is a Christian because one, over and against one’s fellow human beings, is or does good.
At the same time, neither is it to assert that our sin cannot sabotage the Christian life God grants. For example, when it comes to particularly nefarious and soul-killing sins like self-righteousness (a species of pride), perhaps Milo might readily say “Amen!” to what one Lutheran Christian on Twitter recently said: “Lord, forgive my sin. More importantly, forgive my righteousness, by which I suppose I have no sin, or little sin, or not as much as others.”
The advice is sound – even as we also realize that such righteousness would not be the true righteousness Christ creates “in us” (sanctification) by His being “for us” (justification), outside of us (see 2 Cor. 5). Such “righteousness” would rather be that which our “old Adam” claims – for it is we according to our sinful nature who are always eager not only to count and measure our progress over and against others – but to earn God’s final approval!
But that we cannot do, nor should we try. As the controversial Roman Catholic writer and renegade priest Brennan Manning said, it is like a plumber looking at Nigara Falls and saying “I think I can fix this” (read Romans 3!). No – for us it is simply as Jesus said: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10). And the approval that ultimately matters comes in the peace and certainty He gives in, with, and through His own beloved Son’s sacrifice for us (see Rom. 5:1 and I John 5:12-13) – we stand before Him not because we are good, but He is. Of this we may be reminded again when we pray “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
Grace for sinners indeed! We bow to our kind Lord and Master – and perhaps kiss His feet and wipe them with our tears.
I am indeed pleased that Milo wants to identify with Jesus Christ and the great Christian tradition. And yet, if he is going to endeavor to speak for it, I would hope that he would be at great pains to accurately represent it. When something is as good as this – “as good as it gets” in fact! – you don’t want to get it wrong.
Dive in “Nero”. Jesus Christ, always provocative, had the utter nerve to say that His words were spirit and life, right? He further asserted that we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God! Who did – Who does – He think He is? (the caps might give that away)
In sum, Christianity is even better than the most fabulous earthly things we can imagine.
Bow, brother. Of course this habitual sinner is ready to stand by you through it all.
[i] Yiannopoulos has, in the past, said both that he wishes that he wasn’t gay, and that he thinks that God made him the way that he is in order to help him to overcome the atmosphere of identity politics, utterly confounding the academic left (and “just to make the heads of feminists spin”).
[ii] More from his comment: “Though here’s the thing: progressives will sometimes demand all manner of complex and weird acknowledgements themselves…they want to be a gender-queer-blah-blah – throw in cis… blah, blah but what they can’t seem to understand is other people asking for the same acknowledgement that life is messy and complicated, and that sometimes things aren’t fully recognized or realized or pulled together in your own mind and sometimes it takes a lifetime of study or prayer…”
This part of Yiannopoulos’s answer is perfect if the intention is merely to show that those who oppose him (generally on the left) are often inconsistent and irrational. But of course if he wants to strongly put forth the beliefs of his church as being different – that is of being rational and reasonable – his answer falls short.
[iii] Yiannopolous is known as a conservative in today’s cultural and political environment. That said, does his theological approach in fact resemble that of another provocateur, Nadia Bolz-Weber, whose Christianity, in turn, bears a striking resemblance to the philosophy of Hegel?
[iv] Yiannopoulos talks in the first interview about Robertson holding a “perfectly respectable opinion” that millions of Americans hold.
[v] I have crtically touched on aspects of the “cultural libertarianism” he expounds on here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/justandsinner/what-does-the-rise-of-trump-have-to-do-with-science-and-christianity/
Image credits: Milo Yiannopoulos, photo by @Kmeron ; Phil Robertson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC., by Gage Skidmore ; Milo on throne used with permission from @KingCrocoduck (twitter) ; Palm Sunday 10 by Waiting for the Word.