Thoughts about “Cancel Culture”
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We hear a lot about “cancel culture” these days. What does it mean? Well, in general in means one or all of three acts. First, it can mean the cancelling under pressure of an invited speaker whose invitation to speak (wherever) was made by an authority with right and power to invite speakers. Second, it can mean the prevention of a speaker to speak freely by protesters. Third, it can mean the punishment of a speaker or writer by institutions to which he or she belongs based on something he or she said or wrote. In these third cases, it usually means he or she is dropped from membership or honors given retracted, etc.
I would say these terms “canceling” and “cancel culture” have arisen to prominence in American cultural “lingo” in the past ten to twenty years. And there have been numerous celebrities speaking out against it because it happened to them and they believe without good cause.
What I want to say here is that this phenomenon now called “canceling” or “being canceled” or “cancel culture” is not new at all. These are just new terms for an old phenomenon.
I have been canceled before that word was used for what happened to me. I have also attempted to cancel an invited speaker.
When I was studying at the University of Munich I witnessed self-identified “Marxist students” attempt to prevent theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg from teaching his class.
Many years ago now, I taught briefly at Oral Roberts University. That was my first full-time (without full time salary) teaching position. I was instructor and then assistant professor of theology. Oral, who was founder and president of the university, announced the name of a commencement speaker. (The previous year it was comedian Bob Hope!) Certain elements of the student body found out that the announced commencement speaker (whose identity I don’t remember) was pro-choice about abortion. They raised such a ruckus that Oral canceled the speaker’s invitation and punished the students and their families by delivering the commencement address himself. I say “punished” because his commencement address was a shaming rant, an angry diatribe.
When I taught Christian theology at Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) in St. Paul, Minnesota, the “convocation committee” invited Jerry Falwell to speak in “convocation.” I well remember the faculty meeting where the faculty over rode the invitation and canceled it. Between the issuing of the invitation and its cancelation Falwell had been quoted in the media as labeling Bishop Desmond Tutu a “phony.” The convocation committee explained to the faculty that their plan had been to invite progressive evangelical and founder of Sojourners Jim Wallis—both Falwell and Wallis—not sharing the stage—to display to the students first hand the “right” and the “left” of American evangelicalism. As I recall the upshot was that Falwell said he wouldn’t have been able to come anyway and the invitation to Wallis was never made.
I later was assigned by Bethel’s then president to serve on the convocation committee. We voted to invite a well-known feminist evangelical theologian to speak. Again, we planned to invite a well-known evangelical opponent of feminism to speak “in tandem” with her. The president not only canceled our invitation of the feminist theology (Virginia Mollenkot) but chided us for planning to invite her.
All of the above happened in the 1970s and 1980s.
During the 1990s I served as chief editor of a journal published by 50 evangelical colleges and universities. Representatives from the supporting institutions met once annually. I heard many stories of “cancelations” of invited speakers, mostly by administrators, at their institutions.
So when did “cancel” happen to me? In 2005 I received a call from the then president of the Evangelical Theological Society. His name was Edwin Yamauchi, a well-known and highly respected evangelical New Testament scholar. We had a nice chat on the phone and he issued me a formal invitation to be a plenary speaker at the 2006 national meeting of the ETS. He knew I was not a member and that I did not believe in “biblical inerrancy.” He said it didn’t matter, that ETS often had plenary speakers like me—outsiders to the ETS with friendly and helpful messages to bring. I agreed to it.
Know that the president of the ETS has the authority and the power to invite plenary speakers. However, Yamauchi, in good collegial manner, emailed his invitation and my acceptance to the executive committee of the ETS. Not seeing my email address among theirs, members of the executive committee, including people I considered friends, responded to Yamauchi by blasting me for being supportive of open theists (although I never was and I am still not an open theist), “neo-orthodox,” and a leader of a rival group to the ETS (the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion). Some of them, all professors at mainline evangelical Protestant educational institutions, some of them very well-known evangelical theologians (including Millard Erickson) demanded that Yamauchi withdraw the invitation. They did not know that I was seeing their angry reaction to his invitation. I simply pressed “Respond to All” and demanded that they prove from anything I had written or said that I was an open theist, “neo-orthodox,” or not really, as some of them said, an evangelical theologian. They immediately dropped me from the correspondence about me without response to me. The next day Yamauchi rescinded the invitation. Interestingly, I was invited by two groups within the ETS to speak at their sessions anyway. And that I did.
Now to my attempt to cancel an invited speaker. Toward the end of my tenure at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, where I taught for 22 years, I learned that an Institute on campus had invited a very well-known, even famous, neo-fundamentalist theologian and ethicist to speak and that his address would happen in the seminary’s chapel. I knew that he had acted unethically toward me, publicly attributing a quote to me that I never said or wrote, one that could damage my reputation and career, and that he refused to retract it or apologize for it. I went to the authorities and requested a private meeting with the “gentleman” and he declined to meet with me (so I was told). I also knew that he was firmly opposed to women’s ordination, women serving as pastors or preachers, etc. He was and is a “complementarian.” Many of our seminary’s students were women called by God to pastor, plant churches, preach, etc. I joined those women in strongly requesting that the man NOT speak in our seminary’s chapel. In the eventuality, he did not. He spoke elsewhere on campus. I did not attend.
My point is twofold. First, “cancel culture” is not new. It’s just a new term for a very old phenomenon that has probably been around for many years, even centuries. Second, sometimes “canceling” is justified, as in the case of a well-known British historian (whose books and documentaries I love) who uttered racist words in public.
Was it justified in my case, that involving the ETS? Well, they were certainly within their rights to cancel me, but much of what the executive committee said about me, thinking it was “behind my back,” was untrue, so it was not justified.
*Footnote: One of the ETS executive committee members, the one next in line to be president of the Society, agreed to enter into a sustained email conversation with me about “biblical inerrancy.” The upshot is that we finally agreed that we agree about the nature of the Bible (given all of his qualifications about “inerrancy”). We only disagree about the value of the word “inerrancy” which I consider very misleading. After we agreed that our views of the Bible’s accuracy and authority were identical and that all we disagree about is the value of the word “inerrancy,” I asked him if I could join the ETS. He said no; a member must affirm belief in the Bible’s inerrancy. To me that proved that “inerrancy” is for many leading conservative evangelicals a shibboleth only. After that I send a copy of John Piper’s (a member of the ETS) definition of “inerrancy” as “perfection with respect to purpose” to Carl Henry, the “dean of evangelical theologians.” I removed Piper’s name from it and only told Henry that this was written by a candidate to teach New Testament at Bethel. That was true; Piper wrote it when he was interviewing at Bethel. His written statements was kept and given to me by a colleague who was on the committee that hired Piper who taught at Bethel for two or three years—before I arrived. Henry wrote back to me blasting Piper’s explanation of “inerrancy” as “well-intentioned” but “totally inadequate.” I still have that letter from Henry and Piper’s brief essay about inerrancy is on his web site. Again, that proved to me that among conservative evangelical theologians “inerrancy” is often only a shibboleth; even they cannot agree about what it means!