Welcome back! We’ve been talking about Preston Sprinkle’s apologetics book People to Be Loved. Last time we talked about three foundational deceptions that lay in the pages of the book, and the time before that a supremely deceptive coffee-date that the author thinks is the best way possible to answer questions about his bigotry.
That’s quite a lot of deception both in and out of one person, but it’s really more out of his tribe rather than himself; he’s not advocating much that is really very different than what they as a group are coming to believe. But he thinks he’s presenting something very innovative and different, and today we’re going to talk about why–and what about the book really is scandalous.
Scandalous Something, All Right.
One of his central ideas is the phrase “scandalous grace.” I’ve mentioned it off and on since we began talking about this book, and today I want to zero in on it.
Contradictions get people’s attention, and nobody knows that better than religious people do.
Music lovers already know the power of contradictions. The dynamic of quiet verses and a loud chorus is sometimes called “loud-quiet-loud,” the latter of which ended up being used as the name for a documentary about a particular band, the Pixies, who love that effect. This dynamic builds up tension with quiet, understated sounds, then releases that tension when the loudness abruptly goes up to 11. We hear the quiet part and we are lulled, and then the loud part gets us excited.
Combine that dynamic with repetition, which one sees often in music generally and even moreso in Christian music (which can be a point of pride for Christian musicians and music ministers alike), and listeners can be induced into an agreeable, attentive frame of mind very quickly.
Well, words seem to work that same magic.
Modern Christians do seem to love their oxymorons, as well. When I was a Christian myself, we exulted in being freed because we were “slaves to Christ,” and we felt sorry for people who were “slaves to their freedom” because their “wisdom had made them foolish.” I talked about these a while ago as thought-terminating clichés. These phrases and many others are meant to soothe Christians who are experiencing the stress of cognitive dissonance–that peculiar discomfort one feels when reality bumps up against one’s self-deceptions. They are also intended to shut down questions and curiosity.
I see the same thing happening with some of the language that Christians use today, as in the term “scandalous grace.” Christianese takes advantage of all of these lulling techniques to get believers into a headspace that makes belief seem more reasonable. (I bet anybody who’s ever been involved in a cult or religion that really makes a big deal out of chanting–*cough*Blanche*cough*–would also know exactly what I’m talking about.)
Oxymorons R Us.
It seems like most religions make use of oxymorons to put people into the right frame of mind to buy into nonsense. And there isn’t much that’s more confusing than a nice, neat oxymoron.
Here’s a paper by a Professor Emeritus about exactly that idea, showing that one can find oxymorons in Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and many other religions besides. The author of the essay concludes, for no reason that I can detect beyond his personal inclination in that direction, that Christianity “is the most oxymoronic of all religions” because of its focus on Jesus as “truly God and truly man.” He goes on to conclude that oxymorons help Christians make sense out of what really doesn’t make any sense at all “to find what we do not seek.”
Wow, man, that’s, like, deeeeeeeeep.
When I read this essay, what sprang out at me the most was that this sure was a lot of effort to explain why his religion’s supernatural claims don’t appear to touch on reality at all–and to try to make his religion sound like the super-duper-special-est of all religions–when there isn’t any reason otherwise to suspect that either idea is true.
Oxymorons are one of the many ways that Christians have evolved of dodging the burden of proof. It isn’t hard to see their leaders delighting in such wordplay–like this pastor does, declaring “it is precisely this mystery we are drawn to — and what could shape the heart of a new apologetic method.” (Yes, because that’s exactly what the world needs.) At least he’s honest about using oxymorons to escape the dreary trouble of not having a single bit of evidence for his claims: “While important, reason alone eliminates the mysterious, the transcendent, the paradoxical, and often the aesthetic. It leaves little room for a God beyond our five senses.” This tactic is also sometimes called “the best defense is a good offense.” When someone declares that objective, credible evidence is a bad thing that nobody should ever need, hang onto your wallet and your small children.
As our dear friend The Apostate has pointed out, these oxymorons are largely lost on Christian rank-and-file adherents anyway. All the fatuous ivory-tower reasoning of all these scholars is simply their own mental masturbation; what the masses want–and receive, increasingly–are talking points and catchphrases that are easy to remember that they can parrot upon demand. They want stuff that makes sense out of what reason tells them doesn’t make any sense. It simply doesn’t do to think too hard about the pablum they’re being fed.
But that doesn’t stop them or their leaders from trying to come up with new and innovative ways to sell and explain their religion’s old, tired ideas.
“Scandalous grace” is one such attempt to sell plain old Christian bigotry. It catches the attention with the spicy word “scandalous” and then–once the Christian’s pearls are well-clutched–jumps up with the soothing Christianese word “grace,” which means whatever someone wants it to mean. It probably sounds very daring to the sort of Christians who get peevish about cussing in blog posts. It’s not just grace they offer: it’s scandalous grace, doncha know.
We’re not meant to ask what on earth that even looks like in lived reality, or how it is different from any other kind of grace peddled by Christians, or what “grace” means in the first place in this context.
The Old and the New.
Dr. Sprinkle spends most of his book examining the Bible for information about same-sex relationships (he is aiming this book at his particular tribe of Christians, which is to say people who already condemn LGBTQ people). As part of his study, he explains how fundagelicals decide which Old Testament rules are still binding and which are not, which was actually pretty useful to me. It turns out that anything involving “the Law’s condemnation,” sacrifices, and “pharasaic misinterpretation of the Law” are right out the door, while everything else is still binding and that, alas and alack, includes all the sex stuff (p. 73).
I’d often thought that there’s a certain arbitrary quality to exactly which Old Testament rules Christians follow and which ones they reject, and Dr. Sprinkle doesn’t change my mind about that impression. Apparently all those hundreds of rules in the Old Testament about mixed-fiber clothing, slavery, farming, kosher eating, and keeping the Sabbath are nothing but a “pharasaic misinterpretation of the law” that Jesus “corrected (or improved upon).” (Or maybe they’re about the Law’s condemnation? I was unable to tell. I’m pretty sure they’re not about animal sacrifice, though.) But Dr. Sprinkle is convinced that when these corrections/improvements occur, Jesus “always makes this clear.”
Isn’t it just wacky that it takes this level of scholarship to figure out which ones are which, though? That seems like a breathtakingly careless way for a deity to communicate something of such great importance to his followers. And isn’t it odd that Jews themselves, who know a thing or two about the source material and the religion built upon it, don’t appear to think that the Pharisees were all that bad or that Christians are actually bound by Jewish rules?
So the morality of Jesus certainly does not extend to every single rule. It only applies to certain things, and those things just so happen to be exactly and precisely what Preston Sprinkle’s tribe already happens to think they are.
So What the Hell Is “Scandalous Grace”?
Preston Sprinkle sees Jesus as a “scandalous” character who had scandalous encounters with the scandalous people of his day who were as reviled by the Jews as LGBTQ people are by Christians nowadays. To his credit, he repeatedly tries to stress that he’s not saying that LGBTQ people are exactly like tax collectors, only that the people of Jesus’ day treated tax collectors very similarly to how Christians of our day treat LGBTQ people, which I can actually agree with to an extent.
In his hands, Jesus turns into a preacher who defied expectations by being compassionate toward people who were not treated well by the members of his own religion, responding to them “not with a sword but with grace” (p. 75) and “lead[ing] with love–love without footnotes” (p. 76). And this version of Jesus doesn’t demand people change their sinful ways before he’ll associate with them. Again, that sounds about right.
Ah, but that fundagelical need to assert dominance has its wicked way with Dr. Sprinkle before he gets even two pages into this radical description of love and acceptance:
I think at some point, in the context of a relationship and love, Jesus probably said to Matthew, “So, about this whole tax-collecting gig…” . . . Jesus desires obedience, but to get that obedience he fronts love.
And one may rest assured that at some point, “in the context of a relationship and love,” that an LGBTQ person would see their brand-new Christian pals sorrowfully say “So, about your sex life…”
Yep, it’s the return of the Attack of the Mini-Jesuses!
This perception that Christians have that they have the exact same authority, duties, and magical abilities that their Savior does brings us to quite a lot of grief with them as a group. Even if they have to flat-out make stuff up about their supposedly authoritative Bible, as Dr. Sprinkle does here, they will happily do it if such presumption helps bolster their case.
His central takeaway is that obedience is still super-duper-important to his version of Jesus, but to get that obedience they want out of others, Christians must behave in a more loving way. They have to express their demands “in the context of a relationship and love.”
And then surely these ultra-loving Christians will get what they want, because “Jesus” will shine so brightly from them that this love will make their newfound “relationship” friends want to comply.
That truly, seriously, is what he thinks.
To him, the whole problem is how his tribe has communicated its culture war. He thinks if they only word it better, then they’ll surely draw in tons of people and those people will totally want to fit in with right-wing Christianity’s “traditional sexual ethic,” as he phrases it. He explicitly says (p. 82) that when both LGBTQ people and straight people alike walk away from churches,
. . . it’s usually not because of the church’s nonaffirming view of same-sex behavior, but their nonaffirming posture toward gay and lesbian people. It’s not too much truth but too little love that’s driving gay and straight people away from the bride of Christ.
He just can’t let go of that need to control. (And it’s odd that people who are totally steeped in the truth would be anything but totally loving.)
Repentance doesn’t lead to God’s kindness. It’s God’s kindness that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). In the same way, nonaffirming Christians should flood LGBT people with kindness, and such kindness will lead to repentance. But if it doesn’t, the kindness doesn’t stop. . . And [God] doesn’t shut up the skies when the unjust don’t repent. He keeps refreshing them with scandalous rain [until the Christian decides that’s jolly well enough “scandalous” niceness and has to express his sorrowful disapproval — CC].
Eventually, eventually, eventually, it all comes back to “I love you. Now change.”
It always has.
Business As Usual.
And after a couple hundred pages, what exactly are we left with about this “scandalous grace” that so impressed this learned Christian leader? What is the totally new message he dresses up in this new oxymoron?
1. The culture war is totally correct in basis. Same-sex relationships are sinful. Jesus gets mad. That’s all settled. Except for all the Christians who don’t think so. They’re just wrong.
2. Right-wing Christians need to be a lot nicer and a lot less direct about communicating their disapproval of same-sex relationships. They still need to disapprove of them, however.
3. If you’re super-nice to people, they’ll want to change without you having to say they must, except when they don’t. Being totally loving will stem the tide of people abandoning Christianity. But eventually if sinners want to keep going to your church, you’re gonna hafta enforce a “traditional sexual ethic” and, as one Christian in the book puts it, “1-Corinthians-5” that sinner by tossing them out on their ear. Otherwise you’re totally sinning by condoning sin. (And that’d be totally sad. And remember, this applies to straight people too, except we both know that fundagelicals are not about to start throwing out divorced people, adulterers, liars, or stingy, uncharitable misers.)
4. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Just do it over coffee over a period of weeks. That makes it okay. Sinners just love coffee. And wasting weeks of their time.
5. Reparative therapy does too work. Lookit all these ex-gay Christians!
How exactly is this mess “scandalous” in any way, shape, or form? Aside from a few very slight cosmetic improvements to the fundagelical culture war, how is this different in the slightest from the rhetoric they’ve put forth over the last few decades? How is this anything at all but business as usual? How is this supposed to improve anything?
It’s not at all, it isn’t in the least, it’s not, and it won’t.
The only scandalous thing about this book is that so many Christians appear to think it’s something new and different.
Its author thinks he’s got this brand-new idea, but really all he’s doing is selling the same old bigotry that his tribe has always endorsed.
I suppose I shouldn’t be upset with Dr. Sprinkle for thinking that retooling what he views as “a posture problem” will fix everything. Anti-gay Christian bigots-for-Jesus are doing more to destroy the religion from the inside than anything outsiders could ever do. He already knows that. He just doesn’t realize yet that it’s going to take a little more than a change of curtains to flip his tribe’s old house.
I’ll give y’all a hint: the real solution won’t look a single thing like he’s putting forth here.
* I did eventually suss out what Lesli’s story was (p. 83-4). She was assigned the sex “female” at birth, but at a young age transitioned to male with, apparently, the support of her parents. She left Christianity for a while but “came back to Christ” in adulthood and has now returned to her birth gender again, having detransitioned, and “ministers to teens wrestling with their gender identity” and, presumably, not answering their direct questions either. The author had this info buried in the section about what this-and-that Greek word “really” means, so I kinda had glossed over that part and didn’t see the explanation. Well, I reckon it’s nice to get that question cleared up. I really should have guessed that he wouldn’t be so admiring of someone who remained transitioned.