Rick Pidcock takes a stab at summarizing a holiday weekend brouhaha in which the one-time gatekeepers of white evangelicalism tried to limn the bounds of their shrinking fiefdom: “BNG column sparks Thanksgiving Twitter war of words between complementarians and two female scholars.”
The Baptist News column in question was written by Dave Gushee.* His “The deconstruction of American evangelicalism” favorably summarizes some of the recent arguments put forward by folks like Kristin Du Mez, Beth Allison Barr, Jemar Tisby, Robert Long, Anthea Butler, Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry, and Jacob Alan Cook about the ways in which the “biblical orthodoxy” of white American evangelicalism is essentially shaped by white American culture. (Gushee could have added recent books by folks like Willie James Jennings to his list, but I think he was trying to stick to works written from within evangelicalism.)
Gushee’s short column is not a review essay, simply an acknowledgement that each of these books is, on its own, compelling, and that the cumulative effect of all of them is formidable. Reading such books, Gushee says, supports the conclusion that this all-American creation labeled evangelical Christianity “turns out to have been at a theological level little more than a rebranding of fundamentalism by a certain group of mid-20th century white men, although at a cultural level these men succeeded perhaps beyond their wildest dreams in creating a religious identity and even a subculture that has stayed with us now for eight decades.”
Pidcock’s follow-up does a good job of capturing the enraged backlash Gushee’s column provoked. That backlash, oddly, wasn’t directed at Gushee himself — someone the gatekeepers of patriarchal white evangelicalism have already anathematized in their little world, but mostly it was directed toward “two female scholars.” Why was the focus put mainly on them?
Because they’re women. That’s how these guys do. When a woman stands up, they tell her to sit back down.
This is, to their great distress, not as effective as it used to be. One amusing aspect of their attempted Twitter pile-on was the way it recalled previous failed efforts by these same men to silence Rachel Held Evans. Their former levers of power — “LifeWay will no longer carry your books!” — don’t seem as consequential now that LifeWay’s stores have closed and books by defiantly uppity Christian women like Du Mez, Barr, Beth Moore, and Rachel (still) are outselling their own books on Amazon.
The bungled social media pile-on also focused on those “two female scholars” because the gatekeepers, reluctant to admit the meager size of the realm within their gates, were hoping to get Du Mez and Barr fired. That was the particularly nasty flailing bit of their Debate-Meeeee!-boi attacks, the hope that tying them to Dave Gushee — and therefore to Dave Gushee’s advocacy of marriage equality — they would stand exposed, by the transitive property of something or other, as anti-anti-gay and therefore unemployable by white evangelical institutions.
If this sounds like I’m accusing them of sleazy, bad-faith, scorched-earth hackwork, then you’re reading it correctly, because that’s what they’re doing and everyone knows it.
That’s the problem with most attempts to engage this stuff with the civility and charity Pidcock hopes to bring to the table. People like Denny Burk feed on that and weaponize it. There are only so many times one can attempt a good-faith response to weaponized bad faith before the only good-faith response remaining is to flip ’em off. The most charitable, accurate, just, and civil response to someone like Burk or the “Council on Biblical Manhood” is to roll your eyes while maybe pantomiming a wanking motion. Anything more “substantial” turns out to be an exercise in imputing substance where none exists.
That’s what leads Pidcock astray here in his attempt to summarize the focus of this disagreement:
While the Christian scholars Gushee cited in his Baptist News Global piece focus on different specialties, they all seem to agree that much of what conservative evangelicals assume to be clearly biblical is actually formed by a subculture of power.
Conservative evangelicals, however, believe their theologies are based on the clear teachings of Scripture. …
So despite their differences “on all of it,” what complementarians and egalitarians seem to agree on is that the other side is being theologically formed by culture rather than by orthodoxy or the Bible.
No. Almost, but no. The so-called “complementarians” believe that “the other side” (i.e., everyone other than them) “is being theologically formed by culture rather than by orthodoxy or the Bible.” The historians, theologians, and social scientists Gushee cites believe that every theology is, at least in part, “formed by culture rather than by orthodoxy or the Bible.” Including their own.
White fundies have always sought to frame every disagreement as a dispute over the authority or inerrancy of the Bible. And what they have always, always, always meant by that is their own authority as the sole inerrant interpreters of the Bible. Look at anyone defending what they describe as a “high view of scripture,” and you’ll see a person who has an impossibly high view of their self. They are convinced that they — and they alone — have access to the unfiltered, perspicuous, infallible Word of God. This untainted access is unavailable to, or perversely rejected by, “the other side.”
That is the only way to make sense of what they mean by “orthodoxy and the Bible.”
In starker terms, the gatekeepers and “complementarians” are affirming what Gushee and the authors he commends argue, that white patriarchal American evangelicalism is “formed by culture.” But they’re arguing that, in this exceptional case, that’s a good thing, because white patriarchal American evangelical culture, they believe, is the one culture uniquely capable of properly interpreting the Bible and representing orthodoxy without introducing any of the cultural distortions that will inevitably be introduced by, you know, women, foreigners, or non-white Americans.
That’s the claim they’ve been making since 1611/1619 and — hilariously — that’s the claim they’re sticking with after 2016 and 2020 and Jan. 6. It’s the only response they’re able to muster to the powerful flood-tide of history and facts marshaled in books like The Color of Compromise and Jesus and John Wayne and White Evangelical Racism and The Making of Biblical Womanhood and White Too Long and Taking America Back for God and Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of Evangelical Faith, and After Evangelicalism and The Christian Imagination.
Then again, I suppose it was also the only response they were able to offer when faced with the powerful rebuttals to their claims made by books like Galatians, Isaiah, Ruth, Amos, Romans, Jonah, and Acts. So.
* In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Dave is an old friend and former colleague of mine. And therefore I should take a moment here to congratulate him on the recent World Series victory by his beloved Atlanta Braves. And I should try to do so genuinely and generously without adding any back-handed comments wishing the reigning champs the best of luck next season facing DeGrom and Max Scherzer in Queens.