Thursday, May 03, 2018

The Era of the Gentle and Reverent Lie

This morning a new video appeared on YouTube.

To my surprise, it had arch-atheist Bill Maher in admiring conversation with Dr. Jordan Peterson, the pro-Christian conservative.

This is Bill Maher, who personally coined the insult “religulous” to describe all religions. But here he was, literally stumbling over himself to give a platform to someone who claims that understanding religion, and particularly Christianity, is vital to the survival and future well being of Western culture.

Amazing.

I remember hearing somewhere that when you find extreme opponents actually agreeing, you can be sure they’ve hit on something. Normally one would expect to find Maher and Peterson on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.

Not today. Today, they actually managed to make common cause on a single issue: free speech. You see, both both are strong advocates of the right of people to use language and to raise issues that other people find offensive. “Offense,” says Peterson, “is essential to thought; and giving up thought is not a good thing.” Maher concurs.

Sensitivity Gone Mad

So Maher is giving his definition of political correctness:
MAHER: “It’s the elevation of sensitivity over truth.”

PETERSON: “It’s more like the elevation of moral posturing about sensitivity over truth.”
Wow. That is powerful. What a concise description of the spirit of our age. We live in a world in which striking a public posture of sensitivity, showing oneself to be thinking about other people’s feelings, is considered far more virtuous than actually speaking what’s true. Public “niceness” and political correctness are considered more important than any set of facts.

We see it in all our public discourse: there are some things you just can’t say — not because they’re not true, but because they’re not considered “nice”.

What’s more, the “nice” people will get you if you ever dare to say those things. Suddenly, they will morph into defenders of the (allegedly) downtrodden: and when they do, they will have open license to censure, suppress, persecute and destroy the person who dared to cause the offence. They will act like inquisitors or witch-hunters, behaving themselves in the most wretchedly immoral ways, and all the while they will regard themselves as the most virtuous of warriors; for they will tell you that they fight in the pure cause of social justice for the “oppressed”.

Good thing that attitude’s not in the churches.

Except maybe it is.

Gentle; Be Gentle

We Christians often quote 1 Peter 3:15: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

We know that Christian speech should be gentle and reverent, therefore. And while Peter is speaking about conversation with unbelievers there, we don’t feel it’s unreasonable to extend this to conversations among Christians too. It fits well with “Be kind to one another” and keeping a style of speech that is gracious and “seasoned with salt”. So manner matters; and the Christian manner of speech ought to be soft, deferential and kind.

Fair enough. But is it always true?

The answer turns out to be a bit more complicated than we might think, because there are cases — as we pointed out in this recent post — in which the speech of prophets, apostles and, yes, the Lord himself was not gentle, not deferential, and not even subtle: it was blatantly insulting. And these incidents are far from few.

So before we make “gentleness and reverence” the condition for all Christian speech, perhaps we should ask if the word of God is telling us to use a degree of softness that exceeds all the examples in scripture itself. If we go by examples, would we not have to say there was a time for gentle speech, but also a time for bluntness … for directness … for the language of confrontation … and even for deliberate offensiveness?

Indeed we would. But how to know the difference?

Truth Hurts ...

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about truth. Christians are supposed to be supporters and speakers of truth. But truth, by its very nature, hurts. Truth tells us that where we are right now, the thing we are doing, the people we are being, are not right. It challenges our complacency. It demands of us action. It indicts our hypocrisy and slices up our cherished errors.

Truth is a very uncomfortable companion with which to live — for anyone, Christian or non-Christian. It will not suffer us to rest. It will not leave us as we are. It will demand we change. And that is what we call “repentance”: not a one-time decision to accept a particular kind of religious fact, but rather a continuous process of changing one’s mind out of its natural conformity to the world and into conformity with the wisdom of God.

Sometimes truth stands at the door and gently knocks; at other times, it just kicks down the door and comes in.

... But Not Us

Now, if Christians are supposed to stand for the truth, and truth is that which calls us to be better than we are by nature, how can that not be uncomfortable? How can it not cause offence to somebody?

And I’m starting to wonder if it’s not the case that we expect truth only to pinch unbelievers.

Long ago, we all had it drilled into us (by the previous generation) that truth will cause discomfort to those who do not yet know the Lord. The gospel will make people wince and flinch. Repentance is never easy, we were told. He who would be saved must face his sinfulness, despair of his works, and surrender himself to the death that brings life. Realizing all this hurts. Hurting people lash out. So abuse, rejection and persecution are things we should expect as a result.

We accepted that. The truth would demand that unbelievers must recognize themselves as sinners, as alienated from God, as incapable of being worthy of his love, and of being useless in their works. Of course that hurts. Of course that’s not nice. But it’s necessary in the way that a cancer surgeon’s scalpel is necessary — if we don’t use it, there will be no healing or hope.

But we didn’t expect truth to be painful any longer once people accept salvation. After that, we somehow assumed, truth is supposed to be a good bit more tame for us. We’re supposed to find it easy and comfortable to live with. It’s supposed to be on our side, because we are supposedly on its side.

As I say, we understand the necessity of conviction in the matter of salvation. But we just don’t expect truth to convict us, to pain us, or to cost us any price in the matter of regeneration. And maybe this accounts for our prejudice to the effect that truth is always supposed to be deliverable in some “gentle and reverent” way.

Feelings Above Facts

Because of this, when we have “sad feelings”, or even see someone else having “sad feelings” as a result of what somebody says, we assume that what they are saying must not be truth. Instead, it must be “unloving”, “unkind”, “insensitive”, or maybe even malevolent — but whatever, we know it must not be “Christian” if it pinches us.

We think there must always be a way to “speak the truth in niceness”. Niceness is painless and friendly, not incisive and demanding. And we equate niceness with love. So somebody who’s spoken a hard truth to us must be “unloving”, and this automatically makes him someone in need of repentance and reform. We intuit emotionally that he must not be speaking the truth, because truth is my friend and would never hurt me.

So we focus on nothing but the “hurtness”. We focus down on what we perceive to be a wrong “tone”, and we completely ignore the truth or falsehood value of the message thus delivered. “We’ll accept the truth,” we say, “but only if it comes in a package we like, a package we want to receive. Let all things be ‘gentle and reverent’ first: only afterward do you get to talk to us about truth.”

And if we don’t perceive you to be “gentle and reverent”, then your message is out. Because our feelings — everyone’s feelings — are the arbiter of what is worth hearing and what is not.

Tone Over Truth

Once we perceive a “hurt” has happened, then for us that is the end of the question of truth. No further evidence is required than that we perceive the message to be framed in some “unloving” way. Likewise, if there are no bad feelings, then the truth value of what has been said must be at least “okay”, at least permissible within the range of things that can be said by Christians.

Truth? What’s that got to do with it?

Of course, this means that the position of the truth-teller becomes quite unmanageable. He may speak, but only those things he can frame in such a way that nobody is offended. And as for falsehood? If he wants to question it, he must find a way to contest it without upsetting anyone who is associated with that falsehood. If anything he says triggers the false teacher or those who admire him, then they will all rise up in holy ire and unilaterally declare him “unchristian”.

Clearly, he’s not “loving”. He ought to repent.

But to “repent” on their terms means to concede as much error as the false teacher and his supporters wish him to concede; until the misinformed crowd and even false teacher himself are pacified, the issue is dead, and everybody is seen to be “loving” again.

Smothering Conviction

And that’s how the insipid political correctness of our present age has seeped into the local church. It’s come in the guise of “gentleness and reverence”, of laudable concern for humility and kindness in dealing with each other. But it’s also come in because smooth things are easier to hear than harsh things, and nobody likes criticism or conviction. Not unbelievers. And not Christians.

Our love of “gentleness and reverence” has become perverse and toxic. In being taken to the extreme, as being regarded as a hallmark for all truth-speaking, it has succeeded in making it very hard, or even impossible for truth-tellers to speak to us in anything other than muted, deferential and non-confrontational tones. Gone is the prophetic voice, the voice of the exhorter and reprover, or the voice of the apostle calling the church back to faithfulness. Gone too is the voice of the Lord himself, who tells the church to “wake up and strengthen the things that remain”, to do your “incomplete” deeds, and threatens that if you do not, “I will come upon you like a thief.”

I’m thinking that’s not a social visit.

Gutting the Gospel

A further point, though. This would really explain why we’re softening the gospel, too. If causing Christians offence is a sign of “unChristianness”, and is to us a signal that “truth” is not being done “in love”, then how can that principle fail to apply to the gospel as well?

How can we not start to feel bad when we ask a homosexual, an adulterer or just an ordinary gossip, say, to change his or her ways as a condition of being saved? Won’t that make us feel like we’re hurting their feelings? And aren’t hurt feelings the signal that we’ve lost the right spirit in which to speak the truth?

So now, in our day, we’ve got to figure out a way to deliver the gospel “kindly” as well; we shelve repentance and the moral dimension for a time, make the appeal to believe in Christ, and then, so long as it does not create many hurt feelings, we look to the Spirit of God to clean up the rest of the mess once the former unbeliever is “in the fold” already. And anybody who insists on repentance as a part of salvation is seen to be putting up a roadblock to salvation through his own manner and callousness.

A Caution on the Other Side

Or course, there’s a tiny grain of truth here. (There always is, when error creeps in.)

Some people CAN be callous and tactless when sharing the gospel or speaking the truth to other believers. We’ve all met such, and cringed. But it’s such a thin wall that stands between speaking truth with gentleness and reverence, on the one hand, and soft-peddling the message in order to avoid offence of any kind on the other. There is an error in being too abrupt in manner when it’s unnecessary, and this is what the “gentleness and reverence” qualification was designed to address. But the error on the other side is far worse: and the first part of that same verse was designed to remind us never to make it.

Sometimes the truth can be spun softly. But equally often, to do so is simply to gut it. It is to take away from it the essential offensiveness that compels a hearer to make a choice. That choice may be as stark as God or self, as repentance or sin, as a continued path of wickedness and folly or a new course of righteousness and wisdom, as life or death, as heaven or hell. And nothing, but nothing, should ever soften the message when it's about such things.

The searing moment when one actually has to choose, when there’s no softness and no compromise, those are actually the essential moments of the Christian faith.

Why is it that today we face so few?

Message Matters Most

Can we escape the poisonous compromise with the political correctness of our age? Can we spring out of the sticky web of chronic “niceness” that threatens to suffocate the convicting voice of truth, and even to choke off the gospel?

I think we can. And doing it means reversing the error in our thinking, by which we have prioritized “niceness” over truth. The truth is that things are the other way around: “gentleness and reverence” are only ever good if the truth is still being clearly delivered. And if it is not, then offensiveness, even gross offensiveness, is actually better than “niceness”.

Manner matters: but the message matters more.

Therefore, the decisive issue is this: is what was said REALLY the truth?

If it was, then even if it was ham-handedly delivered, it was true: the truth can be moderated, but it cannot be denied.

If it was not REALLY the truth, then no matter how gently and reverently it came across, it was simply a gentle, reverently-worded falsehood. A lie.

Tipping Point

Let’s put it another way: if manner is to be contested, it can only be as a second-level point. The first-level point is always truthfulness.

That is, politeness can only even be a concern if the first condition has already been met: that the truth is being spoken.

In fact, you can actually see this in the verse people are quoting when they pitch for us to stay “gentle and reverent”. The emphasis is on truth: “with gentleness and reverence” is a conditional phrase that only matters if the full truth is still being delivered. If it’s not, there is absolutely no goodness in “gentleness and reverence”: for then the “gentleness and reverence” merely serve to adorn a lie.

Conclusion

We live in the era of the gentle and reverent lie.

People’s feelings, political correctness, softness of manner, avoidance of confrontation — in short, a marked preference for style over content have taken hold of our age, both in the church and out.

Truth has been shuffled out the parking lot, where she still cries out. Her manner is sometimes quite abrupt and offensive; but she means for you nothing but good.

I wonder if anyone is still listening.

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