For the Bride: Special Report (2)

Like many of you, I am following as carefully as I can the situation currently existing between Dr. David Gushee and notable colleagues within and beyond the Southern Baptist Convention.  I am doing this, in part, because it is good to learn from a situation outside your immediate context.  And I am doing it because Dr. Gushee is bearing witness to his change of view regarding LGBT matters as an academician–a role and a vantage point I share with him after more than thirty years in graduate theological education.  So, I find what is unfolding beneficial and fascinating–and also personally painful.

Let me be clear, as Dr. Gushee is asking for us to be, the best thing we can do is to get his book and read it–regardless of whether we agree or disagree with him.  Many of his critics have not done this, even as some of mine have likewise failed to do.  In some ways, this is the crucial point, given we are only several days into the controversy that his change of views has produced.  At the end of this article, I provide a link to Dr. Gushee’s book, and I have already downloaded it and am reading it.

But in advance of what should be (on the part of all of us) a more mature and reasoned response to him, there are some telling things which need to be exposed so that he can be treated fairly by friends and foes alike.  Here are two ways he is already being caricatured, and we at least need to see the tactics for what they are.

First, it is a typical process to create an immediate “doomsday” scenario, in which our critics try to convince the masses that “the sky is falling,” and nothing short of swift and severe denouncement will prevent utter chaos.  But when placed in the context of academics, this is an odd thing to do–given that we academicians pride ourselves in being both willing and able to engage in reasonable conversations on virtually every topic under the sun.

Ah, but not so now!  Rather, critics would have us believe that “the end is near.”  But doing this does not speak for the credibility of the critics.  Rather it exposes what is actually going on:  someone has made hamburger meat out of someone else’s sacred cow.  And when that happens, one way to throw the matter off course early on is to “crisis-fy” it with the most emotional rhetoric possible.  And, this tactic almost always includes the critical group’s allegation that if you side with them, you will be siding with Truth.  The sky-is-falling approach almost always includes the assertion that there are folks who can keep it from doing so, and if you join them, there is still time to save the world.  They can do it.

This, however, does not produce a reasonable response, but rather exposes the motive which is driving the criticism.  Turning something into a blur is not an unusual response from those who do not want the larger public to be able to see the actual points.  And making something or someone a tragic crisis misleads others into thinking there exists somewhere a person or group who can guru the rest of us through the mess.

I experienced this while riding the bullet train in Japan.  We shot through villages that were not a scheduled stop.  All I could say was, “Thank God, no one is on the tracks!  They would have been wiped out.”  Villages and villagers were largely unseen as we sped on toward the destination.  And in a similar way that is what happens when we turn a moment into a doomsday scenario.  The speeding train’s agenda overshadowed everything else.  All we could do was ride it out.  But in doing so, we missed a lot.

Similarly, when there are matters about which we seriously disagree, we may not be able to stop the madness, but at least we should remain capable of naming it for what it is.

Second, Dr. Gushee’s critics are saying in effect, “We have viewed him for some time as drifting away from the truth.”   On the surface,  it makes the critics look like keen observers who are amazingly brilliant–that is, to have seen him going down “the slippery slope” for some time–whether he actually was or not.  Folks do not know what to do with those who allege that it is possible to hold an orthodox faith while having social views that are not held by others who are orthodox.  So, one way critics try to put themselves in a superior light is to claim they have seen this coming for some time now–that the person in question has been suspect for quite some time.

But rather than illustrating the critics’ brilliance, it only exposes their hypocrisy.  That is, their willingness to make it appear that they held their friend and colleague in esteem, when they actually did not do so.  And that’s what hypocrisy essentially is–presenting a “face” that is not the real one.  It leaves the larger audience and the person himself unaware of actual thoughts and feelings.  To suddenly, say “we have had doubts about Dr. Gushee for some time now” is only to expose a person or group’s willingness to talk about a person rather than with him.  It reveals the willingness of a group to talk about another person behind their back rather than to their face.  It is a day late and a dollar short.

I was privileged in 1995 to be one of the speakers (along with Gordon MacDonald and Bill Hinson) for the first Minister’s Conference at the new Truett seminary on the campus of Baylor University.  As you may recall, the establishment of the seminary was in part due to a feeling among some Baptists that other seminaries had given way to a fundamentalist mindset in terms of governance and education.  And like what is happening to Dr. Gushee right now, there were critics using the tactic that the President and Faculty at Truett were those who “had not really been true Baptists for some time now.”

But spending nearly a week with many of them clearly showed the error in judgment, and left the reason for it flapping in the wind.  The fact was, the President and the Faculty (at least those I met) were clearly orthodox and they were deeply devoted to substantive theological education.  They just had not sold their souls to the company store.  They had offended the “power brokers,” which is, of course, the institutional unpardonable sin.

But alleging that folks “have not been one of us for some time now,” is one of the things critics do when they have no intellectual grounds (or related will) to engage controversial situations in truly academic ways.  But it does show those criticized how fragile their relationships were over what may have been a long period of time.  It does reveal that they were always closer to the edge than they realized, only being one failure away from being ostracized.  It exposes a non-academic way of dealing with things, when to do otherwise would be to acknowledge (to whatever degree) that the alleged defector has made some points worth considering.  But forums, which might have edified everyone, are never held.

As I bring this update to a close, let me be clear:  these tactics are used by all of us when something throws our world off course–when somebody moves our cheese.  The point is not to say that only conservatives do this to progressives.  We do it back-and-forth when we feel out of control–out of control.

The point of this post is to lament the sins we commit toward one another, and to call them out rather than allow them to further skew what’s happening.  Dr. Gushee is not the creator of a doomsday scenario.  And he is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Rather, he is a devoted Christ follower and respected scholar who (as his book itself shows) has been giving all this long and deep consideration.  He deserves better than the immediate and severe caricaturing he is receiving.  So too do all those who change views without abandoning faith.  Those who caricature others in these ways cannot excuse themselves under robes of alleged self-righteousness.  That’s now how it works in the academy.  That’s not how it should work in the Church.


You can secure a copy of Dr. Gushee’s book, Changing Our Minds, in either paperback or ebook formats here:


About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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