A friend said something about Denny Burk’s “review” of my book that really resonated with me. I’m trying to have a conversation about discipleship in the church. In my book, I ask church officers to lead discussions as I look through Scripture, identify the struggles of men and women in the church, and explore within the bounds of our confessions. Burk dismisses all of this and wants to tell us all what to think: what to think about me, what to think about my book, and what to think about biblical manhood and womanhood.
He turns me into the Repugnant Cultural Other by using scare words from his tribe, poisoning the well by suggesting to his readers that I am a closet egalitarian feminist who is trying to lead a whole generation away from “biblical” manhood and womanhood. He completely misrepresents my writing in this, suggesting that I am part of the problem they are trying to save others from with their blessed Nashville Statement, saying that I commend “’marriage-like’ same sex friendships,” and suggesting I am pro-LGBT.
I still can’t wrap my head around how this can pass as an academic review in Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and be posted on SBTS’s website.
It all reminded me of Alan Jacobs’ helpful book How to Think. I wrote about the book some when it first came out and went back to look at it:
Jacobs spends a lot of time building on C.S. Lewis’ teaching about the Inner Ring, or “‘moral matrix’ that becomes for a given person the narrative according to which everything and everyone else is judged,” reasoning that if we are so caught up in our own Inner Rings, we begin to look at outsiders to our Ring as Repugnant Cultural Others (55). Jacobs calls these Inner Ring zealots “true believers.” This kind of tribalism really doesn’t sharpen our thinking or properly love our neighbors. When this happens, we are not truly being loyal to our group or our belief systems that we hold dear because we bind one another to strict orthodoxy of the Inner Ring rather than to the truth and rather than freedom to learn more, love well, and be sharpened. Inner Ring tribalism also produces pretenders who never really grasp the truths we hold dear. Finding common ground with those who hold different convictions than us, even politically or religiously, does not necessarily weaken our own convictions. If they are in truth, they will be strengthened as we are stretched in our thinking.
Christians are a confessing community. We hold to our creeds, explaining what Scripture teaches on first order doctrines. We have this standard for orthodoxy. Our denominations hold to different confessions within this orthodoxy, from which we can worship together, be discipled, and speak from in more detail about what we confess. Christians are also a loving community—it’s our greatest commandment! We are to love our God and love one another. It is how we are to be known!
So how has this all flipped upside down, where Burk can downplay our creeds and CBMW’s teaching an unorthodox position on Eternal Subordination of the Son, all the while making me a Repugnant Cultural Other? How have we moved from leadership in helping others to think within the bounds of our confessions to telling them what to think?
How can we be healthier in our affiliations with one another? How can we have loving hearts and healthy minds? There are many Inner Rings in the Christian evangelical subculture. I know I have participated in Inner Ringmanship to my own regret. We also see polarizing Inner Rings with political affiliations, race, diets, social issues, and education. Social media is a handy Inner Ring facilitator. One of the toughest exercises in self-examination is to “distinguish between ‘genuine solidarity’ and participation in an Inner Ring” (63). It’s the difference between true community and false belonging.
This was all going through my mind when I stumbled upon Jacobs’ use of the term “mental purity”:
You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup. If you quote some unapproved figure, or have the “wrong” website open on your browser, and someone turns up his nose and says, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap”—generally, not a good sign…The true believer is always concerned, both on her behalf and on that of the other members of her ingroup, for mental purity. (138)
Mental purity sounds like a really good thing, doesn’t it? But we have another term for this, which exposes the negative effects: living in a bubble. It’s funny that Jesus didn’t separate the church from the rest of the world after his resurrection so that we wouldn’t be so exposed to corrupting ideas and teaching. It’s funny how he has made many unbelievers smarter and more gifted than his people, so that we will benefit from, learn from, and serve with them. It’s funny how the church has never had mental purity. But we do have Christ, who is both good and omniscient. And we have his word, which is living and active. God calls his people to discernment, which requires critical thinking, not to mental purity.
Even so, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just have to say, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap!” Sometimes crap is just crap. There are many books out there that will not engage us to be good thinkers and may actually make us dumber after having read them. You can’t engage much with fluff. And when it comes to something like 50 Shades of Grey, for example, we really don’t have any business reading it. It’s not only junk, and really bad writing, but it easily leads to sinful thoughts and actions. Also, we are told “not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person” (1 Cor. 5:11). That’s a pretty clear line for us—those living in immorality are breaking the greatest commandment that we confess. They are not loving God or others. That matters.
Discernment knows that there is such a thing as a junk pile. But this isn’t what Jacobs is talking about. He’s addressing this sense of tribalism that puts all outsider views in the junk pile and refuses to read those we even strongly disagree with for critical thinking. (I should also note, because I come across this quite often, absorbing everything you read is not critical thinking.)
This all makes me want to think more about true community and false belonging. Adding extra burdens onto our confessions and making them weightier than our own creeds does not make a true community. Telling people what to think instead of helping them learn how to think does not foster a true community. And calling it biblical does not make it so.