Monday, May 11, 2015

Why I'm Embarrassed on Behalf of Keith Anderson and Tony Jones

Rarely does misdirected bloviation rise to such amazing heights as two recent posts by Keith Anderson and Tony Jones (update: Tony deletes and bans comments on his blog if they offer any kind of substantive disagreement or critique. Although the host of Keith's post, Elizabeth Drescher, does not delete comments, she did instruct Keith not to reply to critical comments. So much for dialogue these days).

Both bloggers appear to be riding the coattails of Rachel Held Evans, whose recent book and Washington Post articles captured plenty of deserved attention. Although surfing the wave created by others is not an untypical bloggish activity, something else is notable.

Unfortunately, both men seem completely unaware of their gross gender-bias. Tony Jones engages the classic trope, saying that Evans "plays the scold." Keith Anderson's approach, though a bit more subtle, is typical "mansplaining," a man (Keith) explaining to a woman (Rachel) what she really "means."

Let me summarize each post.

Keith: "RHE just published this book, but I don't really want to talk about the book. Instead, I want to talk about the Washington Post article she wrote. Except I'm not really interested in the Post article either, really I want to explain to all of you that Rachel's point, as nice as it is, will be misunderstood by some white male mainline Protestant pastors, and they will post some status updates on Facebook celebrating the fact that Millennials are now coming 'back' to the mainline. Oh, and by the way, mainline Protestant worship is boring, domesticated, and safe (with the exception of a few Emergent churches I've visited, which are kind of cool). But really the focus shouldn't be on worship, it should be on breaking ourselves open to be missional. I mean, it's kind of sweet that Rachel is interested in our stuff, but our stuff is pretty much crap, and people are already living sacramental lives of deep complexity out in the world. But I don't have time in this post to actually explain what sacramental richness is out in the world, because I'm too busy scolding my mainline Protestant colleagues for being uber-earnest, over-articulating presiders at bad liturgies that aren't emergent enough and then posting stuff about it online. So read my blog instead, and maybe my book, about the digital cathedral."

So friend Tony chimes in a couple of days later with his own post: "Yeah, what Keith said. Rachel did just publish a book, but really the first person to write about this stuff was way back in 1985 and his name is Robert Webber. And me, I was there too, everybody, look at me! [Now, please watch me ignore the fact that RHE is writing a poignant first-person account of her journey to sacramental liturgy] But the thing is, mainline Protestants have a big problem because they don't know what the gospel is. So if all these mainliners get the wrong message from Rachel [notice I don't actually know that much about what Rachel's message really is, and I take no time to actually attend to it], that will be a big problem, everybody! So read my blog instead, and maybe my book about the gospel."

In the meantime, I don't really know why Keith and Tony write this kind of stuff. I wonder if they assume mainline Protestants have such low self-esteem that when they get slapped around like this: You don't know the gospel! Your worship is trivial and boring and you pay too much attention to it! they just lay down and scream, More, more, yes, please, hit me again, I like it! You are so right!

And I really wonder who all these straw people are out there who are chilling out the rest of the week in their parish, confident that all these evangelicals are going to just pour into mainline churches, because, as Tony writes, "Evangelicals make great mainliners."

I certainly don't know any clergy who are doing that. I don't know anybody whose doing that, actually. Quite the opposite, the majority of clergy I know are slugging away at parish ministry, and continue to be worried by what they are told is "mainline decline." So why put up the straw man to tear down?

Unless, of course, you like to get a lot of attention from folks who like to be told how bad they really are.

In the meantime, the book RHE wrote, which many mainline Protestants I know are reading and loving, gets very little if any actual attention. I don't know whether or not Keith or Tony have read the book, but you certainly can't tell from their posts.

If they had read it, they would know that RHE is a brilliant observer, and has already intuited their concern before they ever bloviated about it:
"I'm often asked to speak to church leaders about why young adults are leaving the church. One could write volumes around that question, and indeed, many have. I can't speak exhaustively about the social and historical currents that shape American religious life or about the forces that draw so many of my peers away from faith altogether. The issues that haunt American evangelicalism are different than those that haunt mainline Protestants, which are different than those that affect Catholic and Episcopal parishes, which are different than those influencing Christianity in the parts of the world where it is actually flourishing--namely, the global South and East. But I can tell my own story, which studies suggest is an increasingly common one. I can talk about growing up evangelical, about doubting everything I believed about God, about loving, leaving, and long for church, about searching for it and finding it in unexpected places. And I can share the stories of my friends and readers, people young and old whose comments, letters, and e-mails read like postcards from their own spiritual journeys, dispatches from America's post-Christian frontier. I can't provide the solutions church leaders are looking for, but I can articulate the questions that many in my generation are asking I can translate some of their angst, some of their hope."
That's what both Keith and Tony miss. Rachel is telling her own story, and the story of the many she has been listening to. In the meantime, Keith and Tony are pontificating about generalizations, and generalizations that apply to a very, very narrow subset of Christians, if in fact they apply to anyone at all.

The thing is, Rachel just has a bigger vision. She's both very willing to share from her own perspective and acknowledge it, and she listens widely to those who speak to her.

Keith and Tony completely miss this, and are the poorer for it.

I'm embarrassed for them, but there's still hope. Both of them could have a do-over. In fact, I'll assign them the do-over, and see if they'll give it a try. Here it is:

1) Read Rachel's book from cover to cover, slowly, twice.
2) Write a humble and generous review of it. Pay close attention to what RHE actually writes.
3) Keith, instead of telling all mainline Protestant churches how sad their worship is, and how narrow their mission, tell us about your worship, and your mission, specifically, Upper Dublin Lutheran, and analyze it according to your own criterion.
4) Tony, answer your own question. What is the gospel? And don't tell us the mainline church doesn't know the gospel, because I've sat in churches my whole life, and I've heard the gospel over and over and over again, sometimes from those at the top, and sometimes in the most surprising places.

I plan to give myself this assignment also, since I've offered such strong pushback to their blogs, writing a generous review of her book and one other that arrived in the mail this week by a wonderful writer I also believe is sharing a story of the journey forward into church and God. I'd like to be drawn into the bigger vision.


  1. Can you hear me applauding? I am! Thank you for writing this, much more focused and reasonable and calm and intelligent and articulate than I could ever hope to be on topic.

  2. Clint, thank you for calling a thing what it is and being both passionate and reasoned, which sadly rarely go together anymore.

  3. VERY nice! Thank you for articulating this truth.

  4. I am reading Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen - not a new book, but I highly recommend it. She calls us back to the art of telling our own stories. Reminds us that wisdom is handed down in the telling of stories and in the listening. And, she notes, women are particularly good at story-telling. Thanks for bringing out the wisdom approach of this book. Wisdom - some have said stands in the Old Testament as the third person of the Trinity - Creator, Wisdom and Spirit. Wisdom takes time, so reading a book twice may be a good practice.