It almost happened.
Eugene Peterson’s name was almost added to the ever-expanding list of names whose titles have been refused placement on the bookshelves of the Southern Baptist-affliated bookstore LifeWay.
William Paul Young
The list goes on. Amid the Christian newsflare where Peterson reportedly avowed gay marriage, there was a lot to talk about. But perhaps one of the most pressing, ongoing issues that was raised, one that we face as we wrestle dividedly with what it means to be a Christian in 2017, was the ban. LifeWay threatened an immediate ban on his books, including the widely-read The Message Bible, if indeed what he said in the interview was true.
Of course, Peterson’s retraction 24 hours later jammed the brakes of LifeWay—and of Christians across the theological spectrum—so hard that you could smell the rubber inside every social media outlet in existence. The tracks of debate, arguments, questions, confusion, and cheers lay burnt into the pavement of cyberspace in the wake of that announcement. The Christiansphere, as fractured and withered as it might be, attempted to hit “System Restore,” but we were left scratching our heads when it wouldn’t reboot.
The Fuel and Foolishness of Our Polarization
Though the ban wouldn’t be placed on Peterson, it continues with other theologians, authors, pastors, and leaders. Human beings continue to change minds and then change them back. But the ban reflects a deeper fear, a deeper division, and a missed opportunity. According to Rich Villodas, our anxious reactivity does the Kingdom no good.
Those of us who sensed a quake of the Spirit stepped out of the fray and took a pause. We listened. We looked. We reflected on reactions. This time, as is with many altercations, it was more about the HOW than the WHAT. How people reacted was significantly more important than what they were reacting to. The ban was introduced as an answer, an attempt to dig an extension of the moat around the continually shrinking sandcastle of evangelical Christendom.
I think it’s important to note how often I feel like I am straddling this moat, one foot on each side, legs drawn wider with each extension event. I am a female, evangelical pastor ordained in an evangelical holiness denomination. I attended a progressive mainline seminary and planted an evangelical church within a mainline denomination.
I, perhaps like you, have friends who were saddened at Peterson’s initial remarks but were very happy that LifeWay “drew a line.” I also have friends who cheered initially and would have single-handedly burnt down the bookseller if they could have. I’ve found that more often than not, each group bans the other—more than books. They ban relationships, conversations, and engagement, preferring to commune only with people they believe are “safe,” who seemingly believe the same on hot-button issues. Christian groups ban each other more than they ban books. Click To Tweet
But all bans are fueled by two things: fear and righteousness. They’re fueled by the fear of what one thinks one knows all the while assuming one is right. They’re an intended means of protection, but they wind up resulting in isolation, widening the moat and fracturing the landscape as the world continues to care less about what goes on with those crazy, detached Christians.
Could there be a better Christian life-way than banning? Could banning be causing us to miss out on important dialogue as we navigate through the uncharted, messy religious terrain of 2017 and beyond?
Who Did Jesus Ban?
Jesus didn’t ban anyone. He didn’t ban:
The tax collector
The pagan centurion
When we ban each other, we go against Jesus’ example. One of the main arguments for a bookseller to ban certain authors is the idea that association means approval. But if we look at Scripture, we realize that this very thought was one of the problems that Jesus faced with religious people. The religious folks scoffed at Jesus when he was found eating with sinners and tax collectors, people they believed he should have banned.
They were shocked he would associate with such people. But Jesus went out of his way to commune with people who lived and even believed differently; he purposely rerouted his trips in order to walk through Samaritan lands and struck up conversation with the people who were thought to be fake Jews. He also engaged the most self-righteous religious leaders—people whose Jewish theological roots he shared—and entertained their cornered questions. He brought along his disciples to all these interactions. Jesus went out of his way to commune with people who lived & believed differently. Click To Tweet
Why did he do this? Perhaps the Kingdom is best fleshed out through flesh encounters with folks who are in different places theologically. Encounters allow us to hear each other’s stories, ideas, and experiences.
A few weeks back, a pastor friend of mine dared to ask a question on a clergy Facebook page about recommended books that detail scriptural support for gay marriage. She had read plenty against it and so wanted to learn what some of the people and other churches in her community, including a neighboring church of a different denomination, were saying. She wanted to hear directly from firsthand sources, not through the interpretive lens of someone who had already made a judgment about the “other side.” The point was relationship-motivated rather than agenda-motivated. She was tired of operating out of fear, of ignorance, of division. Unfortunately she was met with backlash for even considering doing such a thing.
What if we stepped back from the firestorm of division that the world instigates and look upon such encounters as opportunities to learn? What if our engagement with “the other side” has nothing to do with approval and more with understanding?
Types of Listeners
The ancient rabbis of the Jewish Talmud once wrote:
There are four types among those who sit in the presence of the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sifter. The sponge, who soaks up everything. The funnel, who takes in at this end and lets out at the other. The strainer, who lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sifter, who removes the coarse meal and collects the fine flour (Pirkei Avot, ch. 5, mishna 18)
These words present the listener with a question: “When presented with information, who do you want to be?” Of course, all four types share what is integral to learning; coming in contact with someone you could potentially learn from. Implied is that there is no possibility of learning without contact; even a sifter will never collect the fine flour if it doesn’t encounter the coarse meal too.
Bans assume all contact is sponge contact; that anyone who reads a book or has a conversation might be contaminated by soaking up everything presented to them. But contact doesn’t mean that we have to be the sponge. We shouldn’t be the funnel or the strainer either. The rabbinical saying is hierarchically arranged to point to the sifter as the ideal means of learning—discarding what is not beneficial yet holding onto what is.
Bans prevent this integral piece of learning. When being surrounded and informed only by those we have carefully selected that mirror our own mindset, we miss the possibility of developing, strengthening, and shaping one’s own theological framework and our understanding of family members who have changed their seats around the dinner table. Instead of expanding blacklists and creating moats, what if the better way would be for a Christian bookseller, a pastoral team, Bible college and seminary faculty, and church leaders to teach the process of sifting instead of staying away? What if banning actually prevents fine flour from being baked into the Body of Christ? What if church leaders taught the process of sifting theology rather than banning it? Click To Tweet
Perhaps it’s time to hand over our anxiety, our righteousness, and even our agendas to the Spirit and allow a new chapter to be written among us.