Finely Crafted Fertilizer

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“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.

Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”

The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.

As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).

Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.

What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.

You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.

At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”

See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.

Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.

And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.

As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.

I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.

Understanding a “Sacred Covenant”

One of the favorite commonplace arguments of the Good News crowd has unfortunately been taken up by the Council of Bishops: that performing the wedding of a same-sex couple is “breaking a sacred covenant” made at an elder’s ordination. But is it? Here is the relevant section of the ordination service. Read it through, and consider carefully what kind of covenant an elder is making at his or her ordination. I’ve put some possibly relevant sections in bold. At the end, I’ve appended some questions for your consideration.

Ordination is a gift from God to the church, and is exercised in covenant with the whole church and within the covenant of the order.

…As elders, you are to be coworkers with the bishops, deacons, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, home missioners, commissioned ministers, local pastors, and other elders.

Remember that you are called to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all.

An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church: to preach and teach the Word of God, and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead the people of God in worship and prayer; to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ; to exercise pastoral supervision, order the life of the congregation, counsel the troubled, and declare the forgiveness of sin; to lead the people of God in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world; to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church and in service in and to the community.These are the duties of an elder.

Do you believe in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?

Will you be faithful in prayer, in the study of the Holy Scriptures, and with the help of the Holy Spirit continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?

Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ?

Will you, in the exercise of your ministry, lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people? [note that this is the second occurrence of this phrase].

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

Will you, for the sake of the church’s life and mission, covenant to participate in the order of elders? Will you give yourself to God through the order of elders in order to sustain and build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?

May God, who has given you the will to do these things, give you grace to perform them, that the work begun in you may be brought to perfection.

After reading the above language from the ordination service, what is the covenant that is broken by officiating a same-gender wedding? Is it:

  1. The covenant to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people?
  2. The covenant to teach the Bible as the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?
  3. The covenant to accept the order of the United Methodist Church? The liturgy? The (small “d”) discipline? The doctrines?
  4. The covenant to participate in the order of elders, and to build each other up through study, worship, and service?
  5. The covenant to defend the United Methodist Church from “all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word?” The belief that the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s’ faith and life?

Here are some follow-up questions:

  1. What in the above oath might suggest to you that covenant means accepting the incompatibility clause and subsequent prohibitions because they are in the (large “D”) Discipline?
  2. Given the oath to seek peace, justice and freedom for all people, what is an ordained clergy’s covenantal responsibility toward gay and lesbian persons who wish to marry?
  3. When the incompatibility clause was approved in 1972, did its authors violate any part of the above covenant toward their ordained gay and lesbian clergy peers? What about when additional punitive language was added regarding ordination and same-gender marriage?
  4. The Discipline rejects ordination for “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” which has often been called “don’t ask, don’t tell” for clergy. It implies you can be self-avowed, but not practicing (i.e. celibate), or practicing but not self-avowed (i.e. “in the closet). What does this language do to a covenant of mutual accountability among clergy?
  5. Since every General Conference committee that has “studied” the issue of homosexuality has recommended removing the incompatibility language, yet the General Conference has voted to retain it, what does that do to our covenant to “build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?”
  6. Finally, when only 67% of General Conference votes to uphold the idea that “God’s grace is available to all, [and] that nothing can separate us from the love of God,” language borrowed from both John Wesley and Saint Paul, how qualified is that body to address what is or is not compatible with “Christian teaching?” What percentage needs to vote on something for it to be a clear sign of the witness of the Holy Spirit? 51%? 100%?

Growing up in the church, I learned that “covenant” was different from a “contract.” A contract is a legal agreement that says, “if you break this, such and such happens.” A covenant, though, is based on the character of the participants and the shalom of the community. God was faithful to God’s covenant with Israel even when Israel was not faithful, because God’s character was one of “steadfast love.” Opponents of LGBTQ rights would have everyone believe that the covenant to uphold the order, liturgy, discipline, and doctrine of the church is actually a contract. It legitimizes homophobia, heterosexism, and a culture of ecclesiastical coercion using the language of sacred covenant. Using the language of “sacred covenant” to mask thin Biblical interpretation, bad theology, and lousy ethics is itself more harmful to that covenant than any alleged violation of the incompatibility clause.

Before You Say “Happy Anniversary,” Think About This

I wrote a bit about our anniversary last month, and then decided, for a variety of reasons, not to post it. I’m posting it today:

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We just celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. As people always say on such occasions, it is hard to believe it has been that long.

We went out to eat. I told our server that it was our anniversary, and he pretended that it was the best news he had heard all day. I told both friends and strangers that it was our anniversary. They said complimentary things. Sometimes I overshared and got sentimental, but people still smiled and politely congratulated me.

This is the point where I should post a picture, along with some words about how she is an awesome, wonderful, talented, beautiful human being, that she has helped me grow in emotional and spiritual maturity, that she is an example as well as a friend. I should say that I am proud that she is the mother of our son, her love helps me understand how God loves me in spite of my flaws, and so on. All of this is true.

And, if you are my friend, you should probably say “Congratulations!” People will “like” the status on Facebook. If I were to post a wedding picture, you would notice that I have less hair and a higher BMI than I did then. We look so young in our picture, you might say.

The wedding was good, but I’m posting a travel picture instead. Part of our marriage is actively working toward God’s kingdom: planting churches, promoting justice, helping people who need help. We share a mission.

Bolivia, 2007

Bolivia, 2007

Now, before you click like or make a comment, just let me make an observation:

Nobody — not one — will tell me that I SHOULDN’T talk about it. No one will tell me that my love for her isn’t really love, that it is really sexual perversion, that my attraction for my wife is a character flaw or an addiction like alcoholism. Nobody will tell me that we are an abomination, or that I should try not to love her. Nobody will criticize me for having the audacity to be PROUD of my spouse, or for wanting to shout from the rooftops that I am the luckiest guy in the world. In fact, they will praise my devotion because, even if they secretly gag on my saccharine words, they believe that I SHOULD say these things. That is part of what healthy couples do.

(I imagine that if someone did respond with contempt, or tell me to be silent on my anniversary, I would invite them to go and do something anatomically impossible to themselves.)

Some of my traditionalist friends might accuse me of turning our anniversary into a political statement. But the fact is, EVERY anniversary, every single year, every card and restaurant date and bouquet is a political statement, because we have historically given privileges to some people that we do not give to others. Every time you participate in the anniversary ritual and say “congratulations!” you are making a social and political statement: marriage is good, and we should be proud of it. This set of people has a right to be acknowledged, affirmed, celebrated… and these do not.

I am proud that I am married to a woman who will let, even encourage me to say these things that I believe to be true. I am thankful to have such a partner in life, love, and ministry. And I hope, both for our own church and for our denomination, we will become the kind of church that says congratulations to everyone who shares news of their anniversary.