Borrowing Rhetorical Style from Babylon

The recent flap about Mark Driscoll’s unkind words about women (see Scot McKnight’s blog) makes me wonder about something.

In our discussions about political matters and even about church and theological matters, I’m wondering if Christians are increasingly adopting a rhetorical style that they see in the media.

The Right has had Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, using a style that calls names as part of the entertainment of their shows (remember Limabaugh calling people “Femi-Nazis” and “Environmental Wackos”?). The Left has retaliated with Jon Stewart, Al Frankin, and Keith Olbermann, using satire and sometimes meanly poking fun as a means toward their political ends.

Instead of prudent and kind engagement on issues, we have, from both sides, a rhetorical style that divides by way of setting up an “us vs. them” mentality that infers that we think clearly but they are simply imbeciles."

This is what I’d expect from a media that is looking for ratings boosts through the easy means of being mean-spirited in satirical rhetoric.

But what I’ve seen is this: Christians emulating this style of rhetoric as well. Maybe we think it’s funny. Maybe we think it’s the only way to get a hearing. Maybe we are so enamored by those in the media that we want to be like them.

But that’s the problem. We are not to be like them. We are called to be different, especially in the way we speak.

“Now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him…Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” (Colossians 3:8-10, 4:6)

I’d love to see more graceful speech coming from our mouths, a rhetoric that is less abusive and less interested in being satirical. I'll try to follow my own admonition here in the Vanguard.

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littleglo said...

I have truly found that our 'emergent/posto-modern/missional' conversations are often 'in your face' styling, and that there is this undercurrent that if you are not part of the above, then you are defitinely the left behind, boring old types and the very unelightened who have nothing of value to add to anyone's life. And lots of discussions about semantics.

I have found that conversations often talk of embracing so much and so many, as long as that does not include those from the body of Christ who don't do it our way - and especially those who still "do church."

Throughout history, any new movements that have grown have often caused divisivenss in the followers of Christ. The good operate alongside the bad. The enemy finds yet another way to bring disunity, and we play right along.

If we truly want to be kinder and gentler, then surely we can practice on all our brothers and sisters, regardless of their mode.

knsheppard said...

I have never found Stewart partisan in a dogmatic sense. He seems to subject any and all political leaders - including Democrats - to withiring satire. Wit can be a great means to lower the political baromoter, or so it seems to me. But then, this is coming from a Canadian, who have made self-loathing into a fine art. Our John Stewart is Rick Mercer, look him up. He recently slept over at our Prime-Minister's house: http://www.cbc.ca/mercerreport/

Paul Carusoe said...

I'm certain that if someone wants to draw lines in the sand, they will draw them regardless of the motives of those with whom they disagree. But, there is a difference between our trying to solve societal problems, problems within the church or in coming to grips with how these problems evolved in the first place, and that of simply demonizing anyone who doesn't agree with our point of view.

Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage surely go beyond problem solving into the realm of creating us-against-them angst from a right-winged viewpoint, whereas Moore, Franken and Stewart do it from the left, with Stewart being deceptively disingenuous because he does it under the guise of being bi-partisan, while actually being unequivocally liberal.

None of these guys speak with the mind of Christ, yet evangelicalism's affair with conservative politics has clearly blurred the distinction and made it all-too confusing for the average occasional observer. This kind of evangelical typically plays into the kind of rhetoric found in modern news journalism, though and it not only looks bad, it is bad for the church at large.

But as for this debate over the emergent v. traditional, misiional v. attractional church scene, I don't see the same kind of rhetoric. Correct me if I am wrong. We're all trying to learn from the Church's past and present shortcomings. Traditional institutional religious models are failing us. In fact, they have failed us. That's not an opinion, its clearly the truth. Jesus has managed to remain relevant for 2000 years, but there are a lot of things that men have done in His name in this past generation that have undermined the Church's credibility and relevance like nothing has since the dark ages.

If Emergents resort to rhetorical preaching and create yet another schism in the church, rather than being an prophetic agent of reconciliation, vision and cleansing, a promising new paradigm for the Church will come to naught.

I certainly have been guilty of over-emphasizing my own frustrations with the apathy I see in the Church, but I have found the best way to implement this trend back to a missional form of Christianity is to simply do it. It works. There is no question about that. And if it works, in time those who despise the change will join the visionaries. The more we waste our time arguing over it, the less time there is to transform this decaying civilization.

Bob Robinson said...


Yes, you've hit upon a trend in the emerging church. We are "interested in conversation," yet it can seem at times that we are not very gracious to those who have gone before us.

It's like an adolescent rebelling against his parents. I'm looking forward to the time when we can get past our "teenage years" when our parents have no good ideas and into the next phase of maturity, when we can let our parents into the conversation as well.

Bob Robinson said...


Being a big fan of Jon Stewart, I can assure you that he has a very left bias. He tries to appear non-partisan (he often has Republicans and Right-Wingers on the show and tries to be gracious to them), but the overwhelming direction of the show is left. His satire toward Democrats is more about their incompetance in their liberal agenda. His satire toward Republicans is their incompetance, period.

Which may be deserved!

Bob Robinson said...

And, as evidence of this:

The day after the election, DNC chair Howard Dean credited Stewart's audience for the Democratic victories in Congress.

Stewart was enjoying the time with Dean until that final statement, when you could tell that Stewart doesn't ever want anybody to name him for what he is!!

Bob Robinson said...

Paul Carusoe,

I agree with you, or else I wouldn't have this blog.

That being said, it is haughty of us in the Emerging Church to think that all traditional institutional religious models "have failed us," and that this is "clearly the truth." I came to faith in such a religious model, as many of us in the emerging church movement. So there must have been something worthwhile in it.

My reason for seeking change is more in thinking that we are no longer in the age in which I came to faith. We are in (for a lack of a better term) the postmodern era. If this is the case, then old paradigms for doing church need radical change. This is a far cry from saying that "a lot of things that men have done in His name in this past generation that have undermined the Church's credibility and relevance like nothing has since the dark ages." Postmodern means "after-modern," not "anti-modern." And this means, at least for me, to take the best of the modern church that can still serve in the advance of the gospel and a willingness to move beyond that to whatever maybe "post-" for reaching a new generation.

With this said, I can certainly agree that there has been mistakes done by the North American evangelical Church in the 20th Century. With hindsight, we can remedy much of this. But we must never presume that our ways in the emerging church will be any better or any less mistake-filled.

Thanks for the comment. I agree with you in spirit, but (again) I am trying to create a more Christ-like rhetoric in our criticism of our predecessors.

Paul Carusoe said...


Ah well, change doesn't come easy, eh? I do concur with your correct assessment of the traditional church. However, even by Franklin Graham's estimates, 50,000 churches will close their doors in the US by 2020. It did work in its time. But I do believe that time has passed us by rather quickly. It could be that due to technological change, with the instant access to information, both good and bad, hitting us so quickly that the church was simply not prepared for the change.

Still, Christendom's affair with politics is certainly not new and has certainly never been a good thing. From Constantine onward, much of the organized church has promulgated a type of warrior Jesus, creating a very antithetical representation of Christ to what the Scriptures reveal of his life and his ultimate purpose.

And the church's attraction to material things has not only inverted the message of the Gospel, but has inhibited the church from financially being able to carry out its mission. Not that we need declare a moratorium on church buildings, but a little less haughtiness could save a lot of starving people, not to mention paint a better image than what the world stands in judgment of today.

And then there is the rhetoric. Your own blog, a profoundly insightful blog that it is, rightly questions the protectional social actions as espoused by so much of traditional evangelicalism. The rhetoric of its proponents has been very damaging and hurtful to the church. It has alienated millions of people. In my ignorance, at one time I was a part of it. Most of us were.

Of course these are the things which concern me with the emergent movement. Any brief study of revivalism throughout history reveals that all good things come to a mess sooner or later, and the best we can hope for is to glean as much good as possible in the midst of this change before the inevitable happens.

It's human nature unfortunately. I see that you are a prog head. What happened to some of the best prog music of the 70's? It got dumbed down with 80's hair band music. Eventually, bands like Spock's Beard, Under the Sun, Flower Kings, etc., rose from the ashes and gave us some great music. But that sinful nature of ours eventually reduces everything to the least common denominator. Thus we find the western church at that crossroads. Were it not for the global information available to us today, it might even be a lot worse. Fortunately many of us are responding to to the social atrocities that had at one time been largely hidden from our view, and one can only hope that the church eventually catches up en masse.

As I said in my previous post, I am compelled that my best response is to simply forge ahead with the knowledge and compassion God has granted me and hopefully what I do will inspire others to follow in kind. If we all would do that, we will accomplish much.

Cindy said...

i don't know about anyone else, but there sure needs to be more graceful speech coming from my mouth (and out of my fingertips!) thanks for this post.

Ted Gossard said...

Wow. I just took time to fill out a comment here, and just before being ready to send it, explorer or what not shut down. So here it goes (hopefully), in abbreviated (I hope) form.

I've thought exactly the same. Easy to react, and then be on their level. What we listen to, or take in does affect us. I discipline myself to listen to NPR for a limited amount of time. They speak with civility and understanding can occur.

But for us, it is most important to be in Scripture and in the community in Jesus. Growing more and more into the new humanity in Christ. In the new way to be human. And being more and more Christ's presence and fragrance in this world.


Erika Carney Haub said...

Great post! I have heard often enough how we need to consider that our message is as much in our methods as in anything else. This must be true for how we speak, converse, disagree, rebuke, counsel, etc. as much as it is for how we "do church".

Bob Robinson said...

Paul Carusoe,

it's hard to debate with somebody who brings in the prog-rock argument!


Bob Robinson said...

Cindy, Ted, and Erika,

Thanks for the comments. I am SO GUILTY of ungraceful speach!!

I had better listen to my own advice!

Gordon Hackman said...


Found my way here through Scot McKnight's blog. Thanks for this nice analysis. I have experienced, in about the last six months, some of the rudest and most mean-spirited treatment from people calling themselves Christians but who disagreed with me on matters not even crucial to the core of Christian faith. I've even seen people try to justify this behavior from scripture by appealing to Jesus cleansing the temple, or by claiming that it's not name-calling because they're telling the truth. It's sick.

I agree it reflects the polarization of our larger culture and a culture war mentality at work. I would add to your analysis that I think that further causes of this kind of rhetoric include insecurity and emotional reaction. Many of us, whatever our beliefs, feel insecure, perhaps because we find ourselves unable to articulate exactly why it is we believe the way we do, or perhaps because we hear a counter argument and we fear it might be right but don't want to accept it. This causes emotional disturbance and we lash out without thinking or taking the time to get a calmer perspective. I know I'm guilty of this at times.


Bob Robinson said...


Excellent point about our emotional reactions due to insecurity.

I think that the first step to move beyond this is to go into all our discussions about hot-topic issues without presuming that our understanding of things is absolutely correct. When our faith is based on Jesus Christ and not on our ability to reason our way through arguments, we have a chastened and humble attitude. When someone then gives us a new perspective on periphery issues, our faith does not need to be shaken (though it may be challenged!).

We've been trained to believe in "slippery slopes" a bit too much: That if we accept certain things (things that are not the core of Christian faith) then our faith will slide down to destruction. This kind of mentality leads to the emotional disturbance that you speak of.

Thanks for the excellent comment.

knsheppard said...

Bob, I guess that may be the case. Being Canadian, I see the political spectrum very differently from most Americans I know, even now that I live in an unquestionably blue state! (Oh, and call me Kenny.)