Worthwhile Dialogue …

I normally don’t read the one-star reviews of my books on amazon.com for a variety of reasons. But recently, for some reason one caught my eye, and I felt I should send a question to a reviewer. You can read his original review and my response, and then his reply, here.
That rather unpromising beginning led to a fruitful dialogue, which I include below. I hope you will find it as positive and helpful as I do.

–Chad – thanks for responding. I’m honored and grateful that you would invest the energy to follow up your comments on amazon.com like this. Obviously, you felt I made some illegitimate rhetorical moves in my book, and frankly, I wondered if you had done the same in your review on amazon. By investing this energy, you have shown yourself willing to dialogue, and I hope I can do the same. I’ll insert some replies below.

Here’s the information you requested—and a bit more into the bargain. I promised each of the two sections that I’d forward their top five on to you. And in order to keep my own meddling at a minimum, I promised myself that I’d attach an appendix. We’re using standards derived from http://carm.org/logical-fallacies-or-fallacies-argumentation.
This class assignment was wonderful, in that we were able to apply what we are learning about logic and how to argue, and come up with critiques that we felt needed to be said. On the other hand, and more wonderful, it became important for us to affirm that this kind of critique from our “head” comes from a heart of love. This is an act of communication we hope you’ll listen to, and value, and take seriously, and do something constructive about, because it comes from that heart of love. We prayed before we sent this to you. In that vein, I want to thank you for initiating dialogue with me and permitting this opportunity. Already I wouldn’t have traded it, for the rhetorical and spiritual discipline it’s been to me and to my students, and we hope and pray that it will register in your life and ministry for good.

— You’re welcome, Chad. And thank you once more for this thoughtful response. What more could anyone ask than that people would engage one another respectfully, civilly, and constructively like this?

Some introductory qualifications.
Qualification 1: We talked about how identifying logical fallacies does not invalidate the content of the argument. Some of the students found some of your ideas compelling. The question is, rather, whether the argument was effective or ineffective, and in what ways.

— I think this is an important qualification. For example, it would be an interesting exercise to apply these standards to Jesus’ sermon on the mount, his parables, or his denunciations of the scribes and the Pharisees, or to Paul in Romans or Galatians. My hunch is that one could find a lot of rhetorical fault with both Jesus and Paul. (Brood of vipers … whitewashed tombs … poisoning the well? Ad hominem?) And I can imagine that Martin Luther wouldn’t fare too well either. (Not to compare myself to them, obviously, but just to affirm the point of your qualification …)

Qualification 2: We read chapters eight and nine for class. The strictures of class meant that I couldn’t include the full discussion about the Bible that begins in ch. 7. My sense is that most of these would not be invalidated by the content of ch. 7, but you may disagree!

— As you’d expect, I wish the students could have read the whole book, and perhaps some will, but it’s impressive that you paid this careful attention to two chapters.

Here we go:
1. pp. 79, 91—special pleading. On the one hand, the book condemns proof-texting as a constitutional way of reading (p. 91). On the other hand, the book takes a series of verses out of context and irrespective of genre in order to attack the Bible’s inconsistency (p. 79).

— A few responses here. First, in my view, I’m not “attacking the Bible’s inconsistency.” A main point of my proposal is that inconsistency is a problem in a constitution, but difference a vital necessity in a library or conversation. So to construe this as an attack requires accepting the assumption that the Bible is a constitution. I think it would be more accurate to say, if I’m attacking anything (I’d say questioning rather than attacking), it would be the idea of the Bible being a constitution – not the Bible’s consistency. Perhaps a fine point, but since we’re scrutinizing communication, I think it’s worth making.
Since I’m recommending we see the Bible as an inspired conversation, tension is not contradiction. Point-counterpoint is one of the main ways that conversations progress, in my view. So, the tensions between, say, the priests and the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures are not inconsistencies to be attacked, but a conversation to understand as it unfolds. I’d say the same about the tensions one feels between Paul and James. The truth is found, in my view (and here I’m very much following Walter Brueggemann and many others) in the tensions of the conversation.
On page 79 (and elsewhere) I do make references to a lot of Bible passages, but I don’t think I do so in a proof-texting way. I’m providing a reference for the passage of the Bible I’m referring to. I can’t imagine making my point without giving specific examples – that would be seen as “hasty generalization” or some similar fault, I’m sure. I habitually try to avoid the kind of prooftexting that I critique in the book, but I’m certainly not above inconsistency, so perhaps you found some lapses in this regard, although I don’t think p. 79 is a good example. (If I am made aware of some specifics, I will try to learn from those lapses and improve my consistency in the future.)

2. P. 82—begging the question and equivocation. The definition of “inspired” never being specified permits you to include a claim that you believe the Bible is “inspired” without comparing and contrasting your view to the more conventional evangelical one. What does “inspired” mean to you? What is your operative definition?

— I see your point here. But I don’t think that my omission of an alternative definition lessens the main point I’m trying to make: that for many people, when they use the word “inspired,” they unwittingly mean “inspired in the way a constitution would be inspired.” I would hope that by the way I constructively use the Scriptures in the book, I would be demonstrating my appreciation for the inspiration of the Bible. But perhaps in the future I can articulate a more thorough and explicit articulation of what I think the term means. Again, my thinking would be along the lines of Walter Brueggemann, who uses the term “inherency” rather than “inerrancy” when talking about the Bible’s inspiration.

3. P. 85—poisoning the well or ad hominem. “At this point, I need to speak directly to those for whom the Bible is a constitution and can be nothing but a constitution: I am not pressuring you to change your view right now. Yes, I would be happy if you would do so, but I understand that many people simply cannot in good conscience change their view, for reasons ranging from intellectual conviction and formation, to psychological integrity, to job security, to social loyalty to a constitutional congregation or denomination.” What kind of people disagrees with you? People who can’t in good conscience change their mind, who are not yet ready for your truth (John 16.12). You give a series of possible reasons for this disagreement, none of which sounds noble, all of which sound external except for “intellectual conviction.” In this way you form an unflattering image of the other side who because of primarily external pressures or “head” reasons cannot respond to what their heart or spirit may be telling them. This rings false in my own experience; I would call some of my own objections “moral” or “spiritual,” that is, outside your categories. It is difficult not to experience the “right now” as condescending.

— I don’t want to be contentious here, but you seem to be discounting “intellectual conviction” – the first characteristic I offer. And I don’t paint as negative a picture of people who don’t agree as you do here. You seem to be putting things in a less flattering light than I do. I would have been happy to add the words “moral” and “spiritual” to the list. I think you’re right about “right now” – I can see how that felt condescending, even though that wasn’t my intent.

4. the anecdote on p. 87 about the Internet person who called you nasty names: appeal to pity, straw man. Of course we don’t want people to call you nasty names, and that makes us feel sorry for you. But you cite from a forum (Internet discussion) notoriously pugnacious and extremist. Of course that’s going to happen. Citing an extreme example as typical is a straw man argument. The second class here adds an appeal to force (though it’s not, technically, force AGAINST your opponents): the kinds of people who disagree with your stance are the kinds of people who do bad things, the kinds of Christians who violently persecuted heretics in the Reformation. The implication of your story goes something like: “If you want to be the kind of person who (cringe) disembowels, disagree with me,” or: if you disagree with me, bad things will happen to you, that is, you will become a bad person.

— I feel that you might be engaging in a bit of reductio ad absurdum here, Chad. As for the straw man argument, perhaps I should have offered more examples of harsh rhetoric that didn’t come through the internet. But wouldn’t that have seemed like an appeal to pity? So it’s hard to imagine how I could “win” on this one. I suppose I could have left any reference to criticism out. Perhaps I should have!
Also, since the internet is a major medium of communication these days, I don’t think it’s fair to discount any reference to internet-based attacks as “inadmissible evidence” simply because some sectors of the internet are “notoriously pugnacious and extremist.” (By the way, the emcee wasn’t quoting just one person on the internet – he was quoting several.) There have been some pretty pugnacious and extremist attacks made in print and on radio too … both of which have a tradition of pugnacious and extremist voices.

5. P. 92—Straw man. “Does the Bible alone provide enough clarity to resolve all questions, as a good constitution should?” As this book is the only one we know of that claims the Bible is currently being read like a constitution, proving that the Bible does a bad job as a constitution doesn’t prove all that much. You’ve successfully dismissed a characterization of your own making. The second group points out that lawyers get bad press these days anyway, that the comparison is negative from the outset (p. 78).

— I see your point here. I think this is a weakness in the presentation of my thinking, as you suggest. I could have done better if your class had been on the editorial team!

The three unique entries from the second class:
1. P. 78—hasty generalization, poisoning the well, anti-appeal to tradition (see next for discussion), false cause/ad hoc. “People raised in a constitutional era would tend to read the Bible in a constitutional way.” This feels as though it reduces many possible causal factors to one, that reduction an ad hoc fallacy. It disarms the opposition by, again, reducing their arguments to “well, you were raised that way. Of course you’re going to say that.” And, the latter half of the sentence unproven, it is a hasty generalization.

— Rhetorically, I think I was offering this as an act of empathy – seeking to understand why people would read in this way, not to blame them for doing so or discredit them for doing so. But even so, I think you’re right – I could have offered a number of other possible causal factors, and that would have been more thorough and perhaps convincing. I didn’t expect this idea to be highly contested. It appears that was a mistake on my part.

2. P. 79-80, title of book and chapter—anti-appeal to tradition, poisoning the well. You do relativize “last mention trumps first mention” as an exegetical strategy on p. 79. Yet this book, this chapter, is in favor of newness more than oldness. A New Kind of Christianity. “From Legal Constitution to Community Library.” Rather than appealing to the old as authority, you appeal to the new—I suppose, the emergent—as authority, and if something has been around a while in Christianity, it’s probably wrong.

— I see what you mean – in that “new” for most people has a positive association, whether it deserves to or not. But I think you’re misjudging me to suggest I would say that if anything that has been around for a while in Christianity, it is wrong. I can’t imagine where you’d find evidence of that kind of generalization in my writing, unless you were to draw a hasty generalization that would run like this: because the Greco-Roman narrative has been around a long time, and since I’m in favor of not limiting ourselves to Christianity framed by that narrative, I must be against everything that has been around a long time. (Is that the fallacy of the excluded middle?)

3. P.85—ad hominem: “thought police.”

— That certainly is a term that evokes negativity. I’m not sure it’s ad hominem, but you’re right to point it out as not particularly bridge-building! Great point.

I’ll add just a few:
1. Although you argue that your “community library” concept is a third way between “constitution” and liberal non-inspiration, there’s still plenty of exegetical middle ground excluded, creating a false dilemma. This is also a straw man. Vastly over-simplifying reverent historical and contemporary, Protestant and Catholic exegesis to “constitutional reading” deeply troubles me who have spent much of my professional career engaging and cataloging its richness.

— I partly agree with you on this. I would fully agree with you if I had said or implied that there are no other alternatives. But still, you have a point. When one is trying to simplify, one always misses nuances. What I felt was simplifying, you see as vastly oversimplifying … and I can see how that would be deeply troubling. I in no way mean to disrespect the richness of the tradition that would see itself as more “constitutional” in its use of the Bible. I’m sorry for causing offense.

2. P. 83—the equivocation of “unique” at the beginning of the first full paragraph to unique “for the community of people who seek to be part of the [Judeo-Christian] tradition” at the end of the second full paragraph. That last radically redefines “unique.”

— I think you might be splitting hairs here. My point was that not everyone accepts the Bible’s authority. Buddhists don’t, atheists don’t, Hindus don’t … but people in the Abrahamic tradition generally do. And of course, many of us in that tradition believe it is or ought to be authoritative for everyone … but that’s another point, not one I’m trying to make in that section.

3. The appeal to the popular: the shift from “you” to “we” on p. 85. Those of us who cannot change our minds right now are politely excluded from the community you’re building. That’s fine, but it makes me feel bad, uncool certainly, and kind of alone, me and my cloud of Greco-Roman Christian witnesses! I’m not just being playful, here. I got over it, but I felt my emotions tweaked.

— Thanks for bringing emotions in. I regret writing in a way that made you feel that way. It’s my goal – not to exclude or hurt – but to gain a hearing and open up some space for a conversation that I believe is deeply needed. Being more sensitive to the unintended but possible emotional impacts of my words is an area where I struggle and continually need to grow, as my wife, children, and close associates can attest, not to mention my readers.

4. The radical lack of proof. One group was frankly disappointed by endnote ten in ch. 8. They wanted sources, backup. There and elsewhere, you provide assertion, impression, analogy, illustration. So the entire selection (and more) feels like hasty generalization, unproven theses, and, when directed against an opposing viewpoint, straw men.

— Are you asking for more historical proof about the use of the Bible to defend slavery? I offered references for this in Chapter 7, notes 3 and 4. Otherwise, you’re right – on every single point, more could have been said. With the book weighing in at 80,000 words, I had to decide when enough was enough … always a tough decision, and never entirely satisfying.

I’ve really wrestled with this, confused by what this book is trying to do. One of my friends assures me that at least A Generous Orthodoxy is more rhetorically aware, treats its audience more respectfully and responsibly. The only explanation I can come up with that if not exonerates the argumentative strategy, explains it, is that remarkable para. on p. 85, when you decline to try to convince the other side. It may be that this is an in-house document, unashamedly preaching theses to the choir. Maybe you aren’t trying to persuade at all, but affirming with your authority the tendencies that your self-selecting audience experiences. That would considerably relax the standards of proof. That would also be a postmodern standard of argument, not a modern—an Eastern standard, perhaps, not a Western or Greco-Roman. Makes sense. On the one hand we could say that this is not a meaningful piece of rhetoric or PUBLIC discourse at all. On the other hand, your sheep hear your voice. That’s the best I can do to explain. I’d welcome alternative explanation.

I can see how this would be confusing, and I’m sorry that in this book I struck you as rhetorically unaware, and as disrespectful and irresponsible toward my audience. I hesitate to bring this up, but can I gently suggest that if you re-read your first two amazon posts, you might feel some empathy for my situation? I imagine that your primary audience in that review was not me; otherwise, you wouldn’t have used the tone you used. (Would contemptuous or disgusted be too strong a word for it?) Your tone is very different in this message to which I’m responding now, for which I am at least part of the intended audience. (I can see something similar going on in the comments thread following your post … Ed and Dan say that I say things I don’t say, and wouldn’t say. I’m obviously not the primary intended audience for their comments; otherwise, they wouldn’t assert things that I’m the best person to know aren’t accurate!)
Similarly, my primary audience in the book was not my critics or people who defend the things I’m questioning; rather, it was the kinds of people I described on pages 9-11 – people who are struggling in the crosscurrents between modernity and postmodernity, people who are drifting away from the church and the faith, people who think they’re the only ones stuck with a lot of questions, people who feel “something isn’t working in the way we’re doing Christianity anymore” (p. 9). If you read the sampling of responses I put up from time to time on my blog, you’ll see that there are quite a few people in this category out there for whom the book has been as helpful as it was distasteful for you.
If I were trying to convince my critics and defenders of the things I’m questioning, I would have followed a very different rhetorical strategy. As I tried to make clear on p. 22 (I realize your students didn’t read this), I wasn’t trying to deliver a forceful argument “like a smash in tennis.” Instead, my goal was more modest: I was trying to gain a hearing for ten questions and make space for honest dialogue about them – which is harder than it seems, I think! (This is exactly the kind of dialogue, by the way, that you and your students have engaged in with me … for which, once again, I’m grateful.)
In that sense, my rhetorical strategy may have been something other than you assumed. You may have fallen into the “either-or” fallacy, “the false choice between two completely opposite, oversimplified, reductive alternatives.” (If that’s the case, how can I judge you, since I am so guilty of this one too!) Those two options would be (to use your terminology):
EITHER this is a modern (or Western or Greco-Roman) standard of argument,
“This is not a meaningful piece of rhetoric or PUBLIC discourse at all,” but merely “an in-house document, unashamedly preaching theses to the choir… affirming with your authority the tendencies that your self-selecting audience experiences … a postmodern (or Eastern) standard of argument.
I would propose that there are many other possibilities beyond these two simple ones, including what I stated plainly in the paragraph at the bottom of page 22 and the top of page 23.
I hope it’s clear that I don’t believe (for a variety of reasons I won’t try to prove here) that everyone makes decisions about faith, belief, doctrine, and conviction based on logic alone. I think many other factors come into our decisions – emotional factors, psychological factors, social factors, professional factors, moral factors, even factors related to the guidance of the Holy Spirit … the kinds of factors I mentioned on page 85. I don’t see these non-logical factors as evil or bad: they’re just a fact of life. So I’m simply acknowledging that many people, regardless of how convinced they might otherwise be by the issues I’m raising, will not “change sides” on this matter, and in fact, some won’t even be able to seriously consider changing sides, at least not now. In fact, it may not even be God’s will for them to change sides now. These things take time, and God is patient with us, in my view. On top of that, God cares about our communities as well as about us as individuals – and that communal dimension of change complicates things. (But that’s another whole topic.) As Jesus said, there are things we aren’t ready to bear, and the Spirit brings us along in the fullness of time.

And, not having heard your voice, I pray that God would bless you by making your character and your ministry that best which he desires it to be.

This is a very kind and gracious conclusion, and I thank you for it, Chad. Thanks especially for taking the risk to continue this dialogue, even though you had real reservations about doing so. The risks that you and I have both taken – the risks of learning to talk respectfully and honestly, and frankly and forthrightly too … the risks of listening and seeking greater understanding in a spirit of humility and gentleness … the risks of self-examination, and trying to see ourselves and our statements from the vantage point of “the other” … the risks of being misunderstood, attacked, mocked, and derided for sincere and honest attempts at communication … the risks of making mistakes and being inconsistent … the risks of pointing out mistakes, knowing that the person may become defensive and aggressive in response — these risks may be required so that our characters and ministries can become what God desires them to be. May God bless you as well, and all your students, as we share in this risky but wonderful adventure.