bracketology

{On [multiple occasions in the past month] I have heard people defend a [heretical] statement by saying that the author told them that he doesn’t necessarily believe everything he writes. According to them, this author, let’s call him [Pete Rollins]—a man who is extremely likeable—can pretty much say anything [e.g., we have no revelation; Jesus may not be alive] as long as he brackets his words with the disclaimer that he may not agree with what he just said.

I have a few problems with this approach:

1. It is [annoying]. If [this is true], then reading [Rollins] is like having a conversation with someone who ends each sentence with “Just kidding…Not…Just kidding!” This post demonstrates this annoyance by bracketing key phrases, thereby indicating that [I may not believe what I wrote there].

2. It is [bad faith]. If [knowledge is a justified, true belief], then a precondition to know anything is that you must first believe it. You don’t need to be 100% sure, but you at least have to commit enough to declare that you think such and such is the case. A leader who can’t even minimally commit to his ideas gives up the right to claim knowledge. And if he doesn’t know anything, why should you bother to read him? Stated differently, [why should you take his ideas more seriously than he does?]

3. It is [unloving]. Assuming an author has beliefs, it’s not very kind of him not to tell you what those are. The goal of communication is to honestly and clearly share ideas. An author who shares ideas that he may not believe is merely [toying with his readers]. He is [more interested in selling books than actually helping you].

I realize that [this post contains some harsh judgments], so I conclude by placing brackets around the entire thing {}. Please remember in your comments that [I may not believe a word of this]. }

30 Comments

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  1. Mark Begemann July 8, 2009 — 7:47 pm

    A thoughtful post, much of which i agree with, but it seems (after some study the past couple years) that Rollins is not really looking at it from your perspective. Sure, you mention some things he does care about but his emphasis/interest is more in provoking others to think and act. From that perspective, assuming it is his, he has succeeded here.

  2. If Rollins’ main emphasis/interest is to provoke others to think and act, shouldn’t he also want them to think correctly? Also, if this is his attitude, it sure seems cynical and condescending to me. He obviously feels he is in a position of superior intelligence or authority than those of us “non-thinkers”.

  3. It is definitely an (annoying) habit of many modern day (and post-modern/emergent) authors to provoke thought, but not give any good, clear direction. It happens with far too many–

    Another reason I’m thankful for clarity in books like yours.

  4. Mark:

    Thanks for your comment, but there isn’t really anything here to agree with. Respect the brackets!

  5. [{(I’m trapped in the brackets…)]}

  6. My only experience with Rollins was from what Dr. Wittmer has said on this blog, and then seeing him last week at Poets, Prophets and Preachers.

    At the conference he did seem to be proud of the fact that people label him a heretic, and in fact, he agreed with them. My impression is that he says a lot of controversial or shocking things in order to get you to really think about what he said so you’ll be forced to better think through your own beliefs and come out stronger on the other said (i.e. heresy breeds orthodoxy).

    If that is case, though, then it still leaves you saying in the end, “Okay, that’s great, but really, what do you think?”

    For example, he said that he’s been accused of denying the resurrection and he said something like, “Yes, I do deny the resurrection. I deny it every time I don’t care for people. I deny the resurrection every time I (list of other bad thing). But I affirm the resurrection every time I… (list of good things).” He got a lot of cheers, and I think he made a good point. But I was still left scratching my head saying, “Yeah, but seriously, what do you believe about the resurrection!?”

    I did hear some other people talking about the fact that his approach may be somewhat cultural. They were saying that people are more argumentative in Northern Ireland and challenge whatever people say to them – so his approach might be suited for that culture. However, as far as I know that’s all hearsay. I don’t know enough about Irish culture to know whether or not that’s true.

  7. Thanks for saying that I am likable🙂 Hope you are keeping well!

  8. “Yes, I do deny the resurrection. I deny it every time I don’t care for people. I deny the resurrection every time I (list of other bad thing). But I affirm the resurrection every time I… (list of good things).”

    This seems to skirt the issue in my opinion. I can believe that the resurrection took place without living my life for Christ. So, I can say, “yes, the resurrection happened”, then turn around and disregard caring for people. This does not mean that I deny that the resurrection was a historical event. It only means that I have failed to live in light of its truth or that I do not understand how its occurence should impact how I live.

    So, does Rollins believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead (physically)? Why would a Christian not be very clear about this issue? It is the center of our faith!

  9. He didn’t say that he doesn’t “believe” in the resurrection when he sins, but rather that he denies it. I think there is quite a distinction. We can deny Christ by our actions even if we intellectually affirm to who he is.

  10. But does he “believe” concerning the resurrection? That’s the question, isn’t it? I really do not care about the word games (“believe/deny”). I just want to know what he truly thinks about the resurrection as a true historical event.

    I need to look into him myself because what I am getting comes from this blog and the comments here, but if he is unwilling to affirm or deny the resurrection as a historical event, I am concerned. His views should not be so mysterious.

  11. There are some really good ways to ask questions — being controversial to the point some go {‘I’m a heretic’} isn’t one of them.

  12. Then again, he’s got us all thinking through the issue a bit more, doesn’t he? So maybe it is working😉

  13. Anyone who works with theory could be considered heretical: Physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology… medical progress, theological progress all happen when people dare to challenge the status quo.

    These people often don’t know for certain if what they are doing is good or right or true, but they do hold hope for their efforts. It’s only after much work and often much failure that we realize the importance of their work.

    Pete believes most of what he says, but he’s a poet and philosopher and certainly not a systematic theologian.

    In terms of being annoyed, I’m currently exploring the majesty and mystery of the mountains of Colorado. And it struck me the other day, why are ‘Christians’ so lacking in grace toward their fellow humans? Why do we not hold the mystery of grace as sacred and something to be honored and lived into?

    We rarely attempt to show grace toward people who understand the Christian life as something different from the evangelical norm.

    I’m perplexed that we call ourselves followers of Jesus and then proceed to label all people who challenge some core beliefs as ‘heretics.’ It isn’t our right to make those kind of judgements; the biblical text text tells us this kind of determination belongs only to the Father.

    Giving mental ascent to the resurrection and yet failing to show grace to others fails the gospel entirely; there is no gospel if we can’t lend grace. If we are to follow Christ, at least we should emulate him as the Spirit lead us.

    Perhaps Pete fails to be an orthodox Christian, but his commitment to being a disciple of Jesus Christ surpasses most of us.

  14. Not all challenges to the status quo lead to progress. In fact, many challenges to the status quo in theology lead to heresy and something other than Christianity. Not all “innovators” are to be commended. Some only lead us astray with their creativity.

    Randy, why do you set up a false dichotomy? You said, “Giving mental ascent to the resurrection and yet failing to show grace to others fails the gospel entirely; there is no gospel if we can’t lend grace.” Would it not be better to have both the mental ascent to the historicity of the resurrection and to show grace to others? Isn’t that true Christianity?

  15. Tim,

    The challenges to the status quo may not always lead to progress for the one making the challenge, or to some of his/her followers, but they do typically lead to progress for orthodox Christians.

    For example, where would our doctrine of the Trinity be without Arius claiming that the Son was a created being? Or without the modalists and their claims that the three persons of the Trinity are simply three modes of one being?

    Or how might Augustine’s writings on sin and free will have been different without Pelagius coming along and forcing the debate?

    Rather than simply attacking the individual and writing them off as a heretic, perhaps we should respect the debate and the intellectual challenge because it might just bring us further along in our faith.

  16. Steve:

    Are you forgetting that Arius and Pelagius were heretics? While their heresy prompted the discussion, they don’t deserve a medal.

    Randy:

    My point here is not to dispute the orthodoxy of a person’s claims, but merely the annoyance of trying to have a conversation with someone who claims to not necessarily believe what they are saying. Since that would also annoy Jesus, I don’t see why saying so is unChristian.

  17. Mike,
    because someone was labed a heretic doesn’t mean he/she falls outside God’s grace – only outside the grace of humans.

    As for Pete, being annoyed or annoying someone isn’t a sin nor unChristian. Plenty of people were annoyed with Jesus parables. Most evangelicals are still annoyed with The Sermon on the Mount.

    I’m annoyed by much of systematic theology as it attempts to clarify faith and God beyond what I believe to be fair of either. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are inChrituan for your studies.

    I would suggest that Pete leaves the mystery of God, grace, and the kingdom intact better than most of the past five hundred years of theology. Thus, he leaves so much hope and so much more breath and depth to our faith… and this is why he touches so many people last weekend.

  18. Mike,

    My point is that Augustine didn’t deal with Pelagius by saying, “Yeah, well you’re a heretic, so…” He engaged in the debate and Theology is better off because of it.

  19. Steve:

    My point here is that a debate or conversation or whatever you want to call it is impossible when one of the parties refuses to commit to his ideas.

  20. Perhaps we need to look at this conversation as something other than a debate. “Debate” is what theologians do. What do artists to when they get together? How do they create together without necessarily claiming things as ‘right’ and ‘wrong”?

  21. Randy:

    I am weary of your continued criticism of theologians. It is unfair and unwarranted. And you continue to twist my words and miss my point. The point, for the last time, is not whether one side is right or wrong, but that one side says they may not even believe what they say. In that case they lose the right to be right, wrong, or even meaningful.

  22. Mike,

    Fair enough, but you are equally critical of Pete’s artistic-poetic-story telling attempt to talk about God & the ways of the kingdom. It is equally unfair and unwarranted.

    Pete thinks in different terms than you do. You want a discussion that is about ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Pete paints pictures much like the Psalms.

    The Psalmists and the Apostle Paul could have never had a discussion about right and wrong. It would not have worked. Likewise, you seem to want Pete to join you in Corinth for the discussion, but the Psalmist would have been lost in that conversation. It was an entirely different world.

    In terms of believing what we say, King David often laments that God is absent only to recant later in the Psalm. So, while he was wrestling with God, did he really believe that God was absent? Was he simply being poetic? I doubt that you would have wanted a conversation about what David believed either since it seemed to change and shift.

    One final thought: Your previous comment suggests that the categories of right and wrong are imperative for meaning. When we enter the world of creative artists, I don’t believe that they ever talk in those terms.

    Then we visit the majesty and mystery of the Colorado landscape for two weeks, and we realize that God is as much artist as theologian. So, perhaps Pete’s views touch on parts of God that theologians rarely brush against… it’s simply a different way of pondering Yahweh.

  23. Randy:

    You really should stick to what I say and not what you project upon what I say.

  24. There are those who are very good at painting pictures with words – words that seemingly travel to the heavens, but never land.

  25. Not sure what that means if words ‘never land.’ Words are heard, and an ever-present God certainly hears. If heaven is a place on earth, words are certainly heard by our God. 🙂

  26. Really? How should we paint Psalm 66:18, Proverbs 1:24-25, 28, Isaiah 59:2, John 9:31 or James 4:3?

  27. Yooper,

    Your question seems to surround the word ‘listens.’ If God can’t hear all things at all places, then he is not ever-present. Listening seems to be God’s response to being called, and Yahweh certainly doesn’t respond immediately (and perhaps never) to some requests for his presence.

    This does not mean that God doesn’t physically hear all things.

    Peace.

  28. Good. We agree that God is omnipresent. Can we also agree that the effective use of words is to communicate meaning?

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