Writings by Cole Huffman

Controversialists On Cue

Google commended itself for returning 686,000 results (in 0.32 seconds) when I typed into my search bar “a controversialist is called,” seeking a synonym. The first two returns were a William Clagett and an Edward Gee, both seventeenth century English churchmen; then Calvin, Van Til, and Tyndale, all theologians; then a rather nerdy fellow calling himself “The Controversialist” for apparently listening to himself wax on current events via his webcam; then Jesus, specified as “not a Controversialist,” capital C.

I never found my synonym. But finding churchmen and theologians atop the list gave me pause, especially with Jesus being declared “not a Controversialist.” I clicked on the entry to find that sentiment attributed to a nineteenth century Congregationalist minister from whom I’d expect as much. He said Jesus preferred to speak “whisperingly to hearts.” Apologies to the Congregationalist clergyman, but Jesus was a Controversialist by definition. A man isn’t nailed to crossbeams for speaking whisperingly to hearts.

I think of a real controversialist as someone of influence whose intentional words or deeds require response. He might be outrageous. He might be courageous. He might be trying to move us forward. He might be trying to take us back. But in what he says or does he leaves no room for neutrality. One finds him maddening for the same reasons another finds him inspiring.

Paul, a classic controversialist, distinguished himself from controversialists on cue, those who “breed quarrels” via “ignorant controversies” (2 Tim. 2:23). John Stackhouse gives an example of controversialists on cue when he recounts what a theologian friend of his was subjected to on a national talk show: “My doctoral mentor, Dr. Martin Marty, [was] the best-known professor of American history of his generation…. The audience [for the talk show] apparently just shows up on a given day, not knowing who the guests will be. Had the panel been composed of neurosurgeons, chemical engineers, or poets, I expect the audience would have asked only respectful questions of the experts before them. But I was bemused at how many in this random audience considered themselves to be experts on the Bible, Christianity, church-state relations, American history, and a number of other rather extensive subjects as they belligerently challenged the guests. When it came to religion, their opinions apparently were to be counted as important as anyone’s” (from Church: An Insider’s Look at How We Do It, 37).

Ironically, my Google search prompted reflection on how, in the Internet age, the quality of our controversies suffers for breeding more controversialists on cue. Indeed, Google has to reach back centuries for examples of real controversialists. To adapt Lewis’ critique of what British education was churning out in his day—“men without chests”—we’ve got controversialists without chests in that the controversialists of modern evangelical subculture center on feelings, opinions, and subjectivities.

A good example is a recent dust-up between Jonathan Merritt and Mark Driscoll. Driscoll said something at a conference Merritt felt was anti-creation care, and took Driscoll to task for it in a blog post, comparing the contemporary controversialist Driscoll to the erstwhile controversialist Pat Robertson. Driscoll defended himself and clarified his words as humor. Merritt wrote in response to that a very fine example of how to emote an argument. He wrote that his point is we should take care with our words but then employed appeal to emotion words (logical fallacy) to correct inflammatory rhetoric. Lewis rolls in his grave.

I once heard Armand Nicholi, author of The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, say human beings are more feeling creatures than thinking. He meant we react first then ponder whether our feelings are true to how we actually think. Controversialists certainly create reaction and stir feelings but the best among them do so to provide the building materials of conviction. Of this type we need more among churchmen.

It’s more than knowing how to argue. It’s knowing what to argue for, and when and why and wherefore. Style points count only so long as the point remains in style. But style is a fickle fashion, and it seems to me a lot of what’s fashionable to argue about in evangelical circles right now will be unfashionable in a generation.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:28 PM
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