Friday, July 10, 2009

Hurt Mail

I once noted some reasons for staying out of theology. Particularly, "If your first response to every confrontation is to take offense at the person’s tone or attitude, you impute sinister motives to all you disagree with you... then please by all means stay out of ministry and the theological profession." It is far too common to whine, and sadly the various cultural factors enhance and facilitate that tendency.

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Trueman's Second Law
would be formulated something like this: in any exchange of views, sooner or later one or more of the participants will describe themselves as hurt or in pain as a result of somebody else's comment; and at that point it is clear that they have lost the real debate.
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Now Carl Trueman offers some better insight of what I was getting at, namely, the replacement of moral categories, truth, right and wrong by the vacuous "I'm hurt" or "I'm offended" or "that was a personal attack." His latest essay "Is Hurt Mail the New Hate Mail" he takes on the notion of our collective cultural response "I am hurt". Dealing with this recent cultural phenomenon is not to discount the reality of ad hominem argument that are indeed a travesty. Instead it is the replacement of arguments and counter arguments for truth and falsehood with highly subjective critiques concerning the pain and suffering one caused so that any argument for truth is viewed with suspicion and cries of "oppression" and "totalitarianism". Indeed, we have no idea what real oppression and real totalitarianism is. Persuaded resolve in the inherent truthfulness of one's position that indeed causes you to act upon it with serious conviction including reasoning with other for the truthfulness of one's own view over and against others in hardly oppressive--if we are truly convinced that man is generally a reasonable creature--or at least it was hardly oppressive until the late 20th century for a whole bunch of adults who have never really grown up but have been catered and molded to think in terms of "choice" and "possibilities" rather than right and wrong. Indeed the later categories inherently curtail the god of possibility--the idol of this age.

Arguing for right and wrong is the modern equivalent of standing on Mt. Carmel against the prophets of Baal. They may call down fire all day with no avail--perhaps their god is relieving himself--but our one cry for truth comes like a rush of fire. And the whiners of today almost invariably label themselves as the water soaked bull. Victims of a rush of fire that is 'so mean' rather than prophets of the wrong god... admittedly our analogy falls apart when we consider the final outcome of Baal's prophets. In today's culture they become more like boys in Pinocchio on their way to Pleasure Island with all the transformation that entails, but to call such whining what it is makes me mean and oppressive.

Carl Trueman is often insightful and penetrating in his insights in modern culture. Mix that with a bit of sarcasm and dare we label it British wit and would often have a mix of good reading. Trueman goes on to show in his essay how this is a cultural fad that "panders to the idolatry of human nature." Thus, by appealing to 'hurt' we sidestep the issues of truth. This of course caters to our culture rather than rising above and transforming it:

Few if any will have read any of these thinkers, but make no mistake: we live in a world that is reflective of the values they embodied and articulated. The importance of therapy in modern America is one key sign that the rarified philosophy of these men has penetrated in practical ways to the commonplace level of everyday life and routine. The net effects are evident everywhere: nobody can dare to say that their position is superior to anybody else's because that denigrates, marginalizes, represses, and oppresses. That therapy, conversation, and a general prioritizing of aesthetic categories now grips the church and its own moral and theological discourse should be a cause for real concern. In a world devoid of truth content, claims to truth are oppressive and thus personal, hurtful, and distasteful; and the church seems, by and large, to be buying into just this kind of namby-pamby nonsense.

But I think there is more to this phenomenon of hurt and pain than a mere aping of the culture. It is more cunning and dishonest than that, Over the last couple of years, I have noticed that the hate mail in my inbox has been replaced by what I now call hurt mail. Now, the agenda of your typical hate mailers is pretty straightforward: they are simply attempting to intimidate or humiliate the recipient into silence. What you see is what you get. Hurt mailers, by comparison, are rather more subtle and duplicitous: by claiming pain, they immediately do two things. First, they make themselves the poor victims; and second, they imply that the targets of this hurt mailing are intentionally malicious perpetrators. The game is precisely the same as with hate mail -- to make someone whom they dislike or whose opinions they discount shut up -- but the tactic is different: to win by seizing the moral high ground that belongs to the professional victim.
I appreciate Trueman's treatment because I think he identifies the problem, the origins and hits at the motives. Make no mistake, Trueman is tough on his own camp too: "before we all start thanking the Lord that we traditional, Reformed evangelicals are not like other men, this is not just a monopoly of the church on the left of the evangelical spectrum; some of the biggest whiners, mewlers and pukers out there are among the professed advocates of the old school approach to things."

Now no Christian would seriously argue we should be malicious against people but there is grave confusion between being intellectual 'malicious' (e.g. rigorous, forthright, and persuasive) against ideas and falsehoods versus being spiteful and vengeful against persons. This whimpering about when one's own idea is opposed is simply dreadful. Grow up, or to use a more Biblical phrase 'Gird up your loins'.

Trueman closes with this advice:
Expressions of hurt are too often really something else: cowardly attempts by representatives of a cosseted and self-obsessed culture to make themselves uniquely important or, worse still, to bully and cajole somebody they dislike to stop saying things they don't want to hear or which they find distasteful. My advice to such is akin to that of the counselor in the Bob Newhart sketch: Stop it! If somebody's writing or speaking hurts you, ask yourself "Why?", don't whine about the discomfort. Get a grip, get yourself some trousers, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and please, please, please, don't hide behind the aesthetic pietisms of the tiresome and clich├ęd `feel my pain while I process my hurt' posse. Have the backbone, have the decency - nay, have the honesty - to take your licks and move on, either to addressing the substance of the argument or to some area of endeavour that is, well, perhaps less painful and hurtful for you.


*And just in case you didn't get that last culture reference, here it is:

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