Oh, My Word, Part 7: Civil Thoughts on Incivility—and ‘Hospitable Scholarship’

Are we as a nation less civil than we used to be? Maybe to a point, but three factors make it seem a lot worse than it probably is. First, today’s instant media puts the national invective “in our face” quicker and more frequently than in days gone by. Technology gives us hate at the speed of light. And lots of it. The sheer amount of vituperation we see on a daily basis can be disconcerting to one’s sense of personal peace; hence, the recent calls in our society for more civility. Unfortunately, outrage is good for business. The merchants of wrath on social media generate both clicks and cash for their cause, so, don’t expect the fireworks to fizzle any time soon.

Second, our crisis in education has rendered ideological retorts far less effective (not to mention fun) than they used to be in previous generations. Verbal pushbacks today are crafted as little more than ad hominem attacks—personal insults that are unseemly, unsophisticated, and ultimately unpersuasive. But one need only recall the kinds of political discourse our nation witnessed just a century and a half ago. In the 1858 debates, for example, Lincoln called the logic behind a proposed Douglas policy “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” Somehow the nation endured such brutal zingers. I do concede, though, it was the policy being attacked, not the person. That distinction seems to have been lost in our day.

Third, gone are the days when the mainstream media were (mostly) honest and evenhanded. Indeed, there was a time when our “straight news” outlets sought to be dispassionate in the delivery of their product. They were content to be our eyes and ears on the events of the day, but now they try to be our brains, too, telling us what to think. No thank you; we can do that ourselves. Moreover, professional pundits have done more to polarize our country than any politician. And now they’re playing censorship games to aid and abet certain candidates, being selective and prejudicial in what they cover and don’t cover. Along with Big Tech’s manipulation of search results and feed content, it’s rank advocacy masquerading as real journalism—a flagrant corruption of a once noble industry. I’d rather chew glass than consume that kind of “news” on a regular basis. Of all the trends in motion right now, this one might be the most dangerous.

How Bad Will It Get Out There?

It remains to be seen if we can long endure the kind of verbal explosions we see online each day. On the other hand, it may be helpful to remember that in the 1960s, bomb-throwers actually threw bombs. To the snowflake generation (a somewhat inflammatory but largely warranted moniker) verbal shrapnel apparently is worse. Students are easily “triggered” these days, sometimes needing professional escorts to help them get to “safe spaces” on campus when they hear something they don’t like. We used to call such an attitude unmistakable evidence that a young person was “spoiled.” 

Important debates get shut down now simply by someone claiming his feelings got hurt in the marketplace of ideas. Ironically, such fragile folks have little hesitation in pulling their own verbal triggers against those considered not yet “woke.” In their minds, the uglier the response, the better. “Be cruel or be cast out,” sang Rush in the 1980s. Their musical prophecy has come to fruition in today’s cancel culture. It’s “free speech for me but not for thee.” 

Alas, the summer of arson and violence we just endured (labeled “mostly peaceful protests” by the spinmeisters in the media) makes me wonder if we’re heading back to the 1960s. Will we revert to throwing real bombs again? Oh, and rumor has it there’s an election next week. Is it that time again? Already? Lots of folks are on edge about what will happen to our cities if some people don’t get their own way at the ballot box. Hurt feelings can justify all kinds of malevolence these days. But if a civil war is needed to quiet things down again, let’s find a way to make it bloodless. Preserving people’s freedoms may be worth life and limb, but preserving their feelings—not so much. 

One aspect of our current lunacy is rooted in the fact that those who are so easily outraged seldom see people on their side of a particular issue as less-than-perfect specimens of moral goodness themselves. Their cause is right, so they must be right. Not so (cf. Luke 13:1-5). It’s a secular form of self-righteousness, and the dogmatic assertions they preach get enscripturated in the doctrines of political correctness. It’s a new form of fundamentalism—without any fun, of course. But self-assertion without self-reflection becomes self-destruction. In time, society itself collapses under its own weight. Cancel culture winds up canceling itself.

If civilization can be defined as “social order promoting cultural creation,” one might define civility as “verbal order promoting respectful communication.” But it takes character to be civil—and even more character to endure incivility. Apart from an elevation of character, neither can be realized to any extent in contemporary society. For believers, character is a function of our relationship with God. Therefore, we must lead the way in society by modeling a proper stewardship of words. I cannot accuse the secularists of failing to be self-reflective if I myself am not self-reflective when it comes to my own particular speech patterns—both in discourse and in scholarship. That’s what this series has been all about. I need to own up to my own lapses.

Civility in Scholarship

As noted previously, the esteemed clergyman, scholar, and author Eugene Peterson has said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.”[1] His call is for believers to cultivate the practice of integrity and winsomeness in speech, which involves a genuine respect for others as well as humility within ourselves. These attitudes are especially important for the Christian scholar. As Nancy Jean Vyhmeister notes, “The research mindset is characterized by objectivity, focus, clearly set-forth presuppositions, and logical organization. In a more biblical frame, it is adorned by humility.”[2]

In her doctoral dissertation, Laurie Mellinger likewise highlights the need for humility by advocating a posture of hospitality among readers, writers, and teachers of theology. “Engaged theological readers respond in ways that bring their Christian faith to bear on what they read,” she writes. “For instance, they endeavor to respond with love and compassion. Whether they read secular literature or biblical narrative, they attempt at first to withhold judgment, offering a thorough and fair hearing to authors, characters, and ideas before responding.”[3] The idea is provocative, as the word “hospitality” in the New Testament (φιλοξενία) means to love people of a different country or culture. Practicing hospitality, then, means to demonstrate a high regard for individuals who are different than we are—even in their thoughts, words, and ideologies.

By extension, hospitable scholarship would involve treating the author we’re engaging as valuable and worthy of respect even if we vigorously disagree with their conclusions. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:46-47). In other words, being kind to others who are just like us is no big deal; anybody can do that. Unbelievers can do that, says Jesus. But φιλοξενία costs something; it’s a virtue that may not come naturally to us. Indeed, it may even require something of us, but it adorns the gospel. 

In the end, common grace allows people outside our faith to be right about many things, even if their view of Christ and Christianity is askew. That means I can always come to an author outside my faith tradition and say, “I can learn from this person. I may not always agree with her, but I can always ‘chew up the meat and spit out the bones.’ Christ is not exalted when others are diminished, so I will not seek to skewer this writer. Instead, I will be fair, dispassionate, and even-keeled in my interaction, reserving my harshest critiques only for the most heinous of ideas.” Celebrate before you cerebrate, Tim.

Modeled by a Mentor

No one modeled this approach for me better than Professor David A. Dorsey, the late Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Evangelical Seminary who mentored me through my first doctoral program. Dr. Dorsey was a master at responding to the ridiculous things we would say in class. Looking back, I marvel at the grace he displayed. One of us would say something goofy about a passage, or something way off-base theologically, and he would say, “Well, you might be right about that, but here’s what I think is going on in that text.” And he would proceed to school us on the proper handling of the passage, but always with gentleness and respect. We were corrected, but not insulted; re-directed, but not ridiculed. 

Dorsey’s approach is still with me today. In a recent article I wrote on the Sabbath for the Evangelical Journal, I politely disagreed with one scholar whose form-critical assumptions caused him to miss the exquisite nature of various passages in Exodus. His harsh assessment of the biblical text was unnecessary, and I said so. However, I also praised other aspects of this scholar’s work, noting how “magisterial” his work was in the field of Sabbath studies. He contributed much to the topic, and that contribution is rightly honored. In other words, I treated him as I myself would want to be treated if my own work were being reviewed by him. Dorsey, along with other professors at Evangelical Seminary, showed their students how to do this during my M.Div. days. My goal now is to do the same for my own students.

Convicted Civility

Civility in scholarship does not mean that we treat all ideas as equally valid, or that we all need to restrain ourselves from offering honest critiques when we think they’re warranted. After all, when it comes to the field of biblical studies and Christian theology, much is at stake for the parishioner in the pew. For example, can believers really have confidence in Scripture as God’s Word, or must we always take the critical position that the Bible is untrustworthy? To hear some scholars, one would think there is nothing unique about the Christian canon, or that Jesus Christ was no more important to his nation than George Washington was to ours. As Vyhmeister notes, “Researchers start their work from the premise that knowledge is attainable and that finding truth is possible.”[4]

My goal, then, is to argue respectfully and persuasively when it comes to engaging those whose arguments would undermine a high view of Scripture. Indeed, Richard J. Mouw’s concept of “convicted civility” is my target.[5] Mouw is on a mission to clean up society’s speech in our generation. In his book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, he writes, “As Martin Marty has observed, one of the real problems in modern life is that people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions lack civility. I like that way of stating the issue. We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a ‘passionate intensity’ about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.”[6]

Mouw continues, “Civility has its own value, quite apart from any evangelistic or political results it might produce. To become a gentler and more reverent person is itself a way of being more like what God intended us to be.”[7] To which I say, “Amen.” 

May the words of my mouth 
and the meditation of my heart 
be pleasing in your sight, 
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
Psalm 19:14

Image Credits: forbes.com; eftinternational.org; nytimes.com; venturebeat.com; psychologytoday.com; thriveglobal.com; stjamestearoom.com; pexels.com.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 54.

[2] Nancy Jean Vyhmeister, Quality Research Papers for Students of Religion and Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 99.

[3] Laurie A. Mellinger, “Teaching Theology as a Christian Spiritual Practice: The Example of Stanley J. Grenz” (Ph.D. diss., The Catholic University of America, 2010), 55.

[4] Vyhmeister, Quality Research Papers, 99.

[5] Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, rev. and exp. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press, 2010), 13-14. 

[6] Ibid., 30. 

[7] Ibid.

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