WOW. Only in the blogosphere could such a tagline have any semblance of cohesion. Welcome to the TeamPyro blog. Initiated by Phil Johnson, long-time ghostwriter for John MacArthur, TeamPyro is one of the most popular blogs in the fightin’ fundie Christian blogosphere, known for being a firebrand of Reformed wit, and inflammatory criticism of virtually everyone else. Not to mention eye-catching design.
It is the latter that has me blogging about ‘em today. This weekend a couple of Phil’s accomplices on the ‘blog posted a particularly incendiary post, indicting (in the courtroom of their enlightened opinions) Jesus-followers participating in the emerging conversation for favoring style over substance, running roughshod over Scripture and the good news of God found in Christ–accusing of us of virtually everything except for eating small puppy dogs. They baited emerging church conversants/practitioners to come in and make our case, with the stated goal of the whole shebang being to reach 1000 comments through the sheer controversy of it all. And I decided to
waste my time participate in the thread.
What does this have to do with design? Well, these Pyromaniacs have created a medium of expression all their own, inspired by the Demotivators, called Po-Motivators (see Andrew Jones recap much about Po-Motivators here and here. UPDATE: Andrew has his own response to this Pyro post here.) Well, no fewer than four Po-Motivators were generated by Johnson in response to the comments thread in this post, influenced in part or in toto by yours truly. In Phil’s own words, “Mike Morrell inspires me.”
This is not meant as a compliment.
Without further ado, here are the brand-spanking new images “inspired” by me:
This is a strange tribute indeed from Mr. Johnson. I have “known” him, in a virtual sense, since the early days of the popular-use Web in the late 1990s, when he maintained his Hall of Church History and Theology Bookmarks. Our relationship has really blossomed since then from one vantage point. I mean, back nearly a decade ago he ignored my emails taking him to task for calling Anabaptists violent extremists (he seems to have cleaned up this rhetoric since then) and saying that those of us engaged in house churches “want to play ‘church’ but despise authority.” And now, look how far we’ve come! He’s creating original artistic renderings in my “honor”! I’m speechless.
While I am unable (and unwilling…see below) to respond in kind, bloggers far more design-gifted than I have crafted their own comebacks to these pithy little postcards. Here are a couple:
And so, the question is begged: Is such debate even helpful? Jesus often refused to answer his critics, even refused to defend himself when he was on trial. He could “read” people’s souls, and know when not to bother. (This is buttressed by the whole not casting your pearls before swine thing.) Fools, it seems, rush into ill-advised conversation where angels fear to tread. There is plenty of sound spiritual precedent to hold one’s tongue and not enter the fray.
At the same time, I’m deeply uncomfortable putting myself in the position of “Jesus” by default and fellow Christians–obnoxious though they can be–as “Jesus’ accusers.” This is rather unreflective and un-challenging hermeneutics. Surely, iron sharpens iron and a three-stranded cord isn’t easily broken. Certainly, it is blessed and good when sisters and brothers dwell together in unity–and sometimes, this cannot happen without soul-searching conversation and–indeed–hard confrontation when the occasion calls for it. Vineyard founder John Wimber wrote a helpful paper 15 years ago, Why I Respond to Criticism, that addresses many of the salient issues at stake.
Criticism of the emerging church conversation is nothing new, though it’s actually a bit newer than some of us may realize, as it’s “felt like forever” since we were free from constant cross-examination. But Stephen Shields was able to write accurately at the very end of 2004 that we “have so far been impressed by how generous and restrained critique has been.” The reason was this: from the 1990s onward, different groups of us began quietly rethinking and reimagining what it means to be faithful to God and God’s work on earth in our postmodern context. Because the early thinkers were church planters, ministers who worked with kids, and other “off-the-radar” folks in praxis, at the grass-roots, we weren’t on the map of heresy-hunting “discernment ministries,” who spent the 90s warning conservative Christians about alleged goddess worship in Mainline churches, laughing revival in charismatic churches, and that crazy liberal innovator Chuck Colson and his Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiatives.
But in 2004 all this began to change–Christianity Today did a cover story on us and Brian McLaren was selected as one of the Top 25 Most Influential Evangelical voices in America. While our numbers may not have spiked considerably between ’03 and ’05, suddenly we were news. And that made us open season for all sorts of people. Not even drummers are safe.
I don’t wish to denigrate the sincere concerns of others who weren’t in our prayer meetings, conferences, email discussion lists, and message boards for all these years prior when we were “subterranean.” But in some ways, it’s been difficult to catch them up to the conversation thus far, particularly when they don’t seem to want to listen. (Lord knows I’ve tried!) And really, I don’t want to give my best and most ardent energy trying to define and defend a paradigm of spirituality. As I said in one of my too-many comments in the Team Pyro post, “I just hate [this mode of discourse], for all of us, because our theologies, spiritualities, and praxes become more like a bad rap song, all self-referential instead of singin’ about what we want to sing. Instead of conversing about what we’ve conversing about (or, if you prefer, theologizing), we start conversing about the conversation itself…which is kinda nerdy and boring…this internet thing sucks for handling disputes.”
And that, my friends, is where I’ve come down. It’s not that the Team Pyro folks aren’t my kin in Jesus. It’s not that, were we part of a single, local church, I wouldn’t spend hundreds of hours hearing their concerns and sharing mine, pleading for common heart and direction. (I happen to expend a ton of such energy in my local church, with great reward. I’d take a bullet for these people, and they know that.) But they’re not local, and none of us are particularly invested in one another’s lives and well-being. Either side of this ramped-up debate could easily find thousands of forums online attacking our lives and theologies, and we could expend a lifetime waging verbal warfare with our critics.
But it isn’t worth it, for me, any longer. After this weekend, I feel drained. Like I’ve undergone a serious spiritual attack with nothing to show for it. I don’t say this to demonize the the particular post-ers/commentors on TP. But I think we can all get sucked into a system, a transpersonal grid that has a collective spirit all its own, manipulating the whole in ways its individual parts would never consent to. I believe this is part of what the sent-one Paul meant when he described the church’s opposition to and transformation of the principalities and powers. Mutual love and respect has to precede any truly transformative conversation, and form the basis for any relationship that might later require painful words of exhortation or correction. The connection just ain’ t there, brothers.
As someone once said, Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8
There are literally thousands of blogs updated daily that stimulate, challenge, and edify with spiritual explorations into the heights, depth and breadth of knowing Jesus Christ, loving God and neighbor. Why should I have submit to such spiritual sadomasochism, treading in areas where I know wounded people hang out to inflict further pain on one another? As our apparently-patron saint Bono sings in “One,”
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on
To what you got
When all you got is hurt
I can’t keep holding on, brothers. And–with God’s grace–I won’t, any longer. I will stick around, if needed, to respond to any comments on that particular Team Pyro post, but–for my integrity and theirs–I can no longer be a party to this level of discourse.
If you find yourself to be a misfit, ragamuffin friend of Jesus, worn-out by religious rhetoric and in need of some kindness and renewing mercy, I leave you the following benediction: An encouragement from one of the more gracious of the postcard replies, appropriately, from Emerging Grace: