Monday, July 16, 2012

Pounding Pens into Swords: The Theology of Invective

         I can see no other way.
         We must learn once more to confront nonsense in all its forms and to call things by their real names.  We must learn that euphemisms are lies and that patience and gentleness sometimes do no good.  Worse still, they often do injury.  Count on it, when you treat a fool with nothing but kindness, he remains a fool.  If you pat him on the back and stroke his ego, he does what any fool does:  he mistakenly concludes that everything is alright with him, rather than realizing that you are simply being kind to ignorance the way you are kind to all other forms of poverty.
         We must revive the ancient and honorable art of invective, which is to language what justice is to law -- a means of giving people what they deserve.  What some of them deserve is a good kick in the pants.  This article, therefore, is dedicated to telling the fools to bend over and grab their ankles.  The beatings will now commence.

The New Testament

         If, like me, you are a Christian, you often encounter brothers and sisters in the faith who are, to put it plainly, well-intentioned but mush-minded invertebrates.  They seem unwilling and unable to grasp with clarity or conviction that some things are wrong and some are wicked.  Even if they could grasp that fundamental truth about the world, they lack the courage to call evil and error by their real names.  They do not understand that, if you fail to call evil evil, then you are treating it no differently than you treat goodness, which you do not call evil either.  The only thing they seem able to oppose publicly is that small collection of Christians who speak forthrightly, Christians who are less afraid of giving offense to the offensive than they are of aiding and abetting wickedness and error with sloppy and unjustifiably lenient language.
         This will never do.
         We Christians rightly recognize Christ as the very embodiment of love.  But Christ was no bleeding heart, and He was no invertebrate.  The "gentle Jesus meek and mild" never existed.  He is a nineteenth and twentieth century fiction.   The historical Jesus was another matter altogether.  At various times, and when the situation demanded, the real Jesus publicly denounced sinners as snakes, dogs, foxes, hypocrites, fouled tombs and dirty dishes.  He actually referred publicly to one of his chief disciples as Satan.  So that his hearers would not miss his point, He sometimes referred to the objects of his most intense ridicule both by name and by position, and often face to face. 
         No doubt His doing so made the invertebrates around him begin to squirm because they realized how offensive this tactic would be to outsiders.  Nevertheless, Jesus persisted.  He did so because He knew better than his jellyfish camp followers that alluding to heinous acts, and to those who continue to practice them, in only the most innocuous and clinical language does no one, least of all the offenders themselves, any good.  I cannot say it forcefully enough:  Christ did not affirm sinners; He affirmed the repentant.  Others He often addressed with the most withering invective.  God incarnate did not avoid using words and tactics that his listeners found deeply offensive.  He well understood that sometimes it is wrong to be nice.  I deny that we can improve upon the rhetorical strategy of Him who was Himself the Word, and who spoke the world into existence.
         The objection raised by the invertebrates that Jesus spoke aggressively only to self-righteous Pharisees simply misses the point.  Any sinner who rejects repentance, or any sinner who holds repentance at bay because he somehow believes it is not for him, is self-righteous.
         Paul talked the same way. 
         Although his invertebrate comrades probably considered it offensive and indelicate of him to do so, Paul did not hesitate to suggest to several churches -- publicly, plainly, and in writing -- that his many detractors ought simply to emasculate themselves (Gal. 5: 12).  If you believe that circumcision makes you right with God, he argued, why not go the whole way and really get right with God?  If Lorena Bobbitt was reading the Bible on the night that made her famous, this was the verse she read.
         Furthermore, in the same letter, (in fact, in the space of but three verses) Paul twice refers to his Galatian readers, the very people he is trying to convince, as fools (Gal. 3: 1, 3).  Subsequent events indicate that his shocking words, though clearly offensive, were not ineffective.  The Galatians chose to follow Paul rather than the Judaizers, whose tactic was, in Paul's words, to "win the approval of men," the very tactic urged upon us so indefatigably by the invertebrates -- though never in gender specific language.
         In short, if the religion and practice of the New Testament offend them, the invertebrates need to argue with Jesus and Paul, not me.

Christian Literature
         Furthermore, like Christ and his chief apostle, the greatest Christian writers of the Western world also refused to subscribe to the principle that language deeply offensive to one's readers or listeners ought always to be shunned.  Neither the greatest writers of Western tradition (such as Dante, Erasmus, Milton, and Swift) nor the best of the present day permit their language to be censored or vetoed by the hyperactive sensitivities of the spineless.  Great writers select one word over all other words because that word, and that word only, most fully conveys their meaning, and because that word, and that word only, can best be expected to produce the author’s intended effect.  That meaning and that effect are occasionally, and sometimes intentionally, offensive.

The Rules 
         Verbal precision, not inoffensiveness, is the traditional hallmark of the West's best writing and the West’s best books, some of which were deeply and intentionally offensive to great numbers of those who first read them.  Dante's Inferno consigns a number of Catholic notables -- including popes -- to Hell.  Erasmus's Praise of Folly excoriates monks and theologians as a shameless and squalid mob.  His Julius Excluded locks Pope Julius out of Heaven because he was an adulterous, blood-thirsty, syphilis-ridden, mammon hound.  Some of Milton's political pamphlets and poetry are, among other things, timeless handbooks of insult and invective.  Great portions of the works of Jonathan Swift constitute a veritable scatologist's Bible.  These works and many like them would never have been written or published had the modern preoccupation with inoffensiveness been then the controlling consideration.  Because that preoccupation now prevails, these books and many like them are being harried out of the literary canon.  In other words, the guidelines according to which the invertebrates want us to write are guidelines that not only would have radically recast many of our culture’s great books had they been followed, but would have prevented some of them from ever being written at all.  Had modern guidelines been previously in effect, they would have banished many of our civilization’s most important and memorable texts far more effectively and extensively than has the politically correct curriculum at Stanford, Harvard or Oberlin.

Freedom and Virtue
         Invertebrates cannot comprehend that despicable conditions inevitably arise in a fallen world.  Those despicable conditions sometimes require us to employ the language of shock and of confrontation in our unflagging efforts to push back the frontiers of evil and error.  But the spineless do not like it when we do.  They want to police the way we speak.  They want, literally, to erase words from our language.  I have been told by one Christian professor, whom I like and whom I respect, that there was never a time when shock language was right.  Such language, I am asked to believe, ought to be eliminated.  But though others delete it, I shall not.  The fewer words you have at your disposal, the fewer thoughts you are able to think or to articulate with full precision, and the fewer points you are able to make with your desired effect.  When the range of words is small, the range of thought is small and the power of speech is diminished.  In that sense, word police are thought police.  The invertebrates want to put you under arrest. 
         Language, like liberty, is not normally lost all at once.  It slips through our hands a little at a time, almost imperceptibly.  Don't let it happen.
         Slang words and shock words have their legitimate use.  Sometimes the right word is a slang word or a shock word because no other word conveys your meaning as fully or as accurately, and because no other word elicits the response you desire.  Sometimes the right language is language that falls beyond the pale of polite discourse –- but not of virtue. 


Bryan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

mburatov said...

Michael, as much I agree with you, I have one reservation. Yes we should make our arguments forcefully, and yes we should call a spade a spade (to be crass about it).

What I find troubling and ultimately unproductive is that our discussions degenerate into contests in name calling. We will never beat the left in name calling. They call us racist, homophobic, uncaring, unfeeling, inhuman monsters, barbarians, blah, blah, blah... I've been called them all. To call someone else something back to to engage in an immature school boy's game that is unproductive and lowers me to their level. I don't like this.

However, I have consistently called Obama a Communist, and I make no apologies for it. His father was a Communist. His mentor when he was a boy, Frank Marshall Davis, was a Communist. His closest friends are Communists (Van Jones, Bill Ayers, etc.). His ideas are all straight from Karl Marx. This is not name-calling, it is an accurate label. Calling we racist as a result of this makes as much sense as a soup sandwich.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"This article, therefore, is dedicated to telling the fools to bend over and grab their ankles."

I chuckled in approval throughout this whole well-substantiated article, and the above sentence was the funniest.

Ya know, if this article was read by the Christian Correctness and Civility Police, they would invoke civil invective towards you for calling them invertebrates. Then the ensuing discussion could spiral upwards.

Good job, Professor Bauman. I love having truth seasoned with laughter.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Thanks, TUAD. It's always a pleasure to read your comments, which, on this blogsite, are always most welcome. Best to you.

Nate Johnson said...

Many good things here. I would diverge from this when gray areas present themselves. All of your NT examples had to do with the gospel. Political theory is not so clear cut. If your position is that conservative theory is so clear that everyone else is an idiot and needs to grab their ankles, then I'm not with you. Here the invective already reigns, e.g., as the one who posted 'knows' that Obama is a communist and feels justified in calling him that and other names based on guilt by association - a blantantly fallacious form of argumentation. I do affirm the invective, but it's a part and not a whole.

Ilíon said...

It's not that leftists (including "liberals") are idiots, nor is it that they are simply mistaken ... it's that they *refuse* to think correctly and learn to be not mistaken; it's that they are intellectually dishonest. To put it very bluntly, it's that they are fools.

Alex Graham said...

Dr. Bauman,

I would like some clarification. I am troubled when you say the meek and mild Jesus never existed. You claim, rather that he indeed was offensive at times due to his verbal precision and perfect discernment. My stumbling block here is that in the Beatitudes Jesus says blessed are the meek. Could you help reconcile how Jesus says blessed are the meek yet you say Jesus was not meek? I have always struggled with the precise definition and application of being meek anyway.

Thank you,

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Sorry for the confusion. We are using the word "meek" in two ways. When I say the meek and mild Jesus never existed, I mean "meek" in the sense of weak and squishy. When Jesus says "meek" in the Beatitudes, it means something more like "power under control," as when the Bible says that "Moses was the man most meek in all the world."

Ilíon said...

The "Jesus Meek and Mild" who never existed -- and from this, many of the wide-spread misrepresentations of Christianity -- is one more residuum of Victirian-era teacly sentimentality [I had a better word to use than 'teacly', but it has slipped my mind again] .

Indirectly, 'feminism' is another result of that foolish and false sentimentality.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Right again, Ilion.