By Jonathon Van Maren
One of the questions I’m asked most often regarding my writing is whether or not I find certain polemics and rhetoric—which I employ not infrequently–to be “harsh” or “divisive.” I think this is a good question. After all, writing on social issues and the challenges facing Christian communities in the 21st century requires a delicate balance. We must condemn abortion as the awful and destructive act it is, for example, while responding with compassion to those who have been involved in such actions. We have to highlight the strategies and goals of the gay rights activists, while ensuring that our friends and family members who may struggle with same-sex attraction do not feel ostracized or unloved. We have to respond to attacks with the razor sharp blade of truth without being simultaneously mean-spirited.
Obviously, telling the truth is paramount. And telling the truth means that much of what Christians write these days will be considered to be misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, or just generally hateful regardless of the tone. The first question to ask, then, is whether or not criticism of a column or other commentary is based on what the writer has said or how the writer has said it. In an escalating culture war containing far more heat than light on either side, many of us—myself included—have occasionally stepped over the line in seeking to defend the principles that we hold.
But there are some important distinctions to make nonetheless. First of all, there is a difference between treating a person with respect and treating their views with respect. An abortion advocate, for example, must be treated with the same respect Christians are commanded to accord to everyone. However, when they make genuinely repulsive and grotesque statements dehumanizing the youngest members of the human family, glorify the right to kill children, and exult in the demise of millions of people per year, we have a duty to call out and expose these statements for precisely what they are. Murderous ideologies do much to earn our contempt, and I see no reason why it should not be granted. Our response should be measured and well-thought through, but it should also be proportionate.
Second of all, opinion columns and other cultural commentary serve a different purpose than, say, apologetics training or educational outreach. I sometimes use different arguments when I am on the streets debating abortion than I do when I am writing a column (depending on the topic, of course), because I am often trying to reach a very different audience. Many of my opinion columns are intended to inform fellow Christians and activists on the state of the culture, draw attention to surfacing threats, and to instill confidence in our own position by highlighting the profound moral bankruptcy of the secular worldview. Sometimes paradox, sarcasm, satire, and humour are the best literary devices to convey such things. Sometimes we can only see how ridiculous something is once it has been appropriately ridiculed. In a culture where so many people accept so many absurd things, it becomes paramount to highlight absurdity clearly and succinctly.
It is also important to make the distinction between the average person and the activist. I write far differently about those who publicly advocate for abortion, for example, than I do about my interactions with post-abortive women I meet during activism. The same goes for gender ideologues and gay rights activists who seek to impose their worldview on Christians and influence the culture while Christians fight to maintain religious liberty and the right to publicly dissent. I would never write a column excoriating the lesbian couple that lives down the street from me, for example, but as for the couple that is suing a Manitoba school for refusing to teach their sexual beliefs to other people’s children—that’s a different matter entirely. Those who seek to shift the culture in their direction should expect pushback. We are entitled to publicly oppose those who seek to lead and represent movements we strongly disagree with. I am certainly never surprised when I am described in unflattering terms in the abortion activist blogosphere or in other media outlets opposed to our activism.
There’s also the simple fact that we are obliged to respond to attacks leveled against our communities and our worldview. It’s only a culture war if we fight back, and the Sexual Revolution has proceeded unchallenged for far too long. When gay activists demand that bakers and photographers assist them in celebrating their relationships, we have to call this out for what it is: intolerance and coercion. My argument here is not a simple “hey, they started it”—I’m simply pointing out that these actions have to be highlighted and responded to. The LGBTQ crowd likes to use the victim card to bludgeon the Christian community while accusing said community of being the ones doing said bludgeoning because homophobia. When someone has made you play the “why are you hitting yourself?” game long enough, at some point you are obliged to point out that it is they, in fact, who are doing the hitting.
So when people ask me why I utilize the style and literary devices that I do when writing columns, there is some method to the madness. I do, however, sympathize with many who feel that frustrated Christians are beginning to exhibit a tendency to post comments on Facebook and elsewhere on social media that are profoundly unhelpful and at times inadvertently confirm caricatures and biases that others may hold about us. Whenever I write something, I try to ask myself a few questions: Why am I writing this? How can it be misinterpreted? Is this piece of writing helpful? Am I contributing to the conversation in any meaningful way? Now of course, the answers to each of these questions constitute subjective judgement calls, and I’m sure some people will disagree with me some times regarding whether or not I made the right call. People are usually more than happy to let me know if they think I made the wrong call, and I’m more than happy to respond to them.
A final thought: It is essential that we fight the battles that we do to defend goodness, truth, and beauty, not simply to fire shots at our ideological opponents. I’ve seen quite a few conservative commentators become perpetually apoplectic, and sometimes I read their columns and it seems as if the all-caps button got stuck. Granted, there is plenty to be angry about these days. There are also plenty of people who need rhetorical skewering in order to expose their dangerous views. But we have to remember that we do this work because we love what we are protecting, not just because we are angry.
I always think of G.K. Chesterton, the British apologist who relentlessly attacked modernity and all the grotesque eugenics that came with it. He was a happy warrior, delighting in the great philosophical battles of his time. A Chinese waiter at a Fleet street restaurant where Chesterton liked to write described his style to one of Chesterton’s friends with admiration. “Your friend, that big man, he very intelligent,” the waiter noted. “He eat and he laugh. Then he take up a pencil and he write. Then he laugh at what he write.” Even when Chesterton was at his best, dismantling the dogmas of secularism, he wrote with verve and with joy. I strive to ensure that every few weeks, I write a column highlighting the good and the beautiful to ensure that I remember why it is we do this work in the first place. When you read them, I hope you do, too.